Promising Research for Generating Hydrogen Fuel from Mask Waste

Promising Research for Generating Hydrogen Fuel from Mask Waste

Researchers are transforming COVID-19 mask waste into a clean hydrogen fuel source, paving the way for sustainable energy solutions and circular economies.

Reusable and disposable face masks litter sidewalks and landfills like permanent stamps from the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers and environmental advocates have been on the case to find a solution to this novel pollutant. Could mask waste actually be helpful? Based on findings in recent research, it might be the next clean fuel solution.

The Research Making Waves

Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) and Lithuanian Energy Institute (LEI) decided to take on the mask waste challenge. The waste-to-energy industry has two ways of making trash into power: make a solid turn into a liquid or a gas. They took ideas from what makes existing biomass energy effective now and optimized it for masks.

Arc plasma gasification became the vehicle for transforming shredded masks into a viable hydrogen fuel source. How? The technique produced a synthetic gas that experts can extract hydrogen from.

The process only loses about 5 percent compared to the amount of feedstock. Fortunately, there is enough gasification infrastructure that this could be a lucrative and eco-conscious path for energy companies.

Synthetic gases combine a few byproducts, like tar, and several popular gases, including carbon dioxide and methane. The reputation of these gases doesn’t bode well for positively impacting climate change. So the researchers wanted to amplify the hydrogen and lower the output of the rest of the elements. Testing yielded success, with hydrogen making up 49.21 percent of the ratio.

Additionally, soot is another byproduct able to be repurposed as carbon black — a boon for making numerous industries more circular, such as the automotive sector.

The Implications of This Research

Waste-to-energy (WTE) leaders should look to these academics for innovation inspiration. Top-polluting waste areas like cigarette filters and butts, e-waste, food wrappers and fishing ropes contaminate the world beyond imagination.

The research leveraged existing infrastructure and strategies to find a solution for a notable waste category, making it easier for other corporations to buy into the idea. The less startup capital and energy it needs to complete the project, the more likely it will break ground.

Countless tons and miles of trash could disappear from the Earth if industry leaders unravel item-specific transformations like KTU and LEI did. Who knows what cultural shift will happen in the coming years that will be responsible for dispersing the world’s next top litter culprit?

It will advance subgenres of this kind of research. Gasification is one method of WTE operations, but what about pyrolysis or anaerobic digestion? These fields need more financial and time investments into them to flourish because, right now, they need commercial scaling.

Another powerful side effect of making mask waste an energy source is it dismantles one prominent disadvantage of biomass generation: the land use argument. Using agricultural lands for growing biomass causes contention, and repurposing trash instead of minimizing crop yields is a plus for power companies.

The Uses for Mask Waste-Based Hydrogen

The transportation sector is working overtime to mitigate its hefty contributions to emissions. Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (EVs) are on the horizon once producing them becomes less expensive and more commercially accessible. Modern intense machinery like electrolyzers is out of reach for many green companies, while burning masks to extract hydrogen could be more approachable.

Fuel cells are versatile beyond just cars. Here are a few other industries that could level up by considering hydrogen power:

  • Boats and submarines
  • Rockets and shuttles
  • Home heating and cooling
  • Battery storage and grids
  • Data center regulation

The Inevitability of Circular Economies

The KTU and LEI research emphasizes that circular economic ideals motivated the research. A circular economy strives to close waste loops and make a product’s life cycle infinite, including widely used plastics in addition to masks.

In the case of surgical masks, gasification allows people to create an equally practical product after the mask’s usefulness is exhausted. It may not be for health care, but this is the expansive thinking the WTE sector and related industries need when considering trash reuse.

The paper discusses how its data could contribute to regulation advancement for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by:

  • Improving quality education by advancing technical and vocational ideas.
  • Helping life below water by eliminating pollutants damaging species and habitats.
  • Promoting reliable energy by introducing a new fuel source.
  • Minimizing poverty by opening up new job opportunities.

Transforming Public Perception of Mask Waste

This research rewrites history by taking a cultural icon — a clinical face mask associated with a global tragedy — and transforms it into a beacon of sustainable hope. Every item in the trash is an unexplored opportunity, which is why the research from KTU and LEI is so groundbreaking.

The WTE sector could be one of the most promising ways to transform the world’s trash and energy crisis, freeing up previously toxic lands and enabling communities toward green energy independence.

About the Author

Jane Marsh is an environmental writer. You can keep up with her work on her site