Maschmeyer’s renewable energy startup Licella in partnership with Renewable Chemical Technologies Ltd (RCTL) is taking a more refined approach to the idea of waste incineration, pioneering a method to transform end-of-life plastics into a bio-crude petroleum substitute.
The aim of the partnership is for RCTL to develop projects to convert end-of-life plastics into high-quality oil, suitable for blending into standard hydrocarbon fuels, using Licella’s proprietary catalytic hydrothermal reactor platform that has been developed in partnership with the University of Sydney.
“This investment will allow for the deployment of our technological solution on a commercial scale, with up to 20,000 tonnes to be transformed from waste to product annually from next year just from the first plant alone,” says Dr Len Humphreys, chair of Licella.
Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand are interested in making use of such fuel, and the process can also turn waste products from the pulp and paper industry into bio-crude, a possibility that has attracted Canadian pulp and paper producer Canfor onboard to develop a full-scale commercial operation.
Dr Tom Beer, honorary fellow at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and former leader of the transport biofuels stream of the CSIRO energy transformed flagship, says turning plastics into bio-crude does present an environmental trade-off in respect to carbon emissions.
“Of the oil that gets extracted out of the ground, about a third is used to produce plastics, which effectively locks the carbon up into plastic,” he says.
“If you then turn it into bio-crude and burn it, that is no longer the case. It depends what you value most, do you want to get plastic out of landfill, and out of the oceans, then fantastic, but it does mean carbon emissions.”
Prof David Cohen, a specialist in the use of nuclear techniques to track fine particle air pollution at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, says carbon would not be the only thing emitted in the use of bio-crude.
“At the front end, production of a product like this is going to involve an energy component to convert it into fuel,” he says.
“Then at the back end, if you convert organic material into fuel and then burn it – then you are going to end up with a combination of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and byproducts that could include soot, volatile organic carbons and carbon dioxide, which are all not so good for the atmosphere.
Maschmeyer says that in terms of processing, Licella has managed to dramatically reduce carbon emissions via a groundbreaking technique that involves extracting hydrogen from water, and has a much lower carbon footprint than typical crude oil processing.
“The crude oil refining process takes about 12% of the oil ending up as CO2 before burning the oil, just in the process of taking it out of the ground,” he says.
“What we do is taking something already purified, and all we are doing is re-purifying.”
In terms of the end use of the bio-crude, he says that the economy is not 100% green just yet, and for as long as fossil fuels need to be used – such as in jet fuel – bio-crude is a more environmentally-friendly option given the comparatively lower carbon emissions and the added benefit of removing plastic from the environment.
“It is reusing, not renewable, but whilst [we’re still] using fossil fuels, reuse is certainly more attractive.”