Environmental Laboratory

  • Can PPE Be Converted into Fuel?

Can PPE Be Converted into Fuel?

Aug 22 2020 Read 555 Times

Coronavirus continues to proliferate across the globe, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives prematurely and bringing global economies to a standstill. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) as a key method of mitigating the spread of the disease, but the environmental implications of coronavirus – and of the billions of single-use PPE items used to prevent its propagation – are rarely taken into account.

In a bid to circumvent the monumental plastic pollution created by disposable PPE items, scientists from the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (UPES) in India have been investigating a method of turning this waste into a fuel source. Via the chemical process of pyrolysis, the plastics contained within PPE can be broken down and converted into biofuel, which can be combusted and used as an energy source in the same way that fossil fuels currently are.

A necessary evil

Wearing adequate PPE is an important means of preventing COVID bacteria spreading from one person to another and thus controlling the disease. For that reason, the UK government ordered one billion items to be delivered to the NHS as early as April, while the fact that facemasks have since become compulsory in many indoor public spaces means that they are sure to become ubiquitous before long.

While PPE does undoubtedly play an indispensable role in controlling the virus, the vast majority of items are single use. This means that they end up in landfills where they will take decades to decompose, or worse still find their ways into our seas and oceans. Once there, they will likely break down into highly dangerous microplastics, which pose a serious hazard to marine flora and fauna.

Turning garbage into biofuel

Keen to find an alternative to the undesirable scenario outlined above, a team of researchers from UPES led by Dr Sapna Jain investigated how PPE could be broken down and turned into something useful. Pyrolysis is the most common method of converting solid wastes into fuel sources, which degrades long-chain polymers into simpler molecular structures by exposing them to high pressures and temperatures without the presence of oxygen. Crucially, pyrolysis does not require that waste materials be separated before the process occurs, thus greatly simplifying things.

By subjecting the PPE to temperatures of between 300°C and 400°C for an hour or more, the team were able to obtain biocrude, a biodegradable fuel source that functions in much the same way that fossil fuels do. “There is always a need for alternative fuels or energy resources to meet our energy demands. The pyrolysis of plastics is one of the methods to mitigate our energy crisis,” explained Dr Bhawna Yadav Lamba, co-author on the study. “The challenges of PPE waste management and increasing energy demand could be addressed simultaneously by the production of liquid fuel from PPE kits.”

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