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The chemical recycling technology that might unlock a plastic neutral Australia

Imagine a technology that could soon make Timor-Leste the first plastic neutral economy in the world. A breakthrough technology that turns plastics back into oil is now commercially viable, with the potential for 80 plants throughout Australia and work under way in the UK and Canada.

According to the chief executive officer of Licella, Dr Len Humphreys, the tools for a “truly circular economy” are now available.

Humphreys has spent several years working alongside Professor Thomas Maschmeyer to bring their chemical recycling technology to the point of commercialisation.

Licella owns the patented rights of the Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor (or Cat-HTR) platform developed by the duo, which is capable of chemically recycling end-of-life plastics (including plastic currently deemed non-recyclable) and other materials back into oils (where the plastics came from originally), using water as the change agent.

This synthetic oil can be used to produce new plastic, fuels and chemicals – reducing waste and creating a new source of revenue.

The technology could soon help the Timor-Leste become the first plastic neutral economy in the world.

In May this year, the government of Australia’s near neighbour signed a memorandum of understanding at the University of Sydney with Mura Technology (a joint venture between Licella Holdings and UK renewables investors Armstrong Energy) for the development of a $US40 million chemical recycling plant.

There’s huge potential for the technology

Humphreys says there’s huge potential for the technology, with the opportunity to build as many as 80 plants in Australia.

He says the chemical recycling technology is also generating “huge amounts of global interest.”

The first commercial CAT HTR plant for end of life plastics is under development in Wilton in the UK by RENEW ELP, backed by renewable investors Armstrong Energy.

In Canada, the company has teamed up with pulp and paper producer Canfor Pulp to integrate the technology platform into mills to produce biofuels from residue streams.

Humphreys says the company has “all the foundations laid to grow nationally and internationally – helped along by Timor Leste going plastic neutral.”

Chief executive officer of Licella Dr Len Humphreys

Traditional plastic recycling fails to capture much of the value of the material

Many plastics are typically not recycled using existing practices, and most end up in landfill, oceans or are incinerated “at great expense”.

“And once you’ve recycled a plastic bottle two or three times, that plastic starts to degrade,” Humphreys says.

“As it degrades, it can no longer be physically recycled.

“What we can do is, we can chemically recycle that back into oil to be made into new plastics –  the next generation of plastic bottles.”

We don’t need to be scared of fossil oil – there’s nothing wrong with plastics… the problem is we throw it all away 

This cycle can continue endlessly and is therefore a “true circular economy.”

“We don’t need to be scared of fossil oil – there’s nothing wrong with plastics… the problem is we throw it all away,” Humphreys says.

“So we just need to look at it in a different way – it’s a resource and something we can use again and again.”

Framed as a “bridging technology to a lower carbon future”, the technology is capable of creating a renewable biocrude with over 80 per cent carbon intensity reduction.

A hard slog to get there but now things are heating up for Licella

It wasn’t an overnight success story, Humphreys told The Fifth Estate. It’s taken $75 million and over a decade to bring the technology to the point it’s at today.

“We’ve ironed all the hiccups out and are now commercialising it.”

iQRenew was set up by the company to operate Material Recovery Facilities in Australia, combining the chemical recycling technology alongside physical recycling in the one plant so that 100 per cent of plastics can be captured and recycled.

The company started out in 2017 by building a demonstration plant at Somersby, on the NSW Central Coast, which was supported by a $1 million grant from the federal government to accelerate its commercialisation.

CAT HTR reactors

Since then interest in the technology has exploded.

In Australia he says there’s also pressure to improve recycling capabilities.

“Now that China is saying no [to most overseas recyclables], we’re now having to invest and change our habits to do tertiary and secondary recycling.”

How the chemical processing technology works

The Cat-HTR process uses water at high pressure and high temperature to cause chemical transformations.

The chemical process unzips polymers and converts them back to the chemicals in which they came, including liquids such as waxes, diesel and petrol and gases such as ethylene (a raw ingredient to make new plastics).

There are already other ways to convert plastics into oil, including pyrolysis, but this process is more stable and requires significantly less energy for a higher yield.

It also takes just 20 minutes, and there’s no repolymerisation, so the new products don’t become solid again.

Plastic crude distillates

Cat HTR does not require external hydrogen, which is important according to Professor Thomas Maschmeyer. Instead, hydrogen is taken from the water and moved into the products, saving a “huge amount of cost, complexity, and greenhouse gas emissions.”

The technology has the potential to bring down landfill costs for waste producers. Valuable products are created form waste products, and customers can then buy recycled oil at prices comparable to virgin oil.

Water is also recycled during the process, resulting in a “closed loop of recycled water”.

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Comments

3 Responses to “The chemical recycling technology that might unlock a plastic neutral Australia”

  • Richard Boult says:

    Stu Holborn got to ask, why phase out plastics if they are extremely useful to us, and can now be fully part of the circular economy. Seems an amazingly luddite approach. Are you planning to eschew all modern technologies?

  • Stu Hilborn says:

    “We need plastics for so much of *modern* human existance”, since we existed just fine before it was invented.
    This tech should be used to phase out plastics from our environments and out modern lives, preferrably, rather than maintaining our addiction to plastics for ever.

  • Tim Renouf says:

    Astonishing story.

    In a world full of climatic turmoil and desperation to find solutions, here is a lighthouse invention shining the way forward to drastically reduce the plastics dilemma.
    We need plastics for so much of human existance, and now through determination, an answer appears, like the ship through the fog and sees the lighthouse to avoid the rocks, in order to get to shore.

    Outstanding work Fifth Estate in broadcasting such a story, a story worthy of mainstream media.

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