Saturday, May 13, 2006

Military Plans Tests in Search for an Alternative to Oil-Based Fuel - New York Times

Military Plans Tests in Search for an Alternative to Oil-Based Fuel - New York Times:

"WASHINGTON, May 13 — When an F-16 lights up its afterburners, it consumes nearly 28 gallons of fuel per minute. No wonder, then, that of all the fuel the United States government uses each year, the Air Force accounts for more than half. The Air Force may not be in any danger of suffering inconveniences from scarce or expensive fuel, but it has begun looking for a way to power its jets on something besides conventional fuel.

In a series of tests — first on engines mounted on blocks and then with B-52's in flight — the Air Force will try to prove that the American military can fly its aircraft by blending traditional crude oil-based jet fuel with a synthetic liquid made first from natural gas, and, eventually, from coal, which is plentiful and cheaper.

While the military has been a leader in adopting some technologies — light but strong metals, radar-evading stealth designs and fire-retardant flight suits, for example — any effort to hit a miles-per-gallon fuel efficiency rating has taken a back seat when the mission is to haul bombs farther and faster or push 70-ton tanks across a desert to topple an adversary. (The Abrams tank, for example, gets less than a mile per gallon under certain combat conditions.)

'Energy is a national security issue,' said Michael A. Aimone, the Air Force assistant deputy chief of staff for logistics.

The United States is unlikely ever to become fully independent of foreign oil, he said, but the intent of the Air Force project is 'to develop enough independence to have assured domestic supplies for aviation purposes.'

[...]

either Mr. Holmes nor the Air Force would provide cost estimates for the experimental fuel deal in advance of signing a final contract, expected in coming days.

Air Force officials have acknowledged, however, that the cost per gallon of the test fuel will be expensive.

Syntroleum can produce 42 gallons of synthetic fuel from 10,000 cubic feet of natural gas. The raw materials cost about $70.

If the military moves ahead with using the synthetic fuels, the Syntroleum technology could be used by factories elsewhere to produce the same 42 gallons of fuel from just $10 worth of coal, Mr. Holmes said.

"The United States is essentially the Saudi Arabia of coal," Mr. Holmes said. "It can be mined relatively inexpensively. We really believe that one of the things we can do to help our country's energy needs is to use the abundance of coal reserves."

Mr. Aimone said the large plants needed to produce nonconventional fuels did not exist and would have to be designed and built by the industry.

But he added: "We believe there are economic incentives as we invest in this, and invest with the industry at large, because there are vast coal reserves in this country. The economic pressures of rising oil prices can be moderated by the price of coal.""

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