Plastic to Energy





Bales of crushed PET plastic bottles. Image by Matthewdikmans.

Bales of crushed PET plastic bottles. Image by Matthewdikmans. License: GNU FDL

Plastic can be used for energy in a few different ways. The most obvious way and one you’re probably quite familiar with is recycling. This saves tons of energy in the form of materials and labor used to harvest them. However, what I’m more concerned about for this article is converting plastic into oil and using synthetic oils to create plastic. Both of these are relatively new concepts that have only been tested in laboratory settings. Commercial scale operations are still quite a ways off. With the abundance of plastic that ends up in landfills and the ocean though this could be a great new alternative energy source. Especially if oil created from waste plastic could be refined to produce gasoline and other useful hydrocarbons.

First let’s talk about converting plastic into oil. There are a handful of facilities that produce oil from waste plastics and they all use different techniques. One company is using catalytic pyrolysis to convert plastics. A single “module” or building unit can produce over 700 litres of oil out of every ton of plastic waste that is processed. The entire system can process between 200 and 400 tons in a month so there is a considerable amount of oil that can be obtained. If more plastic needs to be converted then additional buildings can be built. The system is designed to be self contained so additional units can be built for expansion.

Here is a video fly through of a waste plastics to bio oil facility located in Korea. Skip ahead to one minute where the actual facility part starts. Although it’s lacking descriptions it is pretty clear what the process is.

Creating plastic with synthetic oil or artificial oils.

This is a very new technique that is only just starting to be used for commercial development of oil and plastics. The idea behind it is actually quite simple. Biomass with specific bacteria added will break down into gasoline or diesel fuel. Overall the goal is to eventually be able to produce a variety of hydrocarbons which plastics could be made from. Right now the company that is bringing this into production plans to have products on the market by the second quarter of 2009.

In addition to creating plastic from synthetic oil there have been a variety of attempts to replace plastic with other materials. For example, a company is using wood sawdust chemically altered to produce a plastic like material. Cullulose has been used to create plastic bottles and bags that are also biodegradable. All of these technologies will have a place in replacing and updating our ideas of what plastic should be used for.

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Comments

  1. Leslie Stevens says:

    This is Awesome! Recently I saw some pieces on shows like CNN and the journal with Joan Lunden on PBS that were talking about issues and solutions for industrial recycling. This kind of thing takes it to the next level. Of course it’s not as good as eliminating oil altogether but it will help get rid of some of the waste for now. I hope they do well.

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