USAF Launches Major Biofuel Initiative

Jan 30, 2009
By Joe Anselmo

MIAMI – U.S. Air Force officials are planning to acquire more than 300,000 gallons of biofuels under an effort to certify two types of the plant-derived fuels for use in a 50-50 mix with jet kerosene by 2013.

The effort builds on biofuel initiatives under way at commercial airlines and marks a major new step in the service’s drive to reduce its dependence on oil.

The Air Force’s plan calls for competitively selecting two types of biofuel and acquiring about 160,000 gallons of each. The winning biofuels will be used for lab analysis, engine testing and flight-tests during the next two or three years, according to Jeff Braun, director of the service’s Alternative Fuels Certification Office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, who spoke at this week’s Eco-Aviation and Fuel Management conference here, sponsored by Aviation Week.

With every $10 rise in the price of a barrel of oil costing the Air Force $600 million, then-Secretary Michael Wynne launched a drive in 2005 to make the service more energy independent. The Air Force has been working for several years toward certifying a blend of synthetic fuel – derived from coal, natural gas or biomass – for use in its entire fleet by 2011. A 50-50 blend of synthetic fuel was flight-tested on the B-52 in August 2007, followed by the C-17 in August 2008 and the B-1B a month later.

However, a synthetic fuel refining process can result in greater greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum-based energy without the use of carbon-capture technologies. Aviation analysts are confident that biofuels will be viewed more favorably by the environmentally conscious Obama administration. The Air Force’s go-ahead for the new effort was given last week, the week of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, a timing that Braun says was purely coincidental.

The Air Force wants half of its domestic aviation fuel to contain a 50 percent blend of alternative fuel – either bio or synthetic – by 2016. “We’re looking to replace a quarter of our total fuel need,” Braun said.

“Biofuels are much more attractive than synthetic fuels in many respects,” he conceded. “But the effort to certify a synthetic fuel was a necessary activity and has provided an extensive knowledge base that will significantly help in the new biofuel effort.”

The military biofuel effort would vastly exceed any testing by commercial airlines to date and will require a significant increase in production. “This is a big deal,” said Richard Altman, executive director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, an industry-government partnership that promotes development of alternative aviation fuels. “The tricky part is going to be how you get that many gallons.”

One positive, however, is that biofuels can be processed in existing petroleum refineries, reducing the need for costly infrastructure investments at a time when getting financing from the capital markets is difficult.

Photo: Wikipedia

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