In order to prove it, one Australian pilot, Jeremy Rowsell, is going to fly his Cessna from Sydney, Australia to London, England using only fuel derived from recycled plastic.
Currently, the most abundant fuels on the planet are hydrocarbons, specifically petroleum which is extracted from underground, or undersea, reservoirs. Petroleum, when refined, doesn’t only end up as gasoline, diesel fuel, or jet fuel. Heavier fractions are used for heating oil, lubricants, and even asphalt. Lighter fractions are used in other industries. Synthetic plastics are also derived from petroleum.
One benefit and curse of synthetic plastic is its longevity and durability. In use, plastic is used to keep food clean and fresh, to keep automobile passengers safe in a crash, among other functions. On the other hand, at the end of its life, plastic finds its way into landfills and streets and even in the ocean, where it may fracture and grind into a pulp, but never degrades.
Chemistry can change petroleum based plastics into other petrochemicals, including fuel. Pyrolysis is a chemical reaction in which recycled plastic is heated in an oxygen-free environment. The resulting liquid can be distilled into a fuel very close to diesel used in aircraft like Jeremy Rowsell’s Cessna.
“You look down at that garbage in the Pacific, and you see the result of what it’s doing,” said Rowsell, making this daring flight on recycled-plastic fuel because he believes “that unless we do something to give back to the planet, we’re stuffed.”
The 10,500-mile flight will still generate carbon dioxide and other emissions, but is still somewhat cleaner than current fuels. Additionally, thousands of pounds of plastic is no longer in a landfill or in the ocean.