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Wed, Apr 07, 2004

Put Another Coal On The Fire

Penn State Derives Jet Fuel From Coal

So, let's get this straight: If you're bad, you get a lump of coal in your stocking. If you're good, you get a load of coal in your fuel tanks, right?

Right.

Researchers at Penn State have come up with a bituminous coal-based concoction they say will run a jet engine. But it has to be a specially-built jet engine. And the fuel itself has some pretty special properties.

"On a pilot scale, we have produced thermally stable coal-based jet fuel," says Dr. Harold H. Schobert, professor of fuel science and director of Penn State’s Energy Institute. "This coal-based fuel can absorb significant amounts of heat and remain stable to 900 degrees Fahrenheit."

Researchers say, not only does the coal fuel make the plane go, it actually cools the engines.

"While power generation will remain the mainstay of coal use for many decades, coal does supply a molecular structure that has properties necessary for making high-temperature stable fuel," says Schobert.

In addition to its high temperature properties, JP900 has a 10-degree Fahrenheit lower cloud point – the temperature at which a cloud forms over a liquid. This is a better cold weather fuel than either the Jet A or JP8 currently in use.

Schobert; Suchada Butnark, former graduate student in fuel science; and Leslie R. Rudnick, senior scientist at the Energy Institute, worked on two processes to create JP900 from coal-based materials. One method relies on bituminous coal becoming fluid when heated. The researchers mixed bituminous coal with decant oil, a byproduct of petroleum refining, at normal pressures. When heated, the mixture becomes fluid and the liquid portion distills off and is collected as JP900. The remaining solid is coke, a valuable byproduct for making anodes for aluminum smelting or in making graphite. And it appears to be relatively simple to mix.

"This process is a variant of a standard process used in petroleum refining," says Schobert. "We would really just need a mixer for the two components and then the process could be done in normal refinery operations."

That's a key issue. In fact, the Penn State researchers say their formula "JP9000" can be made in existing refineries.

What about sulfur, a main pollutant resulting from burning coal? Schobert says the mixing and burning process yields a scant three parts per million, depending on how much hydrogen is used in the process.

So, what's this going to cost? Schobert admits -- right now -- the price tag for a gallon of JP9000 would be pretty hefty. But that's something he thinks can be addressed.

"We do not have much doubt now that we can do this," says Schobert. "We have a lot more to do and it will be expensive, but there is not much doubt that it will work."

FMI: www.psu.edu

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