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Turning Plastic Back Into Oil?

International experts in the area of renewable technology believe that when a society reaches a certain level of affluence, they start to demand better and more technologies that are sustainable and/or renewable.  We’ve seen this over the years in the automotive industry.  About ten years ago, hardly any car companies had hybrid vehicle and all the really upmarket vehicles were all about power and big gas-guzzling engines.  Today, however, nearly every manufacturer has at least one hybrid in the lineup – and these hybrids aren’t snail-paced little dinkies. To take one example, Audi has added the e-tron plug-in hybrid to its already popular luxury A3 line.  This hybrid certainly isn’t a slug!

plastic2petrolCars that use little or no fuel (if the electricity was generated using a renewable source like hydro) are one part of the sustainable motoring equation. Finding alternative sources of fuel that don’t rely on crude oil that (a) is going to run out eventually and (b) comes from politically volatile nations is the other.  We’ve discussed a few of these in the past – algae biodiesel, ethanol, jatropha and the like – and we’ve now found another great development.

The stuff we put in our cars so they chug along from A to B isn’t the only thing that comes from crude oil.  The other major use is plastic.  Now, plastic was developed at about the same time as the internal combustion engine (Bakelite was invented in the 1850s) and really took off in about the 1950s.  And we all know how it’s taken over since then and we’re forever tripping over the ruddy stuff on the beach, etc. etc.  I could easily go off into a rant about plastic shopping bags and how we need to go back to paper bags instead but I’d better stay on topic.

Plastic is made from oil.  Theoretically, then, it should be possible to “unrefine” it and turn it back into oil.  This is exactly what one Japanese inventor has managed to do.  Akinori Ito, founder of a company called Blest, has come up with a machine that will do exactly that.  This machine isn’t some massive monster of a factory plant, either.  It’s small enough to fit into the average garage and can convert polystyrene, polyethylene and polypropylene back into crude gas.  This gas can’t be poured straight into your vehicle’s fuel tank (although it can be used in some generators), as it needs further refining before it’s OK for that.

It’s pretty efficient, too. It can take 1 kg of plastic and turn it into about 1 litre of crude.  The machine is powered by electricity and the process of turning the kilo of plastic into the litre of crude takes 1 kW/h of electricity.  It does produce some residue that is, according to (a) the manufacturers and (b) Japanese regulations, burnable.  The process also produces a few greenhouse gases (methane, ethane, propane and butane) but the latest refinements contain a gas filter that breaks these gases down into CO2 and water.

The real beauty about this machine is that although it doesn’t convert all plastics to oil, it does deal with some of the most common ones – the sort of thing that most of us have sitting in our rubbish or recycling bins.  Here’s a little exercise that you can try once you’ve finished reading this:  Go to your rubbish bin and/or recycling crate and pick out the polypropylene, the polyethylene and the polystyrene.  Weigh it.  Every kilo adds up to a litre of fuel.

  • Polystyrene: disposable cups and other tableware, those trays from supermarket-packed meat, CD cases, packaging, disposable razors, anything stamped with the recycling number 6.
  • Polyethylene: plastic shopping bags, plastic toys, clingfilm, bubble wrap, buckets, lids, pipes, lids, some bottles, anything stamped with PE inside the recycling triangle symbol.
  • Polypropylene: thermal clothing, ropes, carpets, packaging of some sorts, lids, drinking straws, disposable nappies, feminine hygiene products, anything stamped with recycling number 5.

Feeling like you’re sitting on a potential oil well?  Starting to wonder why we’re just burying this stuff in the ground if we can make petrol out of it?  You won’t be the only one!

At the moment, the machines are a little on the expensive side, costing US$12,700 at the moment.  Blest mostly produces the larger machines, but I’m sure it would be possible for communities or local councils to get hold of these and collect material from householders and businesses and start some drop-off-your-plastic-and-get-cheaper-petrol scheme up. Or some company could look into and find a way to turn office waste into fuel for the company fleet.

Those who want to know more can check out the official promo video

Alternatively, take a look at the Blest website.

I don’t know about you, but I’d certainly like one of these for Christmas!

Safe and happy motoring,