Monday, February 2, 2009

Remembering Boron Automotive Fuels

Made famous by Caltex back in 1964 when they launched it in Belgium. Given the promise of more energy per unit weight are boron additives in gasoline a viable answer to our energy needs?

By: Ringo Bones

It probably started during the 1960’s when NASA developed boron fuels in order to propel their space vehicles during Project Gemini, or was it the famed boron-based “zip fuel” used by the US aerospace company Northrop that allowed their XB-70 Valkyrie strategic bomber prolonged flights at Mach 3. Given these “promises”, the development of boron-based fuels for viable civilian – make that commercial – applications seems to irresistible for multi-national crude oil companies of the time. Remember that as far back as the 1960’s concerns are already voiced over the long-term supply of crude oil sourced hydrocarbon fuels, given that they are not exactly inexhaustible.

On the civilian side of things – i.e. automotive or car fuel usage – those old enough to remember will probably say that it is the crude oil company Caltex the first one to use boron in gasoline from their adverts back in 1964. Especially with print ads, which showed a cartoon figure at the wheel of a car and later driving a motorcycle while the text promised: “With BORON you can travel the world over without trouble.”

But the truth is it was the Ohio-based Standard Oil Company who was the first to develop boron as an additive for gasoline to boost its octane rating. Boron is very promising in this application because they were already widespread concerns over the environmental and physiological toxicity of tetraethyl lead, the original octane-booster and anti-knock additive for gasoline. Given that boron showed promise back then by making ordinary gasoline more energetic – thus making supplies last longer, so what’s the problem?

The problem is that all biomass on planet Earth – whether the fossil fuels crude oil, coal and natural gas or vegetable matter – is mostly carbon-based. The major source of naturally occurring boron is from salt lake deposits, which does create a substantially large carbon footprint in its extraction and processing. Which is the very thing we want to avoid in using boron in the first place. Plus, the way we used boron back in the 1960’s was only in minuscule amounts as additives to make our gasoline powered cars require less fuel for the given mileage. Eventually, boron-added gasoline created deposits and eventually clogged-up piston engines during long-term use thus was eventually abandoned. That’s why those old enough to have grown up during the 1970’s only saw non-functional gasoline pumps with the word BORON emblazoned on them.

Even though boron-added gasoline to those old enough to remember is now seen as belonging to the IGY (International Geophysical Year) and Project Apollo – era America, boron has turned up in unexpected ways for use in our cars today as we strive to move away from crude oil-sourced fuels. Like using boron to efficiently store elementally pure hydrogen for use in fuel cell powered cars. And also for use in advanced high-energy batteries for future electric car applications, which emit no carbon dioxide, whatsoever in its operation.