Space & Innovation

This Mobile Reactor Makes Diesel Fuel From Plastic Waste Found in the Ocean

The reactor can convert between 100 and 10,000 pound of plastic daily — generating 10 to 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel.

In 2008, with a hurricane bearing down on them, Captain James E. Holm and his crew docked their sailboat at a small island off the coast of Panama.

While waiting for their route to clear, they collected trash that had washed up on a nearby beach — wrappers, containers, syringes with needles still on them.

“Rather than opening my eyes, it more brought tears to my eyes,” Holm said Monday at an annual meeting of the American Chemical Society. “The people that live there don’t have plastic packaging. They don’t have Oreos and potato chips. That plastic was from me — us — civilization as we know it. And I felt a tinge of responsibility for having done that and thought perhaps I’m in a position to do something about it.”

Over his 40 years at sea, Holm said has seen a “steady decline in the health of the ocean.”

Holm founded a Santa Cruz-based nonprofit Clean Oceans International (COI) and partnered with Swaminathan Ramesh, an organic chemist, to develop a process to turn hydrocarbon-based plastics into diesel fuel with a relatively small, mobile reactor.

Making fuel from plastics isn’t new, but the size of the converter created by COI and Ramesh’s Eco-Fuel Technologies is. The technology can fit inside a 20-foot shipping container or on the back of a flatbed truck.

A small-to-medium scale reactor can convert between 100 and 10,000 pound of plastic daily — generating 10 to 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel.

The converter could prove to be especially useful in remote spots, when bringing plastic waste to a central location might be logistically difficult.

Holm and Ramesh envision the converter positioned in close proximity to ships retrieving floating plastics — or right on the ships themselves. Rather than sailing back and forth to a landfill, ships could convert plastic found in the ocean into fuel, then continue searching for more.

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While there’s plenty of plastic power to catch — as much as 12 million metric tons of plastic washed offshore in 2010 alone, according to a 2015 article in the journal Science — there’s more work to be done with their prototype.

“We have yet to do an ocean expedition with this technology on board,” Holm said. “Right now, it lives in the trailer at the college for our research. We’re trying to understand how small we can make it.”

The team is buying a 60-foot boat, intending to put a converter on board for a small-scale trial. And this spring, they’ll demonstrate the technology to communities, beginning with Santa Cruz.

"If we can get people around the world to pick this up and use it to shift waste plastics to fuel and make money, we are winning," Holm said in a statement prior to the conference. "We can even eliminate plastic waste before it gets to the oceans by creating value for it locally on a global basis."

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