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Fuel Additive May Slow Secondary Vehicle Explosions

by Bryant Jordan on October 30, 2015

Aviation fuel and gasoline powering military planes and vehicles could be infused with an additive that will cut the risk or severity of secondary explosions, including those caused by IED attacks.

Researchers at CalTech and the Joint Propulsion Lab – working in conjunction with the Army – have developed a new type of polymer that, in jet fuel, would limit the “misting” that occurs with spills and crash and which may instantly engulf an entire aircraft in a ball of flame.

In ground vehicles, researcher Prof. Julia Kornfield said, the fuel additive would reduce the intensity of secondary explosions following a crash or IED attack.

“So far, the information we have, is pertinent to diesel fuel,” Kornfield said in a series of briefings available on the CalTech website. “Where you have collisions that involved the fuel, it might mitigate the initial fire so people can walk away, and you might have the fire burn more slowly afterward … so people can walk away.”

Testing required to win government approval for ground vehicles already is underway. In Warren, Michigan, scientists with the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center has begun testing the polymer-added fuel, according to CalTech.

Many of the casualties incurred by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 15 years stemmed from IED attacks on their vehicles.

Kornfield said the “farthest removed application” in terms of getting approval would be getting the additive into jet fuel. This will have to be thoroughly investigated and ultimately approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, she said.

Internationally, researchers have been investigating means of limiting misting of jet fuel after a collision since 1977, when two Boeing 747s crashed on the ground in Tenerife.

“The accident, being on the ground, you might think would be survivable,” she said. “But 582 people were killed and only 61 survived. Why? Because the impact produced a mist of the fuel and that fine mist floated [and then ignited].”

Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

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