Should the Air Force explore the use of synthetic fuels?

The U.S Air Force seeks more Economical Fuel Sources

By Amy Wees

June 9, 2008

            No one is unaware of the recent skyrocketing fuel costs and with the U.S military being the countries largest single consumer of oil it is no surprise that the department of defense is looking for ways to somehow fit this expensive fuel into its already expensive wartime budget.  The answer is in synthetic fuels.  If the Air Force can get its gas guzzling aircraft to run on synthetic alternative fuel our military might be able to meet budget requirements in the future.  So with help from some contracting experts in this arena we see the testing begin.

The exploration of using synthetic fuels began when the fight over oil caused fuel prices to skyrocket and cost the military billions to fly everyday aircraft needed for our current wartime situation.  Not to mention with our enemies having a handle on most of this oil and our military needing so much of it poses a severe and apparent disadvantage.  Something needed to be done to reduce our dependency on foreign oil.  Therefore, military officials decided to explore the use of alternative fuels by sending out a contract solicitation for just that.  Although these synthetic fuels would cost more to manufacture in the beginning because they are not mass produced, the military is hoping to be the lead in helping America to gain an interest in this new eventually lower cost fuel alternative.  To do this, in Spring of 2006 a contract was awarded to aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing Corp. and the Pratt & Whitney engine unit of United Technologies Corp. and North American synthetic-fuel processors including Rentech Inc., Baard Energy and Syntroleum Corp.  All of these corporations operate or hope to build synthetic-fuel refineries to feed the military’s growing thirst.   The Air Force in particular is hoping to purchase up to 400 million gallons of synthetic fuel by 2016.

In June 2006, Syntroleum Corp sold the Air Force 100,000 gallons of synthetic fuel to test the B-52 bomber for flight at a very high price of 20 dollars per gallon.  Although the price was outstanding, the results of the flight were unprecedented as a B-52 was the first ever aircraft to fly using the alternative fuel burning in 2 of its 8 engines.  After the success of this flight, military officials want to explore this idea further.  Synthetic fuels are now being prepared to test with the even faster fighter jets in the U.S Air Force inventory.  In March 2008, the first flight test began with a B-1 bomber jet flight breaking the sound barrier using synthetic fuels.  Commercial airliners are also now beginning testing and the Army is requesting alternative fuels for its heavier vehicles to include hybrid humvees.  This is all for very good reason, although the price of synthetic fuels is now 50 percent more than the price of oil, experts estimate that if produced in commercial scale, refineries would be able to sell the fuel for less than  half the cost of crude oil.

For the contractors, preparing this much fuel has not been easy.  Rentech is in the process of building a new facility in Colorado to support the production needs but this facility will only be able to produce small scale samples and Syntroleum, who was able to produce the fuel for the current testing has since shut down their production facility.  Baard energy of Vancouver is spending 6 million to produce the first commercial-scale production facility in the U.S. to support the militaries request.    It is expensive for these companies to produce the needed facilities and without a market for the product it is also hard to convince the corporations to make the investment.  Engines are also being built specifically to support the new fuels.   At Department of Defense direction, Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce PLC, Honeywell International Inc. and General Electric Co. will work together to develop joint specifications for engine performances using artificial fuels.

This is the wave of the future, or is it?  The world will be waiting to see if America can lead the way in synthetic fuel usage.  We can only hope that the solicited contractors seek the benefit to their investments in commercial-scale production facilities.  Perhaps the expensive investment now will be a potential payoff for their corporations and for the American people at the gas pumps in the future.

Bibliography

Yochi J. Dreason, “U.S Military Launches Alternate Fuel Push,” Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2008.

Donna Miles, “Military Looks to Synthetics, Conservation to Cut Fuel Bills,” American Forces Press Service, Jun 6, 2008 (http://www.defenselink.mil/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=50131).

Gary Gamino, “ Syntroleum Signs Contract to Deliver Renewable Alternative Jet Fuel to U.S. Department of Defense,” Business Wire, July 9, 2007 (http://www.syntroleum.com/pr_individualpressrelease.aspx?NewsID=1023522).

 

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