SUSTAINABLE FUEL AVIATION | Garbage can replace a quarter of the fuel that airplanes consume each year

SUSTAINABLE FUEL AVIATION | Garbage can replace a quarter of the fuel that airplanes consume each year
SUSTAINABLE FUEL AVIATION | Garbage can replace a quarter of the fuel that airplanes consume each year

The industry of aviation produces around one gigaton (one billion tons) of carbon dioxide, which represents 3% of the world’s emissions of this gas. Researchers and policymakers alike believe this data shows that aviation is an industry rife with opportunities to reduce emissions.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has set a goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. But how can emissions be reduced? A team of North American scientists have concluded that they could reuse the waste municipal waste and convert it into sustainable aviation fuel. They propose build refineries waste-to-fuel facility near major travel hubs.

In the United States alone, between 11 billion and 19 billion liters of sustainable aviation fuel could be produced from trash each year. Those liters would replace between 15% and 25% of that country’s annual jet fuel supply. But the proposal of these scientists, which has been published in the journal ‘ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering’, could be applied without major problems in other countries.

“We have identified places in the United States where large airports are close enough to major low-cost waste production centers to build these refineries right now,” says Timothy Seiple, lead author of the paper.

The waste produced by modern society (domestic garbage, food scraps, sludge from water treatment plants, unused plant matter from agriculture…) contain the same organic molecules as crude oil which is found deep beneath the Earth’s surface.

‘Biocrude’ oil

Crude oil is formed over millions of years underground, as intense heat and pressure chemically alter ancient algae and small marine organisms. Scientists have managed to develop technology that condenses those millions of years into a few hoursproducing oil’biocrude‘ which can then be refined and converted into fuel for diesel trucks or airplanes.

Researchers are now studying how this technology could be scaled up and still remain profitable. A barrier to producing a significant amount of sustainable aviation fuel is the supply of waste itself, the feedstock. In Western countries waste is abundant.

Americans produced almost 300 million tons of garbage in 2018, more than 2 kilos per person per day. Much of that garbage is organic, including food scraps, such as fruit and vegetable peelings and discarded leftovers, as noted by JoAnna Wendel, a communicator at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Furthermore, the treatment plants sewage water of the United States generate 7.6 million tons of biosolids rich in organic matter each year. Conclusion: There is enough material to transform this biowaste into fuel for airplanes.

It is true that one must also consider the environmental cost. Would the carbon emitted from transporting sustainable aviation fuel cancel out the carbon saved in the waste-to-fuel process? To address this question, the researchers looked at the main waste-producing centers and their distance from the main travel centers.

“If cities build waste-to-fuel facilities closer to major airports, it is less likely that additional infrastructure will be needed to get it to the airports,” notes Karthikeyan Ramasamy, co-author of the paper.

Decarbonize the sector

“Recycling trash into fuel means it won’t have to be trucked miles away to landfills and, since it doesn’t decompose, it won’t be released.” methanehighlights Ramasamy.

The researchers focused their analysis on two kinds of waste: wetwhich include sludge from water treatment plants or manure from farms, and driedincluding food scraps, wood, paper, yard waste, plastics and other materials that are normally thrown into the trash.

As expected, the most populated areas produce the greatest amount of waste. The researchers looked at the proximity of these waste-producing centers to large airports, such as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta.

According to the researchers’ calculations, waste could replace 7% of the annual fuel at the Los Angeles airport and 22% at Chicago. Overall, they found that waste-based sustainable jet fuel refineries could be built close enough to 100 US airports.

All of this that would allow the production of between 13,000 and 21,000 million liters per year, which represents between 15 and 25% of the total annual use of jet fuel. By extension, it would reduce the carbon intensity of the aviation industry by 10% to 18%.

“The five major airports use more than 1 billion gallons (3,785.41 million liters) of jet fuel per year,” highlights Seiple. “We don’t have enough waste to replace all the jet fuel, but this could be one Immediate opportunity to decarbonize the aviation sector and orient ourselves even more towards more sustainable fuels,” he concludes.

Reference report:


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