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Innovative Chemical Conversion Technology to Convert World’s Plastic Waste into Clean Fuels, Other Products

Annually, over 8 million tons of plastics enter the oceans according to United Nations estimates. A new chemical conversion process could change the world’s polyolefin waste, a form of plastic, into beneficial products, for instance, clean fuels.

An albatross chick sits along a white sand beach at the Midway Atoll Wildlife Refuge amid plastic that covers the area even though it is not inhabited by humans. It is evidence of a global plastic problem. A new chemical conversion process developed by Purdue University researchers could transform the world’s polyolefin waste, a form of plastic, into useful products, such as clean fuels and other items. (NOAA photo)

Our strategy is to create a driving force for recycling by converting polyolefin waste into a wide range of valuable products, including polymers, naphtha (a mixture of hydrocarbons), or clean fuels. Our conversion technology has the potential to boost the profits of the recycling industry and shrink the world’s plastic waste stock.

Linda Wang, Study Leader and Maxine Spencer Nichols Professor, Davidson School of Chemical Engineering, Purdue University.

Wang, Kai Jin, a graduate student, and Wan-Ting (Grace) Chen, a postdoctoral researcher at Purdue, are the inventors of the technology, which can change over 90% of polyolefin waste into numerous different products, including pure polymers, fuels, naphtha, or monomers. The team is partnering with Gozdem Kilaz, an assistant professor in the School of Engineering Technology, and her doctoral research assistant, Petr Vozka, in the Fuel Laboratory of Renewable Energy of the School of Engineering Technology, to enhance the conversion process to create high-quality diesel fuels or gasoline.

The conversion process includes selective extraction and hydrothermal liquefaction. After the plastic changes into naphtha, it can not only be utilized as a feedstock for other chemicals but can also be further separated into specialty solvents or other products. The clean fuels resulting from the polyolefin waste produced each year can fulfill 4% of the annual demand for diesel fuels or gasoline. A portion of the results of Wang’s research was published in the January 29th issue of ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering.

Wang was enthused to develop this technology after reading about the plastic waste pollution of the oceans, the environment, and groundwater. From the total amount of plastics manufactured in the last 65 years (8.3 billion tons), around 12% have been burned and just 9% have been recycled. The remaining 79% have been dumped into the oceans or landfills. The World Economic Forum forecasts that by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic waste than fish if the waste continues to be thrown into water bodies.

Wang said the technology could transform nearly 90% of the polyolefin plastic.

Plastic waste disposal, whether recycled or thrown away, does not mean the end of the story. These plastics degrade slowly and release toxic microplastics and chemicals into the land and the water. This is a catastrophe, because once these pollutants are in the oceans, they are impossible to retrieve completely.

Linda Wang, Study Leader and Maxine Spencer Nichols Professor, Davidson School of Chemical Engineering, Purdue University.

The research aligns with Purdue’s Giant Leaps celebration, recognizing the universal advancements in sustainability as part of Purdue’s 150th anniversary. This is one of the four themes of the yearlong celebration’s Ideas Festival, meant to showcase Purdue as an intellectual center for finding solutions to real-world problems.

Wang said she is confident her technology will fuel the recycling sector to decrease the quickly rising amount of plastic waste. She and her team are seeking partners or investors to assist with showcasing this technology at a commercial scale.

The technology developed by Wang is patented via the Purdue Research Foundation’s Office of Technology Commercialization.

Chemical Conversion of Plastic Waste into Fuel

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