Chemistry Environment

Chemists Discover New Way to Turn Plastic into Usable Fuel

plastic into fuel

Researchers from the University of California, Irvine and the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry (or SIOC) in China have found a new way to go about recycling millions of tons of plastic garbage into liquid fuel. UCI chemist Zhibin Guan says synthetic plastics are a fundamental part of modern life, but our use of them in large volume has led to serious environmental problems.

Their goal through this new research is to address the issue of plastic pollution as well as come up with a beneficial outcome of creating a new source of liquid fuel. The applications for this kind of discovery would benefit many different commercial aspects of the world we live in today, creating a much more clean and healthy future for our planet as a whole.

Guan has worked closely with his collaborator from SIOC, Zheng Huang and their colleagues in order to find out how to break down the extremely strong bonds of polyethylene. Polyethylene is the most common commercially available form of plastic. The latest technique revolves around the use of alkanes, which are a specific type of hydrocarbon molecules, in order to be able to scramble and separate polymer molecules into other useful compounds. The complete findings uncovered by the team have been recently published in Science Advances journal, and can be read in full there.

Scientists have long worked to find new ways to go about recycling plastic bags, bottles and other forms of trash that are regularly generated by humans with far less toxic or energy intensive methods. This struggle has been a long one, with progress made, but not as quickly as trash continues to accumulate. Currently popular approaches involve the use of caustic chemicals (often referred to as radicals) or heating up the material well beyond 700 degrees Fahrenheit in order to break down the chemical bonds of the polymers.

In the team’s latest technique, the researchers actually degrade plastics in a far milder manner that is also quite more efficient than other methods currently in practice. The process they use is known as cross-alkane metathesis. The substances needed for the method are simply byproducts of oil refining so they are readily available and very easy to access. There is no worry here about how to maintain the process as fuel will continue to be something used on a major scale, showing no sign of slowing down any time soon. The process, when thought of this way, is kind of like recycling twice, as the oil refining byproducts would not be used for anything else.

Guan says the United States and China are working hard together in order to fix a few issues that will cause the method to be much more efficient. This includes increasing the catalyst activity and lifetime, lowering the cost and coming up with a catalytic process that will be able to turn other plastic trash into useable materials.