By Upatissa Pethiyagoda –
Friends have wondered about my uncharacteristic interest in the claim made as far back as February 10, 2009 (yes, twelve and more long years ago) that waste plastics, principally low gauge shopping bags (sili sili bags) could be economically converted to a diesel-type product. It is useful to record portions of what now seem much like a tissue of untruths.
The spectacular claims (on record) included:-
1. This was a World first, involving a unique “catalyst” discovered locally.
2. The discoverer was not a formal academic but a self-inspired retired Police Officer.
3. The process was chemico-industrially endorsed by the Academics of Moratuwa University.
4. The Ministry of Environment and the Central Environmental Authority assumed sponsorship.
5. A commercial entity “Polipto” was established with 60% capital from the State, 30 % from CEA and 10% from Moratuwa University.
6. Some Rs 6 million was proposed as initial expenses, later supplemented by Rs 25 million more from the Treasury
Meanwhile, the process was claimed to be energy-productive, the yield was 800 ml diesel-like fuel per 1.0 kg of polythene. The fuel was of combustible quality, such that the inventor ran his (unmodified) car on the raw fuel with no ill effects!. The secret “catalyst” is safely stored in the Vice-Chancellor’s safe at Moratuwa University. ( It is regrettably not on record that it has been recently tested for efficacy). One prays that it is still active – otherwise all else will be lost. Meanwhile, a Production Unit has been set up and is operational at Yatiyantota. The Inventor was hired as a well-paid Consultant. It is rumoured (Never revealed for some obscure reason) to have cost (some) Rs 70 million. It is the performance of this Unit that has found recent mention in Parliament. Interestingly, as far back as April 2010, just prior to some Election, Mr Champika Ranawaka (Minister of Environment at that time?) was actually pictured in the newspapers, feeding “Polipto” Diesel into Three-wheelers (free) from a commercial petrol pump! Could he too have been as deceived then, as all of us certainly were?
When this claim for indigenous Science first reached the Press, I had to be cautiously exhilarated. Cautiously, because I was aware that intense research interest has been drawn to similar procedures elsewhere because of their obvious and spectacular value. Our process was special because it promised a positive energy (and therefore commercial) value – which no other process had. On the basis of my rudimentary Chemistry, the claim seemed to be in conflict with the very fundamental, Law of the Conservation of Energy, that I had learned to appreciate. Here is an energy expending process converting hydrocarbon (Crude oil?) to plastic and this being reversed to hydrocarbon with a net gain of Energy. Can’t be, it seemed to my simple mind! No colleague has yet been able to relieve my mind of this doubt.
“Polymerization” is one of the most versatile, useful and spectacular chemical phenomena in nature. Plastics (Polymers) provide great innovativeness and complexity of chemical designing talent. The variety that Industrial Chemical ingenuity has brought into our life through polymers, is staggering. Correspondingly, handling of a variety of compositions, structures and configurations has to be complex. Hence there is a need for great and appropriate humility when claims for chemical reversal are made. To understand one’s limitations is not an inferiority complex. To believe that such a tangled chemical web can be unraveled by something akin to a “kema” has to look like wishful hope!
The local claims were wildly extravagant. They envisaged a diesel-like distillate which could be directly combusted in existing motor engines and yielding a national saving of Two Thousand Million Rupees (Rs 2,000,000,000/=) each year. It would have been kind to dismiss this as the occasional Hogwash/Bullshit. But, let it be remembered that this was implicitly endorsed by the University of Moratuwa and the Central Environmental Authority. Will they even now have the dignity and stature to admit to a serious error of judgment? Or, would they prefer it to be more honestly recorded as deceit or fraud?
That Industrial Chemists, equipped with respectable University qualifications, could be so naïve is astonishing. The reputation of an esteemed University has been sullied. Enormous expenditure (as yet obstinately undisclosed) has been incurred, an industrial (Pilot) Plant of unrevealed utility has been established at Yatiyantota – ancillary commitments are unknown.
Meanwhile, an interesting question has been asked by Mr (or Dr?) Gammanpila regarding “Polipto” and answered by Mr Weerakkody, Minister of Petroleum in Parliament on 18 May, 2016 (Hansard, p154 – 156). For his response, the Minister has been poorly briefed – with an answer designed to confuse, conceal and obscure. UG, at the time of the happenings (which he now innocently questions!), was both Chairman of CEA (sponsors) and “Polipto” (Executers). The grand full page pretext of (very appropriately 1 April) 2010 showing Minister Ranawake pumping “Polipto” diesel into three- wheelers was most probably orchestrated by UG or his acolytes themselves! Only the public was deceived.
The pretext now of the product being “Furnace Fuel” is fraudulent. This conflicts with the earlier claim was that the distillate had run the inventor’s car successfully without need for any modification. This scoffs at the need for petroleum companies to engage in expensive, sophisticated research to design additives to enhance the performance of traditionally produced auto- fuel. In fact it insults them! So, “Polipto diesel” has now become furnace fuel – could it eventually go full cycle and end up as molten plastic? No surprise if it does!
To focus on just one point of CW’s answer in Parliament:- the plant is said to produce 800 Litres daily, which will increase to 2,000 Litres in a few weeks. With all this, it is only now that negotiations are being held on sale arrangements with the Ceylon Electricity Board! Will the Private Sector ever venture into a production process like that? An earlier assertion was that 1 kg of shopping bags yields 800 ml of fuel (itself a dubious claim).If so, 2,500kg (2.5 tons) of bags equivalent is needed daily to yield 1,000 Litres. Can one visualize this bulk of bags and imagine its daily collection from the vicinity of Yatiyantota? Indeed, how does this quantity match up with the total annual production of polythene bags in the whole country? There is no evidence of systematic collection anywhere!
What of the daily collection costs? These and other realities cannot be airily dismissed. Energy costs at plant? Labour? Containers? Transport? Other consumables? And finally, product cost per litre? Remember that we were earlier promised “Polipto Petrol” at Rs75/= to 80/= Per Litre!
I have tried very hard to extract relevant cost data. I have encountered only stubborn silence, obstruction and where possible insult! It is only right that I now name names, distasteful though I find it.
Both Champika Ranawake and Tissa Vitarana have been given ample opportunity to provide details but have haughtily disdained. Wimaladharma Abeywickrema and his side-kick Roshan Gunawardene have dodged, insulted and been untruthful. Udaya Gammanpila has been duplicitious and Charitha Herath has ignored legitimate requests for cost data. It is a pity that such an important scientific claim has only led to concealment. However, the greatest guilt in my book has to pass to the University of Moratuwa staff who have sold their scientific integrity and forsaken the reputation of their Institution – for what I do not know. They at least have exploited the non-sophistication of the purported inventor Mr.Withanage.
If the rest of the Scientific World had taken our claim seriously, there would be plentiful egg on many faces.
Even now, if my doubts and reservations are proven to be wrong I shall be grateful to be shown so. But the strongest proof would be the demonstration that waste polythene can be economically converted to a fuel combustible in an internal combustion engine. Then, all concerned will have my humble, sincere, abject and unqualified apology. Alternatively, let us be told candidly, that we were taken for a ride that stopped short of its destination. And, if possible – “WE ARE SORRY AND PROMISE NOT TO DO THIS AGAIN”. What, one wonders would be the fate of “Polipto”? If humble enough to accept a suggestion, by all means eliminate discarded polythene from the environment, melt and remold it into utility items where aesthetic excellence is not over-important. There will be a market.
Since I composed this essay, I chanced on a TV documentary which featured an enterprise for recycling empty water bottles (PET) into household brush-ware (brooms, brushes etc). This was commendable, organized use of a waste product – the way to go.