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Air Force attempts to enlist alternative fuel partners

Hopes to persuade more private firms to get on board

An RQ-4 Global Hawk drone aircraft is shown at an undisclosed base in January. The Air Force wants to cut by half the amount of petroleum-based jet fuel it uses in the United States by 2016. An RQ-4 Global Hawk drone aircraft is shown at an undisclosed base in January. The Air Force wants to cut by half the amount of petroleum-based jet fuel it uses in the United States by 2016. (US Air Force via Reuters/ File)
By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / May 27, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Air Force, the single-largest user of fossil fuels in the federal government, will convene leading scientists, researchers, and energy specialists today to explore ways to wean fighter jets, cargo planes, and a host of day-to-day operations off oil, a major step officials maintain would make the service less vulnerable to shortages and encourage wider commercial use of alternative energy sources.

The Air Force seeks to cut in half the amount of petroleum-based jet fuel it uses in the United States by 2016, a goal officials maintain will not be possible without the help of private companies, universities, and other government agencies, according to a recently published plan. The branch spends nearly a third of its $9 billion annual energy budget on jet fuel.

Representatives from a variety of sectors will be meeting today and tomorrow at a special energy forum in Washington, where top Air Force officials hope to enlist help to achieve their ambitious goal.

“The Air Force must have reliable energy supplies to meet the demands of . . . operations and protect our nation from emerging threats,’’ according to the energy plan, which also calls for training programs to ensure service members conserve fuel whenever possible.

The Air Force has taken steps to test cleaner-burning fuels for its range of aircraft, including a combination of coal, natural gas, and refinery byproducts that make a low-toxicity alternative fuel first demonstrated in South Africa. It is also testing fuels made from animal fats and a weed known as cameline that grows in the West.

The low-toxicity fuel has been certified for almost every Air Force aircraft, while the others are in the process of being certified for safety and reliability by the Air Force’s Alternative Fuels Testing Office, a $200 million operation begun in 2007 at Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Ohio. The Air Force is also working with the Army and Navy to certify the alternative fuels, which are mixed with conventional jet fuel.

“The program is starting to gather momentum,’’ said Jeff Braun, the office director.

The ultimate success of reducing the amount of conventional fuel used, however, depends on the emergence of more private companies who are willing to manufacture these fuels, he said. Companies need to be convinced that the US military is serious about reducing its reliance on oil. That could spark the necessary investments in new technologies or refineries that might be needed to support them.

Some of the alternative fuels cost up to $50 a gallon, far more than gasoline-based jet fuel, because there is little market for them. “This is a big concern,’’ said Tim Edwards, a chemical engineer at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Propulsion Directorate. “We have to generate interest in industry,’’ added Braun.

Officials are banking on the amount of money the Air Force spends each year on energy, as well as its prominent role in national security, to convince firms there will be a future market for such fuels.

The Air Force has gained the attention of some commercial airlines, which are partnering on the fuel testing efforts, officials said. The military “can certainly help to make the solution more visible,’’ said Edwards.

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.