Thursday Salute to Originals: Gasoline Through Garbage

We exist as a society overwhelmed with trash. California alone spends $25 million to send plastic shopping bag to landfills and another $8.5 million just to clean them off the streets. Americans throw away an estimated seven billion pounds of plastic per year, with only about one percent of that being recycled. Start-up company PK Clean seeks to put the remaining ninety-nine percent to good use with their proprietary technology that uses discarded PVCs and converts them into petroleum and “natural” gas.

Led by MIT grad Priyanka Bakaya, PK Clean has received recognition from a wide variety of business and energy contests such as the winning the Clean Non-Renewable Track of MIT’s 2011 Clean Energy Prize and the Women’s Entrepreneur and Best Energy Business Plan sections of Rice University’s 2011 Business Plan Competition.

The brilliance of their solution comes from a catalytic depolymerization process. This grounds up plastic and then heats it in a reaction chamber to 150°C. A specially designed catalyst amplifies the process and allows it to take place at such a low temperature, saving energy. The products of this process include 70-80% oil and 5-10% industrial-grade ash. The remaining 10% takes the form of gas which is in turn used to heat the reaction chamber. With about 90-95% of the catalyst recovered and a low release of emissions, this process pollutes very little while removing plastic blight. Using start-up funds and competition award money, PK Clean has begun operating a pilot plant in Pune, India that processes twenty tons of plastic a day. The resulting oil, eighty barrels worth, sells for about $25-30/barrel. Bayaka plans to upscale the process to one-hundred tons and day and sees a future potential of $7 billion for the industry.

While most agree that our dependence on oil as an energy source needs to diminish due to its polluting factors and the amazing, yet wasted, potential of hydrocarbons for materials and medicines, the way we have massively integrated petroleum into our society means that, barring any incredible technological breakthrough, internal combustion engines and gas-fired power plants will remain viable for decades to come. We create prodigious amounts of plastic waste, choking whole forest in Mexico and forming garbage patches in oceans twice the size of America. The innovative and profitable methods PK Clean has developed will hopefully encourage others to make better use of that which we discard.