Working towards a sustainable environment

Energy-from-waste firm Waste2Tricity has revealed plans to develop the UK’s first industrial-scale facility capable of converting waste plastics into hydrogen in Cheshire.

An artist's impression of the plant. Image: Peel Environmental

An artist’s impression of the plant. Image: Peel Environmental

Waste2Tricity is set to apply for planning permission to build the £7m facility later this spring, after parenting with developer Peel Environmental, which has agreed to host it on its Protos site near Ellesmere Port.

The proposed facility will span 54 acres and have the capacity to treat up to 25 tonnes of waste plastic each day, generating one tonne of hydrogen and 28MWh of electricity in the process. Waste2Tricity claims that it would be capable of processing almost all kinds of plastics, including packaging, rigid plastics and used tyres.

The process which will be used at the proposed plant is called Distributed Modular Gasification (DMG) and was developed by clean energy firm PowerHouse Energy at the nearby University of Chester Energy Centre. It involves placing the plastics into a sealed chamber, where they are heated to ultra-high temperatures in order to remove carbon and convert the solid matter into a synthetic gas called “syngas”. The syngas is then modulated in a separate chamber to produce road-fuel quality hydrogen.

If planning permission for the facility is granted before the summer, the first phase of the plant could be operational by the end of the year, according to Waste2Tricity. The facility will initially use the hydrogen for onsite electricity generation, with upgrades which could see the gas used for vehicle refuelling or distributed for other uses in the pipeline.

The company’s managing director John Hall said the Protos site was chosen as the North West is home to both a stream of “unrecyclable” plastics and a “concentration of energy-intensive industries” – many of which have expressed a desire to shift to clean power.

“Our technology is a sustainable solution for dealing with plastics that would otherwise end up in landfill, and because we’re generating hydrogen it’s much more efficient than other energy-from-waste processes,” PowerHouse Energy’s chief executive David Ryan added.

“The theoretical basis of this technology is nothing new and some components have been around for over 100 years, we’re just applying it in an innovative solution.”

Going forward, Waste2Tricity has stated that it will explore the possibility of opening similar facilities elsewhere in the UK and across its global markets, which also include Japan and South Korea.

The unveiling of the plans come as key figures from across the UK’s green economy are beginning to call for more of our plastics waste to be treated “in-house”, after countries such as China tightened their importing regulations and a string of exposes found that waste exported for recycling may actually end up in landfill or incineration. 

At present, the UK is estimated to generate more than 3.3 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year, with two-thirds being exported for recycling abroad. In tandem, plastic pollution in many of the developing nations this waste is sent to is growing as economies improve at a faster pace than recycling infrastructures are bolstered, leading to waste crimes and plastic “leaks”. 

The hydrogen plant is therefore being touted as a solution which could help bridge the gap between the UK’s plastic waste footprint and its recycling capacity. 

Hitting the gas

Hydrogen as a fuel is widely regarded as an emerging technology, but one which could play a crucial role in the low-carbon transition on global, national and local levels.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), for example, recently called for all UK corporates, politicians and members of the public to be educated about the benefits and limitations of hydrogen technology in the wake of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent findings into the severe impacts of global warming.

Specifically, the body’s chief executive Chris Stark has argued that hydrogen –  if coupled with energy efficiency technologies, low-carbon power generators, EVs and hybrid-electric heat pump systems – could make a “very important contribution” to the low-carbon transition in developed nations such as the UK.

Similarly, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) has claimed that hydrogen could play a key role in decarbonising hard-to-abate sectors such as heating, transport and heavy industry. The body is currently lobbying the UK Government to set policies which will help build the business case for hydrogen use in these areas, as well as using the gas for storing excess renewable power.

The private sector’s use of hydrogen as a fuel is still in its infancy, but the early signs of a “hydrogen revolution” are brewing across the globe. In the transport sector, hydrogen vehicles have been supported by the likes of brewer AB InBev, oil and gas major Shell and waste management firm Veolia, while carmakers Daimler, Hyundai and Nikola Motor have all bolstered their funding for hydrogen technologies in recent times. More recently, Toyota unveiled plans to re-open its former vehicle production plant in Altona, Australia, as a hydrogen production and fuelling facility,

Sarah George