York scientists make new environmental breakthroughs

Scientists have made new findings. Image: York Press

Scientists have made new findings. Image: York Press

Scientists at the University of York have been embarking on a number of new environmental initiatives, which could help reduce the impact of carpet tile waste on the environment and create an alternative biofuel made from household waste.

Current adhesives make carpet tile waste particularly difficult to recycle, so around 70 million kilogrammes of waste is incinerated or sent to European landfill sites each year. Researchers at the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence have created a new starch-based adhesive which allows the layers to be separated and recycled.

The Centre’s director, Professor James Clark, said: “Carpet tiles are becoming increasingly popular so it is important we find ways of producing them in a more sustainable way. The results of our research provide a potential solution to a serious waste problem.”

Scientists at the University are also working on a new alternative biofuel made from grass cuttings and leftovers from the average family dinner table.

“The University of York has one of largest groups of environmental researchers in the UK, working in a wide range of departments across the spectrum in the sciences, social sciences and humanities.”

University Press Officer
David Garner

After winning grants worth £1.5 million, the team of scientists have since been attempting to put their findings into practice. Some of the money has been spent on a laboratory, which will open later this month. The laboratory houses a microwave which contains pellets which are heated quickly, but at low temperatures, a process called pyrolysis, where organic materials known as biomass are heated without air in a reactor.

Dr Budarin, one of the scientists working on the project, said: “There are a couple of other groups working around the world who focused on microwaves as being great heaters. But our research is different because we discovered that pyrolysis occurs at lower temperatures than previously thought, so we use the microwave as a catalyst for the process not for its high temperatures. And this is important because at 500 degrees you need very expensive equipment. We don’t, and that is a massive improvement.”

J. Clarke, the leader of the experiment, said: “Pyrolysis is traditionally thought of as a high temperature activity. But from our previous microwave research, we knew some chemical transformations could be carried out more selectively at lower temperatures. This is because of specific interactions between the molecules and the microwaves. Now we have shown that we can use microwaves to convert biomass such as straws into valuable products very quickly and at remarkably low temperatures.”

Regarding the University’s recent environmental initiative, YUSU Environment and Ethics Officer, David Clarke, said: “We can all be proud of the University’s research into methods to improve our impact on the environment. Tackling climate change and making our lives more sustainable relies on utilising cutting edge science; this technological advancement has the potential to have a worldwide impact.”

University Press Officer, David Garner, cited York’s improvements as a leading source of research for environmental issues: “The University of York has one of the largest groups of environmental researchers in the UK, working in a wide range of departments across the spectrum in the sciences, social sciences and humanities.

“The University is establishing a York Environmental Sustainability Institute which will help to co-ordinate work across different disciplines involving nearly 100 researchers. The University is also a key player in the Centre for Low Carbon Futures which sets out to provide assistance to regional and international business with the practical application of new technologies into to useable products.”

Garner added: “It also seeks to change behaviours – the way we live in a low carbon society, drawing on the social sciences, natural sciences, engineering and economics research power of York and our fellow regional universities.” This follows Nouse’s report last month, which detailed how YUSU reached the NUS’ Bronze standard in the Sound Environment Impact Awards, a ceremony designed to commend, display and promote environmentally beneficial initiatives and innovations undertaken by Students’ Unions across the UK.

Clarke continued: “It’s important that the University extends this innovative approach to its own efforts to become more sustainable. It is the first UK institution to commission a comprehensive study into its carbon footprint, and that’s a great start. The challenge is to ensure that effective action is taken on the findings of this study.”

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