Is There A Synthetic Fuel In Your Future?

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Jet fuel prices are going nowhere but up, according to conventional wisdom, but there may be an unconventional alternative in the near future. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) last week flew an eight-engined Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber on a five-plus-hour flight, powered only by a synthetic jet fuel. The flight was dubbed a success both by the Air Force and the fuel's manufacturer, Tulsa, Okla.-based Syntroleum Corporation, and follows a similar test flight earlier in the year. Both flights took off from and recovered to Edwards Air Force Base in California. As wider unrest threatens traditional petroleum resources in the Middle East and as industry observers disagree on whether "peak oil" has been reached, the U.S. military is moving forward with plans for half of its turbine fuel to be synthetically derived by the next decade. The next research phase for the new fuel will be cold-weather testing and use in USAF tanker aircraft, newer models of which use engines derived from civilian powerplants. In fact, according to the Los Angeles Times, the fuel may already have been used in Air Force One. "Air Force officials said the only other time that a U.S. aircraft may have used the fuel was when Air Force One flew to South Africa, where the country used the alternative fuel during an oil embargo," the newspaper reported.

While Syntroleum clearly is looking to snag a long-term Pentagon contract for its fuel, the company may not have to wait long until oil prices rise to the point its more-expensive synthetic blend becomes cost-effective for civilian users. According to the U.S. Air Transport Association (ATA), the cost/benefit threshold may lie in the $38-to-$50-per-barrel price range. As this issue of AVweb's BizAv was being finalized, crude oil prices were hovering around $63 a barrel. The ATA believes a synthetic fuel made from using technology similar to Syntroleum's "offers the most promise as a near-term alternative aviation fuel, as it appears to meet current specifications and require little or no aircraft redesign." Whether last week's successful test, combined with high oil prices, will mean fleets of bizjets flying around on synthetic fuels remains to be seen, however. Among major hurdles is the need for a full-scale manufacturing plant, which observers estimate would cost as much as $1 billion.