For decades, plastic has been polluting the environment and especially the seas. It enters the food chain and threatens human health. Focusing on recycling has therefore become essential to transforming waste plastic into resources – even in fuels.
Now, Washington State University researchers have developed an innovative way to convert Polyethylene, the most commonly used plastic, to ingredients for jet fuel and other valuable products, making it easier and more cost-effective to reuse plastics. The team was led by graduate student Chuhua Jia and Hongfei Lin, associate professor at the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering.
Most plastic recycling methods are based on its melting and remolding – a technique that, however, lowers the economic value and, above all, the quality of the material. There is the alternative of chemical recycling, of course, but there are never too many good ideas when it comes to the circular economy.
In their work, the WSU researchers developed a catalytic process to efficiently convert polyethylene to jet fuel and high-value lubricants. For the process, they used ruthenium on carbon catalyst and a commonly used solvent.
The details of the procedure are, of course, “secret,” but according to what has been announced, the process would take about an hour and a temperature not exceeding 220 degrees Celsius to transform about 90% of the plastic to jet fuel components or other hydrocarbon products. The operation promises to be simpler and cheaper than one would have expected for such an important transformation.
“Depending on the market, they can tune to what product they want to generate,” Lin said. “They have flexibility. The application of this efficient process may provide a promising approach for selectively producing high-value products from waste polyethylene.“
The next step will be to fine-tune and scale up the process for future commercialization. The researchers also hope to be able to use the same method to recycle other types of plastics.
“In the recycling industry, the cost of recycling is key,” Lin said. “This work is a milestone for us to advance this new technology to commercialization.”