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Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Recovering oil from plastics... in the microwave

Just a quick post before I get started with work for the day.

New Scientist has an article online about a new technique for extracting hydrocarbons (ie, oil) from waste plastics and rubber and the like. Essentially, it just gets cooked in a special microwave which is tuned to the specific frequencies of the hydrocarbon molecules. They heat up, evaporate, and get sucked into a condenser which collects them back into liquid oil.

They don't give any information about how much energy is used in the process compared to how much energy we can extract from the oil (I'm guessing it runs at a loss) but in the long term this approach might have two benefits that I can see.

The first is related to energy. Oil is still an incredibly convenient fuel for transport and we have plenty of plastic and rubber waste which we may be able to "mine" at some stage in the future when naturally-occurring oil becomes too hard (expensive) to get at.

But much more interesting is the ability to cleanly strip plastic and rubber compounds away from other substances: such as removing the insulation from electrical wire and leaving the copper metal exposed. This solves a major problem that existing recycling industries are facing.

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