Yes. And the idea isn’t just theoretical. A number of companies (as well as some innovative individuals) are already using different versions of a technology called pyrolysis to convert waste plastic into usable fuel oil.
Pyrolysis heats up carbon-based materials in the absence of oxygen – sometimes using a catalyst of some kind in addition to heat – to decompose them into other products. Pyrolyzing plastics generally produces a liquid fuel, a gas product, ash, char and some other byproducts. The resulting liquid fuel can be refined into a variety of different fuels such as gasoline or diesel, while the syngas can be burned to drive a generator.
Pyrolysis conversion technologies that turn plastic waste into fuel have developed to the point where they’re likely to be commercially viable in just five to 10 years, according to a 2012 study prepared for the American Chemistry Council, a trade association, by the research organization RTI International.
The study also found that, compared to landfill disposal, pyrolyzing plastic waste saves both energy and carbon emissions. Depending on regional landfill costs, it can also be more cost efficient.
Pyrolysis oil from biomass (as opposed to plastics) could be cheaper than conventional gasoline before 2017, according to the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Biomass Program. DOE research projects that the price per gallon of pyrolysis-generated fuel could drop from $4.55 in 2012 to $2.32 by 2017.
While there’s plenty of plastic waste available to convert into fuel, plastics-to-oil technology alone isn’t likely to be an energy cure-all. As the RTI study concludes:
“Given the developmental stage and the current capacities of technologies, our preliminary estimates suggest that conversion technologies would offset significantly less than 1% percent of annual North American oil consumption. The average size of a plastics‐to‐oil facility is in the range of 10‐30 tons per day. If there were 100 plastics‐to‐oil facilities in North America by 2015, conversion production could offset approximately 6,000‐18,000 barrels of oil per day, assuming 1 ton of plastic yields 6 barrels of oil. In contrast, total consumption of crude oil in North America is forecast to be 21.57 million barrels per day in 2015.”
Even with new conversion technologies for other types of waste – municipal solid waste (MSW), biomass, etc. – we won’t come close to replacing current fossil fuel consumption, the RTI study notes.
“While MSW‐based conversion facilities are anticipated to convert 7‐10 times more waste to energy, estimates still indicate significantly less than 1% percent of annual North American oil consumption.”
Q: How does plastics-to-oil pyrolysis differ from waste incineration? A: Conventional waste-to-energy plants (incinerators) simply burn trash and use the heat to drive generators to produce electricity. Plastics-to-oil technology uses heat without oxygen to decompose, rather than burn, waste into carbon-based fuels and other byproducts.
Q: How many facilities are there for converting waste to energy? A: The 2012 RTI study reported that there were 86 conventional waste-to-energy incineration plants in the US. By comparison, it identified nine plastics-to-oil pyrolysis facilities in North America that were either commercial plants or demonstration facilities.
Q: Why generate oil just from plastics? A: There are two primary reasons why plastics-to-oil technology is more advanced today than other types of pyrolysis oil, according to the RTI study: a reliable supply of feedstock (waste plastic) and greater consistency in the types of waste material available. The larger amount of impurities found in organic waste makes it harder to refine pure fuels using pyrolysis.
Who’s who in plastics-to-oil?
Agilyx (formerly Plas2Fuel) – Based in Beaverton, Oregon, Agilyx deploys a modular, distributed system designed to let local industries and waste generators convert plastics into fuel. It recently won the 2012 World Technology Award for the energy innovation of “the greatest likely long-term significance.”
Blest – The Japanese company Blest.co Ltd. markets small-scale systems that can convert polypropylene, polyethylene and polystyrene plastics into fuel oil. It recently installed a test machine at a recycling facility in Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon territory.
Climax Global Energy – Headquartered in Fairfax, South Carolina, Climax Global Energy was expected to begin operations at a new plastics-to-oil facility in South Carolina’s Barnwell County in 2012.
Envion – The Washington, DC-based Envion markets a technology called the Envion Oil Generator. The company enjoyed a big publicity splash when it demonstrated its technology with the Montgomery (Virginia) Regional Solid Waste Authority in 2009, but it’s been fairly quiet since then.
Green EnviroTech Holdings – Based in Riverbank, California, Green EnviroTech Holdings announced an oil purchase agreement with Ebbros Energy in May 2012. The company produces oil from plastics, waste tires and automotive shredder residue.
JBI – Headquartered in Niagara Falls, New York, JBI Inc. brought its second Plastic2Oil processing facility online in February 2012, and was processing 2,000 pounds of plastic feedstock per hour. It expects a third processor to being operations in early 2013.
Klean Industries – A Canadian company based in Vancouver, Klean Industries announced in early 2013 that it would work with the Dow Chemical Company to combine their technologies and develop low-impact plastics-to-oil facilities across North America.
Recycle Energy Co. – Part of Japan’s CFP Group, Recycle Energy Co. recently demonstrated its plastics-to-oil technology in Malaysia. It uses catalytic cracking instead of high-temperature pyrolysis and says its system can use a greater variety of plastics to produce higher-quality light oils.
RES Polyflow – RES Polyflow was established in mid-2012 by the merger of the energy technology firm Polyflow and the private equity firm Ambassador Enterprises. Based in Akron, Ohio, RES Polyflow is working to commercialize its continuous-feed waste-to-energy recovery system, which can use such feedstock as plastics, tires and carpeting.
Vadxx Energy – Headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, Vadxx Energy uses a process called thermal depolymerization to produce fuel oil from plastic waste. Its first conversion plant, developed in partnership with Greenstar Recycling, was scheduled to begin operations in Akron, Ohio, in late 2012. It plans to launch two more facilities that can process medical waste and scrap tires in Cleveland in 2013.