This fall marks the fortieth anniversary of the Yom Kippur War and the subsequent Arab oil embargo that sent shock waves through the U.S. and western economies. The impact of the embargo and its aftermath has reverberated throughout the U.S. military to today. For four decades, much of our strategic focus has been on defending critical oil supply lines, not only for the sake of the economy and our geopolitical interests, but also for the military, which after all, is operationally dependent on fuel oil.
Individual service alternative fuels efforts have shown significant progress since they launched in the past decade, but now may be slowed down by the impact of sequestration. And with the costs of traditional fuels down, a conservative block in Congress is determined to curtail DoD’s alternative fuels initiative, claiming it’s a political motivated waste of defense dollars in a period when other defense accounts are being squeezed.
Although U.S. strategic dependence on foreign oil has significantly reduced – in large measure due to the self-destructive dynamics of cartels, and to the technological revolution in hydraulic fracturing, which has unleashed a new torrent of U.S. oil and natural gas supplies – the military continues to forge ahead on a major alternative fuels initiative for use in service fleets in order to lessen its dependence on oil-based fuels, which in the long run are still subject to severe price and supply swings. Individual service alternative fuels efforts have shown significant progress since they launched in the past decade, but now may be slowed down by the impact of sequestration. And with the costs of traditional fuels down, a conservative block in Congress is determined to curtail DoD’s alternative fuels initiative, claiming it’s a political motivated waste of defense dollars in a period when other defense accounts are being squeezed.
I first wrote about this subject two years ago, when the Air Force was advancing on a variety of fronts to meet the goal of having half of its continental U.S. drop-in jet fuel, or 400 million gallons, come from competitively priced alternative sources by 2016. The Navy was targeting an even more aggressive goal of deploying a “Great Green Fleet” strike group of ships and aircraft running entirely on alternative fuel blends by 2016. Recently, I spoke with Air Force and Navy planners to get an update on their efforts.
Stalled Alternative Fuels Momentum in the Air Force
The Air Force is the largest consumer of jet fuel within the military, using roughly 2.6 billion gallons a year, about 10 percent of the entire domestic market. The Air Force program to diversify its fuel source is centered in the service’s Alternative Fuels Certification Office in the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio. Jeff Braun, manager of the Alternative Fuel Certification Office, which began in 2007, notes his group has the charge to conduct alternative fuels R&D, and to improve and standardize the aviation fuel certification process through a systems engineering-based approach.
The Air Force’s philosophy for this activity was to take the service’s standard kerosene-based JP-8 (Jet Propellant 8) fuel and blend it with alternative fuels, so as to retain qualities and chemical characteristics of traditional jet fuel proven useful in operations. In testing, they found that a pure alternative fuel did not have aromatics, the compound that promotes growth in an aircraft system’s seals, such as O-rings, and lacked the density of traditional jet fuel.
Braun’s group’s first major advance was in the certification of a JP-8 fuel with up to 50 percent of a synthetic paraffinic kerosene component derived from the Fischer-Tropsch chemical reaction process. The goal of testing and certifying all of the service’s aircraft for use of a 50/50 synthetic fuel blend was met in 2011. Next, the Air Force turned to the idea of developing hydrotreated renewable jet fuels, or HRJs, made from the conversion of animal fats and plant oils into aviation-grade kerosenes. Braun’s group has completed all required testing for the HRJ fuel. “In fact, we have already incorporated the HRJ blend in the JP-8 specification,” says Braun. “If that fuel was ever to become available in large quantities and the Air Force or Defense Logistics Agency purchased it we can use it in our aircraft.”
A third pathway Braun’s group investigated is called Alcohol to Jet (ATJ). This process involves taking cellulosic materials – waste from agriculture, timber and paper products – and extract sugars from the cells, which then ferment and are converted into hydrocarbons useful for aviation-grade kerosene. And while the ATJ work was initially promising, this is the stage where his team ran into the buzz-saw of declining budgets. Braun explains: “We’ve done some testing [on ATJ], but we’ve run out of money. When the Air Force first stood up my office, we were given a pot of money that was supposed to be used to certify the first fuel, the Fischer-Tropsch blended fuel. We were able to achieve some efficiencies and we were able to stretch that money out, to not only take care of all the certification activities for Fischer-Tropsch, but to pay down all of the HRJ activities as well, leaving some money left over that we applied toward ATJ. Currently, we have completed Phase One of the ATJ testing. We did some engine ground testing, materials testing and some laboratory tests. We flew it on an A-10 aircraft in July 2012. There were three flights with no anomalies at all. We have a pathway all mapped out to start Phase Two, which would be the fleet wide certification of that ATJ fuel. We simply do not have the funding to do it now.”
Braun notes one positive element of the ATJ fuel research process was an intentional effort to develop “synergies with the other services. With this ATJ effort we finally all sat at the table and put together a joint cooperative certification program, such that we are not duplicating effort here. …But now that we’ve got no money I can’t even fulfill my portion of that agreement.” He adds that what was once a very productive coordination effort with the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI), a broad government-industry coalition established to promote the development of alternative jet fuel options, has slowed down. “I’ll use the analogy of a football game,” he says. “If we were a running back, we’ve kind of strained our knee. So we’re sitting on the sideline now and the game is going on and we’re just watching, waiting to get back in the game. They’re working with the people who have the funding and right now the Navy is moving forward a little bit and the Army too. But instead of taking these big huge strides forward like we used to, it’s little bitty baby steps right now.”