Who Says Only McDonald’s Can Use Soybeans for Gas
Scientists in the US have turned oil from plants like soybeans and coconuts into jet fuel that is equivalent to kerosene derived from oil.
According to a report in the Scientific American, working with the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), scientists at the Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC) at the University of North Dakota turned these plant oils into fuel that had a similar density, energy content and even freezing point.
“It’s got a freeze point of -47 degrees Celsius (-52.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Anyone familiar with biodiesel can tell you that’s no small feat,” said chemical engineer Chad Wocken, EERC environmental technologies research manager. “It’s processed so that it contains only the same hydrocarbon molecules present in petroleum fuel,” he added.
Wocken said that the process is thermocatalytic. In other words, the engineers heat the plant oils in the presence of an undisclosed catalyst to create a slew of petroleum products.
In fact, the process is not unlike conventional oil refining in that it produces everything from the kerosene used as aviation fuel to regular gasoline.
“The processing costs would be similar and comparable to petroleum oil refining, and perhaps even less expensive, because you’re not dealing with contaminants like sulfur,” said Wocken.
Of course, the biofuel’s ultimate price tag is yet to be determined as only “gallons” of it have been brewed compared with the more than 60 million gallons (225 million liters) of jet fuel consumed daily in the U.S.
But, it will in large part depend on the price to grow the crops themselves. All have been fluctuating in recent months due to newly volatile global commodity markets.
Virgin Atlantic has flown a jumbo jet on a combination of conventional jet fuel and biofuel made from palm oil, and a jet powered solely by biodiesel has stayed aloft for more than 30 minutes-albeit with a special device to keep its fuel from freezing at high altitude.