Question Your World: Can Human Waste Turn into Jet Fuel?

Posted: March 6, 2024

Flying can be stressful. Getting your things packed, getting to the gate on time, going through TSA, buying those expensive airport snacks and then you still have to also worry about the global climate impacts of jet fuel emissions from the plane. Well, that’s where science gets involved! 

Getting to the airport gate on time and dealing with your travel companions is still on you, but scientists are working toward reducing the stresses of CO2 emissions from the use of jet fuel. You may have heard the news about a plane recently making a trip from London to New York using cooking oils and animal fats, but there’s yet another fuel option that researchers are studying: human poo! 

That’s right, the daily need for our bodies to remove waste could very well come in handy for our aviation travel needs. A company in the UK has used the process of hydrothermal liquefaction to take human waste and turn it into fuel. Using a process that combined high pressure and heat, these researchers were able to turn the human sewage into crude-like oil—a.k.a. bio-oil—ultimately creating a refined fuel to power airplanes!

Aviation fuel experts are also saying the final product here is similar to regular jet fuel and could be the beginning of a very sustainable future for aviation fuels. In fact, many scientists and consumers have long desired sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). 

While we are not really ready to flip every plane on Earth into a SAF-using vessel, this breakthrough does show encouraging signs on how humanity can find alternative fuels for our sky-bound transit options. The team working on this has set their goal for a larger processing facility and higher production yield by 2030. They’d love to see the production of 100,000 tons of biofuel annually, equaling about 800 flights from New York City to London. 

Currently this process is more expensive than conventional kerosene, but these economic variables often change with growth in technological capabilities and demand from consumers. However, keep in mind that scalability of this product is somewhat tied to the amount of poo humans can produce. Right now a little under 5% of UK flights could potentially use this new waste-based fuel option. Meaning the UK alone can’t make a big dent on our planet’s aviation fuel dependency. 

But, that’s just the UK. 

For perspective, here in the US, we annually make enough human waste to create over 438 million gallons of potential poo jet fuel! Excrement from Virginians could make 11.5 million gallons and right here in Richmond, we could help produce almost 300,000 gallons of bio oil a year. And let's not forget the big potential global output: humanity creates hundreds of billions pounds of human waste a year. In theory, that could turn into a whole lot of flights! 

But will this poo fuel for planes truly take off?

Way more research and testing is needed to see how humanity could potentially add another type of fuel to our menu of power options. Currently, researchers around the globe are exploring the many different ways to power our world by working on a diverse array of options on how we can expend energy for travel, work, eating, play and life at home. 

This work is hard. It requires tons of research, learning lots of new things and so much trial and error. But the work must continue because to not do anything with this knowledge would truly be a waste!