In The Works – Fireproof Jet Fuel


Researchers at the California Institute of Technology say they have discovered a fuel additive that could reduce the intensity of jet-fuel-fed explosions when airplanes crash. The additive has no adverse affect on fuel performance, according to the team’s preliminary results. The additive, created by a team headed by Julia Kornfield, professor of chemical engineering, is a polymer — a long molecule made up of many repeating subunits. The substance has “an unprecedented combination of properties,” according to the CalTech news release, that enables it “to control fuel misting, improve the flow of fuel through pipelines, and reduce soot formation.” The substance inhibits misting under crash conditions, but permits it during normal fuel-injection operations.

Tests with similar substances have been tried in the past, with mixed results. This time, it was the “integration of science and engineering [that] was the key to success,” according to CalTech. Collaborators on the research team included Simon Jones, an industrial chemist now at JPL, and Ming-Hsin “Jeremy” Wei, a recent CalTech graduate, who worked with chemistry professor Robert Grubbs — winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry — to develop a method to precisely control the structure of the polymer. Wei says he is ready to move ahead with finding a way to produce mass quantities of the substance. “My goal is to develop a reactor that will continuously produce the polymer,” he said, “and I plan to achieve it less than a year from now.” The work was published in the Oct. 2 issue of the journal Science.