Covid-19 PPE can now be converted to biofuel

There is currently unprecedented levels of dumping plastic PPE due to the pandemic.

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According to Indian researchers, plastic from used personal protective equipment (PPE) can and should be transformed into renewable liquid fuels.

The research from the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (UPES) in Uttarakhand shows how billions of items of disposable PPE can be converted from its polypropylene (plastic) state into biofuels – which is known to be at par with standard fossil fuels.

“The transformation into biocrude, a type of synthetic fuel, will not just prevent the severe aftereffects to humankind and the environment but also produce a source of energy,” said study lead author Dr Sapna Jain from UPES.

AT A GLANCE

  • Research from the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies indicates PPE can be converted into biofuels
  • Currently, single-use PPE is being dumped at unprecedented levels
  • The biofuel produced can help mitigate the global energy crisis

The study, published in the journal Biofuels, indicates how the unprecedented levels of dumping plastic PPE due to the COVID-19 pandemic is becoming a significant threat to the environment.

There is high production and utilisation of PPE to protect the community of health workers and other frontline workers of Covid-19. During the current Covid-19 pandemic specifically, PPE is being designed for single-use followed by disposal. Once these plastic materials are discharged into the environment they end up in landfills or oceans, as their natural degradation is difficult at ambient temperature. They need decades to decompose.

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The research focused on the structure of polypropylene, its suitability for PPE, why it poses an environmental threat and methods of recycling this polymer. Their conclusive findings call for the PPE waste to be converted into fuel using pyrolysis. This is a chemical process for breaking down the plastic at high temperature (between 300-400 degrees centigrade for an hour) without oxygen.

“Pyrolysis is the most commonly used chemical method whose benefits include the ability to produce high quantities of bio-oil which is easily biodegradable,” said study co-author Bhawna Yadav Lamba.

This process is among the most promising and sustainable methods of recycling compared with incineration and landfill.

“There is always a need for alternative fuels or energy resources to meet our energy demands. The pyrolysis of plastics is one of the methods to mitigate our energy crisis,” she noted.

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