Going Green with Pyrolysis

November 20, 2013
Going Green with Pyrolysis

A curious irony comes to mind when a conversation turns to oil. We all realize how fossil fuels have shaped modern living, transformed human existence, but this Earth locked liquid is still regarded as toxic to everything on that same Earth. The substance is secured within geological reservoirs, layers of sediment and shale. Certainly, it can be considered an underground resource, but the energy source is not of the soil. Instead, it’s a concoction of complex hydrocarbons created by pressure, time, and the presence of organic chains that once existed on the surface millions of years ago. Upon releasing that crude oil mix into the environment, pollution on a world scale is the result, and we, as stewards of the planet, have to be capable of undoing the damage.

Much to our credit, technology is bringing dynamic solutions to the table. Super-solvents dissolve the chemical bonds of oil. Chemical dispersants and microbial growths eat into oil slicks. And there are even greater solutions in the pipeline, answers in the form of nano-scale sponges and formulations that undermine the devastating effects of the fossil fuel. Jumping to the other end of oil processing, the same innovative attitude is required. Pyrolysis is one of the leaders in this field of study. Pyrolysis is a controlled decomposition process, one that chemically breaks down engineering plastics, rewinding their processed form to pure crude oil. Since plastic tends to degrade very slowly, pursuing this avenue of research could be key in taking durable plastic bonds back to their initial form.

Match this notion of chemical decomposition with the fact that close to one billion tons of plastic is laying discarded on our planet, and we have the final piece in the plastic puzzle. In short, we resolve a devastating issue by completing a miraculous cycle. That cycle takes crude oil and processes it into chemical products and marketable plastics, but now we see the course of the process boomeranging back to the beginning. Pyrolysis engages a systematic recycling format by taking all of the high-density polyethylene (HDPE) shopping bags, the countless mountains of useless scrap tires, and all of the broken cell phones that are destined to endure within rubbish tips, and offers a thermal distillation methodology capable of breaking down long-chained plastic molecules.

Breaking down what polymerization has created through heat and oxygen starvation is one practical way of truly recycling plastic. The method is even now redefining the life-cycle of long-chained polymers, taking them back to their initial crude oil configuration. By employing a process that mimics the action the Earth took millions of years ago to break organic molecules into hydrocarbons, another remarkable irony, we transform discarded yoghurt cartons and empty water bottles into useful paraffinic fuels.