There’s (black) gold in them there landfills… or maybe not

Paul Raven @ 15-12-2010

Well, perhaps. Via William Gibson and a fair bit of Googling (as the Flixxy page he linked isn’t exactly the sort of thing I’d take on trust): Akinori Ito is the CEO of Blest Inc., a Japanese company that sells a device for turning recyclable plastics into petrol. In fact, this story’s been around since 2009; here, OurWorld2.0 republishes it in response to a renewed interest courtesy a mildly-viral YouTube video:

Blest’s conversion technology is very safe because it uses a temperature controlling electric heater rather than flame. The machines are able to process polyethylene, polystyrene and polypropylene (numbers 2-4) but not PET bottles (number 1). The result is a crude gas that can fuel things like generators or stoves and, when refined, can even be pumped into a car, a boat or motorbike. One kilogram of plastic produces almost one liter of oil. To convert that amount takes about 1 kilowatt of electricity, which is approximately ¥20 or 20 cents’ worth.

[…]

Continually honing their technology, the company is now able to sell the machines for less than before, and Ito hopes to achieve a product “that any one can buy.” Currently the smallest version, shown in the videobrief, costs ¥950,000 (US $9,500). [Note of 30 November 2010: Blest informs us that, since we visited them last year, improvements have been made to the machine and the price is now ¥106,000 (around US$12,700) without tax.]

So far as I can tell from sitting at a keyboard, this is a real working product, though I’m rather surprised it hasn’t been bigger news. Even so, I find my cynical side wondering whether this is some sort of snake-oil gig; as pointed out in the comments in a few different places covering the story, “1kW of electricity” is a unit of power, not energy, and without knowing how long it takes to reduce that kilogram of plastic to “crude gas”, it’s difficult to get any idea of whether there’s any real gain to be had from this particular recycling process.

I rather suspect that if this process were even vaguely profitable at scale, we’d have heard a lot more about it already, and would have people knocking on our doors offering pennies for our recyclable plastics. I have no doubt the gadget works as advertised, but I’m suspicious that it would take a long long time to claw back the purchase price once you factor in the amount of electricity it consumes.

Don’t get me wrong: I want this to be everything it seems to be. I just doubt it actually is.

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3 Responses to “There’s (black) gold in them there landfills… or maybe not”

  1. Sjef says:

    Came across Blest a while ago, in the one video I saw of fuel made by their generator being used to actually run something it ran well enough, but also churned out massive amounts of black smoke. Recycling plastics in order to just burn them off again doesn’t seem like the greatest idea. :/
    At least there will be fuel for the scavenger pirate tribes that roam the dead ocean wastelands of the Pacific gyres a few decades from now…

  2. Jay Garmon says:

    Saw data on this back in 2007. There’s a net energy loss in the process. The best anyone came up with is 85 percent efficiency, which is to say for every hundred gallons of fuel you burn to run the recycler, you get 85 gallons back out. This isn’t a viable energy source, but it is a viable method of recycling plastic into a useful secondary product. If we get serious about reducing plastic landfill waste — and petro-fuel as an explicit energy source becomes suitably scarce — this may be a nice niche technology. A panacea for our fuel woes? Not even close.

    As my brain works, this system could be an interesting sci-fi launching point for a self-sustaining (augmented by solar) robot that goes out an eats the giant mass of plastic circling the Pacific currents. A semi-alive drone whose purpose is exhaust its own food source. Could be nice and angsty.

  3. Stefano says:

    Once you separated the 2, 3, and 4 plastics, it makes more sense to recycle them than to burn them (even with an high-tech process).

    Given that to make plastic you use oil (at a less than 100% efficiency), a kg of recycled plastic may save you more than its weight in oil, and surely more than the oil you would replace burning it (again, at a less than 100% efficiency).

    Bottom line: smells as snake oil to me too.