WASHINGTON—The Air Force will begin testing an alternative fuel program next month that it hopes will help wean the U.S. military away from its dependence on foreign oil.
A flight test involving a B-52 bomber is scheduled for the end of September at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to determine if synthetic fuel will provide the Air Force with a substitute for conventional jet fuel.
If successful, the B-52 flight will pave the way for the additional testing of combat aircraft, ships and ground vehicles, all part of a Pentagon effort known as the Assured Fuels Initiative that began in 2001.
The program's goal is to provide the U.S. military with cleaner fuels based on secure domestic sources such as coal and natural gas.
"Our goal is by 2025 to have 70 percent of our aviation fuel coming from coal-based sources," said Michael A. Aimone, the Air Force's assistant deputy chief of staff for logistics, installations and mission support.
The Air Force consumes more than 3 billion gallons of fuel a year, more than half of all fuel used by all federal agencies, including the other military services.
A series of engine tests using synthetic fuel have gone well, leading Air Force officials to believe that the B-52 test flight will go off without a snag. Still, they plan to take precautions.
Only two of the aircraft's six engines will use synthetic fuel during the test flight, and it will be blended with conventional JP-8 jet fuel. If the two engines fail during the test, the aircraft's other six engines will be sufficient to land the plane safely, Aimone said.
As fuel prices have risen, the Air Force's use of fuel also has increased because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Air Force spends more than $10 million a day on fuel, and every time oil prices go up by $10 a barrel, the service's fuel costs increase by $600 million a year, Air Force officials say.
"It's a national security issue for us and an economic security issue for us," said Aimone. Synthetic fuel is also much cleaner and emits no sulfur dioxide and far fewer pollutants than conventional petroleum products, he said.
According to the National Mining Association, the United States has about 267 billion tons of proven coal reserves. That's 27 percent of the world's total and enough to last the United States 241 years at the current rate of consumption, said Luke Popovich, a National Mining Association spokesman.
Coal is turned into liquid fuel through a conversion known as the "Fischer-Tropsch" process, which was developed in Germany in the 1920s. The process turns coal into gas that is then converted to liquid fuel. The process can be used to convert any hydrocarbon including natural gas and oil shale, both of which are abundant in the United States.
Nazi Germany and Japan used the process to create their own synthetic fuels during World War II because of the scarcity of oil supplies. South Africa used the process to create aviation fuel and other energy when its apartheid government was under international sanctions.
The United States government has experimented periodically with fuel production using the Fischer-Tropsch process, most recently during the gasoline crunch of the late 1970s.
The United States now has only a few makers of synthetic fuel. In early July, the Air Force contracted to purchase 100,000 gallons of natural gas-based fuel from one of them, Syntroleum Corp. in Tulsa, Okla.
Mel Scott, a spokesman for Syntroleum, declined to disclose the price tag on the Air Force contract, but said that the per gallon price is "not competitive" with traditional fuel. The company makes all its synthetic fuel at a small 70-barrel-a-day demonstration plant in Tulsa.
Some estimate the cost at $20 a gallon.
In May, the Defense Logistics Agency at Fort Belvoir, Va., which supplies all fuel and consumable goods to the military, announced that it was seeking producers for up to 200 million gallons of synthetic fuel in 2008 for testing.
The National Mining Association says a facility that could produce 10,000 barrels of synthetic fuel a day by converting coal to liquid would cost about $1 billion to build. A plant that could produce 80,000 barrels a day would cost at least $6.5 billion and take five to seven years to build. The association says a feasible goal for the United States would be the production of at least 300,000 barrels of coal-derived fuel a day by 2015.
Currently, the only commercial synfuel plant operating worldwide is in the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar.
Steve Bergin of Integrated Concepts and Research Corp., a firm that has worked with Syntroleum on projects in the past, said construction of a commercial synfuel plant with the capacity of a standard aviation fuel facility would cost "billions."
"It would very difficult for the private sector to come up with that investment," he said. "If the U.S. is going to have a Fischer-Tropsch industry based on coal, I don't see any way to make this happen without the government being involved."
A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill in the House that would guarantee loans to build plants that produce coal-based fuel and would extend tax credits for coal-based fuel products. The bill, called the "American-Made Energy Freedom Act," also contains a provision to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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