Sunday, February 1, 2009

Should the Air Force fleet be fueled by coal?

This is a topic that was discussed on the blog last year, but the article I read on popsci.com that was posted last month talked about solutions to the problems with the Air Force’s plan to change the type of jet fuel their planes use. The motivation for the shift is due to many factors. The Air Force currently uses more fuel than all other branches of the military combined, making up 10% of the total domestic aviation market, which comes out to the small sum of $5.6 billion. A lot of that fuel is imported from other countries and that also makes the military uncomfortable. So their idea is to use more of our available domestic resources, which would be petroleum, natural gas, or coal. Since we are the 'Saudi Arabia of coal', coal seems to be a good option. They want to dig more coal mines and build coal-to-liquid (CTL) plants, a plan which is meeting a lot of opposition from people who believe we need to find an alternative to dirty coal. However, this could help with job creation and decreasing dependency on foreign oil. To create the fuel, the coal is steamed, creating gas which is then exposed to catalysts to liquefy it.

The Air Force is pursuing their plan to fuel the entire fleet with a 50/50 blend of this synthetic fuel from coal and regular jet fuel by 2016. Thus far they have certified the B-52 and C-17 to use the alternative fuel and testing has already begun for the B-1 Bomber, F-15, F-22, and KC-135. The goal is to complete the testing and certification for all aircrafts by 2011.

Supporters spin the criticism of coal by saying that burning CTL is cleaner than regular jet fuel because particulate emissions, SO2, and NOX are eliminated during the gasification process. However, the proponents leave out the fact that twice the amount of CO2 is produced during coal mining and burning. That isn’t allowed by Section 526 of the 2007 energy bill which forbids the US government from spending taxpayers money on fuels that don’t produce “ lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions” that are “less than or equal to such emissions from the equivalent conventional fuel produced from conventional petroleum sources.”

So to get around Section 526 they have to deal with the extra CO2. Here are some solutions: recycle the CO2 to produce more fuel, use it to grow oil-producing algae, or convert it to other gases that would be useful in the industrial sector. However, the technology isn’t ready for those three. Enhanced oil recovery could be pursued, but it has its own set of problems. Carbon capture and storage (injecting CO2 into underground formations) could also be another option but at this point it is quite expensive. According to the article, even Vaclav Smil says that “sequestering 10% of the world’s 2005 CO2 production would require more plants and pipelines than are used in the entire worldwide business of crude-oil extraction.” Hmmm, that seems like a big hurdle.

Obviously low carbon fuels would be better options than coal-to-liquid or petroleum fuels, but they aren’t ready yet so the dilemma is this: foreign oil or domestic coal-based fuel that’s dirtier? I wonder what Steven Chu thinks…

3 comments:

Bourgeolitarian said...

Quick answer: NO.

czak said...

It seems that the push right now should be to keep the 'bigger picture' at the forefront of our minds, which means doing life cycle analysis of possible energy alternatives. For example, electrical cars seem great, but the question has to be asked whether the environmental impacts of burning coal to make electricity outweighs what gasoline cars do. In that case, it turns out that electric cars are still beneficial. Over its life cycle, it seems coal-to-liquids is not beneficial right now. Until the technology is there, despite the possible economic development, it seems that displacing fossil fuels, despite them being foreign, is not a good idea for the world as a whole.

Amos said...

In terms of CO2 emission and lack of technology that enables cleaner CTL process, CTL seems to be going against the green policy regardless of any reasoning that the Air Force can offer. However, heavily relying on imported fuel from the region can be an insurmountable obstacle to the Air Force. Securing aviation fuel is a priority to the Air Force especially for wartime, which requires sorties flown by military jets, hence requiring more fuel. As Russia is seeking for its glorious old days and rebuilding its military, the military tension between the U.S. and Russia is increasing. This has been shown by a number of incidents that American F-22 intercepted Russian Tu-95 bombers off Alaska.
In addition to Russia being a major controller of pipelines and an oil supplier to the world economy, its influence can reach the countries in the Middle East and Africa, which in turn, can negatively affect diplomatic relations with the U.S.
Volatility of the region also makes it difficult to protect tankers and fuel depots from attacks organized by pirates and terrorists as evidenced by USS Cole and piracy near the Somalian coastline.
Therefore, "domestic" fuel source provides the fuel-hungry Air Force with the ability to carry out its missions without external interference. I believe that it is important for the Air Force to pursue the plan to use CTL while investing in the development of cleaner technology and persuading the public how a domestic fuel option is essential to national security.