US warplanes can fly faster, carry additional weapons load using advanced fuels and biofuels: new data

May 21, 2012 |

The Blue Angels, flying F/A-18 Hornet supersonic fighters

Storm breaks out between US military leaders and House Republicans.

Can the US afford to deploy fuels with advanced war fighting capabilities? Republicans say, for now, “no”.

WASHINGTON, DC — May 21 — New tests conducted at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base have revealed that US warplanes are capable of flying faster and carry more payload on missions, when flying with synthetic fuels, including biofuels, compared to conventional military jet fuels made from petroleum.

The increased performance of biofuels could allow, for example, a fully loaded F/A-18 SuperHornet supersonic fighter to carry one additional missile during military operations.

According to Air Force special advisor on energy and fuels, Omar Mendoza, the Pentagon has authorized additional testing with General Electric, Rolls-Royce, and Pratt & Whitney to confirm the findings from the Air Force Research Laboratory, based at Wright Patterson AFB, near Dayton, Ohio.

Mendoza added that, if the results seen at the extensive Wright-Patterson engine testing labs are confirmed, outcomes could include consideration of next generation engines that can take full operational advantage of the breakthrough in warplane performance.

House bill to prevent use of high performance fuels

The revelation of the test results comes less than one week after the House Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the 2013 Defense appropriation bill that would prevent US armed forces from purchasing high performance biofuels for military operations, unless they cost less than conventional fossil fuels.

Passage of the bill, which is now moving towards consideration by the full House, raises the possibility that US military pilots could be forced, during periods of low prices for conventional fossil fuels, to carry one less missile, fly slower or be restricted in range, during operational missions.

Reduced metal fatigue

Mendoza offered the briefing at a roundtable meeting organized Friday in Washington by the US Navy, Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy, attended by high level government officials, congressional staff, and fuel industry executives. Mendoza said that the Wright-Patterson tests had shown that renewable fuels were lowering engine temperatures by 135 degrees, owing to absence of impurities found in conventional fossil fuels.

When those impurities burn, he explained, it causes high temperatures to radiate throughout the engine, causing an acceleration in metal fatigue. “At the temperatures that military jet engine perform at, an additional 25 degrees in temperature can shorten the life of the engine by half,” Mendoza said. He added that the preliminary data showed that engine parts could last up to 10 times longer, if the new high performance fuels were employed in place of conventional fossil fuels.

Metal weakening from sustained high temperatures, as most readers will recall, resulted in the collapse of three World Trade Center buildings following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The Air Force’s chief engineers, Mendoza said, had been briefed about the test results but would need to undertake a highly detailed review in order to quantify any operational or capital cost savings that could be achieved by changing the fuel mix.

He added that the tests showed that drop-in renewable fuels had, for the same volume, 7 percent less mass, which lowered the weight of the plane when fully fueled, and made it possible for the jets to fly faster, farther, or carry more payload.

Industry reaction

Renewable fuels executives attending the roundtable were pleased but cautious about the new data.

“First of all,” explained Imperium Renewables CEO John Plaza, “it’s important news if it gets confirmed, but we have to wait for that confirmation. This has to be based on science. Second, the Air Force is doing so much testing on coal to liquid fuels that I would be surprised if this data didn’t also apply to those technologies, which also produce a synthetic fuel.”

Other observers also took a cautionary approach to the reports, although they confirmed that superior performance potential was something that had been talked about for years in the military and fuels communities, but only testing facilities like the AFRL at Wright-Patterson had had the technical capability to measure and quantify the gains.

Although Senate energy staffers attended the briefing, no House staff were on hand, owing to the heavy calendar of activities surrounding the imminent House vote on Defense appropriations for 2013.

Activity on Capitol Hill

Activity on Capitol Hill relating to defense appropriations has intensified in recent weeks. In addition to the proposed House ban on high performance fuels (unless they cost the same or less than conventional fuels), Administration officials have been lobbying strongly for permission to shift up to $70 million in Navy appropriations to support the commercialization, at parity with the price of conventional fuels, of the high performance renewables fuels.

The Defense Production Act

Last year, President Obama issued a finding that the fuels were vital to US national security, triggering Title III provisions in the Defense Production Act, which is used by the Pentagon to solve chicken-and-egg problems in sourcing new technologies that are considered vital to US war fighting capabilities.

For example, the Defense Production Act was invoked several years ago when there was  a public outcry over US troops wearing insufficient body armor – allowing the Pentagon to rapidly guarantee sufficient demand for the body armor so that it could be produced commercially by defense suppliers, and supplied quickly to US troops serving in the Middle East.

Last year, Air Force Undersecretary Erin Conaton underscored the chicken-and-egg problem in comments to AFP. “The big thing we’re trying to do is to send a clear message to industry that the Air Force wants to be in a position to purchase biofuels and to use that operationally for our fleet. But in order to do that, we need industry to be able to produce in the quantities we need at a cost-competitive price.” Surveying the costs for fuels made in experimental quantities, Conaton added, “The biofuels that are available now are just nowhere near the cost of what we can buy JP-8 for.”

Matthew Seaford, Deputy Director for Defense Production Act Title III activities at the Pentagon, concurred in remarks made at Friday’s briefing, that the situation with advanced biofuels mirrors situations faced dozens of times by the Pentagon for vital materials. “We are not here to provide a subsidy. We are here to ensure that commercial production reaches levels where the military can secure the supplies it needs at prices it can afford. We come in once, and we don’t come back.”

A battle has been brewing between the House of Representatives and the Pentagon over funding of sufficient production to bring down the cost of the high-performance fuels to affordable levels, using the Defense Production Act. The House, citing cost concerns, has moved to eliminate or block fuels funding for the Pentagon’s planned Green Strike Force, which would deploy the high performance fuels in a carrier strike group commencing in 2016.

Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert: “This will impede America’s energy security.”

Meanwhile, Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, writing Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, stated: While the Navy does not intend to purchase alternative liquid fuels for operational use until they are price-competitive with petroleum-based fuels…I support the Secretary of the Navy’s efforts with the Departments of Energy and Agriculture to accelerate the establishment of a mastic alternative fuels industry through the Defense Production Act Title III. The provision in HR 4310m, section 314 would restrict the Navy’s ability to pursue access to alternative energy sources to power the Fleet. I believe this will impede America’s energy security.”

Earlier, Admiral Greenert noted, in his CNO Sailing Directions that “our primary mission is war fighting…the reach and effectiveness of ships and aircraft would be greatly expanded over the next 10 to 15 years, and added that the Navy would “use new technologies and operating concepts to sharper our war fighting advantage against evolving threats.”

Speaking at the Naval Energy Forum last October, Admiral Greenert added “Energy translates to warfighting now and it translates in the future,” said Greenert. We are making tangible progress on the [energy] challenge the Secretary has given us.”

Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy Tom Hicks

Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy Tom Hicks echoed those remarks in a keynote address at the Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference, held last month in Washington DC. “It would be helpful, in our view, if we were not buying fuel from people who do not like us,” he said.

US Navy Secretary Ray Mabus: “We would never give these countries the opportunities to build our ships, our aircraft, our ground vehicles…”

US Navy Secretary Ray Mabus made a similar point in remarks made in a recent C-SPAN interview. “We’re moving away from [fossil fuels] for one reason, that it makes us better war fighters. We would never give these countries the opportunities to build our ships, our aircraft, our ground vehicles, but we give them a vote in whether those ships sail and whether those aircraft fly or those ground vehicles operate when we allow them to set the price and the supply of our energy and we’ve just got to move away from it.”

Vice Adm. Philip Cullom: “Alternative fuels that are drop-in replacements, assures our performance and mobility

Vice Adm. Philip Cullom, until this year serving as director, Chief of Naval Operations Energy and Environmental Readiness Division, commented, “Our Navy is working to be resilient to any potential energy future. Pursuing sustainable resources, such as alternative fuels that are drop-in replacements, assures our performance and mobility while protecting us from the volatility of the fossil fuel market.”

Former Supreme NATO Commander Wesley K. Clark: “the single greatest US policy failure of the past 40 years.”

Former Supreme NATO Commander Wesley K. Clark, addressing the Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference, described the the failure to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, because of early-stage price concerns, as “the single greatest US policy failure of the past 40 years.”

Operation Free group of retired Generals and Admirals

A group of retired generals and admirals, members of the Operation Free project at the Truman National Security Project, echoed the same ideas in a letter to Senate Armed Services chairman Carl Levin and ranking minority member John McCain.

“We, the undersigned veterans of the United States military, join security leaders of both parties in recognizing that America’s reliance on oil is a serious threat to our national security. We call on Congress to support the military as it leads the way in developing the next generation of secure, clean energy sources We cannot drill our way out of the problem of energy security. Even if we flood the market with every drop of oil in both our proven and strategic reserves, it will not be enough to offset rising global demand. Gas prices would still remain high and OPEC would continue to set the international price of oil.

“The Navy is investing in advanced biofuels programs that will enhance its power-projection capability. The Marines are operationalizing common assets like wind and solar power to decrease energy vulnerability. These initiatives have been undertaken in partnerships with American firms and are creating jobs for American workers.

Reaction from Congress

Republicans argued that the US could not afford the defense investment, and Virginia Republican congressman Randy Fowler lambasted Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, at a congressional hearing, for seeking $70 million to ensure sufficient production of the fuels in order to meet military demand.

“You’re not the secretary of the energy, you’re secretary of the Navy,” the Virginia Republican told Secretary Mabus. “I love green energy. I’m not against it,” Forbes said. “It’s a matter of priorities.”

House Republicans were outraged last year when the US Navy invested $12 million to purchase high performance fuels from companies such as Solazyme and Dynamic Fuels (a joint venture of Syntroleum and Tyson Foods), to conduct certification and safety tests across more than one dozen military aircraft, including a precision flying test by the Blue Angels.

Some Members of Congress, however, oppose these programs, and in turn have faced withering criticism from the military community.

They choose to waste time by advocating policies that have already proven to be failures and attack the military for investing in prudent measures that will save lives,” said the group of military leaders signing the Operation Free letter.

Technical fuel performance

“Synthetic Paraffinic Kerosene is a subset of conventional jet fuel but without the aromatics and most of the cycloparaffins,” explained Robert Freerks of RLF Enterprises, the father of SPK fuels dating back to 1999, when he worked for Syntroleum.

“There is nothing new in the fuel, only the lack of some things that are found in conventional fuels.  The major difference is the aromatics content, which impacts several performance attributes of the fuel including net heat content, temperature of combustion (and radiant heat release), density, and conductivity.

“SPK have more hydrogen and have less energy per volume, but the lighter SPK blend component has more energy per mass.  The difference is about 4%.  Thus if a plane is maxed out on cargo and limited in mass of fuel it can carry, it will have more energy on board and can fly further on that fuel. Unlike cars and truck, aircraft must lift the mass of fuel they carry and expend energy doing so.  Thus the lighter SPK blended fuels save some fuel consumption simply because they are lighter.  As probably 95% of all flights are not volume limited, this is an instant fuel savings of roughly 2%.

“As for flight range, I noted that the lower density fuel should increase flight range for mass limited flight plans (say an F-18 taking off from a carrier with full armament load and less fuel).  Here the SPK blend weighs something like 1000 kg less than the conventional fuel of the same volume. So, you could add another missile or the like for the same volume of fuel.  Plus the SPK blend will have more energy by about 4-5% than the conventional fuel, slightly increasing range.”

The technical data on heat

“A paper by Linda Blevins of Sandia NL (2003) that indicated that the radiative heat release from aromatics was higher than from paraffins,” explained Dr. Freerks.  “Omar Mendoza mentioned [in 2005-06] that the hot section of the engine is of high concern for reliability and is inspected for failure periodically.  He indicated that a roughly 10C drop in wall temperature results in doubling of the life of the hot section.  As there have been flight accidents due to hot section failures, this is of interest.

“In the end, Omar is correct.  This analysis goes against older thought, so it was resisted by some, [who don’t] didn’t fully understand the multiple issues going on here, the facts and data.”

Price performance

The US Navy is also concerned about the volatile price of conventional fossil fuels. Last year, the Navy was forced to slash training and fleet operations in order to make up for $1 billion in cost overruns, caused by the run-up in oil prices during 2011. Every $1 increase in the cost of a barrel of oil results in a $31 million increase in Navy fuel expenditures.

The Pacific Rim and naval power

House Republican leaders accused the Navy and the Obama Administration of pursuing a green agenda, by employing the fuels, when conventional fuels were available at a lower cost. They also criticized a demonstration of the high performance fuels by a carrier strike group, scheduled for the Pacific Rim military exercises off Hawaii in late July.

Conversely, Chinese authorities have sharply increased their high performance and renewable fuel production targets, at the same time as China is sharply increasing its naval forces, and was reported this past week to have undertaken construction of at least two aircraft carriers, after acquiring its first carrier from Ukraine last year.

As Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times back in 2010, “The Chinese military is seeking to project naval power well beyond the Chinese coast, from the oil ports of the Middle East to the shipping lanes of the Pacific, where the United States Navy has long reigned as the dominant force, military officials and analysts say…in March, Chinese officials told senior American officials privately that China would brook no foreign interference in its territorial issues in the South China Sea.”

The bottom line

“World War Two was a war all about energy,” noted Omar Mendoza. “Take for example the European air theater. British aircraft were struggling to overcome German fighters, because they both ran on 87 octane jet fuel. Then, the US introduced the 100-octane fuel, which allowed the Spitfire to fly faster and higher, because of performance advantages in the fuel.

Wikipedia adds: “With 100 octane fuel the supercharger of the Merlin III engine could be “boosted” [and] This increased power substantially improved the rate of climb, especially at low to medium altitudes, and increased the top speed by 25-34 mph up to 10,000 feet. During the Battle of France and over Dunkirk RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires were able to use the emergency boost….The combination of CS propellers and 100 octane fuel put the British fighters on par with the Luftwaffe.”

Mendoza puts it more simply, and starkly. “Fuel can influence the outcome.”

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