Pyrolysis : From plastic waste to the fuels of the future

Colorful pyrolysis oil refineries produce olefins and aromatics by fluid catalytic cracking of petroleum fractions

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, right? Humans have always excelled in using innovation and creativity to turn something unwanted into something valuable. And today, something like this is happening with plastic waste.

Everyone recognizes the growing negative impact of this waste, generated by industries from food to fashion. And because it’s usually dirty and consists of multiple plastic types, it’s typically too difficult to recycle. The good news, though, is that we can still make good use out of plastic waste by breaking it back down into its parts: gas and oil.

The power of pyrolysis

This is done through pyrolysis: a thermal process where plastic is heated to high temperatures (typically 450-650°C) without oxygen. This happens in a fluidized bed reactor under atmospheric pressure at a fixed reaction temperature. During the process, the plastic’s long polymer chains break down into shorter hydrocarbons, both liquid and gaseous.

The result is pyrolysis oil – plus a few by-products, including char and gases. The composition of this oil depends on the type of plastic waste it comes from, as well as the specific pyrolysis conditions. But it’s always a complex mixture of compounds, including additives, fillers, colorants, pigments, dirt, and both condensable and non-condensable gases.

From pollution to practical new products

Because pyrolysis occurs without oxygen, combustion is prevented, and the pyrolysis oil can be converted into useful products, such as new plastics, hydrogen, or fuel. For instance, pyrolysis oil shows promise as a more cost-effective, less environmentally impactful alternative to diesel. The char by-product of pyrolysis can also be used in soil, carbon sequestration, and filtration.

Biofuel in chemical lab in glass bottle Pyrolysis Oil

In short, pyrolysis can help manufacturers to reduce plastic pollution, enable plastic recycling, and create valuable products with a lower environmental impact. And many companies increasingly recognize this potential. For instance, Shell, SABIC, and Dow expect to process over 100kt per year of pyrolysis oil from plastic waste in their steam crackers in the Netherlands by 2025.

Perfect your pyrolysis with high-performance analysis

But to get the most out of pyrolysis oil, you need to carefully optimize the process for the intended application. That’s where Malvern Panalytical comes in.

Our support starts right at the beginning, where our XRF solutions like Epsilon 1 can help you detect many toxic elements in the plastic waste feed. Our unique reference materials provide results you can trust. These include TOXELADPOL, and RoHS calibration standards for XRF. Next, during the pyrolysis process, you can analyze the particle size, crystalline phase, and atomic structure of catalysts in the pyrolysis fluidized bed reactor using the Mastersizer and Aeris. Finally, instruments like the Epsilon 1 and Epsilon Xflow can analyze the elemental composition of your pyrolysis oil, allowing you to tightly  control your pyrolysis oil products.

Teaming up to turn waste into value

Beyond our own solutions, we’re proud to be working with several organizations exploring the potential of pyrolysis. For instance, we’re involved in several ISO committees dealing with test methods – such as ISO TC 28 – to identify important chemical elements like chlorine in pyrolysis oil. We’re also a member of the Circular Plastics NL program within the Dutch National Growth Fund, which works toward making plastics fully circular.

Finally, we’re part of the ASTM International Committee D20 on Polymers and Plastics. Here, we act as a liaison officer between various organizations developing standards around plastic recycling and microplastics, including ISO, CEN, NEN, and DIN.

With this network and our analytical solutions, we’re all set to help you turn lemons into lemonade – or plastics into pyrolysis oil – and drive a more sustainable future for petrochemicals and beyond.

Curious about how we can support you plastics recycling? Please contact us below – or explore our solutions on our plastics and polymer page.