Research Round-up: Week 2

Rebecca Kershaw 29 January 2015

1) A first-of-its-kind commercialscale plant is leading the way in recycling technology using EPSRC funded research from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology. This plant, designed, built and operated by Cambridge spin-out Enval Limited, can recycle plastic-aluminium laminate packaging, including toothpaste tubes and crisp packets, in less than three minutes with no toxic waste products. It not only recovers the valuable metal but make hydrocarbon fuel from packaging that is impossible to recycle using current recycling techniques. The process uses microwaves to pyrolyse the organic material (like paper or plastic) and so recover the metal without any contaminants. The impact of widespread use of this type of process will be huge, considering the use of such packaging is growing at around 15% each year. “In the UK, roughly 160,000 tonnes of laminates are used per year for packaging, which means at least 16,000 tonnes of aluminium is going into the ground. Just imagine if we could routinely recycle this.” said Dr Carlos Ludlow-Palafox, the once PhD student and original inventor of this revolutionary approach. 

2) After the Nobel prize in physics in 2010, graphene has enjoyed a flood of funding and excitement around its amazing properties. So where are we now? Graphene is at the centre of a new research focus in the the Department of Engineering, with its own £24 million building being built out on the West Cambridge Site. Recently work from a collaboration with Professor Andrea Ferrari shows it to be a leading material for meeting our energy challenges. The paper highlights that graphene is the perfect material for modern devices, from fuel cells and batteries to supercapacitors and the storage and generation of fuel in the hydrogen economy. However, the feasibility of this high-efficiency, bendable graphene world depends crucially on finding reliable ways of producing the material that can be scaled up beyond the laboratory setting for commercial manufacturing use. Very significant steps towards this goal are being made in the Cambridge Graphene Centre using various techniques, including large-scale chemical vapour deposition techniques (CVD). But we will have to wait and see if graphene’s promises have been fulfilled in another 5 years’ time.

3) Featured on the cover of the latest issue of Nature is the stunning Esquel pallasite. The meteorite, which can be found in London’s Natural History Museum, is made up of an iron-nickel alloy matrix containing marble sized crystals of olivine. Research conducted by an international collaboration including Cambridge researcher, James Byron, from the Department of Earth Sciences used a synchrotron (a high-resolution X-ray microscope) to look into the nanoscale magnetic features of the material. The fragment comes from a larger body within the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, formed shortly after birth of our solar system. Over the last 4 billion years of cooling, the asteroid’s magnetic core has frozen, producing a time stamped map of the would-be planet’s formation as a magnetic record, in exactly the same way that a computer’s hard drive stores data. So what can a 4 billion year old ‘hard drive from space’ tell us? This tiny piece of rock provides valuable insight into how our own planet’s magnetic iron-rich core was formed, and possibly more importantly gives us an idea of how its gradual freeze might progress and where it will end.