Stu­dent researchers at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity have designed an appa­ratus to con­vert plastic waste into clean ener­gy­while min­i­mizing the release ofharmful emissions.

Under the lead­er­ship of Yiannis Lev­endis, dis­tin­guished pro­fessor of mechan­ical and indus­trial engi­neering, a team of under­grad­uate and grad­uate engi­neering stu­dents devel­oped a waste com­bustor, which breaks down non-​​biodegradable plas­tics to create an alter­na­tive source of fuel.

Their pro­to­type was fea­tured at the fifth annual MIT Energy Con­fer­ence this past March. The team worked for nine months on the research, which, for the under­grad­u­ates, was their senior cap­stone project.

Self-​​sustainability is the key to the double-​​tank com­bustor design. Plastic waste is first processed in an upper tank through pyrol­ysis, which con­verts solid plastic into gas. Next, the gas flows to a lower tank, where it is burned with oxi­dants to gen­erate heat and steam. The heat sus­tains the com­bustor while the steam can be used to gen­erate elec­tric power.

The pro­to­type can be scaled up to drive a large power plant, which could con­nect to a plastic recy­cling center for a con­stant flow of fuel,” said David Laskowski, an under­grad­uate stu­dent working on the team.

Lev­endis, who has pur­sued research on the com­bus­tion of plas­tics and other post-​​consumer wastes for the past 20 years, is cur­rently focusing on the con­cept of vapor­izing solid plastic waste, which would reduce levels of harmful emis­sions during the com­bus­tion process.

The inspi­ra­tion behind my research is the quest to develop clean, cost-​​efficient power sources in the face of dwin­dling fossil fuel reserves,” Lev­endis said. “It will also help get rid of unsightly, non-​​biodegradable plastic waste that cannot be recycled.”

According to Laskowski, cal­cu­la­tions show that the new tech­nology has the poten­tial of replacing up to 462 mil­lion gal­lons of petro­leum in the United States alone, if all recy­cled plas­tics were to be processed.

We are cur­rently con­suming highly-​​priced con­ven­tional pre­mium fuels (to pro­duce elec­tricity). The fuel devel­oped using this system will lower the cost of elec­tricity for future gen­er­a­tions,” Lev­endis said.

The team mem­bers included Jeff Young, Shane McElroy, Jason Lee, David Laskowski,David Garufi,and Paul Conroy, all senior under­grad­uate stu­dents; and Brendan Hall and­Chuanwei Zhuo, who are grad­uate students.

With the suc­cess of their pro­to­type, Hall and Zhuo plan to con­tinue working with Lev­endis on fur­ther devel­op­ment of the project.

–by Teresa Cheong