TOKYO Japan Airlines is looking to turn used clothing into jet fuel, with plans to put the alternative energy source to the test as early as 2020.
The airline will join Japan Environment Planning, also known as Jeplan, and the Tokyo-based Green Earth Institute to set up a collaborative council for the project as soon as early 2017. Jeplan already works with 12 retailers, including Aeon and Muji operator Ryohin Keikaku, to collect used clothing at 1,000 or so stores around Japan and recycle the polyester it contains. This next project will take cotton from the clothing and turn it into fuel with help from GEI.
GEI was founded to put biofuel technologies developed by the government-backed Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth to practical use. These technologies include a method of using microorganisms to process sugars contained in cotton into alcohols, which in turn can be made into fuel.
The plan is to build an experimental fuel plant at a Jeplan factory and begin test flights using a blend of conventional and cotton-derived fuel in 2020. Commercial production should be up and running by 2030.
One hundred tons of cotton yields just 10 kiloliters of fuel. Even if all the cotton consumed annually in Japan were used in fuel production, this would give only 70,000kl or so -- less than 1% of Japan's yearly jet fuel usage. But GEI's technology can also be used to process waste from paper mills and other facilities. The company sees clothing as just the beginning of a broad waste-conversion effort.
Making fuel from organic sources such as cotton still releases carbon dioxide, for example at the refining stage. But emissions are estimated to be less than half those from fossil fuel production. Replacing conventional jet fuel with biofuel, even in part, would help shrink emissions associated with air travel as global efforts to combat climate change gather speed.
Japan Airlines is also at work on other efforts to turn urban waste, such as garbage, into fuel. The aim is to create a stable supply of alternative fuels with prices rivaling those of petroleum products.