Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists are taking biomass derived acetone – common nail polish remover – and use light to upgrade it to higher-mass hydrocarbons. Then they have a domestically generated product that can be blended with conventional jet fuel to power flight, while providing environmental benefits, creating domestic jobs, securing the nation’s global leadership in bioenergy technologies, and improving U.S. energy security.

Courtney Ford Ryan, a postdoctoral fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory and lead author of a paper now out in preprint form in the journal Sustainable Energy and Fuels said, “This process allows us to transform a natural product into a fuel additive, improving the performance of petroleum-based jet fuel. We converted bio-derived acetone to isophorone and then used a UV lamp to convert it to a cyclobutane, a type of hydrocarbon with high energy density for fuels applications.”

There are many challenges in using acetone for fuels applications, the paper’s authors note. Its volatility precludes its direct use as a fuel, and it requires chemical upgrading to be suitable for introduction into the fuel supply, as acetone has a quite problematic property of dissolving engine parts, seals, and O-rings. So by upgrading the initial product to a cyclobutane, a potentially safer and more energy-dense fuel is created, while reducing the hydrogen input required for upgrading a bio-derived feedstock.

Ryan noted, “Reducing high-pressure hydrogen treatment in synthesizing renewable fuels is important, because most hydrogen is derived from using steam to reform natural gas, which generates carbon dioxide.” Next, more work is needed to make a catalyst that could do it using sunlight.

This is just fascinating. Acetone is pretty easy to produce, cheap, sometimes bio sourced, low toxicity, and relatively safe. The very idea of upgrading to a fuel source opens up lots of possibilities.

As a jet fuel additive/extender the product cyclobutane could work as a gasoline extender in certain circumstances, but remains rather light for a diesel additive. But the possibilities for other molecules are a bit mind boggling with a smile.


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