The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 28, 2003
Lead Article

Environmental concerns
Converting plastic waste into petrol!
T. Jahnavi

Alka Zadgaonkar demonstrates the petrol-making process to politicians and IOC officials
Alka Zadgaonkar demonstrates the petrol-making process to politicians and IOC officials

ALKA Zadgaonkar believes in creating something of value even out of waste. Since last year, she has been demonstrating to Indian and foreign experts how waste plastic can be converted into petrol, offering a solution to one of the world’s biggest environment problems—-waste plastic disposal.

Head of the Department of Organic Chemistry at Nagpur’s G.H. Raisoni College of Engineering, Zadgaonkar recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) for manufacturing and marketing petroleum products generated from waste plastic. She has been given Rs 5.9 million for the pilot project.

How did she hit upon the idea? "Both plastics and petro-products are hydrocarbons. The only difference is that in plastics the chain of molecules is longer. So, I wondered if it was possible to break the chain into small segments to convert it into value-added fuel. I started working on this idea in 1995 and my first successful experiment was in 1998-99," says 40-year-old Zadgaonkar.


Zadgaonkar’s method is simple: shredded plastic waste - free of oxygen – is heated with coal and a secret chemical. The products include fuel range liquids, coke and LPG range gases. About 1 kg of plastic and 100 gm of coal churn out a litre of fuel, which contains the gasoline range. More processing, Zadgaonkar claims, yields refined petrol.

"We can use any waste plastic recycled any number of times," says Zadgaonkar. She has received a patent from the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).

Zadgaonkar’s partner in her quest has been her husband, Umesh, also a chemical engineer. The couple has demonstrated this technique in Delhi, Mumbai (in the presence of Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde), and in Pune. They stay in a joint family with their 14-year-old son. Members of the family sold part of the family property to support her research.

Zadgaonkar claims almost all plastic products—- bags, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), old raincoats and broken buckets can be converted into fuel through her processing method. There is also no problem with residue disposal or emission, as the solid residue is coke and the gaseous emission is pure LPG, she says.

The quest is significant for India, which produces 7,000 tonnes of waste plastic every day. Zadgaonkar calculates that even if 50 per cent of this waste is converted, the country would have approximately 2.5 million litres of petrol every day, and significant volumes of diesel and lubricating oil.

Also, unlike in crude oil processing, this conversion can be carried out in smaller, low-investment plants. Zadgaonkar says the processing costs are also low because this distillate, unlike crude oil, contains no sulphur or lead. With further value addition, more expensive petro-products like alfa-olifins and aviation-grade gasoline can be obtained from the liquid distillate.

While Zadgaonkar announced the success of her experiment almost two years ago, she was briefly dogged by controversy when her Ph.D guide, Dr G.K. Ghoshal from Lakshmi Narain Institute of Technology, Nagpur, declared that he was the co-inventor of petrol from plastic waste.

Zadgaonkar claims she chose reclamation of petro-products from waste plastic as the topic for her D. Sc degree and started experimenting with waste plastic way back in 1995. She met Ghoshal in 1999 and decided to do a Ph.D under his guidance. Her subject this time was ‘Studies in co-processing of petroleum residues with other heavy materials for optimum yield and quality of coke products and their mechanism’, different from her D.Sc research.

"But in 2001, when I applied for a patent on the waste plastic conversion process, Ghoshal demanded co-inventor status and threatened to subvert my Ph. D. When I did not yield, he carried out a media campaign against me, saying that my claims were a hoax."

The negative publicity however, could not take credit away from Zadgaonkar, who was invited by the IOC to sign a MoU on the production of petrol from waste plastic. "That is what matters to me, not a Ph.D degree."

She is looking forward to the launch of her new product within a year. A pilot plant with a capacity of 15 tonnes will come up in Nagpur within six months, followed by plants in Delhi and then all over the country.

Will reclaimed petrol be cheaper than ordinary petrol? According to Zadgaonkar, the process of conversion costs Rs 7.50 per litre. Along with the raw material expenditure, the total cost of petrol production would be about Rs 12. However, she says it is not possible to determine the exact cost at this stage.

Zadgaonkar is happy that she has contributed in suggesting ways to solve the plastic waste problem of the country. WFS