The research, published in The Journal for Carbon Research, focuses on chemical recycling which uses the constituent elements of the plastic to make new materials.
While all plastics are made of carbon, hydrogen and sometimes oxygen, the amounts and arrangements of these three elements make each plastic unique.
As plastics are very pure and highly refined chemicals, they can be broken down into these elements and then bonded in different arrangements to make high-value materials such as carbon nanotubes.
Carbon nanotubes are tiny molecules with incredible physical properties. The structure of a carbon nanotube looks a piece of chicken wire wrapped into a cylinder and when carbon is arranged like this it can conduct both heat and electricity. These two different forms of energy are each very important to control and use in the right quantities, depending on your needs.
"Nanotubes can be used to make a huge range of things, such as conductive films for touchscreen displays, flexible electronics fabrics that create energy, antennas for 5G networks while NASA has used them to prevent electric shocks on the Juno spacecraft," explained Alvin Orbaek White, lead author of the study.
During the study, the research team tested plastics, in particular, black plastics, which are commonly used as packaging for ready meals and fruit and vegetables in supermarkets, but can't be easily recycled.
They removed the carbon and then constructed nanotube molecules from the bottom up using the carbon atoms and used the nanotubes to transmit electricity to a light bulb in a small demonstrator model.