Oil from Plastic and Rubber Waste

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This article was published by PristinePlanet.com Newsletter, issue #33, 2007-07-10.

During the 20th century, humans dramatically increased their consumption of petroleum products — primarily in the form of refining and then burning oil as a fuel, converting oil into plastics and rubber, and making fertilizers out of natural gas. The competition among these types of demands, is already having significant economic and even political consequences, such as the huge price increases for corn-based foods, as a result of more US corn being used for the production of ethanol. Yet perhaps the most profound problem of all is one that scientists have warned us about for decades: Destroying the world's petroleum supplies, in the form of burning gasoline, makes that oil unavailable for future production of plastic and rubber. It has been predicted that, at some point, ages from now, mankind will deeply regret this irreversible loss of such a valuable commodity — particularly if and when we need tremendous supplies of plastics for space-based colonies and other future applications.

Decades ago, those policymakers and consumers who supported the use of refined petroleum products as fuels, might have had the excuse that the world's oil and natural gas supplies appeared to be unlimited. In fact, some energy analysts have even argued that oil is formed from magma, instead of the thermal conversion of ancient organic matter, and thus the earth is continually renewing its supply of oil. However, this theory of abiotic oil is invalidated by the growing evidence that the major oil fields of the world have peaked in production, and are now in decline — some of them rather precipitously. Even worse, as our oil supplies decline, our consumption of that oil continues to increase, as more countries industrialize. According to the CIA World Factbook of 28 July 2005, the world's proven reserves of oil amounted to 1,349,417,153,000 barrels, distributed among 97 countries. Two years later, according to the CIA World Factbook of 14 June 2007, 206 countries were consuming a total of 82,234,918 barrels per day (bbl/day), which amounts to an annual consumption of 30,036,303,800 barrels. At that rate, we will have burned up all of our known oil in fewer than 45 years! Critics of Peak Oil counter that these estimates do not take into account the discovery of hitherto unknown oil sources. But there have been few discoveries of medium-sized deposits during the past few decades, and no "elephants". In the meantime, world demand and consumption continue to grow. Clearly, this is unsustainable.

Even though the oil that has been foolishly burned away is permanently lost, would it be possible to recover the oil that is currently trapped in plastic and rubber waste products? Apparently so, according to Global Resource Corporation (GRC), a US company that develops alternative renewable energy technologies. Based in West Berlin, New Jersey, GRC has developed a device that takes in non-recyclable plastic and rubber, and bombards it with microwaves at 1200 different frequencies, thereby cracking the different kinds of hydrocarbon chains. Consequently, the hydrocarbons become natural gas, the remaining gases are converted into oil, and leftovers are kept at a minimum. The process is done entirely inside of a vacuum, and thus no resultant chemicals are released into the environment.

According to GRC's website, the energy recovery rates are promising: lubricating oil at 66 percent, diesel oil at 21.5 percent, and kerosene at 12.5 percent. In an article published in NewScientist on 26 June 2007, it is noted that 9.1 kilograms of ground-up tires produce 4.54 liters of diesel oil, 1.42 cubic meters of combustible gas, 1 kg of steel, and 3.40 kg of pure carbon black of a high-quality, which can be reused for pigmenting plastics and tires. Approximately 60 percent of the tires' weight is recovered as high-grade liquid fuel.

There will be no shortage of waste materials to process: According to GRC's site, as of 2005, our environment is currently polluted with 28.9 million tons of municipal plastic waste, of which only 1.65 million tons are recycled (5.7 percent). For instance, some of this waste is plastic-encased copper wiring, for which GRC's technology would be ideal, because the microwaves would strip away all of the plastic, thereby making it much easier to recover the copper itself.

If this new technology proves technically and financially feasible on a large scale, then we can only hope that the oil recovered from the plastic and rubber waste, will be used for manufacturing plastic and rubber products needed in the future, and not burned for fuel. Otherwise, we will be right back in the same predicament as before, and likely regretting our unwise use of petroleum, a valuable but limited resource. Unfortunately, given mankind's predilection for unsustainable lifestyles, it is likely that we will not choose the best path.

Copyright © 2007 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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