Turning plastic waste into carbon nanotubes

Welsh-based startup TrimTabs has developed an innovative process to upcycle waste polymers into a light, super-strong composite material with applications in the energy storage and transmission, automotive, construction, electronics, medical and aerospace industries. 

Trim Tabs leadership: David Ryan and Professor Alvin Orbaek White
Trim Tabs leadership team: David Ryan and Professor Alvin Orbaek White
Plastic waste is a growing global challenge, with millions of tonnes disposed of every year. It is perhaps the most totemic waste problem of our age. Despite increasing efforts to improve recycling rates, many types of plastic remain difficult or uneconomical to recycle, demanding innovative solutions.

One company taking a novel approach to this is TrimTabs, a UK-based startup that has developed a process to turn plastic waste into high-value carbon nanotubes. By harnessing the inherent value in discarded plastics, TrimTabs aims to commercialise a new option for the circular economy, addressing the environmental burden of some waste plastics.

The potential applications using carbon nanotubes are vast, from enhancing the performance of lithium-ion batteries to creating stronger, lighter composites for industries like aerospace and automotive. The use of nanotubes in electronic components, solar cells, and water filtration systems also holds significant promise.

The idea behind TrimTabs originated with founder and CEO Prof. Alvin Orbaek White, whose background spans physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, and chemical engineering. "I was working on a Ph.D. program in Barcelona, where we were making a device that will go to the moon and turn lunar regolith, moon soil, into solar cells and breathing oxygen," Prof. Orbaek White explains. "In order to do that, in space physics, you really need robust, lightweight materials that have long durability. And there was one critical material that was capable of doing this - carbon nanotubes."

Prof. Orbaek White's fascination with carbon nanotubes led him to Rice University, where he was inspired by the late Professor Richard Smalley, a Nobel laureate for his work on buckminsterfullerene (soccer ball-shaped carbon molecule). Under the supervision of Professor Andrew Baron "I learned to make carbon nanotubes and was just totally enamoured by them," Orbaek White recalls. "They're light like ash but have tensile strength 100 times greater than steel. So I thought to myself, this is a magic material."

It was during a meeting with the Welsh Government about opportunities in India that Orbaek White considered moving forward on his ideas about the potential for using waste plastics as a feedstock to produce carbon nanotubes.  "I knew instinctively as a chemist that plastics can be a very viable source of carbon for making carbon nanotubes, but I didn't have the data."

After the meeting, Prof. Orbaek White bought some black plastic meat trays from a supermarket and asked his postdoc to run experiments comparing the carbon nanotube yield with and without the black plastic. "He came back and said it worked," Orbaek White says. "We quickly filed a patent, created TrimTabs as a commercial entity to support that patent, and I was invited to Westminster to present, which further validated the idea."

At the heart of TrimTabs' technology is a two-step process that allows the use of mixed plastic waste. The first step involves mixing the plastic with solvents, which helps to break down the polymers and remove contaminants. "Anything that's not soluble in that mixture is going to fall out," Prof. Orbeak White explains. "That's a natural way of separating things that are going to be useful for growth from things that are not."

The second step is a growth phase, where the concentrated plastic-solvent combination is heated to high temperatures, typically around 900-950°C, to produce carbon nanotubes. "It's really two steps," Prof. Orbaek White explains. "One is mixing the plastics and the solvents, and the second step is the growth, using this plastic soup as the feedstock."

This approach offers several key advantages, including the ability to use a wide range of plastic types and tune the properties of the resulting nanotubes. "By using different loadings of plastics, we get a higher density of nanotube product," Orbaek White explains. "With polystyrene, for example, we've shown that increasing the loading leads to a corresponding increase in nanotube mass."

To date, TrimTabs has successfully tested their process with polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, PVC, polyurethane, and even multilayer films in Ostomy bags. "In theory, our technology could handle over 200 potential plastic feedstocks," Prof. Orbaek White suggests. "But in practice, it comes down to finding the right commercial partners with a reliable supply of suitable plastic." 

While some pre-treatment may be necessary for highly contaminated or mixed plastic waste, the solvent mixing stage can handle a degree of impurities. "If the plastic is quite pure, like polystyrene packaging, we're confident we can process it," Prof. Orbaek White explains. "The more mixed and dirty the plastic waste, the more pre-treatment required. So we're choosing our initial target waste streams carefully, focusing on cleaner scrap from manufacturing."

To scale up its impact, TrimTabs is actively partnering with industry to secure reliable sources of carbon feedstock. "From a logistics and commercial point of view, it's definitely easier to work with plastic waste streams direct from manufacturers," OrbaekWhite explains. "The material is already segregated at source. In contrast, post-consumer plastic waste is often mixed and contaminated, so collection and sorting becomes much harder."

By focusing on collaborations with manufacturers, TrimTabs aims to divert relatively clean plastic waste from landfill and create a closed-loop system. This approach offers several benefits for waste producers, including reducing disposal costs and improving their sustainability credentials. 

Production pilot

"We've had a number of companies come to us with their plastic waste, interested in understanding if it's suitable within our process," Orbaek White shares. "There's a real appetite to find alternatives to landfill and turn waste into value. We're in discussions with potential partners across industries like healthcare and food packaging."

To support these collaborations and scale up production, TrimTabs has established a pilot plant in Bridgend, Wales. This facility serves multiple purposes, from ongoing process optimisation to producing bespoke carbon nanotubes for customer applications.

TrimTabs recently announced that it has reached a key milestone for this: the function testing of the carbon nanotube production unit, designed and built by specialist engineering company Engsolve Ltd, has been completed, and the unit has been handed over to TrimTabs for commissioning trials where they recently completed the factory acceptance test.

This progress has been enabled by a 'SMART Capital Equipment Fund' grant from the Welsh Government. The new state-of-the-art production unit marks the final step in commercialising TrimTabs' patented production system.

"The Bridgend plant allows us to build on our lab work and push the boundaries of what's possible," Prof. Orbaek White says. "We'll start with multi-wall nanotubes, which are the easiest to produce, and then move on to single-wall, ultra-long nanotubes, and eventually, we even plan on tuning the chirality to get specific electrical properties." 

Another key focus of the pilot plant is toll manufacturing - producing customised nanotubes to meet the specific needs of industrial partners. "By understanding our customers' requirements, we can tailor the plastic feedstocks and process parameters to deliver bespoke products," Prof. Orbaek White says. "That level of agility and customisation is rare in the industry today."

Generating revenue from nanotube sales is also crucial for TrimTabs' long-term growth. "The vision is widespread adoption of waste-derived nanotubes in applications like batteries, electronics, and composites," Prof. Orbaek White shares. "But that needs time and investment. Ongoing sales will help sustain us through the scale-up phase." 

The carbon nanotube market today faces significant limitations in terms of supply, customisation, and price. A handful of large players produce nanotubes with set properties, offering little flexibility for specific applications. Prices also remain high, especially for lower volumes.

TrimTabs aims to disrupt this by offering tailored products derived from waste feedstocks. "Our plant is designed to produce bespoke carbon nanotubes from plastic waste, with a clear path to full commercial scale," Prof. Orbaek White explains. "By collaborating closely with customers to meet their technical needs, we can enable them to innovate and gain a competitive edge in their field."

"If major manufacturers adopt our carbon nanotubes, we could see a step-change in performance across multiple industries," Prof. Orbaek White suggests. "A computer with our nanotubes in the circuitry could be faster and more energy-efficient. An electric vehicle with our nanotubes in the battery could have longer range and faster charging times." 

As the Bridgend facility ramps up production and TrimTabs forms new partnerships, the company is well-positioned to seize these market opportunities. By offering a unique combination of customisation, scalability, and environmental benefits, TrimTabs is poised to become a key player in the growing carbon nanotube industry.

"Our goal is to be the go-to supplier for bespoke carbon nanotubes," Prof. Orbaek White summarises. "At the end of the day, we are not a waste management company; our business is the production of high-quality atomically-precise nanomaterials". "By working closely with our customers and delivering tailored solutions, we can enable them to innovate and succeed while making a positive impact on the planet. It's a win-win proposition."

Beyond the commercial potential, TrimTabs' technology also promises significant environmental benefits. By turning plastic waste into valuable carbon nanotubes, the company can divert substantial volumes of plastic from landfills and incinerators. 

"Each tonne of our nanotubes could prevent 50-100 tons of plastic waste from ending up in landfills," Prof. Orbaek White estimates. "At scale, we have the potential to make a real dent in the global plastic waste problem, while also displacing the need for virgin fossil feedstocks which all results in reducing carbon emissions."

The positive environmental impact of TrimTabs' process is twofold. First, by providing a viable alternative to landfill and incineration, it can reduce the direct environmental harm caused by plastic waste, such as marine pollution and microplastic accumulation. Second, by replacing virgin fossil feedstocks with recycled carbon from waste plastics, it can help to lower the carbon footprint of nanotube production and the multitude of downstream industries that utilise them.

Moreover, the success of TrimTabs' approach could inspire further innovation in valorising waste streams. "We're demonstrating that it's possible to create high-value products from mixed plastic waste," Prof. Orbaek White observes. "We do this by making carbon nanotubes, what other opportunities are out there? We hope our technology can catalyse a broader shift towards viewing waste as a resource."

To fully realise this potential, collaboration and support from key stakeholders will be crucial. TrimTabs is actively seeking partnerships with sustainability-focused companies across various sectors, from packaging and consumer goods to electronics and energy storage. These collaborations can provide a reliable source of clean plastic waste feedstock, while also creating opportunities for joint product development and commercialisation. 

Government policies that incentivise plastic recycling and support innovative solutions like their technology will also play a vital role. "We need a policy environment that recognises the value of diverting waste from landfill and encourages the development of new technologies and business models," Prof. Orbaek White suggests. "This could include everything from extended producer responsibility schemes and tax incentives for recycled content to direct funding for R&D and pilot projects."

TrimTabs' success to date is a testament to the power of collaboration, with the company already engaging with a range of partners, from universities and research institutions to waste management companies and product manufacturers in the battery industry. As the Bridgend plant comes online and production scales up, the company is actively seeking new partnerships and customers to drive further growth and impact.

"We can't do this alone," Orbaek White acknowledges. "It will take a collective effort from waste producers, manufacturers, policymakers, and consumers to build a truly circular economy. We're excited to work with partners who share our vision of turning waste into value and creating a more sustainable future." 

For waste management professionals, TrimTabs' technology represents a unique opportunity to be at the forefront of this transition. By providing clean, segregated plastic waste streams, waste managers can play a key role in supplying the feedstocks needed to produce high-value carbon nanotubes. In turn, this can create new revenue streams, reduce disposal costs, and enhance the sector's sustainability credentials.

"Our technology is about more than just making carbon nanotubes," Orbaek White concludes. "It's about demonstrating that waste is not a problem, but an opportunity. By working together to valorise our waste streams, we can create a more sustainable and prosperous future for all."