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Alternative Fuel Research Addresses Nation's Energy Independence

Glenn is leading a NASA research effort to convert some of the nation's natural energy sources -- coal, natural gas (methane), biomass and shale oil -- into a cleaner and more economical alternative to traditional commercial jet fuel.

Image of the Heated Tube Facility which houses the Alternative Fuels Lab. Credit: NASA/S. Jenise Veris Image right: Outside the Heated Tube Facility housing the Alternative Fuels Lab. Credit: NASA/S. Jenise Veris

Glenn scientists and researchers will conduct this research in a new onsite Alternative Fuel Research Laboratory currently under construction and housed within the center's recently remodeled Heated Tube Facility (HTF). The new laboratory is critical to Glenn's ability to conduct alternative fuel research utilizing the Fisher-Tropsch (F-T) synthesis kinetics process. F-T is the best known catalytic process for converting synthesis gas derived from non-petroleum feed stocks such as coal, biomass and natural gas into a wide variety of hydrocarbon-based transportation chemicals and fuels, including cleaner burning jet fuel and diesel.

"Glenn will focus on understanding the Fisher-Tropsch process to acquire data for reducing emissions and increasing engine efficiency and performance," explained Dr. Chi-Ming Lee, chief of the Combustion Branch. "Although NASA is not in the business of producing fuel, based on our findings we can stimulate F-T catalyst development and reactor design technology to reduce costs and added flexibility towards jet fuel production."

This research is funded under the Fundamental Aeronautics Research Program and aligns with the agency's continuing investment in advanced technology and non-petroleum-based aviation fuels for subsonic propulsion and combustion systems. Data derived from the new laboratory will be shared with government and industry partners to produce synthetic substitutes for petroleum or improve upon current blends for lower emissions. Fuel performance emissions studies are underway in Glenn's Advanced Subsonic Combustion Rig.

Hot Liquid Process Simulator used for fuel synthesis. Partners in this effort include the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, General Electric, Pratt-Whitney, Boeing and the University of Kentucky's Center for Applied Research.

Image left: Antony Skaff, SLI/Research Testing Division, F-T reactor systems engineering project manager, is pictured with the Hot Liquid Process Simulator. Credit: NASA/S. Jenise Veris

Energy combinations under investigation will include liquid fuels derived from coal and natural gas as a mix blend with conventional kerosene for a near-term alternative fuel. Synthetic fuels converted from coal, natural gas or shale are a less-expensive option for the United States thanks to large natural gas and coal reserves. Biomass and shale oil resources are targeted as a mid-term alternative and methane and hydrogen as a far-term alternative.

Testing will begin in early fiscal year 2008. "The first series of tests will involve thermal stability screening of several aviation fuels including JP-8, synthetic Jet-A (FT-derived), bio-diesel and variations of blended and potential surrogate fuels," said Thomas Tomsik, technical lead, Propellant Systems Branch. "A Hot Liquid Process Simulator was recently installed in the HTF as part of the hardware buildup for this portion of the analytical research."

Additional goals over the life of the program include creating computational tools that can predict the regenerative fuel composition and the recommended optimum operating conditions for F-T synthesis.

"Alternative Fuels is an exciting area of research that addresses the goals of improving our nation's energy independence," said Dr. Jih-Fen Lei, Glenn's Research and Technology director. "This is a great opportunity for Glenn to be involved in a growing area of research and one that will undoubtedly continue to expand as technology breakthroughs are made."

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By S. Jenise Veris