Researchers from Rice University in Houston, Texas, have come up with a novel process that has the potential to revolutionize recycling and sustainability in the nascent EV sector. At least 27 million vehicles are shredded across the world each year, with the United States accounting for 15 million of them.
Most of these shredded vehicles are incinerated. In Europe, old vehicles are sent back to their manufacturers, which are required to recycle 95% of a vehicle and landfill just 5%. This is often too much for most manufacturers to handle, and they resort to scrapping the old cars.
Now Rice University researchers have developed a method to convert material from old internal combustion engine vehicles to graphene, one of the strongest, most durable, and lightweight materials on the planet. This material would make electric vehicles much more durable while keeping their weight down, increasing battery life and fuel efficiency.
Ford has already focused its attention on this new technology and is partnering with project leader James Tour, a professor from Rice University, to perfect the technique. Dubbed “flash Joule heating”, this method converts mixed plastic waste into graphene, packing it together with a coke additive into a tube with electrodes on either side and blasting it with high-voltage electricity.
The chemical cocktail is heated to almost 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit and then vaporized, leaving a deposit of graphene behind. Flash Joule heating uses little energy and doesn’t need any solvent, making its impact on the environment minimal.
Tour’s team received 10 pounds of “muddy and wet” mixed plastic waste from Ford, flashed it into graphene, and sent it back to the automotive giant. After putting the graphene into foam composites, Ford sent them back to the team, which again flashed it into graphene.
Since the method allows for old plastic waste to be recycled into graphene again and again, it could potentially revolutionize the recycling industry and allow old ICE vehicles to live again as graphene in EVs rather than fill up landfills.
According to Ford sustainability expert Dr. Alpher Kiziltas, the researchers saw significant improvement in the structure and integrity of composite foam when they incorporated the graphene sent by the Rice University team. The graphene-enforced foam provided “excellent mechanical and physical properties,” he says.
Graphene is especially suited for EVs because it has amazing noise-mitigation qualities. Graphene batteries are also poised to replace lithium-ion batteries because they are less resistant to wear and tear, safer against fires, have a long lifespan and can recharge much faster than their lithium-ion counterparts can.
The material had been so expensive, generally costing $200,000 per ton, that it was referred to as black gold. Thanks to flash Joule heating, scientists will now be able to make it from plastic garbage, and manufacturers of EVs, such as Mullen Automotive Inc. (NASDAQ: MULN), could use this material.
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