Exploring Coal-Based Jet Fuel

Can coal-based jet fuel become a reality? Here's a look at the technology and an update on a military research program.

A coal-based jet fuel intrigues some aviation experts.

"If JP900 is found to be a proper replacement for jet-A (which is kerosene-based), it is conceivable that the jet fleet could eventually switch over to the new fuel after FAA certification," comments Will Alibrandi, an Aero Gas Turbine Analyst for the aviation market analysis firm, Forecast International.

Alibrandi says the big obstacle will be the cost to produce the fuel, compared to the petro-based jet fuels currently being used.

Schobert says the process that creates JP900 can be carried out in existing refineries with some retrofitting, and small amounts of the leftover components will feed into various portions of the petroleum stream. The lighter portions will go to the pool of chemicals that make gasoline and the heavier ones go to the diesel or fuel oil streams.

"The advantages of JP900 would have to be weighed against the cost and environmental considerations, although the applications for such a fuel could be wide ranging," Alibrandi says.

Socialist Technology

This is not the first time coal has been used to produce fuel. In the late 1930s, one of the ways Hitler's National Socialist Party sought economic self-sufficiency for Germany was to replace imported oil with an alternative fuel derived from domestic coal.

When the Allies bombed German oil refineries, the Germans were forced to put the technology into operation. By the end of World War II, they were producing millions of barrels of coal-based fuels.

"It is amazing that we are only now considering replicating technology that existed in production format 60 or more years ago," comments military technology veteran Ned Barnett. Barnett says that as long as petroleum was relatively cheap and plentiful, there was no incentive to confront the entrenched oil industry with alternative technologies.

"After the second OPEC oil embargo, we flirted with many alternate technologies during the Carter years, but once OPEC's back was broken as an effective price-fixing force, those initiatives died away, even when they worked and made sense," he says.

Since cheap, plentiful oil is a thing of the past, one solution may lie in coal-based fuels.

"We clearly have more coal than oil," Barnett says.

Change Takes Time

Barnett doesn't think a switch to coal-based fuels will happen commercially until the country is faced with a stable price of $5 per gallon for gas, and then only if coal gas could provide the same BTU power at a stable price of about $3 a gallon.

The bigger issue pertains to the infrastructure — getting coal-based fuel into a parallel distribution with petro fuels, assuming the oil-based and coal-based fuels couldn't be mixed for technological or regulatory reasons.

"This will be hugely expensive, at least at first and the government will likely have to fund that," Barnett says.

Any transition to coal-based fuel may in fact be led by Asian or European nations, who have less indigenous oil, more available coal, and a growing demand for fuels of all kinds. One thing is certain: Aviation is not likely to be the leader.

"The aviation industry, whose major focus is on safety, is remarkably cautious," Barnett said.

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Douglas Page is a science/technology writer based in Pine Mountain, CA.

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