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Just one word: Plastics

By Allison M. Heinrichs
Monday, June 19, 2006

For three generations, the commercial greenhouse owned by John Mussig's family has grown everything from poinsettias to tomatoes in three acres of steamy glass houses.
But Mussig doesn't want his children to inherit J.E. Mussig Greenhouses in Zelienople, Butler County, and isn't sure how long he'll remain in business.

"This past year we lost $40,000 because of heating costs," said Mussig, whose energy bill more than tripled last year. "It's frightening. If it keeps going, we're going to quit."

Mussig has explored alternatives to natural gas, such as burning corn and wood, and is intrigued by a new technology that could be coming to Allegheny County: burning plastic as fuel.

A Korean businessman who found a way to burn plastic cleanly and efficiently is working with a Penn State University engineer and an Allegheny County Cooperative Extension horticulturist to manufacture plastic burners here. They wrote a business plan and are scouting locations, but people's wariness about burning plastic and the need to make the machines user-friendly remain challenges.

Still, they're confident the technology is sound and useful, with little negative environmental impact. A Penn State study found the plastic-burning process is cleaner than burning natural gas.

"Fuel oil smokes more than plastic in this burner," said Jim Garthe, the agricultural engineer who tested the Korean system. "It's very, very clean-burning."

The secret is high heat, which turns the plastic into a gas and ignites it. Optimum temperature is 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit -- almost 10 times the temperature to boil water. When heated that intensely, the plastic's long molecular chains break down into less harmful parts, mainly water, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, Garthe said.

When Allegheny County Cooperative Extension program assistant John Shea heard about the successful tests, he knew the product might help save the greenhouse industry, which has struggled with rising energy costs. With pots and trays that hold seedlings and the tarp used to keep soil moist, greenhouses generate plenty of waste plastic to supply the burners.

When hooked up to a boiler, the system can send hot water through pipes to heat soil in large trays of seedlings and to heaters that warm the air.

With Shea's encouragement, William Bang, chief executive officer of Seoul-based Global Resource Technologies, formed a corporation -- G.R. Boilers LLC -- in Allegheny County earlier this month with the intention of creating a Western Pennsylvania factory to manufacture the burners.

He has a plant operating in Korea and has sold several burners. One greenhouse owner featured in a Korean news program said he's saving $6,000 a month by burning plastic.

In two months, Bang hopes to have his U.S. plant established, possibly in Point Breeze or Manchester. In his first year he wants to make 30 burners and would employ local workers. Three years from now, he plans to increase production to more than 100 burners a year.

They'll probably sell for about $40,000 each, Bang said.

"The idea came from trying to get alternative energy from waste," Bang said during a recent visit to Pittsburgh. "We don't have any natural resources in Korea, but we have plastic, and plastic comes from petroleum, so it has energy."

Most plastics contain 85 to 95 percent of the energy of an equal amount of fuel oil, and triple the energy of wood. Though it can burn the plastic used to make milk jugs and pop bottles, Bang's burner targets plastics that are more difficult to recycle, such as tarp and other types likely to end up in landfills.

"We don't want to take away from the recycling market," Shea said.

While researching the use of plastic as a fuel, Bang came across the work of Penn State's Garthe. About a year and a half ago, Garthe and his colleagues hooked up Bang's burner to a boiler in a shed on the university's horticultural complex and spent four days performing tests based on federal Environmental Protection Agency standards.

Since then, they've shown it at Penn State's Ag Progress Days, an annual summer event that highlights new agricultural technology.

Farmers and greenhouse owners have expressed interest in the burners, but worry the cost of shredding plastic into the necessary quarter-inch pieces would make the process too costly.

"You can't just take the plastic and just start burning it," said Mussig, who has talked with Shea about the burners. "From what I've been told, pelletizing the plastic right now costs more than natural gas."

It's a problem Garthe and his research students are solving.

By fall, they hope to have a mobile machine that could go to farms and create plastic nuggets at a rate of 500 pounds an hour. The process compacts waste plastic into 2-inch-long cylinders, using less than 1 percent of the energy locked in the plastic.

Garthe is optimistic that Bang can adjust his burner to accommodate the nuggets, allowing Penn State to marry its "plastofuel" with the burners.

If all goes well, Garthe sees Penn State's mobile plastofuel machines traveling to farms before the decade ends, transforming waste plastic into fuel for a reasonable fee that would cost considerably less than buying other fuels.

"We're competing with coal and natural gas, and I feel that we can," Garthe said.

"We're starting with something that has no value. How could it not compete?" said Matt Lawrence, a Penn State graduate student designing the plastofuel machine.

Garthe, Shea and Bang dream of making the table-sized Korean burner smaller, so that it could be combined with a standard home water boiler. Then, anybody could turn garbage into fuel.

"It's got to work. The environment needs it," Shea said. "All plastics are is oil or natural gas, and we're throwing them away. That's got to stop."

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