Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

What If The Global CO2 Problem Could Be Solved By Plastics?

The headline above most likely will start many people in the plastics industry chuckling at the irony, while the irony simultaneously twists many anti-plastics activists into an uncomfortable, possibly painful, state of confusion. CO2 already is being used as raw material for producing chemicals such as methanol, salicylic acid, and urea. Could it also be used to make plastics?

Not only is the answer yes, it is happening already. A recent posting by Karen Laird on the Green Matter Blog of PlasticsToday.com is a reminder that research on using waste CO2 as a feedstock for making plastics has been underway in earnest for about five years, and more important, progress has been and is being made.CO2 molecule illustration

Progress is substantial and already is at the point that industrial production of a CO2-based polyol, one of the two reactive components of polyurethane (PUR), is scheduled to begin in 2015. Substantial may be an understatement: The initial objective of making low-reactivity CO2 react at all initially was described as the “Dream Reaction.” The sheer energy needed to make the CO2 react was immense.

Five years ago, Bayer MaterialScience and RWTH Aachen University cooperatively formed the CAT Catalytic Center with the university in Aachen, Germany, and one of its principal research programs has been carbon dioxide as an alternative building block for plastics. Laird reported that Bayer began the Dream Reaction project in 2009 to develop catalysis technology to free carbon from CO2 for use in making polyols.

A catalyst was successfully developed that worked in the lab, and the

Dream Production Project comprised of Bayer, the German energy producer RWE Power, and researchers from RWTH Aachen U. built a technical-scale pilot plant at Chempark Leverkusen that came online in February 2011.

The pilot plant is using CO2 from an RWE coal-fired power plant near Köln, Germany to produce polyol that serves as a building block for PUR flexible foam. The foam exhibits properties comparable to conventionally sourced foams, and its flame retardancy is better. And so the decision has been taken to begin industrial-scale production in 2015.

Laird’s latest blog post describes still more developments, for example moving beyond PUR to use CO2 to make building

blocks for polycarbonate (PC), another Bayer specialty, using excess solar and wind energy that otherwise would be wasted. You can find her post online, and an earlier Laird post on the same subject as well.

Ms. Laird deserves a thank-you for shining a light on a development that has had much too little visibility, yet whose environmental benefits could be immense. Could CO2, the highest volume greenhouse gas, be kept out of the environment by recycling it into useful plastics—which in turn can be kept out of the environment by recycling them? Putting irony aside, yes, it could.

Monday, December 26th, 2011

Plastics Make the Holidays Brighter, and Tastier Too

No matter how you celebrate the year-ending holidays, plastic products will be involved. Whether it’s the tinsel, the funny hats for New Year’s Eve (watch out for camera phones), or the high-tech electronic gadgets you give or receive, much of what you’re dealing with will be made of plastics, ranging from simple parts to highly engineered systems.

We could mention that it’s impossible to do much of anything these days without plastics in a key supporting role, but instead let’s look at two very different ways that polymers make the holiday season more fun, and even tastier.

A thank-you to Anne Clark, the VP for administration at SPI: The Plastics

Roast turkey

Turkey roasted in a plastic oven bag looks and tastes great

Industry Trade Association, for reminding us how plastics make it easier to have a delicious roast turkey gracing your holiday table. For the recent Thanksgiving’s holiday, she decided to roast a large turkey in a food-safe plastic oven bag for the first time.

Turkey in plastic oven bag

Roasting a turkey in a plastic oven bag is easy

She found that using the plastic oven bag reduced cooking time by an hour and eliminated the need to use the oven’s self-cleaning feature – two nice energy savers. The plastic oven bag also made it easier to transport the cooked bird to the house where it was served, and keep it warm. Most important, the roasted turkey looked great and tasted delicious.

The food-safe oven bags sold separately in supermarkets are strong, yet a meat thermometer inserted through the bag will tell you when roasting is done and the meat is still juicy. The bags work equally well with other meats.

Besides the joys of the dining table, many people consider their winter holidays incomplete if they don’t spend some quality time on ice skates. Thanks to the versatility of plastics you can enjoy

your holiday skating even if you are wintering in Honolulu or Redwood City, California, a bit south of San Francisco. During this year’s holiday season, Redwood City residents are gliding across a 4000-square-foot skating rink in the town’s Courthouse Square. The rink’s surface, however, is a lubricated plastic material, not ice.

For skating, real ice must be kept at about 25ºF. Since daytime high temperatures in Redwood City around Christmas and New Year time are often above 60ºF, the energy bill for keeping the ice frozen would have broken the rink’s operating budget, so it was plastics to the rescue. Balmy temperatures present no problems or additional cost when using the plastic skating surface supplied by Artificial Ice Events.

The company, which was founded by a competitive speed skater, describes the surface as being like a “solid piece of countertop.” For easy gliding, the surface is periodically sprayed with silicone-based lubricant. Skaters use normal metal-bladed figure or hockey skates and employ the same technique as they would on real ice. Veteran skaters report that the “feel” is almost identical to gliding on frozen water, and it certainly looks that way.

Happy Holidays! And don’t forget the plastic.

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

The U.S. Capitol Demonstrates How Waste-to-Energy is Done

A tip of the hat to Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), for the article he published on November 28 in Roll Call adknowledging how the U.S. Capitol recently showed leadership in boosting the waste-to-energy process. On November 1st, the Capitol campus began sending as much as 90 percent of its non-recycled solid waste to Covanta Energy’s waste-to-energy facility across the Potomac River in Alexandria, VA.

The U.S. Capitol Building.

Non-recyclable trash from the U.S. Capitol now goes to a waste-to-fuel plant, not into a landfill.

Before the decision to do that by the Architect of the Capitol in collaboration with the House Administration Committee, the fuel traditionally referred to as waste had gone to landfills. Dooley noted that in 2010 more than 5300 tons of non-recycled waste was taken from the Congressional facilities, but instead of being buried the Capitol trash now will create enough energy to power a House of Representatives office building for several months. (Having recently been in one of those buildings on behalf of members of SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association, I can testify that those buildings are very large.

Plastics of various types are, of course, part of the Capitol trash. SPI and Dooley’s ACC have long made clear that although recycling plastics is always preferable, when energy can be recaptured from trash that will not be recycled, burying it makes no sense. The energy value of plastics is greater than that of coal, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prefers waste-to-energy over landfills.

Dooley quotes an EPA finding that waste-to-energy makes electricity “with less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity.” He then helpfully adds, “Yes, you read that right.” He must have been reading my mind.

Many SPI staff members have detailed the merits of waste-to-energy on this blog, for example here, here, and here. In

Covanta Energy's waste-to-energy plant, Alexandria, VA

The Covanta Energy waste-to-fuel facility in Alexandria, VA

addition, the SPI website contains many articles spelling out the technology’s superiority to burying fuel in a landfill. Lately waste-to-energy is getting longer legs.

In a recent interview, Greg Wilkinson, president and CEO of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA), who clearly favors turning waste to energy, was equally clear that the general public has a mindset problem: We think of this trash as waste that we need to hide or bury, so we hide or bury it.

I’m sure that SPI President/CEO Bill Carteaux could only guess at how many times he has spoken to business and industry groups in favor of waste-to-energy rather than waste-to-landfill. That has been the policy of SPI for some time, and likewise for ACC.

Lacking a statistical survey, I’ll estimate that waste-to-energy makes sense to nearly everyone in the plastics industry. It should make sense to everyone in the U.S. but it doesn’t. Some are concerned about environmental impact, regardless of the EPA statement above. Others take the NIMBY position – not in my back yard.

Those two factors could explain why Western Europe, with a population slightly larger than the U.S., has over 400 waste-to-energy plants, and more in the planning stages, while the U.S. has only 86. But to me the mindset problem Greg Wilkinson described is even more fundamental. So then, a quick rethink: That stuff’s not waste, it’s fuel. Pass it on.

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Recycling Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) Is On the Rise.

Let’s say goodbye to one more myth about plastics – the one that says expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam cannot be recycled. EPS, often called Styrofoam, which is a Dow Chemical trademarked product, is already being recycled commercially.

Kudos to Natalie Morris for her article (October 10, 2011) in the State Journal-Register (Springfield, IL) titled “Springfield furniture store goes green.” It describes how the Ashley Furniture HomeStore discovered it could recycle the EPS foam that came wrapped around its furniture, and make money doing it.

Back in 2006, the store’s general manager Scott Nation couldn’t believe how much paper and plastic waste was being created. The Ashley team started looking for ways to reduce it, particularly the foam that protected furniture in shipment. It was the major factor, at least by volume. Ashley found a way to deal with it, by way of Styrocyclers LLC (Marietta, GA).

Styrocyclers sells many recycling systems, including the Styrocycler that Ashley acquired. It melts the EPS foam, drastically reducing its volume. Nation told Natalie Morris that the machine turns about two refrigerator-sized containers of foam into one dense block about the size of a cinderblock. Ashley sells the Styrocycler’s 5-inch by 5-inch bricks linked into logs to Midwest Fiber Recycling of Decatur, IL, and the plastic moves on to the next of what should be many lives.

The Styrocycler has decreased Ashley’s landfill trash by more than 3000 cubic yards annually. Ashley recouped its investment in five months by saving $2600 per month in trash hauling fees, plus revenue from selling the densified polystyrene logs.

Larry Maletta, president of Styrocyclers, says it’s all about educating a company to see that recycling EPS can save and make money. He challenges potential clients to monitor the costs of collecting a month’s worth of their EPS waste and having it taken away. Payback, says Styrocyclers, is less than six months.

Ashley Furniture now sends as little as 20% of what it formerly sent to the landfill, and it has acquired a taste for being green. Paper no longer is pitched out, but instead is bundled for recycling. Replacing incandescent lights with LED bulbs changed a six-month replacement cycle to 16 years, and because the LED bulbs are

brighter, some 400 light fixtures were eliminated from the 35,000-ft2 store. Ashley’s sister company, Barney’s Furniture, also in Springfield, is following the same recycling program.

Besides supplying recycling systems, Styrocyclers also is a recycling processor that collects EPS logs in its local area. Its stated objective is to let people know that EPS is 100% recyclable and that it can be done repeatedly. If a company doesn’t have a local recycler that takes EPS, no problem. Styrocyclers is part of a National Mail Back Program that lets anyone mail their scrap to the company – some business for the Postal Service.

Seriously though, it dawns on more of us every day that being greener is a good thing. If recycling also brings in more of that other green – meaning money – it’s just that much more incentive to do good .

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

The P-Word: Guess Which Material Shines in New BMW Electric & Hybrid Cars?

Two new BMWs—a fully electric city car and a four-seat, hybrid sports car—unveiled in Frankfurt, Germany on July 29, 2011 are more than radically cool vehicles. They also mark another step forward for reinforced plastic composites in the automotive sector.

Body panels of BMW’s new i8 hybrid sports car (left) and i3 fully electric city car are carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic, a first for the German carmaker.

The BMW i3 city car and the BMW i8 hybrid sports sedan each have a lightweight aluminum chassis and a “reinforced carbon-fiber body” that the company says compensates for the weight of the batteries. I put those words in quotes because the press material distributed for the launch uses carbon, carbon fiber, and CFRP to describe the bodywork, seemingly saying the structure is carbon. Is it that they don’t want to say what the carbon fibers are reinforcing,  or what is holding them together in those body panels?

The “P” in CFRP stands for plastic, which I finally found deep in the ample press material, where CFRP is explained as carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic. The P-word might be used again, I don’t know, but there’s no way to hide the actual CFRP—all the body panels are made of it, and they look good—really good. And if BMW’s engineers are betting on them to perform, the odds are extremely good that they will.

Other carmakers agree.

Porsche and performance electric carmaker Tesla are working with composites, and Land Rover’s new Evoque uses plastic composites for lightweighting. Jaguar is said to be developing a car expected to be one of the fastest in the world, and the C-X75 will also be fuel-efficient thanks to carbon-composite construction and a hybrid power plant, among other things.

BMW i8 sports sedan uses plastics and natural materials

BMW uses natural materials in the new i8, but the interior shows the designers also are using plastics—strikingly.

The new BMW i8's doors could be plastic

The BMW i8’s transparent, wing-type doors could be quite heavy in glass, but shaped as they are, they well might be plastic. BMW wasn’t saying at the intro.

 

Speaking of power plants, hats off to a dedicated engineer who may have reached his goal of making a practical composite engine block. Florida-based Matti Holtzberg has made a dozen versions of a composite engine block using a six-piece mold with a removable core for the oil passages. He followed the design of Ford’s 2-liter Duratec engine block but his composite version is 20 pounds lighter, in an industry happy to shed an ounce or a few grams. Car and Driver has more details, including a chronology of Holtzberg’s development of composite engine components that starts in 1969 in Hackensack, NJ. And let’s hear it for engineers who don’t give up on plastics.