USAF Synthetic Fuel

B-1B Lancer bomber flying on coal-based synthetic fuel

Last Wednesday, a B1-B bomber became the first Air Force plane to fly faster than the speed of sound on a blend of the new coal-derived synthetic fuel:

The fuel, a 50/50 blend of synthetic and petroleum gases, is being tested as part of an ongoing Air Force program to help the environment and to use a fuel produced domestically.

Air Force officials are in the process of evaluating and certifying this alternative fuel, which is derived from natural gas using the Fischer-Tropsch process, for use in all Air Force aircraft.

“The goal is to have every aircraft using synthetic fuel blends by 2011,” said Maj. Don Rhymer, assigned to the Air Force Alternative Fuels Certification Office. “By 2016 we hope at least 50 percent of this fuel will be produced domestically.”

The Air Force uses over 50% of the federal government’s fossil fuel, so switching over to the blend would obviously have a major impact. MO first pointed out this effort in 2005, and in 2006 we saw the first Coal-fired B-52 bomber. Last fall I noted a proposal to turn part of Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana, into a coal-to-liquid fuel facility.

However, a major obstacle has been raised. According to an article by Tim Kauffman in Defense News (subscription only):

Pentagon’s Plans To Use Alternative Fuels Hit Turbulence

A little-noticed provision in a new law could cause big problems for the Department of Defense and other U.S. agencies trying to use more alternative fuels.

An energy bill signed into law in December prohibits agencies from contracting for alternative or synthetic fuels whose creation and use would emit more greenhouse gases than conventional gasoline.

The provision — embedded in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act — was added by House leaders as a check against Air Force plans to develop jet fuel derived from liquefied coal. Some estimates claim fuel from liquefied coal produces nearly twice the greenhouse gas emissions of conventional fuel .

Note that this doesn’t apply only to this particular synthetic blend, but to all alternative fuels.

Testing with such fuels is not prohibited, and the Air Force plans to continue the program to certify aircraft on the new fuel. But plans to build up production infrastructure will certainly be threatened if widespread use is prohibited because profitability potential would obviously be limited. This, in turn, would limit our ability to rapidly switch over to the fuel in the event of an oil supply catastrophe.

But at least greenhouse gas emissions will be under control.

UPDATE: I see that Instapundit points out an article on this and writes

THE AIR FORCE IS PUSHING coal-to-oil plans. Do they know something we don’t?


  1. Murdoc Wrote: ‘But at least greenhouse gas emissions will be under control.’ Both oil and coal are both sequestered fossil sources of eventual CO2. How through this are greenhouse emissions ‘under control’?

  2. Well, ‘under control’ in the sense that they won’t allow greater greenhouse gases with alternative fuels than with standard fuels. FWIW, I disagree with the requirement and was being sarcastic.

  3. Okey dokey, =) Though given the level of discourse on the subject, sarcasm tags would have been helpful. Itchy typing fingers sit in baited anticipation before their keyboards.

  4. I hadn’t noticed. As for my disagreement with the requirement, it has nothing to do with greenhouse gas emissions either way. I see it as an unhelpful obstacle to lowering our dependence on foreign oil.

  5. yah, also, Instapundit wrote: ‘THE AIR FORCE IS PUSHING coal-to-oil plans. Do they know something we don’t?’ A: They know how to prepare for their cushy post-military career. The BioFuel start-ups don’t have the institutional clout and cash for that kind of ‘product’; even IF they can deliver the fuel.