Go to work on a Christmas card

December 23, 2011

If all the UK's discarded wrapping paper and Christmas cards were collected and fermented, they could make enough biofuel to run a double-decker bus to the moon and back more than 20 times, according to the researchers behind a new scientific study.

The study, by scientists at Imperial College London, demonstrates that industrial quantities of waste paper could be turned into high grade biofuel, to power motor vehicles, by fermenting the paper using microorganisms. The researchers hope that biofuels made from waste paper could ultimately provide one alternative to like diesel and petrol, in turn reducing the impact of fossil fuels on the environment.

According to some estimates 1.5 billion cards and 83 square kilometres of wrapping paper are thrown away by UK residents over the Christmas period. They currently go to landfill or are recycled in local schemes. This amount of paper could provide 5-12 million litres of biofuel, say the researchers, enough to run a bus for up to 18 million km.

"If one card is assumed to weigh 20g and one square metre of wrapping paper is 10g, then around 38,300 tonnes of extra paper waste will be generated at Christmas time," said study author Dr Richard Murphy from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London. "Our research shows that it would be feasible to build waste paper-to-biofuel processing plants that give energy back as transport fuel."

Co-author and PhD student Lei Wang, also from Imperial's Department of Life Sciences, said: "The could even cope with festive paper and card which has been 'contaminated' with the likes of glitter and sellotape. The molecules in sellotape would be broken down into glucose sugars and then fermented into , just like the paper itself. Insoluble items like glitter are easy to filter out as part of the process."

Dr Murphy added: "People should not stop recycling their discarded paper and Christmas cards because at the moment there is no better solution. However, if this technology can be developed further, waste paper might ultimately provide a great, environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels. There's more work to do to assess the effectiveness and benefits of the technology, but we think it has significant potential."

In the study, published this month in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Energy and Environmental Science, the researchers describe how they fermented different types of paper and cardboard in the laboratory to assess how chemically and economically feasible it is to turn them into ethanol fuel. They found that it is not only possible in laboratory experiments but should be economically viable on a large scale as well.

Across the year, around 60 per cent of the UK's waste paper is collected for recycling or other waste management schemes, which equates to around 8 million tonnes. The scientists say that using a well-tested fermentation method and a novel cocktail of efficient and cheap chemical enzymes, their system could be scaled up to the size of existing industrial processing plants and be used to convert 2000 tonnes of waste paper per day into biofuels.

There is already an urgent need for councils to prevent reusable materials like cardboard and paper being sent to landfill sites, saving money and avoiding unnecessary waste, a message echoed by the Mayor of London Boris Johnson in a speech about Recycle for London's Nice Save campaign this week. This new research shows that in addition to recycling, waste materials can be used to generate energy, and some of that can be as valuable vehicle fuel.

High grade ethanol, such as that made in this study, can be (and already is) blended with fossil-based petrol to make a fuel with lower greenhouse gas balance than conventional petrol for cars and vans, and can also be used to power large diesel vehicles like buses and trucks, if modifications are made to their engines. This approach is already used in Brazil, the USA and the EU, among other regions, where ethanol biofuels are being made from sugar cane, grain and other crops. Most of the UK's is currently imported from abroad.

The authors of this study are now analysing the environmental performance of bioethanol made from waste paper using life cycle assessment (LCA) and comparing it with the conventional transport fuel petrol. LCA is an environmental management tool that evaluates the 'cradle-to-grave' effects of a product for its influence on a range of environmental impact categories, including its ability to contribute to climate change or soil acidification or to cause algal blooms in fresh water.

Explore further: Technological breakthrough in the fight to cut greenhouse gases

More information: Wang L, Sharifzadeh M, Templer R and Murphy RJ "Technology performance and economic feasibility of bioethanol production from various waste papers" is published in Energy and Environmental Science DOI: 10.1039/C2EE02935A

Related Stories

Technological breakthrough in the fight to cut greenhouse gases

April 24, 2008

Scientists at Newcastle University have pioneered breakthrough technology in the fight to cut greenhouse gases. The Newcastle University team, led by Michael North, Professor of Organic Chemistry, has developed a highly energy-efficient ...

Powered by olive stones? Turning waste stones into fuel

October 29, 2008

Olive stones can be turned into bioethanol, a renewable fuel that can be produced from plant matter and used as an alternative to petrol or diesel. This gives the olive processing industry an opportunity to make valuable ...

Is trash the solution to tackling climate change?

September 29, 2009

Converting the trash that fills the world's landfills into biofuel may be the answer to both the growing energy crisis and to tackling carbon emissions, claim scientists in Singapore and Switzerland. New research published ...

Biotech firm launches new fuel enzyme

February 16, 2010

A Danish biotechnology company on Tuesday launched a new enzyme which it said will make it possible to turn agricultural waste into biofuel at a competitive price.

Recommended for you

Internet giants race to faster mobile news apps

October 4, 2015

US tech giants are turning to the news in their competition for mobile users, developing new, faster ways to deliver content, but the benefits for struggling media outlets remain unclear.

Radio frequency 'harvesting' tech unveiled in UK

September 30, 2015

An energy harvesting technology that its developers say will be able to turn ambient radio frequency waves into usable electricity to charge low power devices was unveiled in London on Wednesday.

Professors say US has fallen behind on offshore wind power

September 29, 2015

University of Delaware faculty from the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment (CEOE), the College of Engineering and the Alfred Lerner School of Business and Economics say that the U.S. has fallen behind in offshore wind ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.