New Fuel Additive Prevents Explosions, Reduces Emissions

Scientists at Caltech have developed an amazing new technology that will prevent volatile fuels from exploding. If the new polymer fuel additive announced this week had been developed 15 years ago, the 9/11 disaster could not have happened because the jet fuel in the tanks of the aircraft would not have exploded upon impact.

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology and JPL have developed a polymeric fuel additive that dramatically reduces the intensity of impact-related explosions that occur with fuel during accidents and terrorist acts. Moreover, early test results demonstrate that the new additive does not adversely impact fuel performance and reduces some types of emissions (pollutants).

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The research on the new fuel additive was published in this week’s edition of the academic journal Science.

More on new fuel additive and anti-explosive megasupramolecules

The additive was produced in the laboratory of Julia Kornfield, professor of chemical engineering, and is a polymer. A polymer is a long molecule with numerous  repeating subunits with molecules at the end that act like Velcro so the polymers can link up. The new polymer molecules automatically create longer chains called “megasupramolecules”

Megasupramolecules apparently have novel properties allowing them to control fuel misting, improve the flow of fuel through pipelines and even reduce soot formation. Importantly, the megasupramolecules created by the new fuel additive inhibit misting (which leads to explosions) under crash conditions but allow misting during fuel injection in the engine.

Researchers have developed other polymers with similar benefits, but all have problems that minimize their usefulness. For example, ultralong polymers tend to break into pieces when passing through pumps, pipelines or filters. That means they lose their novel properties. However, this does not happen with megasupramolecules. These new supramolecules do detach into smaller parts as they pass through a pump, but the process is completely reversible. The attachment units at the ends of the individual polymer chains just reconnect again when they meet, reconstructing the undamaged megasupramolecules.

Megasupramolecules have a huge impact on the flow behavior of fuels even if the polymer concentration is too low to influence the other properties of the liquid. The researchers also note the additive does not change the energy content, surface tension or density of the fuel. Furthermore, the power and efficiency of diesel engines that use fuel with the polymer additive is unchanged.

The novel properties of supramolecules are also evident when the fuel is involved in an impact. While the supramolecules are usually in a coiled, compact shape, . when there is a sudden expansion of the fluid, the polymer molecules stretch and resist any further elongation. This ability to stretch allows the polymer supramolecules to inhibit the breakup of droplets when there is an impact, thus dramatically reducing the size of fuel explosions, as well as minimizing turbulence in pipelines.

“Our dream was that if word got out to terrorists that fuel wouldn’t explode, maybe they wouldn’t be that motivated,” noted Kornfield, the lead author of the study.

The researchers note the new fuel additive can’t be used in gasoline yet, as it is more flammable and lighter weight than diesel or jet fuel, but the scientists are optimistic they will be able to tweak their supramolecule enough that it will work in gas.