MILITARY USES COAL BASED SYNTHETIC FUELS
Coal Bin Article by Harold Hough
In March 2008, Air Force Capt. Rick Fournier flew a B-1 stealth bomber code-named Dark 33 across a Nevada proving ground, to confirm for the first time that a plane could break the sound barrier using synthetic coal based jet fuel.
A similar formula -- a blend of half-synthetic and half-conventional petroleum has also been certified for several Air Force aircraft like the C-17, B-52, F-16, and F-22. The US Army is also looking at using synthetic fuels in its armored vehicles. And, the Department of Defense is considering a partially synthetic fuel called JBUFF (Joint Battlespace Use Fuel of the Future) that can be used in both diesel and jet fuel application. The JBUFF fuel will allow the military to rapidly deploy, knowing that all their equipment can operate with one fuel rather than several types of fuel.
We expect coal to do many things, but powering the US military isn’t one that we usually consider. However, synthetic fuel was critical for Germany in World War II. During the war, synthetic fuel production reached more than 124,000 barrels per day from 25 plants. It was also the source for lubricants.
Making fuel from coal isn’t new or that complicated. The original process was discovered by German scientists Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch in the 1920s (hence the name Fischer-Tropsch Process). They discovered that carbon monoxide and hydrogen could be converted into liquid hydrocarbons through a chemical reaction. These feedstocks could be provided from coal. And, since Germany had rich coal reserves, it proved to be practical for them.
The fuel used by the Air Force is a 50-50 blend of crude oil based fuel and a synthetic liquid. At the military's direction, Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce PLC, Honeywell International Inc. and General Electric Co. have agreed to work together to develop joint specifications for how their engines perform on artificial fuels.
The coal based synthetic fuel offers a more secure domestic source for fuel since the US has abundant coal reserves. And, since foreign petroleum supplies have become more expensive, coal fuel promises lower costs.
The biggest concern for the military is how the fuel will perform in operations. In the Air Force, the synthetic fuel powered aircraft must go through the same flight profile as a combat mission – climbing to maximum altitudes, rendezvousing with an aerial tanker, simulating refueling maneuvers, and throttling through various speeds. So far, the fuel performs just as well as petroleum based jet fuel. The Air Force also conducted tests, including low temperature tests at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota
This isn’t the first time the US military has been interested in synthetic fuel. American officials were impressed with the German synthetic fuel program during World War Two and were determined to duplicate it in order to reduce American dependency on foreign petroleum sources. With the help of Germans experts, a synthetic fuel plant was using North Dakota lignite to product diesel fuel in 1949.
During the next four years, 1.5 million gallons were produced, most of which was used in testing by the armed forces. It was closed when major oil discoveries in Texas made petroleum a cheaper option.
The current program was started a few years ago, when fuel prices skyrocketed. The Air Force wants to be able to purchase 400 million gallons of synthetic jet fuel a year by 2016, an amount equal to 25% of its total fuel needs for missions in the continental U.S. Unfortunately, synthetic fuel prices also need to fall - they’re still about 50% above the prices for petroleum based fuels.
Military use of synthetic fuel also faces significant regulatory obstacles. Current energy regulations prevent the government from buying synthetic fuel if it emits more pollution than petroleum. Manufacturers have promised to meet that target by recapturing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses produced in refining. Without those efforts, synthetic fuel can emit up to twice as much pollution in refining as conventional petroleum.
Another problem is that the military can’t sign contracts for more than five years and few potential synthetic fuel producers are willing to invest in building the synthetic fuel refineries that are able to produce competitively prices fuel without long term government contracts. Despite these hurdles, military fuel experts are confident that the future of America’s military fuel supplies will include coal.