Military expands testing of synthetic aviation fuels

 - February 6, 2008, 10:19 AM

The December nonstop coast-to-coast flight of an Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster III using a synthetic fuel blend, the first for the type, is the latest indicator that such fuels are moving toward widespread acceptance in the aviation industry. The chief pilot for the flight–which flew from McChord AFB in Washington State and landed at McGuire AFB in New Jersey to pick up some guests for the final leg to Andrews AFB in Maryland–said the flight was unremarkable and that the synthetic fuel performed like common JP-8.

Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne hailed the flight as a meaningful mission with implications beyond the Air Force. “This really is the frontier of a new industry, an energy industry that can serve to reduce our country’s reliance on foreign oil,” he said. The latest milestone in a $174 million program to certify the entire Air Force fleet on synthetic fuel by 2011, the C-17 flight came after the B-52 received synthetic fuel certification, following months of testing. The Air Force is reviewing the use of the synthetic fuel blend in the afterburning engines of the B-1 bomber.

The DoD is a participant in a working group sponsored by the FAA, the Aerospace Industries Association, Air Transport Association and the Airports Council International-North America that is studying these synthetic fuels for possible use in commercial aircraft. Since the C-17 uses the same Pratt & Whitney PW2040 (military designation F117-100) engines found on some Boeing 757s, the FAA’s Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) is monitoring the test results closely.

The synthetic fuel for the flight was provided by Shell Oil and produced in Asia from a natural-gas base. Many substances, including leftovers from the petroleum refining process such as natural gas normally flared off as waste, coal processed into a liquid (CTL), or even municipal waste, can be used as a base or feedstock for the fuel using the Fischer-Tropsch process invented during the 1920s. “The renewed or the new interest in synthetic fuel really came about following [2005’s] Hurricane Katrina when you had a spike in oil prices,” said Corey Henry, spokesman for the mining-industry sponsored Coal to Liquids Coalition (CTLC). “It began to dawn on a number of people in industries just how vulnerable the United States’ refining capacity was to external events like hurricanes and you really saw a renewed interest in domestic synthetic fuels.”

While the Fischer-Tropsch process is relatively costly in terms of its energy requirements, the post-Katrina surge in oil prices made it economical for manufacturers to consider beginning full-scale production of synthetic fuels. “With oil at $88 a barrel and above, CTL fuels become economical to produce and buy,” said Henry.

In addition to reducing the demand for petroleum, the synthetic fuels boast a variety of other potential benefits. Because of their lack of contaminants, they are said to burn more cleanly and efficiently, release less CO2, and could even cut engine maintenance requirements because they yield less particulate accumulation. Air Force testing has yet to determine the optimum performance blend of synthetic and jet fuel. The lack of certain aromatic compounds in the synthetic fuel might cause engine seal deterioration at higher concentrations.

ExxonMobil is among the fuel companies working on launching large-scale synthetic fuel production. Shell Oil currently operates in Malaysia a synthetic fuel plant that produces 14,700 barrels of fuel per day, while a new facility under way in Qatar, scheduled to begin operations by the end of the decade, promises to produce 10 times that amount.

The Air Force’s goal is to acquire at least 50 percent of its domestic-use fuel by 2016 from domestic sources, and at least two manufacturers have agreed to start producing domestic synthetic fuel by 2012. Los Angeles-based Rentech will produce its first synthetic fuel samples derived from a coal-biomass feedstock this spring from its Commerce City, Colo. production development facility. A planned commercial plant in Natchez, Miss., scheduled for completion by 2011, will eventually produce up to 50,000 barrels per day, according to Rick Penning, the company’s executive vice president for commercial affairs.