Southwest Research Institute engineers turn piles of plastic into useful chemicals, fuels

Chemical engineers at SWRI are working with businesses across the world to help with their plastic waste

SAN ANTONIO – Billions of particles of plastic waste are choking our oceans and piling up on land, but a team of researchers has a solution that they think can help the environment and produce useful chemicals and fuels.

A team of engineers at Southwest Research Institute says that they can ultimately monetize the litter floating in the ocean.

“We’re looking at how can we take some of the materials that are typically thrown in the landfill or the oceans ultimately and monetize that,” said Eloy Flores, director of research and development for the Chemical Engineering Department at Southwest Research Institute.

Flores’ team uses a process known as pyrolysis, which breaks down plastic waste and turns it into an oil.

Flores said the oil can be made into chemicals that can be recycled into plastics or made into chemicals for many different products or into fuels for transportation.

“The goal of using pyrolysis for mixed waste plastics is to ultimately help the environment,” Flores said.

According to Flores, plastic is used in many ways, but production and use of plastic materials are also causing a lot of pain to the environment.

“Primarily as a pollutant in the ocean,” Flores said. “Obviously, it interacts with the animals. It causes the animals problems, which then affects the food chain, which then ultimately affects us as humans.”

Apart from the oceans, plastic is also filling up landfills across the country because it does not break down fast, Flores said.

“Plastics have a very long lifetime,” Flores said. “They’re biodegradable, but it takes hundreds of years. So, we’re filling up landfills with things that are ultimately going to be there for our children and even our children’s children to deal with.”

Flores said his team is working with different businesses worldwide to create an effective solution for the long term.

“We could definitely see this as an add-on for the city of San Antonio or any organization as a way to produce either fuels or finished chemicals that can be used,” Flores said.

For more information on the project, click here.

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