Synthetic Fuels: the answer to the fuel crisis for the military and America
By Amy Wees
Date: November 14, 2008
Most Americans are very aware of the recent skyrocketing fuel costs and the political concentration on the use of foreign oil consequently weakening the U.S. dollar. With the U.S. military being the country’s 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. To put this in perspective, the military consumes 340,000 barrels of oil daily (Dreason, 2006) and every time the price of oil rises by one dollar per barrel, it costs the military $130 million (Miles, 2008). The answer is in synthetic fuels. If the Air Force can get its gas guzzling aircraft off the ground using synthetic alternative fuels our military may be able to meet budget requirements in the future as well as lead the way to alternative fuel use in America. So with some help from contracting experts in this arena the testing began.
The exploration of using synthetic fuels began when the fight over foreign oil caused oil prices to skyrocket and in turn cost the military billions more dollars in order to fly the everyday air missions needed for the current wartime situation. Not to mention with America’s enemies having a handle on most of the oil and our military requiring such a large amount of it, a severe threat and apparent disadvantage is posed. 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 the need. Although these synthetic fuels would cost more to manufacture in the beginning because they are not mass produced the military was hoping to be the lead in helping America to gain an interest in this new, eventually lower cost, fuel alternative. To accomplish this goal a contract was awarded in spring of 2006 to aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing Corp., 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 currently operate synthetic-fuel refineries or hope to build refineries in the near future 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. (Dreason, 2008)
In June of 2006 Syntroleum Corp sold the Air Force 100,000 gallons of synthetic fuel at the very high price of twenty dollars per gallon to test the B-52 bomber for flight with the new fuel. Although the price was outstanding the results of the flight were unprecedented as a B-52 was the first ever aircraft to fly using alternative fuel burning in two of its eight engines. After the success of this flight military officials were eager to explore the idea further. Synthetic fuels are now being prepared to test with the faster and higher fuel burning fighter jets in the U.S Air Force inventory. In March of 2008 the first test began using a B-1 bomber jet that broke the sound barrier using synthetic fuels. (Gamino, 2007) Commercial airliners are also now beginning testing and the Army is requesting alternative fuels for its heavier vehicles to include requests for hybrid humvees. This is all for very good reason because even though the price of synthetic fuels is now fifty 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. (Dreason, 2008)
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. Syntroleum, who was able to produce the fuel for the current testing, has since shut down their production facility. The only company with true commitment to the proposal is Baard energy of Vancouver; the company is spending six million dollars to produce the first commercial-scale production facility in the U.S. with the main objective being to support the military’s requests. 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 the direction of the Department of Defense, 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. (Dreason, 2008)
This is the wave of the future, or is it? The world will be waiting to see if America, specifically our American military, 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.
Dreason, Y. (May 21, 2008). U.S Military Launches Alternate Fuel Push. Associated Press. Retrieved November 12, 2008 from http://www.military.com/news/article/us-military-launches-alternate-fuel-push.html
Gamino, G. (July 9, 2007). Syntroleum Signs Contract to Deliver Renewable Alternative Jet Fuel to U.S. Department of Defense. Business Wire, Retrieved November 12, 2008 from http://www.syntroleum.com/pr_individualpressrelease.aspx?NewsID=1023522
Miles, D. (June 6, 2008). Military Looks to Synthetics, Conservation to Cut Fuel Bills. American Forces Press Service, Retrieved November 12, 2008 from http://www.defenselink.mil/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=50131