Cars Could Get A “Flashy” Upgrade

Flash Joule heating process recycles plastic from end-of-life F-150 trucks into high-value graphene for new vehicles

Originally published by Rice News, courtesy of Rice University.
By Mike Williams

The part of an old car that gets turned into graphene could come back as a better part for a new car.

Rice University chemists working with researchers at the Ford Motor Company are turning plastic parts from “end-of-life” vehicles into graphene via the university’s flash Joule heating process.

The average SUV contains up to 350 kilograms (771 pounds) of plastic that could sit in a landfill for centuries but for the recycling process.

Rice graduate student Kevin Wyss holds untreated parts from an “end-of-life” truck that would be ground into powder and turned into graphene via the lab’s flash Joule heating process. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

reported in the debut issue of a new Nature journal, Communications Engineering.

The goal of the project led by Rice chemist James Tour and graduate student and lead author Kevin Wyss was to reuse that graphene to make enhanced polyurethane foam for new vehicles. Tests showed the graphene-infused foam had a 34% increase in tensile strength and a 25% increase in low-frequency noise absorption. That’s with only 0.1% by weight or less of graphene.

And when that new car is old, the foam can be flashed into graphene again.

“Ford sent us 10 pounds of mixed plastic waste from a vehicle shredding facility,” Tour said. “It was muddy and wet. We flashed it, we sent the graphene back to Ford, they put it into new foam composites and it did everything it was supposed to do.

“Then they sent us the new composites and we flashed those and turned them back into graphene,” he said. “It’s a great example of circular recycling.”

The researchers cited a study that estimates the amount of plastic used in vehicles has increased by 75% in just the past six years as a means to reduce weight and increase fuel economy.

Segregating mixed end-of-life plastic by type for recycling has been a long-term problem for the auto industry, Tour said, and it’s becoming more critical because of potential environmental regulations around end-of-life vehicles. “In Europe, cars come back to the manufacturer, which is allowed to landfill only 5% of a vehicle,” he said. “That means they must recycle 95%, and it’s just overwhelming to them.”

Much of the mixed plastic ends up being incinerated, according to co-author Deborah Mielewski, technical fellow for sustainability at Ford, who noted the US shreds 10 to 15 million vehicles each year, with more than 27 million globally shredded.

“We have hundreds of different combinations of plastic resin, filler and reinforcements on vehicles that make the materials impossible to separate,” she said. “Every application has a specific loading/mixture that most economically meets the requirements.”

“These aren’t recyclables like plastic bottles, so they can’t melt and reshape them,” Tour said. “So, when Ford researchers spotted our paper on flash Joule heating plastic into graphene, they reached out.”

Flash Joule heating to make graphene, introduced by the Tour lab in 2020, packs mixed ground plastic and a coke additive (for conductivity) between electrodes in a tube and blasts it with high voltage. The sudden, intense heat — up to nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit — vaporizes other elements and leaves behind easy-to-solubilize, turbostratic graphene.

Flash heating offers significant environmental benefits, as the process does not require solvents and uses a minimum of energy to produce graphene.

Rice University graduate student Kevin Wyss holds untreated parts from an “end-of-life” truck that would be ground into powder and turned into graphene via the lab’s flash Joule heating process. The graphene can then be repeatedly recycled to provide enhanced strength and sound-dampening polyurethane for new vehicles. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

To test whether end-of-life, mixed plastic could be transformed, the rice lab ground the shredder “fluff” made of plastic bumpers, gaskets, carpets, mats, seating and door casings from end-of-life F-150 pickup trucks to a fine powder without washing or pre-sorting the components.

The lab flashed the powder in two steps, first under low current and then high current in a heater Wyss custom designed for the experiment.

Powder heated between 10 to 16 seconds in low current produced a highly carbonized plastic accounting for about 30 percent of the initial bulk. The other 70% was outgassed or recovered as hydrocarbon-rich waxes and oils that Wys suggested could also be recycled.

Ford F-150 Lightning

Ford’s all electric F-150 Lightning should prove to be a popular addition to the company’s truck lineup. Image courtesy of Ford.


 


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