UK universities have a rich history of leading groundbreaking projects. Standing on the shoulders of giants, Dr Alvin Orbaek White, Senior Lecturer and Sêr Cymru II Fellow at Swansea University, tells Johanna Hamilton AMBCS how his research could plug a recycling black hole.

Leading the advance in global energy sustainability - by developing more efficient and equitable methods of transmitting electricity, as well as new methods to produce and use carbon nanomaterials - Dr Orbaek White is using his research and the latest tech to lead the charge on waste recycling.

The advantages of this game-changing technology, developed in tandem with a community of researchers and boosted by private investment, is two-fold. Firstly, the research team utilise waste that can no longer be recycled. Secondly, the waste is repurposed into carbon nanotubes and other high value carbon materials. The advantages of the nanotubes, other than their recycled credentials, is that they transmit electricity; plus, they are much lighter in weight compared to other traditional materials that are used for transmission.

Dr Orbaek White, can you tell me a little about your research? 

I lead a research group at Swansea University dealing with environmental issues, materials and energy transmission. In recent years, we have turned our attention towards plastics, developing techniques where we use plastics as a form of carbon (to make carbon wires) and then use those carbon wires as electricity conductors.

How about your research into the recycling of the black plastic in packaging?

I’ve been working on making nanotubes for about fifteen years. In that time, I’ve been constantly thinking about how to make production sustainable in the long run, because generally, when we make these things in the lab, we use lab grade carbon sources. I wanted to find a way to make the process commercially viable and environmentally sustainable.

In more recent years, I’ve turned towards plastics. More specifically, I turned towards black plastics that are used in food packaging, because when I was looking at the infrastructure of recycling, I noticed that black plastics are effectively a pain point. They are potentially recyclable - they can be recycled - but they’re not. They end up being systematically put in with the materials that don’t get recycled, but that’s due more to the sorting mechanisms.

Black plastic is ubiquitous: it’s everywhere. When I started to learn about it, I realised that although black plastic is, in one way, a beautiful thing (because all plastics can become black plastic), it’s also a recycle catch-all for all plastics. Black plastics don’t become any other type of plastic. It’s a recycling dead-end.

So, you separate the black plastic in your lab. Is it commercially viable in the wider world? 

Yes, I believe it is commercially viable. For that reason, I have created a start-up company called Trimtabs Ltd. It’s inspired by the philosophy of Buckminster Fuller, who designed the Trimtab as a small device that goes on the end of a ship and helps turn the rudder. Without the Trimtab, the rudder is not able to turn as it’s under so much pressure on either side. So, this small device, this little flap, had a huge effect; a huge impact. That was basically the philosophy behind this company - to make small changes that have a very large impact.

So, you’re dealing just with black plastics?

We’re also looking at other waste carbon materials: tyres, carbon dioxide, maybe old paints and solvents, other refrigerants that are just lying around that don’t have an end of life plan. All the other plastics that don’t get recycled and go to landfill, or they end up floating around the seas - I’m going to go after them as well. We’re basically working on these things that are pain points for our environment and our habitat

Is part of your research about a wider education of society?

Yes. I go into schools and give classes and demonstrations about what I do. What I hope is that with this technology, we can all see resources for what they are. We all live on this one planet; we have no planet B - and these materials, although we consider them rubbish - are also part of this planet and they’re not going to leave.

We must adapt ourselves to that reality, and a part of that requires technology. Another part of that also requires a change in mindset to recognise that this rubbish isn’t just going to go away. This is part of a long-running trend of looking towards boring materials to do interesting science.

Is it commercially cheaper to recycle or to make things from scratch?

Some of these processes, maybe at the very beginning are more costly or less economic, but it’s like the first mobile phone when it came out - it was clunky and very expensive. Eventually, over time, the technology improves, the adoption increases and then the price comes down.

I think if you are using a material that other people are throwing away, inherently your business model is starting off on a sound basis. However, turning that into practice is always going to be a bit more challenging.

The plan depends on the money and the investors that will come in. We could do it tomorrow if that investment was there. Because I am building the pathway forward based on off-the-shelf technologies, we will be able to rapidly scale up the process. It is really a simple matter of chemical engineering at this point.

Is it just about recycling, or should there be a change in design?

The first thing this whole change requires is change by design; that is a fundamental tenet of the circular economy. Take the way that the mobile phone has been designed, without recycling in mind: the copper, gold and selenium have not been designed to ever be removed. However, if we designed the integrated circuits to be recycled, we wouldn’t have people working in appalling conditions across the world trying to dissolve precious metals with caustic acid mixtures.

At the moment, we, as a society, create devices with planned obsolescence in mind - for products to last two years, five years, ten years. We need to change how we design our devices and our technologies to aid recycling in the future.

Nothing lasts forever: it is inevitable a device will eventually fail. Why don’t we plan for the next life cycle at the design phase? 

Your work has revolved around nanotubes for a number of years. Tell me about your carbon wires...

Turning the recycling back to IT, there’s a future for these carbon wires in the blockchain environment of the future. This is blue sky thinking, but this is something that I’ve cooked up over the last two or three years.

The original emphasis on making carbon wires is based on the fact a certain kind of these carbon nanotubes (armchair nanotubes), has what’s called ballistic electron conduction. It’s very, very efficient conduction - and, more importantly, with near zero loss: nothing in nature has zero loss.

Yet, these materials have been made; they’ve been tested, and they are probably the world’s best conductors. They operate at both room and high temperatures and don’t require cooling like superconductors do. So, I am planning a future where we could transmit electricity via these armchair nanotube wires over long distances.

What can you tell me about the uses of the nanotubes?

Imagine you live in the Hebrides and you don’t earn very much money, but you have wind farms and can generate electricity. If you have children who go to college in London and you want to support them, you could send them electricity from your wind farm. At the present state, you’d find it challenging to do that because the wires heat up and the electricity doesn’t go very far. However, with these new carbon wires, electricity could be transmitted to a much greater distance.

Down the line, I see a potential for using these carbon wires to transmit electricity over great distances. In that future, I believe that we will need to account for how that energy is used; for this reason, I am also very interested in the potential of using digital ledger technology to track all the movements in a shared grid system. Digital ledger technologies could assist in the accounting of electricity to ensure the power goes exactly to where it was intended.

The value of money goes up and down, usually tied to inflation and other economic pressures that are all anthropomorphic in nature, so they are subjective. However, the value of a watt of power is tied to the efficiency of a given machine or device, which will not go up and down based on market forces. In time, efficiencies tend to get better, so the value of a watt tends to increase, whereas the value of money can fluctuate wildly.

In short, a watt of power gives you the ability to do work. Whereas a chunk of cash just gives you the ability to buy watts, which you may eventually use to do work. If you can send power over long distances and you are comfortable with the accounting (that nothing is being robbed, siphoned, or taxed inappropriately) then you could give people the ability to do work wherever they are. There is a great deal more to discuss on this topic, the impact could be very far reaching.

Would the electricity grid of the future eventually utilise blockchain?

Yes, possibly. The future is impossible to predict, but I think that blockchain has the potential to fill a gap that is forming now. More and more micro-grid systems are popping up, and they are learning to interact with each other inside a large national grid network.

Digital ledger technologies, such as blockchain, could be used to account for all the electrons moving backwards and forwards across the grids within a shared distributed system. Blockchain has already been proven in smaller grids in Brooklyn and other places where local communities have got together to share their electricity resources.

I think blockchain will definitely be used for more in the future than tracking financial transactions; it is a powerful, secure accounting system that could allow us to further decentralise the distribution of resources for the good of everyone.