Adelaide, Australia — An Australian inventor says he is in the final stages of receiving a patent for a system to convert plastics into energy, a process that could yield more attention since China began limiting plastics waste imports.
David Thompson, based in Adelaide, is seeking A$2.5 million (US$1.9 million) to help commercial launch his plastics-to-energy technology, which he has called Poet, an acronym for polymer organic energy treatment, can turn a range of plastics, including polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and expanded polystyrene, into methane. The process also produces inert, organic by-products that can be used as garden fertilizer and mulch.
Thompson told Plastics News a patent attorney is currently finalizing a patent application for registration with the Australian Government agency IP Australia, which regulates intellectual property rights.
He said he spent many years testing and evaluating how to reduce waste plastics' environmental impact.
"My innovations specifically surround controlled degradation of polymers in a safe, environmental way, using bacteria as the biological process to do this. How it works is secret, however the Poet system makes plastics attractive to bacteria to colonize and digest and produce biogas from the process."
He told Plastics News he wants to "find a way to add value back to a high-energy lost resource and create a reason for waste processors and recyclers to stop waste plastics entering landfill.
"The closure of the China market for waste plastics [means] the problem in Australia is going to grow," Thompson said.
He wants an investor to help his company, Poet System, build a demonstration plant capable of processing, initially, 5,000 metric tons of plastics a year.
Thomson told SA-based publication The Lead there is significant global interest in his invention but potential buyers want to see a working demonstration plant, not just certified test results, before committing.
"Everyone wants to be first to be second in line.
"Because we've done such an enormous amount of validation around controlling the degradation of plastics in a safe, environmental way, it's led us to being able to get the Poet system to a point where we know what we need to put in and how to operate it.
"The frustration has been in finding a person or company prepared to 'take a punt' and allow us to move forward."
Thompson said the plant could be running six months after funding is secured. The A$2.5 million could be reduced if an investor already has access to land and some infrastructure.
Thompson said the system can operate alongside other anaerobic digestion systems, such as wastewater treatment plants.
He said the Poet system is "soft" because, although there are some "mechanical processes at the beginning to make plastics attractive to the bacteria that digest it, the bacteria do all the work."
Poet was a semi-finalist in the 2017 Australian Technologies Competition, which assesses, mentors and promotes companies with technologies that have global potential.
Since then, Thompson has been contacted by potential customers in the United Kingdom and Canada and he is talking to interested investors from Singapore and Australia.
Thompson said further research has shown promise with PET and he has successfully tested a system that can process plastics, food waste and cardboard simultaneously, which will suit the fast food industry.
"We're looking at different strains of bacteria. But all the testing we've done has been with garden variety bacteria because we wanted to demonstrate that existing industry with existing anaerobic digestion systems can use the Poet system and get favourable results," he said.
"Water treatment companies already have the infrastructure in place so they only need to plug in the Poet system."
"People are also very interested in creating more biogas from waste and because of the high calorific value of plastics — it's twice as much as food waste — the expectations are that the biogas yields will be twice as much," Thompson said.