Trash to Cash – New Anellotech Technology Tackles Plastics Pollution by Recycling Plastic Waste Into Chemicals

December 8, 2019 |

In New York, breaking news arrived that Anellotech is significantly expanding its program with Plas-TCat, a new process technology aiming to convert a wide range of plastic waste directly into chemicals – which can then be used to make new, virgin plastics.

95% of plastic packaging material is annually lost to the economy after a single use and often ends up in combustors, landfills or polluting the ocean, according to Anellotech. By leveraging Anellotech’s existing Bio-TCat process – which converts biomass into bio-based chemicals and biofuels – Plas-TCat has demonstrated encouraging results in lab studies using pure plastics.

Why is this big news? Think about the potential here…taking huge amounts of waste plastics that aren’t being recycled currently and turning them into something valuable.

It reminds us of other ‘trash to cash’ groundbreakers and leaders like Cielo Waste Solutions with their proprietary catalytic thermal depolymerization technology that turns waste into renewable diesel. Or how about Fulcrum Bioenergy taking household municipal solid waste and converting it into low carbon transportation fuels?

And of course, we can’t forget Enerkem which uses its proprietary technology to convert non-recyclable, non-compostable MSW into methanol, ethanol and other widely-used chemicals. They operate a full-scale commercial facility in Alberta, Canada – the world’s first commercial biorefinery to use municipal solid waste to produce methanol and ethanol in fact – and are expanding into Europe with a new project being worked on in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Even Shell is now involved in the project. As reported in The Digest in October, Enerkem closed a $50 million equity investment from Suncor and they snagged outgoing Chief Technology Officer and Director of Sustainability at AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals, Peter Nieuwenhuizen.

Seeing Anellotech join those ranks and move beyond biomass and into plastics is exciting indeed. They are working on solving a global trash problem as well as a need for better and more sustainable chemicals.

It’s a true trash to treasure story.

Going Beyond the Lab

Plas-TCat has the potential to offer a new, cost-effective process which will recycle significant quantities of waste plastics directly into commodity chemicals, according to Anellotech’s press release. Once in the recycling system, waste plastics could be converted into commodity chemicals such as olefins, alkanes and aromatic chemicals, which are identical to their petro-based counterparts which are currently used by manufacturers to make virgin plastics.

Anellotech wants to develop Plas-TCat so it could convert the majority of plastic materials used today, including composite films. Yes, even those pesky plastic films. Anellotech aims to use its Bio-TCat lab and TCat-8 pilot systems to feed in plastics waste, eventually developing and designing a commercial plant to efficiently make commodity chemicals at large scale, using the same basic process configuration.

Anellotech has expanded its development program, which is expected to last several years. The company has planned studies to ensure that the Plas-TCat process is robust and capable of running long term, on a range of real-world waste plastics feedstocks, with all the impurities that come with them. Anellotech’s TCat-8 pilot plant extensively ran 24/7 with biomass and the company expects it to do the same with plastics.

A little background on Anellotech – they are focused on commercializing innovative production of cost-competitive renewable chemicals and fuels from non-food biomass. Founded in 2008, Anellotech has raised US$85 million in cash and in-kind contributions from strategic partners. That’s no small potatoes.

Reaction from the stakeholders

Here’s what David Sudolsky, President and CEO of Anellotech had to say about the breaking news:

“Plas-TCat has the potential to transform plastic waste such as composite films, mixed plastics and plastics with biomass – such as paper labels – directly into valuable chemicals. It can handle oxygenated polymers, an important advantage over pyrolysis processes that produce complex oil mixtures which require upgrading and additional conversion in steam crackers.”

“With potentially high yields of valuable products, we are keen to use Plas-TCat in areas where plastic waste collection is not enforced and collection infrastructure to isolate waste plastics streams is currently lacking. By allowing payment for waste plastic, Plas-TCat provides economic incentives to tackle plastics pollution, especially in developing countries where much of the ocean plastic pollution originates.”

“We are excited about this new venture and are seeking engagement with knowledgeable strategic partners to provide development funding, as well as knowledge in waste plastics supply chain and mechanical handling, to help accelerate this project.”

Bio-TCat Process

Anellotech’s work in the biomass area is nothing to be scoffed at as it’s really the basis for their future plastics plans. Anellotech’s patented Bio-TCat technology is a thermal catalytic process for converting biomass into BTX aromatics (a mixture of benzene, toluene and xylene) which are chemically identical to petroleum-based counterparts. High purity benzene, toluene and xylenes are used to make commodity polymers such as polyester (polyethylene terephthalate or “PET”), polystyrenes, polycarbonates, nylons and polyurethanes which are used to manufacture plastic consumer goods such as beverage bottles, food packaging, clothing, footwear, carpeting, automotive and electronic components.

Bio-TCat technology can also produce renewable AnelloMate fuel blendstocks which can be used to lower the GHG emissions of producing gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, and low-sulphur marine fuels, according to Anellotech. The Bio-TCat process has already been demonstrated with loblolly pine feedstocks at Anellotech’s TCat-8 pilot plant in Silsbee, Texas.

This platform is now also being leveraged for Plas-TCat. Engineering work to design the first commercial plant is underway by Anellotech and its R&D, engineering and licensing partners IFPEN and Axens.

You can read more about Anellotech’s Bio-TCat technology viability and moving forward with commercialization as reported in The Digest in May here.

Check out their Multi-Slide Guide, “Like Fine Wine, Smellin’ Fine: The Digest’s 2019 Multi-Slide Guide to Anellotech’s Aromatics” that they shared at ABLC NEXT in San Francisco to get all the details on why Bio-TCat is one cool cat, details on their commercial plant planning underway now, and more.

A Bit More on Biomass – MinFree Tech

Going beyond Bio-TCat for a minute, Anellotech has another interesting technology – their MinFree Tech which removes high levels of mineral elements from agricultural residues which could cause fouling, erosion and corrosion, enabling the use of residues as economical feedstocks in addition to wood pellets.

As reported in The Digest in July, Anellotech’s MinFree technology, a patent pending biomass pretreatment process has been demonstrated to significantly reduce the mineral (ash) content of loblolly pine at a 20 metric ton/day scale. Month-long trials converting this MinFree-treated, low-mineral pine into aromatics (BTX) at Anellotech’s Bio-TCat process TCat-8 pilot plant showed extended, economic catalyst life.

MinFree is expected to provide similar results with other woody biomass like eucalyptus and hard woods, and agricultural residues like cotton straw, sugarcane bagasse and corn stover. Anellotech is in discussions with feedstock suppliers and other participants in the supply chain to select the next feedstock for development and commercialization with the MinFree process.

Bottom Line

Fine wine takes time but it’s so worth it when you gather that first aroma of a freshly opened bottle…and Anellotech shows us that the wait is worth it when it comes to technology too. Their thermal catalytic biomass conversion, or Bio-TCat Process, is making aromatic chemicals and fuels more cost competitive. Their MinFree tech is useful for biomass conversion and their new Plas-TCat technology has huge potential to convert plastic waste directly into chemicals. The trash to cash story continues and we can’t wait to see where it goes next…

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