May 14, 2006
US Air Force Plans Shift To Coal Derived Jet Fuel

One of the energy questions I'd most like to find answers for: What is the current cost for making liquid hydrocarbon fuels from various starter materials such as natural gas, coal, shale, and biomass materials? I suspect that at $70 per barrel oil now costs more than the production cost of liquid hydrocarbons from non-oil starter materials. But big money is probably holding back investing in massive Fischer-Tropsch coal conversion facilities out of fear that oil production could surge or demand could slacken and drive oil prices down below the costs of making synthetic. Then the synthetic plants would become huge investment losses. That happened with the Beulah North Dakota Great Plains Synfuels Plant which converts coal to a synthetic equivalent of natural gas.

Well, a New York Times article about a United States Air Force plan to shift toward jet fuels made from coal reports that the USAF and industry sources think coal-to-jet fuel would cost the equivalent of $40 to $45 per barrel oil. If they are correct then current oil prices are above long term sustainable prices.

In a series of tests — first on engines mounted on blocks and then with B-52's in flight — the Air Force will try to prove that the American military can fly its aircraft by blending traditional crude-oil-based jet fuel with a synthetic liquid made first from natural gas and, eventually, from coal, which is plentiful and cheaper.


The Air Force consumed 3.2 billion gallons of aviation fuel in fiscal year 2005, which was 52.5 percent of all fossil fuel used by the government, Pentagon statistics show. The total Air Force bill for jet fuel last year topped $4.7 billion.

Although the share of national energy consumption by the federal government and the military is just 1.7 percent, every increase of $10 per barrel of oil drives up Air Force fuel costs by $600 million per year.

Mr. Aimone said that if the synthetic blend worked, plans called for increasing its use in Air Force planes to 100 million gallons in the next two years.

Air Force and industry officials say that oil prices above $40 to $45 per barrel make a blend with synthetic fuels a cost-effective alternative to oil-based jet fuel.

This is good news. When we reach a world oil production peak the result will not be Mad Max at Thunderdome. Sorry survivalists. Civilization will not collapse due to declining oil production.

I think survivalists should base their civilizational collapse fears around something more possible like, say, a repeat of the Toba supervolcano or something milder like a Mount Tambora explosion repeat. If you are a leftist or Muslim who wants to fantasize a horrible punishment of the United States then the bulge in the Yellowstone Lake area would probably be your best bet. The US would take a big hit if a repeat of the 6,400 centuries ago eruption happened.

When the volcano in Yellowstone National Park blew 6,400 centuries ago, it obliterated a mountain range, felled herds of prehistoric camels hundreds of miles away and left a smoking hole in the ground the size of the Los Angeles Basin.

Though a repeat of the 650,000 years ago eruption would be a major bummer for the entire world. (same event, slightly different time estimate)

This last happened at the Yellowstone volcano approximately 650,000 years ago. The caldera that it left is 53 miles long and 28 miles wide. In the area surrounding Yellowstone, 3000 square miles were subjected to a flow of pyroclastic material composed of 240 cubic miles of hot ash and pumice. Ash was also thrown into the atmosphere and blanketed much of North America. It can still be identified in core samples from as far away as the Gulf of Mexico.

Getting back to energy: Coal alone looks like it could fill in for oil once oil production peaks. Also, cost effective and environmentally acceptable oil shale extraction looks within the realm of the possible. A sudden oil peak that was not expected by the market would probably cost us a severe recession of a few years long while coal conversion plants and other facilities got built. Then the world economy would bounce back and resume growing.

The longer we go before a world oil peak the easier the transition. We'll have more technologies to bring more alternative energy sources online at lower costs. I'd rather we develop the non-fossil fuels versions of those alternatives more quickly because they'll eventually be cheaper than oil and at the same time much cleaner. Clean air and clean water are good!

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 May 14 01:43 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels

Wolf-Dog said at May 14, 2006 4:58 PM:

The other thing that represents a serious danger for the survival of the United States, is the foreign trade deficit, and the overall international competition, which the US is losing. Note that 3 decades ago, the US was a net exporting country, with a trade surplus. This was not just because the US was self-sufficient for raw materials including oil, but far more importantly, the American People were more competitive than other nations in many areas. It is not simply because of the cheaper foreign labor, but also because other nations are catching up and even surpassing the United States. And this is due to the fact that their educational levels are beginning to surpass us. This is a serious challenge, and even AFTER the US achieves energy independence in 15 year, the danger of being left behind in all areas, will be even greater. The trade deficit will soon become intolerable, and the industrial base is almost totally demolished, meaning that even after much lower inflaton adjusted salaries, we will not be able to compete. For this reason, there has to be a national system for increasing and nurturing the level of education beginning at the kindergarten level. Other nations have invested a lot in this area.

Bob Badour said at May 14, 2006 6:22 PM:


The US spends enormous sums on education. That's not the problem.

Wolf-Dog said at May 15, 2006 12:46 AM:

Bob Badour,
The kind of spending on education, is not being done right. It is not the cash, but the quality and dedication that is missing. Cash is necessary, but some kind of cultural revival is needed.

But returning to the main subject of energy independence, the Air Force people seem to be much more patriotic than Bush... Had Bush declared an energy independence project similar to the Manhattan Project, on September 12, 2001, by allocating $100 billion per year, then by now some good results would have surfaced, (since it is almost 5 years after 9/11.)

Here is an article about the Nobel laureate in California, who is working on new energy conversion methods. Due to the importance of the article, I am pasting all of it below:

Termite Digestion May Be the Key to Finding Pollution-Free Energy
Nuri Banister, Science Journalist
Philosophy and Technical Communications, University of Washington

06 April 2005
Termite Digestion May Be the Key to Finding Pollution-Free Energy
13 April 2005

13 April 2005 - The digestive tracts of termites may provide a solution to the ongoing scientific pursuit of pollution-free energy, according to Nobel laureate Steven Chu. At the 2005 Institute of Physics conference at Warwick University, UK this week, Chu spoke of the urgent need to find an environmentally friendly form of fuel to abate the current reliance on polluting fossil fuels.

Chu explained, in his ardent speech to an audience made up of some of the world’s greatest minds, how his research holds the potential for producing ethanol, a cheap and environmentally friendly fuel, from cellulose. He emphasized that his research is only one step forward in a potentially long struggle for a cleaner, sustainably-fueled future, however. He encouraged others to lead by example as he has, and join the effort which “may already be too late.”

Chu received a Nobel Prize for Physics with a colleague in 1997, but has since left his richly-funded position at Stanford University to become Director of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories. Since the move he has been studying how termites digest cellulose (plant matter) and convert it into ethanol, a versatile and popular fuel.
He has been slowly persuading his new colleagues, including 56 members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, to realize the danger of not preparing for the inevitable shift away from fossil fuels, and to change the focus of their research.

Ethanol is currently made chiefly from corn, grown by farmers receiving US subsidy. But the practice isn’t carbon-neutral, meaning that it leads to the release of more carbon into the atmosphere in the form of CO2 than it takes out when the plants are growing. “From the point of view of the environment,” explains Chu, “it would be better if we just burnt oil.”

“But carbon-neutral energy sources are achievable,” Chu adds. In contrast to our current corn refining process, termites can produce ethanol with much greater efficiency, having had a billion years to perfect the process. Moreover, their bodies can digest cellulose in many forms, and aren’t limited only to the grain produced by the corn plant. “The majority of all plant matter is cellulose – a solid, low-grade fuel about as futuristic as burning wood,” says Chu. “If scientists can convert cellulose into liquid fuels like ethanol, the world’s energy supply and storage problems could both be solved at a stroke.”

By exploiting this ability, Chu says, we can use biology as a solution to a pressing world problem.

Dezakin said at May 15, 2006 1:50 AM:

"The other thing that represents a serious danger for the survival of the United States, is the foreign trade deficit, and the overall international competition, which the US is losing."

These pseudo-economic arguments for collapse are goofy and without merit. It doesn't threaten US survival, only a possible recession from a currency devaluation.

"Termite Digestion May Be the Key to Finding Pollution-Free Energy"

Sounds like a fine idea for waste disposal. We could also turn limestone and water into gasoline and diesel fuel using the same FT reactors we used for coal after its gone, using nuclear or solar for the energy inputs.

Paul Dietz said at May 15, 2006 6:07 AM:

As I understand it, you want to design a FT plant so the syngas is not contaminated with nitrogen. This is because the single-pass conversion efficiency of the FT catalyst isn't all that high (maybe 50%?), so unless you recycle the unreacted syngas and low molecular weight products the efficiency will be low. Inert diluents will accumulate during recycle. In some situations, such as when you were planning to burn the syngas anyway in a gas turbine, you don't need to recycle; the marginal efficiency of the FT front end will then be high. I imagine Rentech may be planning to do that at the facility they bought in East Dubuque. But in a dedicated FT plant it's a problem.

You can make syngas without much nitrogen by gasifying with oxygen. However, air separation plants are expensive and don't scale down too well, so this sets a lower limit on the size of the FT plant (the figure I've seen is around 100 MW(th)). I think this is one reason why we're seeing biochemical ethanol production instead of FT biomass -- fermentation plants can be quite small. (Another reason is corrosiveness of molten ash from biomass.)

I think there's room for innovation in gasification systems to work around this problem. Energy could be added by plasma torch, an off-the-shelf technology in waste treatment, although this uses lots of electricity. Another possibility would be to (partially) burn the recycle gas by chemical looping combustion, which will produce a nitrogen-free output stream that can be fed into the gasifier proper.

Kurt said at May 15, 2006 9:51 AM:


The Economist recently had an article on "peak oil" and it will not happen. The article had a chart showing when various conversion technologies (FT, oil shale, tar sands, etc.) become economically competitive. All of them are economically competitive at $65-70 bbl range, which is why OPEC will not allow the price of oil to remain above $70 bbl for very long.

You are correct that the industry is slow to invest in these technologies. Most people in the oil and gas industry are in their 50s, most of the managers are in their 60's. They remember full well the last energy bubble of the late 70's/early 80's and how they all got burned when the oil prices collapsed in the 80's (they still talk about this today). The collapse was devestating to the industry, much like the dot-bomb collapse was to the IT/software industry. They are not about to repeat the same experience again, if they can help it.

FT is an old technology. More efficient methods of coal gasification, using nano-catylists, have been recently developed. FT was the method used by the Nazis as well as South Africa during apartied.

bigelow said at May 15, 2006 10:51 AM:

From a make money perspective owning coal is the way to go. Coal to jet fuel, coal to diesel, to syngas, to fertilizer and to chemical feed stocks! In twenty years with all the increased demands on coal we will have PEAK COAL. So again survival comes up; sure alot can happen in twenty years. But not to worry, as Lord Keynes said, “in the long run we’ll all be dead.”

Paul Dietz said at May 15, 2006 12:16 PM:

FT is an old technology. More efficient methods of coal gasification, using nano-catylists, have been recently developed.

Somehow, I doubt you have any idea what you are talking about.

Engineer-Poet said at May 15, 2006 3:15 PM:

F-T is limited by:

  1. The feasible rate of coal mining.
  2. The ability to construct plants.
  3. The availability of water.
  4. The ability to sequester CO2 or manage the climate impacts

IM<HO, it is foolish to spend so much money and accept so many consequenses just so that we can use the same old dirty, wasteful engines.  We really should be converting to electricity, which we can make from more than just coal.

Of course, the fossil-fuel shills don't want that to happen, because they'd lose a huge amount of future revenue if they had competition.  It's kind of like the ADM demanding a tariff on Brazilian ethanol; they want to OWN the market for vehicular energy.  We should demand that they not be allowed to have it.

The need for jet fuel is actually rather small compared to total petroleum consumption.  It might be feasible to produce it as a byproduct of zinc reduction for vehicular zinc-air fuel cells.  The thermochemical reduction process converts carbon and ZnO to Zn and CO; CO can be steam-reformed to a mixture of CO and H2, which is a perfect F-T feedstock.  If you start with bio-charcoal, you get your vehicular "fuel" and jet fuel with zero carbon emissions and you can even sequester the CO2 from the steam-reforming step to make the process carbon-negative.

AKA Sheila said at May 15, 2006 4:06 PM:

Here's video of a Fox news story about a guy who invented a welding torch and then a car that run on water converted into HHO via an electrolysis process. He has been invited to demo it for congrss and is working on a water-powered humvee for the pentagon.

The welding flame is only warm to the touch, but when the flame touches anything it becomes super hot (the newsguy said "as hot as the sun". It burns a hole in a brick in seconds and melts a ball of brass in 3 seconds.

Anyway, I'm skeptical, and I halfway think this might be disinformation to make the Ahmadinejads of the world feel less secure, but it sure would be cool if it were true. Anybody care to comment on the science?

(Randall, your new "feature that requires a weblog commenter to wait a short amount of time before being able to post again" won't let me post at all. I forgot to put my email there at first, and got an error, and now it won't let me post even though I waited over an hour. Now I'm going to try a different name, on the off chance that it is blocking my name rather than IP address.)

Tom said at May 15, 2006 4:36 PM:

Um...from my recollection of high school science classes, electrolysis requires a good bit of electricity. So why not cut out the middle man (and all the energy waste from heat loss) and run the car on electricity? What am I missing here?

In other words - water is not a fuel. The guy is a quack.

Randall Parker said at May 15, 2006 6:28 PM:


At what price in dollars per barrel does each substitute become competitive? Do you still have the article?


I'm all for converting to electricity for transportation. We really should be spending a couple of billion a year on electrochemistry research.

AKA Sheila,

I tried changing a setting to turn off the minimum timeout period between posts. Now that I have the security code feature that setting isn't necessary. Please let me know if the problem recurs.

Randall Parker said at May 15, 2006 6:33 PM:


I do not see any bottlenecks in your list of limits for coal-to-liquid. I figure if oil stays expensive then people will ignore the CO2 part of it and push ahead on the other parts. We can certainly scale up coal mining. We can pipe in water. Plants can get constructed very rapidly once the market comes to believe that oil prices will stay high.

Klaus said at May 15, 2006 11:11 PM:

FYI - a few weeks ago Instapundit linked to a Popular Mechanics article that broke down the various costs of producing 5 or 6 different types of fuels.

Nick said at May 16, 2006 8:16 AM:

"We can pipe in water."

hmmm. The cheapest coal is in Wyoming. That area is desperately short of water. Farmers are being put out of business by dropping water tables. The Colorado river has been reduced to a trickle by the time it gets to Mexico. A pipeline from the Pacific would take decades, I would think, and I don't even know how you would handle the salt content (seems like an energy loser to desalinate it). You'd have an enormous fight on your hands if you proposed using the Great Lakes (it took years for the western suburbs of Chicago to get access to Lake Michigan water for domestic consumption).

Where are you thinking we can pipe it from?

Paul Dietz said at May 16, 2006 9:41 AM:

The cheapest coal is in Wyoming. That area is desperately short of water. Farmers are being put out of business by dropping water tables.

The FT process will consume water in at most a 1-1 ratio for the liquid hydrocarbon produced (assuming the water coming out of the FT reactor is recycled, as it would be.) If diesel goes for $80/barrel, you could make about $500,000 worth of diesel per acre-foot of water. Good farmland irrigated with the same amount of water will yield orders of magnitude less value.

What this shows is that agriculture is enormously water-intensive, compared to chemical processes. If FT is profitable, Wyoming would come out way ahead shutting down irrigation and switching the water to fuel production.

Paul Dietz said at May 16, 2006 12:47 PM:

I want to add that the cost of shipping freight by rail in the US is around 2.3 cents per ton-mile. Sending an acre-foot of water 1000 miles by rail would cost about $30K, which could be affordable for this purpose. Of course closer sources, and transport by pipelines, would be cheaper.

Engineer-Poet said at May 16, 2006 1:35 PM:

Let me quote from an article on Wyoming energy:

One reason that a 780 megawatt coal-fired generating complex seems unlikely ever to poke its smokestacks into the sky between Roundup and Billings is a lack of sufficient water, either in the Bull Mountains or in the Musselshell River 15 miles north.

Consider that a coal-fired powerplant does not use water for combustion; it needs some boiler make-up water and some for the cooling system.  Yet the local supplies are insufficient for a 780 megawatt powerplant, burning perhaps 7300 tons/day of coal.

A 10,000 bbl/day F-T effort would have both process water needs and large cooling needs.  Its output would be the power equivalent of about 700 MW, at perhaps twice the throughput efficiency of the electric plant.  Between its liquid output and cooling requirements, it would probably use about as much water.  If you can't find the water for the electric plant, where would you get the water for even 10k bbl/day of F-T plant?

What happens to your F-T fuel cycle if the climate scientists are right and dumping CO2 in the air will make that area even drier?

F-T fuel from coal is a bad idea in general; doing it in Wyoming or Montana is downright foolhardy.

Engineer-Poet said at May 16, 2006 2:28 PM:

Another claim from here:

1 million bbl/day of synfuel would require almost 2.5 times the Tongue River's annual flow (page 4).

Randall Parker said at May 16, 2006 5:27 PM:


How about getting the water from the Missouri river by pipeline? Seems like it has a lot of water

The Missouri River reservoir system is the largest in the United States with a storage capacity of 74 million acre feet and a surface area exceeding one million acres. The six dams built in Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota transformed one-third of the Missouri River ecosystem into lake environments.

The original development plan called for a series of reservoirs to be built in order to lessen the effects of flooding in the lower basin and provide flows for navigation below Sioux City, Iowa. Upper basin benefits included irrigation and power generation. Though irrigation never developed as planned, economically important sport fisheries in the reservoirs and below the dams have developed.

I think Paul Dietz's point is compelling. A plant could buy water rights from farmers.

Randall Parker said at May 16, 2006 5:33 PM:

How about buying water from Canada? Say buy Alberta water and pipe it down to North Dakota to run F-T coal conversion plants in North Dakota?

Heck, why not bring the water from the Mississippi during floods and dump it in some big reservoirs?

The California aqueduct shows what large scale engineering projects can accomplish.

Engineer-Poet said at May 16, 2006 9:11 PM:

Alberta?  The Athabasca river appears to be fully-subscribed for tar sands production.  To get serious water it looks like you need to go to the west side of the Rockies, or even the Cascades.

I'll let you calculate the EROEI impact of pumping a river's worth of water some hundreds of miles cross-country and uphill.

Remember, all of this is so that we can continue to burn the synthetic fuel (produced at perhaps 65-75% efficiency) in drivetrains getting as little as 15% efficiency themselves.  It's ludicrous, like trying to put little steam engines inside your oscillating fan and kitchen blender.  Using central generation to make electricity is far superior in many ways.  It's time for all new vehicles to be PHEV's.

Paul Dietz said at May 17, 2006 6:24 AM:

If water is used for cooling, you can estimate the minimum consumption by assuming that all the waste heat goes into evaporating water (this is the right measure if evaporative cooling towers are used, I think). If the FT plant is 50% efficient (that is, for each unit of fuel produced, you produce the same energy unit of waste heat), then the water evaporated will be about 20 times the water consumed in the gasification/FT conversion.

Clearly, if water is a truly serious constraint, you'd rather not use wet cooling. It seems that a company already has a 300 MW dry-cooled coal fired plant in Wyoming, with an expansion in the works. Dry (air) cooling is several times the cost of a wet cooling system, but will add only several percent to the total capital and operating costs of a coal-fired powerplant vs. use of evaporative cooling towers. I suspect the percentage cost increment for a FT plant would be even lower.

Paul Dietz said at May 17, 2006 1:02 PM:

It's ludicrous, like trying to put little steam engines inside your oscillating fan and kitchen blender.

Nonsense! Your precious PHEVs are not used not because of some societal attachment to Rube Goldberg solutions, but because the alternative, the IC engine vehicle, is economically superior, even at current fuel prices, and will remain so until battery costs come down significantly. Even when that happens, the Air Force is not going to start flying PHEV fighter jets, nor will ships, long distance trucks, and trains (significant users of diesel fuel) stop every 200 miles to recharge their batteries.

Engineer-Poet said at May 18, 2006 2:38 PM:

If you do an economic analysis and include the real cost of gasoline (including defense expenditures and environmental costs), I bet you'll find that batteries are already cheaper.  They are close to parity now at $3/gallon nominal cost.  If we get either the Firefly Energy carbon-foam cells or the EEStor ultracap, it's going to slaughter the market for gas-only vehicles.

Railroads are not huge users of diesel (about 10% the usage of trucks, despite moving greater tonnage) but rail lines can be electrified with relative ease; both France and Japan run their trains mostly on electricity.  Trucks can be turned into dual-mode road/rail vehicles (see the Blade Runner) at a considerable fuel savings, and electrification of those rail lines would allow almost complete conversion as well.

Aircraft and ships are what remains.  If they are all we have to worry about, I think we'd be in pretty good shape.

Nick said at May 18, 2006 7:53 PM:

"Aircraft and ships are what remains"

and maybe not so much ships: It looks like wind propulsion may be able to cut long-distance shipping costs by about 50%...

It's astonishing what can be done with modern materials, computer-aided design, and electronic control systems, to turn the old new again..

Randall Parker said at May 18, 2006 8:33 PM:


Great link. This surprised me:

A study from the University of Delaware in 2003 found that the world shipping fleet (including military vessels) consumes approximately 289 million tons of fuel (about 2 billion barrels, or about 5.5 million barrels per day) annually, with 80% of that represented by heavy fuel oil (HFO). That’s a figure about twice what was earlier thought, and hence with twice the emissions load.

5.5 million barrels a day is a lot of oil. It is about a quarter of what the US burns per year but just spent on ships. At $70 per barrel it is $140 billion per year. Cutting the need for oil in half by using wind power would reduce oil costs by $70 billion per year.

Once very lightweight and thin photovoltaic materials become available I wonder how much of ship energy could come from solar power.

Also, while the sail approach described in the Green Car Congress report requires that wind blow in a direction somewhat related to the ship's direction materials advances might make more conventional wind power captured with turbines workable for ships. Imagine ships driven by photovoltaics, sails, and turbines.

Paul Dietz said at May 19, 2006 5:16 PM:

Railroads are not huge users of diesel (about 10% the usage of trucks, despite moving greater tonnage) but rail lines can be electrified with relative ease; both France and Japan run their trains mostly on electricity.

In the US, where freight rail traffic is not subsidized and population density is lower, this isn't economical.

richard gagne said at October 18, 2006 10:22 AM:

All cooling towers, gas separation condensing loops, carbon capture via cooling precipitation and cooling needs in general, above, say, the 40th parallel should be looking at seasonal thermal energy storage systems, (snow pit, ice pond, borehole, binary ice superstructures). Cooling towers are very difficult to operate in winter, blow downs are a major source of water waste and pollution, can not take full advantage of winter ambient, (weak air to fluid heat exchange). A snow made brine can be ramped down to -(minus)50C, a very valuable step in gas separation. In a closed system, brine recovery and backwash filtration keep disposal volumes and water usage to a minimum. In an open system, the gasses could be air sparged through the binary ice vessel, adjusting the ph of the brine to make available free calcium ions could be tailored to precipitate carbon compounds, (calcium carbonate or?), and insoluble gasses recaptured. Winter cooling capacity is limited only by snow production and dewatering capacity. For this reason, seasonal binary ice storage in a cement and foam dome, (r-60 off the shelf), could be aided by freezing the pea gravel back fill of a below grade dome and ceramic thermal coatings. Even with these extra measures, the construction cost of said dome is roughly the same per volume as a cooling tower, but far exceeds in cooling capacity.

The way water treaties are between US and Canada, any sale or diversion of water to the US can never be taken back or renegotiated, a slippery slope.

dr johnny floyde said at June 3, 2008 11:07 AM:

dr mr parker,

my company would like to talk to the air force about this coal gasification project.
we have expertise in converting coal to gas and gasoline stocks.
we understand they are looking for a company to do this and to give them a reasonable price
for long term jet fuels etc.
is there a contact person or group that we could speak to.
dr johnny floyde
southern cross energy development

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