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The New York Times: Air Force Hopes to Cut Oil’s Role in Fuel

Published: June 18, 2007

The United States Air Force has decided to push development of a new type of fuel to power its bombers and fighters, mixing conventional jet fuel with fuels from nonpetroleum sources that could eventually limit military dependence on imported oil.

The decision will open a contest between fuel refiners and other companies to produce a jet fuel composed of no more than 50 percent petroleum. The plan is to be announced at the Paris Air Show by the secretary of the Air Force, Michael W. Wynne; the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, Marion C. Blakey; and other American officials.

“The goal is to certify the entire fleet by 2010 with a 50-50 mix,” said Paul Bollinger, an Air Force official who is working on a shift to synthetic fuels.

That may be out of reach, but at the same time the commercial aviation industry also appears to be swinging behind synthetic fuels, for different reasons.

At the annual conference of the International Air Transport Association in Vancouver, British Columbia, this month, many airline officials acknowledged that they had failed to persuade environmentalists and politicians in Europe that they were doing enough to clean up flying.

Airlines until now have argued that the fuel efficiency of modern aircraft could stabilize emissions of global warming gases despite the rising volume of air traffic. In Vancouver, they recognized a need to switch tack.

“Climate change will limit our future,” said Giovanni Bisignani, the association’s chief executive, “until we change our approach from technical to strategic.”

While airlines are reacting to political pressure and a desire to use less fuel, the Air Force wants to be certain that fuel is always available during a conflict or domestic crisis. It also hopes to ease the impact of rapidly rising international oil prices. The Air Force burned 3.2 billion gallons of aviation fuel in fiscal 2005, or 52.5 percent of all fossil fuel used by the government, federal statistics show.

The enthusiasm of both civil and military fliers has raised the incentive for the energy industry to produce cleaner fuels rapidly, and various companies have approached airlines with proposals. But there are no quick and easy solutions.

Today’s most popular alternative fuel, made from corn, is not suitable for use in aviation. “Corn doesn’t have the B.T.U.’s for jet fuel,” Mr. Bollinger said, referring to the British thermal unit, a measure of energy. Richard L. Altman, executive director of an industrywide group called the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, said fuels would most likely be developed in three phases, beginning with a focus on creating liquid fuels from nonrenewable resources like coal and natural gas.

An Air Force B-52 bomber flew a successful test earlier this year on a blend of jet fuel and fuel produced from natural gas. Sasol of South Africa and Shell Oil Products have been certified to supply fuel blends for tests.

The problem is that these fuels can produce even more carbon dioxide than petroleum-based fuels.

Richard Branson, the chief executive of the Virgin Group, is also working with Boeing and General Electric to test a Boeing 747 with alternate fuels.

Over the next five to 15 years, which Mr. Altman called a midterm period, other fuels are likely to emerge based at least in part on renewable resources. Over the longer run, he predicted breakthroughs on much cleaner fuels that may be produced without using petroleum.

Mr. Bollinger said that one of the promising long-run sources of clean fuel may be sea algae, using excess CO2 from the fuel-making process to grow algae more rapidly and to create more feedstock.

For the airlines, time may be too short to wait for that kind of solution. While the United States military and scientists are working on future-generation fuels, environmentalists are seeking to turn the industry into a symbol of the global warming problem.

So far, that message has mostly resonated in Europe, but for aviation, said Ms. Blakey, the F.A.A. administrator, the issue is lurking like “an alligator in a murky pool.” The alligator, she said, “could come up and bite us.”

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