Researchers at Purdue University developed new technology that can convert 90% of polypropylene waste into high-quality fuels. Without finding ways to deal with the plastic waste we produce, we will be continuously damaging the Earth, especially because these plastics are non-biodegradable and dangerous when ingested.
In 2018, the United Nations estimated that 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean every year, and by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Because of this, the UN launched an initiative to target plastic waste. The global initiative, however, can only reach its goals with innovative technology and policies that will change consumers’ behavior.
Linda Wang, the leader of the development team, was inspired to create the technology after she learned about the gravity of the effects of plastic pollutants. She discovered that over the past 65 years, 8.3 billion tons of plastic waste was produced, and only 12% of that has been incinerated and 9% recycled; everything else ended up in landfills or in the ocean. The plastics degrade very slowly, and small amounts of toxic microplastics pollute the land and water. Once a lot more end up in our oceans, the effects could be irreversible.
The technology targets polypropylene waste: a plastic that is used for packaging and making toys. Through selective extraction and hydrothermal liquefaction, the plastics are turned into naphtha, a flammable oil. This can then be used as feedstock for other chemicals, or it can be further processed and separated into other products. As of the current stage of technological development, the fuel that is derived from this process could satisfy 4% of our annual demand for gasoline.
Wang and her team have patented the technology, and they hope to work with the recycling industry to significantly reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills or thrown in the ocean. As of now, she is looking for more partners and investors to help demonstrate and market the process to the commercial world. Those who choose to help fund this technology are not only able to generate income from the rising green energy industry but also aid an important cause. If we are to invest in our future, then we need to fund important projects like this.