Scientists have come up with a more simplistic way to turn plastic into liquid fuel, and it produces a higher quality product. The new technique breaks down polyethylene, the plastic found most often around the world in everything from plastic bottles to film. Around 100 million tons of the plastic is produced each year, so that makes it a great solution to the stuff we have just floating around our waters and polluting our ground.
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In fact, some reports say that by 2050, there will be more plastic bottles in the ocean than fish.
"If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to two [truck-fulls] per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050," a World Economic Forum (WEF) report revealed in January. "In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish."
The solution has always been simple, we have to turn plastic waste into something that we can use -- and fuel is the most obvious choice. The problem is that plastic is a really stable chemical compound.
"If you leave plastic in the ocean or the environment or you bury it underground, it’s going to stay there for hundreds or thousands of years," one of the team, Zhibin Guan, a synthetic polymer chemist at the University of California, Irvine, said.
Polyethylene will stay in its current state without some sort of special treatment. Heating does work, but it isn't something sustainable.
"[I]f you try to heat them at more than 400 degrees Celsius (which some methods do), they collapse into all kinds of combinations, resulting in a messy mix of gas, oil, wax and char that’s not especially useful," Khan explains.
To address this problem, Guan and his team paired with researchers to devise a technique. They worked with the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry in China.
The process requires around 175 degrees Celsius (347 Fahrenheit), making it far easier than the traditional 400 degrees (752 Fahrenheit).
Robert Service to Science Magazine: "For starters, the catalysts break down polyethylene slowly, over the course of a day or more. They are also expensive and decompose after breaking apart just a few thousand polymer chains, far less than the millions carried out by most commercial catalysts."
It that doesn't work, it might just be back to the drawing board.