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Rubber-to-oil process could reshape recycling

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Technologies that can turn rubber and plastic into oil promise to help recyclers deal with one of the most stubborn problems in recycling – what to do with the huge amount of material that is too commingled or contaminated to be recycled using conventional approaches?

Three companies are in various stages of commercializing technologies that use a process called pyrolysis to heat mixed plastic and rubber in airtight containers to convert it into oil and byproducts. The full-scale plants that will prove or disprove the viability of the approach are coming online this year and next, and recyclers are lining up to provide feedstock.

Russell Cooper, vice president of business development for Cleveland-based Vadxx Energy, said sources of rubber and plastic waste have signed up to provide 3 times the 60 tons per day that will be processed by the plant they are preparing to construct in Cleveland.

Should one or more of the companies investigating the practicality of pyrolysis succeed, the implications for recyclers are huge, Cooper said. Commercially successful plastic-to-oil conversion would allow recyclers to stop landfilling or exporting mountains of polymers that are too dirty, commingled or otherwise unsuitable for recycling.

“Our process is designed to take bottom of the barrel polymers,” said Jay Schabel CEO of Akron-based RES Polyflow, which is also looking to build a commercial-scale pyrolysis facility. Schabel said they will be happy to take materials that recyclers can’t, including stretch wrap with labels stuck to it, paper-like thin-film polymers that contaminate paper collected for recycling and household plastics.

“We take it dirty and commingled, with the peanut butter still in the peanut butter jar,” Schabel said. “And we’ll affordably turn it into transportation fuels.” Specifically, about half of RES Polyflow’s output is naphtha, an ingredient in gasoline. Another 35 percent can be used for diesel fuel. While yield varies depending on the precise process, pyrolysis can turn about 10 lbs. of waste into one gallon of synthetics.

The potential feedstock is enormous. Schabel said 94 percent of the polymer produced annually goes into landfills. That’s a far lower recycling rate than other materials such as aluminum, glass and paper.

Pyrolysis can take virtually any polymer, including all seven types of plastic resins, rubber including old tires and even carpeting. The output is similarly flexible, consisting largely of a partially refined crude oil that is very similar to diesel fuel. With moderate additional processing, the pyrolysis output can be easily and, at current oil prices, profitably employed to make gasoline, diesel fuel and other products.

As a result, pyrolysis companies are finding no trouble lining up buyers for their output. And, again at current oil prices, the companies say they are not relying on government subsidies or incentives. Instead, they are seeking or have already found investors who anticipate turning a profit by selling the output for more than it cost.

Vadxx’s Cleveland plant is anticipated to cost between $12 million and $15 million and will turn 20,000 tons of waste into 100,000 barrels of synthetic oil annually. Operations are expected to commence by the middle of 2013. The engineering and construction are being handled by Rockwell Automation of Milwaukee.

RES Polyflow’s $5 million plant in Perry, Ohio is nearing completion. It’s intended to demonstrate the viability of its process to companies interested in partnering to build full-scale commercial conversion facilities. Such a plant would include front-end systems for incoming feedstock and back-end systems for collecting and processing output for transfer to customers.

Agilyx, of Beaverton, Oregon, differs from the two Ohio startups in that it uses a batch-oriented technology instead of a continuous-flow process. Agilyx also employs a distributed approach, with pyrolysis facilities processing up to 10 tons per day located on waste-generators’ premises rather than centralized sites. Investors include Waste Management and venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Agilyx said its first commercial pyrolysis system is operating at an undisclosed customer site.

While pyrolysis can turn any polymer into oil and petrochemical byproducts, it works best with a subset. For instance, PVC has significant chlorine content, which can’t be turned into oil or fuel. It can be removed and processed into hydrochloric acid, however. And tires are only half polymer content, Schabel noted, which makes them less attractive than plastics for pyrolysis operators.

Cooper said that while Vadxx can convert all plastics, the process makes oil well only out of polyolefins, which are numbers 2 and 4 through 7. “We do not look for PVC or PET, numbers 1 and 3,” Cooper said. “We can take small amounts of rogue 1 and 3.”

While it’s not perfect or without limits, pyrolysis is far better at handling mixed plastics than conventional recyclers. “That’s this process’s strength,” Cooper said. “Recyclers are good at taking single streams and making them into pellets. But when plastics are mixed or contaminated, it often inhibits recycling to pellets. To us it doesn’t matter.”

The viability of pyrolysis also depends on the highly variable price of oil, which is among the most volatile. At recent prices above $90 a barrel for crude oil, Vadxx’s process is economically sustainable, Cooper said. “And we’re confident that profitability will hold with oil at less than that,” he said. However, he said the company won’t divulge the lowest price for oil at which they can run at a profit.

Pyrolysis offers the prospect of a major opportunity for recyclers to find a way to use a large quantity of materials that have, to date, been impossible or difficult to recycle. Financiers are backing the technology, environmental issues are being surmounted and the important players seem willing to create the necessary infrastructure.

“We’re seeing folks that have feed streams locked in and have customers wanting to buy the end product,” Schabel said. “Now they’re looking at technologies to decide which one is most robust.”

Unlike many clean energy technologies that have suffered as government supports waned and oil supplies boomed, pyrolysis appears ready to help solve a pressing problem, and make money while doing so. Cooper said the confluence of forces suggests that pyrolysis is poised to duplicate the run of one of the most enduring and omnipresent alternative energy sources. “I think we’re exactly where ethanol was in 1980,” he said.