• Scientists Find Way to Turn Plastic into Jet Fuel

Scientists Find Way to Turn Plastic into Jet Fuel

Jun 22 2019 Read 933 Times

In an exciting breakthrough that could slash the environmental footprint of the aviation industry and combat the global landfill crisis, a Washington State University (WSU) research group has developed a method to turn plastic into jet fuel. Led by Dr. Hanwu Lei, the landmark study saw the team use activated carbon to melt everyday plastic waste at high temperatures, then separate the final product to yield jet fuel.  

Combating climate change and plastic pollution

The aviation industry is a major contributor to climate change, accounting for around 3.5% of all global warming emissions caused by human activities. By 2070, Friends of the Earth warns this figure could spike to around 15%. Landfill is also a major cause for concern, with the Environmental Protection Agency revealing that US sites receive a huge 26 million tons of plastic a year. Plastics also pose a major threat to oceans, with experts warning that around 5 million tons of plastic enter global oceans every year.

"Waste plastic is a huge problem worldwide," asserts Lei, an associate professor in the Department of Biological System Engineering at WSU. "This is a very good, and relatively simple, way to recycle these plastics."

Harnessing the power of a carbon catalyst

The findings were revealed in a paper published in the journal Applied Energy and explain how Lei and his colleagues ground down generic plastic products such as bags, milk containers and water bottles to granules around three millimeters in size. Activated carbon was then used as a catalyst to heat the plastic granules at temperatures of up to 571 degrees Celsius in a tube reactor.

"Plastic is hard to break down," explains Lei. "You have to add a catalyst to help break the chemical bonds. There is a lot of hydrogen in plastics, which is a key component in fuel."

The results were promising, with the ideal catalyst and temperature combination producing a mix of 85% jet fuel and 15% diesel. After breaking down the chemical bonds, the carbon catalyst can then be removed from the final product and even reused for additional waste plastic conversion processes. The technique wins additional points for its scalability, with Lei maintaining it could be used as large-scale jet fuel production facilities, or at independent farms.

"We can recover almost 100 percent of the energy from the plastic we tested," says Lei. "The fuel is very good quality, and the byproduct gasses produced are high quality and useful as well."

The aviation industry isn't the only one under fire for its environmental footprint, with oil and gas companies also being targeted. Spotlighting the latest technology from Canadian video analytics specialist IntelliView, 'Thermal Imaging Provides Early Leak Detection in Oil and Gas Pipelines' explores how 'smart analytics' are helping monitor the safety of above-line piping facilities

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