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A team led by researchers from the National University of Singapore has found a way to turn plastic bottle waste into ultralight polyethylene terephthalate (PET) aerogels.
A team led by researchers from the National University of Singapore has found a way to turn plastic bottle waste into ultralight polyethylene terephthalate (PET) aerogels.

Researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have just developed a way to convert plastic bottle waste into aerogels for many useful applications.

The PET aerogels developed by the NUS-led research team using plastic bottle waste are soft, flexible, durable, extremely light and easy to handle. They also demonstrate superior thermal insulation and strong absorption capacity.

These properties make them attractive for a wide range of applications, such as for heat and sound insulation in buildings, oil spill cleaning, and also as a lightweight lining for firefighter coats and carbon dioxide absorption masks that could be used during fire rescue operations and fire escape.

This pioneering work was achieved by a research team led by Associate Professor Hai Minh Duong and Professor Nhan Phan-Thien from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at NUS Faculty of Engineering.

The technology to produce PET aerogels was developed in collaboration with Dr Xiwen Zhang from the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech) under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).

“Our team has developed a simple, cost-effective and green method to convert plastic bottle waste into PET aerogels for many exciting uses. One plastic bottle can be recycled to produce an A4-sized PET aerogel sheet. The fabrication technology is also easily scalable for mass production,” said Assoc Prof Duong.

Lighter and safer firefighter coats

A novel application is to harness the heat insulation property of the PET aerogels for fire safety applications.

When coated with fire retardant chemicals, the novel lightweight PET aerogel demonstrates superior thermal resistance and stability. It can withstand temperatures of up to 620°C – this is seven times higher than the thermal lining used in conventional firefighter coats, but weighs only about 10% of the weight of conventional thermal lining. The soft and flexible nature of the PET aerogel also provides greater comfort.

Prof Nhan explained, “By adopting PET aerogels that are coated with fire retardants as a lining material, firefighter coats can be made much lighter, safer and cheaper. It is also possible to produce low-cost heat-resistant jackets for personal use.”

2-in-1 mask that absorbs harmful carbon dioxide and dust particles

When coated with an amine group, the PET aerogel can quickly absorb carbon dioxide from the environment. Its absorption capacity is comparable to materials used in gas masks, which are costly and bulky.

To illustrate this application, the team embedded a thin layer of PET aerogel into a commercial fine particle mask to create a prototype mask that can absorb both dust particles and carbon dioxide effectively.

As introduced, the carbon dioxide absorption masks and heat-resistant jackets made using PET aerogels can be placed alongside fire extinguishers in high-rise buildings to provide added protection to civilians when they escape from a fire.

“Masks lined with amine-reinforced PET aerogels can also benefit people living in countries where air pollution and carbon emission are major concerns. Such masks can be easily produced, and can also potentially be made reusable,” added Assoc Prof Duong.

NUS researchers are also looking into making simple surface modification to the PET aerogels for absorption of toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, which is the deadliest component of smoke.

Next steps

The research team has filed a patent for its novel PET aerogel technology, and will continue to enhance the performance of the PET aerogels and explore new applications. The NUS researchers are also keen to work with companies to bring the technology to market.


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