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Science and Technology

Exploradio: Akron companies turn plastic back into petroleum
Vadxx Energy and RES Polyflow are part of a small but growing plastics to oil industry that taps into the flood of wasted hydrocarbons
This story is part of a special series.

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
The amber-colored product of pyrolysis will become diesel fuel. Two Akron companies are pioneering technology that turns plastic waste back into the crude oil that it came from.
Courtesy of Jeff St.Clair
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Two companies in Akron are pioneering technology that turns plastic back into what it originally came from -  petroleum.  

In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair tells us how that plastic spoon you stirred your coffee with this morning, could soon be powering your car instead of spending eternity in a landfill.

Exploradio: Plastics to oil

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Mimicking Mother Nature's petroleum process
Bill Ullom, founder and chief technology officer of Vadxx Energy in Akron, buries his hands in a bin of plastic fluff. He’s excited to see it here in his facility instead of headed for a landfill where it will lay buried for millenia.  

Every man, woman, and child, in the U.S. generates 200 pounds of plastic trash each year. Only 8 percent is recycled, the rest gets buried forever.

But Ullom says 9 years ago, a solution to that problem suddenly hit him, in the shower.

He recalls his inspiration that, “if Mother Nature creates petroleum in a petroleum generating basin, we should be able to replicate that in a factory.”

So he started Vadxx. And with the help of other engineers developed the web of pipes that now fill half this gymnasium-sized space the company leases from the City of Akron.

It’s a pilot plant, but by next year it will be enlarged 50 times in a $15 milllion, full-scale factory, consuming two-and-a-half tons of plastic an hour.

To demonstrate the process, Ullom takes a plastic grocery bag out of his pocket and stuffs it into the mouth of the reactor.

“In about two hours," says Ullom, "it’ll be diesel fuel.”

Pyrolysis of plastics to create petroleum 
The magic, he says, is a process called pyrolysis.  Ullom explains that pyrolysis is the conversion of, "very large polymer molecules to smaller polymer molecules.”

The plastic is heated. It becomes a vapor, which then rises into a condensor and separates into a range of petroleum products.

Ullom shows me a line of flasks filled with what looks like different grades of maple syrup.

The lightest, a golden yellow liquid is called naptha, the raw component of gasoline.

Ullom puts that fluid straight into his lawnmower,"and it works perfectly for that.”

The amber-colored middle fractions become diesel additives. The heaviest produce a thick grease. Ullom says it’s all sold to refineries and energy marketers.

Building a plastics to oil industry 
Just a few blocks away sits the headquarters of another plastics to oil company, RES Polyflow. But CEO Jay Schabel doesn’t view Vadxx as a rival.

He says they're not really competitors. Instead they’re competing with the landfill, "because it’s getting the majority of the hydrocarbons and putting it right back into the ground.”

Schabel says the dozen or so plastics to oil companies across the country are struggling to create a new industry that links municipal recycling with oil and gas producers.  

He says the challenge is to bridge the two industries together, "because we are providing a solution for the end of life polymers that never existed.”

Steve Russell is VP of Plastics with the American Chemistry Council. Last month he formed a new trade group to promote the nascent plastics to oil industry.  He says regulators don’t yet know what to do with companies like Vadxx and RES Polyflow and their pyrolysis process.

“Is it recycling? Not exactly…Is it incineration? No." But Russell says his group is trying to help communities work through the permit aspects of this new and largely undefined industry.

The McDonald's of the waste to energy industry
Vadxx could have used some PR help last spring when the company tried to build its first full-scale facility on Cleveland’s East Side. Activists vehemently objected to the plan, believing that the company would be burning tires.  It won’t, says Vadxx’s Bill Ullom.

Ullom says he doesn't know where that that story came from, "but it wasn’t true and it created a lot of controversy and scared a lot of people.”

Vadxx backed out and instead is breaking ground next month on city owned land in Akron.  The company is partnering with engineering firm Rockwell Automation to build the state of the art facility. And Ullom hopes it will be the first of many to turn 60 tons of plastic waste into 300 barrels of crude oil each day.

Ullom plans to franchise his company’s process to cities across the country.

“We want to be the McDonalds of the waste to energy industry.”

And with 92 percent of all plastic waste headed to landfills, there’s plenty of raw material to feed Vadxx and an entire new plastics to oil industry.
(Click image for larger view.)

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