New polymer may hold key to reducing plane explosions

A new polymeric fuel additive that reduces the intensity of post-accident jet fuel explosions has been discovered by researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

The findings were published in the October 2 issue of Science, outlining the ability for the new polymer to reduce the tendency for jet fuel to form highly combustible droplets known as ‘misting’ during impact.

The polymer molecules are described to form long chains – or ‘megasupramolecules’ – which make misting more controllable during impact.

The megasupramolecules allow for misting to take place during regular fuel injection operation, but inhibit misting during impact.

Additional breakthroughs with the revolutionary polymer are reduced soot formation and improved flow through pipelines.

The ability of the additive to prevent misting on impact without affecting the fuel’s energy content, surface tension or density comes down to the low polymer concentration required.

According to a Caltech report, Caltech professor of chemical engineering and lead researcher Julia Kornfield (BS ’83) explained the polymers to be made up of repeating subunits, which have units at each end with Velcro like effects.

When an impact occurs, fuel elongates and the megasupramolecules act to prevent the breakup of droplets during this. The report explains megasupramolecules as remaining coiled up, only stretching out to prevent further elongation during a sudden impact.

The megasupramolecules not only minimize the intensity of explosions, but they also act to reduce turbulence in pipelines, according to the report.

Kornfield and the team of researchers are said to have drawn inspiration for the fuel additive from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which saw devastating explosions as a result of misting.

“Our dream was that if word got out to terrorists that fuel wouldn’t explode, maybe they wouldn’t be that motivated,” said Kornfield according to a Discovery News report.