Plastics-to-oil companies continue to move their processes and technologies forward.
In ancient times, alchemists worked to convert lead into gold. Today, engineers and chemists are converting plastics into fuel with a much higher degree of success and profit.
“The biggest problem this industry has is getting over the barrier of disbelief,” says Christopher Irons, corporate investor relations manager for JBI Inc., Niagara Falls, N.Y.
JBI and several other companies have processes in place that would accomplish the goal of transforming some of the 31 million tons of plastic waste that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates are landfilled into fuel.
“Currently, the market for waste conversion technology is growing due to an increase in tipping fees, transport costs and labor costs facing the solid waste industry,” says Michael Dungan, director of sales and marketing at RES Polyflow LLC, Akron, Ohio. Fewer licensed landfills in the United States mean fewer places to bury trash and longer hauling routes. At the same time, state and federal mandates for energy consumption derived from renewable sources create a pull for end products.
“We do not see oil or plastics going away anytime soon,” observes Jesse Klinkhamer, chief executive for Klean Industries Inc., Vancouver, British Columbia. “Specifically in developing nations, there are opportunities for the technology on a stand-alone basis and on an integrated basis around the planet.
“We foresee the adoption of thousands of facilities in the next two decades,” Klinkhamer predicts. “Within that time we will also see many technological advancements in process controls and technology designs as future implementations create more product innovation. Hence why companies like Dow Chemical are turning to companies such as Klean Industries for both process improvement and technological innovation with respect to developing a more sustainable supply chain.”
Dungan says, “Leveraging the efficiency of converting high-Btu material into high-demand fuel opens up a world of opportunity for not only the solid waste and recycling industry but for individuals and groups interested in doing the right thing while making money.”
Depending on where it is done, the process consumes plastics, notably No. 3 through No. 7 plastics that are difficult to recycle. Other materials that typically go into the mix might include tires with the metal fraction removed, auto shredder residue (ASR), medical waste and other polymer products.
“Plastics like PET (polyethylene terephthalate) have their own microeconomics for recycling already,” Irons notes. “Besides, PET is not what we want to use, anyway.” JBI also avoids polyvinyl chloride (PVC) because it contains chlorine and polycarbonates. JBI prefers to deal with polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE).
JBI’s relationship with the crayon and marker company Crayola, Easton, Pa., is just one of its supplier deals. Municipal waste is not a large part of the company’s feedstock. “We are looking for shredded HDPE (high-density polyethylene) on a skid, ready to go to the machine,” Irons explains.
Klean, with its KleanFuel process, has a direct pyrolytic liquefaction system for converting plastics to diesel. “A wide variety of fuels can be produced, and each project has tailored production for a local market,” Klinkhamer says. Klean processes predominately polyolefins with PP, polystyrene (PS), PE, HDPE and low-density polyethylene (LDPE) as its primary focus.
“Any end-of-life plastic or rubber material such as postconsumer products carrying resin codes 1 through 7, postindustrial materials including thermoplastics and thermosets, spent Super Sacks and agricultural film make good feedstocks,” says Dungan.
At an operation like Vadxx, Akron, Ohio, all grades of plastic get turned into crude oil. Its ideal general waste stream comprises PP, PS or PE waste. The company prefers not to see PET, PVC or nylons in the system, though Russell Cooper, vice president of business development for the company, acknowledges that any waste stream will contain some fraction of those plastics. The system’s design is flexible enough to consume common amounts of material like PVC, despite the chlorine content, Cooper says.
RES Polyflow has a full-scale commercial unit operating in continuous mode in northeastern Ohio that is used primarily for customer demonstrations to secure contracts for customer-owned plants.
“We have processed over 10 tons of material, including MRF-generated bales that are primarily 4 through 7 plastic, plastic film and pots discarded by the local horticultural industry, carpeting, tires and a variety of off-spec industrial streams from local manufacturers,” Dungan says. Those 10 tons were during shakedown trials. “This work continues as we prepare to site and construct plants in the U.S. with our owner/operator partners,” he adds.
The plastics-to-fuel industry remains haunted by past failures. Previous technologies did not perform as promised and, as a result, have held back the development of this segment of the waste-to-energy industry, according to many industry sources.
“Plus, the economics of the oil business kept many technologies on the shelf,” Dungan adds, noting that it does not make sense to produce oil using an alternative technology when the market for crude oil dictates more competitive per-barrel pricing.
How it Works
Converting plastics into fuel is technical but not esoteric. All polymer-based materials and products are made up of hydrocarbons that are derived from crude oil and natural gas in the manufacturing process.
JBI, named for founder John Bordynuik, is on its third-generation plastics-to-fuel system. At the end of June 2013, the company upgraded its existing two-kiln unit with a half-size kiln that continuously removes the carbon residue from the system, thus solving one of the challenges with byproducts. JBI converts plastic by use of its proprietary pyrolysis technology. The system ran for 23 straight days this summer without a hiccup, according to Bordynuik.
The JBI system produces about 2 percent inert carbon residue as a byproduct. While the carbon has value, it complicates the conversion process. In a typical run, 150,000 pounds of plastics will be processed in anywhere from a few days to a week depending on the density of the material. A gas management system manages the off-gas production of about 12 percent propane, butane and the like. Those gases are redirected to the burners and help move the process along.
The RES Polyflow technology repurposes these hydrocarbons by cracking the material using heat. This allows the solid material to turn into a liquid and then a vapor that it is recaptured and cooled into a liquid fuel that is similar to crude oil. The fuel can then be blended into the current transportation fuel pool or can be further distilled into very specific constituents, such as octane enhancement products, diesel, heating oil and a variety of feedstocks for the plastic industry.
“We think of it as closing the loop on plastic waste ... at end of life, a polymer-based item does not have to be landfilled. It can be converted back into a new fuel or feedstock source using our patented process,” Dungan says.
The KleanFuel process produces American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) specification diesel and a proprietary blend of heating fuel that costs less and performs better than No. 2 heating oil, Klinkhamer says.
Klean Industries’ process is based on liquefaction, pyrolysis and the catalytic breakdown of plastics. It handles unsorted, unwashed plastic. A KleanFuel plant can produce up to 950 liters of high-grade diesel fuel from 1 metric ton of waste plastics. It can be upgraded with system modules ranging from 3 to 24 metric tons per day.
The process used at Vadxx is the brainchild of William L. Ullom III, chief technical officer and founder of Vadxx. The concept started with Amoco at the University of Wyoming in the early 1990s. Ullom acquired the technology, made changes and now has it ready for the market. “Ninety percent of what we have is different than what we had 20 years ago,” Cooper notes.
The Vadxx process produces oil with lower sulfur content than naturally occurring oil. Vadxx oil is light, with American Petroleum Institute (API) gravities primarily between 35 and 45 degrees, the company says. Gas produced by the Vadxx process can be converted to electricity to power the commercial plants. Patent filings are underway for the Vadxx Energy conversion process. The end product from the Vadxx system is light sweet synthetic crude oil and about 5 percent char, according to the company.
In August, Vadxx was finalizing a deal with the city of Akron to enter into a development agreement. Part of the agreement calls for construction of a $2 million, 18,000-square-foot plant. Once the plant is at full production, it is expected to process about 20,000 tons of waste per year, producing about 80,000 barrels of fuel, Vadxx says.
Assuming the deal with Akron goes forward, when the equipment is commercially scaled, it will be about 5,000 square feet, including a 50-foot extruder and a 60-foot rotary kiln. Each will need about 16 operators to run the machine 24 hours per day.
At JBI, the end product is an in-spec diesel fuel that Irons says runs better than the product one would buy at the pump. “It is stable with a high flash point, low carbon and low sediments,” he says.
Preparation is one key to successful processing. JBI avoids putting a range of plastics into the mix. “Using randomly cracked hydrocarbons creates chaos,” Irons says. “The old methods of condensing your end product was based on a random mash of hydrocarbons. It is so viscous, it is a nightmare to handle or transport. And, typically, you have to pay to refine it from that point forward.
“The difference for us is that we pump out 6,000 gallons of diesel that is ready to go,” Irons says. “The back end of our machine is like a miniature refinery.”
RES Polyflow’s Dungan says, “We size-reduce the materials using a high speed shredder.” The company then passes the material through a series of magnets to remove extraneous alloys and densifies the shreds using an extruder.
What Flows Out
The idea at most sites is to produce an oil that can be used just like any other oil product. RES Polyflow’s output is a composite crude oil. The company describes it as a light and sweet product similar to West Texas Intermediate Crude Oil. It is approximately 50 percent naphtha range liquid hydrocarbon, 35 percent diesel range fuel and 15 percent aromatics.
“Our production unit when operated continuously is capable of producing 12 barrels per hour, or 288 barrels per day,” Dungan says.
One hurdle all producers face is the lack of renewable fuel certification for their end products. RES Polyflow President Jay Schabel is addressing that situation right now.
“We find ourselves spending a fair amount of time myth-busting and overcoming misguided assumptions and objections about the viability of the plastic-to-oil conversion business case with the potential plant owner/operator,” Schabel says.
Another hurdle is the adoption of plastic-to-oil conversion by the hauling and recycling industries as a smart, profitable diversion strategy.
“From a policy standpoint, expanding renewable portfolio standards and guidelines to include plastic-to-oil conversion as a sanctioned, economically viable alternative to other energy recovery technologies would be a positive step to market adoption,” Dungan says.
Klinkhamer says he hopes for consistent, long-term feedstock supplies and integrated thinking when it comes to energy production. “The adoption of these technologies is a fundamental solution to insulating manufacturers’ long-term energy costs on a going-forward basis,” he says. “They allow for manufacturers to significantly reduce their environmental footprint at the same time.”
The author is a freelance writer living in the Cleveland area. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn about the step-by-step pyrolysis process used by Klean Industries, Vancouver, British Columbia, to convert plastics into oil at www.REWmag.com/1013-klean-pyrolysis.aspx.