25. May 2020
Topic:  Technology

Let’s talk about plastic as a renewable resource with Robert Suchopa

Plastic material and plastic waste are home to unused energy and incredible potential. Is chemical recycling the best way to get this value back into the cycle? Michael sits down with Robert Suchopa, head of the PYREKOL project at ORLEN UniCre research center, to find out if pyrolysis can help make plastic a renewable resource.

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Interview transcript

Michael Londesborough (ML): It is claimed that pyrolysis, which is a thermo-chemical decomposition of organic material at elevated temperatures in the absence of oxygen, could be the answer to unrecyclable plastics that would otherwise go to landfill. 

ML: With me today I have Robert Suchopa, who is a researcher working at ORLEN UniCRE, which is an institution involved in research, education in petrochemical industry. Robert, welcome. Thank you for coming! I want to start by reminding you that 45% of our plastic waste goes to landfill. That's a big shame. These plastics are very usable materials with chemicals that have a lot of energy within them…You're working on the project PYREKOL, which is trying to do something with these wastes compounds. Tell me a bit about that.

Robert Suchopa (RS): Yes, that is true. As you said 45% means in terms of Czech Republic around 200,000 tons year of waste plastic material still ends up in landfill and there is another 80,000 tons, which is being incinerated. As you suggested, it's a huge waste of chemical energy stored within these materials and we believe that there might be a solution for how to extract those valuable molecules…

ML: …By pyrolisis?

RS: Yes, by pyrolisis.

ML: So you will be going from waste plastic mixtures to more fine products. If I'm not mistaken your general process is symbolized here (in the video). It looks to me like you have got a hot tube in here…

RS: Right. It's a hot tube.

ML: So tell me a bit about how that hot tube works.

RS: It's quite simple. It's a heated tube, which you can heat from outside or inside. Inside of the tube you have this screw conveyor - you just feed the plastic in, heat it up and make sure that there is no oxygen left in the atmosphere. You use temperatures in range of 400-500 degrees centigrade. Basically, what happens is that these plastics will kind of meltdown, so to speak, and create something that can be condensed into these type of oils or condensates and we can take this oil, introduce them to existing refinery or petrochemical complexes and produce something which is inseparable from the virgin polymers, in this case.

ML: I see. If I'm looking at these different fractions here I can see also diesel. So, this process can regenerate both compounds that we can use as a fuel for our cars and also highly valuable petrochemical, starting materials both for new plastics and polymers or indeed other sources, whether it is feedstock for other petrochemical outputs? 

RS: Yes, you are exactly correct.

ML: Well, this looks like a pretty clean stuff. Can you use all that in a really horrible, dirty, plastic waste that's generated?

RS: This is our mission actually, because there are a lot of clean materials and there are a lot of possibilities what to do with those already. We aim to process the mixtures which are not so nice as the ones showed in here. The challenge with these mixed fractions is that you have a really unstable composition of those plastics into the feeder to reprocess and it directly affects the type of oil, what is going to be produced with these type of pyrolysis units. Therefore, we need to find the way around that - how to handle the variability in the composition of these types of materials. Also, this oil, although it looks like an oil, contains contaminants and molecules, which are not naturally occurring in the crude and the crude oil is something that we generally process, that we built our technologies for in Litvínov or Kralupy or in other refinery or petrochemical complex, but these oils they bring completely new contaminants to the discussion.

ML: Ok, we limit our discussion about the Czech Republic – e.g. Kralupy nad Vltavou and Litvínov. Can those same refineries deal with your products?

RS: They might, and hopefully we will find an answer to what kind of adjustment we need to make to this type of pyrolysis technology in order for the materials to be good enough in key qualitative parameters that will make those oils feasible to be used as feedstocks in already existing refineries. This is the goal.

ML: We talked about recycling plastics. As I understand it, one of the one of the big, let's say, problems is that you have to separate individual different types of polymers – polyethylene from polystyrene, for example.

RS: Yes.

ML: But can your process use a mixture? Is your project PYREKOL looking at taking different types of mixtures where people have put into their recycling units the mixture of polystyrene with polyethylene or polypropylene and it can all go into one pot?

RS: This is definitely the goal. This is what really what we aim to achieve. Pyrolysis, the technology, is general enough that it can handle this type of materials in various mixtures, so whatever there is – PET, polystyrene or polyethylene in the mix, we can't really affect. The pyrolysis is still going to work the same way as it always does. So, from the pyrolysis technology that we chose to go with, it's not an issue. It represents the issue once we come back to the contaminants that are already mentioned, because, for instance, PVC brings chlorine to the table. Chlorine is not naturally appearing in crude oil, but it is occurring in oil that you derive from PVC. And since chlorine, as an atom, can behave in a very troublesome way and interact with the steel of the units in refinery, it can cause some real safety issues, human safety risks.

ML: Okay and your project PYREKOL is looking at ways how to deal with the, let‘s say, chlorine contamination, etc.? 

RS: Exactly, this is our goal. 

ML: But, if I take it a step back, can you use contaminated plastic waste, let's say, coming from hospitals?

RS: Yes, we can. That's quite possible. It will always be a matter of what the law will enable us to claim, because it's not that easy legal process to end life cycle of a hazardous waste, which is the waste type that you are referring to. Therefore, the question is not, whether we can handle that - yes this type of technology can handle it - the question is, if it's going to end already at the pyrolysis stage or if it's going to end at the, let's say, a refinery or a petrochemical stage.

ML: Robert, let‘s talk economics. As a scientist, I know that to get from here to here we have to roll back entropy and thermodynamics and that is energy intensive. We have to input a lot of energy and energy is money. Isn't this process very expensive?

RS: Well, you're not mistaken there. We definitely need to put quite a bit of energy into that, because we have to shred it down at least so we can heat it. Then, as I said, it's a heated tube, so we need to apply some heat. Then we need to transport the resulting product from all over the country to Litvínov, let's say, and then it only enters the stage of being processed via the route of standard fossil feedstock, so there is another step of huge energy intensity required for that. But from the energy balance speaking, we are definitely gaining something, which is energy rich. It still has a little high heating value right, because it's a plastic material and it's a quality of virgin polymer…

ML: So this process hits the same quality standards as a virgin one?

RS: Exactly.

ML: So, in my mind, that means that you are able then to chemically recycle plastics to a virgin quality. Then I can envisage that I can go and, let's say, buy a bottle of water and I can have a choice - the actual polymer, the material be exactly the same but there could be two prices… I pay a premium perhaps for the bottle, which has gone through your recycling process... Is there such a market?

RS: There is already such a market, and you can while shopping for shampoos, for instance, even see examples of this effect happening – e.g. you can choose two same products, but one comes with a premium price tag once it is put into a recycled bottle. So there already is a market here in the Czech Republic, not even mentioning Western Europe.

ML: Okay, there’s a market., there are people out there that are willing to pay a premium to buy plastic containers, etc., which has gone through a recycling process as opposed to coming from virgin stock. How else can we improve the economics - what about what about the price? Is there now a competition for this waste material? Because I've spoken to people from, for example, incineration plants. There are other industries and technologies which could be competitive to your own. What's going to happen to the price of this?

RS: The waste plastic is a really wide mixture in terms of composition and there are some components which are really interesting from the price perspective already. For instance, PET, which is more expensive to recycle than virgin already from 2018. But, there are still some fractions left or some residues, which would be too expensive to separate deeper. Therefore, it's not being currently recycled, or it's still being landfilled or incinerated. Talking about incineration, it really depends on what the design of the technology actually allows you to burn there. Because plastic, as I said, is a quite high heating value material, therefore not all incinerators can even work with this type of fuel, I'd say. So, from the price perspective, we are not trying to create an unnecessary competition in these markets. We are trying to develop some solution for the fractions, which are currently not being utilized at all.

ML: But I understand you have big ambitions in that you want to eventually not only use the plastic waste generated within the Czech Republic, but you want to outreach into other nation states and Central European and Eastern European areas. So, how's that going? What are the realities of that? Can we see a future where the Czech Republic could indeed be turning the waste from other countries into these usable products?

RS: Thank you for that question, because the truth actually is that there are already enterprises who are trying to make pyrolysis work in this respect - in Czech Republic in Slovakia, even in Poland or Hungary. So the businesses already took a note that there is such a technology available that it can transform plastics into some kind of oil and that the oil you could maybe utilize for producing some fuels, polymers or other substances of value. So, this is already happening. The trouble is with these enterprises, there are usually operating technologies which are producing subpar quality oils which we can't really introduce into the existing refineries.

ML: The key is a strong relationship between the people who are doing this chemical recycling with the refineries who then are going to be separating the mixtures into individual components which could be used as feedstocks for polymers, fuels, etc.? 

RS: Yes, that’s correct. 

ML: And does that sort of relationship exist? Is it working well between the people who are doing pyrolysis with the refineries?

RS: Well, the good thing is that there are only approximately two sites available in Czech Republic, both is operated by ORLEN Unipetrol, where this type of oils can be processed and therefore all the enterprises in Czech Republic, or at least on the market in Czech Republic, definitely engage themselves to talking to ORLEN Unipetrol. So there are already these dialogues happening and we at ORLEN UniCRE are helping those enterprises to identify what kind of quality are they producing, what should be the adjustments they can do to their technologies in order to improve the quality that they produce. Yes, it's already there, it's already happening and I hope it will translate itself into forming some strategic partnerships.

ML: Robert, I see though a vulnerability in this technology and that's linked to the reason why we're now wearing these face masks. It's a Covid-19 pandemic which has driven down the price of crude oil.

RS: Yes.

ML: Now, if crude oil is cheap, then why would a refinery have any interest in buying this (the recycled oil)? What’s the plan to buffer this technology, to hedge its bets against huge fluctuations in the price of crude?

RS: That's a very good question, Michael, actually. The truth is that to process this type of material (recycled oil) in refinery will be always more expensive than the process crude oil based feedstocks. So, from the price perspective this is always going to be more costly, but on the other hand, these unwanted plastic fractions they already come with the price – we, as taxpayers, are already paying to dispose of these type of streams and we see already now that pyrolysis can operate in that price range, so it makes it economically viable. Therefore, we see that we are not trying to create a process that taxpayers would have to pay a fortune to get rid of the plastics and transfer them into virgin plastics. We are already there with the economics.

ML: This solution can work economically viably without any extra subsidy from governments? You believe that this can coexist in the free market with the processing of crude?

RS: That's exactly correct, yes.

ML: It brings me down to, perhaps, one other point - why don't we just burn it? Rather than go through all the complications of chlorine substitutions on the products, the complications with collaboration with refineries, whether it meets the standards, or not, with price fluctuations in the crude market, why don't we just take our waste and burn it?

RS: That's another good question. The answer is quite simple: when they burn it, they only take out the energy of these and because this is hydrocarbons in the end. All the carbon that's hidden in these molecules will be emitted as CO2 in the end. So, if your incinerator allows you to even use or burn this type of materials, then you will extract only energy and emit the last large quantity of CO2, which is still waste CO2, because this is waste plastic. So, our ambition is to really take all those fractions that nobody is interested in working with that end up today in landfills or incinerators, transfer them into oils, which have quality that is good enough, let's say, for us the refiner and the petrochemical complex operator to introduce them into our technologies and then we can utilize it into production of fuels, or even virgin great final polymers again. And if we make virgin polymers out of waste plastics, then, we close the loop and we can call it chemical recycling.

ML: That 45% of plastic waste that ends up just buried in the ground, it seems as huge potential, either to retrieve the energy, or chemically recycle this in a very circular, economical way leading to new value in new products. So, Robert, it seems as if you're confident about the future and how we're dealing with our plastic. Is that fair to say?

RS: Yes, that's definitely fair to say. Not only pyrolysis is there to enable a chemical recycling we, chose pyrolysis because it produces liquids and we can handle liquids. If we would be operating technologies that work with gaseous products, we would choose another technology for processing of waste plastics. Therefore, we see that for the future, there will be an array of technologies on the market deployed which will enable chemical recycling to happen, be it liquid route or be it the gaseous route. However, yes, I'm confident in the future, because I believe that we can find a way how to still take advantage of plastic materials that they offer and not produce another waste that ends up filling our landfills or as CO2 emitted from incinerators.

ML: Robert, may I wish you and your project PYREKOL all the best. Good luck. Thank you very much for coming. Before you leave, I have a small present there for you…

RS: Thank you very much.

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