Innovations That Matter

New method turns used aluminium foil into biofuel catalyst


A Belfast researcher has developed a way to recycle used aluminium foil into the precursor for a biofuel catalyst, saving money and the environment.

Engineers and entrepreneurs have devised a whole host of novel ways to recycle many products, from repurposing beach plastic into tableware, to reusing glass in lithium ion batteries. But because many recyclers do not accept dirty aluminium foil, plenty of it still ends up in landfills. Now, a researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, in Ireland, has discovered a way to convert used aluminium foil into a biofuel catalyst.

Ahmed Osman, an Early Career Researcher at Queen’s School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, was walking through the labs one day and found himself wondering at the amount of aluminium foil waste. After some research, and speaking with his colleagues, he devised a method for obtaining pure crystals of aluminium salts from the used foil. These crystals are the starting material for the preparation of alumina catalyst, used for the production of dimethyl ether – one of the world’s most promising biofuels.

The alumina used for the catalyst normally comes from bauxite ore, which is mined in countries such as West Africa, the West Indies and Australia, but often at a huge cost to the environment. Osman explains, “This breakthrough is significant as not only is the alumina more pure than its commercial counterpart, it could also reduce the amount of aluminium foil going to landfill while also sidestepping the environmental damage associated with mining bauxite.” Making the catalyst from used foil is also cheaper, costing around 160 USD per kilogram, while the commercially-mined alumina catalyst comes in at around 400 USD per kilogram.

According to Osman’s scientific research, published in the journal Nature, the ‘recycled’ alumina has also been shown to have higher surface area, larger pore volume, and stronger acidity than the commercially-mined alumina, making it especially useful as an absorbent, in electronic device fabrication, as a cutting tool material or as an alternative for surgical material for implants. What other materials might be recycled into improvements on the originals?




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