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Transforming Waste Plastic Into $10/Barrel Fuel 315

Posted by samzenpus
from the mr.-fusion dept.
Mike writes "Today Washington DC-based company Envion opened a $5 million dollar facility that they claim will be able to efficiently transform plastic waste into a source of oil-like fuel. The technology uses infra-red energy to remove hydrocarbons from plastic without the use of a catalyst, transforming 82% of the original plastic material into fuel. According to Envion, the resulting fuel can then be blended with other components, providing a source for gasoline or diesel at as low as $10 per barrel."
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Transforming Waste Plastic Into $10/Barrel Fuel

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  • by cs668 (89484) <cservin@cromagnon.com> on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @07:20PM (#29448009)

    That just doesn't seem like it will build much of a "facility"

    • by nametaken (610866)

      You're absolutely right.

      That aside, this seems too good to be true.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Joebert (946227)
        Not to mention the name sounds a lot like Enron.
      • by Sj0 (472011) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @08:45AM (#29452427) Homepage Journal

        Why?

        You take one hydrocarbon that burns like the dickens and convert it into another hydrocarbon that burns like the dickens but happens to be liquid (and thus more convenient).

        I don't really see any magic involved. You won't get all the energy back, for sure -- turning the oil into plastic and the plastic into fuel will result in far less net energy than just turning the oil into fuel products to begin with, but that's factored into the cost.

    • by Sj0 (472011) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @08:42AM (#29452403) Homepage Journal

      The way industry works is this: After a process is deemed to have potential, first you spend a small amount (5 million dollars is a drop in the bucket in the cashflow of a real company or process plant) on a proof-of-concept plant called a 'pilot plant'. If the pilot plant shows the process is both viable and economical, then you can convince investors to put a few hundred million dollars into a full-scale process plant.

      This seems to be a new technology, it makes sense that it'd be a pilot plant right now.

  • by reezle (239894) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @07:21PM (#29448019) Homepage

    I've been thinking of something like this factory, on a boat equipped with fishing nets processing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
    Wonder how much oil is in there?

  • That's what plastic is made of!
    • by icebike (68054) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @07:41PM (#29448251)

      That's what plastic is made of!

      The summary left unsaid that it is the removed hydrocarbons that are retained, and the rest discarded.

      Then the retained hydrocarbons (82% of the input) is reduced to an "oil product". Tfa linked to rather thin page which explained vary little.

      Further digging at environ.com yielded this:

      The reactor, a vital component of the unit, utilizes a heating system that converts plastic into oil through low temperature thermal cracking in a vacuum. Using this innovative approach, the Envion Oil Generatorâ produces oil and power safely, efficiently, and economically through an environmentally sensitive process that produces a net gain in energy recaptured.

      A single Envion unit is capable of processing up to 10,000 tons of plastic waste annually, producing three to five barrels of refined petroleum product per ton of plastic waste.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by EmagGeek (574360)

        2000 pounds of plastic gives 126 to 210 gallons of gas... at 6.7lb/gal, that's maybe 1400 pounds.

        Dare I ask how much energy is expended in this conversion?

        • by icebike (68054) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @09:42PM (#29449267)

          Dare I ask how much energy is expended in this conversion?

          It doesn't matter EmagGeek, because it gets all the energy it need by burning some of the output product for power generation. It outputs both oil and power.

          Since all that plastic was going into the ground anyway, its a net gain, and the energy of conversion is not an issue.

        • by wvmarle (1070040) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @10:28PM (#29449577)

          TFA quotes up top 82% recovery, the envion.com website indicates an average of 60% conversion. 1400 lbs out of 2000 lbs that would be 70% conversion.

          And the amount of energy needed for cracking is not much.

    • by WindBourne (631190) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @08:35PM (#29448743) Journal
      Actually, there are many impurities in various plastics. PVC comes to mind. You really would rather not burn the chlorine (though it might be recycled for other items). There are others in there as well.
      • by flajann (658201)
        Well, it didn't say that. That actually would make sense. But the thing is is that plastic is composed of long polymerized chains of hydrocarbons.
        • by Nutria (679911)

          Well, it didn't say that.

          Some people are intelligent enough to figure these things out by themselves.

      • by wvmarle (1070040) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @02:01AM (#29450865)

        On the envion.com web site, PVC is mentioned as one of the major components of their feed stock. This indeed surprised me, you are right, the chlorine is an issue. If burned it may produce dioxins (very very poisonous stuff), or hydrochloric acid that wreaks havoc on any metal parts it comes in contact with, such as the internals of your engine.

        Either they have a way to remove the chlorine later, or they take care of it in another way - this is not mentioned on the web site. At least I couldn't find it. If there is really chlorine in the product then I'd not want to use it at all. And I also doubt it could pass any environmental standards when used in engines due to the dioxin problem.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by adolf (21054)

          Assuming (and I realize that it is a grand assumption) that the chlorine is liberated as a part of the process: Isn't that chemical just another marketable byproduct?

          • by wvmarle (1070040) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @03:16AM (#29451145)

            The chlorine will not be "liberated" to Cl2 as it is not chemically stable in this case. As soon as there would be a Cl2 molecule in the mix, and it finds a hydrocarbon with a double bond, it will react with this hydrocarbon. And double bonds there will be plenty of considering it is a cracking process. So no chance to get Cl2 gas out of it without taking special measures beyond just thermal cracking of the plastic.

  • Pyrolysis (Score:5, Informative)

    by proudfoot (1096177) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @07:22PM (#29448031)
    This isn't exactly something new, pyrolysis is a perfectly viable way of generating fuel. If you heat plastic enough - it decomposes into base hydrocarbons.
    • by afidel (530433)
      I think the hard part would be in "enough", how do you heat it enough to depolymerize the matrix without heating it enough to get near/past the flash point of the resulting fuel? I'm assuming it would have to be done in an oxygen free environment at least.
      • Re:Pyrolysis (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Smidge204 (605297) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @07:36PM (#29448207) Journal

        Flash point isn't a problem in an inert atmosphere.

        Various technologies have been around to do this; the problem has always been scale and water consumption.

        Hope these guys get somewhere with the process, and I hope the process is indifferent to the type of plastic involved. The wide variety of plastics used has always been a major problem for plastics recycling.

        Of course, you're still left with a nasty sludge - plastic contains non-hydrocarbon chemicals - and this is not a replacement for petroleum since the plastics were made from petroleum to begin with. But! This may make "mining" landfills a more interesting proposition... now you can get methane, various metals (in relatively pure form) AND liquid fuels from old landfills.
        =Smidge=

        • Plastic Sludge (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Nick Driver (238034)

          The sludge would still be mostly hydrocarbons, just heavier stuff. It might be useful for putting into road paving asphalt.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by jbezorg (1263978)

            The sludge would still be mostly hydrocarbons, just heavier stuff. It might be useful for putting into road paving asphalt.

            Or making plastic....

      • by icebike (68054)

        Quoting the Envion.com web page:

        You utilize a heating system that converts plastic into oil through low temperature thermal cracking in a vacuum.

        Does that clear it up? If so, please explain it to me....

        • by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

          Lol well, my layman's understanding (which, in this case, merely comes from the parsing of words here and in TFA), is that if you heat plastic in a vacuum at a low heat the polymer breaks down and most of the hydrocarbons are released.

          It will be interesting to see if this can scale at all, a $5 million facility is nothing (modern processing facilities push the $1 billion with a "b" figure), the daily output of just one oil facility in the US would probably average several times the yearly output of this fac

    • by couchslug (175151)

      "This isn't exactly something new, pyrolysis is a perfectly viable way of generating fuel."

      1. Build portable liposuction-pyrolyzer units.
      2. Sell to fatass Americans who will then be able to power their SUVs using their fast-food diet.
      3. Profit!

    • Question is will it take more or less energy to heat the stuff in the first place? What would come out if the plant would only be allowed use its own fuel for the creation of that infrared light? Would it even output anything, or just eat even more?

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by jcr (53032)

      If you heat plastic enough - it decomposes into base hydrocarbons.

      I wonder if the process is conducive to using solar heat?

      -jcr

    • So the best plan would be to heat it through non-fossil methods (solar concentrator plant) to "recycle" it into fuel.
    • I've been compiling an electricity industry report over the last couple of weeks. One of the interesting things I ran across was Whispergen [whispergen.com], a company in New Zealand (I'm not affiliated with them). Quiet, low maintenance home generators based on multifuel Stirling engines. They've recently opened a new factory in Spain for high volume production.

      Very interesting - if we can manufacture fluids from waste plastic that are reasonably energy-dense, the exact thermal profile of their burn may not rule out th

  • Would that be a vaguely technically sounding way of saying "heat"?
    • by Xiph1980 (944189)
      Not necessarily. There are more ways than 1 to heat something. Infra-red energy is only one of them.
    • Re:Infra red energy? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Atraxen (790188) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @07:30PM (#29448131)

      Nope - IR is a photon (i.e. an energy packet). This energy matches the vibrational energy levels of a molecule, so when it's absorbed it results in the same motions that we call heat. Heat can bleed in all directions, while light can only go in straight lines. Next time you're at a campfire/bonfire, hold up a hand and put your face in the shadow - you'll notice that you feel a small amount of heat on your face, but that overall it's much colder-feeling since you're not absorbing those IR photons.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Tablizer (95088)

      Would that be a vaguely technically sounding way of saying "heat"?

      So that's how they snuck in that patent on fire.
         

  • by jeffb (2.718) (1189693) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @07:28PM (#29448101)

    ...and then run the hot liquid through your radiators.

  • Envion? (Score:4, Funny)

    by Tablizer (95088) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @07:29PM (#29448117) Homepage Journal

    I can't quite put my finger on it, but the name of the company scares me for some reason.

  • by Bruce Perens (3872) * <bruce@perens.com> on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @07:31PM (#29448153) Homepage Journal
    This is an offshoot of the garbage-to-energy plants that have been built in the 70's and 80's. The problem with incineration was that mercury, dioxin, etc., came out. They have been able to reduce this substantially over the years but there are still concerns. The big challenge with plastic-to-fuel plants may well be the same: what comes out when you burn the fuel?
    • by DarkOx (621550)

      I suspect the marketed fuel will be just fine. I mean they are processing the stuff I am sure they will turn it into something chemically like coal oil. The question is what do they do with all the industrial waste from the non petroleum components of the plastics they are recycling.

  • by spinach and eggs (1472445) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @07:34PM (#29448183)

    ...the key part of TFA for me was:

    We'll find out soon whether Envion's process works as well as the company claims --- the $5 million inaugural plastic-to-fuel plant opened today in Washington, DC, and an undisclosed company has already agreed to buy Envion's product to blend into vehicle fuel.

    So yes, we'll find out soon, I guess.

  • Hmm, I wonder why a company of this type would want to be "Washington DC based."

    I also wonder what their scientist to lobbyist ratio is.

  • by Sooner Boomer (96864) <sooner.boomr@gma ... RGcom minus poet> on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @08:08PM (#29448521) Journal
    The ability to convert ethylene to polyethylene, and back to ethylene again has been around for a long time. Likewise, you can pyrolyze a bunch of different plastics, then use the Fischer-Tropsh process [wikipedia.org] to make diesel and gasoline. The problem is how you deal with everything ELSE that's NOT hydrogen or carbon, (like chlorine from polyvinyl chloride [wikipedia.org]) and keep it from forming REALLY toxic stuff (like dioxins [wikipedia.org]). One of the key elements to almost all recycling is separation of the incoming materials and appropriate treatment for each category. But if it works, good luck to them!
  • Way cool (Score:3, Insightful)

    by WindBourne (631190) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @08:21PM (#29448609) Journal
    At this time, America buys overpriced products from overseas, watches them break in no time, then in a fit of environmentalism, we recycle it. Where does it go? Back to china for cheap cheap input back into vastly overpriced products.

    Now, we are talking about converting this plastic to cheap fuel. Sounds like a winner to me. My only question is, there tend to be contaminants in many of these products (lead, mercury, etc). Will this drop it, or will these make it back into the fuel. If so, then not a great thing. OTH, if not, sounds like a wonder way to get cheap energy.
    • Re:Way cool (Score:4, Insightful)

      by FooAtWFU (699187) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @08:26PM (#29448653) Homepage

      At this time, America buys overpriced products from overseas

      You think the stuff we get from China's overpriced? You should see the cost of stuff made in America.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        At this time, America buys overpriced products from overseas

        You think the stuff we get from China's overpriced? You should see the cost of stuff made by people paid reasonable wages.

        Fixed that for you.

  • $10 per Barrel (Score:5, Insightful)

    by arthurpaliden (939626) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @08:24PM (#29448635)
    Like they will really sell below the world price per barrel. Their investors will really love that. Not.
    • The point is they can _make_ it for that, therefore it's viable.

      The point is they can _make_ it for that, therefore it's viable. Duh. And if it's only $10/barrel then it is very viable indeed!

      However, since the plastic is made from a barrel of oil in the first place, I'm skeptical that it could end up cheaper in the long run. Perhaps it appears viable considering today's value for waste plastic, but it might not be after the increased demand for the material is realized.

      In the long run it will be evaluated

  • oil from tires (Score:3, Interesting)

    by night_flyer (453866) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @08:31PM (#29448707) Homepage

    what ever happened with that technology?

  • I Love Magic! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by rueger (210566) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @08:37PM (#29448759) Homepage
    AC Clarke was quoted as saying that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.

    Surely this magic non-polluting gasoline from plastic would trump even the magic non-polluting electricity that will power all of the magic non-polluting electric cars!

    In related news, they've solved the dilemma of getting rid of toxic waste. [aljazeera.net]
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by proudfoot (1096177)
      No, this isn't magic. Plastics are made from hydrocarbons which are drilled for. This is merely an innovative method of recycling, and while it saves fuel, the volumes won't be high enough to be a real energy solution in the end.
  • Just when we were getting used to the paradigm of "Earth plus Plastic," someone wants to go use up the plastic!

  • Not Recycling (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Mishotaki (957104) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @10:09PM (#29449439)
    So instead of reusing the plastic, they are burning it off to make oil.... i really don't see how that is good, i'd rather see them separate that plastic to reuse it instead of separating the plastic to burn it off to make oil...
    • Re:Not Recycling (Score:5, Informative)

      by wvmarle (1070040) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @02:27AM (#29450983)

      I'm working in the plastic recycling industry.

      You are correct for the fact that many plastics can be recycled. Almost all plastics can be recycled. But they have to be pure, and that's where the problem is.

      Many packing films are multi-layer products: one layer for strength, one on top for gloss, another on the bottom to make it sealable, one more as moisture/oxygen/smell barrier, etc. This kind of plastic product is very hard to recycle, and often only to very low-end products. Fuel recovery is not that bad an idea.

      Another issue is that it is often not known what plastic a product is made of. That becomes even more an issue when it is all mixed, such as post-consumer waste like we are now dumping in landfills or burning in incinerators. Those plastics need sorting (difficult if you have no way to tell what it is), washing, etc. A lot of work, very expensive to do, and as sorting is never 100% you will again end up with relative low end applications for the recycled plastic.

      A lot of the plastics collected in USA and Europe is shipped to China for recycling, especially the post consumer waste. These fractions often have a negative price at the source: Chinese users pay a little bit for the material, but less than transport cost let alone collection cost. Sorting cost is high, recovery rates low. Pyrolysis may well be a cheaper and even environmentally favourable solution for these mixed plastics compared to shipping them to China or India for recovery.

      Any higher-value stream will not go for pyrolysis. Higher value as in post-industrial wastes (they are generally clean and pure), or sorted fractions from domestic (think PET bottles (soda, water), HDPE bottles (soap, milk), PE film (wrapping film, shrink film, carrybags) or agricultural film). Those fractions are now being traded and recycled on a commercial basis.

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