Plastic-powered cars are on their way

Picture this: It’s a regular day at the grocery store. You choose some products, go to the register, and accept some plastic bags from the cashier to carry your groceries home. When you get home, a bag wriggles out of your grasp and floats through the air. Your simple plastic bag has now joined the legion of un-recycled plastic that contributes to some frightening statistics.

Every year, humans create enough plastic waste to travel the world four times around. Not only is that a lot of waste, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. It takes an astounding 500 to 1,000 years for plastic to degrade naturally, and in the meantime it’s clogging up our oceans (if you don’t believe me, check out the Great Pacific Garbage Patch).

With so much plastic floating around, it might sound like a hopeless scenario, but a solution exists: turning that plentiful waste into fuel for our cars. Luckily, chemists at UC Irvine are working on making that a reality. Partnering with researchers from the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry, the team discovered a way to efficiently convert plastic waste into liquid fuel. The discovery addresses two major problems: plastic pollution, and the need for sustainable fuels. UCI chemist Zhibin Guan commented on the goals of the research in a press release:

Our goal through this research was to address the issue of plastic pollution as well as achieving a beneficial outcome of creating a new source of liquid fuel.”

Unlike other methods of breaking down plastic, this more efficient process known as “cross-alkane metathesis” utilizes by-products of oil refining for the conversion. Commercial viability remains far away. The team still needs to work out some issues to increase efficiency reduce the cost of production before the technology goes mainstream.

While it’s still not clear when the technology will be ready for widespread use, one thing is for certain: it’s a game-changer.

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