The plastics-to-fuel industry is having an identity crisis. The process is often considered waste conversion where permits and regulations are concerned, but most in the industry view themselves as manufacturers.

“The niche of waste conversion and plastics to fuel operation is the biggest hurdle for ourselves and our competitors,” Yianni Monahan of Yonkers, New York-based Golden Renewable Energy says. “I think if we deviate from the methodology of waste conversion and go toward manufacturing that it would help.”

OHIO’S OIL EXPLORATION

Two Ohio-based members of this alliance, RES Polyflow, Chagrin Falls, and Vadxx Energy, Cleveland, are certainly helping showcase the benefits of the industry as both are in the process of opening full commercial operations.

Soon after appearing in the cover story, “Becoming a reality,” in the July/August 2015 issue of Renewable Energy from Waste, Vadxx had trial runs of its Akron, Ohio, facility. The purpose of the trial runs was to identify equipment and operating procedure changes that were necessary for full commercial operation.

Vadxx CEO Jim Garrett says some modifications were made, and in July 2016, Vadxx commissioned the $20 million plant, which is funded and owned by Charlotte, North Carolina-based private equity firm Liberation Capital.

During the trial period, Garrett says the plant ran at 30 percent capacity successfully and made synthetic crude oil, exceeding required specs. More commission runs will take place in fall 2016. With some further minor additions, Garrett says the facility will run at full 25,000-ton-per-year capacity in the first quarter of 2017.

Garrett gives an analogy for creating fuel from plastics: an ice cube in a tea pot. “When you heat the tea pot, the flame never touches the ice cube, but the ice cube will still turn to water first. You keep heating it, then the water will turn to steam. When you cool the steam, it will turn back into water,” he explains.

For the first step in the process, Vadxx uses an extruder that takes the shredded plastic through the first few zones of an increased temperature and mixing and turns it into a toothpaste-like consistency.

The material then goes through a transfer pipe into the company’s “teapot,” a rotary kiln.

The material coming in acts as a plug on one end of the kiln, while the char acts as a plug on the other. Inside the kiln, with mixing and temperature increasing, the plastics depolymerizes. Hydrocarbons are then condensed and captured.

The result of this process is a synthetic crude oil that results in a light end cut and middle cut fuel once it’s put into a distillation column.

For the “ice cube” in this analogy, Vadxx operated with several different types of feedstocks in its pilot plant, which ran for several years before what the company calls its “commercial unit 1,” ranging from postconsumer plastic, tires, auto plastics and hospital plastics. The company settled on postindustrial plastics as its feedstock for commercial operation of commercial unit 1.

To obtain the feedstock, Vadxx doesn’t go to landfills but rather tries to divert plastics before it can reach the landfill.

“It’s an alternative to paying to go to a landfill and an alternative to waste getting into the landfills or the oceans and waterways,” says Garrett.

When the facility becomes fully operational, Garrett says it will produce 125,000 barrels per year of diesel and naphtha.

RES Polyflow built and operated a full-scale demonstration plant in Perry, Ohio, in 2013, CEO Jay Schabel says, with the intent to show the company’s technology would work at full scale. At the time, the company didn’t have the funds to build an entire plant, so it used feedstock shredded by hand for seven different trials.

Golden Renewable Energy uses postprocessed municipal solid waste from a materials recovery facility as its feedstock.

RES Polyflow has established feedstock contracts and has selected a contractor to design the commercial plant. The company secured a site just south of Angola, Indiana, and is in the process of raising funds for construction. In 18 to 24 months, the plant should be fully operational, according to Schabel.

The company’s demonstration plant used a variety of mixed polymer scrap containing some comingled or contaminated materials as feedstock. The focus on feedstock selection was to take plastics that would be sent to landfill by recyclers—high polymers like Nos. 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7s, postindustrial streams and streams that included more than 85 percent polymer in its mix.

After being sorted, shredded and dried, the feedstock was formed in ½-inch to ¾-inch inch-sized pellets. The pellets processed similarly to Vadxx’s feedstock and converted into naptha and diesel-transportation fuels that meet American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) specifications.

At the Indiana plant, four units will be operating in parallel. Over the next 10 years, Schabel says, the company will scale up to 40 units and will expand to locations near feedstock materials.

During the demonstrations, RES Polyflow processed 50,000 pounds of material. With a full-scale commercial operation, Schabel says the plan is to consume 100,000 tons per year and produce 20 million gallons of fuel per year.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST

Golden Renewable Energy doesn’t consider itself a waste conversion facility, Monahan says. Rather, the company considers itself to be a manufacturing facility.

“Plastics to fuel is still trying to find its niche,” he says. “Some think it’s waste to energy. We think it’s manufacturing. In New York state, the regulators don’t want you competing with traditional manufacturers.”

Golden Renewable Energy uses a type of pyrolysis called thermal depolymerization, which essentially cracks long hydrocarbon chains into shorter chains and condenses them into a variety of liquid fuels and distillates. The company does not use oxygen in the process.

The company uses feedstock pulled from postprocessed municipal solid waste (MSW) from a materials recovery facility (MRF) that have no market value and are bound for landfills, It also uses industrial homogenized plastics. Since the MSW is mixed, the company sorts and isolates the plastics from the rest of the material.

It shreds the plastics to three-quarter-inch sized particles and puts the feedstock through its depolymerization process at temperatures that vary between 700 and 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit.

The operation is capable of handling 20 to 24 tons per day (7,500 tons per year), which creates about 4,800 gallons of renewable diesel per day (1.5 million gallons per year). The renewable diesel meets ASTM D396 specifications and can be distributed according to New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) fuel pricing.

“That means a retailer can come in and fill his truck—a 1,000-gallon truck—and add 500 gallons of our fuel with 500 gallons of his own,” Monahan says.

While Golden Renewable Energy runs a smaller facility than most competitors, Monahan says that its process is quicker and creates a smaller carbon footprint—under 2,500 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

“Golden Renewable Energy gets its projects up and running in six months,” he says.“You aren’t going to process the same volumes as those giant facilities, but you get such a quicker return.”

The company currently has one sales agreement in place in East Asia and is reports it is reaching terms with two other international sites.

An operator at Agilyx checks a pyrolysis reactor unit. Agilyx uses pyrolysis to create fuel from its plastic feedstocks.

Another plastics-to-fuel company using pyrolysis to create its product is Agilyx, Tigard, Oregon. The company uses a nitrogen environment to replace oxygen in its continuous pyrolysis process and a self-cleaning dual-screw pyrolyzer from Benicia, California-based Therma-flite.

The company has trademarked its Agilyx Synthetic Crude Oil (ASCO) and, according to Brian Moe, vice president of operations and supply chain, it is the first plastics-to-fuel company to receive Toxic Substances Control Act (TCSA) registration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The oil is sent to a refinery in Washington.

Agilyx’ Gen 5 and Gen 6 systems have processed more than 8 million pounds of plastics, producing mor than 800,000 gallons of the oil. While the company uses landfilled-destined plastics—primarily Nos. 3 through 7—for its feedstock, finding the supply chain is still an obstacle.

“It’s the nature of the feedstock,” Stocklin says. “If you think of a typical supply chain—you need something, you pick a supplier and order however much you need. With waste plastics, you can’t do that yet. The folks collecting it are landfilling it or segregating it from recyclables.”

AN EVOLUTION REVOLUTION

While most plastics-to-fuel companies see a camaraderie rather than a competition amongst themselves, they turn their competitive eye toward the waste industry.

“We’re going to be shaking up the waste industry a bit,” Schabel says. “We’re having success in securing long term contracts [with collection companies] for now, which is great, but as we grow, we can see that industry as a constraint—we’re a positive financial solution for them, but at some point we may be viewed as competition.”

Garrett cites landfills as being more competitive than other plastics-to-fuel companies, saying, “there’s room for lots of successful [plastics to fuel] companies throughout the world—our goal is to be one of them.”

Another goal most plastics-to-fuel companies have is to divert the nonrecyclable plastics from landfill and in wildlife. Citing the well-quoted statistic that by 2050, more plastics will be in our oceans than fish, plastics-to-fuel companies are looking toward the future with their technologies.

“That’s our belief,” Schabel says. “We’re going to create an evolution of the way waste is recycled.”

The author is assistant editor of Renewable Energy from Waste and can be reached at hcrisan@gie.net.