The world’s oceans are littered with billions of pounds of plastic waste. A sailboat captain and a Ph.D. organic chemist have joined forces to find a way to reuse certain plastics by turning it into valuable diesel fuel. The pair recently reported that they are developing a process to transform the worthless trash with a small mobile reactor.
Their vision is to implement the technology globally on land and possibly place it on boats to convert ocean waste plastic into fuel that will be used to power the vessels.
James E. Holm has been a sailor for 40 years and says he has watched the coastline and sea becoming more and more polluted. Holm tells the story of how he sailed through the Panama Canal a few years ago. When he stopped at an island on the Atlantic side, he was shocked by the amount of plastic littering the beach. He resolved right there that if he ever had an opportunity to do something about it, he would.
Swaminathan Ramesh, Ph.D., Holm’s partner, is driven by the excitement and desire of searching for a new “killer idea” that would have the power to change the world. Ramesh retired early from BASF in 2005 after 23 years as a research chemist and began searching for new opportunities. Ramesh formed EcoFuel Technologies and joined his chemical knowledge with Holm’s concerns about ocean pollution and plastic waste. Holm had in the meantime formed Clean Oceans International, a NPO.
The team looked for ways in which they could optimize a technology that uses waste hydrocarbon based plastics as a feedstock for valuable diesel fuel. Their aim was to eliminate plastic waste from the world by creating a market for it.
Ramesh explained that pyrolysis technologies have been used for years to depolymerize or break down unwanted polymers such as plastic waste, leaving a hydrocarbon based fuel. The process does however call for costly and complex steps to refining the fuel to make it useable.
Ramesh changed the game by developing a metallocene catalyst that is deposited on a porous support material. When this is combined with a controlled pyrolysis reaction, it yields usable diesel fuels directly without it needing to be refined further. It also runs at lower temperatures, is cost effective on a small scale and is mobile.
Ramesh explained that the catalyst system allows them to perform the pyrolysis as a continuous feed process and shrinks the footprint of the whole system. The capacity can be scaled to process anywhere from 200 pounds of plastic every 10 hours, to 10,000 or more pounds in the same period. As it is small, the technological process can be taken to where the plastic wastes are.
Holm added that the complete system could fit in a 20-foot shipping container, or on the back of a truck.
The next step is to demonstrate that the technology works well and that a usable drop in diesel fuel can be created. A demonstration project for the government of the city of Santa Cruz, California is already on the cards. Holm explained that officials there want to implement the technology to eliminate waste plastics that can currently not be recycled, as well as to produce diesel fuel the city can use for its vehicles.
Holm dreams of people around the world picking this up and using it to convert waste plastics to fuel and make money in the process. If that happens, everybody wins. Plastic waste can even be eliminated before it gets to the ocean by creating value for it locally on a global basis.