Turning the Ocean's Plastic Into Fuel

Santa Cruz, CA – Jim Holm does not have to go far from his office in Santa Cruz's Harbor to find plastic trash in the ocean. Often he heads out on his stand-up paddle board to clean up what he can. "Cigarette wrappers, oil bottles from people that are tossing it off the side of the boat, that sort of thing," said Holm. This just scratches the surface of what Holm and his longtime friend Nick Drobac want to do about plastic trash in the ocean.

Together they founded The Clean Oceans Project. Drobac is Executive Director. "It's a crushing burden on the environment to have that material out there in more ways than we probably have time talk about. Animals are ingesting plastic. Boats are being entangled with fishing nets in their propellers. Coral reefs systems are being obliterated by these enormous balls of fishing net once they wash ashore. So it's more of a question as Jim said earlier, how do we not do something about it?" said Drobac.

What the Clean Oceans Project aims to do is take a stab at cleaning up the North Pacific Gyre. That's the area of the Pacific often referred to as the great garbage patch. The plan is to head out to the Gyre on a solar powered catamaran. Use remote sensors to locate concentrations of plastic debris. Then target the large pieces of plastic on the surface. Finally Holm says they'll use surface skimming technology borrowed from the oil spill response industry to collect it. "Each of the components of our process work independently, but they've never been assembled as a process together and actually used at sea," said Holm. Assuming their idea will work, the question became what to do with the all the plastic?

That's where the Blest Machine enters the plan; it turns plastic into fuel. Recently the pair demonstrated the Blest technology to potential investors and curious locals in downtown Santa Cruz. The demonstration began with Holm stuffing plastic into a tabletop demonstration version of the machine. Once on, temperatures inside the machine rose to around 800-degrees. "It's that stage of heating that actually gasifies the solids that are in there," said Harry Sato of E-N-ergy, the Blest Distributor. Through the course of the hour long demonstration the gas traveled through a metal tube and into a glass compartment filled with water. "On the normal industrial machines there's an actual cooler, you don't need the water. But in order to demonstrate the gas turning back into a fuel we use the water as a condenser," said Sato. A fuel that's a mix of gasoline, kerosene and diesel slowly formed on the top of the water.

The Blest Machine they'd like to take out to the North Pacific Gyre can handle more than 500 pounds of plastic per day, which could produce around 66 gallons of fuel. "One of the things it does is we say it monetizes the plastic trash. And if it gives it a value, we think that eventually you won't see plastic trash on the side of the road just like we don't see cans and bottles," said Holm. Ultimately they'd like to create enough fuel to sell and to sustain the Clean Oceans Project. But first they need the money test their project at sea. Holm says it will take about $3-million to run for a year. So they're searching for investors, but also working on a plan B. "There may be an opportunity to set up long term plastic processing facilities on land that could create a revenue stream to endow the project. So that's something that we're really focusing on right now," said Drobac. The pair admits that ridding the ocean of plastic likely won't happen in their lifetime. But say if they don't try, who will?