A Scottish company wants to make rocket fuel from unrecyclable plastic waste

It could reduce fuel costs by a fifth and pollution.
Ameya Paleja
The mobile, modular and scalable pyrolysis plant for waste plastic
The mobile, modular and scalable pyrolysis plant for waste plastic

Skyrora 

Edinburgh-based Skyrora is a company aiming for many firsts. It wants to be the first company to accomplish an orbital launch from U.K. soil but is likely to end up being known as the first company that converts unrecyclable waste plastic into rocket fuel.

With the recent completion of the Artemis I mission, humanity is well on its way to setting up a settlement on the Moon and now has Mars in its sights. As our goals become more ambitious, we also need larger rockets that can take us to faraway destinations. However, rocket launches require tons of fuel and produce larger amounts of carbon emissions.

Skyrora's approach to the problem allows for rocket launches to be carried out unabated since they are largely clearing up the problem of plastic waste every time. The technology being developed by the company converts waste plastic into high-performance rocket fuel, called Ecosene, since it is similar in composition to premium kerosene.

Converting plastic waste to rocket fuel

Skyrora relies on a well-known technique called pyrolysis that uses heat to degrade a substance in the absence of oxygen and convert it into liquid oil. The Ecosene technology carries out pyrolysis at low temperatures, and the resultant fuel produced can be used to fuel rockets or even a regular vehicle.

According to Supercluster's report, each ton of plastic waste can be degraded into anywhere between 170-198 gallons (650-750 liters) of fuel, depending on the quality of plastic used.

Interestingly, the technology being used by the company allows for the use of even low-grade plastics in the process, something predecessors who attempted this failed at. Therefore, plastics such as polystyrenes and polyesters, as well as metalized packaging from snacks and chip packets, can be used in this process.

More importantly, the fuel produced this way is significantly cheaper and is likely to cost a fifth of the $13 a gallon that space companies are paying for rocket fuel today.

The road ahead

According to the estimates of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 400 million tons of plastic waste is generated every year, and only nine percent ends up being recycled. The rest either ends up in landfills or is incinerated.

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According to Skyrora, when a ton of plastic is incinerated, it releases about 900 kilowatts of energy. However, when the same amount of waste is converted into Ecosene, it can release up to 10 times more energy. While these claims still need to be independently verified, tests indicate that burning Ecosene produces lesser sulfur emissions than kerosene, Supercluster said in its report.

A Scottish company wants to make rocket fuel from unrecyclable plastic waste
A rocket powered by Ecosene during a test

In addition to setting up a rocket engine manufacturing facility in the U.K., Skyrora is also looking at making available fully scalable and modular plants that can be brought to the site of plastic waste and deployed to convert them into fuel which could also be used to power regular vehicles.

Skyrora's technology, therefore, is not only taking us to other planets but also helping us clean up our homes.