Discarded face masks could be turned into biofuel to produce energy

While the pandemic has benefitted the environment in some ways, it has also brought about an unprecedented problem: the overwhelming number of single-use, non-recyclable personal protective equipment (PPE) leaking into the environment.

Concerned about how these single-use masks and gloves can be turned into something useful, a team of researchers has recently conducted a study showing that the protective equipment could be turned into biofuel.

The research, conducted by researchers from The University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (UPES) in India, shows how billions of pieces of disposable PPE can be converted from their polypropylene (plastic) state into renewable liquid fuels.

Converting the waste into biocrude, a type of synthetic fuel, “will not just prevent the severe after-effects to humankind and the environment but also produce a source of energy,” explained lead author Dr. Sapna Jain.

By nature, most of the PPE used by frontline workers and people at large is designed for single-use, followed by disposal. Once these items are disposed of, they find their ways into the environment where they take decades to decompose and end up in landfills or oceans.

After exploring a number of methods currently being used to dispose of PPE and whether turning it into biofuel would be a feasible option, the researchers came to the conclusion that recycling these polymers requires physical as well as chemical methods.

In particular, the researchers focused on the structure of polypropylene and the damaging role it has on the environment. Their findings conclusively state that PPE waste should be converted into fuel using pyrolysis — a chemical process that breaks down plastics at temperatures between 300-400 degrees centigrade without oxygen.

“Pyrolysis is the most commonly used chemical method whose benefits include the ability to produce high quantities of bio-oil which is easily biodegradable,” co-author Dr. Bhawna Yadav Lamba explains.

Effectively, by also helping to reduce reliance on carbon-heavy fossil fuels, turning PPE waste into biofuel would be tackling two environmental problems at once.

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