Air Force takes synthetic fuel supersonic as energy costs explode

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The Air Force for the first time has successfully flown a B-1B aircraft at supersonic speed using an alternate fuel in a flight over the White Sands Missile Range in Texas and New Mexico.  

The fuel, a 50/50 blend of synthetic and petroleum gas, is being tested as part of an ongoing Air Force program to use a fuel produced in the US, the Air Force said.   

The Air force is also exploring a program that would convert coal into cleaner-burning synthetic fuel, according to an Associated Press story.

Tempering that vision, analysts say, is the astronomical cost of coal-to-liquids plants. Their high price tag, up to $5 billion apiece, would be hard to justify if oil prices were to drop. In addition, coal has drawn wide opposition on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers reject claims it can be transformed into a clean fuel. Without emissions controls, experts say coal-to-liquids plants could churn out double the greenhouse gases as oil,  according to the AP article.  The Air Force would not finance, construct or operate the coal plant. Instead, it has offered private developers a 700-acre site on its Malmstrom base in central Montana.  

The Air Force wants to fuel half its North American fleet with a synthetic-fuel blend by 2016. To do so, it would need 400 million gallons of coal-based fuel every year, the AP said. The Air Force is the single largest user of aviation fuel inside the Federal government, using an estimated 3 billion gallons per year, according to the Air  Force. Each time the price of oil goes up $10 per barrel, it costs the Air Force an additional $600 million for fuel.

The Air Force is in the process of evaluating and certifying the fuel it used in the B-1B , which is derived from natural gas using the Fischer-Tropsch process, for use in all Air Force aircraft. The FT process gives the Air Force a cleaner, more cost-efficient fuel source.  Synthetic fuel created using the FT process costs an estimated $30 to $50 less per barrel than petroleum, the Air Force said.

Alternative fuels can be produced from domestically available hydrocarbon products like natural gas, coal and shale, and then gasified and converted into any number of liquid fuel products.So far the Air Force has tested the FT fuel blends in the B-52 Stratofortress, the first aircraft to use the fuel, and the C-17 Globemaster III 

The testing process so far has detected no significant differences in performance, flight safety, durability, ground handling or storage between synfuel and conventional fuel, the Air Force said. .

The Air Force team that developed a blend of petroleum and synthetic fuel for the B-52 Bomber received the Federal Aviation Administration's 2007 Excellence in Aviation Research Award last week.  

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