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Thermodynamic feasibility of shipboard conversion of marine plastics to blue diesel for self-powered ocean cleanup

Posted on November 9, 2021


Plastic waste accumulating in the world’s oceans forms massive “plastic islands” in the oceanic gyres. Removing the plastic offers an opportunity to restore our oceans to a more pristine state. To clean the gyres, ships must collect and store the plastic before transporting it to port, often thousands of kilometers away. Instead, ocean plastic waste can be converted into fuel shipboard, for example, using hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL), which depolymerizes plastics at high temperature (300 °C to 550 °C) and high pressure (250 bar to 300 bar). The resulting depolymerization products, termed “blue diesel,” have the potential for self-powered cleanup. The objective of this work is evaluating the thermodynamic feasibility of this scheme and its implications on cleanup.


Collecting and removing ocean plastics can mitigate their environmental impacts; however, ocean cleanup will be a complex and energy-intensive operation that has not been fully evaluated. This work examines the thermodynamic feasibility and subsequent implications of hydrothermally converting this waste into a fuel to enable self-powered cleanup. A comprehensive probabilistic exergy analysis demonstrates that hydrothermal liquefaction has potential to generate sufficient energy to power both the process and the ship performing the cleanup. Self-powered cleanup reduces the number of roundtrips to port of a waste-laden ship, eliminating the need for fossil fuel use for most plastic concentrations. Several cleanup scenarios are modeled for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), corresponding to 230 t to 11,500 t of plastic removed yearly; the range corresponds to uncertainty in the surface concentration of plastics in the GPGP. Estimated cleanup times depends mainly on the number of booms that can be deployed in the GPGP without sacrificing collection efficiency. Self-powered cleanup may be a viable approach for removal of plastics from the ocean, and gaps in our understanding of GPGP characteristics should be addressed to reduce uncertainty.



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