Plastic bags may soon be powering your smartphone

Researchers have converted plastic bags into carbon chips for batteries, possibly offering a way to put discarded plastic bags to good use.

Plastic bag pollution has become such a serious environmental problem that California has banned single-use plastic bags at large retail stores and organizations are popping up worldwide to combat the vast plastic garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean, according to National Conference of State Legislatures.

Plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose, and as it slowly degrades with sunlight, it releases toxic chemicals into the environment, according to Ocean Cleanup.

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"Over 5 trillion pieces of plastic currently litter the ocean. Trash accumulates in 5 ocean garbage patches, the largest one being the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between Hawaii and California."<br> 

— <em>--The Ocean Cleanup</em>

The goal of researchers at Purdue University and Universidad Tecnológica de Querétaro in Mexico was to develop a simple, relatively inexpensive way to turn used plastic bags into an energy-storing carbon.

The research was published in the American Chemical Society.

Although scientists have known for a while that polyethylene in plastic bags could be turned into energy-storing carbon, previous methods to “upcycle” polyethylene into pure carbon have been complex and expensive, according to the study's abstract.

In the new low-cost method, the researchers immersed polyethylene plastic bags in sulfuric acid and heated the bags in a special reactor to just below polyethylene's melting temperature.

This allowed the plastic to be heated to a much higher temperature without vaporizing into hazardous gases. Then, they removed the treated polyethylene from the reactor and heated it in a furnace to produce pure carbon. The final step was to ground the carbon into a black powder used to make anodes for lithium-ion batteries.

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The resulting batteries were used to power a toy truck and the batteries performed comparably to commercial batteries, according to the researchers.