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California pioneers chemical process for dirty plastics

    US start-up BioCellection has developed a chemical process to recycle contaminated plastic film. The material is shredded but doesn’t have to be washed. ‘Our liquid catalyst that doesn’t require the plastics to be clean’, explains BioCellection co-founder Miranda Wang.

    BioCellection operates from a facility in California, where it runs a chemical process to break the polymer bonds of post-consumer film to yield a chemical that by-passes the use of petroleum. Miranda Wang, who launched the company with Jeanny Yao, reports that initial tests have achieved up to 70% plastic waste to product conversion within 3 hours.

    Chemical reflux

    First, the plastic is shredded, after which it is loaded into a glass container, soaked in a clear liquid catalyst at 248°F. Essentially, BioCellection employs what it describes as a chemical reflux technique to supply energy to the reaction over time.

    ‘Through hundreds of experiments, we’ve identified a catalyst that cuts open polymer chains to trigger a smart chain reaction—at merely atmospheric pressure and a temperature that a water boiler can handle,’ Wang notes.

    Once the polymer is broken into pieces with fewer than 10 carbon atoms, oxygen from the air adds to the chain and forms valuable organic acid species that can be harvested, purified, and used to create valuable new products.

    Unlocking the potential of all plastics

    ‘Our innovation unlocks the potential of using plastic waste to replace oil as a resource for sustainable supply chains,’ Wang points out.

    Besides, the researchers and engineers at BioCellection are exploring expanding the method to other types of plastic. Trials conducted thus far have yielded promising results for rigid plastics like polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate, as well as for foam plastics.

    It sounds like 2019 may be a special year for the California start-up as well; BioCellection has hinted it is building a machine capable of breaking down 5 tonnes of plastic a day, which is said to be operational next year.

    Miranda Wang (left): ‘We can solve the plastic pollution problem within our lifetime, it’s just a matter of working with the right people to make it happen.’

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