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May 14, 2006
Air Force Investigating Alternative Fuels

The New York Times has an interesting report on an effort by the US military to develop alternate fuel sources for the Air Force. The branch spends almost $5 billion a year on fuel and has the most vulnerability to price swings. Developing a safe and effective alternative could allow the military to decrease its dependence on crude oil, and one of the leading candidates for its replacement can be found in abundance in the US:

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. ...

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

Part of the strategic importance of the Middle East comes from the fuel which powers our defense systems, especially the Navy and the Air Force. This concern goes all the way back to World War I, when Winston Churchill foresaw the critical nature of controlling Arabia after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Adolf Hitler invaded Russia in large part for the oil-rich regions of the Caucasus, and fought within sight of them at Stalingrad before his line collapsed and started moving slowly backward. The Nazi war machine fought the rest of the war on increasingly restricted fuel supplies, especially after Russia overran Romania. As more nations become industrialized, the demand for energy grows, and it puts pressure on the supply chain that keeps our ships and planes in operation.

It makes sense that the Pentagon would take the lead on developing new sources of energy to guarantee our long-range security. The military already has made extensive use of nuclear power for its warships, especially the submarine fleet, for both efficiency and stealth. Diesel engines made one hell of a racket under water, but nuclear generators make no noise at all, allowing our sub fleet (especially "boomers" or missile subs) to patrol in hostile waters without incident. Now the pressure of oil markets may well be the mother of invention for a reduction on the reliance of foreign supplies, a vulnerability that has gone unaddressed for too long.

Right now, the process being tested (pioneered by Syntroleum) uses natural gas. It takes 10,000 cubic feet to produce 42 gallons of synthetic fuel at a cost of $70 for the raw materials. That may be too expensive for a serious replacement on a large scale, and relies on domestic drilling for natural gas, which has its own political limitations. However, Syntroleum has a new process in mind for its fuel development which uses coal rather than natural gas -- and the cost of that process in raw materials drops to $10 for the same 42 gallons.

Syntroleum's president, John B. Holmes, notes that the US has a rich supply of coal and that mining costs are minimal compared to drilling and exploration needed for domestic production. However, one point not addressed by the Times or by Holmes in this article is the environmental impact of such mining and the difficulty in getting permission for it. Such activity would likely get the same hysterical reaction from the same environmental groups which have cut off domestic drilling for decades. Another consideration would be emissions from the new refineries needed to produce this coal-based fuel. The Times does not mention whether the new facilities would have similar problems that plagued older coal-based electrical production plants, or whether the new technology would eliminate pollution concerns.

That's a shame, because Syntroleum does address it on their website, at least in brief:

At Syntroleum, we are committed to producing ultra-clean fuels that provide a net benefit to the environment. Sulfur, sub-quality gas reserves and other pollutants that are known to damage the Earth’s atmosphere and environment are virtually absent in the Syntroleum process.

Instead, the ultra-clean fossil fuels that are produced by Syntroleum can be used in fuel cells and internal combustible engines for automobiles, buses and planes without creating damage to our environment. Studies have shown that Fischer-Tropsch (FT) diesel fuels with the attributes found in Syntroleum diesel fuel reduce emissions and help optimize diesel-engine performance. Syntroleum diesel is free of contaminants, including sulfur, aromatics and heavy metals and demonstrates high operating efficiency.

It appears that the Pentagon may lead the nation in working towards energy independence and cleaner technology. Future environmentalists may wind up thanking Donald Rumsfeld, who ordered research in this program during his tenure as Secretary of Defense. And to its credit, the Times mentions that directive in its story.

UPDATE: Casey from The Gantry sent me this correction via e-mail:

The reason the nuke subs are called "boomers" is that they are noisy. It's all the cooling systems needed for a nuclear power plant stuck into a big tube. You can't avoid the noise.

While older diesel subs may by noisy, the later generation diesel-electric subs are quite silent, as they can run on electric-only for respectable periods of time. In fact they're superior to nukes in littoral (near coastline) conditions. The Australian navy has managed to embarass our Yank boomers several times in war games while using modern diesel-electrics.

I'm glad to hear we're learning lessons from the Australians, as opposed to more hostile nations under less pleasant circumstances. I'm also thankful for Casey's correction.

UPDATE II: A number of my commenters are now remarking that I was correct about the subs in the first place and that Casey was incorrect. Be sure to read all the way through it. I had been fairly certain that the boomers operated with the highest degree of silence; I know that they wargame on stealth constantly.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 14, 2006 8:45 AM

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