Researchers at Washington State University have developed a process for turning waste plastics into sustainable jet-A. If refined and applied on a major scale, the procedure could address two urgent environmental problems: greenhouse gas emissions and plastic pollution.
Described in the journal Chem Catalysis, the process employs polyethylene, the most common plastic worldwide that is used in everything from milk jugs to plastic bags and composite lumber. While this plastic can be recycled, less than 10 percent currently is in the U.S. The most common recycling method of melting and remolding produces a lower-quality product, while chemical recycling is a long process requiring high reaction temperatures that makes it uneconomical for industrial purposes.
Through their new process, the researchers were able to convert 90 percent of the plastic amount to jet fuel or other hydrocarbon products in less than an hour, with the end result determined by adjusting the variables such as temperature, time, and amount of reaction catalyst applied.
“Depending on the market, they can tune to what product they want to generate,” said Chuhua Jia, the lead graduate student on the project. “The application of this efficient process may provide a promising approach for selectively producing high-value products from waste polyethylene.”
The next steps involve scaling up the process, which the researchers believe can be effectively adapted to use other types of plastics. A similar project involving the conversion of difficult-to-recycle plastics into jet fuel was launched earlier this year in the UK.