Air Force Tests New Fuel Mixture

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Shelbyville (TN) Times-Gazette
November 29, 2007 By Brian Mosely
ARNOLD AFB -- Reducing the nation's dependence on foreign oil is just one of the goals the Air Force is striving for as it looks toward using a blend of synthetic and petroleum-based fuel for its fleet.
With Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne looking on, testing kicked off at Arnold Engineering Development Center with study of how the blend works in a B-1 bomber engine.
"One of our jobs is to provide sovereign options for America," Wynne said, and one way is to qualify the air fleet to fly with synthetic fuel.
"We're looking forward and thinking about tomorrow."
The synthetic fuel tested at AEDC was derived from natural gas, but it can also be made from coal and biomass as well. Wynne said they know the process is possible because it has already been done in other countries.
The Pentagon began looking at coal in 2001 when Congress earmarked $13 million to investigate the Fischer-Tropsch process, in which coal is gassified and then liquefied into fuel. The technology was developed by Germany in the 1920s and used by South Africa beginning in the 1950s.
The fuel being tested by the Air Force is a 50-50 blend of fuel refined from natural gas using the Fischer-Tropsch process and fuel refined from oil. Liquid fuel made from coal is expected to be available by 2012.
Wynne said the Air Force is very conscious about its contribution to carbon emissions. He said that as a part of manufacturing process, the service must reduce its carbon footprint "and be a little bit kinder to the environment."
The Air Force has already certified its fleet of B-52s to use the blend in August and is expected to finish testing the blend in C-17s by May of 2008. Wynne said this test would enable the blend to be used in commercial 757 jets, since the two aircraft use the same type engine.
The test with the B-1 is the Air Force's first test of the blended fuel in a supersonic engine, Wynne said. Once the qualification is done on the ground, the engine will be placed back into a B-1 and tested in flight.
"We know we are being watched by all our colleagues throughout the aviation industry to see how we do it, because they also know that we don't want to be a producer, but to create a marketplace."
Wynne said the Air Force buys about 1.6 billion gallons of fuel per year for its fleet of aircraft. The Fischer-Tropsch process promises to produce a cleaner fuel that gives off more energy per pound and be less subject to freezing.
Using the blend would reduce transportation costs and ease logistical headaches by allowing the military to use one fuel for all of its aircraft and vehicles instead of the more than half dozen different fuels presently used.
Another consideration is the reduction of dependence of foreign oil. The Middle East has about 685 billion barrels of oil compared with 22 billion barrels in the United States.
But according to the Pentagon, there is enough coal in the United States to produce 964 billion barrels of fuel.
"A commercial buyer would probably purchase more than we would," Wynne said. "If it [the blend] becomes a free market commodity, then we will have done what we set out to do."
It is expected that by early 2011 the 50-50 blend should be certified for the entire Air Force fleet, after which the service will test leaner and leaner versions, adding more synthetic fuel to the blend to figure out where the tipping point is.
By 2016, the Air Force has committed to use a blend of domestically produced synthetic fuel and oil-refined fuel for half of the fuel it buys for its planes in the continental United States.
The Energy Department has funded efforts to refine the coal, awarding a $100 million grant in January of 2006 for the construction of a commercial coal-to-fuel plant near Frackville, Pa.
As Wynne headed to observe the test, he said that AEDC is "one of the crown jewels of the U.S. Air Force."