Coal-fired B-52 bombers

Warplanes: The Air Force, B-52s and Mideast Oil


Next month Air Force test pilots will try something new: flying a B-52 bomber on a fuel mixture that includes synthetic gas made from coal. The test flight is part of an energy-conservation program at the Pentagon that takes into account the potential for more instability in the Mideast, which provides much of the United States’ oil.

I’ve noted this plan before: Working the black seam (remix)

Here’s a road bump:

Environmentalists aren’t fans of the idea. David Hawkins of the National Resources Defense Council says burning coal-based fuel will create the same amount of carbon-dioxide pollution as gas, furthering global warming. “The standards we have for carbon-dioxide pollution will only get stricter in the next 10 to 20 years,” says Hawkins, who heads the group’s climate center. “An institution like the Defense Department needs to be thinking beyond just alternatives that will cause the same amount of damage.”

Mr. Hawkins seems confused. He apparently thinks the Air Force is doing this to address the pollution issue. They aren’t.

According to this article, in Fiscal 2005 the USAF used 3.2 billion gallons of aviation fuel, which was 52.5% of the fossil fuel used by the US government, at a cost of $4.7 billion.

For more depth on the military’s fuel situation, see Pentagon and Peak Oil: A Military Literature Review.


  1. OK, now this is smart. The US (and Australia and other countries) have massive amounts of coal. Synthesizing fuel from coal is somewhat expensive, but with the price of oil, it’s starting to become semi-competative. Of course it’s practical, the Germans did it all through World War 2. The more fuel is made from coal, the less oil has to be burnt, which means lower oil prices from reduced demand, and lower dependence on foreign sources of oil. If the US could reduce oil consumption to a leve which could be supplied by, say, Mexico and Canada, that would make the situation a lot less risky if war broke out. I agree, that guy is missing the point. Nobody has proved so far that CO2 causes any damage. In fact some believe it’s a benefit as it enhances plant growth. Besides which, if there’s anywhere that we can replace vehicles with those that don’t output net CO2 (which pretty much requires nuclear power or else the use of ethanol/vegetable oil), it’s not going to be aircraft any time soon, especially military aircraft which need high performance.

  2. Having done thermodynamics during my University course maybe I have some sort of standing on this subject – but you don’t even need that to understand the following: Man is using more and more energy. If a person is to use more energy, large amounts of this energy is lost due to inefficiency. Where does this energy go? You heat up your house, the heat stays in, the more you heat it, the hotter it gets. It won’t get any cooler till you decide to stop heating it. It really does not matter what kind of gas we produce – providing that we always use natural resources and not energy from the sun or wind – we will always be putting more energy into the atmosphere. Simple, yet we still seem to want to blame it on CO2 emmisions. How about we just concentrate all this effort into just reducing the amount of poisonous stuff we put into the atmosphere?

  3. Vstress : the thing is, (a) the amount of energy we put out is pretty pathetic compared to what we receive from the sun and (b) any increased temperature we create only serves to increase the amount of energy radiated back into space. Sure, we might raise the equilibrium temperature 0.001 degrees by adding energy. The only way we’re likely to have any significant effect is if we cause more or less of the incoming solar radiation to be trapped, since it’s such a huge flux compared to our direct contribution. However, experiments show that the effect we have on that balance through changes in the atmosphere is fairly minimal too – well under one degree in total. Ther’s much more natural variation. So I think your conclusion is right, but your reasoning is wrong.

  4. Oh, that is to say, while we don’t have a very significant global impact we sure as hell have a significant local impact. Every look at a city in IR? It’s a stark contrast from the cold unpopulated areas around it. Studies show cities are on average two or more degrees hotter than the surrounding areas. So sure, we increase temperatures (significantly) via two main areas – energy generation (electricity/fuel) and albedo changes (e.g. tarmac roads and roof tiles). But we do it in relatively small pockets such that the overall global effect is not very large. Having said that, there are clearly cases where humans have dramatically affected local climate (e.g. through deforestation). But I think most cases are not through our direct energy contributions. Anyway, I think we’re getting off-topic. But, I’ve been saying for years, we should ditch coal for electricity generation and use it to synthesize liquid fuel instead, since it’s far more precious as a vehicle fuel, and methods like enuclear are much more appropriate for electrical power generation.

  5. a)- we are not talking about a large change in temperature, neither are we talking about one that has happened overnight. This change has been a gradual one. If we do not let it cool down, it will never do so. In equation form: A=Suns heat energy B=Energy we add Originally: heat in earth = A Now: heat in earth = A + B If this is a constant over time – clearly there is going to be a rise in temperature. Providing of course that the equilibrium is at constant A. b)- of course it gets irradiated back into space. Space is our energy dump. But, this does not mean that the thermodynamics suddenly become different. Recall that the amount of energy expelled into space most likely does not vary linearly.

  6. Right, but I guess what I’m pointing out is that B is insignificant compared to A. There’s nearly one kilowatt per square meter coming in at the top of the atmosphere from the sun. What’s human energy output divided over every square meter of the planet? Probably 0.001W or something like that. Surely well under a watt. If you accept it’s a 1000:1 ratio at least, that means if we change the atmosphere to capture 0.1% of the incoming solar radiation, that will have a bigger difference to the energy budget than all the energy we output otherwise.

  7. I’ll be brief, since I am at work. The atmosphere is 99% pemeable to radiation, both in and out. 97-99% of that 1% absorbtion is from Water Vapor. Water vapor on average lasts 1 week in the atmosphere, and as such, needs forcings to keep it in the air. The remeaining 1-3% is mostly from lots of CO2 and some Methane, other gasses. Varying CO2 varies greatly Water Vapor because increasing water vapor is senstive to heat, and thus increases itself . As noted, Greenhouse gasses do not increase heat retention lInearly, but logorithmicaly; due to the earth being a sphere, and due to the gasses interfereing with each other and other phenomenon. None of this has much to do with keeping bombers flying though. Any idea of non-carbon based fuels? Which will also work in existing planes’ engines? Hydrogen? (And yeah I know H is mostly made form fossils atm)