Novacrack® – feedstock recycling of mixed plastics waste
The environmental challenge of dealing with mixed plastics waste, a major concern for the waste industry, local authorities and increasingly for households, has opened a commercial opportunity for the petrochemical sector. A team of scientists and engineers at the University of Manchester has developed a rapid new depolymerisation process, NovaCrack®, based on catalytic hydrocracking, which offers a sustainable source of naphtha and other valuable hydrocarbons, coupled with attractive process economics.
NovaCrack® has the ability to consume a mixed polymer feed, including PE, PP, PS, PET and PVC, which make up 74% of EU plastics demand and which are all found in the municipal waste stream, to yield a clean, low-sulfur, naphtha- rich hydrocarbon stream suitable for supplementing cracker feedstock.
The key innovation arises from the use of a novel, patent-protected catalyst system, enabling the design of a continuous process, because of the dramatically increased reaction rates and lower temperatures involved.
The process conditions are considerably less severe and significantly faster than existing technologies, and the process has been shown to be PVC tolerant.
NovaCrack® is differentiated from pyrolysis and waste-to-energy processes in that it retains a substantial proportion of the underlying value of commodity polymers and is not constrained by the presence of PVC.
- Cost effective source of naphtha substitute for the petrochemical industry.
- Rapid process able to handle mixed plastics waste, including films, PVC and PET.
- Carbon benefits from diversion of plastics from landfill / RDF and by reducing dependence on the use of crude oil in plastics manufacture.
What are the drivers?
Europe generated ~25 million tonnes (MT) of post-consumer plastics waste in 2014, recycling just 29.7% (7.7 MT); 39.5% (10.2 MT) went for energy recovery, which is notoriously inefficient, losing most of the value of the material, and 30.8% (7.9 MT) goes to landfill, incurring cost and adding no value. [Source: Plastics – the Facts 2016, PlasticsEurope]
The UK produced 3.7 MT of plastics waste in 2014, 59% (2.2 MT) of this was packaging waste. While the new, lower recycling target for packaging rises from 38% in 2017 to 43% in 2020, around 1 MT will still go to landfill each year, assuming timely development of suitable methods to achieve this rate. [Source: WRAP Plastics Market Situation Report, 2016]
Although 98% of UK local authorities collected 340,000 tonnes (340 kT) of plastic bottles in 2015, representing 68% of total plastics collected, recycling of pots, tubs and trays is still not universal – only 74% of authorities offer this service (160 kT, 32% of the total collected) and there is still scope for improvement. Nearly 7.5 billion plastic bottles were recycled in 2015 which is more than 20.5 million bottles a day. This still leaves 5.5 billion plastic bottles that were not collected for recycling, which is over 15 million plastic bottles a day for landfill. A meagre 20% of authorities can deal with plastic film. [Source: RECOUP UK Household Plastics Collection Survey 2016]
Several factors are often cited: lack of UK markets for the materials, no facilities for sorting and handling, too challenging, no confidence in market and concerns over exporting. Even where facilities exist, cross contamination is a major problem, especially with plastic films. The result is usually low value with limited applications, finding use in Refuse Derived Fuel to boost calorific value, itself environmentally and economically less desirable than recycling. Much plastic waste is exported, losing value for UK industry. [Source: DEFRA, EPRO, RECOUP]
Clearly, the most economically attractive materials will be recycled. However, tolerance to contamination from other plastics is low and, despite recent advances in separation and sorting technologies, even the lower recycling targets are challenging. Substantial improvements are required to enable these to be met and it is unlikely that they will be achieved by mechanical recycling alone.
On the demand side, a typical cracker would process around 3 million tonnes of naphtha p.a. mostly bought on relatively stable long-term contracts. The cost of naphtha has been variable in recent years, tracking the cost of Brent Crude and some is bought on short-term contracts and on the spot market, adding extra cost and volatility to the business. A NovaCrack® plant would replace this and could consume up to 20% of the waste plastics currently sent to landfill in the UK while adding significant value to the economy.
The IP comprises an international patent portfolio with other filings anticipated in associated technology areas.
The next stage is scale-up to continuous operation via a mini-plant operating in the range 1 – 10 kg hr. UMIP is seeking interest from companies in relevant sectors willing to further develop NovaCrack® with joint funding from sources including Innovate UK, leading to full commercialisation by the grant of appropriate licenses.
Simon Clarke, IP Development Manager, UMIP, Core Technology Facility, 48 Grafton Street, Manchester M13 9NT : Simon.Clarke@umip.com: Tel: +44 (0) 161 306 8510