Magazine article Science News

Coal: The Cool Fuel for Future Jets

Magazine article Science News

Coal: The Cool Fuel for Future Jets

Article excerpt

Say the words "coal-powered engine," and images of men shoveling black rock into the fiery belly of a steam engine come to mind. However, liquid fuel made from coal instead of oil may shoot the next generation of supersonic jets across the sky.

If flight speeds are to increase, jets will require new fuels that don't fall apart chemically in engines that become extremely hot, says fuel chemist John M. Andresen of the Energy Institute at Pennsylvania State University in State College.

Currently, the F-15 Eagle jet fighter can reach speeds two and a half times the speed of sound. The U.S. Air Force is working to build a jet that will fly at eight to nine times the speed of sound, Andresen said last week at the American Chemical Society's spring national meeting in San Francisco. The engines in such future supersonic jets could get hotter than 450 [degrees] C.

Today's petroleum-based jet fuels can handle the 300 [degrees] C temperatures of a normal jet engine, but they tend to "crack" when the going gets really hot, Andresen says. At high temperatures, these fuels break down into solid carbon waste called coke that can plug up fuel systems and cause catastrophic engine failure.

"Before we can put Luke Skywalker in the cockpit, we have to make sure the Force is with him," Andresen says. The Penn State scientists are creating coal-derived fuels to deliver the punch needed to get new jets safely up to speed.

Using reactors that simulate conditions inside a jet engine, the researchers heated chemicals modeling petroleum-derived or coal-derived jet fuels. …

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