WPI receives more than $200K to examine the conversion of plastics into ship fuel

WPI receives more than $200K to examine the conversion of plastics into ship fuel
Hundreds of ships collect marine plastics from the ocean, and head back to port to refuel. Breaking down plastics into biofuels can help minimise the number of trips these ships make. Image courtesy of WPI

A research project led by chemical engineers from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) that will examine how to convert marine plastics into ship fuel has received a two-year US $259,299 grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) 2026 Idea Machine competition.

The project, “Probabilistic Analysis of Converting Marine-Borne Plastics into Usable Fuels,” will explore converting marine plastics into usable fuel for ships collecting plastics from the ocean. The research is being led by Michael Timko, associate professor of chemical engineering; Aaron Deskins, associate professor of chemical engineering; and Nikolaos Kazantzis, professor of chemical engineering.

The project is in response to the heavy pollution crisis the world’s oceans are experiencing: their research has found that 4.8 to 12.7 million tons of plastics are dumped into oceans yearly, which has a hazardous effect on marine ecosystems and can potentially enter into the human food chain. The increase in marine pollution has also increased the amount of ships sent to sea to collect plastic, which requires ships to frequently return to ports to refuel, releasing harmful carbon dioxide emissions into the air.

The researchers aim to model a specialised reactor that might one day be built into these ships to break down collected plastic into useable fuel. Harvested plastic would be brought onboard, dried, loaded into the reactor, and broken down by a process called hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL), which uses moderate heat and high pressure to convert wet biomass into crude-like oil. Timko has used HTL in past research looking at the feasibility of converting food and yard waste into biofuels. Ideally, once the plastic is in fuel form, the ships will be able to refuel themselves at sea, reducing the number of refuelling trips back to port and the related fossil fuel emissions.

“Removing plastic from the ocean with ships requires substantial investments in energy and money,” Mr Kazantzis said. “We’re imagining a vessel with a reactor on board that will convert plastic waste into usable fuel. This would enable the ship to be self-powered, and give it access to water [through the ocean] to make the chemical reactions needed for HTL to take place. Why not make waste work for us?”

The team also received an additional two-year, $277,359 grant to explore applications for nitrogen-rich waste products.  “Nitrogen Bearing Hydrochars for Nitrogen Upcycling in a World without Waste,” will explore potentially useful applications of nitrogen-rich waste products in areas such as water purification.

Read more about the projects at www.wpi.edu/news/wpi-chemical-engineers-why-not-make-waste-work-us