Farmer produces diesel from plastic

This dairy and beef farmer from Vereeniging in Midvaal, Gauteng, uses a simple, homemade apparatus to make cheap diesel from old plastic.

The numbers rapidly ticking over on the petrol or diesel pump when you fill up your pick-up truck or tractor is enough to give anyone ulcers.

Meinhard Peters, who farms with his father, Freddie, in Midvaal near Vereeniging in Gauteng, is also a qualified fitter. Using these skills and his practical farming experience, he has devised a way to counteract the high cost of fuel.

“I know plastic is made from petroleum, therefore it must be possible to extract petroleum from plastic,” he says.

Father and son operate an intensive farm on approximately 200 ha. They are currently breeding a new veld-adapted dairy cow breed from Nguni, Brown Swiss, Holstein, and Ayrshire, and also farm with Ngunis and Meatmaster sheep. The cattle are milked on the farm, with the added value of yoghurt also being produced.

On the left is a bottle of petrol, in the middle is diesel, and on the right a typical waste plastic container from which Meinhard makes his own fuel.

Old bits of plastic are always available on a farm: decommissioned irrigation pipes, shopping bags, containers that agricultural products were purchased in, bailing string and fertilizer bags. All these items simply accumulate in a barn or in the farmyard.

Meinhard searched the internet for information about making fuel from plastic and saw that there were quite expensive systems being sold in China. The process is actually not that complicated – basically the plastic must be heated to get it to a gaseous state (the original petroleum state) and then this gas must be condensed (to become fuel again). There are also videos on YouTube explaining the process.

Meinhard decided to construct his own system and built a small prototype using an old milk churn. It worked well and he went on to build the system he now uses on the farm. It only cost him K2230 (R3000 – for the steel tank). The rest was put together from waste material he had on the farm.


The system is basically made up of a furnace, a boiler and a condensing tank. The furnace is an old 210-litre drum turned upside down and cut open at the top. A hatch on the side at the bottom provides access to the furnace. An old 100-litre geyser tank is placed inside the drum, with the top half protruding out. This has a screw cap on top into which the shredded plastic items are fed.

The steel condensing tank where the gas cools and returns to a liquid state.

Wood and coal are used to light the furnace, which heats the plastic in the closed tank, as this was the cheapest option available to Meinhard (diesel, gas or electricity could also be used).

The plastic is heated for four hours at 300 to 400oC. When it becomes gaseous (first phase), the gas flows through a metal pipe attached to the screw cap, to a steel tank where it condenses (second phase). The fuel collects at the bottom of the tank and is removed via a tap.

Diesel stays in a gaseous state longer than petrol and escapes from the condensing tank through a plastic pipe to this water drum, where it then condenses and floats on top of the water.

The diesel is then still in a gaseous state and this gas rises to the top via a second metal pipe and then through a plastic pipe to a plastic drum filled with water where it cools, condenses and floats as diesel on top of the water. Meinhard makes just under 1 litre of fuel from a kilogram of plastic. This costs him 10% to 15% less than the price of fuel.

At the same time, he also disposes of any unsightly waste, as the plastic boils away completely. Another benefit is that the diesel contains no sulphur and is thus environmentally friendly.

The fire in the drum furnace provides the heat to melt the plastic. Meinhard uses wood and coal for the furnace.

The gas can also be used in a gas burner before condensation takes place, as it is normal household gas. Some of it can even be used to heat the plastic, and the rest can then be processed for petrol and diesel.

The tap at the bottom of the condensing tank


Meinhard says he produces 100 litres of fuel in four hours. He uses the petrol in the engine of the farm’s motorised (lateral movement) irrigation system and a lawnmower. The “diesel” is used in the Nissan pick-up truck – he has already covered 30 000 km with his homemade fuel. He says the pick-up truck starts easily and has sufficient power.

Meinhard says that he would eventually like to become totally self-sufficient in terms of fuel to keep the farm’s expenses down to the minimum.

Researchers at the University of Illinois are currently investigating the use of old plastic for the manufacture of fuel through a heating process.

ENQUIRIES: Meinhard Peters, tel. +2716 365 5350; cell +2776 029 9693

The gas flows through a pipe from the boiler to the condensing tank, where it turns to fuel again.


Further tests are required to determine if Meinhard Peters’ homemade fuel is a reliable way to make “petrol” and “diesel”.

This is the view of a professor in chemical engineering at Stellenbosch University (who chose to remain anonymous) who has conducted research on the use of biomass in producing fuel.

“It is possible to get a raw product similar to crude oil, from plastic, but the production of crude petrol and diesel is, in terms of chemical composition, not the same as normal petrol or diesel,” he says.

Exactly what can be regarded as “petrol” or “diesel” is determined by a long list of SABS specifications. This ensures that the fuel complies with the requirements of the engine it powers.

“I would be astounded if Meinhard’s product complies with these specifications. The only way to be certain is by testing the product in a suitable laboratory, such as Sasol.”

“If Meinhard did test the product on a regular basis (the product will change as the plastic material changes), then I would be happy to view it as ‘petrol’.”

The professor said that it might be possible for the fuel to drive an engine. “The biggest risk is permanent damage to the engine, and that you will automatically void your warranty on a new vehicle if you use this fuel. To travel 30000km in one vehicle is not really a reliable measure.”

The professor was also concerned about possible pollution. “Are all the gaseous products condensed, or are there still residual gasses that are being released into the air? This could possibly be damaging to the environment.”

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