LMU researchers have developed a new process which will greatly simplify the process of sorting plastics in recycling plants. The method enables automated identification of polymers, facilitating rapid separation of plastics for re-use.
A team of researchers led by Professor Heinz Langhals of LMU’s Department of Chemistry has taken a significant step which promises to markedly expedite the recycling of plastic waste. They have developed a technique which provides for automated recognition of their polymer constituents, thus improving the efficiency of recycling and re-use of the various types of plastic. The technique takes advantage of the polymer-specific nature of the intrinsic fluorescence induced by photoexcitation. “Plastics emit fluorescent light when exposed to a brief flash of light, and the emission decays with time in a distinctive pattern. Thus, their fluorescence lifetimes are highly characteristic for the different types of polymers, and can serve as an identifying fingerprint,” Langhals explains. Details of the new method appear in the latest issue of the journal “Green and Sustainable Chemistry”.
The new technique, which is the subject of a patent application, involves exposing particles of plastic to a brief flash of light which causes the material to fluoresce. Photoelectric sensors then measure the intensity of the light emitted in response to the inducing photoexcitation to determine the dynamics of its decay. Because the different polymer materials used in the manufacture of plastics display specific fluorescence lifetimes, the form of the decay curve can be used to identify their chemical nature. “With this process, errors in measurement are practically ruled out; for any given material, one will always obtain the same value for the fluorescence half-life, just as in the case of radioactive decay,” says Langhals.