Recycling plastic back into fuel may have just gotten a lot more cost effective. Also, is carbon capture a good idea?

Can you run your car on a Coke bottle?

Few things make environmentalists throw up their hands in despair more than plastic. Plastic waste is everywhere—we even have microplastics in our bloodstreams. (1) And as much as plastic recycling is advertised as a potential solution, less than 10% of plastic is ever recycled. If we’re lucky, it ends up in a landfill. Oftentimes, it ends up in our oceans or elsewhere in our environment.

At the heart of the problem is the reality that the cost of making a new bottle or straw from fossil fuel is less than recycling the old one. But what if there was a way to make something truly useful out of plastic? Researchers have unveiled a technique that could potentially convert commonly discarded plastic items like plastic bags, soda bottles, and yogurt containers into valuable liquid fuels. The approach, detailed in the journal Science (2) proposes a low-temperature method that could significantly reduce energy consumption and costs associated with traditional recycling processes.

Johannes Lercher, co-author of the study and director of the Institute for Integrated Catalysis at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, stressed the need to shift the balance from disposable plastic to reusable materials. “To solve the problem of persistent waste plastic, we need to reach a critical point where it makes more sense to collect it and return it to use than to treat it as disposable,” Lercher told Anthropocene Magazine (3).

While banning single-use plastics like straws, bags and containers is a significant step in reducing their consumption, advanced recycling methods offer a solution for plastic items with no immediate alternatives, such as bottle caps and cling wrap.

The challenge with recycling plastics like polyethylene and polypropylene, two of the most widely used plastic types, lies in their strong carbon-carbon bonds, which require high temperatures for breakdown. In other words, it takes too much energy to break the plastic down– and that means it’s not cost effective.

Lercher and his team devised an innovative approach that operates at temperatures below 100°C and involves the use of a unique catalyst in an acidic aluminum chloride-based solution. This catalyst enables the formation of new bonds after the carbon bonds in the plastic break apart, resulting in the creation of gasoline-like compounds called alkanes. These alkanes can serve as fuel or raw materials for new plastics.

Remarkably, the entire conversion process occurs within a single reaction vessel in just three hours at 70°C. In contrast, traditional recycling approaches often involve two stages, longer processing times, and temperatures exceeding 200°C.

The researchers confirmed that their method is effective for recycling low-density polyethylene and polypropylene. These are usually marked with the familiar chasing arrow recycling icon with numbers “4” and “5.” They are seldom collected or recycled, despite making up about half of the 360 million tons of plastics produced globally annually.

The key catalyst in this technique is already used in the petroleum industry, but much research needs to be done to prove the technique is scalable. Successful implementation would revolutionize the plastic economy by providing a cost-effective means of converting single-use plastics into valuable chemicals, fuels, and high-quality materials. In turn, this would creating a more circular approach to plastic usage.

Administration makes a bet that we can take carbon out of the atmosphere

Climate scientists are fond of saying, “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” And with the constant onslaught of weather disasters and other news around global warming, it’s hard to deny that we’re in a climate hole.

The first order of business in addressing climate change is to curtail carbon emissions as quickly as possible. That’s the “stop digging” part.

But what then?

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced that it had allocated up to $1.2 billion towards advancing two large-scale direct air capture (DAC) facilities focused on removing carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it. These facilities in Texas and Louisiana represent the first Regional Direct Air Capture (DAC) Hubs funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. This program aims to create a network of comprehensive carbon removal sites to tackle historical carbon dioxide pollution and complement rapid emissions reduction strategies.

It’s hoped that the DAC Hubs will play a role in substantially reducing carbon in the atmosphere, with each facility projected to remove over 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. In addition to their environmental impact, these projects are anticipated to generate approximately 4,800 jobs in Texas and Louisiana.

The announcement underscores the administration’s commitment to investing in innovative technologies that directly address carbon dioxide capture and storage, a crucial approach in combating climate change. The initiative aligns with President Biden’s vision of achieving a net-zero economy by 2050 and is part of an “all of the above” approach to climate change.

“Cutting back on our carbon emissions alone won’t reverse the growing impacts of climate change; we also need to remove the CO2 that we’ve already put in the atmosphere—which nearly every climate model makes clear is essential to achieving a net-zero global economy by 2050,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “With this once-in-a-generation investment made possible by President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, DOE is laying the foundation for a direct air capture industry crucial to tackling climate change—transforming local economies and delivering healthier communities along the way.” (1)

Direct air capture involves isolating carbon dioxide from the air, subsequently storing it deep underground or transforming it into useful products. The deployment of this technology, along with other innovative emissions capture methods, is instrumental in both addressing the climate crisis and securing America’s competitiveness in a carbon-neutral future. The DOE estimates that achieving the President’s net-zero emissions goal by 2050 will necessitate the removal of hundreds of millions to billions of metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere annually.

The projects include:

Project Cypress (Calcasieu Parish, LA)– Led by Battelle in collaboration with Climeworks Corporation and Heirloom Carbon Technologies, this initiative intends to remove over 1 million metric tons of existing CO2 from the atmosphere annually. The captured CO2 will be permanently stored underground, with a goal of involving local communities and stakeholders in the project’s development and benefits.

South Texas DAC Hub (Kleberg County, TX)–Managed by 1PointFive, a subsidiary of Occidental, along with Carbon Engineering Ltd. and Worley, this project aims to design and demonstrate a DAC facility capable of annually removing up to 1 million metric tons of CO2. The captured CO2 will be stored in saline geologic formations.

Although most scientists agree that addressing climate change will eventually require more than reduction of emissions, carbon capture and storage is a controversial strategy. “This money could be so much better spent on actual climate solutions that would be cutting emissions from the get-go,” Jonathan Foley, executive director of Project Drawdown, told Associated Press. (2) “What worries me and a lot of other climate scientists is that it potentially creates a fig leaf for the fossil fuel industry … the idea that we can keep burning stuff and remove it later.”

The DOE emphasizes the importance of community engagement in these projects. President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative strives to ensure that a significant portion of the benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy go to disadvantaged communities that have historically faced pollution and underinvestment.

While experts agree that reducing emissions remains paramount, the urgency of addressing climate change has led to investment in innovative solutions like direct air capture. The viability of this technology will be tested as it joins established approaches such as solar, wind, and batteries in the battle against climate change.

The Weekly Sunsong 

As climate scientists dream of a time when we aren’t dependent on gasoline to fuel our cars, this old gem from The Kinks comes to mind: