Science & Nature

Plastic waste in oceans could help clean-up ships generate fuel for themselves

Research finds that ships that sail to collect ocean plastic could refuel themselves using the same waste

Every year, the oceans are subjected to the dumping of millions of tons of plastic waste.  While some of this plastic waste spread about as fragments, a large quantity drifts through the wind along high seas and settle in patches in various places across the waters.

It is common knowledge that the plastic waste used in human-inhabited spots travel to the oceans, contaminating the waters. Marine life has been pressured by the impact this plastic waste force on them, with many reaching a point of extinction.

However, humans are not holding back from contaminating the waters. Noble efforts, however, had been launched years ago to fetch plastic waste strews all across the oceans. These include ships that have been deployed with the sole aim of picking plastic waste that has settled in patches across the high seas.

Plastic waste can be processed to fuel ocean clean up vessels

In this context, researchers from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Harvard University have come up with an idea that would forever change the mechanism of sending ships and bringing them back laden with plastic for processing.

Currently, ships that go on quests to fetch plastic waste strewn across the oceans need to collect waste and return to the shores at regular intervals. They are forced to do so because the collected plastic waste needs to be processed on land. Besides, the ships need refuelling too.

This is where the researchers’ idea proves to be awesome. They have come with the idea that the ships that sail to plastic waste patches that look like islands can rely on the plastic waste itself to refuel themselves if such a technology is at hand.

If the plan works out, the plastic found as floating islands will be used to power the ships that are sent to clean up the plastic waste. This would mean that the plastic is processed in the ship when it is converted into fuel that would run the ship without any break.

A paper in this regard published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences described how ocean plastics could be converted to ship fuel. According to the report, plastic could be converted to a type of oil via hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL).

Using waste to fuel waste collecting ships

As per the proposed process, the plastic when heated to 300–550 degrees Celsius, gains the capability to create pressures 250 to 300 times that of sea-level conditions. Accordingly, a ship carrying an HTL converter would be capable of producing enough oil to run the HTL converter and the ship’s engine.

Though the burning of oil thus produced might emit carbon into the atmosphere, the amount released would still be less than that emitted by a ship burning conventional oil making trips back and forth to ports.

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Sanjeev Ramachandran

A journalist with 23 years of experience, Sanjeev has worked with reputed media houses such as Business Standard, The New Indian Express, MSN India, PanAsiaBiz. Sanjeev can be reached at [email protected]
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