Air Force tests synthetic fuel in N.D.


MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. - With the wind chill making it seem like 40 below zero, Lt. Col. Daniel Millman said the Air Force picked the right place to test a new fuel.

Millman, flying a B-52 bomber in these freezing conditions, helped test a synthetic fuel blend that could be made domestically from coal or natural gas as the Air Force seeks to wean its dependence on foreign crude and defray soaring fuel costs. The cold-weather tests of the fuel, which wrapped up earlier this month, showed it compared well to conventional petroleum-based military aviation fuel, JP-8, Air Force officials said.

"It behaves exactly the same as JP-8, no more no less," Millman said. The fuel is a Fischer-Tropsch fuel, named after the two German scientists who developed the process in 1923 of converting natural gas or coal into liquid fuel. Germany used the process to convert coal to fuel during World War II. And apartheid-era South Africa, faced with embargoes, also built coal-to-fuel plants.

At $20 a barrel, the Fischer-Tropsch fuel the Air Force is testing costs about eight times as much as the standard fuel it uses, so its widespread use in military aircraft could still be years away. But proponents of the fuel argue that if there was increased commercial demand — and airlines are interested in the outcome of the tests, according to one Air Force official — its price would drop drastically. Furthermore, they say, it would offer a measure of protection should there be disruptions in the flow of global crude.

"The fact that we would not be dependent on foreign sources of crude is the prime driver for this fuel," said Col. Eldon A. Woodie, commander of the Minot Air Force Base 5th Bomb Wing. Woodie said he's sold on the fuel after the B-52 tests of it at Minot. "Can we start this thing in cold weather? If we lose a motor in flight, can we restart it? At 47,000 feet can we get away from attack missiles? Yes. In every instance it performed," he said. One added benefit of the fuel is that it burns cleaner than traditional jet fuel, Woodie said.

William Harrison, chief of the fuels branch at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, said the cold-weather testing at Minot "was a key milestone for the approval of using the synthetic fuel." A complete test report will likely be completed this summer, Harrison said.
Jack Holmes, the CEO of Syntroleum Corp., which produced the natural gas-based synthetic fuel used in the Air Force trials at a test plant the company built, said it could also be made of coal. "There are 280 billion tons of proven coal reserves in the U.S," Holmes said. "The raw material source is there. But economics, of course, is the key.

"At current oil prices, the economics are good and make sense. The risk is: How sustainable are those oil prices?" Building a commercial plant to make the synthetic fuel would carry some risk, as it would take several years and cost billions of dollars, Holmes said. "We've got a saying in our industry: Everybody wants to be the first person to build the second plant," he said.