Researchers at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) have developed a potential recipe for a net zero fuel for planes that will pull carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air. The research, which used computational modelling and analysis, was recently published in the journal Fuel.
The project, led by Jagan Jayachandran, assistant professor of aerospace engineering, and Adam Powell, associate professor of mechanical and materials engineering, addresses an urgent climate change problem. Aviation currently accounts for approximately 2.5% of all global greenhouse emissions, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), and that number is expected to rise.
“As aviation continues to grow, so will the industry’s emissions, says Powell. “We need to think out of the box and look at sustainable materials that will contribute to a long-term solution toward reducing the transportation sector’s carbon footprint.”
Jayachandran and Powell have developed a formula for a fuel that consists of magnesium, a mineral that is found most abundantly in the world’s oceans. A slurry of magnesium hydride — a chemical compound made up of magnesium and hydrogen — mixed with hydrocarbon fuel would burn to produce CO2, water vapour and magnesium oxide (MgO) nanoparticles.
The magnesium hydride fuel would also give planes the range for long-haul flights – something that has been a challenge for other sustainable aviation fuels to provide. That longer range is achieved, in part, due to the chemical properties of the slurry — a lower volume of it is needed for combustion than a typical aviation fuel.
“We found this fuel would have up to 8% more range than other today’s jet fuel, and more than two to three times longer range than liquid hydrogen or ammonia which other researchers have proposed as sustainable fuels,” said Jayachandran.
The Department of Energy describes sustainable aviation fuel as a “biofuel used to power aircraft that has similar properties to conventional jet fuel but with a smaller carbon footprint.”
These biofuels include resources such as corn grain, algae, forestry, and agricultural residues, among others. Using a biofuel as the hydrocarbon in this slurry with magnesium hydride could potentially lead to net negative emissions.
Jayachandran and Powell will now plan to further their research through physical experiments with samples of the fuel and are also pursuing potential funding from a federal agency.
Noting the promise of research to mitigate emissions and other climate threats, Powell said, “we hope our work, which opens up a new category of sustainable aviation fuel will spark the imagination of other researchers. The sky’s the limit.”
The announcement comes at a sustainably progressive time in the aviation industry. In October, a United Nations (UN) body struck a long-term deal with the aviation sector to hit net zero emissions by 2050. More recently, WestJet announced a three-month commitment to operating flights from San Francisco International Airport to Calgary International Airport using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
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