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Old clothes could keep planes in the air…

Posted on 30 March 2017.

In Japan, an airline, a recycling expert and a company specializing in green technologies are developing the first fuel made from recycled t-shirts and jeans.

Pollution from air traffic is moderate. But with a growth of 4 to 5% per year, its impact could double by 2025.

By 2034, the number of air passengers will have doubled to reach 7 billion passengers! With the development of emerging countries and the increasing number of low-cost airlines, global traffic is booming. Given that a Boeing 747 consumes more than 12,000 liters of kerosene per hour, the use of alternative fuels is a key issue for the aviation industry. Various possibilities are being explored.

For example, hydrotreated vegetable oils and synthetic fuels derived from biomass (wood residue, straw, forest waste) are being extensively researched worldwide.

These alternative "drop-in" fuels - because they are directly incorporated into kerosene - have already proved their worth. But their cost is still high compared to fossil fuel.

Japanese trio

With the idea of coming up with an ecological and economically viable alternative, three Japanese companies have formed a partnership to look at a wacky idea: recycling old clothes as a drop-in fuel. It was the national airline Japan Airlines which initiated the adventure, and was then joined by two specialists.

JEPLAN, which recycles materials of all kinds and is also the national used clothes collection leader, and the Green Earth Institute, a green technology expert in Japan, which manufactures carbon-neutral biofuels and chemicals from non-food biomass.

The trio has developed a new type of fuel: bioethanol made from recycled clothing! To get the project in motion, around 12 distributors, representing 1,000 stores throughout the country, collect old jeans and T-shirts from their customers.

Once recovered, the used clothes have a last bath before becoming biofuel. Using a fermentation process, microorganisms turn the sugars contained in the cotton into alcohol - used to make an alternative fuel.

100 tonnes of fiber = 10,000 liters of fuel

Sure it’s a technological and ecological feat, but for now it’s not likely to really change the world. One hundred tonnes of textile fibers produce 10,000 liters of fuel - less than the fuel consumed by a Boeing 747 in just one hour. Even if all the cotton consumed in Japan were processed, it would meet barely 1% of the nation’s fuel consumption.

The Japanese trio is still planning to start test flights in 2020 using a mixture of kerosene and cotton, and hopes to open a dedicated plant by 2030. However, clothing may only be the beginning as the technology could also be applied to other waste such as paper.

Find out more:

- From the trash can to the closet - ecological clothes
- Diaries and other goodies are designer dressed in old jeans!
- Even more beautiful the second time around
- Solar Impulse - solar energy explorers
- The 1,001 lives of an airplane