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Power To Save: From plastic to crude oil

A research team is working on two different processes that turn agricultural plastic into liquid fuel.

LEWISBURG, Pa. — When you look around the farms in central Pennsylvania, you see lots and lots of plastic.

"It really helps when you use plastic mulch. You can really minimize water consumption, which can be really important. Then again, you have this plastic leftover, so what do you do with it?"

That's the question Deborah Sills, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Bucknell University and researchers from Cornell and from the country of Israel, are trying to answer.

Prof. Sills and the research team were awarded a $300,000 grant from the US-Israel Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund (BARD) to find a method to turn agricultural plastic into liquid fuel.

"I would say we're down-cycling. You can down-cycle plastic into some kind of crude oil, which would then need to be upgraded if it would be something you would put in your car without trashing your car," Prof. Sills said.

The research team is working on two different thermochemical processes that turn the agricultural plastic into liquid fuel. It's a bit of a complicated process because the plastic is contaminated with pesticides and leftover plant material.

"We're trying to see if these processes will convert the plastic into oil along with the residues and not have harmful air emissions."

Sills specializes in lifecycle assessment modeling.

"What's notable about it is, you make sure you look at the environmental impacts at every stage of your process."

While early data has shown that this process will work, there are still some environmental and economic questions that need answers.

"The part that is less guaranteed to know whether it will work is, is it cost-effective? How much upgrading does the fuel need so that it can be viable?"

Prof. Sills tells us that this three-year project will have additional early results this winter.