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Scientists make fuel with recycled plastic, as air travel industry looks to sustainable fuel

Scientists make fuel from plastic as air travel industry looks to more sustainable fuel options
Posted at 4:31 PM, Jul 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-12 11:00:32-04

A commercial airplane can burn a few gallons of fuel per mile.

“It’s very hard to bring the huge engines to run on other things when they carry that much weight,” Fred Felleman, Port of Seattle Commission President, said.

Fuel is a big polluter of the environment, and the aviation industry uses a lot of it.

“As a modern society, we’re particularly good at producing trash,” Felleman said.

He said they are working on getting away from petroleum-based fuel products to pursue fuels made with feedstock or grease and waste oils.

The port aims to power every flight in and out of the airport with at least a 10% blend of sustainable aviation fuel by 2028.

“The airlines see the writing on the walls. If they want to be able to continue to fly in this ever increasingly warmer climate planet, they’re going to have to get to this new fuel source,” he said.

On the other side of Washington in Pullman, scientists and engineers are working to solve multiple problems at once by turning recycled plastics into fuel.

“This process, we break the plastic into smaller molecules,” Dr. Hongfei Lin, a chemical engineer at Washington State University, said.

The process can convert 90 percent of plastic to jet fuel components, or other hydrocarbon products, in just an hour with the help of heat, a solvent, and a catalyst.

“We consider it as a waste, but from the other perspective, it is an energy source or chemical source it can be used as a raw material," Dr. Lin said. "And we can convert those raw materials to valuable products."

However, he said not all plastic is the same, and some are better than others. The final product looks clear like water but can be used as part of a fuel mixture.

“Hydrocarbon molecules, you kind of have a long chain. Carbon, carbon, carbon, they stitch it together, and it becomes a long chain of molecules. And plastic is a very long chain, and for jet fuel, it's actually a medium-chain of hydrocarbons,” he explained.

This is the idea of chemical recycling.

“Instead of breaking them and melting them and making new plastic…we clean the plastic and break down the molecule to remake new polymers, so this is called chemical recycling instead of mechanical recycling,” Dr. Annick Anctil, an assistant professor at Michigan State University and sustainability expert, said.

She said when it comes to chemical recycling plastic, the big challenge currently is efficiency.

“Instead of recycling them, if we can break down the molecules and go back and make high-quality polymer again instead of trying to downcycle the plastic into other products,” she said.

While plastics are being given new life, this process still has one caveat -- plastic is originally made from fossil fuel. Meaning when it is converted, it’s not considered a low carbon fuel.

But Dr. Lin said that could change if plastics are made differently.

“We can make plastics from biomass which is renewable,” he said.

And this fuel could still provide a cheaper choice.

“So far, it will reduce the cost,” Dr. Lin said.

As an alternative, more sustainable fuel options become more common, airports and airlines are ready to embrace the change.

“We’ve been working at this for over a decade here at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and we’re on the verge of being able to get to the next step in having our ability to have fuel in the pipeline, into the tanks,” Felleman said.