Microwave-assisted pyrolysis of HDPE using an activated carbon bed
Plastics play an enormous role in modern manufacturing, but the extraction and refining of raw materials, followed by the synthesis of plastics themselves, represents an enormous energy investment into a product that is all too often simply “thrown away” into a landfill after a single use. Microwave-assisted pyrolysis is a recycling technique that allows the recovery of chemical value from plastic waste by breaking down polymers into useful smaller hydrocarbons using microwave heat in the absence of oxygen. This dissertation examines the use of a catalytic activated carbon bed in this procedure, using high density polyethylene (HDPE) as a model plastic. Initial tests with the batch input of HDPE produced a condensed pyrolysis oil comprising 35.5–45.3% aromatics, with the remainder primarily short-chain aliphatics. This oil was approximately three times lighter than that produced in the absence of catalyst, with a narrower range of molecular masses that matched those of the liquid transport fuels petrol and diesel (C5–C21). The non-condensable gases that resulted were short-chain aliphatics that could be used as feedstock for the creation of new chemicals (such as virgin HDPE), or fuels such as natural gas and LPG. The development of apparatus capable of adding sample in a continuous fashion enabled the processing of larger quantities of HDPE, and resulted in condensed products with a significantly higher aromatic content (>80% at 450°C), and which encompassed a somewhat narrower range of molecular masses compared with those produced in the batch mode; this was due to differences in kinetics and residence time that resulted from the different modes of sample introduction. As a result of processing larger quantities of HDPE it became apparent that the activated carbon deactivated over time, with a bed able to process around 3.5 times its mass in HDPE at 450°C before any significant changes in output products occurred. The decomposition of HDPE proceeds via thermal scission and radical-mediated mechanisms; high energy surface active sites facilitate the transfer of hydrogen and radicals, and this enhances overall cracking and lowers the activation energy for the formation of aromatics. Analysis of material deposited on the surface of the activated carbon confirmed that deactivation occurred through coking, with both cracking and deactivation thought to be enhanced by the formation of microwave-induced microplasmas. Overall, the microwave-assisted pyrolysis of HDPE using activated carbon produces a much narrower range of more valuable products compared with non-catalytic processing. While the process is not likely to be economic in its current form owing to the relatively rapid deactivation of the activated carbon, future configurations incorporating online reactivation may be able to economically provide a second use cycle for these materials, avoiding expending energy to extract and process increasingly scarce new raw material from the surface of the earth.