International interest grows in U.S.-led alternative fuel push
BY: Caitlin Harrington, Jane's Defence Weekly
Air chiefs in France, the United Kingdom and the United States are moving ahead with talks on the use of synthetic fuel to power military aircraft and the number of nations involved in the US-led effort is poised to dramatically expand.
William Anderson, the civilian head of the U.S. Air Force's (USAF's) alternative fuels programme, said that the air chiefs have each assigned working groups to meet in Paris this June to discuss the performance of alternative fuels in coalition aircraft, from the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor to the Dassault Rafale.
They will also exchange ideas on how to conserve jet fuel and how to make synthetic fuels more environmentally friendly.
The trinational talks were launched by USAF Chief of Staff General Michael Moseley along with French Air Force Chief of Staff General Stephane Abrial and U.K. Royal Air Force Air Chief Marshal Sir Glen Torpy in September 2007 at the annual Global Air Chiefs Conference in Washington.
Anderson said that he expects the talks to expand to as many as a half a dozen other countries and preliminary discussions have already taken place with Canada. With oil prices hovering above USD110 a barrel, there is plenty of incentive for others to join, he said, adding: "There's an opportunity to expand relatively quickly."
The USAF spent USD5.8 billion on jet fuel in 2007 and is on the front lines of developing alternative fuels because of concerns about high oil prices and politically unstable suppliers in the Middle East.
Plans are already in place to certify the entire USAF fleet to fly on a synthetic fuel blend by 2011.
However, Anderson said that allies will, inevitably, become more involved in alternative fuel programmes because coalition aircraft often rely on the same fuel sources.
Countries such as Qatar are already starting to build factories that produce synthetic fuel and coalition aircraft operating in Afghanistan and Iraq have to be prepared to accept whatever fuel is readily available in theatre, he stated.
"When we work as a coalition, we fly together, we land at the same airbases, we tank up at those airfields and we tank from the same tankers," Anderson told Jane's in a 23 April interview.
"Any use of alternative fuels will require that all the various coalition partners will be able to use them."
Some European countries have raised concerns about the environmental impact of the USAF's preferred synthetic fuel: a blend of traditional JP-8 jet fuel and a synthetic derived from coal. The process of converting the coal to liquid releases large amounts of carbon dioxide.
Anderson said that the USAF is looking for ways to reduce the resulting pollution, however, and that, overall, there is still wide support for the coal-to-liquids process among the militaries of ally nations.
"All three air chiefs believe coal is a very good alternative for jet fuel," said Anderson, "but we also have to get our heads around the greening of the fuel as we move forward."
The USAF prefers coal as a feedstock for synthetic fuel because it is plentiful in the United States. USAF officials are looking into ways to re-use the carbon released from the coal-to-liquids process, such as blending it with hydrogen to make even more fuel.
Anderson made his case for alternative fuels to European allies during a trip to France and the United Kingdom in late 2007, meeting with both government officials and companies involved in alternative fuels research, including Virgin in the United Kingdom as well as French engine manufacturer Snecma and nuclear technology company Areva.
The USAF is also proceeding with its alternative fuel testing plans; testing of the fuel in the F-22 Raptor will begin in the next few months. Those tests will mark the first time that synthetic fuel has been used to power a jet with a supercruise capability, which means that it can achieve supersonic speeds (above M1) without using an afterburner.
While European militaries have not yet begun testing and certification, industry has moved forward with its own efforts. Airbus, Rolls Royce and Shell recently conducted a flight test of an Airbus A380 that flew from the United Kingdom to France powered by a synthetic fuel derived from natural gas.