New Fuel Inspired By 9/11 Won't Explode On Impact

New Fuel Additive Could Put an End to Firey Explosions: Car bursts into flames after being impactedNew Fuel Additive Could Put an End to Firey Explosions: Car bursts into flames after being impacted


Scientists from the California Institute of Technology say they've found a way to prevent fireball-type explosions upon impact of the kind seen in airplanes, buses, cars and trucks. The team behind the important project drew their inspiration from the deadly 9/11 terrorist attacks where airplanes were basically turned into winged bombs when they struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Since that time, researchers at the institute have been working on creating a special fuel additive to prevent the fine vapor mist that forms during impacts and ultimately causes the horrific explosions. Instead, the new additive has the ability to turn the fuel into droplets the size of rain that will fall harmlessly from the air rather than misting like a fume and igniting. Pretty cool, huh?

Chemical Engineering

Team leader Julia A. Kornfield, professor of chemical engineering at CalTech, says the clever new formula contains a type of polymer that can be described as a long molecule consisting of multiple successive sub units contained at the ends by units behaving like master links of the type seen in bicycle chains. You could also liken the concept to grocery store aisles sandwiched in between two end caps. Each of these individual polymers would then link up to form a chain called a “mega-supramolecule.” The long and the short of it is the process doesn’t allow the fuel to perform in its usual manner by turning into vapor and exploding like something out of a Mad Max movie because it’s separating and turning into droplets.

Space Age Polymers

The good news is that the mega-supramolecules hold their form even after passing through filters, gas pumps and pipelines, so the additive wouldn’t have to be poured into each individual tank of gas. If the flow in pipes becomes rocky or unstable, the mega-supramolecules release their links and then reform when the pieces meet again. This allows the polymer to regain its binding properties that prevent it from exploding. The super-long molecules ultimately form the large droplets when the fuel is ruptured under pressure. The bigger the droplet, the less likely an explosion will occur, is how Kornfield explained it. “It’s the initial mist that prevents people from getting out of the vehicle,” she said. "If there’s not an initial explosion, the larger droplets give you several minutes to get out.”

Jet Fuel Comparison With (lower image) and Without (upper image) New Additive: JPL/CalTechJet Fuel Comparison With (lower image) and Without (upper image) New Additive: JPL/CalTech


Added Eco-Friendly Benefit

So far, the additive has been tested in aviation fuel and diesel fuel and comes with an unexpected benefit that turns out to be a real boon: it contains 12 percent fewer emissions of fine particulates, also known as soot. Currently, the EPA requires manufacturers of diesel engines to use special filters for reducing the amount of soot emitted from vehicles that burn diesel fuel. This standard has been put into place because these emissions are thought to contribute to a variety of respiratory illnesses and have been linked to lung cancer and even heart attacks. Without even trying it’s already more eco-friendly. It’s not often that you get two safety features like that for the price of one.

Petrochemical Industry

In a step toward more widespread application, the team is currently working with the Pentagon to see if the additive will work in small helicopter engines, according to Kornfield. Chemist Frankie Wood-Black spent 25 years of her life in the petrochemical industry. Now working as an emergency planner in Oklahoma, she feels the idea of explosion-proof fuel through the use of an additive such as this is not only intriguing, in her view, but that it should be scaled to larger quantities for further testing in real-world applications. To date, the researchers at CalTech have only created small amounts of the promising compound for testing in a lab setting. “I’m going to be anxious to see what else they come up with,” said Wood-Black.

Thwarting Terrorists

While the new additive isn’t ready just yet to be used in gasoline, which is far more flammable than diesel or jet fuel, Kornfield says, “We are cautiously optimistic that it will make a difference in gasoline.” The CalTech chemical engineer went on to say, “Our dream was that if word got out to terrorists that fuel wouldn’t explode, maybe they wouldn’t be that motivated.” The study describing the project appeared in the October 2, 2015, issue of Science. Ultimately, if the additive works, this would be a real game changer in the civil aviation and transportation industries with multiple applications for usage and perhaps even in space programs, where combustible and volatile upsets are unfortunately quite common. This is definitely something to keep your eye on in the months ahead.