Sunday, October 12, 2008

Air Force energy reduction plans

The Air Force has been a leader among the DoD services in proposing new measures to cut energy consumption. USAF recommends increasing the use of flight simulators as a substitute for live flying; modifications to flight routes and efficient cargo loading as fuel-conservation techniques; more en route fuel stops to replace in-flight refueling; engine modernization programs to increase their efficiency. (All KC-135R refueling tankers have upgraded engines).
A simpler way to cut fuel use is to fit some airplane wing tips with winglets, small airfoil wing attachments that reduce drag as an airplane moves through the air. They can also increase cruising speeds and help the airplane fly higher.

Source: Boeing Media
X-48B, the airplane is triangular shaped and made mostly of lightweight composite materials. It will get up to 30 percent better fuel mileage.

See also NASA’s BWB section and the presentation of Beoing’s Advanced Systems by Darryl W. Davis at Farnborough International Airshow 2008, 15 July 2008, as well as the info on DoD Energy blog.

Another USAF initiative is to use synthetic fuels derived from natural gas and coal. I wrote heavily on synthetic fuels on this blog. In this post I would like to point two good articles.

The first one is by Breanne Wagner, Market for Synthetic Aviation Fuels Off to a Shaky Start, National Defense Magazine , May 2008 . The article gives an in-depth look on synfuel providers.
Algae, wood chips or garbage could in the future help fuel airplanes. Makers of synthetic fuel are eager to offer their wares to the military as a lower cost and nationally produced alternative to petroleum-based products.

Chief among the potential buyers of synthetic fuel is the Air Force, which has trumpeted an ambitious plan to power its aircraft with alternative propellants. Rentech and Baard Energy were two of the first companies to announce plans to build synthetic aviation fuel plants. But their sites won’t be ready until 2011 and 2012, respectively. The companies have decided to mix traditional hydrocarbon-based products with biomass — plant matter that can be burned for fuel — in an attempt to reduce harmful emissions.

Rentech plans to build the first U.S. synthetic aviation fuel plant in Natchez, Miss., which will produce a blend derived from petroleum residue called petroleum coke and water sludge, says CEO Hunt Ramsbottom. Rentech will employ a variation of the Fischer-Tropsch method to gasify the substances and convert them to synthetic fuel. Fischer-Tropsch is named after two German scientists who created the process to convert natural gas or coal to liquid fuel. Rentech may also experiment with natural gas as the primary feedstock and blend it with sugarcane, garbage, or wood chips.

The company will avoid using coal as a feedstock, he says. Industry experts have said fuel derived from coal has enormous potential because of its abundance, but production of the fuel could release twice as much greenhouse gas as petroleum, the Environmental Protection Agency says.

Facilities that use hydrocarbon substances as a feedstock — including coal-to-liquid plants — will require an expensive process known as carbon capture and sequestration, which catches the carbon during production before it can be released into the environment.

Ramsbottom asserts that his company will capture enough carbon to “produce fuels with carbon footprints that are better than what it replaces.” Rentech’s petcoke/biomass fuel could be up to 25 percent cleaner than petroleum, depending on the feedstock mix, he says. John Baardson, CEO of Baard Energy, says that his company’s fuel would be 40 to 50 percent cleaner than petroleum, based on a life cycle analysis.

Baard plans to open its plant one year after Rentech, in 2012. The company chose to use a combination of coal and wood waste to make its synthetic fuel, Baardson says. The mixture of coal and biomass is expected to significantly reduce the carbon footprint and reduce costs. The company will produce either Jet-A, used in commercial aircraft, or JP-8, used in military airplanes.

Rentech built a testing facility in Commerce City, Colo., which was scheduled for completion in the spring. The plant is expected to produce 10 barrels a day of diesel, aviation fuel and naphtha (petroleum ether) using a variety of feedstocks, including natural gas, coal and biomass.
Baard is building an 800-acre coal-to-liquid test site in Wellsville, Ohio, which is expected to produce 35,000 barrels per day of jet fuel, diesel and other chemicals. The facility will capture and sequester at least 85 percent of all carbon dioxide produced, the company says.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and utility provider Arizona Public Service are also studying how to produce cleaner jet propellants by adding plant oils. Both are looking at triglyceride oils, such as algae oil, as potential feedstocks because they do not emit any carbon during production. DARPA program manager Doug Kirkpatrick says that there are at least 68 different oil crops that could be used and says the technology is already available to convert them to fuel. However, critics say that biofuels production is expensive and results in carbon emissions when the crops are harvested.

The Air Force hopes to spur the growth of a U.S. synthetic fuels market. But a section 526 of in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act that was signed into law by President Bush in December contains language that would prevent the Air Force — or any government agency — from buying synthetic jet fuel unless it is proven to emit less carbon over the life of the substance than currently used petroleum. The Air Force was taken off guard by the new requirement, contained in.

Today, the military purchases fuel on an annual basis, Sayles says, while electricity is bought in 10-year contracts. Although the Air Force cannot yet purchase synthetic jet fuel on a commercial scale, an exemption in the 2007 energy act does allow it to buy fuel for testing. The service bought its first batch in 2006 from Syntroleum, an energy company based in Tulsa, Okla. The company has since closed down its plant. The Air Force plans to purchase 300,000 gallons this year, but has not yet released a bid. The Defense Logistics Agency will release two bids on behalf of the Air Force, one for a coal-to-liquids fuel and the other from any feedstock. Last year, the service bought 281,000 gallons of gas-to-liquids fuel from Shell in Malaysia.
The commercial industry also began testing alternative jet fuels in February when Virgin Atlantic flew a Boeing 747-400 from London to Amsterdam powered by 80 percent petroleum and 20 percent biodiesel derived from tropical oils, says Imperium Renewables, the company that provided the fuel.

The second one is Michael G. Frodl, Coal-To-Liquids’ Promise Big Profits, But Obstacles Remain, National Defense Magazine, October 2008 . The article discusses coal-to-liquids developments from several different angles.

So far the military’s coal-to-liquids efforts have slowed down. Congress failed to authorize much of the needed funds and the White House has yet to allow the Air Force to enter long-term contracts with synthetic fuel manufacturers. Private industry, on the other hand, has made strides in launching coal-to-liquids projects and in capturing and recycling carbon dioxide. Coal-based fuel entrepreneurs will still require governmental guidance, and will need to agree to invest in carbon capture technologies that will make the conversion of coal into liquids no more emitting in carbon than current oil refining processes.

Companies believe that the investment in carbon capture technology can be recouped by recycling the byproduct for downstream domestic industries. This is contrasted with the costly sequestering of carbon into the ground, an option that will be both economical and safe only for oil and gas drilling and coal mining operations.Coal-to-liquids programs can serve as the best vehicle for accelerated development of carbon capture, storage and recycling technologies, even without a large Air Force contract as the main driver. A barrel of synthetic fuel can be made for about $40, and capture might add another $20.Baard Energy announced earlier this year that it has raised private funds and won state assistance to build coal-to-liquids and biomass plants in Ohio. Baard was one of the companies maneuvering for an Air Force contract but lost patience with Washington. Another firm, DKRW, associated with Arch Coal, announced it will build a coal-to-liquids plant in Wyoming that will make gasoline and jet fuel. The Crow Nation announced it is partnering with an outside investor to build a coal-to-liquids plant on its lands in Billings, Mont.

Those three projects alone represent private investments of almost $15 billion. Energy entrepreneurs with outside financing, as well as cash-flush energy companies that can self-finance, still face at least two major challenges. First, they will need to get their potential legal liabilities mapped out under a new regime that all of them recognize. Second, they will need to guarantee Washington that they can produce liquids from coal without emitting more CO2 than liquids from crude. the next challenge will be what to do with all the captured carbon. Many in government and industry have assumed that storage in the ground will be the main, if not only, way to handle the mountains of carbon captured. Sequestering CO2 is truly an ambitious task.

Even if sequestration gained support at the national level in Congress, it is likely that many communities across the nation, as soon as they learn that their local geology has been identified as a place to bury millions of tons of CO2, will rise up and block the effort. If the coal-burning and coal-transforming industries want a solution for the billions of tons of carbon they will have to capture, they should seek self-financing and safe technological solutions.One option is to recycle the carbon for use by domestic industries. Perhaps the safest way to deal with captured CO2 gas will be to convert it into a solid. A solid will also not threaten communities when the first truck transporting carbon inevitably jack knifes and dumps its load. If it’s liquid CO2 under pressure, it will turn, probably explosively, into gas if the tank leaks, and people and animals close by will be asphyxiated. If it’s solid, it’ll only be an inert powder on the roadway.

One enterprising Texas utility has already invested in a small company, Skyonic, which makes a technology that mixes cheap and readily available sodium with CO2 to create sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda. In the Persian Gulf, a local company, Gulf Petrochemical Industries Co., has announced that Bahrain’s first fertilizer plant will capture carbon dioxide from flue gas and recycle the captured gas as feedstock in the production of urea and methanol. Another small U.S. company, Carbon Sciences, combines captured CO2 with cheap and readily available calcium to create calcium carbonate, a material used commonly in the construction industry. The construction industry is one of the few industries whose appetite for materials is large enough to make a lot of the recycled carbon disappear.

The coal industry has a long history of providing fly ash to the cement industry — a form of recycling that involves electrostatic capture of dust in combustion gases and use of that dust in making cement bricks. In theory, there are simply too many potential uses for recycled carbon. As transportation costs for raw materials mined outside the United States rise, industries that use some form of carbon as an input will be increasingly tempted to redirect their purchases to domestic carbon capture recyclers. The cheaper recyclers make their carbon products, the more business they’ll take from the raw material dealers.One concern is whether carbon “cracking” — the process whereby heavy hydrocarbons are broken down into simpler molecules — and recycling will eat up more energy than capture by itself, or whether more fossil fuels will be burned in order to power the cracking.

A solution to that would be the development of solar-powered cracking of carbon — or artificial photosynthesis.CO2-free electricity from nuclear power can also be used to crack the CO2 and cover the shortfall as solar power is scaled up. Eventually solar-powered cracking of CO2 will neither reduce energy outputs at coal-burning plants, nor add to costs that might make coal-based fuels non-competitive with liquids from crude.One major obstacle to the development of this carbon recycling industry is the emergence of laws that codify the social stigma of carbon. California workplace regulations already list CO2 as a “hazardous substance,” given the risks it poses to workers in confined spaces.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently held that CO2 is a “pollutant” that can be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. If Congress ever tries to combine both findings and succeeds in designating carbon a hazardous waste, the carbon recycling industry will be doomed. Make carbon an official hazmat and the coal burning and transforming industries alone will need a new Yucca Mountain of their own every week. Carbon can be safely regulated as a pollutant without it being turned into a massive burden for society and the economy.


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