Eliminating Military Energy Vulnerability: A Way Ahead


Rising above Paradigm Paralysis…It’s Time to THINK

by Bill Anderson

In 2006, the U.S. Air Force threw down the gauntlet.  The vulnerability of global fuel supply lines and the volatility of price presented a significant risk to the military’s ability to project power across the globe.  So, Air Force leadership decided that it would initiate an all-out effort to fly the air fleet on domestically sourced, alternative aviation fuels.

And the USAF was not alone.  Seeing similar risks, the Air Chiefs for the Royal Air Force and the French Air Force partnered their teams with the Americans to work options jointly.  A comprehensive test and evaluation program was established…and certification of what is known as Synthetic Paraffinic Kerosene (SPK) was accomplished in record time…and under budget.  “Drop-in” synthetic aviation fuel was proven to be a viable substitute for petroleum-derived jet fuel in military aviation.  A number of feedstocks could be used to manufacture the fuel, ranging from fossil materials…coal and natural gas…to grown bio materials to waste products.

The march towards identification, testing and certifying a range of alternative aviation fuels continues.  In July of 2011, Hydrotreated Renewable Jet Fuel (HRJ) was certified for use.  Alcohol-to-Jet appears to be next, with other alternatives waiting in the wings for testing and certification.

Searching for both near and longer term alternatives to current energy approaches is crucial. It is time to think and shape a realistic set of alternatives. Image Credit: Bigstock

The Air Force efforts caught the eye of the commercial aviation world.

A group known as the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) was born, and it has been a driving force behind the ongoing efforts to win acceptance of petroleum alternatives.  The commercial industry has jumped in with both feet…engine manufacturers…airframe manufacturers…many lending technical support to what has now grown into a global effort.  The airlines have shown equal passion to embrace alternative aviation fuels with a number of flights using various formulations of synthetic fuel.

Qatar Airways is probably the most visible commercial carrier pursuing a natural gas based alternative…working closely with the massive new gas-to-liquids production capability in that country.  Biojet alternatives have been tested by a number of airlines…from Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, to Qantas, Thai Airways, Lufthansa, KLM, United Airlines, Alaska Air and others…all adding to the collective knowledge of a new fuel and helping to drive demand.

The Air Force has not been alone within the Department of Defense in driving towards alternative energy solutions.

All Service branches are playing a role in installation energy/efficiency, forward operating base energy challenges and transport fuel alternatives.  The Navy has assumed a leadership role in the alternative fuels development process that has manifested itself in Secretary Ray Mabus’ vision of the “Great Green Fleet”.  A major step in that direction occurred almost two years ago now with the maiden flight of a biofuel powered F/A-18, aptly named the “Green Hornet”.  That flight took place just days after the first U.S. military tactical aircraft flight on biofuels in which a U.S. Air Force A-10 took to the skies operating on a biofuel blend…the “Green Hog” if you will.

Beyond national security and energy independence attributes that alternative fuels provide to our military and to the nation, alternative fuel formulations offer significant environmental, most notably greenhouse gas benefits.

Certain fuels offer significant reductions in CO2, SOx, NOx and particulate emissions.  These are all very good things and come without loss of performance or reliability.

But, some of these alternatives to petroleum-based fuel draw a pretty healthy dose of skepticism and criticism.

Take, for example, comments by Friends of the Earth that dismissed Britain’s first commercial biofuel flight as a “hollow PR stunt that paves the way for rainforest destruction”.  In fact, like many other “silver bullets”, for all of the positive benefits offered by biofuels, serious challenges lie ahead in developing the full commercial potential of this emerging technology.

Cost remains a challenge for all bio-based alternatives.

But, more troubling, growing feedstocks for biofuels raises issues of (1) diversion of food output to fuel production, and (2) the reallocation of land previously dedicated to food production to the production of energy feedstocks.

And, as the Friends of the Earth noted, rainforest lands are being destroyed to create tillable land to grow palm oil and other energy crops.  It has been shown that destruction of rainforests to grow energy crops actually creates a negative overall impact on global CO2 emissions…certainly not the objective at all.

So, while biofuels exhibit some very favorable attributes, the negatives present significant challenges.

Is there a solutions or set of solutions that meet the goals of energy independence and a cleaner end-to-end product that might avoid some of the pitfalls of traditional biofuels?

I believe the answer is “yes”…but some creativity and vision is needed to work past traditional assumptions and define a prudent, well crafted end-to-end approach.

Legendary IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson, Sr. prominently displayed signs throughout IBM factories and offices with one word “THINK” as a way to motivate and inspire his employees.  That one word is probably a good starting point for the rest of this discussion.

Our target is twofold.  First, we need to take immediate actions towards quick and substantive progress on a commercially viable and rapidly deployable alternative fuel.  Second, we need to develop the long term “silver bullet” that gets us to a desired state of unlimited, environmentally-friendly fuel that is readily-available across the world.

A Short Term Action to Make Real Progress…An Immediate “Just Do It”

When the Air Force began its journey to certify synthetic aviation fuel for the air fleet in early 2006, natural gas was prohibitively expensive for conversion into liquid fuel and biofuels had yet to come of age.

The only logical (economic) commercial solution for synthetic fuel feedstock at that time was coal.  Yes, coal gasification poses significant greenhouse gas challenges, but it provided the solution that most closely mirrored the economic profile of petroleum-derived jet fuel.

Well, quite a bit has changed since 2006. The most significant change being new technologies that can effectively get to the vast reserves of shale gas lying beneath US soil.  Access to these vast reserves has driven prices down and dramatically increased supply.

Although shale gas is a fossil resource but, over the life cycle is a much better alternative than coal or foreign imported oil from an environmental and national security perspective.

The benefits of shale gas as a better fossil alternative based both on availability and environmental stewardship is clearly supported by the Obama Administration.

We are not talking about compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG) here, the approaches most widely advocated by the Federal government and the press of late.

Widespread commercial use of CNG and LNG as transportation fuels will require tremendous expenditures for the infrastructure necessary nationally to transport, store and dispense these fuels.  And required modifications to engines to make them compatible with these non-traditional fuels.  Vehicles that are adapted to run on gaseous natural gas cannot run on liquid petroleum and synthetics without significant modifications and vice-versa.

One should also note that CNG and LNG are a poor option for aviation operations…for obvious reasons.  What we are talking about here is a true liquid synthetic alternative to petroleum-based transportation fuels…essentially identical in form, fit and function to the fuels dispensed and burned today in the overwhelming majority of transportations assets across the world.

These drop-in alternatives are (1) transported through the same pipelines, (2) stored in the same tanks, (3) dispensed through the same fueling equipment, and (4) burned in the same engines without modification as are petroleum-based products.

Methods for converting gasified alternative feedstocks to drop-in liquid transportation fuels have been around for decades.  The technology dates back to 1920’s Germany where the Fischer-Tropsch process was originally developed and continues in commercial operation today in South Africa, Malaysia and Qatar.

If this country is truly committed to making a rapid and significant impact on transportation fuel supply while beginning to make a favorable impact on emissions, synthetic drop-in transportation fuels derived from our vast reserves of shale gas is the immediate answer…plain and simple.

Extraction of shale gas is not without issue.

We have all heard the stories of contaminated groundwater caused by “fracking” to get at shale gas reserves.  This is not a minor issue, and should not be treated as such.

However, the problem is defined and relatively well understood at this point.  If we are truly interested in achieving that big impact in the short term, we need to allocate significant research dollars from the DoE ARPA-E program specifically focused on quickly developing solutions to resolve issues related to fracking.  Organizations across the country are already working this issue.

Solving this problem has such significant impact on national security and our environment, surely it warrants the expenditure of Federal R&D dollars.  With a suitable fracking solution in place, the shale gas-to-liquids industry can develop on a fast track, bringing numbers of high paying jobs to areas in and around the shale gas fields, utilizing extraction methods that operate within the bounds of prudent environmental stewardship.

Not all bio-based feedstocks present the risk to food production or destruction of natural habitats.  Municipal solid waste, construction debris, animal wastes and sewer sludge all show promise as appropriate energy feedstocks…and all will have an appropriate place in the overall energy solution for the future.

As the synthetic fuels market grows and gasification technologies improve, all will offer options to expand options for prudent manufacture drop-in alternative transportation fuels.

Domestically produced from local feedstocks, plentiful in supply, pricing essentially equivalent to petroleum-based fuel, shale gas-to-liquids provides the answer today to ensuring our military has access to the fuel needed to do its mission.

It also offers the country as a whole the capability to take a major step towards energy independence.

Shale gas-to-liquids increases commercial supply (that translates to lower cost), increases demand for high paid U.S. jobs in an emerging industry, and significantly reduces dependence on hostile nations for our supply of crude oil.

Shale gas also buys us CRITICAL time…the time that is needed to carefully and thoughtfully develop other forms of alternative energy that will sustain us through the centuries.

That critical time can be used to develop

(1) new propulsion technologies,

(2) commercial scale energy storage and energy management systems that will allow intermittent renewables to play a large and reliable role in electricity production,

and (3) the next generation of nuclear power…smaller…using new fuel types…and with passive safety features we will need to safely operate these systems going forward.

The Grand Long Term Solution

With a viable and “doable” short term solution well in hand, we can now devote attention to a comprehensive strategic energy solution to meet growing global demands.

We have a huge challenge ahead and it requires a radical rethink of how we look at energy feedstocks to successfully address the challenge.  Based on our current frame of reference this world is extremely energy poor.  Almost 2 billion people on earth don’t presently have the same access to energy that the rest of us do.  As the third world continues to progress, more and more people will adopt the “developed world’s” approach to energy use, thus driving demand beyond what any reasonable projection of efficiency measures can ever promise to offset.

Add to the problem that by 2050, the world population is projected to exceed 9 billion souls and each new inhabitant will also require energy.

Can the world supply all the energy needed in the future and do it in an environmentally-friendly way using today’s paradigms?

In a word…”no”.  And shortages of a vital asset like energy will cause tension, conflict and war jeopardizing our national security and burdening our military of the future.

What does all this mean?

Demand for fossil energy will rise…not go down…over the foreseeable future.  It signals increased demand for a finite resource and ever-growing CO2 emissions from increasing use of fossil fuels.  None of this is good news and our current bag of tricks provides little chance of a pathway to a solution.

If you are on a road that can’t get you to your destination, isn’t that the time to get on the road that will?

There is a path that gets us to the desired destination.  It is a radical departure from how we think today.  It will require us to look at the problem in a very different way.  But, if successful, this path provides the ultimate flexibility in energy sources while ensuring that our choices will not be detrimental to the long term health of the planet.

Now, here is the paradigm breaker.  Carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas, is not and should not be treated as a waste…it should not be considered the enemy.

CO2 is actually the ultimate and extremely plentiful renewable energy source for the planet.  Harness it…manage it…use it.

If we can successfully accomplish that one thing, energy use no longer becomes incompatible with prudent environmental stewardship…regardless of energy feedstock chosen.  Business and environmentalists…conservatives and liberals…are now on the same side of the argument, and not fighting with each other.  We move seamlessly together as the world develops in lock step with a sustainable planet.  Each society can shape its own destiny…without being reliant on others for energy needs…and not burdening the global environment based on their energy use decisions.

Framing the concept is easy in theory…harvest excess CO2 from the environment and continuously recycle that CO2 as a renewable energy source.

Execution will prove much more difficult technically.

However, some recent breakthroughs begin to provide some focus on a pathway to success.  In 2009, the American Chemical Society published an article that featured the concept of chemical recycling of CO2.  The article recognizes one of the most significant challenges of our time…that is, finding viable (technically and economically) solutions beyond our diminishing fossil fuel resources that avoid the consequences associated with combustion of carbon fuels.

Embracing a paradigm shift, empowered through chemical recycling of CO2, we can effectively transform carbon dioxide from a detrimental greenhouse gas into a valuable carbon source of the future.

We then find ourselves with an environmentally neutral use of carbon fuels and derived hydrocarbon products.  The ACS article illustrates a critical change in perspective that opens up a world of possibilities.  The successful perfection of chemical recycling of CO2 into useful fuels renders carbon containing fuels renewable.  In fact, the waste we fear actually transforms into the energy feedstock that will provide virtually unlimited energy required by every society to develop as they wish.  And, all this can be accomplished without risking the environment for our children and grandchildren.  Progress and resource stewardship collide in the ultimate “win-win”.

The individual processes that must be knitted together to convert CO2 from ambient air into liquid transportation fuels are understood and have been technically achievable for some time.

However, these processes are currently inefficient and expensive.  These current approaches require more energy and generate more CO2 than the energy produced and CO2 absorbed.  So, the overall impact of conversion would be energy and CO2 negative…certainly not the desired result.

However, there are recent encouraging breakthroughs that increase process efficiency, utilizing renewable energy sources that are beginning to tip the balance towards effective carbon dioxide recycling.  We often hear that the United States should commit to the equivalent of a Manhattan Project specifically focused on solving the global energy and climate change crisis.  The big question is exactly where to target this massive effort.  If we again challenge ourselves to push past current paradigms, the answer is revealed.

Under current paradigms, we live in that energy poor world.  But, with a broader view of what is possible, we see that we are not actually facing a crisis related to energy availability at all.

Our “crisis” is our limited ability to capture, transport, store and use energy from the source that is all around us…the air.  Once we can break away from the patterns of thought that cloud the horizon, the focus of a Manhattan Project on energy becomes crystal clear.  That focus is end-to-end carbon dioxide capture and reuse as an energy feedstock.

Sandia National Laboratory has been working on passive absorption/desorption technologies that are capable of harvesting CO2 directly from the ambient air.   The first commercial CO2 to methanol recycling plant using locally available and cheap geothermal power is under construction in Iceland by Carbon Recycling International.  Mitsui Chemicals is planning to use solar power at a plant to be built in Japan that will produce methanol from CO2 and H2.

A recently issued patent dated February 14, 2012, Patent Number 8,114,363 B1, details a process for harvesting CO2 and conversion into synthetic liquid fuel.  Titled “System for and Method of Conversion of Electrical Energy into Gaseous and Liquid Fuels”, this patent outlines the steps and means for production of hydrocarbon fuels, including:

  • A collector for collecting carbon dioxide gas
  • A means of reducing a portion of CO2 into carbon monoxide…a critical component of synthetic fuels
  • A means of producing hydrogen…a second critical component of synthetic fuels, and
  • A vessel for thermochemically reacting hydrogen gas with CO2 in a Fischer-Tropsch process in the presence of a catalyst and heat

The process utilizes low grade solar or waste heat to generate electricity to feed the electrolysis process with a metal hydride heat engine to convert heat to electricity.  The metal hydride technology is also utilized to extract carbon dioxide from the environment and to thermally compress hydrogen.  These processes are said to be much more efficient than current technologies to achieve the same ends.

In addition, the process utilizes solar or waste heat…no requirement for fossil fuel sources to power the system.  The combination of an increase in process efficiency and use of alternative sources of electricity allows us to bridge the gap and produce fuels from CO2, achieving positive net energy output on a carbon neutral basis.  The approach described in the patent captures every stream coming off the process with each being utilized in a valuable way.  The CO2, oxygen, hydrogen, water and waste heat are all utilized…maximizing economic and process efficiency.

Undoubtedly, we have a long way to go to get to the Nirvana where the world’s energy needs will be met by simply pulling carbon dioxide right out of ambient air but the picture is becoming clear enough to show us the way.

Changing paradigms is risky…it takes a special kind of leadership to push through the boundaries of established thought.  To modify a Winston Churchill quote referenced by Secretary Mike Wynne in a recent Second Line of Defense article:  “Gentlemen, we have run out of [time], now we have to think.”

The Honorable William C. (“Bill”) Anderson served as Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Logistics and the Air Force Senior Energy Executive under President George W. Bush from 2005-2008.  He can be contacted at [email protected].