Plastic pollution shows scant sign of slowing, our latest Energy Sector Quarterly reports. But right now, we’re seeing a nascent energy technology subsector, focused on addressing the problem, experience a pace of change that cannot be ignored.
A swathe of innovative tech companies, private and public, are creating energy feedstocks from recycling plastics. We’re understanding more and more the challenges these companies are facing in terms of accessing investment, especially in the private arena.
Within this rapidly growing area, companies see ways to help the great global plastics clean-up while developing sustainable energy solutions, that contribute to the goal of a 100% circular plastics economy. It’s not just the moral impetus – herein lies a profound economic opportunity to unearth.
One generation’s trash can be another generation’s treasure.
Let’s take a snapshot of where we are currently.
Plastic production has increased more than tenfold since 1970. Right now, the manufacture of petrochemicals and their derivatives absorbs an increasing proportion of the world’s oil and gas – approximately 14% for oil and 8% for gas – and it’s estimated that the sector will account for more than a third of the total oil demand growth projected by 2030.
Plastics are the fastest-growing group of bulk materials in the world; more to the point, demand is not slowing.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) states that “without drastic improvements in the management of waste stemming from the sector’s key material output – plastics – the quantity of waste, including that entering the oceans, will continue to rise from today’s already unacceptable levels.”
Plastic demand is not slowing
Weaning the world off a plastic addiction requires radical overhauls in a variety of ways, not least through global alliances, and collaborative educational initiatives. The Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), for example, formed recently, convening 25 global companies from across oil and gas, petrochemicals and consumer goods.
The AEPW has committed $1.5 billion over the next five years to reduce plastic production, improve recycling, and support the development of technologies and businesses geared at preventing waste and improving waste management.
Pace of change
It is within this burgeoning area of R&D that we’re seeing a pace of change, particularly amongst private technology companies hungry to grow and scale up, that cannot be ignored.
Herein lies a profound economic opportunity
Put simply, these companies are focused on processing plastic to produce all manner of energy feedstocks. Indeed, there’s a preference for converting plastic into liquid fuel, as it is fully reusable as a virgin plastic or can be refined into transportation fuels (burning plastic can create harmful CO2 and dioxin emissions).
Much of the technology is in its infancy, at the proof-of-concept or pilot stage. While most of these companies are small start-ups, they’re hungry for investment, and many have enjoyed oversubscribed crowdfunding campaigns. Some campaigns have generated two or three times the initial target – such is the level of, shall we say, moral investment by the general public.
But it’s not just the public vote of confidence – some larger players are starting to dip their toe into this arena, too, and we’re seeing increasing amounts of JVs and M&A activity from the big energy players.
But before we dissect the economic opportunity, let’s take a look at some of the new companies making waves, as highlighted in the latest finnCap Energy Sector Research Quarterly.
We’re seeing a pace of change, particularly amongst private technology companies hungry to grow and scale up, that cannot be ignored
Recycling Technologies Ltd
Recycling Technologies has developed and patented a novel approach using existing technologies to recycle plastic waste. It has taken a modular approach with its RT7000 process which can sustainably recycle residual plastic waste back into the oils it was produced from. It is produced on an assembly line and can be easily installed in existing waste management centres globally.
The RT7000 is designed to take mixed plastic waste that current technologies consider unrecyclable and feed it into a high temperature thermal process. In the absence of oxygen, heat cracks the long carbon chains of plastic, producing a vapour which is condensed into a range of products.
Trademarked as Plaxx®, the outputs are oil products suitable for making new plastic and waxes, helping create a circular economy. Their aim is to add 10 MT of plastic waste recycling capacity worldwide by installing approximately 1,300 RT7000s by 2027.
Sales and distribution channels for 12 units have been established and the company has opened a new manufacturing facility that can manufacture up to 200 RT7000s per annum.
Its RT-Beta (V2) plant was developed in 2017/18 to demonstrate the process capability and hone the final design. This year the intention is to operate the Beta plant on a 24/7 basis and to perform a testing programme to establish the recyclability criteria of a variety of materials.
Recycling Technologies is involved with Project Lodestar, one of seven global pioneer projects being undertaken by the New Plastics Economy, a global initiative of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to encourage a move towards a circular economy for plastics.
Project Lodestar is a collaboration with a number of global companies, seeking to develop a blueprint for an optimal, regional, advanced Plastic Reprocessing Facility (a-PRF). Lodestar models a best-in-class mechanical-only Plastics Reprocessing Facility, the PRF. Lodestar then investigates the economics and environmental impacts of combining mechanical and chemical recycling in one location by modelling an a-PRF, which includes a RT7000 feedstock recycling system.
It is estimated an a-PRF could increase waste operators' revenue by 25% and decrease the payback time of the facility by 11%. Lodestar also reduces the carbon footprint by 21% compared to a PRF.
Plastic aluminium laminate is increasingly used for packaging a wide range of products, including food and drinks, pet food and cosmetics; it is cheap and its production and transport are environmentally friendly. However, this light and flexible material is difficult to recycle because of the combination of plastic and metal that it contains.
Enval, a Cambridge Enterprise portfolio company, has developed new technology that adopts a microwave-induced pyrolysis process to recycle flexible laminate packaging. It estimates that up to 160,000 tons of this packaging material is used each year in the UK and that thousands of tons of waste could be prevented from going to landfill by adopting the new process.
The process mixes shredded plastic aluminium laminates with carbon. The carbon is heated by microwaves in the absence of oxygen to a temperature of up to 1,000C, which is transferred to the plastic by conduction. The plastic degrades to form a mixture of hydrocarbons, which are then cooled and separated into oil and gas. The oil can be sold as fuel or feedstock for speciality chemicals and the gas used for power generation.
The process leaves behind the fragile aluminium foil undamaged, which can then be recovered in solid form, ready for reprocessing. This process for recovering aluminium has a carbon footprint up to 75% lower than that of the primary material.
Commercial operations have started at a plant in Cambridgeshire and the technology has already been successfully trialled by three councils, although none have yet adopted it.
A typical Enval plant has a capacity of 2,000 TPA and will pay back in three to four years. The high efficiency and minimal emissions associated with the process mean that the plant requires minimum planning and environmental permitting. Enval provides a turnkey solution, including operator training, ongoing maintenance and engineering support throughout the lifetime of the plant.
Renewlogy was born out of an MIT class project nine years ago by CEO and founder, Priyanka Bakaya. Its mission is to remain at the forefront of innovation across plastic collection, cleanup, and the creation of new chemical feedstocks and end markets. Its goal is to create a true circular economy for plastic, such that none enters the environment.
Renewlogy’s technology is also based on thermal cracking, but it is calibrated to produce naphtha, a chemical and gasoline feedstock, or a middle distillate suitable for use as diesel, if blended in a 50–50 ratio with typical refinery diesel. Its process is continuous, automated and able to accept contaminated, mixed streams of plastics.
Governments regulate what plastics can be used in food packaging and many recycled products are not considered safe for this purpose. This results in recycled products typically being used in less valuable applications. The Renewlogy process avoids this by converting even contaminated plastics into fuel or plastic feedstock, creating an economic value for low-quality and/or contaminated plastic.
Renewlogy can produce its diesel-suitable product at an operating cost of $30/bbl compared with a sales value of $85/bbl. Its technology does not require payment from waste processors ‘tipping fees’ for the technology to be economic.
Renewlogy is currently supplying product for refiners in Utah and in 2018 delivered a commercial unit to Sustane Technologies in Nova Scotia designed for recycling 6 million lbs (2,700 T) of plastics annually. Its commercial-scale technology requires that it is based in the vicinity of a city with a population of around a million in order to obtain enough waste for processing. Its strategy for larger plants is to partner with waste-processing companies. Smaller Renewlogy plants are also being designed for developing countries – these are usually sponsored.
ReNew has developed a unique, patented hydrothermal upgrading platform, the Cat-HTR (Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor). It will shortly commence construction of the first commercial scale plant at its site in Teesside, North East England.
The plant will chemically recycle the hydrocarbons used in plastic by converting plastic waste into a hydrocarbon feedstock that can be further processed into new plastic or other valuable petrochemical products. It will initially recycle 20,000 TPA and will be expanded over time with three additional units raising capacity to 80,000 TPA.
ReNew ELP’s Cat-HTR process uses water at supercritical conditions to convert a range of feedstocks into stable hydrocarbons that can be further processed into new plastic production or other valuable petrochemicals.
The supercritical water acts an ‘organic solvent’, cracking the carbon bonds in the plastic, creating shorter-chain hydrocarbons. During the reaction, water molecules are split, and the hydrogen released is used to complete the ends of the broken polymeric bond.
The Cat-HTR reaction process generates a mixed hydrocarbon product that is passed through a distillation unit which separates the water from the hydrocarbon products. The gas fraction is utilised as an energy source for supercritical steam generation within the process while liquid products are transferred to product storage tanks.
Last August, ReNew ELP signed a MoU with Finnish refiner, Neste, to collaborate in the area of plastic recycling.
PowerHouse Energy Group (PHE)
AIM-listed PHE (£8m market cap) has developed its Distributed Modular Gasification (DMG®) Technology to recover energy from unrecyclable plastic, end-of-life tyres and other waste streams through small scale gasification into an energy rich clean syngas (synthetic gas similar to natural gas) from which electrical power and hydrogen can be produced.
The outputs from this technology can be built for varying customer needs:
- Energy rich syngas with chemical precursors for industry
- Electrical power
- Heat or cooling
- Road fuel quality, 99.999% pure hydrogen
The low-cost pure Hydrogen produced from DMG® Technology can displace diesel and other fossil fuels in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles whilst improving roadside air quality as vehicle exhaust emissions consist of just water vapour.
The DMG® has a modular design and small footprint, which allows customers to deliver low cost energy where it is needed, whilst processing locally sourced waste plastic that would otherwise go to landfill.
A typical commercial facility can handle ~25 tonnes of feedstock per day (1 to 2 truck-loads) on a half-acre site, exporting enough power for ~3,000 homes and hydrogen for ~6,000 HGV miles every day.
Screening of development opportunities is ongoing, with planning and permitting on 6 sites in the UK being considered. PHE is targeting Q2 2019 for HoT agreements to be put in place.
The low-cost pure Hydrogen produced from DMG® Technology can displace diesel and other fossil fuels in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles
Do the economics stack up?
The analysis by finnCap’s Energy Sector Research Team throws up a varied pool of very investible innovation and potentially big growth. But what about the wider opportunity?
There are a couple of caveats. Firstly, let’s look at the existing opportunity. As our Quarterly reports, the infamous ‘Great Pacific garbage patch’ – a gyre off the coast of California, one of five globally – is estimated to contain 79,000 tons of plastic. Ocean Cleanup – a company developing advanced tech that quite literally sweeps the sea’s surface – targets removing 90% of this by 2040.
We can frame the size of this opportunity by working on the premise by integrated oil company OMV Group, that 100kg of plastic waste produces 100 litres of synthetic oil. Thus, if the 90% removal target is achieved, 71,000 tons of plastic would be recovered, producing approximately 450,000 barrels of synthetic oil. At current prices, this equates to potential revenue approaching $29m.
Given Ocean Cleanup’s first system cost roughly $24m, and they are planning 60 in total, the economics of this clearly don’t work.
Indeed. even if the estimated 269,000 tons of plastic waste contained in all oceans is considered, the revenue opportunity is still only around $110m.
The next fundamental issue is that the cost of incineration and landfill is a lot cheaper than recycling. As with Renewables and CO2, fiscal incentives and discouragement may be required to stimulate change and encourage additional investment at this embryonic stage of the industry’s development, helping level the playing field on costs.
That all being said, this was never meant to be a profit-making enterprise. That crowdfunded campaigns in this arena are being substantially oversubscribed is just one stark indicator that people invest on a basis of much more than monetary returns. For investors, the emotion of environmental issues needs to be separated from the economic realities.
But there’s another, arguably more profound economic reality that is likely to incentivise investment from companies large and small. Our appetite for plastic is not abating, and research by Geyer et al. points to cumulative plastic waste generation between 2015-50 of around 7,000 million tonnes (MT).
Applying the same OMV metrics, that equates to something like $3 trillion, or a revenue opportunity of $83 billion a year.
That’s some treasure.
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