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Pyrolysis, plastics, and progress on sustainable living: Meet The Reclaimers

The Reclaimers from Oregon Tech are turning plastic into crude oil.

With an eye toward the plastics that are causing big headaches for recycling efforts (China stopped buying U.S. waste plastics a while ago and methods of effective plastic recycling are few and far between), Team Reclaimers from Oregon Institute of Technology is working on a machine that will turn waste plastic back into crude oil using the pyrolysis process.

Read on to learn more about the team, find out how team members Annika Andersen, Jessica Arrington, and Ashlei Morgan balance their sports workouts with their prototyping, why they're inspired by moonshots, and why full-cycle recycling is key to sustainable living.

1. What is your invention?

Our invention is a machine that uses the pyrolysis process to turn waste plastics back into oil. The machine takes different plastic types and removes the oxygen before heating the plastic until it becomes a gas. The gas then runs through our system of piping and condenses into an oil that we collect.

2. Where did you get the inspiration for your invention idea?

We were inspired by need for change in plastic recycling. We found a YouTube video in 2016 where a man was showing his version of a pyrolysis system as STEM outreach for young kids. We were inspired to create a system of our own that could take plastic and turn it into an oil as our senior project. With continuing research, we realized that this type of full cycle recycling must happen if we want to make progress towards sustainable living.

3. As you prepare to pitch your invention to judges, what are you most excited about sharing?

Right now when you recycle plastics they usually get chopped up and buried in a landfill. We are excited to present our idea of turning plastics into crude oil because we believe that it presents an economically viable solution to taking plastic that is usually wasted and turning it into a valuable resource. This project getting implemented into our community would mean our environment being safeguarded and our economy bolstered.

4. Who are your invention heroes?

X, The Moonshot Factory, has been a huge inspiration for us as we get ready to launch into our careers. Their methods of radical problem-solving aim to make a real difference in the world around us and urge us to be the best engineers we can be.

5. Tell us about your team. How did you connect with one another and how do you work together?

Ashlei and Jessica are graduating with degrees in Mechanical Engineering this spring and Annika has two terms left in Renewable Energy Engineering and Electrical Engineering at Oregon Tech. We met each other through engineering classes and Oregon Tech athletics (Ashlei for Soccer, Jessica and Annika for Track). We formed our team over a year ago when we started senior project. We divide and conquer the work in a way that plays to the strengths of each member of our team.

6. What is the most important thing you want the judges to understand about your invention — what will set you apart from the competition?

Our project is different from other plastic product solutions because we address the plastic end-of-life cycle head on. While many other companies work on sourcing plastic from renewable or biodegradable sources, our process can be used retroactively on plastics that already exist and on plastics that consumers may use in the future.

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