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.


Kim said...

I didn't know that boron gasoline was intimately linked with that controversial XB-70 Valkyrie Mach 3-capable strategic bomber program. Boron-based zip fuel? Boron gasoline was also advertized in old Reader's Digest - especially those from around 1965 - showing a Gemini spacecraft being launched with a tagline Boron - the fuel of the future. Unfortunately the ad provided scant info of what boron gasoline really is. My dad has an old gas station pump with the word boron conspicuously emblazoned across it. Thanks for the heads-up.

Marie Lynne said...

The only "paper version" of those Boron Gasoline adverts from the 1960's that are still surviving are those of old 1964 to 1965 era Reader's Digests - If you are fortunate enough to live near a public library that still manange to keep those.
Didn't the XB-70 Valkyrie strategic bomber program ended when one of the prototype planes crashed? The surviving one can now be found in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. On average each XB-70 Valkyrie flight cost a million dollars. Ar boron fuels / zip fuels really that expensive? Maybe the SR-71's special gasoline that is slightly more expensive than Islay Scotch Wiskey turns out to be much cheaper, don't you think?
P.S. To those with photos of Boron Gasoline pumps, please post your website addresses here. I'll be happy to check them out because Boron Gasoline articles is somewhat of a rarity on the Internet.

Ringo said...

During my rummaging through our attic, I recently found a full-page Richfield Boron Gasoline advert from 1959 showing two canard-type jets with what looks to be wingtip-mounted ramjets flying in formation over what looks like an open-pit mining operation for boron with a processing facility nearby.
Also a TIME magazine article dated June 10, 1957 titled "Element of Tomorrow" about boron citing boron-based super-powered rocket fuels of the future.

Rosemary said...

The combustion products of boron-based zip fuels were probably too toxic for everyday automotive use as noted on some chemistry publications from the late 1950's. The XB-70 Valkyrie probably has no problem with burning such fuels because it normally flies above 50,000 feet (70,000 feet in fact was the strategic bomber's operational cruising altitude) the "toxic" exhaust could have reverted into something non-toxic as it falls back to earth. The former Soviet Union was so scared of the XB-70 Valkyrie that the country was forced to develope the MiG-25 FOXBAT fighter-interceptor as a counter measure.
P.S. Doesn't the XB-70 looks like a "girl's jet" to you?

Veracruz said...

Are we already trapped in a 1960's nostalgia? From the boron-based zip fuel of the XB-70 Valkyrie, to the boron gasoline intended as a "futuristic" fuel for 1960's cars. I'll be searching for Kleeko and Chickot Club soft drink adverts on the Internet just to complete this theme of 1960's nostalgia.
P.S. Have anyone of you noticed that Hollywood-produced Vietnam War movies never featured boron gasoline, Kleeko and Chickot Club softdrink billboard adverts even though such billboards are ubiquitous on Vietnam War footage by major American TV news networks like CBS and NBC.

Vanessa said...

Just like honest Jewish hedge fund managers, it seems like some of the greatest inventions of the 20th Century seems only to exist back in the 1960's. Like Boron Gasoline for example.

Sarah said...

The still-existing aerospace company Northrop's involvement in the XB-70 Valkyrie program was their innovative honeycomb aluminum material - which half an acres worth was used on the XB-70. The only viable use of this material today would be Miley Cyrus' diaphanous bullet-proof training bra. North American aviation was the primary company that made the final prototype.
Boron gasoline was a technological dead end due to relative scarcity and the high-energy input involved in creating large quantities of boron gasoline. Given that BP used to experiment about creating edible proteins out of crude oil during the 1960's, they should mimic the organic structure of biofuels as a new less polluting form of gasoline. Like sugarcane-sourced bioethanol which produces 80% less carbon dioxide than a typical crude oil-derived gasoline.

Marie Lynne said...

Given that the XB-70 Valkyrie was developed before the invention of the Pratt & Whitney F100 afterburning turbofan jet engine - never mind high-strength and lightweight composites, being able to fly at Mach 3 at 70,000 feet at a time when most people in Southeast Asia were still commuting on oxen-drawn carts is a commendable technical achievement indeed.
Speaking of the future of aviation, I think biofuels will play a very large role in making the airline industry more environmentally-friendly.

Sarah said...

Given as a "proof-of-concept" invention, the XB-70 Valkyrie did fulfill it's design mission brilliantly. Too bad interest in supersonic civilian aviation has taken a back seat due to the on-going global economic crisis. Rebel billionaire Richard Branson should start a career as a 21st Century supersonic barnstormer in order to rekindle civilian interest in supersonic air travel.
P.S. given that most gasoline pumps that date from the 1960s are now collectors items, it's just sad that Boron Gasoline pumps are not one of them.