From concept to combat
September 19, 2006, Edwards AFB, CA – 3:30am. It’s pitch dark outside, 50 degrees at best and not a single coffee shop in sight. The day before I had driven 8 hours, with nothing in sight but Joshua trees and smoke from all the fires. I finally arrived at my fleabag hotel in the middle of the desert. Why?
A friend of mine wrote an email thread the other day, “my boys coming home. He’s in Kuwait now, so maybe in a week or two he’ll set foot on free soil again!” Free soil. Free soil is what this is about, being free. For the past five years, our young men and women have been fighting a war in Iraq, a war fueled by oil. Today, as the sun comes up over the Eastern mountain range, our military is testing an ultra-clean, domestic-made, jet fuel in a United States Air Force B-52 Stratofortress Bomber aircraft.
America frets over the price of gasoline as they drive their SUV 75 miles an hour down the freeway, talking about what can be done to get off the dependence on foreign oil and how to save our Earth from the environmental degradation our hedonistic, pagan lifestyle has caused.
The irony is not lost on me as I sit and listen to Ron Sega, the Undersecretary of the Air Force, talk about the Green Power award the Air Force received. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Center for Resource Solutions give an annual award. According to Sega, “there are four bases that run entirely on renewables. Whether it is our office buildings or purchasing renewable energy, energy is a consideration in everything we do.”
Sega was at Edwards AFB, onboard the BUFF. BUFF is the term of endearment the pilots gave the B-52 a long time ago. It stands for Big Ugly Fat Fella, or something similar to that. The BUFF was chosen for the particular fuel system on the B-52 and the eight TF33 engines themselves. Fuel storage on the B-52 can be kept separate and be fed at will to each engine. This allows the experiment to use synfuel in only two engines and can be shut down if they don’t work satisfactorily.
According to Michael A. Aimone, Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, Installations and Mission Support, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Washington, D.C, “there was an executive order to decrease, by 30 percent, the use of energy by the military. That objective was met. Most people don’t know that the military’s consumption of energy is only 2 percent of the nation’s energy usage. Of that 2
percent, 50 percent of it is because of the United States Air Force (USAF), with 80 percent of that coming from aviation fuel.”And yet, the military is testing a domestic fuel, to try to reduce their dependence on foreign oil. In July, the synfuel, according to Ron Mullan, Chief of external media operations for Oklahoma City air logistics center, was combined with regular jet fuel and tested in a stationary B-52 engine for fuel emissions and performance qualities. The first experiment established a baseline with JP8 fuel and the next experiment, in the same engine, was both JP8 and synfuel. Afterward, Tinker’s engineers conducted a 50-hour endurance run on the blended fuel.
The fuel used in all of these tests was made by Syntroleum Corporation, headquartered in Tulsa, OK, through the Fischer-Tropsch process that has been around since the 1920s. The flight test is part of the DODs Assured Fuels Initiative, an effort to develop secure domestic sources for the military’s energy needs. Colonel Arnie Bunch, the Test Wing Commander for Edwards AFB, said, “the Air Force has steadily been decreasing their use of fuel, down from 2.9 billion to 2.6 billion across the Air Force. The problem is that the price keeps rising.”
Major General Curtis M. Bedke, Commander, Air Force Flight Test Center, Edwards AFB, CA, “we need 10-12 hours of testing time to check engine components, such as seals, hoses, and pumps.” The Air Force Research Lab conducted a preliminary analysis, according to a release by the Air Force, on South African Airlines has had FT blends in their commercial airlines since 1999 without issue. That example is what the Air Force has used as a benchmark to develop an acceptable blend strategy.
Bunch explained the tests that would be done, “today we want to see the overall performance with JP8. The emissions, performance and fuel flow, will be tested in shutdowns, starts and roller coasters. We will be at two different altitudes and go from zero Gs to 1.8 Gs to distort the flow. We will spot check the envelope of the airplane.”
Theodore (Ted) Barna, Ph.D., Assistant Deputy Under Secretary, Department of Defense (DOD) is at the Air Force event, but Barna is part of the 2002 Alternative Fuels partnership with the military. Barna says, “all of the military has domestic uses; the Navy has jet engines, ships; the Army has ground vehicles, the Air Force has aircraft. We will probably buy Sasol (a South African oil company that makes coal-to-liquid) fuel for more testing. By the end of
October the bulk of this fuel will be used up.”Dr. Sega and the crew had to bring the 46-year-old BUFF down early. Sega made sure to let all of us know it wasn’t the fuel, “we were watching the numbers and the numbers don’t lie. The left wingtip gear got stuck, and wouldn’t go up or come down.”
Barna told me that the umbrella name for this project is Battlefield Use Fuel of the future. You see, Barna is an old pilot himself, having flown the B-52 for 25 years. He has a sentimental attachment to the old bird. So, somehow the acronym for the entire program, Battlefield Use Fuel of the future, is BUFF. BUFF has already a request from the Air Force for 100 million gallons of synthetic fuel, and according to Barna, the Navy has also requested 100 million gallons of jet fuel.
The Air Force will continue to test Syntroleum, the domestic synfuel in the B-52, slowly ramping up to all eight engines. Eventually, the testing will have to be done for cold weather testing, probably in Minot, ND. When I mentioned that I would likely be passing on a cold weather testing show, since I was shivering when it was in the 50s, a military person looked at me and said, “That might be one for the lieutenants.”
Currently, there are no Gas-to-liquids (GTL) or coal-to-liquids (CTL) being produced in the US. Sasol, an oil company from South Africa, is producing CTL and GTL and South African Airlines is using these fuels in their commercial flights. Besides military applications, successful testing of Syntroleums FT jet fuel could lead to opportunities with commercial airlines.
The United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal, and the states that have that coal want it produced into CTL. Ultra clean fuels, a division of WMPI – (reprocesses waste coal) is in PA and looks like PA maybe closer. They have land, coal companies, FT (Sasol) and state and federal government support. They are working on financing now, and according to John W. Rich, JR, President of WMPI PTY, LLC, should be done in 6 months. After funding is procured, it will take 30 months of construction. Approximately three years from now, ultra clean fuels would be producing 45 million gallons of jet fuel a year.
In between the military testing of domestic fuels from concept to combat the military is using conservation. Something all of us on this free soil of ours can do to help.
We are a brilliant nation. We have the ability, the science and the technology to be self-sufficient.
Now we need the will.