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The Air Force Goes Green

7:27 AM, Jun 19, 2007 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Last September the U.S. Air Force flight tested a B-52 using a 50-50 mix of synthetic jet fuel and conventional JP-8. Of the B-52's eight engines, only two were burning the mix, while the other six ran on conventional JP-8, but the Air Force has been hyping the test as evidence of the potential of alternative fuels.

IMG_0108.jpgInside the C-17, Secretary Wynne chats with the crew.

Today at Le Bourget, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne and FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey gave a briefing inside a Mississippi Air National Guard C-17 Globemaster III that's on display here at the show, and which is the next aircraft slated for testing with a synthetic blend. The aircraft was impressive...the briefing, not so much. The Air Force has plenty of reason to search for an alternative to JP-8--as the federal government's largest consumer of petroleum products, for every $10 rise in the cost of a barrel of oil the Air Force sees its own fuel bills rise some $600 million.

Unfortunately, it seems like the Air Force is moving towards alternative fuels for all the wrong reasons, i.e. a heavy on the P.R. pedal goal of reduced carbon emissions. Wynne said that the Air Force is moving "aggressively" to certify its entire fleet by 2010--including the service's most advanced fighter jets--with the aim of reducing volatility in the cost of fuel. And two weeks ago the Air Force awarded a $1.1 million contract to Shell Oil to deliver the blend to several Air Force locations and NASA. The synthetic fuel is created using the Fischer-Trope process, which is an interesting technology, but nothing new.

Wynne also said that the Air Force is working with the Department of Energy "to test the use of biomass with coal as a feedstock to reduce the carbon move to a reduced carbon philosophy." Wynne says the Air Force is "committed to being good environmental stewards." And Wynne said that the Air Force will only buy fuel from companies that have "either carbon capture or carbon usage technology," but added that, "of course we're going to continue to use petroleum fuels for decades to come."

In response to a question from Jane's reporter Caitlin Harrington about using coal as a feedstock, the secretary added that the Air Force "would have to partner with some of the more exotic algae or biomass that actually consumes carbon." At this point we couldn't help but feel a little sorry for the secretary, who's been reduced to talking algae instead of air-to-air combat. Also, one wonders if the Air Force isn't closing in on the dangerous precedent of requiring the federal government to offset its carbon emissions. At the end of the day, we'd have much preferred that the secretary spent his afternoon discussing how the U.S. Air Force might play a vital role in counterinsurgency operations in Iraq...but, c'est la vie.