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Air Force to Try Out a New Kind of Jet Fuel

A synthetic alternative could help cut costs for both the Pentagon and the nation's airlines.

September 15, 2006|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE — If you think your fuel bill has skyrocketed, pity the people who operate the eight-engine B-52 bomber.

The lumbering aircraft, built in the 1950s when jet fuel cost a quarter a gallon, guzzles 47,000 gallons in a single mission. Today, that's $100,000 a fill-up.

Tally in the gas hogs in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere -- fighter jets, bombers and cargo planes -- and you can understand why the American taxpayer got a $5-billion fuel bill last year for the Air Force alone.

On Tuesday, the Air Force will begin test flights here that could represent a major step in the Pentagon's plan to find less costly sources of fuel. A B-52 will take off with two of its engines burning a new blend that may eventually replace the oil-based kerosene formula that has powered jet engines since they were invented.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 22, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Alternative jet fuel: An article in the Sept. 15 Business section about Air Force testing of a new fuel blend for jets said converting 5% of U.S. coal reserves to liquid synthetic fuel would be equivalent to doubling domestic crude oil output. The maker of the fuel, Syntroleum, said the amount converted would actually be equivalent to 12 times current annual domestic oil production.

The test flight, which will be observed by top military officials and airline executives, will mark the first time a U.S. aircraft will attempt to fly using fuel not refined from oil.

The Pentagon's initiative is drawing significant interest from U.S. airlines that have been hammered by steep oil prices. Jet fuel jumped from an average of 75 cents a gallon in 2001 to $2.01 last year, when U.S. airlines spent more than $33 billion on fuel, according to the Air Transport Assn., an industry organization.

Fuel costs have contributed to financial woes at many domestic airlines and begun to hit the pocketbooks of travelers. Fuel now accounts for about 30% of the industry's operating costs, compared with about 10% five years ago.

The airline group estimates that every penny-a-gallon increase in fuel prices adds $195 million in overhead to the industry. Many airlines are passing along the cost, up to $100 for each passenger in some cases.

A spokeswoman for the airline industry said that development of "alternatives to traditional oil-based jet fuel" was a key priority, particularly if it could be derived from a stable and cheaper domestic source.

The B-52 test flights also represent what the Pentagon says is a 10-year plan to wean itself from crude oil and foreign petroleum producers who supply about half of the fuel used by the U.S. military.

The fuel being tested is a 50-50 blend of traditional crude-oil based jet fuel and a synthetic liquid, which is made from natural gas but eventually will be refined from coal mined in the U.S.

"This is an extremely important moment," said Michael A. Aimone, the Air Force assistant deputy chief of staff for logistics.

By 2016, the Pentagon hopes to get about half of its aviation fuel from alternative sources.

"There will be a lot of people interested in what we are doing," said Col. Arnold W. Bunch Jr., commander of the 412th Test Wing at Edwards. The unit's pilots will conduct the test flights.

Alternative fuels have been too costly or in short supply. The makers of the synthetic jet fuel that is being tested would need to build a $1-billion plant to produce adequate supplies that would make it economical for the aviation industry. Since it doesn't make economic sense now, Wall Street is hesitant to invest in such a facility.

Gary Gamino, director of investor relations for the fuel producer, Tulsa, Okla.-based Syntroleum, said the company would not know the actual cost of the fuel until a full-scale production plant was built. But he added that the business could achieve acceptable returns if crude oil prices were higher than $50 a barrel. Recently, crude oil has hovered around $65 a barrel.

The company currently operates a small plant that can produce 70 barrels a day, just enough for testing. Syntroleum is one of only two companies in the U.S. that produce the synthetic fuel. The Air Force paid about $20 a gallon for the prototype fuel.

Tuesday's test flight "is very important because it will prove to the world that this synthetic fuel will work in aircraft as we have tested in other vehicles," including diesel-powered buses, he said.

For its part, the Air Force wants to help create a commercial market for the fuel and envisions purchasing up to 100 million gallons of the fuel by 2008. It has bought 100,000 gallons so far for testing.

"We can expand the market for synthetic jet fuel and make it more economical to produce by increasing volume," Aimone said.

The U.S. has the world's largest proven coal reserves, or about 268 billion tons, mostly in the Midwest. Converting 5% of the coal reserves to synthetic fuel would be equivalent to doubling the domestic crude oil output, Gamino said. The U.S. consumes about 7.5 billion tons of crude oil pumped from domestic sources annually while using only about 5 million tons of coal.

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