Not all plastic items can be recycled. Many disposable plastic items no longer have to end up in landfills. Thanks to the new technology, it is possible to convert plastics into the petroleum oil used for their production. This oil can then be used as a fuel or as a lubricant. If this technology were implemented on a large scale, it would reduce global oil requirements. By 2050, plastics production is expected to account for half of world oil demand.

Research is of great importance

The whole process is described in detail in the journal Science Advances. The conversion process works best with plastics called polyolefins. They are used to make products that cannot be recycled, mainly plastic bags. The principle is to heat the plastics to break the chemical bond, so that the plastics reduce down to the base part. The research team has invented a way to achieve this at much lower temperatures. The process is thus more energy and cost efficient.

”This is the first technology that’s able to take the most difficult plastics and recycle them into something really useful,” Dionisios Vlachos, a chemical engineer at the University of Delaware and co-author of the paper, tells Jordan Golson of Inverse. “It’s the best way to recycle single-use plastics and packaging like polyethylene and polypropylene.”

Decomposition of plastics by pyrolysis

The process that uses heat to break down plastics is called pyrolysis. While previous research has required temperatures from 752 to 1472 degrees Fahrenheit to work, Dionisios Vlachos’ team can handle it at 437 degrees, resulting in almost finished fuel for cars, planes or lubricants. In this new method, a catalyst is very important, which is a combination of zeolites (minerals mostly made up of aluminum and silicon) and metal oxides including platinum and tungsten, per the paper.

“Alone these two catalysts do poorly. Together, the combination does magic, melting the plastics down and leaving no plastic behind,” says Vlachos in a statement.

Although the method is not yet complete for industrial use, Vlachos and its co-authors have filed a provisional patent on their technique and its catalyst.

“We need to take action on the plastics problem and develop technologies and policies to eliminate it from the environment,” Vlachos tells Gizmodo. “Research takes 10-plus years before it becomes useful. Investing in this field now is a priority.”