Researchers Developed Method to Turn Plastic Into Fuel

The technique could help turn millions of tons of plastic into fuel.

Female laborers sort through polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles in a recycling factory on July 06, 2017 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Zakir Chowdhury/Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Female laborers sort through polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles in a recycling factory on July 06, 2017 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Zakir Chowdhury/Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
By Chase Hill / February 16, 2019 5:00 am

A team of chemists at Purdue may have discovered a way to convert millions of tons of plastic into a gasoline or diesel-like fuel.

With over 300 million tons of plastics in overflowing landfills, or floating around in the world’s oceans, the revolutionary technique could turn an estimated quarter of plastic waste into fuel.

The paper, published recently in Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering, reveals the chemists discovered a way to convert that filthy polypropylene (a plastic commonly used in bags, toys, and medical devices) into fuel pure enough to be used as a component to make fuel for everyday vehicles.

Polypropylene waste accounts for about a quarter of the estimated 5 billion tons of plastic the world has amassed in the past 50 years.

To break down the plastic, the chemists heated water to between 716 and 932 degrees Fahrenheit at pressures about 2,300 times greater than sea level atmospheric pressure. Once they added the plastic, it only took a few hours for the waste to turn convert into oil.

Byproducts of the process include gasoline and a diesel-like oil.

“Plastic waste disposal, whether recycled or thrown away, does not mean the end of the story,” Purdue chemist Linda Wang said. “Plastics degrade slowly and release toxic microplastics and chemicals into the land and the water. This is a catastrophe because once these pollutants are in the oceans, they are impossible to retrieve completely.”

It’s uncertain how long it would take to implement the new procedure, but Wang says time is of the essence because every year without action makes the plastic problem even worse.

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