Solving the Energy Crisis and Plastic Pollution – Converting Waste Plastics into Biofuel for the Mobility Industry

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June 2, 2023


Energy Efficiency / FEATURED INSIGHTS / Mobility / Renewable Energy


Solving the Energy Crisis and Plastic Pollution – Converting Waste Plastics into Biofuel for the Mobility Industry

Plastic-to-Biofuel Innovations Chemical Recycling

Plastic-to-Biofuel: Global plastic waste is a major issue. Plastic waste’s durability causes it to become trapped for centuries in landfills and oceans, thereby creating a serious environmental crisis. The inefficiency of recycling processes, high recycling costs, and a lack of incentives actively contribute to the active recycling of only 9% of the 300 million tonnes of plastic waste produced each year.There are mainly three different methods for the disposal of plastic waste:

1.) mechanical recycling,

2.) incineration, and

3.) chemical recycling.

The most popular recycling method is mechanical recycling, which entails mechanically compounding or grinding plastic waste for use in related products. However, because of the lower quality of the plastic produced by this process, industries do not frequently use these recycled products. Incinerating plastic waste can produce heat and electricity, but the process may release toxic pollutants such as acidic gases and heavy metals. As a result, chemical recycling, which actively converts plastics into fuels, is widely regarded as the most promising and least harmful method for recycling plastic waste.


Why convert Plastic into Biofuel?

Plastic litters the oceans, and scientists actively estimate that it would take more than 450 years for it to degrade. The facilities involved in plastic-to-fuel transformation have the potential to generate close to US$9 billion in economic output and more than 39,000 new jobs. This has the potential to boost economies while also offering fresh approaches to recycling plastic and preserving the environment.

Additionally, this novel recycling approach might be less expensive than originally thought. Currently, recycling one tonne of plastic waste can cost more than $4,000 and, as a result, many recycling centres choose to burn plastic waste or dump it in landfills to save money. However, experts estimate that chemical recycling, specifically the conversion of plastic to fuel through chemical reactions, is actively considered to be significantly cheaper than traditional recycling methods. As a result, the widespread adoption of this type of chemical recycling methodology is highly likely.


Innovations in Plastic-to-Biofuel Recycling

Plastic waste has expanded into a major global environmental problem that urgently calls for new mitigation techniques. Swansea University researchers in the UK have produced biofuel (in this case, biohydrogen) using photochemical processes involving plastics. The researchers were able to produce biohydrogen fuel from common plastics such as PET, PLA, and PU using solar irradiation and a CdS/CdOx photocatalyst. During this process, the researchers actively converted the plastics into useful organic compounds, including terephthalic acid, which serves as a crucial precursor for manufacturing new PET and biofuels for application in the mobility industry.

The catalyst’s efficiency remains unaffected, even when actively utilizing plastic scraps obtained from soiled, old bottles. This remarkable finding demonstrates the versatility and effectiveness of the catalyst in the recycling process. Their goal is to get this low-energy process to supplement traditional recycling by focusing on mixed and contaminated waste, which is currently difficult to recycle. Chemists from the University of California, Irvine in the United States have created a recycling process that dissolves the bonds of polyethylene plastic to create biofuels (petroleum and other fuel products) in collaboration with scientists from the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry in China. The group created polymers using alkanes, a class of hydrocarbon molecules.

Breakthrough in Plastic-to-Biofuel Conversion

After a protracted testing and research process, the team successfully discovered that they could alter the bonds between the carbon-hydrogen atoms in the polyethylene. This breakthrough enabled the team to actively restructure the material into a liquid biofuel that has practical applications for automobiles or other industrial uses.

Recently, scientists from Washington State University in the United States developed a powerful technique. This technique can significantly increase the effectiveness of chemically recycling plastic waste and produce biofuel for use in the transportation industry. The effects of using various metals as catalysts were studied, along with the effects of changing the temperature and pressure of the processes involved. The researchers discovered that by using ruthenium metal and carbon as catalysts, they could convert 90% of plastic waste into biofuel in just one hour at a temperature of 220°C. This active voice emphasizes the researchers’ actions and findings.

Plastic-to-Biofuel Innovations

The researchers at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore), developed an innovative plastic-to-biofuel recycling method that actively utilized plastic waste to generate biofuel, specifically biohydrogen in this case. The NTU researchers discovered they could turn plastic waste into two main products:

1.) biohydrogen, and

2.) a type of solid carbon known as carbon nanotubes using a high-temperature chemical process called pyrolysis.

This study is significant because hydrogen is an important fuel for fuel cells, including those found in electric vehicles, and produces only clean water as a waste product. Together with Bluefield Renewable Energy (BRE), an environmental company that focuses its work on mobile waste and resources technologies, the group is test-bedding the novel conversion technique on the NTU Smart Campus to treat local plastic waste to further improve it and assess its commercial viability. Over the next three years, the multi-million-dollar project, funded by the Industry Alignment Fund-Industry Collaboration Projects (IAF-ICP) managed by Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), aims to advance workable solutions for commercially scaling up the conversion of waste plastics to hydrogen.

Strategic Partnership for Plastic-to-Biofuel

Shell Ventures BV and BlueAlp Holding BV have announced a strategic partnership to develop, scale and deploy BlueAlp’s plastic waste to chemical feedstock technology that would result in the production of biofuels (amongst other important products).

The technology actively transforms plastic waste, which is difficult to recycle, into recycled feedstock called pyrolysis oil. This pyrolysis oil can be actively utilized in the production of sustainable chemicals and biofuels. Shell has taken a 21.25% equity stake in BlueAlp, as a part of the agreement.

Under the agreement, Shell and BlueAlp actively collaborate to establish a joint-venture company that will actively construct two new conversion units in The Netherlands. These units are projected to actively convert over 30,000 tonnes of plastic waste per year. The operational launch is planned for 2023, and the units will actively supply 100% of their pyrolysis oil as feedstock to Shell’s Moerdijk and Rhineland crackers, which actively ‘crack’ the long-chain hydrocarbons into smaller molecules necessary for biofuel production.


The Future of Plastic-to-Biofuel Recycling

In 2022, the market actively valued biofuels derived from plastic recycling at $3.64 billion and actively anticipates its growth to $8.80 billion by 2028, reflecting a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15.8%. In the Stated Policies Scenario of the International Energy Agency, market factors, government policies, and available technology will all work together to shift energy supply towards low-carbon sources, with their share increasing from 36% currently to 52% in 2040. Additionally, a major contributor to the global CO2 emissions from the power sector’s new high in 2018 was the escalating demand for electricity. As such, low-carbon resource usage factors will increase demand for technologies that turn low-grade plastic into biofuel. This element will influence the market expansion of biofuels manufactured from recycled plastic in a favourable way in the future. 


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