Plastic in oceans converted to fuel in a mobile reactor

Plastic in oceans converted to fuel in a mobile reactor


Billions of pounds of plastic waste are littering the world’s oceans. Now, a Ph.D. organic chemist and a sailboat captain report that they are developing a process to reuse certain plastics, transforming them from worthless trash into a valuable diesel fuel with a small mobile reactor. They envision the technology could someday be implemented globally on land and possibly placed on boats to convert ocean waste plastic into fuel to power the vessels.

The research was presented at the 253rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). James E. Holm, a sailor for 40 years and his partner Swaminathan Ramesh, Ph.D., was driven by the desire and excitement of searching for a new “killer idea” with the power to change the world. They sought to optimize a technology that can use waste hydrocarbon-based plastics as a feedstock for valuable diesel fuel. Their goal was to rid the world of plastic waste by creating a market for it.

Pyrolysis technologies have been used to break down or depolymerize unwanted polymers, such as plastic wastes, leaving a hydrocarbon-based fuel. But the process usually calls for complex and costly refining steps to make the fuel useable.

Ramesh developed a metallocene catalyst deposited on a porous support material and coupled with a controlled pyrolysis reaction. This reaction yields diesel fuels directly without further refining. It is also cost-effective on a small scale, runs at lower temperatures and is mobile.

The catalyst system also allows us to perform the pyrolysis as a continuous-feed process and shrink the footprint of the whole system. The capacity can be scaled to handle anywhere from 200 pounds per 10-hour day to 10,000 or more pounds per 10-hour day. Because of its small size, the technological process can be taken to where the plastic wastes are. The whole system can fit in a 20-foot shipping container or on the back of a flat-bed truck.