Plastic-to-energy tech gains ground

I wrote an article (subscription only) for ICIS Chemical Business (published on June 6) about the increasing development of recycled plastics being used as energy source or alternative chemical feedstock. Companies included in the article are Dow Chemical, Agilyx, JBI Global, and comments from the American Chemistry Council’s Steve Russell, VP of the ACC plastics division.

Dow Chemical announced on May 23 that  it was able to successfully recovered 96% of available energy – an equivalent to 11.1 million Btu’s of natural gas – after incinerating 578 pounds of used plastic (linear low density polyethylene scraps) in a kiln at one of dow’s waste treatment facilities. Dow’s plastics sustainability leader Jeff Wooster said that the project started in 2010.

“The project began after value chain partners expressed interest in how energy recovery for plastics could help them capture the embedded energy value in their products. The results of the trial provide a better understanding and first-hand knowledge of how plastics can be used for energy recovery.” – Wooster

Dow said it is studying opportunities for this technology and will be conducting additional trials to learn more.

“There are two types of companies that could benefit from this technology. One is large energy users such as cement kilns. The second type of company is one that has plastics with recoverable value that can’t be recycled. The ideal situation would be when both companies collaborate.” – Wooster

Speaking of Dow Chemical, I just received new information about their recently announced Dow-Mitsui bioplastic joint venture, which I will post separately.

Back to waste plastics, Brazilian chemical company Braskem actually announced today that it has invested Reais (R$)25m (about $16.1m) to help build a plastic recycling unit in Bahia owned by Novaenergia. The recycling plant will initially produce 1.4m liters/year of naphtha, which Braskem will use as chemical feedstock for its basic petrochemicals units in the Camacari Complex.

Braskem said the recycling plant will process 450 tons of waste/day, For every 36 tons of waste, 30,000 liters/day of light oil will be produced to be used by Braskem to make naphtha as well as fuel oil and diesel oil with low sulfur content.

Startup of the recycling plant is expected by the end of 2012.

In my ICB article, ACC’s Russell noted increasing use and development of innovative energy-recovery technologies but unfortunately the US is still lagging behind Europe and Asia in the use of these technologies.

US consulting firm 4R Sustainability published a report in April (which was funded by the ACC) about the progress of plastic-to-fuel technology developments in North America. According to the report, there are 86 waste-to-energy facilities in North America that process nearly 30 million tons/year of solid waste, recovering enough energy to power 2 million homes and enough to save the equivalent of 30 million barrels/year of oil.

“The opportunities for tapping into the embodied energy of non-recycled plastics are tremendous. Industrial scrap and municipal solid waste are cost-effective, abundant sources of energy for businesses or communities,” said ACC’s Russell.

According to the ACC, the US is lagging behind because other countries incorporate these in their laws and regulations, and that the cost of landfilling waste is much less expensive in the US compared to other countries.

“We are optimistic that energy recovery – including WTE and newer conversion technologies, such as plastics-to-fuel – will catch on in the United States.” – ACC

The report identified 25 companies in the US currently dealing with plastic-to-fuel technologies which were mostly using pyrolysis (where plastic waste goes through thermal treatment and sometimes pressure before being converted into a fuel product).

Agilyx is one example where the company is already processing recycled plastics to crude oil at its Oregon facility. Here is a video that I got from them, which was just uploaded by the company a week ago:

Other waste conversion technologies include incineration (as used by Dow), gasification, hydrolysis, anaerobic digestion and other chemical feedstock recovery. Average recommended commercial-scale plastic-to-fuel facility capacity is between 7,000 and 10,000 tonnes/year with the average costs of systems within a range of $4m-5m, according to the report.

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