Scientists revolutionise recycling plastic with ‘supercritical water’

A research team from Birmingham University has licenced the rights to a ‘supercritical water’ technology to Stopford, to develop a novel process for recycling mixed plastic packaging.

Researchers intend for this technology to deliver a greater proportion of high-value recycled plastic with less emissions, fewer processing steps, and no solvent residues.

How was this novel recycling approach created?

Dr Bushra Al-Duri from Birmingham University’s School of Chemical Engineering invented the supercritical water approach, and further developed this technology in a collaborative project with Stopford.

Water is considered ‘supercritical’ when temperatures are above the critical point of 374.5oC and 220 bars (or 217 atmospheres). When the water is at this stage, its properties and operational behaviour is completely different from when water is ambient, or hot.

When developing this technology, scientists discovered that supercritical water can potentially be utilised as a solvent for all organic materials, including plastics; it has a gas-link penetration power that makes it a superior medium in decomposing mixtures of complex waste plastics into value-added materials, which are a feedstock for manufacturing new plastics.

How will this technology be further developed?

Stopford will utilise their expertise in the field of innovative technology and engineering to further develop this novel method, by employing the novel hydro-thermal technology process called ‘CircuPlast,’ which will enable the conversion of non-recyclable end-of-life plastics into high-value chemicals for use as feedstock for the plastics industry.

“This agreement enables Stopford to fast-track the development of the CircuPlast technology to meet the plastics management and sustainability requirements of multiple industry sectors,” commented Dr Ben Herbert, Stopford’s Technology, and Innovation Director.

David Coleman, CEO of University Birmingham Enterprise, added: “The growth of plastics production has long outstripped the capacity for recycling, with the UK alone producing over 2 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste each year, of which just over half is recycled. We are delighted the university is working with Stopford to deliver a viable way of recycling much more plastic packaging that will help meet sustainability goals.”

What benefits derive from this novel technology?

CircuPlast will be an eco-friendly technology utilising supercritical water, rather than industrial solvents, for the repurposing of waste plastics adopting a circular approach. The technology will provide a sustainable alternative to fossil oil derived feedstocks, as there will be no CO2, emissions in the production or disposal phases.

Dr Al-Duri concluded: “Supercritical water technology represents the next generation for treatment and recycling of ‘stubborn’, complex, and hazardous waste that is currently treated by incineration or sent to landfill. I am looking forward to working with Stopford on the scientific and operational challenges involved in bringing this technology to market.”

CircuPlast is expected to overcome the substantial limitations of existing recycling processes by enhancing recycling rates, enabling an increase in the recycled content of plastics, maintaining functionality, to a level that is currently unachievable using mechanically recovered materials.

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