New technique turns common plastic waste into fuel

Researchers have devised a way to recycle plastic waste into usable liquid fuel
Researchers have devised a way to recycle plastic waste into usable liquid fuel
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Researchers have devised a way to recycle plastic waste into usable liquid fuel
Researchers have devised a way to recycle plastic waste into usable liquid fuel

Polyethylene, the plastic and its derivatives used in making the majority of the world's disposable beverage containers, is produced at a staggering volume of over 100 million metric tons each year, most of which ends up in landfills. Now scientists from the University of California, Irvine (UCI), and the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry (SIOC) in China have found a way to turn this waste into a usable liquid fuel.

"Synthetic plastics are a fundamental part of modern life, but our use of them in large volume has created serious environmental problems," says UCI chemist Zhibin Guan. "Our goal through this research was to address the issue of plastic pollution as well as achieving a beneficial outcome of creating a new source of liquid fuel."

High-density polyethylene (HDPE), low-density PE (LDPE) and linear low-density PE (LLDPE), are the types of polyethylene used in beverage and food containers because their chemical composition makes them inert and, therefore, not likely to degrade or interact with any of the chemicals normally found in things we're going to eat. Unfortunately, this also means that because they don't react to most chemical compounds, they are not readily or easily broken down by substances generally applied to other recyclable materials.

This fact has often led to various alternative methods of recycling, or upcycling plastic bottles into everything from plastic pellets to make snack bags, plastic string to be woven into other products, and entire villages made of plastic bottle houses.

Unfortunately, the standard industrial method to recycle such plastic waste usually involves less "friendly" forms of disposal. In fact, standard methods probably cause more harm than good as they employ caustic chemicals or require heating the materials to more than 700° F (370° C) to fracture the polymer's chemical bonds, and produce harmful by-products such as hydrocarbon gas, oil, wax, and char in uncontrolled amounts in the process.

To help create a better industrial-scale method of recycling and chemical recovery, researchers from a joint US-China collaboration project at UIC and SIOC have come up with a new method to break down polyethylene that produces fewer toxic by-products and more useful compounds.

Using by-products of petrochemical production known as alkanes (saturated hydrocarbons where the hydrogen and carbon atoms are arranged in a branched formation in which all of the carbon to carbon connections are single bonds), the scientists were able to separate and reconstitute the polymer molecules into other useful compounds.

The process is what is know as cross-alkane metathesis, which is essentially a double-dissolution chemical reaction where two parts of two substances form two new substances. In this case, the technique selectively degrades a range of PE plastics into fuels and waxes under milder conditions and in a more controlled manner than in current industrial processes of plastic breakdown and recovery. In fact, according to the researchers, the new method can completely degrade PE compounds into usable oils and waxes in only one day at just 347° F (175° C).

Future work will see the researchers addressing efficiencies, including increasing catalyst activity and lifetime, reducing running costs, and evolving the processes to help turn other types of plastic waste into usable products.

The results of this research were recently published in the journal Science Advances.

Source: UC Irvine

Turning Plastic waste into fuel will help not only the waste disposal issue faced by all the advanced countries but also the valuable fuel generated will help to ease the fuel costs and transportation. The scientists should be complimented for this unique research. All advanced (including India) countries should provide monetary support for this research that will help to reduce the overall cost and spped u the research early. A. S. Bhasker Raj Bangalore India
Does a solar oven come to mind to process this event?
How does putting inert plastic into a landfill cause environmental problems? A: It doesn't. It's called carbon sequestration. For the same reason we should not be burning waste wood products, but placing it in landfill as well.
I wonder how small the plant could be made? Small enough to stick into a ship? If it is, an autonomous ship that fuels itself off polyethylene would be a great help in clearing up the various garbage patches in the oceans.
Just so everyone is aware, this isn't a new idea and technology that can convert plastic into fuel has been around for awhile now, I'm not 100% sure how long but im guessing about a decade. I know I was watching a publicly traded company that was opening plants in the US for converting plastic waste to fuel, and i discovered they weren't the only ones doing this. This was a couple years ago I was watching them, I don't know what happened to them but I think the initials were JVR or something like that. Anyways, this idea of either turning plastic into fuel, or creating organisms that can infact break down plastic(which is another area of research that shows promise) is very important, not only so we can eliminate a source of potential pollution for future generations, but also as a way of recycling resources that have been dug up and are now in essense locked away in landfills as certain resources start to dwindle. The future of the human race depends on us being able to recycle effectively otherwise we will use up all the easy to get resources and will be left with nothing. But this particular technology, atleast plastic to fuel has been around for awhile and has had problems becoming mainstream for various reasons, maby this article is talking about a technology that is slightly or greatly different, but regardless its not new, but in anycase I hope any technology in this regard makes it to market and develops widescale implementation.
At that high a temperature there are going to be volatile compounds released into the air. With the cost of collecting the plastic and transporting it for reprocessing there is likely to be a net negative energy impact. The reality is that plastic cannot be truly recycled as can be done with metals, but only re-purposed into new plastic products, like turning plastic shopping bags into plastic decks which ultimately will end up in local land fill waste dumps.