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Perfecting Jet Fuel from Coal

UDRI, AFRL to Open Nation’s First Research-Scale Facility Tasked to Create Viable Jet Fuel From Coal and Biomass

With a $10-million seed grant from the Air Force Research Laboratory, the University of Dayton Research Institute will collaborate with AFRL to construct and operate the country’s first federal research facility designed to create jet fuel from coal and biomass in a program aimed at creating a viable, home-grown alternative to increasingly expensive foreign petroleum-based fuel. The award will also fund research into coal- and biomass-derived fuel technologies for greater fuel efficiency and reduced environmental impact.

Phases one and two of the Alternative Aerospace Fuels Research Facility are scheduled to open at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in December. Phase three, to include design and construction of a coal and biomass gasifier for the production of synthesis gas, is slated to be up and running early in 2010.

“It will be the first such research facility in the United States, and it will be available for use by any research team in the country,” said Dilip Ballal, head of UDRI’s Energy and Environmental Engineering division and director of the University’s von Ohain Fuels and Combustion Center for education and research. “Previously designed systems have concentrated on the production of diesel fuels and chemicals from coal and biomass. Our objective is to define the optimal conditions under which jet fuel should be produced in order to maximize the amount of fuel that can be manufactured from these feedstocks.”

Phases one and two will facilitate the production of jet fuel using a process that starts with steam-reforming of methane, Ballal said. “Successful research in this area could have an added benefit if fuel producers would harness methane from landfills that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere.”

Phase three will see completion of a research-scale gasifier capable of producing up to 15 gallons of jet fuel per day from coal and biomass. “That amount of experimental fuel will be sufficient to study fuel properties and aircraft fuel system capabilities in testing facilities at engine and aircraft manufacturing companies worldwide, in addition to those at the base,” Ballal said.

In addition, the program will be designed to investigate ways to create jet fuel with a carbon footprint well below that produced by current petroleum fuel refineries. “Adding even low levels of biomass greatly reduces the environmental impact of the overall process,” Ballal said. “We’ve already demonstrated that jet fuels produced from synthesis gas burn cleanly and have greatly reduced soot emissions compared with fuels produced from petroleum.”

In a longer-term goal, researchers hope to minimize the number of additives needed to meet the required performance specifications for jet fuel. Current jet fuel can include up to six additives for anti-icing and other functions, Ballal said. “But the need for these additives creates a major logistics headache on the battlefield as well as for commercial operators that travel to remote locations. In addition, they must be procured from highly specialized vendors, which makes them expensive. We hope to construct fuel that will require fewer additives and still perform well, especially in extreme hot and cold temperatures.”

Because the composition of coal varies depending on where in the country it is mined, the fuels research facility will be equipped to produce fuel from various types of coal. The gasifier itself will be designed for optimal performance using Ohio coal, which has relatively high levels of sulfur. The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which has been instrumental in securing funding for the program, has also been working to engage Ohio’s coal producers in the project, Ballal said.

The new award, effective May 15, extends a $31.5 million, five-year cooperative agreement issued in 2003 for improving fuels and combustion technologies for advanced aircraft and aerospace systems – the largest contract awarded to the Research Institute in its 51-year history – and serves in part as seed funding for the gasifier. Additional funding for the gasifier will be pursued later this year from the Air Force, the state of Ohio and other sources.

May 20, 2008

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