A use for your dirty household foil: Breakthrough technique converts binned aluminium into a chemical that speeds up the creation of biofuels

A pioneering technique to convert binned aluminium foil into an ingredient in biofuel production could help solve global waste and energy problems.

Scientists have developed a method to transform dirty household foil, discarded after cooking, into a chemical catalyst that can rapidly speed up the process of making green fuels such as dimethyl ether.

Around 20,000 tonnes of aluminium foil packaging is wasted each year - enough to stretch to the moon and back.

Most of this is land fill or incinerated as it is usually contaminated by grease and oils, which can damage recycling equipment.

Working with engineers, Ahmed Osman, from Queen's University's School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering has developed a crystallisation method to obtain pure aluminium salt crystals from the foil.

The crystals can be used in the production of alumina biofuel catalyst.

That type of alumina usually comes from bauxite ore, which is mined in places such as West Africa, the West Indies and Australia, with major environmental consequences.

Mr Osman, who took on the project under the university's Sustainable Energy, Pioneering Research Programme, believes he has created a solution that is more environmentally-friendly, effective and cheaper than the commercial catalyst.

His research has been published in Nature Scientific Reports.

Mr Ahmed was walking through the laboratories at Queen's and found lots of aluminium foil waste which got him thinking about what could be done about it.

'I have always been inspired by chemistry and I believe that catalysis especially can make the world a better place,' said Mr Ahmed.

'I did a little digging and after speaking to my colleagues, I ran my experiment and was astonished by the ultrapure single crystals', he said. 

'I didn't expect it to be 100 per cent pure', he added.

Mr Ahmed hopes his work will 'reduce the amount of aluminium foil going to landfill while also sidestepping the environmental damage associated with mining bauxite.'

It is also significant as the alumina is more pure than its commercial counterpart.

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