Innovation

Future of Plastics: Plastics diversify the U.S. energy matrix

With plastics as a feedstock for white hydrogen, the U.S. energy matrix will be more diverse while also meeting clean energy and circular economy goals.

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As the United States continues to diversify its energy portfolio, plastics are not only vital to ambitious climate change goals but can also help produce fuel sources like white hydrogen.

Hydrogen is an attractive alternate energy source due to its versatility, storability, and low carbon emissions. While hydrogen has traditionally been produced with fossil fuels, researchers have been working to create, implement, and scale up Carbon Capture & Sequestration (CCS) technologies to incorporate alternative inputs. Creating hydrogen from biomass or plastics is called “white hydrogen,” and single-use plastics have become a feedstock for this process, creating fewer emissions and a more circular plastics economy.

Plastic inputs contribute to a green, circular economy

White hydrogen is produced through gasification, a process that turns materials, including single-use plastics, into a synthesis gas, or “syngas.” Syngas can then be stored and used for power generation or converted into fuel or chemical feedstocks, such as ethanol and methanol. Syngas can even be used to produce new plastic products, creating a circular economy where no piece of plastic ends up in the environment or a landfill.

In October 2020, a team of researchers finalized a process to convert plastic waste into white hydrogen and carbon nanotubes through pulverization. The conversion process takes about 30-90 seconds, has an extremely low energy loss rate of about 3 percent, and has a zero CO2 emissions output. This means that this process generates almost no waste.

In a recent report conducted by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, scientists found that converting solid waste into hydrogen is a key technology to reduce carbon emissions and meet energy diversification goals. According to a 2016 Department of Energy report, the United States generates one billion tons of dry biomass, including plastics, per year. That’s enough to produce 50 million tons of renewable white hydrogen annually, or to satisfy 90 percent of gasoline consumption in the United States each year. Plastics are helping diversify our energy matrix through the help of white hydrogen technologies that ensure that the U.S is growing a greener, more circular plastics economy.

New technologies can create even more opportunities

While white hydrogen technology has already been shown to be a viable option for energy generation, innovations are constantly being pursued to ensure that this process is available for scaled-up, commercial use. Oxford University’s Department of Chemistry is collaborating with researchers across the world to develop a new type of catalysis to convert plastics into clean, hydrogen fuel. This research is valuable to keep plastics in the economy and out of the environment, while also working toward a more diverse energy matrix.

Industry and governments are already supporting innovative developments to further diversify our energy matrix and develop a circular economy through grants and scholarships. In early 2020, the Energy Fund of the Cheshire and Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership granted PowerHouse Energy a $1.6 million grant to build a ‘thermal conversion chamber’ to break down plastics into fuel in North West England. The plant will be able to process 35 tons of plastic waste and produce two tons of hydrogen per day, while generating 3.8 megawatts of electricity. Efforts like these showcase the power of hydrogen as a key technology for creating a circular economy through the use of plastics.

In April 2021, Clean Power Capital invested $500,000 into FusionOne, a company that engineers circular economy technologies to produce energy. Most recently, the company created an integrated thermal technology solution, the HydroPlas Reactor, that produces white hydrogen from plastic waste. The company already has a plant in Michigan, but will be able to commercialize its groundbreaking technology with this increased funding.

Conclusion

Plastics is supporting energy matrix diversification through the use of innovative white hydrogen technologies. Furthermore, these technologies enable every piece of plastic to be reused, supporting a greener, more circular economy. Without plastics, innovations like this would not be possible. Continued collaboration between industry and government will support technologies that ensure that plastics continue to reduce emissions and create a clean economy.

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