From Plastic to Power
By turning waste into oil, Priyanka Bakaya and PK Clean work to make landfills obsolete.
Countless bottles, bags and other plastic trash clog landfills around the world—but what if that same material could be chemically transformed from refuse to resource? Such are the goals of PK Clean, a groundbreaking company that transmutes plastic from troublesome trash into clean, energy-rich oil.
American entrepreneur and scientist Priyanka Bakaya co-founded the award-winning venture in 2009. “Plastic is one of the worst types of waste because it can take centuries to decompose, and it’s such a pity that we keep putting billions of tons of it in landfills,” she says. “Plastic is manufactured from oil and, because of that, it has a very high energy value. Our hope with PK Clean is to turn waste plastic back into oil, so it can be used as energy and be less polluting.”
Bakaya first discovered the concept of plastic-to-oil transformation as a child in Melbourne, Australia, thanks to a close family friend named Percy Kean. “Percy was an inventor who had never married and had no children, and he was almost like another grandfather to me,” recalls Bakaya. “His house was a gigantic chemistry laboratory. I remember watching him light oil with a match, oil that he said he had created from waste materials. As a kid, I was very impressed by him.”
Kean died in 2007 at the age of 95, having never commercialized the technology that he had invented, or tested it on a large scale. Thanks to copious notes left by the inventor, however, Bakaya was able to pick up where he left off. “When Percy passed away, I was working as an energy analyst in New York,” says Bakaya. “I was seeing prices of oil go up, and also a rise in this thing called ‘alternative energy,’ ” she continues with a laugh. “It made me think of Percy. He had worked on a number of clean energy technologies and this one seemed to make the most sense as far as commercial readiness” was concerned.
With that technology at the core, Bakaya developed the idea that would become PK Clean (named in Kean’s honor) while studying energy as a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Currently, the company operates out of Salt Lake City, Utah, and plans to sell self-contained, automated, plastic-processing units to recyclers throughout the United States by the end of the year. PK Clean ran a pilot program in India in 2010 and Bakaya hopes to expand operations around the globe within the decade.
The company has won several awards, including the MIT Clean Energy Prize, 2011, in the Clean Non-Renewables category.
Bakaya couldn’t have built PK Clean without teamwork and she recommends strategic collaboration to anyone following in her footsteps. “Creating and commercializing a new technology is a very tough and long process,” she says. “It’s important to have colleagues to help you connect all of the dots.”
At PK Clean, Bakaya collaborates daily with co-workers who specialize in chemistry, engineering, business and beyond. “If you want to make something like this happen and make it commercial, you have to find others who share your same goals and dreams,” she says. “Take the time to build a team that can come together to make it a reality.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.
Chemistry in Action
The transformation of plastic to oil may sound like modern-day alchemy, but the scientific process behind PK Clean’s patented technique is anything but magic. “Plastic is made up of millions of carbon molecules lined up,” describes Bakaya. “What our process does is break up those long chains into much shorter chains, similar to the oil from which the plastic originally came. Diesel fuel, for example, is made up of just 12 to 20 carbon molecules linked together.”
Though the exact details of PK Clean’s process are kept secret, Bakaya says that a combination of heat and a catalyst—an additional chemical or set of chemicals to get the transformation started—are key ingredients. “Seventy-five percent of what you get at the end of the process is very clean, contaminant-free oil,” she describes. “About 20 percent is natural gas, which we cycle back into the system to provide heat, and about 5 percent is residue, which mostly comes from things like labels on the bottles we process. When it comes to creating high-energy oil, that’s a very high recovery rate.” — M.G.