Group seeks to turn ocean trash into energy

December 9, 2011 7:55:28 PM PST
A Northern California non-profit group wants to clean up our oceans by turning plastic trash into easy cash. The group hopes to use the new technology to get rid of plastic debris from the oceans and beaches.

A dream of turning garbage into fuel is being nurtured by a lot of inventors, and one of them has come up with a small, portable device that burns up certain types of plastic trash and turns it into liquid gold: Unrefined oil that could be processed to power engines and generators.

Santa Cruz environmentalist and longtime sailor Capt. Jim Holm wants to apply it to a massive clean-up project.

"We're looking to find methods to remove the plastic trash that's floating around in the world's oceans," Holm said.

Holm is with the non-profit Clean Oceans Project. His organization wants to adopt a large plastic-to-oil conversion machine to fit the hull of a 60-foot solar-powered catamaran that's being designed to scour the oceans for floating plastic.

"We will be able to take the plastic trash we're able to collect and reduce it and convert it into useable fuels," Holm said.

That bigger conversion machine has the ability to melt 500 pounds of plastic trash a day, making 66 gallons of fuel when processed.

ABC7 saw a demonstration with a small desktop model in Santa Cruz. First, plastic trash is stuffed into the machine. The lid of the machine is sealed tightly to prevent fumes from escaping.

The heat in the chamber is then turned on to more than 800 degrees, a process Holm calls "pyrolysis."

The melted plastic is turned into gas, which bubbled up through the water, cooling it. The gas is then condensed into the light yellow liquid oil seen floating on top of the water.

The whole process takes about two hours.

The machine is made by the Blest Company in Japan and is distributed by its American partner E-Energy.

"I invented this kind of oil-making machine," said Kyoshi Nakajima with Blest. "There are so many waste plastics in the world, so that's going to be a big, serious problem."

Nakajima's partner, Akinori Ito, is the CEO of Blest Manufacturing. A video from the United Nations University showed him demonstrating a desktop unit at a school in Japan to teach children about the importance of cleaning up plastic trash.

"In Nepal, there was a truck that runs around and it is powered by fuel," said E-Energy president Jason Tanne. "The system basically has a filtration that is like a catalytic converter, so the only two things that are coming off of the process as an off-gas are water and a very small amount of CO2."

The garbage patch of plastics swirling in the ocean's gyres is one place the Clean Oceans Project wants to take the device. A "gyre" is a system of ocean currents that swirl around a central point. The gyres create a whirlpool effect, pushing plastic debris to the center.

Some research estimates there are millions of tons of plastic trash floating over five million square miles of ocean. That's a huge environmental risk to marine life and shipping.

"One of the biggest things that we believe we can do to keep the plastic out of the ocean is to provide a monetary value for plastic trash," Holm said.

The Clean Oceans Project would like to see a program similar to the recycling fee on cans and bottles that would encourage people to collect plastic trash and sell it. The buyer could then melt the trash and sell the fuel.

"For every 10 pounds of plastic, we make about a gallon of fuel," Holm said.

The downside to the machine is the cost: $15,000 for the desktop version and $275,000 for the unit wanted by the Clean Oceans Project.

The upside: Recycling plastic trash into a usable resource.

The plastic-to-oil machine would take less than two gallons of gasoline to produce 10 gallons of fuel from the pastic trash.


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