Chemical engineers are pioneering a process to equip diesel ships with the onboard capacity to turn collected plastic garbage into fuel. The result dubbed “blue diesel” would save time, money, and emissions in both the trips necessary for ocean-cleaning vessels to reach the mainland to offload and in running fuel use.
Professor Nikolaos Kazantzis and Michael Timko at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts took a lot of perseverance in their work of developing blue diesel from the fact that the chemical bonds of plastic and those of fossil fuels are essentially the same. Their work was funded by a two-year, $259k grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) 2026 Idea Machine competition.
They modeled the economics of the project based on existing datasets of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean that’s already being cleaned by several groups using large ship-mounted booms and nets. Nikolaos says “The project is still in the early stages, but it appears that economically, the HTL system is a modest additional cost relative to the clean-up vessel and boom system. The next challenge will be to creatively structure the portfolio of the public policy responses of collecting and removing waste plastic – including the impact on marine and human health.”
Team member and fifth-year Ph.D. candidate Elizabeth Belden said that the technology would also be exceptionally useful on rivers, since they would require less fuel to navigate on, and since the overwhelming majority of plastic in the ocean enters it via major river systems.