The Future of Plastics-to-Fuel for Diesel and Aircraft Engines

Plastics are an excellent feedstock for the production of synthetic fuels due to their chemical properties.

Recycled plastics can become a widely used feedstock due to their high energy yield AND their combustion properties, including their cleanliness compared to other fuel sources.

1. The future of the plastics industry could lie in the fuel business. Plastics are made from hydrocarbons.

More and more plants are being built that use plastic waste to produce diesel. The procedures are quite complicated. It is not yet clear which technology will prevail in the end, gasification or pyrolysis. Or both. Or both in combination in one plant. However, it is already foreseeable that plastic waste will be used to produce fuel. This is happening in the first pilot plants. This trend will have a significant impact on waste management and diesel production.

In addition, synthetic fuel producers will be in direct competition with waste incineration plants and cement works. They either use household waste and its plastic components to generate energy, as in the case of waste incinerators, or they are used as alternative fuels in cement works.

In the case of waste incinerators, the plastic waste producer would have to pay the customer to get rid of his plastic waste, while cement plants, unlike waste incinerators, would have to pay a fee to the producer for receiving his waste. They would not be paid to dispose of the waste like waste incinerators. The result is a complex network of different waste management solutions, although it is not yet clear how the governments of European countries will deal with the changes in waste management.

For one thing is already clear: In the long term, governments will encourage research and development on conversion of plastic waste, turning plastic waste into fuel that can be used by industry and commerce, even if waste-to-energy plants are certainly a better alternative in the medium term as long as these solutions aren’t on the market. Some experts also believe that waste-to-energy plants are  merely an intermediate step to waste-to-chemical plants or plastics-to-fuel plants. This remains to be seen, as there will still be high demand for district heating in northern latitudes. Countries that have a high propensity to manufacturing like Germany and the Netherlands, have demonstrated that there is a market for steam generation, to run manufacturing plants as well as to produce chemicals.

2. It makes little economic sense to pre-sort plastic fractions and then put this plastic waste back on the market.

It makes little sense to divert plastic waste back into the economy by pre-sorting it, simply because  a lot of plastic waste such as plastic water bottles that are commonly used in countries like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have few meaningful end uses, especially if subsidies, direct or indirect, are taken into account. For many pre-sorting plants, the processing of plastic wouldn’t remain a profitable business endeavour, without subsidies and government intervention.

3. Plastics-to-fuel is garnering great interest from airlines. Airlines want to improve their CO2 balance by using fuels made from plastic waste.

Even in the initial phase, companies involved in the production of fuels from plastic waste are seeing growing interest from airlines. The airlines wanted to improve their CO2 balance. The use of diesel from plastic waste would significantly improve their CO2 balance. This trend is expected to continue for short- to medium-haul aircraft. Many airlines will change their fuel consumption as a result.  As a proportion of the total quantity, the share of fuels from plastic waste in the existing fuel supply will continue to increase. Plastics-to-fuel could make a significant contribution to the supply of SAF (Sustainable Aviation Fuel).

A major obstacle to the commercialization of fuel from plastic waste could be that biofuels compete with fuels derived from plastic wastes. In addition to the airlines, the automotive market will also show increasing interest in fuels made from plastic waste. The reasons are similar to those for airlines, as both industries have to reduce their CO2 emissions to meet strict standards. There are also other reasons such as environmental awareness and public image that may play a role.

Diesel prices will rise sharply once we have reached peak oil. One effect that we might see is that plastic waste becomes a substitute for oil Finally, plastic waste consists of hydrocarbon structures, and can be viewed as a primary energy source. As time goes by, the price difference we are seeing now, of plastic-derived fuel  compared to conventional diesel will gradually close as new oil deposits will be harder to find.


4. Conclusion

  • Scientists have found that the driving characteristics and performance of cars are not significantly affected by the use of diesel fuel derived from plastic waste.
  • It is possible that this will lead to the development of a superfuel in the future. This superfuel can be made from plastic waste. Such a superfuel can improve the driving characteristics of your car.
  • Further technical developments are needed in the field of waste-to-fuel technology, chemical recycling in general and the recycling of plastic waste in particular. At present, we have not yet reached the stage where we can describe plastics-to-fuel technology as ready for the market, so that the technical solution can assert itself on its own.
  • Pyrolysis and gasification are the basic technical processes underlying the production of synthetic diesel. Aside from the difficulty of scaling synthetic diesel production in this way, we have the difficulty of making synthetic into competitive fuel for aviation. The prices don’t justify it right now. Oil prices are simply not high enough. That may change as peak oil becomes more of an issue in the energy industry.

Many thanks for the shared interest in the energy world!

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