Planes fueled by recycled clothes?

Posted on 22 January 2019.

The first aircraft fueled by bioethanol made from old clothes could take off as early as 2020. A project led by Jeplan, Japan Airlines and the Green Earth Institute in Tokyo.

In the movie Back to the Future 2, Doc Brown's time machine DeLorean was powered by rubbish. Michihiko Iwamoto, the founder of Japan Environmental Planning (Jeplan), is sure that waste will power the cars of the future! In 2015, he made a replica of the DeLorean to promote his technology in Japan.
The Japanese company has developed a process producing bioethanol from old clothes. And while waiting for cars from the land of the Rising Sun to run on cotton fiber, Jeplan plans to fly planes! Very interested in this amazing biofuel, Japan Airlines wants to mix it with fossil fuel. A promising initiative in view of the increase in air traffic.
According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the number of passengers will almost double by 2036, reaching 7.8 billion passengers. More passengers means more kerosene, and of course, a bigger environmental footprint for an already highly polluting sector. In light of this, Japan Airlines and other airlines are turning more and more to plant-based fuels.
Nevertheless, these fuels also have a downside because they compete with food-based agriculture and contribute to deforestation. Hence the appearance of so-called second-generation biofuels, which exploit cellulosic ethanol, and more generally non-edible plants. Like cotton, present in large quantities in the tons of old clothes thrown away every year.

Old clothes, an unexploited reserve

In Japan, old clothes are an as yet unexploited reserve. Probably only 10% is recycled, according to Jeplan. Through its BRING program, the company collects them directly from its customers. For example, Jeplan has partnered with the Muji brand to set up hundreds of collection points across the country.
After being sorted, the garments are sent to a recycling factory in Imabari, in the Ehime Prefecture. Cotton fibers are broken down by enzymes and converted into glucose. This sugar is then subject to a fermentation process to convert it into bioethanol, which can then be mixed with gasoline.
One hundred metric tons of textile fibers produce 10,000 liters of fuel. Admittedly, it won’t fly a lot of planes (they consume an average of 15,000 liters of fuel... per hour). Even using all the cotton consumed annually in Japan, this method wouldn’t meet even 1% of the kerosene consumption of all companies in the country. But it’s an encouraging start, especially since Japan Airlines is also looking at other materials such as paper fiber.
The company said it planned to start test flights with planes using conventional fuel and biofuel blends made from cottonseed by 2020. And a plant could be built in 2030.