WPI receives funding for plastics-to-fuels project

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has been awarded $259,000 from the National Science Foundation to explore converting marine plastics into usable fuel for ships collecting plastics from the ocean.

According to WTI, the project, ‘Probabilistic Analysis of Converting Marine-Borne Plastics into Usable Fuels’, is in response to the ‘heavy’ pollution crisis’ the world’s oceans are experiencing. WPI research has found that 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastics are dumped into oceans yearly, which has a hazardous effect on marine ecosystems and can potentially enter the human food chain.

The increase in marine pollution has also increased the number of ships sent to sea to collect plastic, which requires ships to frequently return to ports to refuel, releasing carbon dioxide emissions into the air.

Michael Timko, associate professor of chemical engineering, and Nikolaos Kazantzis, professor of chemical engineering, aim to model a specialised reactor that might one day be built into these ships to break down collected plastic into useable fuel.

Harvested plastic would be brought onboard, dried, loaded into the reactor, and broken down by a process called hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL), which uses moderate heat and high pressure to convert wet biomass into crude-like oil. Timko has used HTL in past research looking at the feasibility of converting food and yard waste into biofuels. Ideally, once the plastic is in fuel form, the ships will be able to refuel themselves at sea, reducing the number of refuelling trips back to port and the related fossil fuel emissions.

‘Removing plastic from the ocean with ships requires substantial investments in energy and money,’ Kazantzis said. ‘We’re imagining a vessel with a reactor on board that will convert plastic waste into usable fuel. This would enable the ship to be self-powered, and give it access to water [through the ocean] to make the chemical reactions needed for HTL to take place. Why not make waste work for us?’

Timko and Kazantzis hope this project will enable their research team to test the technical feasibility profile of onboard HTL reactors and give them valuable insights needed for assessing the economic viability prospects of the proposed technology option for converting plastic waste into useful fuels.

Rhys Berry

Rhys Berry

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