Turning plastic into diesel

Global petroleum company BP has signed an agreement to buy diesel manufactured from plastic, highlighting the vital roles that innovation and technology play in driving the world’s transition to a lower-carbon future

Trucks that run on electricity are beginning to become more familiar, but what about trucks which run on diesel derived from plastic waste? A new plant opening in the United States (US) is aimed at enabling just that.

Brightmark Energy broke ground recently on a US$ 260-million (about R3,88-billion) facility that will turn plastics into fuel, thanks to a chemical recycling process said to be the first of its kind in the US.

“We’re taking plastics from the waste stream and creating value out of them,” says Bob Powell, CEO of Brightmark. “The project is at the beginning of solving one of the biggest environmental problems in the world.”

The solution comes through a process called pyrolysis, which, despite its name, does not involve the incineration of plastics. Instead, the waste material is heated using very low oxygen levels to create a vapour, which is then converted into ultra-low sulphur diesel fuel. A by-product is industrial wax, which can be used to coat lumber, among other applications.

Powell envisages that Brightmark will initially convert about 100 000 t of plastic into about 68-million litres a year of diesel and naphtha, a blend stock that has many uses. It will also produce nearly 25-million litres of wax.

He adds that the process can be applied to almost any type of plastic, recyclable or not, and is 93-percent efficient, leaving only a small volume of unusable output – a non-toxic powder – to be sent to a landfill.

Powell says that while several other facilities use the process across the globe, none of them can take such a wide variety of plastics, nor are they able to operate at a similar scale to the Brightmark plant.

“This technology has been a twinkle in the eye for scientists for a long time,” says Jamie Nolan, a spokeswoman for the project. “But this is the first plant of its kind in the world that has made it this far.”

BP has signed an agreement to buy the fuel, with spokeswoman Amy McKerns, director of business development, saying: “Our relationship with Brightmark highlights the vital role that innovation and technology will play in driving the transition to a lower-carbon future – and the many and unique opportunities that will come with it. As a global energy business, BP is focused on the dual challenge of meeting society’s rising energy needs while reducing carbon emissions.”

Powell says the cost of producing the diesel will be similar to that of traditional refining methods, and, while he acknowledges that use of the fuel will result in emissions, he believes the Brightmark plant will have a net positive impact on the environment.

Besides reducing plastic waste, he says the type of diesel produced will be of the environmentally friendly, ultra-low-sulphur variety. He points out that when the plant comes on stream, less crude oil will need to be extracted from the ground to make diesel the traditional way – a process that also is a much greater emitter of pollution than chemical recycling.

In time, Brightmark hopes to expand its operations, opening additional facilities in the US and in other parts of the world. “Ultimately, plastic is a global problem and we want to expand globally because the solution applies globally,” Powell says.

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