Plastic waste could be turned into clean fuels, other products

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THE United Nations estimates that more than 8 million tons of plastics flow into the oceans each year. A new chemical conversion process could transform the world’s polyolefin waste, a form of plastic, into useful products, such as clean fuels and other items.

“Our strategy is to create a driving force for recycling by converting polyolefin waste into a wide range of valuable products, including polymers, naphtha (a mixture of hydrocarbons), or clean fuels,” said Linda Wang, the Maxine Spencer NicholsProfessor in the Davidson School of Chemical Engineering at Purdue University and leader of the research team developing this technology. “Our conversion technology has the potential to
boost the profits of the recycling industry and shrink the world’s plastic waste stock.”

Wang, Kai Jin, a graduate student, and Wan-Ting (Grace) Chen, a postdoctoral researcher at Purdue, are the inventors of the technology, which can convert more than 90 per cent of polyolefin waste into many different products, including pure polymers, naphtha, fuels, or monomers.

The team is collaborating with Gozdem Kilaz, an assistant professor in the School of Engineering Technology, and her doctoral research assistant, Petr
Vozka, in the Fuel Laboratory of Renewable Energy of the School of Engineering Technology, to optimize the conversion process to produce high-quality gasoline or diesel fuels.

The conversion process incorporates selective extraction and hydrothermal liquefaction. Once the plastic is converted into naphtha, it can be used as a feedstock for other chemicals or further separated into specialty solvents or other products. The clean fuels derived from the polyolefin waste generated each year can satisfy 4 per cent of the annual demand for gasoline or diesel fuels. Some results of Wang’s study were published Jan. 29 in ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering.

Wang became inspired to create this technology after reading about the plastic waste pollution of the oceans, ground water, and the environment. Of
all the plastics produced over the past 65 years (8.3 billion tons), about 12 per cent have been incinerated and only nine per cent have been recycled.

The remaining 79 per cent have gone into landfills or the oceans. The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050 the oceans will hold more plastic waste than fish if the waste continues to be dumped into bodies of water. Wang said the technology could convert up to 90 per cent of the polyolefin plastic.