Scientists create new electrically ignited, fire-safe fuel

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In a remarkable breakthrough, scientists from UC Riverside have introduced us to a novel kind of fuel, one that promises a safer future by reducing the risk of accidental fires.

Imagine a world where fuel storage and transportation become significantly safer, where unintended blazes are a thing of the past.

The team of chemical engineers has invented a unique fuel that lights up only when an electric current is applied to it.

This means it doesn’t catch fire when exposed to flames under normal circumstances, paving the way for a “safe” liquid fuel that could redefine our approach towards handling and utilizing fuels.

We are accustomed to perceiving fuels as dangerous due to their highly flammable nature. Traditional fuels, like the gasoline we use in our vehicles, can easily evaporate and ignite, posing risks especially during storage and transport.

Yujie Wang, a doctoral student at UCR and co-author of the research paper detailing this invention, pointed out these hazards and emphasized how their new fuel bypasses these issues.

Once the voltage (electric current) is removed, the fuel stops burning, providing an unprecedented level of control over its flammability.

To understand how this innovative fuel works, let’s delve into the science of combustion a bit.

When regular fuel burns, it’s not the liquid itself that’s aflame. Instead, the volatile (easily evaporated) fuel molecules that float above the liquid ignite when they come into contact with oxygen and a flame.

In general, if you can manage these vapors, you can control the burn. Traditional methods to stop the combustion, like removing the oxygen source, are usually not practical outside of an engine’s controlled environment.

Now, the new fuel, based on an “ionic liquid” (a type of melted salt), employs a fundamentally different approach.

This isn’t just any salt, though! Wang explains that while it resembles sodium chloride (the salt we sprinkle on our foods), the ionic liquid used for their project is organic, has a lower melting point, and importantly, a low vapor pressure, which means it doesn’t easily produce those combustible vapors.

The team of scientists modified it slightly for their purposes, substituting chlorine with perchlorate to ensure it remained non-flammable even when exposed to a cigarette lighter’s flame.

But here’s where the magic happens: when an electric current is applied to this special liquid and then exposed to a flame, it ignites.

More astonishingly, the moment the current is switched off, the flame extinguishes, and this process can be repeated consistently.

The scientists found that by adjusting the voltage, they could also control the size and energy output of the flame, suggesting potential applications where the combustion could be precisely metered, such as in an engine.

The potential applications of this electrically-ignited fuel are vast. It could theoretically be used in any vehicle, providing a safer and more controlled combustion process.

Additionally, the ionic liquid can be mixed with conventional fuel and retain its unique, non-flammable characteristics, although further research is needed to understand the specifics of such mixtures.

While there are still aspects that require further study, such as testing the fuel in different engines and determining its efficiency, this discovery opens up new possibilities in the realm of safe fuel usage and storage.

Even though the initial cost of producing this fire-safe fuel might be higher, its enhanced safety profile presents an undeniable advantage that transcends mere economics.

Professor Michael Zachariah, the corresponding author of the paper, conveyed a prudent note of optimism, stating that while the competitiveness of the fuel in the market remains uncertain, its enhanced safety offers a crucial benefit that goes beyond mere financial considerations.

In a world where safety is paramount, this fire-safe fuel presents a beacon of hope and a step towards a future where the risk of accidental fires during fuel storage and transport is drastically reduced, paving the way for a safer, more secure energy future.

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Source: UC Riverside.