Plastic pyrolysis refers to converting plastics into other products by means of some thermal type treatment. An example of such technology would be a plastic-to-fuel (PTF) technology that would convert scrap plastic into fuels. The term “conversion technology” encompasses a broad range of technologies that are used to treat a wide variety of materials in the waste stream, including plastic. Those technologies include incineration, gasification, hydrolysis, anaerobic digestion, pyrolysis, and chemical feedstock recovery.
Recent revelations that a very large fraction of the polymers (plastics) that we recycle end up in landfills anyway have outraged some and raised widespread concern about the environmental impact. Add to this the island of plastic found floating in the ocean and the ban on the export of used plastics from the EU, and we have a crisis mentality on the issue. A variety of solutions are under investigation. Among these, polymer pyrolysis – thermochemical breakdown of the polymers into small molecular fragments – holds the most promise in terms of broad application, integration with existing infrastructure, and advancement.
Most commercially manufactured polymers consist of long chains of small repeating units, all of them derived from petroleum. They are designed to be extremely robust and versatile to perform their functions as packaging, containment, or coating. Plastics are also relatively inexpensive since they are derived from the most abundant raw material of the modern world: oil. All of these valuable properties make plastics a mixed blessing since they rely on fossil carbon and survive decades or even centuries in the environment.
Pyrolysis of plastics subjects the polymers to temperatures not normally present in the environment, except far beneath the Earth’s surface or in a fire. Just as the high temperatures present below ground transformed ancient flora and fauna into petroleum, pyrolysis processes raise the temperature of the polymer high enough for the long chains to break into smaller fragments that are amenable to conversion to new, useful products.
While some used plastics can be re-shaped into park benches or surfboards, these applications are of lower value, their markets are limited, and the process is not widely applicable to the many different ‘species’ of plastics in the world. Pyrolysis, particularly when guided by a catalyst, can transform a mixture of materials into the same molecular building blocks that were used to make them in the first place. This truly cyclic use of the materials keeps the polymers out of the landfill and out of the ocean. What’s more, polymer pyrolysis facilities could be annexed to already existing petroleum refineries to take advantage of their immense capabilities and scale. This would be much like using recycled automobile oil rather than producing more fossil oil from the ground.
Renewable energy and biochemical consulting firms like Lee Enterprises Consulting, Inc., have experts in plastic recycling, as well as other experts in biofuels/renewable fuels, biomaterials, biomass and biomass power, feedstocks, biotechnologies, and a variety of specialty services. This expertise should also encompass technologies like agitation systems, anaerobic digestion, bio-oil extraction, bioreactors, carbon capture, carbon storage, carbonization, catalysis, cellulosic ethanol, cleantech, direct combustion, enzyme technologies, fermentation, Fischer-Tropsch, gasification, genetic engineering, hydrothermal, nanotechnology, organosynthesis, power generation, renewable technology due diligence, synthetic biology, thermochemical conversion, torrefaction, water treatment, and waste management.
Most plastic is not biodegradable meaning that it will be here for millions of years unless acted upon. As of 2018, about 380 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide each year, and over the last five to six decades many billions of tons of plastic have been produced. As we currently only recycle or incinerated less than one-fourth of this plastic, the remaining three-fourths are staying in our environment. This is problematic in many areas, not the least of which is in our oceans where it is estimated that about 8 million tons of waste plastic go each year. The vast majority of seabirds show signs of plastics in their bodies, and within the next few decades, the weight of plastics in our oceans will be greater than the weight of all the fish.
Plastic recycling is not an option – it is a necessity, which is why Lee Enterprises Consulting maintains a strong expertise in plastics, pyrolysis, and recycling. We are the world’s premier bioeconomy consulting group, with over 150 highly qualified experts. Visit our website and see our experts and the services we provide and you will find that we have just the right expert for any clean energy project. Most of our experts are also available to advise and serve as expert witnesses in bioeconomy litigation matters. For the larger projects, we specialize in putting together full-service, interdisciplinary teams with one point of contact. Call us at 1+ (501) 833-8511 or email us for more information.