Plastic Propellants for Planes

1) Sustainability Problem

Energy and Waste: Airplane fuel consumption is one of the greatest contributors to emissions in the transportation industry, and so finding alternatives to fossil fuel jet fuel is important to reducing the industry’s carbon footprint. Using plastic in order to do so compounds the benefits by also eliminating waste that would have otherwise filled up landfills or our oceans, and would not otherwise degrade naturally.

2) Technology Solution

Researchers at the Washington State University developed a process to convert polyethylene into jet fuel. While other scientists have accomplished similar feats, these researchers were able to do so via a process that is quicker and at a lower temperature, thereby significantly increasing the efficiency. As this is the most commonly used plastic – “found in about a third of all plastics produced, and has a global value of about $200 billion (£142 billion) annually” – this advancement has exciting potential to make a significant contribution to diverting waste from landfills and creating economic value from a currently untapped supply.

3) Stakeholders

A number of stakeholders will need to be engaged to drive this project forward:

  1. Scientists: The scientific community has played in an essential role in developing this process, and now must focus on scaling it and iterating on it.
  2. Production Plants: Production plants must be developed or converted to facilitate the scaling of this production process.
  3. Airline Industry: The airline industry is an essential stakeholder to these efforts and must prioritize the conversion to these alternative fuels, which may require them to be involved in the iteration process as the fuel is tested and implemented.
  4. Governance: As we expand the variety of jet fuels available to the industry, governments need to play a role in incentivizing the use of these alternative fuels while also ensuring their quality and safety.

4) Implementation

In order to roll out the program to convert plastics into jet fuel one would need to:

  1. Expand production process and facilities from testing to large-scale facilities
  2. Coordinate with suppliers, ideally recycling collection sites, to source high volumes of polyethylene plastics
  3. Collaborate with airline companies to test and implement usage of the new jet fuel

Sources

  1. https://todayuknews.com/science/scientists-convert-waste-plastics-into-jet-fuel-in-less-than-an-hour/
  2. For refueling image: https://theconversation.com/jet-fuel-from-sugarcane-its-not-a-flight-of-fancy-84493

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