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Food Waste as Jet Fuel? A Sustainable Option for Aviation

Photo by Fransiskus Filbert Mangundap on Unsplash

In the move towards sustainability, science will always have the answers. And there's a new, exciting prospect in the aviation industry! Researchers in UC Berkeley have found how to convert food waste into jet engine fuel for commercial airlines!

This is huge, as the world's population and energy needs continue to increase. Finding alternative sources of energy for major industries can help tremendously.

So what does food waste have to do with all this? Researchers in the US have discovered that food waste can turn into a type of paraffin that can serve as jet engine fuel! Food waste, along with other wet waste materials (animal waste and wastewater) can be used to lessen petrochemical use.

This is such an exciting development, as it addresses two problems: food waste and carbon emissions. In the U.S. alone, the aviation industry uses over 21 billion gallons of jet fuel per year. And the demand is predicted to double by 2050.

In fact, the extreme demand of the airline sector accounts for up to 2.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions globally.

The push is to reduce this consumption by as much as 50% before 2050. Companies and governments are in support of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), especially when we're still far from creating electric-powered planes.

And food waste, which, while unfortunately abundant, can be a viable SAF option. It’s readily available, it’s cheap, and can greatly reduce the footprint brought about by petrochemicals.

Food Waste as Jet Fuel - What the Science Says

Why is there a need to look for other types of fuel? The current green jet fuel options are based on the methods used to make biodiesel. While it produces fewer emissions, the process still uses virgin vegetable oils and waste grease to make biodiesel. And to convert into jet fuel there's an additional step. The extra process drives the cost of the end product.

Photo by Andreea Diana Sintean from Pexels

Now, researchers have found a way to turn food waste, animal manure, and waste water into a jet fuel that's reasonably competitive concerning cost.

Before, when dumped in landfills, this wet waste (the abovementioned byproducts) turns into methane gas. But the research team found a way to produce isoparaffin volatile fatty acids (VFA) that can serve as a sustainable fuel.

Researchers were able to blend 70% of the paraffin jet fuel with regular jet fuel, all while keeping with existing quality criteria.

Benefits of Using Food Waste as Jet Fuel

There are several advantages to this new wet-waste aviation fuel. One, there is about 34% less soot generated when compared with current fossil-based fuel. Soot has a warming effect to airplanes, as it contributes to forming contrails when the plane is en route. The less soot, the less CO2 released by the engines.

And most importantly, the life cycle analysis showed that this VFA-SAF could reduce as much as 165% of greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil-based petrol. That's because it lessens the emissions in both landfills and flights. So the benefit is two-fold: it gets rid of methane buildup in landfills, and it reduces the need for fossil-based petrol.

Food waste is a significant contributor to our carbon footprint worldwide. For instance, in the U.S. alone, the FDA reports that businesses and homes waste as much as 30-40% of the total food supply! While food waste is a wholly severe problem that needs to be tackled, converting the existing waste into a viable jet engine fuel could offset the impact on the environment.

Of course, experts still drive home the point that reduction is the most important move that we all can make. But there's also the reality that airline activities (and food waste, for that matter) will continue to exist and won't be ceasing anytime soon. This development is one potential solution to reduce carbon footprint and reducing pollution.

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