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Massachusetts Innovators Aim to Turn Ocean Plastic into Fuel–Right Onboard the Ship

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Chemical engineers are pioneering a process to equip diesel ships with the onboard capacity to turn collected plastic garbage into fuel.

The result has been dubbed “blue diesel” and would save time, money, and emissions in both the trips necessary for ocean-cleaning vessels to reach the mainland to offload and in running fuel use.

Millions of tons of plastic enter the oceans every year and tend to accumulate in the ocean “gyres”—specific zones where several currents meet, but which can still be thousands of square miles.

Even though the ocean does the work of rounding up the trash for cleanup organizations like The Ocean Cleanup to then collect, it still requires a lot of time to sail back and forth from these gyres to offload plastic on land and to refuel.

Professor Nikolaos Kazantzis and Michael Timko at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts took a lot of inspiration and perseverance in their work of developing blue diesel from the fact that the chemical bonds of plastic and those of fossil fuels are essentially the same.

“Our research team is modeling a specialized reactor that converts harvested waste plastic using an innovative chemical process called hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL),” Kazantzis told Cambridge press last year. “This compresses the plastic at high temperature and high pressure into “blue diesel” (the name emphasizes its marine origins).”

Their work was funded by a two-year, $259k grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) 2026 Idea Machine competition.

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