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Case Study

Clean hydrogen from plastic waste!

image credit: Trialing hydrogen production from plastic waste at Thornton

I get many calls from startups and entrepreneurs and in March I went along to the energy innovation centre at Thornton to look at an intriguing concept which claimed to be able to produce clean hydrogen from plastic waste.  Although not 'renewable' it is the cleanest of cleantech and I'm delighted to report he company has managed to obtain significant backing.  I do hope the energycental community finds my report of interest

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Charley Rattan's picture

Thank Charley for the Post!

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 14, 2019 12:42 pm GMT

A good example of the kind of tech that doesn't need to be purely renewable by definition to be making a positive clean energy and environmental difference. Unfortunately it does not appear that plastic waste is going anywhere anytime soon, so finding a solution for what to do with that and extracting back out some of the energy that went into its original production is of course valuable. 

Charley Rattan's picture
Charley Rattan on Aug 14, 2019 2:34 pm GMT

As the process is refined it is intended to decarbonise by itself using hydroge as a fuel. The only waste I saw was a form of ash 'cake' which can be re-used and incorporated into such things as road surfaces.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 14, 2019 3:33 pm GMT

Charley - it's worthwhile to do a little investigative work before getting too excited about  "breakthrough" technologies involving the production of hydrogen.

Polyethylene, like most other materials we call plastic, is made up of molecules structured as a chain:

"C" indicates a carbon atom in the diagram; "H" is hydrogen. The image above is shortened - the chains have thousands of "links" (H-C-H) making up a long, stringy molecule which, mixed with trillions of other ones, creates a material useful for making drinking straws and other products which need to be flexible, durable, and inexpensive.

The hydrogen-carbon chemical bond - the little lines between H and C on the diagram - is one of the most useful in nature. When broken, it gives off energy in an exothermic chemical reaction (breaking similar bonds in gasoline is what powers internal combustion vehicles) After two bonds are broken, two H atoms quickly bind together to form an H2 molecule which, unless it's harvested by an entrepreneur like yours, quickly combines with oxygen in the air to form water (H2O).

The first question to your entrepreneur should be: "What happens to the carbon?"

The carbon, as you'll see, is a problem. If it's ejected into the air, it also quickly combines with oxygen to form carbon monoxide (CO) or carbon dioxide (CO2), two potent greenhouse gases. It can be collected, but that process always requires more energy, and the energy almost always comes from breaking more hydrocarbon bonds (burning, or oxidation). The problem isn't solved, it gets bigger. There are no shortcuts.

Hydrogen doesn't exist in nature by itself, and the easiest way to make it is by breaking it away from carbon atoms. So with any hydrogen produced from a hydrocarbon, whether a plastic or a fossil fuel (gasoline, natural gas, diesel fuel, kerosene, propane, butane, etc) your first question should be: "What happens to the carbon?".

onedit: the ash cake you describe likely held some of the carbon given off by burning plastic, the rest goes into the air. Because hydrocarbons are so durable, from an environmental standpoint you're better off tossing it into a landfill - there, it will be sequestered for up to 30,000 years!


Charley Rattan's picture
Charley Rattan on Aug 14, 2019 3:26 pm GMT

Hello again Bob,It's convinced far more intelligent people than I - and here in the heart of a region with the most ambitious of net zero aspirations:


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 14, 2019 3:51 pm GMT

Charley, maybe being where you are has exposed you to people less intelligent than ambitious. This is basic, fundamental thermodynamics - incontrovertible fact. Something from nothing? Not an option.

If these intelligent people honestly think they're making an environmental contribution (and there's always the chance they're dishonest), they're not intelligent enough. Really - there are no shortcuts.


Charley Rattan's picture
Charley Rattan on Aug 14, 2019 3:58 pm GMT

The development will have to meet the most rigorous of emissions targets to gain consent - as already happens with biomass facilities in the UK.

It will be tested by environmental stakeholders who have a duty to object if relevant emission criteria are not met.  According to the developers....'This process recovers far more energy and emits far less CO2 than incineration or landfill as well as producing hydrogen to create a CO2 negative footprint.'  




Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 14, 2019 4:18 pm GMT

Charley, the developers are either lying or they're wrong. If you want to debate technical points with me that's fine, but I won't continue to argue with people who refuse to learn.

Charley Rattan's picture
Charley Rattan on Aug 14, 2019 4:25 pm GMT

We will have to watch as the the process continues. If the developersare  at variance with the facts or emissions regulations then there is no way they will prevail.  Usually, before significant financial backing is forthcoming, detailed due diligence involving  relevant competence and expertise will have been carried out.  We watch with interest.

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