The chemical process that can save us from the plastics crisis

A team of scientists has just announced a new chemical process to efficiently convert plastics from packaging into jet fuel and high-value lubricants. That is, it would be profitable to use this recycling process because the cost of recycling would be less than the value generated.

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The key to that efficiency is in the process time and the low temperatures used to achieve the chemical reaction. According to the study by scientists at Washington State University – published in the scientific journal ‘Chem Catalysis‘- the conversion process only takes an hour and the heat required is only 220 degrees Celsius.

To compare, another team from the same university managed to create a chemical process that also recycled plastics into jet fuel in 2019. However, that process uses vastly higher temperatures, from 430 to 571 degrees Celsius. In addition, the plastic conversion process resulted in 85% jet fuel and 15% diesel fuel.

One of the Washington State University teams. (USW)

In the end, that method was not worth it because the cost and duration was not worth it. But the new system turns plastic into a liquid that is 90% jet fuel in record time.

The new type of conversion is also more desirable and cost-effective than converting some plastics into other low-quality items that ultimately end up in landfill as well.

Normal conditions

For now, the new method only works with polyethylene, which according to the researchers is the main type of plastic in the world. This material is used in all kinds of objects, from detergent and shampoo bottles to grocery bags and even furniture and flower pots.

The system uses a ruthenium carbon catalyst together with a common solvent. The catalyst and solvent interact at a relatively low temperature and, after an hour, the plastic becomes the fuel. By varying the temperature and the process time, the researchers say, they can obtain another type of petroleum derivative, such as a high-quality lubricant.

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According to PhD student Chuhua Jia, who has carried out the research together with Associate Professor of the College of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering Hongfei Lin, “Before the experiment we just speculated, but we didn’t know if it would work.” His surprise was that the theory had such a spectacular result.

Lin says that, depending on the market, they can adjust the process depending on the final product that they want to generate from the polyethylene. “We have the flexibility,” he says, “applying this efficient process can give us a promising approach to producing high-value products selectively from discarded polyethylene.”

The problem of plastic recycling

It is necessary. Although we believe that all the plastic that we put in the yellow bag is recycled, the reality is quite different. Most plastics cannot be recycled, no matter how many donkeys want to sell us brands such as Coca-Cola – one of the companies that is at the top of the huge global ‘lobby’ to endorse consumers with the responsibility of recycling, something that should be at their own expense, since those companies are the ones that pollute—.

In fact, as you can see from the in-depth explanation that journalist John Oliver does about these lines, even the few recyclable plastics are not recycled. In the United States, for example, only 9% of plastics are recycled each year. In Spain it is only a little better: according to a Greenpeace report As of March 2019, 80% of plastic packaging is not recycled and ends up in landfills, burned or, even worse, exported to third world countries.

Other countries have very similar statistics because, in the end, recycling does not pay off for the industry, which has no economic incentive to convert plastics that are recyclable (in 2019, 40% of plastic packaging was single-use , according to the same report).

For this reason, new technologies such as those discovered by this North American team will be vital in trying to help solve this enormous problem. Engineers are now investigating how to start using this method on an industrial scale and see what the next types of plastics would be that they could process in a similar way.

Even so, this process It will not be a silver bullet against plastics. It will help a lot if it finally comes through, but it will neither end the problem nor be a panacea. Until we change plastic for other materials, we will not be able to solve a problem that is seriously affecting the health of the planet and human beings, thanks to microplastics that contaminate the food chain.

For there to be real change, a global legal framework will be necessary that forces the industry to make the necessary changes. Until then, we’re going bad.

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