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We Can Now Make Oil From Plastic

Written by Luke Burgess
Posted February 18, 2019

You might remember this scene from the 1967 comedy-drama classic The Graduate:

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

The first plastics were invented over 100 years ago. But it wasn't until WWII that plastics really became an important part of society.

Up until that point, fabricators didn't think of plastic as a manufacturing material. But the war effort changed that.

As I'm sure you know, materials such as copper, aluminum, and steel became precious metals during WWII. And engineers were desperate to find new manufacturing resources to support the war.

In steps plastic.

Plastic was an affordable and strong alternative to both glass and steel. And builders took full advantage of the new material.

Cockpit shields for airplanes were made of a plastic called Perspex. Another plastic, polythene, was used to insulate radar. And plastic was used to make synthetic rubber for tires.

Following WWII, however, plastic companies needed to find a place to sell their products. And they did: to the American public.

That's when plastics went from protecting soldiers on the battlefield to protecting a child's sandwich in the schoolyard.

And it was huge!

In the 1950s and 1960s, plastic was hot. And in the early days, every investor on the planet wanted a piece of the plastics market. Heck, I don't think it's a stretch to say that plastic was the lithium of the 1950s.

If you were ever wondering, that's why Mr. McGuire wants to tell Benjamin about plastics in The Graduate. (The film was released in 1967, but it was based on a book released in 1963.)

Today, plastics have become the enemy. There are countless anti-plastic organizations and efforts all over the world, including the anti-straw movement currently going on.

And you already know why: It takes forever for most of the plastic we use to biodegrade. It interferes with animal life and the general natural order of Earth.

And we use a lot of it. The UN estimates over 8 million tons of plastic trash goes into the ocean every year. That's bad.

The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050, the oceans will hold more plastic than fish if things continue as they have for the past several decades.

Just look around your own house. How much plastic is surrounding you right now?

What if, instead of throwing away all that plastic, we could recycle it and use it for energy?

That would be great, right? Well, that's exactly what researchers at Purdue University have begun to do.

You see, plastics are essentially a solid form of oil. If they can be converted back to their oil form, they could be reprocessed into fuels like gasoline and diesel.

So that's exactly what scientists at Purdue did: They came up with a new chemical conversion process that could transform about 20% of the world's plastic waste into useful fuels.

Linda Wang, the lead researcher developing this technology, says:

Our strategy is to create a driving force for recycling by converting polyolefin waste into a wide range of valuable products, including polymers, naphtha (a mixture of hydrocarbons), or clean fuels. Our conversion technology has the potential to boost the profits of the recycling industry and shrink the world's plastic waste stock.

Wang says she and her team are now looking for investors to demonstrate the technology on a commercial scale.

Maybe one day the fuel going into your gas tank will have previously been the bag you carried out of the store.

Until next time,

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Luke Burgess

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As an editor at Energy and Capital, Luke’s analysis and market research reach hundreds of thousands of investors every day. Luke is also a contributing editor of Angel Publishing’s Bubble and Bust Report newsletter. There, he helps investors in leveraging the future supply-demand imbalance that he believes could be key to a cyclical upswing in the hard asset markets. For more on Luke, go to his editor’s page.

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