transport waste

How Waste2tricity use waste plastic for hydrogen fuel

The world is facing a plastic crisis at the moment. Plastic is found on top of Mount Everest and at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. It’s everywhere, polluting the oceans and clogging landfill. Recycling isn’t working properly either, with established global trade routes for plastic scrap being redrawn by China and East Asia. We just don’t know what to do with it all.

Waste2Tricity is a company offering a potential solution. They have a technology that takes plastic waste and runs it through something called a distributed modular gasification unit. Hydrogen is then extracted from the syngas, and the gas is burned for electricity. There is no residue or ash, and it can use mixed unrecyclable plastics, even if they are contaminated.

It’s a useful process. It disposes of the waste, and creates both electricity and a transport fuel. They hope to see London buses running on hydrogen made from waste plastics, which would be an intriguing development.

One advantage of a technology like this is that it gives value to low grade plastic waste – exactly the kind that tends to get dumped into landfill or shipped overseas. It would create a market for it. That would help not just with the waste stream constantly flowing out of homes and retailers, but with plastic waste already in the environment as well. We could mine waste sites for scrap plastic and gasify it, helping to tidy up the damage that’s already been done – a potentially restorative idea.

Like any technology that makes use of waste, is does highlight some of the arguments around how we deal with plastic. One approach is zero waste – ban single use plastics, tax plastic production, and try to reduce the use of plastic in the first place. Another approach is the circular economy, which aims to reuse and recycle materials and keep them in circulation instead. Using waste for fuel is closer to the second in seeing waste as a resource, but is does ultimately consume it and it doesn’t particularly fit well into either strategy.

These approaches aren’t mutually exclusive of course, but they do bump into each other from time to time. The plastics industry certainly advocates recycling, because it doesn’t challenge their business model. But all plastics are fossil fuels, which we need to leave in the ground.

Still, a modular gasification unit that could help clean up plastic sounds promising. Waste2Tricity haven’t built one yet, but they are making plans for a demonstration plant and it’s something to keep an eye on.

9 comments

  1. I would want to know a great deal more before endorsing this process. Plastics contain many other elements besides hydrogen. Probably carbon and oxygen in all of them, with other elements depending on the type of plastic. What are the waste products and how will they be disposed of? Carbon dioxide, as mentioned in the previous comment seems an obvious one, but there will certainly be others. Liquids, solids or gases? Toxic or harmless? How will they vary, depending on the mix of plastic types?

    1. The mix of plastic types would certainly complicate the procedure and impact efficiency. Unless they have found a way to homogenize the feed OR have great segregation systems in place.

  2. I’m not sure how new this is as an approach? It seems essentially a tweaked Energy Recovery Facility, (aka ‘incinerator’), of which there are many across the UK and worldwide. OK, making syngas (a mix of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide) and then extracting the hydrogen gives you a new source for powering transport (rather than just generating electricty ‘in situ’). But as the flowchart on the website shows, you still have to deal with all the other waste products, especially the carbon content which will all end up as CO2.
    Also, could you clarify what point you are seeking to make with “….fossil fuels, which we need to leave in the ground.”? Are you against using fossil fuels for the sole purpose of making plastics? I think there may be arguments in FAVOUR of that – IF the plastic is reprocessible and part of a low waste, circular economy cycle. Since we’d have to use cultivated alternatives if we didn’t use fossil plastics, and since we’re running short of productive land for cultivation, it might be better to use some ‘geologically extracted’ feedstocks as part of a systainble ‘circular as possible’ system, rather than diverting lots of food land to make packaging and other ‘structural’ products. Lots to think about here, no easy answers….

  3. There are two key tweaks in my view. One is the addition of hydrogen as an extra saleable commodity, which may make all the difference in making it economically viable. The more important one, potentially, is the modular construction. That makes them quicker and simpler to install, with smaller localised units in the places they’re needed.

    What I find particularly interesting is the idea of being able to set up one of these in a place that has a plastic pollution problem, toast the stock of waste plastic and then move the unit on. Not sure how realistic that is at this early stage, but a technology that can make money out of cleaning up plastic waste is well worth trialling.

    On fossil fuels, I think plastics are one of the few legitimate uses of them, if they can be handled responsibly (a big if). The problem is that the big extractors have an incentive to push recycling or energy recovery rather than reducing plastic use or using ‘natural’ plastics. We know how powerful the oil and gas lobby are, and at the moment they are skewing the debate and working against zero waste approaches. Ultimately fossil fuels are a finite resource and we should be looking get by without them, though plastics can continue long after burning them for energy.

  4. Reblogged this on Respect Your Mother! and commented:
    This is such a cool way to break down and reuse plastic instead of sending it straight to the landfill with the rest. Technology is moving in our favor to help solve some of these issues that we are having! Great ideas! Although this is still in its testing and production stage, I look forward to seeing the great results this can produce.

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