UNCW Grad Fires Up Oil From Ocean Plastics

Plastic waste gathered on a North Carolina beach is turned into high-quality burnable oil in a lab at University of North Carolina Wilminington. (Photo courtesy UNCW)

By Sunny Lewis

WILMINGTON, North Carolina, March 12, 2018 (EcologyPrime.com News) – Hidden, floating just beneath the surface of the oceans, are trillions of plastic fragments that once were useful objects made from petroleum – straws, spoons, bottles, bags, tubs, fishing gear, toys. Ingested by birds, fish and other marine animals, and the plastic pieces carpet beaches worldwide, where the creatures that eat them also wash up – dead.

With over eight million tons of plastic entering the world’s oceans each year, by 2050 plastic will outweigh fish in the oceans, according to a 2016 report.

Discovery of this enormity of plastic waste changed Bonnie Monteleone’s life, while she was studying for her master’s degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW).

Bonnie Monteleone, founder of Plastic Ocean Project, presents her work deriving fuel oil from ocean plastic to students, faculty, local government and community members at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. April 6, 2016 (Photo courtesy Plastic Ocean Project)

The change began when Monteleone was assigned to read the article “Our Oceans Are Turning to Plastic… Are You?” by Susan Casey, an environmental exposé on the impact plastic in the oceans is having on planetary and human health.

“I sincerely lost sleep over it. I read it three times!” Monteleone told an interviewer for a UNCW profile. “In the article, she described a snapping turtle that got a plastic milk jug ring stuck around its body mid-shell and it grew around it, making its shell the shape of a figure eight.”

In the course of her studies, Monteleone traveled nearly 10,000 nautical miles in three different oceans and realized that she wanted to devote her life to keeping the oceans plastic free.

The research led her to work with Captain Charles Moore, who first discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997. Monteleone sailed 3,400 nautical miles across the North Pacific assisting with his 10-year anniversary resampling in that region.

She spearheaded annual sampling of the North Atlantic with Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences and sailed from Brazil to South Africa with 5 Gyres Institute collecting 110 surface samples.

All the samples Monteleone collected from the four oceans contained plastics and that “fueled my fervor for action and outreach,” she said.

“The moment when I realized that I couldn’t just write my thesis and defend it and just say ‘that’s horrible’ came when I was standing on a beach in Hawaii,” Monteleone told another interviewer. “We would never associate a plastic problem with Hawaii. But I saw the entire beach was covered 10-12 inches deep with plastic fragments, little broken pieces, that line the entire coast. Pockets of plastic in this lava rock.”

“I really knew right at that moment I just can’t let this go. I’m witnessing something that most people never see, and if we don’t start having a conversation this is what all beaches will turn into. That was one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever been to, and I’ve traveled to a lot of beaches. That’s when I decided that when I finished my thesis, I would start a nonprofit to bring awareness to this situation.”

Monteleone earned her master’s degree from UNCW in 2011; she now works as an administrator in the UNCW Chemistry Department and mentors students involved in marine debris research.

In 2012 she founded the national nonprofit Plastic Ocean Project, which raises money to study marine debris issues, raises public awareness of the issue, and conducts research alone and in cooperation with other organizations.

Three years later, Plastic Ocean Project got into a relationship that could lead to a real solution to the marine debris fiasco.

Plastic waste gathered on a North Carolina beach is turned into high-quality burnable oil in a lab at University of North Carolina Wilmington. (Photo courtesy UNCW)

Plastic Ocean Project partnered with Renewlogy, formerly PK Clean Technology, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff based in Salt Lake City, Utah that has developed a system for converting plastic waste to fuel.

To get started, UNCW sent PK Clean beach plastics collected from Wrightsville Beach and ocean plastics found 30 miles off the North Carolina coast. About 80 percent of the plastic was converted into oil and sent back to UNCW for chemical analysis.

Next, the UNCW Chemistry Department purchased a tabletop depolymizer for $5,000 through PK Clean. The plastics go through a chipper and are fed into this machine. Within 30 minutes the plastic begins to turn into oil.

“We usually put in about two pounds of plastic, and the oil we’re producing is wonderful in quality,” said Monteleone. “Some of the oil is close to two-stroke fuel used in a leaf blower. So I’m beating the drum about how we have to stop this problem of plastic waste in our oceans, and this might be a solution.”

Last June, Monteleone took this process out of the UNCW lab and onto the ocean.

The Plastic Ocean Project organized six teams on fishing boats to fish for plastic waste offshore of Hatteras Island, at a “Hope Spot” established by the nonprofit Mission Blue founded by Dr. Sylvia Earle, the famed oceanographer who is one of Monteleone’s inspirations.

These fish-rich waters also contain large amounts of plastic debris, including lost fishing gear, which poses a major threat to marine life.

Using a mobile Renewlogy system powered by solar panels, they converted plastic waste collected from the Atlantic Ocean into fuel to power the boats.

The process sounds promising, but there could be problems such as contaminants in the plastic debris that prevents its clean conversion to oil.

“Several studies already show ocean plastics absorb manmade organic compounds. What happens when they get converted to oil is completely unknown – and that’s what we’re looking at,” said Ralph Mead, a UNCW chemistry professor working on the project. “Many, many questions remain to be answered.”

The energy used to turn plastic back into petroleum could also be an environmental problem if it’s not renewable, by emitting more greenhouse gases.

For now, the UNCW researchers are fundraising for a solar panel to power their table top reactor.

For the future, Monteleone envisions a closed-loop system. She would, “Put the reactor at the landfill and use methane from the landfill to start the whole process.”

Plastic to fuel conversion is an emerging industry. The Argonne National Laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, has published a study showing that converting plastic waste to fuel leads to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and the American Chemistry Council has predicted that the United States could see $6.6 billion of investment in building plastic-to-fuel conversion facilities.

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