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Complete separation of mixed plastic and biomass waste is a technically difficult, laborious, expensive and time-consuming process. Hence, co-pyrolysis of these agricultural waste streams with low levels of plastic contamination presents a novel approach for the management of these plastic containing wastes, producing stable forms of carbon with potential use in environmental, agricultural and industrial applications. In this study, spent growing medium along with plastic growing bags, and bean crop residues along with mulching sheets were selected to assess how the presence of plastics would affect the characteristics of the biochars produced. These feedstocks were combined in mass ratios (of plastic in the biomass-plastic mixture) of 0, 0.25, 2.5, 5 and 10%. The resulting feedstock underwent slow pyrolysis in a fixed bed pyrolysis reactor at a temperature of 550 °C to ensure complete conversion of the plastic components of the feedstock. From the results obtained from pyrolysis, low ratios of plastic were found to have a positive impact on biochar yield, while high plastic ratios were found to have negative effect. Higher level of plastic in the feedstock have resulted peculiar functional groups in the biochar, including carboxylate anions, amides and aromatic groups. Biochars produced from spent growing medium along with plastic grow bags (GM biochars) showed no phytotoxic effect, irrespective of the concentration of plastic contamination in the feedstock. Biochars produced from bean crop residues along with mulching sheets (BM biochars) on the other hand showed high level of phytotoxicity (zero germination), irrespective of level of plastic contamination. After washing all BM biochar, very low phytotoxicity levels with no statistically significant effect of plastic contamination were observed, with the exception of 10BM that showed somewhat a reduced germination rate (93%). The results of this study will be beneficial for determining the tolerable level of plastic contamination in managing mixed agricultural waste biomass and to produce biochars suitable for environmental, agricultural and/or industrial applications.
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