USAF Synthetic Fuel Program Could Help Solve Unwanted Carbon Problem

By Michael Frodl
The Air Force is seeking to acquire 50 percent of its fuel needs from domestic sources by 2016, and half of that is expected to come from synthetic fuel, mainly made from coal.

The Air Force has promised that the synthetic fuel program will not release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than fuel made from crude oil. This has created an opportunity for accelerated development of CO2 capture technologies, which promise to solve not only the Air Force’s immediate problem, but also those of many industries that rely on fossil fuels and face CO2 regulation.

If the revenues from industrial use of recovered CO2 are factored into the equation, CO2 capture will become much more promising commercially. The industrial uses of CO2 are many, and demand promises to be global.

The Air Force energy program is, perhaps, the most ambitious of all the military energy security programs, given just how big the service’s fuel needs are. The federal government consumes almost 2 percent of all fossil fuels burned in the United States, and the military consumes the majority of the federal government’s piece. The Air Force by itself consumes the largest share — about 1 percent of all fossil fuel consumption in the United States.

Shifting half a percent of all U.S. consumption of fossil fuels to another source is no small task.
The synthetic fuels that the Air Force needs will principally come from the conversion of coal into liquids. The technology to do this has been around for almost a century — for example, the “Fischer-Tropsch” process developed in Germany just before World War II.

By the end the war, most of the German military was using synthetic fuels. The process was further tweaked by the South Africans during a long trade embargo. Today, all international flights into South Africa refuel using synthetic jet fuel made from coal.

After World War II, the U.S. government sought to develop a domestic synthetic fuel industry to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. But despite billions invested in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the comparative price of oil was too low to justify the investment and Washington pulled the plug on the program.

The synthetic fuels program was resurrected in the 1970s after the Arab oil embargo, but shut down again in the 1980s. When U.S. oil drilling and refining slowed down after Hurricane Katrina, fuel costs ballooned. The Air Force faced a major increase in fuel costs and began to think more seriously about diversifying its fuel sources. So synthetic fuels became popular again. This time, with the barrel of crude hovering at about $70, the chances are much lower that the synthetic fuels program will again be shut down.

Making liquid fuel from coal has one major environmental drawback: the process releases about as much CO2 as burning the fuel does. That means that a barrel of synthetic jet fuel releases twice as much CO2 as a barrel of jet fuel made from crude. Not long ago, that would not have been a problem. But with the growing public concern about global warming and CO2, lawmakers in Washington are wary about authorizing programs that will lead to any significant growth in the emissions of CO2 by the federal government.

To quell those concerns, the secretary of the Air Force recently announced that CO2 capture technology would be applied to the process. CO2 capture technology is not as proven as synthetic fuel production from coal, and it does not come cheap.

CO2 capture technology takes different forms. Most approaches that have any real industrial potential are already being developed for the coal-burning electric power utilities. There are two basic forms. One involves a total re-engineering of the combustion of coal, and relies on high temperatures and other tricks to minimize the amount of CO2 released in the process. The other involves post-combustion passing of flue gases through a chemical mix that “scrubs” the CO2 out.

CO2 capture technology for “coal to liquids” is related to the forms developed not just for coal burning, but also for burning natural gas, as well as “cracking” oil in refineries. It has the same drawbacks, though — while it can capture 90 percent or more of the CO2 emitted, the process consumes a lot of energy. That bite out of an electric plant’s electricity output is about 25 to 35 percent. Including capital expenditure costs, the cost per kilowatt hour rates jump 50 to 100 percent.

Energy industry groups estimate that CO2 capture would require about $20 more per barrel of synthetic fuel from coal. If the barrel without capture costs about $30, a total of $50 would still allow some margin for contractors to recoup costs and make a profit assuming that the barrel of crude stays at about $70.

But private electric power utilities are not ready to buy it. That is because CO2 capture would only make sense if Congress were to impose a “cap and trade” system for carbon rights, or impose a carbon tax. In that case, CO2 capture would help soften the blow for utilities. Right now, voluntary capture of CO2 by a utility only creates potential legal liabilities which are largely uncharted, and also makes the utility responsible for finding somewhere to put the many tons of CO2 that a power plant generates. All this adds to overhead costs.

The Air Force, meanwhile, has made the task both more complicated and costly for the companies seeking to enter the market for CO2 capture.

The Air Force will soon be making environmental requirements even stricter, by seeking a 15 percent smaller “life cycle carbon footprint.” In other words, the service will demand that a barrel of synthetic fuel — from mining through processing to burning — emits 15 percent less carbon than a barrel of jet fuel made from oil. The Air Force is hoping that using algae in the CO2 capture process will put the CO2 to work by growing algae that can be harvested and then sold to bio-fuel makers, who’ll extract the oils and starches in the algae.

Industry experts claim that this will add another $20 to the cost of the barrel of synthetic fuel — making it equal the $70 it costs to buy a barrel of crude. This will leave no margin for contractors to build the multibillion-dollar “coal-to-liquids” plants the program requires, or ever to make a profit.

This is no small problem for the Air Force, as the synthetic fuel program was originally predicated on its price staying well under the cost of foreign crude.

Up until now, the conventional thinking has been that captured CO2 would simply be buried in some stable geological formation. The infrastructure costs would be enormous to do this. Either the government would have to pay for the building of a pipeline system rivaling the current natural gas pipeline system, plus for all the drilling, or companies would have to pass all the costs along to the consumer.

A more sensible move would be to find industrial uses for captured CO2. One promising use is pumping CO2 into mature oil wells in order to make them spit out hard-to-get remaining oil. The CO2 also could help greenhouses speed up the growth of their food crops, add gas to soda pop and fill fire extinguishers.

CO2 also could be turned into a solid. A carbonate product that looks like baking soda could be converted into building materials, such as limestone-like blocks.

Perhaps most exciting prospect is the “cracking” of CO2 into CO or carbon monoxide, a chemical that is sought after by the chemical industry to make other products. A West Coast team of scientists has devised a way to use solar power to get the job done. If this technology works as promised, it would help avoid burning fossil fuel to generate the significant amount of energy required in the process.

Michael G. Frodl, Esq. is co-founder and chairman of the Forum for Environmental Law, Science, Engineering and Finance ( He can be contacted at The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not represent the opinions of FELSEF.

Topics: Energy, Air Force News

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