1.24.2020 5:10 PM

Hair done, check your nails

Scientists are turning nail polish remover into jet fuel

This unlikely chemical could help create more environmentally friendly jet fuel.


That forgotten bottle of acetone you have under your sink can do a lot more than remove nail polish. In fact, it could even help the aviation industry curb its CO2 emissions.

While acetone is a household staple for many thanks to its corrosive ability to dissolve nail polish, this naturally occurring (though also manufactured) chemical compound also has its uses beyond the domestic sphere as the base of an environmental biofuel. But thanks to its overly-eager, corrosive disposition, acetone on its own would quicker eat through an airplane's engine than fuel it. To safely and effectively make use of this tricky compound a team of researchers first had to modify its internal structure with a dose of UV light.

“This process allows us to transform a natural product into a fuel additive, improving the performance of petroleum-based jet fuel,” Courtney Ford Ryan, a postdoctoral fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory and first author of a new study exploring this process, said in a statement.

"Fuels, including jet fuel are already complex blends and that confers a range of properties that cannot realistically be met by a handful of magic molecules. The goal here is to be part of a blend to improve the overall properties to give more energy per gallon or to reduce particulate emissions by designing a fuel that burns cleaner," Andrew D. Sutton, also at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the project's team leader, tells Inverse.

The study, published this past December in the journal Sustainable Energy and Fuels, explored how this chemical compound could be manipulated and blended into jet fuel to achieve similar levels of fuel efficiency while lowering resultant emissions. First things first, they had to convert run-of-the-mill acetone into something a little more usable. To do that the team first condensed acetone to create a compound called isophorone and then exposed that new compound to high-energy UV light in order to create the final product -- something called cyclobutane, an organic compound that can be reduced to liquified gas. The authors write that this process is capable of scaling and that remaining isophorone can be collected and reused for repeated production of the biofuel.

Ryan said in a statement that the high energy-density of cyclobutane makes it an excellent jet fuel replacement candidate.

Researchers say that this energy dense biofuel could stand to change the tide of aviation industry emissions.Los Alamos National Laboratory

To test that theory, the team completed a series of trials to evaluate the real effectiveness of their biofuel. They found that cyclobutane alone did not meet the necessary viscosity required for jet engines, but that 10 percent and 20 percent blends of cyclobutane and traditional jet fuel were right on target. When evaluating other key aspects of these fuels, including energy density, surface tension, boiling point, freezing point, and effective smoke point, the results were a little more mixed. While a high-percentage blend (30 percent) did demonstrate even higher energy density than traditional fuel and the fuel did show it was capable of enduring low and high heat, it also performed worse than traditional jet fuel when it came to testing its smoke point, meaning it has a higher tendency to create soot.

Despite the mixed results of their study, the team is still nevertheless encouraged by its findings and the future of an acetone derived biofuel.

"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,” said Ryan in a statement.

Moving forward the researchers write that more research should be done into the compatibility of such fuels with jet engines as well as into how this fuel might be created using sunlight instead of high-energy UV light.

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