The fourth industrial revolution, one of technology, AI and surging forward with the help of the machines, has been one of science fiction becoming slowly, by degrees, reality. While the dream is coming true, it has brought with it a nightmare scenario for workers mining raw materials to power our phones, computers, tablets...
So, what if there was a different way? If we could reuse the raw materials many people have given their lives to produce, instead of sending the majority of used and defunct products to landfill or to boats destined for the developing world? What if packaging and plastic waste could contribute to our revolution, rather than being an uncomfortable truth of our over-consumption?
The black hole of recycling
Last year, Dr Orbaek White talked about how he is ‘recycling the unrecyclable’ making carbon data cables from waste black plastic. Now, his research has changed up a gear, thanks to a £270k research grant from the Welsh Government to help make it into a closed loop process. Here, he explains the latest development and why it’s so important:
‘The general concept is of taking carbon waste and reutilising it as a resource. One of the benefits of carbon nanomaterials is the ability to conduct electricity and the long term vision is to conduct it over large distances, where the inherent losses associated with copper would not occur. That is possible when you have a certain style of carbon nanotube that's called an armchair - but making those armchair nanotubes is still several research steps away.’
The devil’s in the details
So how does it work? And when doesn’t it work so well? In simplistic terms, the electricity needs to travel, but it doesn’t always need a Rolls Royce to go from A to B, it could travel by tractor... The journey of data or power down the wires needs to be fit for purpose, but it doesn’t need to do anything more.
‘The devil is always in the details,’ says Dr Orbaek White. ‘We’ve found that even rudimentary carbon nanotubes, the low-level grade carbon nanotubes can be satisfactory for certain applications, even though the resistances are inherently not as good as, say copper. But it still works at low voltage capacity and will work with inside a household. It would work inside a handheld device. And if it can work at that low level capacity then it can work in a variety of ways that other materials can't.’
Lightening the load
Often, reality hampers innovation. Electric vehicles are hampered by the weight of their batteries. Elon Musk recently said that the next big challenge is to get a 1,000 kilometre range on an electric vehicle. One way to extend the range of the vehicle is to reduce its weight incrementally; this could be done by swapping traditional metal for carbon - small material advantages that add up to big weight advantages.
It’s something Dr Orbaek White reminds us we have been seeing in motorsport and road cycling teams for years. ‘Carbon is far lighter in terms of mass compared with copper and aluminium and any of the other alloys that are created when you make either data cables or electricity cables.’
An added benefit of carbon is that not only is it light, but it is also extremely conductive - ideal for electricity and signals. ‘And,’ says Dr Orbaek White, ‘the material is also very flexible and doesn’t snap like fibreoptics.’
This is great news for the workmen pushing and pulling cables underneath our roads - but what about emerging countries, just getting started on a 21st century power and communications infrastructure? ‘Nations that don't have this current infrastructure may leapfrog the copper wire and go straight to this,’ suggests Dr Orbaek White.
‘They may not go to this; they may also go to wireless. There's an ecosystem of competition. They may just go straight away to mobile telephones, or some other data or power transmission via wireless.’ However, he does foresee one problem: ‘Power transmission via wireless over long distance can affect weather patterns.’
Of course, weather patterns have been affected enough in the last century with the escalation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and global warming. However, Dr Orbaek White also has an innovative solution for that too...
‘The Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19 has to be maintained at a certain temperature and it's probably going to require dry ice, which is solid CO2 in order to keep it at the right temperature. In the atmosphere, we have this excess of CO2, so how do we take the excess carbon and utilise it for chilling the vaccine? When it comes to nanotechnology, it inspires the mind!’
The plastic problem
While seeking inspiration for new projects, there is still more than enough to do with recycling. And now the recycling of PPE has been added to the great plastic swirl that blights our oceans. COVID-19 has forced a revolution in home working and communications, necessitating improvements to our data infrastructure, but the ever increasing number of single use plastics floating around our planet is a bigger concern - something that has been exacerbated by PPE.
‘I thought we would have the “Is it PPE or a jellyfish?” stories in the press,’ says Dr Orbaek White, ‘and sure enough, it’s happened. PPE is predominantly plastic and it has to be single-use as a consequence of its application.’ However, the technology exists to allow these products to be reused: ‘The type of processing that we do, high temperatures, catalytic cracking,’ he explains, ‘is not conducive to the life of a virus. While it would have to be done in a very specialised way to match health standards, just running PPE through the system we would inherently destroy any viruses or bacteria.’
Planet vs profit
So, what do we do, in our capitalist society, when profits and bottom line are arguably placed above top line environmental concerns? Surprisingly, Dr Orbaek White explains that ‘carbon nanotubes in kilo per kilo value are far more expensive or far more valuable than some of the other materials that plastics get turned into. So, there's a lot of research about turning plastics into other materials: waxes, oils, back to plastics.
Maybe in the future we'll be able to see how they could be turned into pharmaceuticals. You never know.’ After all, these materials all began as crude oil taken from the ground. ‘What's curious about the carbon nanotubes is, the product you create is more valuable than the original starting material.’
Turning black plastic waste - that would have ended up costing money to bury in the earth - into a commodity that has value and can support our digital revolution is a kind of modern alchemy. ‘One of the biggest issues that I hear a lot about carbon nanotubes is that they're very expensive materials,’ laments Dr Orbaek White.
‘They're expensive materials because people are predominantly using highly refined carbon. So, they're purchasing highly refined methane, highly refined acetylene, highly refined toluene. These are laboratory grade; maybe industrial grade refined petrochemicals. Whereas, if you look at it from the plastics waste perspective, you could take a couple of tonnes off someone, (which would have cost money to dispose of) - that waste can then become a profitable commodity.’
Break the consumption cycle...
Over consumption has been a choice for many years. Why mend something, when it’s cheaper just to buy a new version? Almost 90% of chemical products are based on crude oil, especially plastics. It’s the base for iPads, cling film, rocket fuel, data cables... And according to the Britannica Encyclopaedia, demand is set to rise by a third in the 20 years to 2035. Mines in China, South Africa, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Australia and more are all supplying oil and rare earth minerals to fuel our great tech revolution. So, why bother to work on recycling when we can continue to take the raw materials we need from the earth?
As Dr Orbaek White explains, ‘Let's imagine the day we wake up and it's on the front-page of every newspaper - no more oil. Where are we going to get our energy from and where are we going to get our materials from? We have potential alternatives for energy, but what about materials? 90% of the material spectrum comes from oil.
...Or face the consequence
The amount of plastic entering the environment since the 1950s is in the realms of millions of metric tonnes - 5,800 million to be precise.’ And that number is increasing. ‘The plastics processing community knows how to make their material very very well. They’ve learned how to refine oil and gas in a way that will last centuries - to the detriment of our human health, potentially.’
Dr Orbaek White continues. ‘It’s just shy of half a ton for every person in the world. So, do we want to commit time and energy to dealing with it?
‘The Welsh government has said yes. Other governments have said yes too and other institutions like EPSRC, UKRI, NERC and so on have also said yes in their own way. That's the big picture. The alternative is, plastics end up as tumbleweed in our fields and forests and they get turned over in our soil and they last for thousands of years. The truth is, we run the risk of chewing on them down the line if we don't deal with them now.’