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Alex Kimani

Alex Kimani

Alex Kimani is a veteran finance writer, investor, engineer and researcher for Safehaven.com. 

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Tech Breakthrough Promises Hydrogen Gas From Plastic Waste

The plastics and petrochemicals industry could, in an ironic twist, get a boost from a new technology that scientists say can turn plastic waste into the holy grail of hydrogen gas. 

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has remained solidly in the public portfolio of nightmares since it was discovered more than 30 years ago. It is, after all, a collection of marine debris twice the size of Texas. 

We try to closet it in the recesses of our minds, but it’s a losing battle with existentialism. It’s still there—and growing by the minute. 

Yet, it was only three years ago that the UD declared plastic pollution a global crisis

And this year--2020--was intended to go down in history as the year that we truly began the shift away from plastics. It hasn’t really turned out that way, though. A global pandemic got in the way, and the plastics industry is more tenacious than we gave it credit for. 

The pandemic was a lifeline for plastics that bought the industry time to push back on a plastics ban, which is now languishing in environmental purgatory somewhere. The Trump administration has largely given the industry an open license to pollute by loosening laws and fines related to pollution amid a pandemic. 

But maybe it really won’t matter in the end, thanks to scientists coming up with a way to tame the plastics menace. Related: Oil Poised To Rebound, But What About The Long Term?

A group of researchers from the U.K., China, and Saudi Arabia have developed a new technology that does something we could only have dreamed of: It converts plastic waste into hydrogen and carbon nanotubes by pulverizing it using microwaves with iron oxide and aluminum oxide serving as catalysts.

The plastics bloodbath

Using microwaves allows the catalysts to be heated without heating the plastics with the plastics heated incidentally by the catalysts. The scientists say this approach prevents unwanted side reactions, thus making the process more efficient.

The researchers concede that they have no idea whether their technology can work on an industrial scale. Still, their results are pretty impressive: The conversion process took just 30-90 seconds and resulted in a 97% recovery rate of the hydrogen generated, which can be used as fuel. Meanwhile, the carbon nanotubes were of good enough quality and can be used for other applications. The researchers note that microwaves are used successfully in large-scale applications, meaning there’s a good chance their technology can be scaled, too.

The shale boom was a boom for plastics, too, because it created massive support for cheap fossil fuels for plastics manufacturing. And since then, the plastics industry has been courting the petrochemicals industry for further clout. Indeed, the plastics industry has wholly ignored the rising ESG-focused megatrend that has seen big money shift away from dirty fossil fuels. Nor does it seem to have been frightened at all by the specter of big capital withdrawing investment. 

And in Asia, there’s no stopping the sheer force of plastic. 

Asian oil producers--led by the Chinese--are on a tear to build and expand refineries that can churn out petrochemicals at enormous rates, according to Bloomberg. 

By 2025, China plans to add another 1.6 million bpd capacity to its petrochemical refineries. 

And then we have India, whose Reliance Industries has been hitting up petrochemicals hard, doubling capacity in just a few years. 

Over the next four years, a series of Asia mega-refiners will come online--all feeding the petrochemical-greedy plastics industry, cheaply. 

Over the next seven years, over 50% of new global refining capacity for petrochemicals will be in Asia. And of that new capacity, up to 80% will be focusing on petrochemicals for … plastics. 

The other situation propping up petrochemicals is demand. Unlike the oil demand outlook, thanks to the plastics industry, petrochemicals aren’t suffering. Not only that, but petrochemicals demand could end up being the only thing that saves crude oil demand from a complete culling.  Related: Another Major Breakthrough For Solar Energy

Over the next decade, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that petrochemicals will account for more than one-third of global oil demand growth. Through 2050, it could account for nearly half of oil demand growth. 

But back in the United States, the future of the plastics industry is less certain, pandemic distractions aside.

True, Trump’s recent rollback of Obama-era EPA laws has helped to prop up the industry. It’s also helped that certain plastics related to hygiene--such as polystyrene--have made a COVID comeback. It’s also true that prices continue to make plastics a win-win--at least when it comes to immediate economics. 

Still, plastics--in this part of the world--would be remiss to become complacent. The ESG, or “impact” investing megatrend will catch up with it sooner rather than later. And the pandemic has given further impetus to environmental concerns. Plastics will only be able to ride the pandemic hygiene momentum for so long because something gives. 

And this is an election year, with the winner taking all. Plastics will either be in, fully, or out, brutally. If Trump wins, the industry can expect some more indulgence, but pressure will continue to mount from big money focusing on ESG. If Biden wins, he’s already declared that plastics ought to be phased out.

Either way, the only chance of disappearing that mountain of plastic garbage haunting the ocean appears to be found in a new tech breakthrough that could turn it all into hydrogen, the hottest thing on energy investor radar right now. 

By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com

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