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Sensing greenhouse gas emissions from weathering plastics using lab-on-the-sea technology

Prof. Nicole Pamme (UoH), Mike Rogerson (UoH), Bryony Caswell (UoH)

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As plastics pass through the Earth System after disposal, they weather. As the polymers gradually oxidise, they lose mass producing methane, ethane, ethene and associated gasses. These reactions are well known, but the fluxes being produced by environmental plastics and the changes in production rates at different stages in the weathering sequence of different polymers is not well constrained. These are greenhouse gases and thus major contributors to climate change, further exacerbating the enormous problems associated with inappropriate disposal of plastic litter. Capture of gas production fluxes is limited by the analytical science approaches used to measure them, which require manual handling, storage, transport and off-site mass spectrometry. This is expensive, time consuming and cannot be implemented as a monitoring array at useful spatial or temporal scales.

The aim of the project here is to develop new technology capable of being implemented as autonomous monitoring arrays in the natural environment. The student will build on the leading expertise of Prof. Pamme in developing analytical measurement systems based on microfluidic lab-on-a-chip technology, to invent gas sensing systems that can operate in an automated fashion on a deployable buoy and send data at regular intervals, a lab-on-the-sea. Prof. Rogerson will assist with geochemistry and experimental design elements, and Dr. Caswell will assist with implementation, and support investigation into the implications for marine pollution. 

The PhD student will carry research into the rates, temporal patterns and polymer-specific differences of methane, ethane and ethene emission by weathering plastic in the natural environment, and in analog experiments in the laboratory. Once the production of these gasses is properly characterised, they will scope colourimetric systems (similar to gas detection tubes) based on porous paper matrices for pre-concentration and sampling as well as small format optical spectroscopy systems. This will involve lab-based optimisation studies followed by in-situ studies using in situ floating experiments installed at the University of Hull Marine Science Field Centre at Spurn Head.

The deliverables of the project are internationally leading science characterising the greenhouses gas emission from weathering plastics, new technological development of innovative low-cost sensors for these gasses and the first deployment of an autonomous monitoring array capturing real-world diurnal and seasonal variability. In collaboration with our commercial partners, we will complete the project by exploring Knowledge Transfer and commercialisation possibilities of the new device(s).

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Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Atmospheric science
  • Chemical engineering
  • Chemistry
  • Earth science
  • Engineering
  • Environmental science
  • Forensic science
  • Geochemistry
  • Geophysics
  • Geoscience
  • Materials science
  • Natural sciences
  • Physics
  • Remote sensing