While a lot of people may be doing their part for the environment by sending their discarded plastic items off for recycling, the fact is that much of the plastic currently in use is non-recyclable. In a not particularly eco-friendly process, some of this plastic is burned to generate electricity, while much of it simply ends up in landfills. Canadian company JBI, however, has developed a process that uses those plastics as a feedstock, and turns them into fuel.
JBI's Plastic2Oil process starts with a variety of unwashed post-commercial and industrial non-recyclable plastics, which are fed through a shredder and a granulator - the system can handle up to 1,800 pounds (816.5 kg) at a time. It is then heated in a process chamber, after which it proceeds into the main reactor. There, a proprietary (read "secret") reusable catalyst is used to crack the plastic's hydrocarbons into shorter hydrocarbon chains, which exit the plastic in a gaseous state. Those gases are captured, compressed and stored.
Gases containing gasoline and diesel can be condensed and separated, the resulting liquid fuel then temporarily stored in tanks. Methane, ethane, butane and propane "off-gas" out of those tanks, and are subsequently compressed and stored themselves. The butane and propane liquefy upon compression, allowing them to be separated, stored and sold, while the others are used to help power the system. Emissions that make it into the atmosphere are said to be less than those that would be produced by a natural gas furnace.
The whole process, for one 1,800-pound load, reportedly takes less than an hour. According to JBI, almost 90 percent of the plastic's hydrocarbon content is captured and converted into fuel. Approximately two percent of the feedstock is left over as waste, which can be removed while the system is operating. It can then be dumped in a landfill, or burned for fuel, as it has a heating value of 10,600 BTU/lb (24,656 kJ/kg).
On June 14th, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation issued the permits necessary for JBI's Niagara Falls three-processor pilot plant to begin operations. The plant, which has a footprint of 1,000 square feet (93 sq. m.), is capable of processing 22 tons of plastic per day, and operates continuously.
The company now plans on opening up more Plastic2Oil plants, and will concentrate on building a few plants each containing several processors, as opposed to many plants each with one processor - this is said to make the most sense for keeping construction costs down, and for maximizing production capacity. Some of the plants will be managed and owned solely by JBI, while others will be run as joint ventures.
A similar system, that utilizes a fluidized bed reactor for converting non-recyclable plastics into a variety of products, is being developed by the University of Warwick in the UK.