03 JUNE 2019

Inspirational Cambridge Scientists - Taylor Uekert - The Chemist

Inspirational Cambridge Scientists - Taylor Uekert - The Chemist

From the bin to your car: turning plastic waste into fuel with sunlight

In our series of interviews with scientists from Cambridge University to inspire your students and help us build brighter futures together, we spoke to Taylor Uekert from the Department of Chemistry. In her own words, Taylor describes her work to address two global challenges - waste alleviation and renewable fuel generation. 

I grew up an hour’s drive from the beaches in Southern California, and each time my family and I visited the ocean, three things were guaranteed: it would be sunny, the water would be freezing, and the sand would be littered with plastic. 150 million tons of plastic are thrown away every year, at least 5% of which enters the oceans. This is not only a global environmental crisis, but also a waste of valuable resources. But what can we do about it? 

I work on one potential solution: a technology called photoreforming that turns plastic waste into hydrogen fuel. Hydrogen is a valuable molecule because it can react with oxygen to release energy, meaning it could be used as a renewable fuel in cars, trains and airplanes. However, 96% of all hydrogen is currently made by breaking down fossil fuels with steam. This process is far from ideal, as it uses non-renewable oil or natural gases, consumes large amounts of energy and releases carbon dioxide. Photoreforming allows us to overcome these limitations.

Photoreforming only requires four “ingredients” – plastic (like water bottles or synthetic clothing), sunlight, water and a photocatalyst – to generate hydrogen. The photocatalyst absorbs sunlight and then uses this extra energy to break down plastic and water into hydrogen. It is a simple, one-pot process that uses freely-available resources like sunlight and waste and does not produce greenhouse gases.

This technology is still very new, but I’m currently improving its feasibility by finding more efficient and less expensive photocatalysts, determining how to make other useful products beyond hydrogen, and up-scaling the process. So far, we’ve produced enough hydrogen from polyester fibers (we used about 1% of the material in a synthetic t-shirt) to power your phone for about 40 seconds. You may not be charging your phone on plastic anytime soon, but with more chemistry and engineering research, there just might be a day when that is possible.

Despite my early experience with seaside plastic pollution, I never expected to work on a project like this. I’ve always been interested in science and how it allows you not just to understand the physics, biology and chemistry of how the world works, but also to use that understanding to change and improve how we interact with the world. That curiosity is thanks to my mother, who home-schooled me and encouraged me to explore everything from oceanography to the chemistry of chocolate.

Although many topics interested me, nothing truly stuck out and said “wow,” even during my undergraduate degree in NanoEngineering (the study and manipulation of materials at the atomic scale). But then I somehow found myself where I never would have expected: doing my PhD in a chemistry lab, despite taking only a handful of chemistry courses in my life. To me, this is proof that you don’t need to know exactly what you want to be working on in the future; as long as you work hard and keep an open mind, eventually you will end up in the right place. For me, that right place is in my research lab, transforming plastic waste into useful fuels and chemicals and taking one step closer to making my childhood California beaches litter-free.

Taylor Uekert is a NanoDTC PhD Candidate for the Reisner Group in the Chemistry Department at the University of Cambridge. Taylor's PhD aims to address two global challenges - waste alleviation and renewable fuel generation - through a photocatalytic technique that uses waste and sunlight to generate hydrogen. She is also involved in a variety of scientific outreach efforts.

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