Plastic Pyrolysis Takes First at Catalyze Klamath

This article was in Sunday’s (April 28th, 2019) Herald and News
Written By: Tess Novotny, H&N Staff Reporter

Oregon Tech students claimed more than $20,000 in prize money at the school’s annual Catalyze Klamath Challenge Thursday, with three-person team “The Reclaimers” coming in first.

Ashlei Morgan, Annika Andersen and Jessica Arrington won $9,000 for their pyrolysis creation to turn plastics back into crude oil. Jacey Conklin came in second with $5,000 for her “Keepsake Keychain” safe jewelry storage invention, and Will Natividad claimed third with $3,000 for Imagine Mapz, an app for interfacing between citizens and government.

Southern Oregon leaders in business and technology judged the competition, which challenges students to create solutions — ideally based out of Klamath Falls — for real-world challenges.

Reclaimers team member Andersen told the Herald and News their team had worked on their project for more than year. It began as a senior project, she said. The competition helped them refine entrepreneurial skills to bring it to the next level.

“We’ve been working on this for over a year and researching and researching and trying to find out how we can make this viable,” Andersen said. “This has been really a challenge to hone down our scope for what’s reasonable for a project.”

Andersen said they had to figure out how to make the prototype energy efficient — it’s important that more energy is created by the invention than put in, she said, so it could actually be competitive and make money.

The teammates were also drawn to pyrolysis as a solution to America’s current recycling crisis. America historically relied on Chinese recycling plants to accept nearly all plastic waste, but in 2018, China stopped taking it.

“When that happened, even though people take their recyclables and put them on the curb right now, they’re just either getting stockpiled or they’re getting buried in landfills — so recycling isn’t really what you think it is,” Andersen said.

“It’s a big problem as of right now. It has caused us to be really interested because what people think is happening totally isn’t.”

The technology of pyrolysis has been around for a while, Andersen said, but the market has just now embraced it as the country scrambles for a solution to its ever-mounting plastic problem.

“China’s ban is what has now pushed the market to be in a place where it’s like, we’ve got to figure this out,” Andersen said.

Andersen said two Reclaimers teammates are graduating, but the trio plans to continue development remotely. Eventually they hope to base the project in Klamath Falls, then possibly expand somewhere else.

“We’re all super excited because we all went to school here and are invested here,” Andersen said. “This really is a good area for industrial businesses. There are a lot of spaces where we could set up a full-size system for this.”

Andersen said it was coincidence that their team was only women, and they got lots of support and encouragement along the way.

“There’s definitely a lot of times in my classes where I’ll be the only girl, or maybe one of two women in a class — I know Jess and Ashley have had this experience too,” she said. “A lot of people throughout this process have been like, ‘Oh yeah! Team of female engineers!’ I think the fact that it is a little bit of a novel thing, people really support it.”

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