Sunday, June 12, 2011
Buffalo News Reporter Updates Report on JBII
JBI finds way to turn plastic into fuel
Niagara Falls company invents new process that could transform energy tech
By Maryellen Tighe
News Business Reporter
Published:June 11, 2011, 11:57 PM
Updated: June 12, 2011, 8:42 AM
If John Bordynuik has his way, homes will be heated with milk jugs, and cars will run on plastic bags.
Bordynuik, president and CEO of JBI Inc., has invented a process to convert waste plastic into fuel at a plant in Niagara Falls. His company plans to install the machines at factories and recycling facilities.
Bordynuik said his invention allows JBI Inc. to produce fuel at a fraction of the cost of major refineries, and can convert two tons of plastic into 109 barrels of fuel.
The goal of converting plastic to fuel has been the Holy Grail of recycling for years, but only recently has the process been made commercially viable.
"Plastics are made from natural gas. They're simple products, and this process breaks them down into another simple energy form," said Greg Wilkinson, president of Third Oak Associates, a Toronto-based communication and strategy firm specializing in chemicals and plastics. "I think the combination of the technology being more mature today and the high cost of energy and fuels makes the investment in this type of technology economical."
Wilkinson said the technology was already "on the drawing board" when he started working in the chemical industry 20 years ago, but three or four years ago, most productions were still lab-based and hypothetical.
According to a report funded by the American Chemistry Council and published in April, there are 23 companies worldwide that have successfully developed technology to convert some plastics into fuel. When the study was published, no North American group had created a commercial-scale plastic-to-fuel conversion machine.
Bordynuik's factory is a "pilot scale facility," used mostly for testing and smaller than a commercial operation.
The basic difference between plastic and fuel is the length of the hydrocarbons, Bordynuik said, which are what make up the plastic. The hydrocarbons of plastic are more than 10 times longer than those in fuel.
"Our technology specifically cracks (the hydrocarbons in) the plastic in the ranges that we need to create fuel," he said. "At specific lengths, where we want it, consistently."
When plastic arrives at the facility, it is shredded and fed into a rotary reactor, Bordynuik said. The reactor melts the plastic into a vapor.
"If you just heat up plastic, normally you'll end up with a plastic that's virtually worthless," he said. "There's a lot of companies that have tried."
The vapor goes to one of the two catalyst towers where it is broken down into different types of fuel.
The fuel that comes out of the towers is unrefined, but cleaner than some of what you buy at the pump, Bordynuik said. And the process is cleaner than oil refining.
"That machine has virtually no emissions, it emit(s) less than a natural gas furnace," Bordynuik said.
Air emissions for the unit are similar to standard natural gas combustion products, said Megan Gollwitzer, spokeswoman for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, in an e-mail. The unit is operating under a consent order while permits are pending.
Bordynuik plans to build two more processors at his Niagara Falls site to train operators on, then install them at companies that generate a lot of plastic and send trained operators along to run them.
The processor uses 8 percent of the fuel it creates to run, melt and process the plastic.
"We're doing joint ventures with large companies where we (will) go in and build it on their site," he said. "We're not selling the machines. We're going to own and operate and run them."
About 40 people work on the "plastic2oil" process at JBI, but as more processors are installed and more operators are trained, Bordynuik expects the staff to grow.
Steve Manolis, operations manager at Coco Asphalt Engineering in Toronto, said his firm is testing fuel from JBI.
"We're still in evaluation phases. We've done a plant trial," Manolis said. "Up until now everything's been running normally."
Bordynuik invented his process in early 2009, but could only convert about two pounds of waste plastic into a quart of fuel. With help from other chemists, his process was scaled up enough to create a machine that could process one ton of plastic.
The company, headquarters in Thorold, Ont., has since attracted investors and is traded on the over-the-counter exchange under symbol JBII. It closed at $3.59 Friday.
Bordynuik said the process and the plant were well received by the state DEC.
"There was one person at the DEC who looked at the chemistry of the process and what we did, and he wrote a letter allowing us to construct a factory to gather data for a full permit," Bordynuik said. "They saw the machine doesn't pollute. It's clean, so they said 'go, build.'"
Bordynuik said he chose to locate his "plastic2oil" processors in Western New York because of the local support, from politicians to machine shops, that are making the parts used in the machines.
JBI has competition. Waste Management, which processes much of Western New York's recycling, is working with Agilyx, from Portland, Ore., to develop that company's plastic-to-fuel conversion process, said Wes Muir, Waste Management director of communications.
It is possible there will be an Agilyx facility in Buffalo someday, said Don Majka, vice president of sales and marketing for Waste Management recycling.
"We're looking to develop about four facilities ... these are really meant to be kind of small-scale units that can be put in facilities throughout the country," Muir said. "It's hard to recycle plastics. It really depends on the type of plastic and where they're found."
The plastics that facilities like JBI Inc. and Agilyx would use are not high-quality plastics, Majka said. Higher-grade and cleaner plastics can be sold for more for other uses, so they are not used for plastic-to-fuel conversion.
"Agilyx is not going to be buying the Tide bottles and the Pepsi bottles," Majka said. "They're going to be buying something dirtier than that."
Numerous companies are pursuing the same plastic-to-fuel goal. Envion, in West Palm Beach, Fla., has a different method of heating its plastic, said Pio Goco, vice president of business development. A far infared heating system, similar to a microwave, is used.
"The breakthrough in this technology happened not in the U.S., but in Asia in 2004," he said.
Goco said the technology is changing the way people think about waste, because it is a resource.
Dow Chemical Company, in Midland, Mich., is also researching how to convert plastic to energy, said Jeff Wooster, plastics sustainability leader for Dow's North America plastics business. Last month, the company experimented with burning plastics in a special furnace.
"If you think of plastics as a stored energy source, there are many ways you can recover that energy," he said. "It doesn't make sense to bury plastics in the ground when we are digging oil and coal out of the ground."