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A team of NUS Engineering researchers found a way to turn plastic bottle waste into ultralight PET aerogels that are suitable for various applications, including heat insulation and carbon dioxide absorption. From left: Mr Khac Duyen Le, Research Engineer, NUS Mechanical Engineering; Mr Leung Hoe Inn, Ryan, final-year undergraduate student, NUS Mechanical Engineering; Prof Nhan Phan-Thien, NUS Mechanical Engineering; Assoc Prof Hai Minh Duong, NUS Mechanical Engineering; and Dr Xiwen Zhang, SIMTech, A*STAR.

The NUS Mechanical Engineering researchers have made another significant contribution towards resolving the global issue of plastic waste. The research team led by Associate Professor Hai Minh Duong and Professor Nhan Phan-Tien, in collaboration with Dr Xiwen Zhang from the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech) under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), pioneered the technology to fabricate the world’s first polyethylene terephthalate (PET) aerogels.

Plastic waste is toxic and non-biodegradable. Such waste often ends up in oceans and landfills, affecting marine life and causing problems such as groundwater contamination and land scarcity. Globally, the annual consumption of plastic bottles has been rising steadily, and it is expected to exceed half a trillion tons per year by 2021.

The team took two years to develop a simple, cost-effective and green method which can convert one plastic bottle waste into an A4-sized PET aerogel sheet and reproduced for many exciting uses. The PET aerogels – manufactured 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.

The researchers have filed a patent for their novel PET aerogel technology, and will continue to enhance the aerogel’s performance and explore new applications. They are also keen to work with companies to bring the exciting technology to market.