In the relentless quest to address the global crisis of plastic waste and energy sustainability, innovative approaches are emerging. One such promising technique is hydrothermal carbonization (HTC), which not only tackles the mounting issue of plastic waste but also harnesses it for energy production. This transformative process has been comprehensively reviewed in a recent study by Dr. Clovis A. Che and Professor Philippe Heynderickx, from the Center for Environmental and Energy Research at Ghent University’s Global Campus in South Korea and the Department of Green Chemistry and Technology at Ghent University in Belgium which is part of the plastic waste characterization project by the National Research foundation of Korea. Their work, published in the journal Fuel Communications, sheds light on HTC’s potential to revolutionize how we perceive and utilize plastic waste.

At the core of this method is the conversion of plastic waste into hydrochar, a substance that can be used in various energy applications. The study details the principles of HTC, explaining its suitability for plastic waste due to its ability to operate at relatively low temperatures compared to other thermal technologies. This aspect makes HTC an energy-efficient and environmentally friendlier option.

Dr. Che Awah provided insights into the versatility of hydrochar, “Hydrothermal carbonization stands out because it can convert a diverse range of plastic materials into solid recovered fuels, catalysts, and components for advanced energy systems like direct carbon fuel cells and supercapacitors.” This adaptability is particularly crucial given the varied and contaminated nature of plastic waste streams, which often hinder recycling efforts.

One of the most significant findings from the review is the diverse applications of the resulting hydrochar. Whether it’s used as a fuel in solid recovered fuel systems, a bio-catalyst, or as an electrode material in supercapacitors, hydrochar demonstrates a robust potential to contribute to sustainable energy solutions. These applications highlight the dual benefits of HTC: mitigating plastic pollution and contributing to renewable energy landscapes.

However, the journey from plastic waste to hydrochar is not devoid of challenges. The variability in plastic feedstock, issues of scalability, and the need for tailored material properties are just a few hurdles that need navigation. Environmental considerations, particularly regarding emissions and residue management, also play a critical role in the viability of HTC.

Dr. Heynderickx emphasized the necessity for ongoing research to optimize HTC processes, “We need to develop more sophisticated synthesis methods that ensure the stable performance and sustainability of hydrochar products.” This call to action underscores the importance of technological advancement in maximizing the effectiveness of HTC.

As the world grapples with the dual challenges of waste management and energy sustainability, hydrothermal carbonization of plastic waste presents a promising avenue. By converting one of the most persistent pollutants into a valuable resource, HTC not only offers a pathway to tackle plastic waste but also contributes to a more sustainable energy future.

Journal Reference

Clovis Awah Che and Philippe M. Heynderickx, “Hydrothermal carbonization of plastic waste: A review of its potential in alternative energy applications,” Fuel Communications, 2024. DOI: