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Tuesday, 11/21/2006 8:47:29 PM

Tuesday, November 21, 2006 8:47:29 PM

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Air Force wants half of its aviation fuel to be synthetic by 2016
BY: Michael Sirak, Defense Daily

The Air Force, already leading the nation's drive towards alternative energy sources, has set the goal of deriving half of its aviation fuel from synthetic sources by 2016, according to a senior service official.

The service is currently in the midst of certifying a synthetic fuel blend derived from natural gas and traditional JP-8 aviation fuel for its B-52H Stratofortress bomber aircraft, and sees this as a stepping stone to using these types of alternative fuels in its mainstream operations, said Michael Aimone, assistant deputy chief of staff for Logistics, Installations and Mission Support on the Air Staff.

"This is a big deal," he said last week at the Air Force-sponsored industry day in Washington, D.C. "This is where we are putting a lot of our effort."

Aimone said the Air Force currently consumes about 3 billion gallons of aviation fuel annually. Accordingly, achieving the 2016 goal would amount to billions of gallons of synthetic fuel.

The Air Force is pursuing synthetic aviation fuels under the Office of the Secretary of Defense's Assured Fuels Initiative that seeks to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign energy sources (Defense Daily, June 8). The natural gas-derived portion of the new fuel being certified on the B-52H is made possible through a procedure known as the Fischer-Tropsch process that dates back to the 1920s in Germany.

This same process could be used to derive liquid fuel from coal, of which the United States has abundant supplies, service officials have said.

In FY '06, the Air Force bought about 100,000 gallons of synthetic fuel, Aimone said. It envisions buying about twice that in this fiscal year.

Thereafter, he said, the service wants to make a huge jump.

"Our target in '08 is to procure up to 100 million gallons of a synthetic blend with the idea being that it then starts getting widespread use," he said.

To accomplish this, however, will require "a significant budget initiative," he said.

The next great leap would be then to reach the 50 percent mark by the middle of next decade, he said.

The Air Force is still waiting for industry to take the plunge and invest heavily in synthetic fuel production, as the process would still require significant investment.

Aimone said the Air Force completed a survey that gauged industry's ability to deliver up to 200 million gallons of synthetic fuel in FY '08. The response was that it could be done, but "bring money with you," he said.

In the interim, the Air Force continues the process of certification of the alternative fuel on the B-52H. To date it has accumulated about 10 hours of flight time in three flights of a B-52H running two of its eight engines on the mixed fuel, Aimone said. There has also been about 50 hours of ground engine tests, he said.

The Air Force will require about another six months to complete the B-52H certification process, Aimone said. The service is working toward the test flight of the B-52H using the blended fuel to power all eight of its engines. This flight could occur at the end of this month or in December, he said.

The next step would be to take the fuel to a cold-weather location and let it soak for an extended period to gauge how the extreme temperatures affect it, he said.

The Air Force is also interested in conducting additional toxicology tests to ensure it is safe for humans to handle it, he said.

Upon concluding the B-52H certification, the service will then move on to clear the fuel on a second platform, Aimone said, noting that the next platform has not yet been determined.

"Conceivably it would have a very near commercial equivalent at least in the jet engine so that we can continue to partner with the [original engine manufacturers] and the commercial aviation industry as we move forward," he said.

Proceeding in concert with the civil airline industry, which consumes about 12 billion gallons of aviation fuel annually, is key to cementing the synthetic fuel market, he said.

At some point the Air Force wants to certify high-performance fighter engines for alternative fuels as well, he said.


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