Alternative Energies

Flying to save the oceans.



We’re beset by concerns for the state of our environment, but, as Mark Twain said of the weather, “Nobody does anything about it.” One pilot with a stunning vision is applying innovation, initiative and courage to bring attention to cleaning up the oceans and air with the most common airplane in the world, Cessna’s 172 (more than 43,000 built so far, and counting).

A Floating Garbage Patch Twice the Size of Texas

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an almost legendary reference among environmentalists. Plastic accounts for 31 million tons of waste per year in the U.S. alone. With only 8% recycled, 28.5 million tons are pushed into landfills, or blow into streets and streams, heading seaward.

Plastics don’t biodegrade; they photodegrade, breaking down under the pressure of the sun’s photons in decomposition that might take a century. So those loose grocery bags, swept toward rivers and coastlines, grow into a soupy mass of increasingly tiny particles. Ocean currents sweep them into at least five major “gyres” that rotate and concentrate the plastics.

Imagine 10,000 miles, mostly over water, alone in a Cessna 172, flying on an experimental fuel. That’s just one of the challenges for Jeremy Rowsell and his machine.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), “In the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of the North Pacific where a spiral of currents results in the convergence of marine litter, plastic particles outweigh zooplankton six to one. Forty percent of the world’s oceans are covered in similar swirling gyres of garbage.”

This has major effects on fish and fowl. Phil Barnes, a leading expert on the albatross, notes that parent birds collect this debris, take it to their nests and unwittingly kill their fledglings. Dead birds, when autopsied, show guts full of plastic. The CBD records, “One piece of plastic swallowed by an albatross originated from a plane shot down 60 years beforehand, almost 6000 miles away.”

Scientists are concerned about the amount of microscopic plastic consumed by fish that become part of the food chain and are eventually consumed by humans. Our dominance on the chain becomes a risk rather than an advantage, and whales as well as minnows can be harmed by the ingestion of these materials.

A Man and a Plan

Jeremy Rowsell, an insurance broker in Australia, wants to do something about the situation, something that involves high risk and promises to redeem the polluted oceans while using a new fuel source. “New” might not be totally accurate; “recycled” would be more apt.

A pilot since he was 15, Rowsell has flown a variety of single- and multi-engine craft, and has 15,500 miles (25,000 kilometers) of trans-ocean flights, one in support of the Royal Flying Doctor Service (see sidebar), an air ambulance service with a great pedigree.

His Flying 4 the Doctors expedition in April 2011 garnered publicity for the RFDS and recreated Frank Kingston-Smith’s epic first crossing of the Pacific from California to Hawaii in 1928. That flight showed the risk-averse nature of an insurance man and the iron determination of one deeply dedicated to a cause. He prepared for the 7128-n.m. trip with serious intensity. Rowsell trained with Jimmy Hazelton, a 79-year-old pilot with 30,000 hours, 200 trips across the Pacific and approximately 3,600,000 nautical miles, equivalent to 166 trips around the world.

Rowsell also enlisted the support of ZeroRisk, a high-level safety and security consulting firm specializing in critical decision-making training. He underwent a two-day session that pushed him to his physical and mental limits: With a 66-pound (30-kilogram) rock in a backpack, he hiked in high temperatures and roped down tall cliffs. He was set adrift in a rubber raft on an overnight “float” that deprived him of sleep and orientation. Tony Loughran, the organization’s director, was amazed at Rowsell’s fitness, outlook and perseverance—a high measure of true grit.

These character traits will be as important as the machinery on the 10,000-mile trip ahead, which he is calling On Wings of Waste.

The Airplane

Rowsell’s aircraft will be a fairly standard Cessna 172, much like that which most modern pilots have flown. It will carry additional fuel for legs of up to 13 hours on the trip, keeping the all-up weight high, even though Rowsell will fly solo.

The Engine

French engine company SMA’s SR-305-230E engine is a 4998cc, or 304-cubic-inch (5-liter) displacement, 460-pound (207-kilogram) powerplant that can burn Jet-A fuel/Jet-A1, TS-1 (found mainly in Russia) and number 3 fuel oil. In this instance, it will burn diesel fuel made from recycled plastics, similar to the waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and refined in Ireland.

A horizontally opposed, four-cylinder, four-stroke unit that looks a great deal like the Lycomings and Continentals that normally power Cessnas, it may achieve a similar ubiquity as 100 LL fuel is legislated out of existence. Its single-lever electronic control (with mechanical backup) for both fuel flow and propeller pitch will reduce Rowsell’s workload throughout the flight, a welcome simplification.

On Wings of Waste’s six major stops and destinations going both ways. One over-water leg is 1300 miles and more than 12 hours on a good day.

The Fuel

On Wings of Waste will quite literally be powered by garbage. Five tons of plastic that would otherwise be landfill bound will produce more than 1000 gallons of diesel for the trip. Since plastic is a form of solidified oil, returning it to its original state seems an obvious move—so why haven’t we thought of it before?

Rowsell sees it as a redemptive step. “This fuel is a major stepping stone to cleaning up our waste and raising the awareness on our global use of plastic,” he said. “Simply banning it won’t work. We have to create alternatives, manage what we have and educate around recycling and clean up. As an individual, I felt it was important to do whatever I could to highlight a major issue and offer a practical solution to a component of the problem.”

Having flown over the Pacific, he wants future generations to share what he has seen, but warned, “They won’t, unless we act now.” He believes 2013 will be fascinating as new diesel technologies come online for kit and general aviation. “The bottom line is we have to start somewhere,” he said. “Our capacity to achieve as a human race is amazing, but it takes time and a sense of urgency to build momentum for change. This fuel offers one part of the solution, and the aim of the On Wings of Waste flight is to show that individuals can make a difference. There are ways to effect change, and by working with Cynar, we are showing that businesses can be created to solve this global issue.”

That’s Cynar Plc of Ireland, which has crafted a process allowing 95% of the oil in that plastic to be retrieved. Even the 5% waste char is used (to make floor coverings).

The process used by Cynar Plc in Ireland is similar to that used in several U.S.-based firms and even in some do-it-yourself pyrolysis systems.

The process involves pyrolysis, thermal degradation of the plastics in the absence of oxygen, which, at temperatures around 700˚ F (370-420˚ C), yields gases that can be condensed and distilled into separate streams for different types of fuel oils, an approximation of the petroleum distillate process in four major steps.

1. Evenly heat the plastic to a narrow temperature range without exces-sive temperature variations.

2.Purge oxygen from the pyrolysis chamber.

3.Manage the char byproduct before it acts as a thermal insulator and lowers the heat transfer to the plastic.

4.Carefully condense and fraction-ate the pyrolysis vapors to pro-duce distillates.

In 24/7 operation, a Cynar module can process 20 tons of waste plastic per day, in a space of only 5400 square feet (500 square meters)—with 3800 square feet for additional equipment and tanks, produce up to 95% by volume of synthetic fuels suitable for all internal combustion engines. (Michael Murray, the firm’s founder and CEO, tops up his private car with the company’s product regularly.) This small size means plants can be installed close to points of greatest use, reducing transportation costs. Most potential locations have waste dumps nearby, a ready supply of raw materials.

Cynar’s fuel is said to be low in toxicity, have a high cetane rating (a measure of diesel’s readiness to ignite under compression), produce fewer particulates and require less energy to produce than the dinosaur-based original. Part of the production is fed back into the plant’s heating and process systems, making Cynar’s production as closed a loop as possible.

Cynar’s fuel works in normal diesel engines and can be distributed through existing channels. Other promising power sources and energy storage devices lurk on the horizon, some closer than we might believe. Until we get the battery power that’s going to make 500-mile cars and airplanes possible, though, and have commercial-scale, algae-based biofuels, this may be the best deal for “green” fuel. Several U.S.-based firms have developed similar processes, so competition in this field may be imminent.

Rowsell flying the Pacific in an earlier Beechcraft journey. The On Wings of Waste effort currently uses a Cessna 172.

Sydney to London on Wings of Waste

Beginning in Sydney, Australia, this year, Rowsell’s 172 will stop at Darwin, Christmas Island, Sri Lanka, Oman, Jordan and Malta, before finally touching down in London. Each destination will be supplied with Cynar’s diesel: The whole flight—to London and back to Australia—will be flown on Cynar’s product. There must also be provisions for any necessary diversions to alternate landing points.

The longest over-water part of the trip will require 13 hours at the controls, enough to test the mettle of any pilot. Rowsell will have a full kit along, including a covered raft and survival gear if the unthinkable becomes reality.

If all goes well, Rowsell plans at least two additional endeavors: On Wings of Hope, a seven-destination journey to identify and encourage funding for grassroots aid groups; and a second, the creation of the Aid Fleet, a collection of small single- and twin-engine aircraft to support aid groups in Southeast Asia.

Rowsell’s drive to achieve something noteworthy is reflected in his work as an author. His short essay, “The Cafe,” contains a reflection on facing an over-water flight. “I breathe in, settle and think through my tasks. As I sit, a strange transition occurs, I feel myself asking the Ocean for permission to cross her, I am becoming part of her already—dead in terms of who I was—as the man I am now knows that tomorrow I will forever change. Live or die I will become part of the blue, joined to the Ocean, the planet and her winds, her flows. I am no more and so I cease to fear, I can only control what I can, the rest is at the hands of my fate, my destiny.”

Personal Note

I worked as a technical writer for a major engineering firm until my retirement. That same firm is now engaged in studying ways to skim the great gyres and recover plastics that could possibly be used as a resource for future fuels or recycled materials and even power Rowsell’s future flights. I hope to be able to report on their progress soon. Several domestic firms use the same basic process as Cynar, and home-based systems are available.

Thank you to Matthew Mirandi and for the heads-up on this story.

Dean Sigler has been a technical writer for 30 years, with a liberal arts background and a Master’s degree in education. He writes the CAFE Foundation blog and has spoken at the last two Electric Aircraft Symposia and at two Experimental Soaring Association workshops. Part of the Perlan Project, he is a private pilot, and hopes to get a sailplane rating soon.


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