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?
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
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
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."