Despite the many impressive advancements made in the field of alternative energies, the vast majority of private and commercial aircraft still run on fuel. The function of an aircraft engine is not much different than that of any other type of engine - they burn fuel within the engine's combustion chambers to create propulsion. However, the biggest difference in the function of these engines comes in the form of the type of fuel they burn. Instead of the fuel used by cars, trucks, and other automobiles, aircraft require a specific type of fuel for optimal performance and efficiency. This is known as kerosene fuel.
Apart from piston aircraft, which generally use a high-octane gasoline known as avgas, the vast majority of aircraft use kerosene fuel. Many different formulas of kerosene fuel are made available to commercial and private aviators, but the most common is known as Jet A-1. Sometimes called JP-1A, it is used in most jet engine aircraft in the United States. Jet A-1 fuel is a subtype of Jet A fuel, which has been used in the US since the 1950s but is not generally available outside of North America. Jet A-1 fuel consists primarily of kerosene and a small concentration of additives. In addition to serving as preservatives that protect the jet engines from damage, these additives also lower the fuel’s freezing point to roughly -53 degrees Fahrenheit.
Kerosene fuel can be used in both compression ignition and turbine engines. It is considered a high-quality fuel and its quality is held to stringent standards. Should it fail the purity or other quality tests for use on jet aircraft, the fuel can be sold to ground-based users with less demanding requirements, such as railroads.
Aircraft use kerosene fuel for a variety of reasons. For one, it is considered less volatile than traditional gasoline. The flashpoint of kerosene fuel is around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning it will not ignite until it is exposed to temperatures greater than this. Despite having a higher flashpoint, kerosene also has a lower freezing point. The low freezing point of kerosene is highly beneficial due to the high altitudes at which aircraft fly. The average commercial aircraft flies at a cruising altitude of approximately 33,000-42,000 feet above sea level. At these heights, the air is far colder than that of the air near ground level. The low freezing point of kerosene allows aircraft to fly at these altitudes without fear of the harsh and cold environments causing the fuel to freeze.
Another benefit of kerosene fuel is that it lasts longer than traditional gasoline. As mentioned above, kerosene is less volatile than gasoline. When it comes to fuel, volatility and shelf life are directly linked. If a fuel is volatile, it degrades rapidly. Kerosene’s low volatility allows it to last longer before beginning to degrade. A final why aircraft use kerosene is the financial benefit. Kerosene is cheaper to produce than gasoline, which leads to a lower overall cost. Considering that commercial aircraft can hold thousands of gallons of fuel, even a slightly lower cost can save huge amounts of money over time.
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