Sustainable Processing of Energy Materials from Waste

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Department of Chemical Engineering


This project aims at developing new processes for waste remanufacturing based on hydrothermal and microwave treatments to yield sustainable products such as advanced carbon materials and chemicals, which in turn could be manufactured into battery devices
Hydrothermal or microwave conversion of waste will result in a liquid phase containing important chemicals such as levulinic acid (LA) and 5-hydroxymethyl furfural (5-HMF), which are platform intermediates for a range of products including solvents and precursors of polymers, pharmaceuticals, plasticizers and other biofuels. We will separate these chemicals from the aqueous phase using preparative chromatography and convert them into other useful products using the carbon catalysts produced from the solid phase of the waste conversion. This will thus close the loop in biowaste product utilization.
In parallel, we will also use the solid carbon materials to manufacture anode materials for Li and Na ion batteries. We will test the performance of these waste-derived electrodes in half- and, based on the best performant materials, full cells.
We will evaluate the environmental impact of the manufacturing of these products at each life cycle, their cost compared with other products on the market, and we will perform multiscale modelling to predict the ability of these processes and products to be upscaled.
Our proposed collaborative research activities have the potential to reduce environmental pollution and find new and innovative ways to recycle/remanufacture waste into advanced materials. In addition, the resulting biofuels and batteries from our processes will help the UK achieve its targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and introduce more renewables.
A team of highly qualified researchers has been brought together for this project, including two top research institutions in the UK (QMUL and UCL) and two in China (Tsinghua and Chinese Academic of Science) and researchers with complementary expertise in hydrothermal and microwave manufacturing, heterogeneous catalysis, biowaste conversion, carbon materials and battery research. This project will train two PDRAs and two PhD students in the UK which will interact closely with two PDRAs in China.
This grant will ensure the continuation of long lasting collaborations between the UK and China, will help prevent pollution and waste in both countries, and develop sustainable technologies for manufacturing advanced carbons, chemicals and batteries.

Planned Impact

The need to reduce pollution, waste, the world's dependence on fossil fuels and mitigating contributions to man-made climate change is the most important of grand challenges of this century.
Our proposed research activities will contribute to this mission by unlocking new technologies for waste remanufacturing by accessing sustainable carbon materials, chemicals, liquid fuels, green solvents and battery electrodes from bio- and plastic waste.
The outcomes of the research will lead to:

i) Preventing waste generation and environmental pollution
ii) Mitigating landfills and methane emissions
iii) Creating sustainable high-importance value-added products from waste
iv) Replace fossil derived fuels and chemicals with waste-derived counterparts
v) Increasing the percentage of renewables used for electricity generation by implementing affordable and low-cost energy storage solutions
vi) Reducing the environmental impact of materials and chemicals manufacturing
vii) Creating new business opportunities for the waste sector and the battery industry
viii) Connecting the waste sector with the advanced chemicals production and batteries, stimulating a circular economy

Our proposed research activities will have a major impact on a range of stakeholders.
1. The waste producing industries, via our novel bio- and plastic-waste conversion processes
2. Catalyst manufacturers via creating affordable catalysts without critical metals
3. The chemicals industry, through the development of new catalytic production routes and separation technologies for platform bio-derived chemicals.
4. The energy, vehicle and transport industry, via creating low cost and affordable batteries promoting electric cars and a higher percentage of renewable utilization
5. Software industry, via the development of new models to assess sustainability, risk-assessment and economics.
6. Waste sector who will be interested to implement our proposed technologies at a larger scale
7. Help China's targets to reduce pollution/waste and GHG emissions

To ensure accelerated routes to impact we have contacted a company from the waste sector in the UK and a company working in battery manufacturing in China. This puts us in the strong position of having a dialogue with direct beneficiaries of our proposed technologies and end users. The PI has also very good connections with other battery manufacturers in the UK such as Faradion and Johnson Matthey with whom she is currently collaborating on a Na-ion battery grants. The success of this proposal will thus be crucial to link the waste sector with end users and to stimulate a circular economy. Likewise, the PI in China has good connections with the waste sector. We will contact companies working in waste collection and recycling in China once we have demonstrated initial progress.

The project will train two PDRA researchers and two PhD students in cross- and multidisciplinary science-driven technologies to contribute to the creation of the next generation of research leaders in sustainable waste remanufacturing processes and green products.


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Au H (2020) A revised mechanistic model for sodium insertion in hard carbons in Energy & Environmental Science

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Gadipelli S (2019) Size-Related Electrochemical Performance in Active Carbon Nanostructures: A MOFs-Derived Carbons Case Study. in Advanced science (Weinheim, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany)

Description 1) We have discovered that it is possible to turn plastic into advanced carbon materials using innovative catalytic autogenic processes happening under pressure. We have focused mostly on non-recyclable polymers such as polystyrene (PS) and Nylon but have expanded also to polyethylene (PE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) since these waste streams are are very abundant and persistent. Carbon materials produced from the above plastic precursors show interesting morphologies that can be tuned by controlling the pressure inside the sealed reactor where the decomposition takes place at temperatures around 600-700C. Different types of carbons can be obtained also when the plastics are combined in varying ratios. We have optimised the process for obtaining hard carbons from the above waste feedstocks and have also been able to produce hybrid carbons that incorporate high capacity elements, such as tin and tin oxide. Carbons with these high capacity additives have shown promising results when tested as electrodes in Na-ion batteries and will be further studied as Li-ion electrodes. We have started a collaborative work that aims to generate a life cycle assessment for our waste-derived carbon electrodes to be able to evaluate their environmental impact and price reduction in comparison to other carbons used for the same purposes but produced from primary resources.

2) We have been able to prove the conversion of PET into a Zr-based metal organic framework (MOF) in an aqueous medium. MOF structures are normally very valuable as frameworks for heterogeneous catalysis in a wide variety of applications. Zr-MOFs are very popular but so far their synthesis from plastic precursors has only be carried out in organic solvents. Therefore, our aqueous route for their synthesis represents a sustainable approach to produce a high-value material. We have used different Zr precursors (ZrCl4 or ZrO2), terephthalic acid precursors (terephthalic acid or PET), and mild acid environments to optimise the synthesis of this material.

3) We have also explored the use of biomass-derived waste to produce valuable chemicals and carbons through hydrothermal carbonisation (HTC). We have successfully converted biomass into 5-HMF (hydroxymethylfurfural) and Levulinic acid, two important bio-based commodity chemicals, and also into well structured and controlled hydrothermal carbons. We are now investigating the use of biomass-derived hydrothermal carbons as heterogenous catalysts for oxidation and reduction of 5-HMF and levulinic acid respectively. Additionally, we are exploring higher pressures, temperatures and different environments (CO2, N2, air) to enable further control on the microstructure of these carbons and, in turn, on the ability of storing sodium ions when assembled as hard-carbon electrodes in batteries.

4) We have explored the usage of polyvinyl carbonate (PVC) waste as a chlorination agent in organic chemistry. Characterisation is still ongoing to prove the feasibility of this concept.
Exploitation Route This grant sets up a unique way to look at plastic waste, i.e. use it as a raw materials to be upgraded into advanced electrode materials for batteries as well as use polyvinyl chloride chloride as a chlorination agent in organic chemistry to improve the green character of chlorinations while enabling the dechlorination/recycling of PVC.
Hard carbons produced from plastic waste would be an extremely appealing strategy for up-cycling otherwise incinerated or land-filled waste. Provided that we are able to offer materials with competitive energy storage capacity and long-term stability, our findings have the potential to generate a locally sourced and low-cost route for the production of truly sustainable (e.g. using non geopolitically compromised and non critical elements) high added-value batteries.
Sectors Chemicals,Creative Economy,Energy,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

Description STFC Experimental Design Award
Amount £4,814 (GBP)
Organisation Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2021 
End 07/2021
Description Collaboration with Shell 
Organisation Shell Global Solutions International BV
Department Shell Chemicals in Europe
Country Netherlands 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution We are performing research on discovering low cost anode materials for Na ion batteries and test their electrochemical interfaces to achieve high reversible Coulombic efficiency.
Collaborator Contribution They funded two PhD students and one PDRA to complement the ISCF project and deliver the next generation on na ion batteries and they will provide some access to Shell laboratories in Amsterdam.
Impact Is to early to list outputs as this was funded end of 2019
Start Year 2019
Description CPE Sustainable Energy Symposium (Imperial College London), 'Processable Energy Storage Materials: From Batteries to Sustainable Fuels' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Symposium to share research outputs across Imperial College on energy storage materials, devices, policy and sustainability.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Institute for Molecular Science and Engineering (Imperial College London) based on the theme of "Molecular Engineering in Next Generation Batteries" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Seminar series to engage with other researchers in our institutions working on energy materials, sustainability and life cycle analysis.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description MRS Conference Fall 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Conference talk on carbons produced from bio-derived resources for different types of energy storage devices such as vanadium redox-flow and Na-ion batteries.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Scientific opinion on the future of batteries and on how clean electric cars are 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact BBC Radio 4 Programme "Inside science" interviewed members of the Titirici Group to answer a listeners question: how clean are electric cars?
We were able to talk about upcycling waste, plastics an biomass, into cost-efficient energy materials. The programme aired on the 16th of June 2020 at 4.30 pm and it was possible to listen to it around the globe. We have stablished a solid professional relationship with the programme´s team, which gives us prospects of collaborating and participating in other outreach events with them.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description The future of transportation: open day to show research done in Imperial College 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The Titirici group was invited to participate in a open day to show what is being done towards the decarbonisation of transportation. We were able to show how by converting biomass and plastic waste our group is able to produce carbons with certain properties that give these materials the ability of storing energy. In such way, people were able to receive the message of our main research proposal: cost-effective and green energy materials from waste sources. In addition, we were able to engage the public with our idea of circular economy in industries and electrically powered vehicles.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020