Recycling Fossil Fuel Products into Fossil Fuel

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an enormous floating maelstrom of plastic waste and trapped marine rubbish estimated to be twice the size of the continental US.

In a joint US-China venture, an effort is underway to convert the PE plastics into a source of fuel—which makes sense.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an enormous floating maelstrom of plastic waste and trapped marine rubbish estimated to be twice the size of the continental US. What’s worse is this is not a static swirling collection of trash; it is growing every day as people and countries continue to dispose of waste in our precious oceans. Much of this waste is PE plastic—a material that takes approximately 450 years to completely degrade. It’s the type of plastic used for grocery bags, water bottles, food packaging, and other products—one of the most common plastics in the world.

In a joint US-China venture, an effort is underway to convert the PE plastics into a source of fuel—which makes sense. PE, or polyethylene, is manufactured from fossil fuels, so converting it back to the same derivatives seems logical.

The process is not simple though. PE takes centuries to degrade and requires certain chemical processes to entice it to do so or, in this case, be reconverted into fuel. Unlike other products, heat is not sufficient to reduce PE to a reusable material; the molecule chain breaks down but it becomes lots of other smaller variants with their own properties.

The US-China team focused instead on chemicals they knew would accelerate reaction processes. After much research they were able to convert the original PE object (a plastic bag, a bottle, and food packaging) into a fuel using a low-energy impact process—thus providing additional ecological benefits. By controlling the speed of the reaction, the team could choose a resulting liquid fuel or a type of wax. The end results seem to be comparatively clean, low-pollution fuels—when compared to other fossil fuels.

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