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Research Progress

Chinese Scientists Have Figured out How to Turn Plastic into a Liquid Fuel

Jun 20, 2016

A team of Chinese chemists have developed a super efficient method for turning polyethylene, the plastic which makes up almost all of the bags and bottles you use and throw away on a daily basis, into a liquid fuel.

As polyethylene degrades only very slowly, it accumulates in the environment if not responsibly disposed of. To illustrate the seriousness of the problem, a study earlier this year found that by 2050 the world's oceans will contain more plastics than fish by weight.

Traditionally polyethylene is dumped, burnt or converted into other substances using a method called pyrolysis which involves intense heating. Traditional pyrolysis, however, is not energy efficient and allows little control over the products.

Zheng Huang, an organic chemist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and his team recently published their findings in the journal Scientific Advances. Their method allows the degradation process to be carried out are far lower temperatures and which much more control.

An extract from the article reads: "The robust catalyst systems allow full degradation of waste PE bottles, films, and bags into valuable liquid fuels (diesel) and waxes. To the best of our knowledge, the degradation of real-world postconsumer PEs under such mild reaction conditions is unprecedented. Featuring high efficiency, mild reaction conditions, and fine control of degradation products, this method shows distinct advantages over traditional pyrolysis processes.."

In an interview with Gizmodo, Huang said, "Our products are much cleaner than those obtained by conventional [combustion] methods."

"We think that the future potential is there, as long as we can improve the efficiency,” Huang said. “Hopefully, very soon we can scale up the process from gram scale in the lab to kilogram and even ton scale." (Shanghaiist)

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