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James Cook University engineers are developing microwave heating technology to break down plastic waste into by-products helpful to the environment.

And they have launched a crowd funding bid to take their research further.

Head of Electrical Engineering Professor Mohan Jacob (pictured below) says the average person uses 130 kg of plastic a year.

“Perhaps contrary to popular opinion, plastic is an indispensable material in modern life. It is cheap, versatile, lightweight, and has many benefits like maintaining food quality and safety and preventing waste,” he said.

But Professor Jacob said pollution from discarded plastic had a significant negative impact on our environment, and was particularly harmful to marine and wildlife health.

“Discarded plastics endanger our marine wildlife, and have begun to enter the food chain. There is an urgent need for developing technologies to recover plastic waste,” he said.

Professor Jacob said he and his collaborator, JCU Adjunct Associate Professor of Engineering Graham Brodie, were working on customising microwave technology to do this.

Professor Jacob said plastic waste would be converted into biochar – charcoal that can be used as a soil conditioner.

The microwave energy is used in the absence of oxygen to controllably heat materials beyond 600 degrees Celsius within a custom-made chamber. 

Professor Jacob said his group was currently working on stage one of the project.

“We are developing a processing chamber, which could process many kinds of plastic materials, up to 5 kilograms of waste. It will be a prototype system for the development of biochars from different types of plastics under various conditions.”

He said stage two will optimise the energy efficiency of the system and maximise the yield of by-products. Stage three will build a fully customised and easy to operate waste processing system, which could be installed at medium scale industries.

The engineers are seeking to raise $20,000 to develop stage one through the Pozible crowd-funding platform, which can be accessed here:

Engineers’ project may see plastic problem zapped