From Atom to Engine: Understanding Fundamental Effects of Structure on Combustion Using Tandem Experiment and Computation

Nabila Huq, Katherine Lockwood, Sadie Stutzman, Sheikh Ahmed, Nicole Labbe, Thomas Foust

Research output: NRELPresentation


The ability to tie structural features to a fuel candidate’s ignition properties provides a path for rational design of advantaged fuels that facilitate higher-efficiency, lower-emitting combustion in engines. The time evolution of a fuel’s radical population directly correlates with global combustion parameters, and because the generated radicals depend on the initial structure and reaction pathways of the fuel molecule, it follows that the molecular structure of a fuel has a direct impact on this cascade, and therefore salient ignition-tied fuel properties. This work aims to understand the impact of structural features in the context of global combustion properties for direct application to emerging engine technologies. Specifically, we highlight the ability to identify potential fuel blendstocks for specific engine strategies by examining and elucidating the radical cascade tied to ignition. A representative subset of alcohols possessing a variety of structural features (e.g. branching, chain length) was selected for study using a robust combination of experimental and computational methods. The approach begins with identifying short-lived radicals and likely abstraction sites upon pyrolysis in a microreactor coupled with photoionization mass spectrometry for direct detection of product species. In tandem, electronic structure calculations were performed to calculate the relevant potential energy surfaces for fuel pyrolysis as well as the subsequent O2 addition-isomerization reactions, which govern ignition behavior. Furthermore, the theoretical energetic and ro-vibrational data are used to calculate rate constants for direct ignition modeling to explore how structural effects impact NTC behavior. The microreactor data combined with electronic structure theory calculations provide a well-informed picture of the reactions relevant to ignition for each fuel in this study, as well as the most likely radicals generated under engine conditions. This thorough fundamental picture of fuel decomposition and ignition chemistry is used to correlate the observed ignition behavior to molecular structural effects.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages19
StatePublished - 2020

Publication series

NamePresented at the ACS Fall 2020 Virtual Meeting, 17-20 August 2020

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/PR-5100-77595


  • advanced biofuels
  • advanced engines
  • advantaged biofuels
  • Co-Optima
  • multi-mode engines
  • phi and octane sensitivity


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