• Converting Alcohol to Jet Fuel - Chromatography in Action

Gas Chromatography

Converting Alcohol to Jet Fuel - Chromatography in Action

Jul 11 2019

The search for new methods to power the world’s manufacturing, living and transport systems is a massive technological challenge. The traditional use of fossil fuels to provide all our energy needs is a flawed model - as the hydrocarbons we pump from the ground are running out and have enormous environmental footprints. The search for the ever-dwindling pockets of oil and gas is a very expensive one - meaning the cost of heating, making and transporting materials and people is increasing.

Alternative technologies are being developed and are starting to make progress in providing new sources of power. It has recently been reported that the UK has produced all its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources for a number of days, wind and solar power systems are becoming more common in our skylines and electric car charging points are visible in our towns and cities. But what about flying off on holiday to Greece? Is there any chance of reducing our fossil fuel use at 30,000 feet?

Alcohol free flights - in the fuel tanks

One of the biggest costs for commercial airlines is fuel. And with dwindling oil supplies, these costs are only going to increase making air travel more expensive for both passengers and cargo. Governments and industry have been researching ways to reduce the use of fossil fuels as aviation fuel. It has been a long and costly process, but finally progress is being made and alcohol could be a saviour of the skies rather than the cause of passenger’s misery when sat next to a drunken bore.

Aviation fuel has to meet strict standards - sub-standard fuel could cause a catastrophic accident. Two of the main standards that it has to meet are ASTM D1655 and D7566.  D1655 describes the standard aircraft turbine fuels have to meet, while D7566 is the standard for fuels containing synthesized hydrocarbons. And a recent change to this standard allows the use of ethanol as a feedstock to make synthetic hydrocarbons for use as an aircraft fuel.

Ethanol powered flights - renewable resource

Ethanol is a biofuel and can be obtained from renewable resources including sugar cane. Processes have been developed to convert ethanol into other fuels - and now it can be used as a precursor for jet fuel. It is first converted into ethylene using a dehydration process, then ethylene is converted into hydrocarbon molecules suitable for jet fuel. Following further processes such as hydrogenation and fractionation - fuel suitable for aviation use is produced.

Research conducted on the process has used chromatography to identify and analyse the various process steps and final products, providing optimised conditions for the process to help to further reduce the costs of aviation fuel. The use of gas chromatography to analyse jet fuels is discussed in the article, Gas Chromatography - Vacuum Ultraviolet Spectroscopy: A Versatile Tool for Analysis of Gasoline and Jet Fuels.

So, could be soon be cheering excess alcohol in the air.

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