Clean hydrogen from plastic waste?

I recently spent time with innovative companies, Powerhouse and partners Waste2tricity at their plant at Thornton next to the Stanlow refinery, that is using proven technology to solve a crucial waste problem with the ultimate end result being the production of clean hydrogen gas.

It was a slightly odd experience as it took me back to a site that I was familiar with 20 years ago during my time with Shell; in those days the company owned Stanlow oil refinery along with the adjacent research and development centre at Thornton where it trialled fuels for Formula One racing cars.

The complex is no longer owned by Shell; the Thornton research and development centre is now something of an innovation hub for the energy sector, housing turbine companies and others in the clean-tech sector. It is well-sited as Ellesmere Port and its surroundings stand at the forefront of the UK’s industrial scale hydrogen aspirations.

I was at Thornton to look at the concept of deriving clean hydrogen gas, suitable as fuel for commercial and transport usage from an incineration process that uses plastic waste as ‘feedstock’. There has scarcely been a day in the last 12 months when plastic has not featured in the news agenda and potential solutions to its disposal are to be welcomed.

The waste to energy demonstrator unit is located in one of the old Formula One testing bays and as the picture above shows- it looks rather like something Willy Wonka might have designed! It takes plastic, including problematic ‘black’ plastic, through a graded incineration process at very high temperatures to convert it into syngas from which can be extracted hydrogen of sufficient quality to be used as a clean fuel for heavy goods vehicles. I learned that storage, which I had thought would be problematic, is in actuality straightforward and utilises commercially available canisters.

Energy from waste is not renewable but certainly features high on the clean-tech scale and this process comes with scope to become ever cleaner as hydrogen gas can itself ultimately be used to power the process. The process is relatively clean (no protective clothing was needed on my visit and there are few health and safety concerns) and lends itself well to local deployment especially at depots with large HGV or similar requirements.

The North West is heading towards a zero carbon economy zero-carbon-manchester-how-get-2038 and decarbonisation is rapidly rising up the political agenda; this demonstrator combines a solution to a problematic waste issue with the production of clean fuel and so offers a unique proposition. With a major ‘Hynet’ hydrogen network proposal being mooted by Cadent in the North West of England, the timing could not be more auspicious.

Coming from a ‘big six’ energy background I was interested to see where such plants could be sited this demonstrator comes with few apparent environmental impacts and crucially, is both flexible, scalable and can be made in modules to help with the filtration needed for the plastic feedstuff. I saw tyres being fed in granulated form into the demonstrator and the syngas, from which clean hydrogen is extracted, emerging.

With landfill tax regulations becoming ever more stringent; air quality regulations and recycling targets ever more ambitious, equipment such as this may solve real-world issues. The next stage will likely be a commercial scale project to explore performance in an operational environment and prepare for potential wider deployment.