How we can turn plastic waste into green energy

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Anh Phan, Newcastle University

In the adventure classic Back to the Future, Emmett “Doc” Brown uses energy generated from rubbish to power his DeLorean time machine. But while a time machine may still be some way off, the prospect of using rubbish for fuel isn’t too far from reality. Plastics, in particular, contain mainly carbon and hydrogen, with similar energy content to conventional fuels such as diesel.

Plastics are among the most valuable waste materials – although with the way people discard them, you probably wouldn’t know it. It’s possible to convert all plastics directly into useful forms of energy and chemicals for industry, using a process called “cold plasma pyrolysis”.

Pyrolysis is a method of heating, which decomposes organic materials at temperatures between 400℃ and 650℃, in an environment with limited oxygen. Pyrolysis is normally used to generate energy in the form of heat, electricity or fuels, but it could be even more beneficial if cold plasma was incorporated into the process, to help recover other chemicals and materials. Continue reading