New Method that Turns Plastic Waste into Liquid Fuel Discovered

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A paper published last month in the journal of Science Advances outlines a new method of efficiently turning plastic into fuel.

Of the many environmental problems currently facing the globe, one is the depletion of reliable fuel sources, and the other is an overwhelming amount of non-degradable plastics piling up in landfills. The revolutionary new recycling method seeks to solve both.

Plastics have long been known to be a detrimental product to the environment. Essentially made of carbon and hydrogen atoms, plastics like polyethylene — which makes up some 60 percent of plastic trash, the paper noted — are extremely hard to break down into biologically compatible products.

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Polyethylene plastics in particular include grocery bags, food wrappers, and plastic bottles among other common items. Some sources estimate that roughly 100 million metric tons are produced annually.

University of California Irvine chemist Zhibin Guan, a senior author of the study, according to the Los Angeles Times said, “If you leave plastic in the ocean or the environment or you bury it underground, it’s going to stay there for hundreds or thousands of years.”

“We thought we should work on something to address this issue,” Guan said.


So, while in the past scientists and researchers have found ways to break down plastics, the methods have never managed to be efficient. Oftentimes the method itself would require a lot of energy causing another form of pollution, thus, crippling the value of any end product.

To break apart polymers the team developed a two-catalyst process. Using alkanes that are often found in refinery waste, the process uses the first alkane to remove hydrogen from the atomic chain. The second alkane bath then attacks the weakened remnants of the chain, breaking it apart entirely. To turn this new product into fuel, the hydrogen that was removed is added back into the compound in a different dosage.

In addition to creating fuel, researchers explained in the paper that by adjusting solutions they could create a variety of products including many substances with industrial uses.

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Speaking with the Washington Post bioenergy specialist Kevin McDonnell, who wasn’t involved with the study, said, “Given the low value of commercial fuel oils, low-cost techniques that can produce a usable product are critical to the successful recovery of plastic waste.”

Similarly, Rutgers University chemist Alan Goldman, who also wasn’t involved in the study, called it “a very exciting piece of work… It takes these undesirable refinery products and the polyethylene and combines them both into something useful.”

So while the process might be a few years away from coming into commercial use, it’s another exciting step in the battle towards building a healthy planet.

“We’re hoping we’re going to be providing the technology’s key components, and then with further developments and also with collaborating with industry, that we can turn it into a real useful recycling process,” Guan said.

For their ability to create a win-win solution, and for their exciting innovation, we are excited to name Zhibin Guan, his fellow senior author Zheng Huang, and everyone else involved in the study our Luminaries of the week.



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About the author: Gary Joshua Garrison


Gary Joshua Garrison is the Prose Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. His fiction has appeared in various locations around the World Wide Web, as well as in bound reams of paper. His nonfictional musing can be found at Luminary Daily and Way Too Indie. He writes, teaches, and goes to the movies in the desert of Arizona with his well-postured cat, Widget.



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