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Old 05-28-2013, 07:44 AM   #1
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Plastic to oil?

Someone mailed me an interesting video yesterday. A man in Japan has a machine that allows plastics to be re-converted back in to various oil products. While I do not know how much energy input is required for this transformation, it appears to be an interesting concept. The video is in Japanese, but has decent subtitles.

http://www.flixxy.com/convert-plastic-to-oil.htm

Make your own judgement. I would ask our resident physicist to chime in please. While he claims to be able to "distil" diesel and gasoline from the recovered liquid, it is my understanding that the process required for that is catalytic and would need a column to strip the various hydrocarbons.
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Old 05-28-2013, 08:40 AM   #2
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I like to think that all this oil and coal we're burning is going to be reconverted back into oil too. It's just going to take a little longer.
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Old 05-28-2013, 09:17 AM   #3
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There's a lot of relative stuff here. (the usual "buts").

Yes, plastic trash is a problem. But....whether you burn it as plastic or convert it back to petroleum first and then burn it - you're releasing CO2 that was carbon otherwise locked up in the plastic (originally locked up in oil in the ground), which was made from oil rather than just burning the oil in the first place - zero net gain, actually you lose the energy to make the plastic and the energy to convert it back first, so it's a loss.

In places where they incinerate garbage anyway, this would look like a net gain, but it isn't - because most places that incinerate garbage use the heat to indirectly generate something else useful - process heat for something, or generate electricity. So that CO2 generation via burning wasn't purely going to waste anyway - that's just a sin of omission on this guy's part.

He is, btw, not the only guy looking at this, and there's a semi-practical system going on near here (don't have time to look it up just now, I think it's in NC) in pilot plant stage that will "eat" a lot of different things, from bio-waste (hey, that's renewable) to tires to plastics as well, and produce oil - not a bad idea when landfills are filling with the stuff, but perhaps not as good overall as changing the plastic back into, well, plastic, and just reusing it.

Plastic recycling back into plastic the stuff IS useful) already has a little momentum, but there are issues in either case. Some plastics are chlorinated (PVC etc) or fluorinated (teflon etc) - you can't change those back into fuel so easily, and incinerating them is a real problem with pollution - halogens are nasty (think PCB's). The problem for either case is separating them for better recycling, and oh yes - how much of the plastic in your garbage is clean? Does it still have soda pop in it, food bits, a label, and so on? Metal foil? Ah. If you look at nearly any plastic product in the US, you'll find a little symbol that says what kind it is - helpful for recycling/separation, but that still means someone has to touch each piece and look it over. We are a bit away from a robot that can do that, and make a judgement if it can't find a symbol - they mainly put that on big things, and soda bottles, not baby diapers and saran wrap.

This is technically feasible, but no one is spending R&D money on it at a decent rate in this economy. R&D is usually the first thing to go when things are tight. Dumb, but we've got humans and the next quarter to deal with, not angels and a long view.

If you don't segregate them, you get a pretty crappy product just melting random plastics back together (and all this is ignoring that nasty plasticizer chemicals just about all plastics contain to make them not-brittle...and which are theorized to cause some cancers, especially in people who insist on drinking plastic bottled water and/or lots of soda (or canned beer). Those are an entirely different and nasty chemical setup that hinders recycling (nasty poisonous fumes!).

So, this guy's thing can (and probably does) work (catalytic cracking is very old news in the petroleum biz), but...passing fossil fuel through a plastic stage, then back to liquid to burn it - well, it doesn't really gain you anything much, CO2-wise. You have to put energy in for both transitions, not a crap-ton, but some - so, net loss, energy-wise.

It's my own belief that landfills will be the rich mines of the future, if we can solve the separation issues - which we should be doing on the way in, frankly, when it's a lot easier to separate the bottles and baby diapers from the electronics and furniture and paper and metal cans.

This really is the true case of Buffet's snide remarks about gold - dig it up, look at it, then put it back in a hole...while he's full of it regarding gold, look at this situation instead - we're doing it with *everything*. We've already high-graded all the mines (eg got the rich ore first and now we have dregs everywhere for the less common things). Most landfills are better mines than mines now! But it's all mixed up, unlike a vein of some kind of ore that maybe only has 2-3 major things in it. That's the problem.

A far better solution to this class of problem would be some smart guy figuring out an economical way to separate all this stuff on the way into the landfill and sell the results as raw materials for the makers of "new" things. You'd help a ton doing that - and only hurt the oil->plastic kinds of outfits who wouldn't see as much demand anymore, saving oil for other uses. Getting copper, silver, gold, silicon, even iron (much less stainless steel) back out this way would cost a fraction of mining/refining the ores does. In fact, Roanoke Electric steel is a local set of steel plants that uses this kind of thing as all its feedstock (and electricity to melt/refine it). They use no ore. I just happen to know that because I live 60 miles from it, and sometimes hit their input scrapyard for goodies they'll sell cheap. And they've been at it for quite some time now - since the '50s, and for what is about the cheapest metal out there anyway - rebar grade steel - and they make money anyway.

It's just that a single landfill, large as it is, doesn't provide some of the sheer scale that a big mine does, and people don't naturally think "distributed" - you'd have to combine the output of a bunch to make it worth doing it at current capex costs. So, startup costs, the thing capitalism is supposed to provide - are large, and no one has managed to put together a good enough plan to attract that money in these markets.

Yet. We can hope, which of course, we know isn't a viable investment strategy...
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Old 05-28-2013, 11:17 AM   #4
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Originally Posted by DCFusor View Post:
(...)not a bad idea when landfills are filling with the stuff, but perhaps not as good overall as changing the plastic back into, well, plastic, and just reusing it.
(...)
Plastic recycling back into plastic the stuff IS useful) already has a little momentum, but there are issues in either case.
(...)
The problem for either case is separating them for better recycling, and oh yes - how much of the plastic in your garbage is clean? Does it still have soda pop in it, food bits, a label, and so on? Metal foil?
(...)
It's my own belief that landfills will be the rich mines of the future, if we can solve the separation issues - which we should be doing on the way in, frankly, when it's a lot easier to separate the bottles and baby diapers from the electronics and furniture and paper and metal cans.
comprehensive as usual, DCFusor . I cannot agree more. Out of the "three Rs" (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), Recycling is the one that has the LEAST potential to have ANY significant impact on our rate of wrecking the planet, but... hush, hush, the other two "Rs", are not good for the Economy, as we commonly define it - i.e.: GDP must go up, up, up, consume, spend, spend, consume!!!! (on a side note, they are simply GREAT & UNBEATABLE for the economy, as the dictionary explains the word - i.e., "using land, labor & capital, in a MOST EFFECTIVE WAY")

If we want impact positively everything - than first, Reduce the use of non-sustainable things in your life, that has the most potential, secondly, Reuse things (buy second-hand spare parts where applicable, generally, buy high quality, lasting second-hand stuff, over new, but cheap shit etc.). Recycle, is the third one, and as I said before - despite being the most promoted one, it in fact has the least potential to make any significant impact on the bigger picture.

Re: landfills being future mines - I agree. Even today, they start that already - like power plants, that are fired with the methane being naturally released in landfills, in anaerobic breakdown of shit there. Several going commercial, that I've heard off, well past R&D phase. I think that nanotechnology might in the future give us required scale, to separate basic materials in the landfill - think about nano-mech ants, being as effective in cleaning the landfills, as the real ants are, in sanitizing landscapes from any bio waste.

Recycling plastic into a fuel, to burn the shit out of it- just like Fusor said, it in fact is one of the stupidest ideas, if you look at the full picture. All kinds of plastics, are about the most useful things, we can possibly produce out of oil. Burning plastics (just as burning the oil), is one of the more wicked things, we can do.

Separate thing is, that using plastics, to make use-once-throw-away things, is also amongst the stupidest ideas ever. Why a substance, that will last hundreds of years in a landfill, is used to produce things, that are meant to be throw-away ones?! Ridiculous. Use freakin' paper/cellulose, or something like that instead!We can mince it after use, and spread over our gardens, if we are so inclined to use disposable things (which again - I find utterly stupid idea).

Lastly, what you mention re: the quality of recycled plastic being an issue - one of my friends, is running a business manufacturing all kinds of plastic stuff. He was trying once to run on recycled feed stock. It didn't work for him - exactly, for the reason of not-consistent feed stock quality, causing stoppages, WAY higher maintenance costs, and quality control issues. It was years ago, and truthfully, it wasn't very sophisticated method for obtaining the feedstock - just shredding different kinds of recycled stuff into something resembling your regular plastic feed stock, that could be heated and press-formed.
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