Thinking Tech

Bye bye imported oil? New tech converts junk plastics into fuel

Posting in Energy

Pyrolysis technology can produce as much as 200 gallons of diesel for every ton of discarded plastic.

Oh, the irony. While Americans clamor for some relief from soaring gas prices, an abundance of potential fuel is just sitting at local landfills, untapped.

Yup, plastics. They're made up of the same energy dense stuff that's used to fuel automobiles. And considering that of the 48 billion tons of plastics disposed of every year, only 7 percent get's recycled, you can see how these products are, in every sense of the word, wasteful.

Now some companies are betting that a process that converts plastics back into diesel can supply enough fuel that entire nations would no longer need to rely on imported oil. In fact, the technology has enabled them to produce as much as 200 gallons of diesel for every ton of discarded plastic, according to Discovery News.

Agilyx, a start-up in Portland, has already turned 1 million pounds of disposed plastic into more than 120,000 gallons of crude oil that it has since been sold to clients. Although production costs amount to about $52 a barrel, the company expects that figure to drop to under $40 a barrel. They've also raised $28.7 million from investors.

In Europe, Ireland-based tech firm Cynar, recently closed a deal to put into operation 10 plastic-to-diesel facilities throughout Britain.

This process, known as pyrolysis, involves liquifying the plastic by burning it within a custom-built vacuum. The furnace, which is fueled using nitrogen, converts the waste into a gas before it's later condensed into a liquid. A separate refining process helps to remove impurities like ink, acid and other chemical agents so that the plastic is returned to it's original form: petroleum.

But what the makes plastic-to-oil conversion much more complicated and difficult than it sounds is that many of non-recyclables are comprised of not only plastic but also glass and metal, otherwise known as mixed plastics.

“It’s extremely difficult to recycle mixed plastics into crude oil,” Agilyx CEO Chris Ulum told GreenTechMedia.

Also, the burners need to be scaled up to the level of a large-scale facility in order for the technology to be worthwhile and profitable. Even then, the long term success will ultimately hinge on whether the cost of imported oil remains above a fixed point where these companies can continue sell oil at a competitive rate.

For now, the future is promising. Environmental consultant Kim Holmes recently conducted a survey of the industry for the American Chemistry Council and found that crude oil made from waste plastics costs around 75 cents per gallon to produce. By comparison, straight-to-the-pump diesel costs about $1.25 a gallon.

Check out video of a plastic-to-oil facility:

Envion Demo from EnvionDemo on Vimeo.

(via Discovery News)

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure