Converting Plastic Waste to Fuel

By Isabel Serna Published on Apr. 25, 2023

How can more companies get involved in the fight to end plastic waste? There are already so many packaging, sorting, and plastic collection companies, but what else can ignite change?

A modern office can produce a considerable amount of waste, ranging from plastic packaging to small or medium-sized electronic devices. These products are sometimes difficult to separate and recycle properly. Almost a quarter of all plastic products are made with polypropylene, thankfully, researchers have come up with a way to convert polypropylene products into oil and fuel.

“In 2014 we hauled an estimated 32 million metric tons of food waste resources to landfills, or about 70 trillion pounds of waste, according to the Department of Energy.” Said Uisung Lee, an energy systems analyst at Argonne National Laboratory.

Why turn plastic to fuel?

It has been found that less than 5% of manufactured plastic is recycled each year. The remaining 95% riddles our ocean and, according to specialists, it would take more than 450 years to biodegrade, if it ever did.

The facilities that would partake in the plastic-to-fuel transformation have the potential to bring upwards of 39,000 new jobs and almost $9 billion in economic output. This could improve our economy while also providing new ways to reuse plastic and save our environment.

The plastic-to-fuel transformation has the potential to bring upwards of 39,000 new jobs and almost $9 billion in economic output.

According to Power Technology, this new method could also be cheaper than current recycling methods. Currently, it costs upwards of $4,000 to recycle one tonne of plastic bags - this often leads to burning plastic or disposing of it in a landfill to avoid these high expenses.

Chemical recycling is much simpler. When you heat everything at high temperatures, there is no need to pre-sort the waste.

Different techniques of conversion

One of the most popular processes in converting plastic waste into fuel is called pyrolysis. This technique requires heating the plastics at a very high temperature. Materials are separated, which makes it possible to reuse them in an eco-friendly way.

Researchers at Purdue University have found a different technique called hydrothermal processing. This process places polypropylene in a reactor filled with water, heating it to extremely high temperatures - ranging from 380-500 degrees Celsius. At this high heat and pressure, water breaks down the plastic and converts it into oil. Most plastics are originally made from oil, so this process brings them back to their original form.

Converting plastic to hydrogen

In 2018, researchers at Swansea University discovered a way to turn plastic waste into hydrogen fuel, stating that this may one day be able to power vehicles.

The team discovered that they could add a light-absorbing photo catalyst to plastic products - a material that absorbs sunlight and transforms it into chemical energy in a process called photo-reforming. The combination of plastic and catalyst was left in an alkaline solution which was exposed to sunlight, breaking down the material and producing bubbles of hydrogen gas in the process.

Converting plastic to diesel

In collaboration with researchers from the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry, Chemists from the University of California discovered an innovative recycling method that dissolves bonds of polyethylene plastic to create petroleum and other fuel products.

Led by UC Irvine chemist Zhibin Guan, the team used alkanes, a type of hydrocarbon molecule, to produce polymers. After a long process of testing and researching, the team was able to find that removing and adding bonds between the carbon-hydrogen atoms within the material allowed them to restructure the polyethylene into a liquid fuel that can be used in cars or other industrial purposes.

Converting plastic to crude oil

A team of researchers from Illinois Sustainable Technology Center B.K., along with the US Department of Agriculture, have successfully converted plastic bags into fuel.

By using high-density polyethylene bags from local retailers and feeding them into a pyrolysis unit, they were able to create plastic crude oil, also known as PCO. As a result, they distilled the PCO to make gasoline and two different types of diesel.

Converting plastic to sulphur

Plastic2Oil, a US firm, works to turn plastic into sulfur fuel by using the discarded material as feedstock to create an ultra-low sulfur diesel. Today, ultra-low sulfur diesel is mainly produced from petroleum. However, this firm also provides a viable alternative with its plastic-derived fuel. Minimal energy is required for this technique, since the processor uses its off-gases as fuel.

What are the advantages

Some advantages of converting plastic waste into fuel include:

  • Relatively low-cost
  • The plants that convert waste to fuel are producing fuels from combustible materials, which are either hard to recycle or non-recyclable, preventing those materials from ending up in a landfill.
  • The produced fuels can be tailored to a certain need, such as transportation, where heat is required. This makes them suitable alternatives to fossil fuels.
  • It can be burned with a lower carbon footprint than fossil fuels
  • There is potential to expand the materials used to metal waste and others that may not be easily recyclable.

These are just some of the many benefits that converting waste into fuel can have on our environment and our ecosystems.

What are the challenges

Some of the challenges that come along with the conversion of waste to fuel are:

  • Concerns around health risks due to energy recovery from the waste.
    • Burning solid fuel can release nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxides, particulate matter, and other harmful pollutants.
  • Some countries such as Sweden are worried because they rely on importing garbage from other European nations.
  • The recycling industry is concerned that plastic waste-to-fuel will damage or undermine the economy of other waste-to-fuel processes, such as solid waste-to-fuel.

Plastic to fuel companies

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BRADAM’s Carbon Energy Recovery process can safely and efficiently process non-recyclable plastics and convert them into electricity and synthetic natural gas for homes and businesses.

It can also produce large quantities of hydrogen, which can be used in fuel cells to power automobiles and support the electric grid. This firm is even working on a process that can produce the raw materials used to produce plastics from non-recyclable plastics, creating a circular economy using waste to produce new products without needing fossil fuels.

The BRADAM Carbon Energy Recovery system creates energy from waste using a revolutionary process that is highly efficient, economical, and environmentally friendly.

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Energy-efficient, low-emission pyrolysis can be used to convert traditionally non-recyclable plastics into profitable fuels and chemicals. Clean fuels produced by the Resynergi system are an alternative to refined oil products.

Our low carbon-intensity fuels are extracted from waste, not the earth. Our process produces 60% Less GHG emissions for diesel compared to fossil fuel extraction and refining.

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Sierra Energy’s FastOx gasification eliminates the need for landfills. Household trash, hazardous waste, tires, medical waste, and construction and demolition materials are converted into energy, safely and responsibly.

Sierra Energy is focused on the development of FastOx® gasification, a technology that turns trash into energy without burning. The company continues to advance its technology and test new applications for gasification at the Sierra Energy Research Park in Davis, California.

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Blue Sphere transforms tons of agricultural, municipal, and industrial waste into sustainable clean energy and other by-products. Over time, independent power producers such as Blue Sphere will replace the need for environmentally harmful landfills that pollute our soil, underground water tables, and atmosphere.

Instead of burying organic waste, Blue Sphere transforms these harmful materials into sustainable clean energy, helping to eliminate the release of damaging greenhouse gases.

If you would like to learn more about our partnership with the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and our End Plastic Waste initiative, visit us here

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Identifying the problem and putting an end to plastic waste.

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