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You know the old saying: One man’s trash is another man’s aviation fuel. Alright, it may not be a saying…yet. But give it time.

Researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia have invented a chemical process to make jet fuel from the methane gas emitted by landfills. That’s right, they can power airplanes with the byproduct of our trash. Here are the details on how the process works, according to the study’s lead author:

“Non-thermal plasma is an electricity-driven technology which can excite gas at both a low temperature and atmospheric pressure. Essentially, what this means is this approach facilitates the conversion of the gas into value-added products by inducing plasma discharge within forming gas bubbles. The process doesn’t require heat or pressure, meaning it requires less energy, making it highly compatible with renewable energy power sources.”

Professor PJ Cullen from the University of Sydney’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Besides being darn cool science, this discovery could solve two major problems.

The first problem is what to do with all our methane. The fermentation happening inside our landfills, and even inside our livestock, creates methane. Methane is a major greenhouse gas, probably responsible for one third of our current climate change issues.

Many modern landfills capture this gas and burning it to make electricity. That’s great for energy production, but not for carbon emissions. Concentrating it and then burning it isn’t a zero emissions solution, but is preferable.

A Ryanair Boeing 737 sits on the tarmac awaiting takeoff.
A Ryanair Boeing 737 | GordZam via iStock

The second problem is what to do about aviation. Planes currently burn a heavily refined fuel made from petroleum oil. And they burn a lot of it. Lithium ion batteries, which we use in current EVs, are far too heavy to be a solution for our current airline fleet.

You can fly a plane with biogas, such as the ethanol based stuff we distill from corn. But it is not as energy-dense as regular gas. You need 1.4 gallons to equal a single gallon of regular aviation fuel. This will dramatically reduce our jets’ ranges. And using 100% ethanol fuel for air transportation might tax our corn production.

Capturing the methane from our landfills, agriculture, and even sewage plants would be a much better solution for aviation. This gas is already being produced, needs to be burned somehow, and now we can use it to power airplanes. That’s a major win for science, for the human race, and for planet earth.

Next, read how Barcelona is using sewage plant methane to power buses, or see the full interview with Professor Cullen in the video below: