Food for Flight

Jetgala - - CONTENT -

ONE USU­ALLY WOULDN’T GIVE A SEC­OND THOUGHT TO CORN COBS AND WOOD CHIPS, but re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Delaware (UD), USA, have been ru­mi­nat­ing on th­ese two items lately. A team at UD’s Harker In­ter­dis­ci­plinary Science and En­gi­neer­ing Lab­o­ra­tory is try­ing to trans­form the plant ma­te­rial, known as lig­no­cel­lu­losic biomass, into green prod­ucts – in­clud­ing al­ter­na­tive jet fuel.

The In­ter­na­tional Air Trans­port As­so­ci­a­tion notes that world air travel con­trib­uted 815 mil­lion tons of CO2 emis­sions in 2016. With­out de­vel­op­ing al­ter­na­tive fu­els, this will quickly worsen, as the num­ber of pas­sen­gers trav­el­ing by air is pre­dicted to grow from 3.8 bil­lion in 2016 to 7.2 bil­lion in 2035. The gen­eral avi­a­tion sec­tor has been de­vel­op­ing ways to lessen avi­a­tion’s car­bon foot­print, such as through the use of elec­tric- and so­lar-pow­ered air­craft. For now, though, th­ese tend to be more suit­able for per­sonal fly­ing than for the high us­age and var­ied flight dis­tances of business and com­mer­cial air­craft.

That’s not to say non-pe­tro­leum-based jet fuel hasn’t been de­vel­oped. There are US com­pa­nies mak­ing re­new­able jet fuel from var­i­ous chem­i­cals and even from al­gae; the prob­lem is in their pro­cesses, which re­quire high tem­per­a­tures and high pres­sure. This re­sults in high costs and lower sus­tain­abil­ity.

To­gether with the Catal­y­sis Cen­ter for En­ergy In­no­va­tion, the UD re­searchers are find­ing a way around this prob­lem. They de­vel­oped new cat­a­lysts that trig­ger the chem­i­cal re­ac­tions that trans­form the corn cobs and wood chips into fuel. One of th­ese is made from cheap graphene, while an­other re­moves oxy­gen in an en­ergy-ef­fi­cient way and pro­duces high yields of branched mol­e­cules suit­able for jet fuel. The best part is that th­ese cat­a­lysts are re­cy­clable, and the pro­cesses can eas­ily be scaled.

Image by Jef­frey Chase, Univer­sity of Delaware

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