Food for Flight
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.