A new fuel takes flight

On Dec. 17, 2007, the United States Air Force flew a C-17 Globemaster III from McChord Air Force Base in Washington to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey on a 50/50 blend of synthetic fuel and JP-8, a traditional hydrocarbon jet fuel.


On Dec. 17, 2007, the United States Air Force flew a C-17 Globemaster III from McChord Air Force Base in Washington to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey on a 50/50 blend of synthetic fuel and JP-8, a traditional hydrocarbon jet fuel.

The military hopes to certify the synthetic fuel blend for some aircraft in 2008 and eventually for use in all of its aircraft and ground vehicles.

Now, there are two ways to look at this.

First, what’s the big deal? The synthetic fuel is made from either coal gasification or natural gas by the Fischer Tropisch process, which has been used to produce fuel in South Africa for about 10 years. The C-17 uses P&W F117-100 engines, which also are used on the Boeing 757. This means that the military made a big publicity splash about flying a plane using a fuel that has been used in the same type of engines in South African commercial services for about a decade.

The second way to look at this is that it actually is a big deal. It means that the military realizes that, with all of the troubles in the Middle East and other areas where crude oil is sourced, there could be a problem with fuel shortages in the future ? and the military realizes that all of its sophisticated aircraft and equipment will not function well without an adequate supply of fuel.

It may sound simplistic on my part, but I feel that just having the military being pro-active and looking at future fuel supplies beyond the next quarter is great, and I applaud it for its action.

Flying synthetic fuel in a C-17 is definitely a start. The military also has plans to evaluate the fuel in afterburner-equipped engines. This is important, because the fuel in the afterburner feed arms runs at elevated temperatures and can coke up if it does not have adequate thermal stability. So this flight was just the start of a fairly long, extensive program.

But what happens if or when they complete the approval process? Then they have to convince someone with a fair amount of money to build a plant to produce the fuel. For that to happen, it will be necessary for the process to be profitable and energy efficient, or to receive a significant government subsidy.

I had the opportunity to talk to one of the military’s top fuel experts. Unfortunately, he was unable to tell me if the synthetic jet fuel took more energy to produce than it yielded, or if the cost to produce the fuel was even in the “”ballpark”” of conventional fuels.

Oh well, I guess I will have to be satisfied with the knowledge that, at least, the military is working on future energy supplies.

What does this mean for GA pilots? It will become more important if ? and when ? diesel engines become more popular.

Ben Visser is an aviation fuels and lubricants expert who spent 33 years with Shell Oil. He has been a private pilot since 1985. You can contact him at Visser@GeneralAviationNews.com.

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