The Loh Down On Science

Finally—a use for all those leftover plastic bags!

Plastic grocery bags—landfill waste or material of the future?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Non-biodegradable plastic bags are an ecological pollutant.  Now, researchers at Australia's University of Adelaide have found a way to turn this waste around.  How?  By transforming the bags into carbon nanotubes. 

Nanotubes are tiny cylinders of carbon atoms that form a material stronger than steel and significantly lighter.  They're used in electronics, sports equipment, wind turbines, and more. 

So, what does that have to do with old plastic grocery bags?  Dusan Losic and his grad students had been using ethanol to make nanotubes.  Then one of the students suggested that any carbon source should be usable.  Like, say, a plastic bag.

So the team vaporized pieces of grocery bags in a furnace, producing layers of carbon.  These were used to line a type of form, or mold, called a nanoporous membrane.  The result?  Nanotubes organized in a particular geometry, creating superstrong—and potentially much cheaper—nanotube material. 

And they said you couldn’t teach an old bag new tricks.

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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