“The world needs to have a solution for every type of plastic,” said Fred Schmuck, CEO of advanced recycling company, Alterra Energy. It’s not an either-or situation, he stressed. “People need to realise that the solution we have is complementary to mechanical recycling. But also that it doesn’t have environmental issues and is not energy inefficient.”
Advanced recycling has come a long way over the past two decades. Yet there is still widespread misunderstanding among the general public about what it is and how it works, according to Fred Schmuck, CEO of Alterra Energy. Twenty years ago, when pyrolysis started, the process wasn’t all that efficient and the substantial amount of concern about the amount of external energy required for heating was probably justified.
“But that’s no longer the case,” he explained. “Efficiency is at the core of what we’ve been doing over the last four years.”
He revealed that the original commercialization date for the Alterra plant had been the year 2015. The company spent four extra years before going on stream to ensure the process was robust and efficient enough, especially from an energy recovery perspective.
“People need to understand that what might have been reported back a long time ago is not substantiated today. It is crucial that we develop fact-based, technical measures and analyses in order to get the general public to understand that this is a viable solution,” he stressed. “It is certainly not incineration in disguise: it is a truly novel, innovative, safe, reliable, environmentally-friendly process.”
What does Alterra Energy produce?
Alterra has developed a liquefaction technology that, unlike many of its competitors, is a continuous, rather than a batch or semi-batch process. The technology produces pyrolysis oil: “At scale, our facility in Ohio is commercial,” said Fred. “We are processing 60 tons per day – that’s the nameplate capacity of the reactor.” The company started with a pilot plant and proof of concept in 2009, after which it built its first commercial unit in 2014. It then spent years working to ensure the technology could produce efficiently and safely at scale.
“The recent minority stake acquisition by Finnish oil refining and marketing company Neste in December is testimony to our ability to effectively operate and already deliver pyrolysis oil to our partners,” Fred noted. “In fact, that ability was one of the things Neste was really excited about. Neste has processed our product and refined it into high quality feedstock.”
He added: “At the end of the day, we are feedstock for a refining operation. So, the main target of this technology is to provide a recycled material to the refiners, so they can themselves effectively create new material, mostly new plastics but also waxes and lubes. In certain jurisdictions, it goes to fuel, but that is not a prime interest: we’re more interested in the concept of the circular economy and effectively recycling end-of-life waste plastics into new materials.”
The waste plastic Alterra uses as raw material is, for the most part, post-consumer mixed plastic. The company has formed relationships with a number of waste management companies, who do the collection and the sorting work. There is some upstream required to prepare the feedstock – it must be shredded, dried and densified prior to being dropped into Alterra’s process, which is why the company has chosen to collaborate with waste management companies.
The pyrolysis oil must meet certain strict specifications for the refineries to be able to use it in their operations. “We are extremely pleased with our process capability, of being able to take all kinds of different plastics waste streams in order to deliver a fuel that is on-spec for our customers,” said Fred. “There are certain ppm numbers you have to meet, and a product quality that must be achieved. We work with the best labs in the US, those that are basically used by all the oil and gas companies. We have now over twelve months of operating track record and are confident that what we have is a good replacement for virgin oil. We want to be the best, the most efficient and the most cost effective so that we can compete head-to-head with virgin oil. And make it a simple value proposition for our customers to divert from traditional exploration in all usage."