Air Force likes synthetic fuel from coal - but can it be made?
Oct 07, 2007 - 04:02:07 CDT
By JAMES MacPHERSON
Associated Press Writer
The Air Force wants to power half its in-country flights with a synthetic fuel made from domestic coal by 2016. It has yet to figure out how to get that fuel.
No commercial plants exist in this country to make it - and industry officials say the government has not offered enough incentives to build a plant. The idea also faces environmental questions.
"The bottom line is if the government doesn't choose to support the creation of this industry financially, then the government won't have enough domestically produced fuel in the time frame they've set," said John Ward, a vice president with Headwaters Energy Services, a division of Headwaters Inc., of South Jordan, Utah, which has been considering a North Dakota plant to convert coal to jet fuel.
"The industry will still develop, but not fast enough for the military to meet its goals," Ward said.
The Fischer-Tropsch fuel eyed by the Air Force is named after the two German scientists who developed the process in 1923 of converting natural gas or coal into liquid fuel. Germany used the process to convert coal to fuel during World War II.
Coal-to-fuel plants exist in Malaysia and some are being built in the Middle East. Apartheid-era South Africa, faced with embargoes, also built them.
Air Force officials said they were impressed with recent tests of the synthetic fuel when it was blended with an equal amount of traditional jet fuel. The fuel blend was tested over the past year in a B-52 bomber at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert in warm weather, and at North Dakota's Minot Air Force Base in colder weather.
The military found that it performed on par with conventional petroleum-based military aviation fuel, known as JP-8.
"Our data showed you can not tell the difference between the two," said Lt. Col. Daniel Millman, an Air Force test pilot, who flew the B-52 during the tests.
The Air Force said it is expanding the fuel tests this year to include its B-1 bomber and C-17 cargo jet. Tests in other aircraft are planned through 2011, said Kevin Billings, a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force.
The Air Force said it plans to certify 31 airplanes and four helicopters with the fuel, as well as well as some vehicles such as Humvees.
Commercial airlines are monitoring the tests closely, and they are interested in the domestic production of synthetic aviation fuels, Billings said.
Half the Air Force's flights in the continental U.S. are expected to run on "domestically sourced, domestically produced feedstock" in about nine years, Billings said.
The Air Force said it spent $5.8 billion on fuel in fiscal 2006. When the price of a gallon of jet fuel increases $1, it costs the Air Force $60 million, Billings said.
More than half the crude used to make military jet fuel comes from foreign sources, such as the Middle East and Venezuela, Billings said.
"It comes from a lot of places in the world where people don't necessarily like us that well and that creates a set of vulnerabilities for the Air Force," Billings said.
Tulsa, Okla.-based Syntroleum Corp. produced the synthetic fuel used in the Air Force's B-52 trials over the past year. The Air Force said it spent $5 million on the tests, including some $2 million on the fuel, which worked out to about $20 a gallon.
Syntroleum spokesman Gary Gamino said the company has "mothballed" its demonstration plant in Oklahoma that produced the fuel.
"Basically, we could not afford to keep it running," Gamino said. The company now is focused on manufacturing synthetic jet fuel made from animal fats, greases, and vegetable oils, he said. The company is supplying 500 gallons of the fuel to the Department of Defense for testing.
Billings said the coal-based synthetic fuel to be tested in the C-17 and B-1 over the next year was purchased in Malaysia, from Royal Dutch Shell PLC.
The Air Force said it paid $1.3 million for 290,000 gallons of the fuel, 9,000 gallons of which will go to NASA for emissions testing.
Ward, of Headwaters, said his company's proposal for a North Dakota plant to convert coal into diesel and jet fuel has been changed to produce only gasoline.
Headwaters, along with Great River Energy, of Elk River, Minn., and Dallas-based North American Coal Corp. have formed American Lignite Energy LLC to oversee the $4 billion project in North Dakota.
Ward said coal-to-fuel plants are planned in some 20 states, and the majority of them hope the Pentagon will become a major customer.
But without price guarantees and long-term contracts by Congress, financing for the projects will be difficult, if not impossible, he said.
Ward said marketing studies done for his project found stronger markets for gasoline, which is produced using a different process than that of diesel or jet fuel.
The synthetic fuel is competitive with petroleum-base fuel as long as the global price of oil remains above $45 a barrel, Ward said.
Industry officials say it would take at least five years to build a coal-to-fuels plant, once financing has been achieved.
"The military is telling us, 'We want this stuff, it's great,'" said Jack Holmes, the CEO of Syntroleum, which produced the first batch of synthetic fuel for the military to test. "The strong support seen by the military has not necessarily been echoed by Congress because of a very strong anti-coal, anti-carbon lobby."
Environmentalists say coal-to-fuel plants give off twice the amount of carbon dioxide as traditional refineries.
"Everybody is looking at this as the magic bullet. But if you look at the carbon footprint, it's not," said Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club. "Using coal in any form at this point doesn't make sense because of global warming."
The Air Force says its testing showed a drop in emissions from jet engines when using the synthetic fuel.
"The tail pipe emissions don't tell the whole story," Schafer said. "There are a lot of pollutants created before we get to that point."
Producing a gallon of fuel from coal also takes more water than petroleum, and the plants are likely to be built in the West, where water is a valuable commodity, Schafer said.
Billings said studies by the Air Force and the federal Energy Department have found that synthetic fuels, when made from a combination of coal and organic material such as switchgrass, can be produced with less emissions than a traditional oil refinery.
"Our commitment is to use fuels that are cleaner than what we are using now," Billings said.
"We're making a commitment to buy it," he said. "We hope suppliers and developers will be effective in telling Congress what they need."
IMO nuclear fuel reprocessing is the only responsible system to generate nclear power.
We won't make gas from coal, unless you mean natural gas or diesel.
The real answer hear, although I hate to say it, is conservation. Using less. I know that offends some people, but it is easier and cheaper to use less than it is to produce more.
In the early 80's there was a Prof of German History at TAMU that was big into researching German WWII records on how they did it. He had a number of grants from enery companies, but I have no idea what ever became of it.
Fischer-Tropsch process. Catalytic hydrogenation of coal to manufacture motor fuel has been around since the 1930s. It's never been a secret and it's been done on a huge scale in other countries (Germany, South Africa, New Zealand) for generations.
The greenies don't like it, for whatever reason (I won't try to psychoanalyze them) but just ask any chemical engineer. This is a VERY well proven industrial technology that has existed for three quarters of a century. We could do it today but the startup costs to build F-T coal-to-gasoline refineries on a scale to meet the needs of 300 million people are daunting, even to the big oil companies.
IS it possible? Yes.
Is it cost feasible at this time? No
Environmentalists don't like that it doubles the amount of carbon dioxide released in comparison to diesel from petroleum.
It would also reqire a doubling of coal extraction to meet current fuel needs.
Psst. It's ANWR.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
This fuel from coal is nothing more than a pipe dream for America.
Sure it's technically possible.. and it's been done before.. but this country has a history of shooting itself in the foot and cutting it's nose of to spite it's face..
We've got a democrat controlled congress and we will probably get stupid and elect a democrat president.. the democrats have a history of radical environmental policies..
Count on at least 4 to 6 years of energy stupidity from our government...