Journal du Dimanche #3: A machine that might save the oceans?

Ecology: At sea with the crew of the yacht Race for Water, sailor and mountaineer Eric Loizeau is raising awareness about the state of the world’s oceans.

Update from Santo Domingo: An innovative process for burning plastic

The waters of the Caribbean sea look more grey than blue today, with the threatening sky casting a yellow tint across the waves. Through the soupy fog, we can just make out the coast, on the horizon. We’re the only boat on the water, with the exception of two small fishing boats. There’s not a single cargo ship, oil tanker, or cruise ship. Our AIS real-time ship tracker is empty and silent. But we’re not alone; amid the long brown fronds of sargassum seaweed, there’s more and more debris: bottles, plastic, pieces of white polystyrene. They’re a sign that we’re nearing civilization, even if we can’t see it yet.

As soon as we’re off the open water and in Santo Domingo, we’ll return to our work—spreading the word about the environment, and inviting school groups, politicians, and scientists on board Race for Water. I really enjoy those sessions, and I think that my fellow crewmembers do too. It’s a chance to share our commitment to saving the oceans on board Race for Water, where the slow pace of travel keeps us rooted in the present moment and helps us reflect.

 

Transforming plastic into fuel

Once on land, we meet up with Race for Water Foundation president Marco Simeoni. He was the driving force behind the first Race for Water Odyssey to protect the oceans, back in 2015 on board the MOD70 trimaran. I worked as a crew member on that boat for two months, from Valparaiso, Chile to Hawaii. And I saw for myself that microplastics have invaded our beach sand, our ocean sediment, and of course the ocean water itself. Oceans form 70% of the earth’s biosphere, and they are highly contaminated, with six times more plastics than plankton in them.

Motivated by that information, the Foundation has been working since 2016 to prevent discarded plastics from entering the oceans. This involves developing recycling solutions—even if it’s possible and desirable to reduce the production and use of plastics, we know that they won’t be completely eliminated in the near future. In Valparaiso, Marco talked to roving garbage-pickers who are paid to collect metal cans and glass bottles, and this sparked an idea. “They never collected plastic because it had no commercial value,” he explained. But if plastic could be transformed into energy, gas, or electricity, the garbage-pickers could earn money, and thus they would be motivated to collect the discarded plastic.

The Race for Water Foundation partnered with ETIA, a French company that specializes in thermally-powered recycling of biomass. ETIA’s goal is to “develop industrial and economic solutions to address the threat of ocean pollution caused by discarded plastics, while also addressing the growing energy needs of islands and coastal cities that are directly impacted by this pollution,” says ETIA CEO Olivier Lepez. Lepez then explained how ETIA’s innovative technology works; it has been fine-tuned, and will be in operation before the end of 2017.

Like all organic matter, plastics have great potential as an energy source. The patented Biogreen® process uses reactions such as pyrolysis, torrefaction and gasification to harness the energy power of materials such as biomass, plastic or fuel residue. Pyrolysis is caused by heating materials to high temperatures without oxygen, so that there is no combustion. Above a certain temperature, the material chemically decomposes and is transformed into gases, liquids, or solids.

But pyrolysis alone is not enough to trap plastic’s energy power, primarily in the form of a gas. A new process was needed: very high-temperature pyrolysis without oxygen. This thermal process at over 800°C depends on a specialized piece of equipment—a Spirajoule®–and produces a synthetic gas called syngas, made up of methane and hydrogen.

Social and environmental advantages

The syngas is then cleaned through filtration, purification, and condensation. The goal of this crucial phase is to eliminate dust, fine particles, tar-like fatty acids and condensable gases, as well as unwanted molecules such as chlorine and other pollutants. The gas is purified, rendered non-toxic and can then be used as a fuel in electricity-generating engines or turbines.

This machine offers many advantages. It is compact, modular and portable. It takes only a few weeks to set up a unit than can process five to 12 tons of waste plastic per day. Multiple machines can work in parallel to process even larger quantities. The Biogreen® system complies with the strictest environmental standards and is European Community-certified.

Small and medium-capacity technical solutions promote decentralized waste management and energy production. This model has already been tested and proven in several Nordic countries, and is known to be efficient, and socially and environmentally advantageous. It’s not only an innovative technology—it’s proof that discarded plastic can be an additional resource for the energy transition, while generating socio-economic and environmental benefits. This is especially true in economically disadvantaged countries that generate the bulk of their electricity from petroleum. This is true of many tropical islands such as the Dominican Republic—hence the reason for our stopover in Santo Domingo, and our meetings with government representatives.

Transforming millions of tons of discarded plastic into energy every year would be a huge boon to human health and the survival of plants and animals, while providing an income for many roving garbage-pickers. The Race for Water Foundation’s strategic objective is for this model to be scaled worldwide by 2025.

Source: Le JDD