USAF Fuel from Coal

Governor meets with Air Force about Malmstrom coal-to-liquids plant

B-52H taking off from BarksdaleMontana:

Gov. Brian Schweitzer told an Air Force official Tuesday that a coal-to-liquids plant at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls is a great fit for the state.

The governor met with William Anderson, the assistant secretary for installations, environment and logistics, who is working on plans to expand the mission at Malmstrom to build a plant.

Schweitzer said it could make use of Montana’s coal while making a fuel that is cleaner burning. He said the carbon dioxide generated by the process could be injected into the ground in eastern Montana oil fields to enhance oil recovery.

They project they could produce up to 25,000 barrels of fuel per day. The Air Force currently uses over half of the fuel consumed by the US government. The goal is for half of USAF fuel to be synthetic by 2016.

I noted the B-52 tests with this fuel last year: Coal-fired B-52 bombers and up next is the C-17. The service hopes to have all aircraft certified to fly on the stuff by 2011.

Testing synthetic fuels with ground vehicles is also underway.

Of course, the environmentalists are up in arms about this:

At a time when we need to reduce our carbon emissions, liquid coal represents the dirtiest, most expensive and most dangerous energy gamble we could take. For example, driving a hybrid Honda Accord on liquid coal makes it as dirty as driving a Hummer H3…

Rather, let’s put the billions of dollars being proposed for a coal-to-liquid plant at Malmstrom to realize measurable changes and develop renewable energy in ways Montana and the rest of the nation benefit from, as well as their children and grandchildren, for years to come.

As some have noted, environmentalists and the politicians that support them can’t have it both ways.


  1. This coal idea is really ridiculous. I mean, coal is way dirtier than oil, and it’s just very wrong that the Air Force pollutes the air of the world and americans in a such ridiculous way.

  2. Coal is way dirtier than oil’.. uh.. do you have any evidence for that? Coal contains plenty of impurities, but so does oil. I’m pretty sure they’re removed in the process of converting it to a liquid, otherwise it would damage the turbines of the engine. If you want to complain about coal pollution, how about complaining to the Chinese, who just toss the stuff in a furnace and burn it with no purification and no scrubbers? That is exactly the type of ignorant anti-American screed that makes many people look like complete fools.

  3. Pssst: Anyone who read the article I linked to will know that burning the coal-based fuel is far cleaner than burning standard fuel.

  4. I don’t think that the USAF is really too worried one way or the other about the environmental impact beyond keeping decent PR. The more likely goal is to be able to continue their necessary operational tempo in time of war if oil supplies are cut off, like Iran could possible do if left to its own devices. It makes sense to me to have as many options open to your aircraft as possible. Petroleum won’t be around forever, and there are much more coal reserves: I seem to recall around five hundred years worth in this country. For all the folks that think the USA should achieve energy independence, doesn’t this make sense? If electrical production is shifted towards nuclear, as I hope it will be, coal resources will be freed up for these syn-fuel type products. If nuclear electrical production reaches a sufficient capacity, splitting water to get hydrogen will become economically competitive to the alternate petroleum method: hydrogen fuel cells will become viable for cars. If the production of the coal fuel is done with appropriate care to remove pollutants and the C02 sequestered as it sounds they plan to do, this will be at worst an ecological wash. And if all the above is accomplished, we get to radically reduce our oil imports from the nice folks over in the mid-east and Mr. Chavez in Venezuela. Sounds like a good plan to me.

  5. Liquid coal can be made clean with carbon sequestration. Kinder Morgan in Texas already captures over 1 billion cu ft of co2 daily and pumps it underground. The technology works. Ethanol is dirty too and very inefficient and wasteful. We desperately need alternatives to conventional oil – Mexico our number 2 supplier is slated to run bone bare dry in only 9 years. And I don’t get your math. A Hummer H3 gets probably 12-23 mpg. An Accord Hybrid could get upwards of 40 mpg. It is still the cleaner vehicle. The Hummer H2 and Hummer H3 is the real enemy – not clean liquid coal made with carbon sequestration.

  6. Ethanol is not ‘dirty and inefficient’. The process of getting it from corn probably fits that description, but the fuel itself is pretty darn good. Personally I’m glad the USAF is looking into this. I have long been concerned about the fuel aspect of USAF aircraft. The beauty of kerosene is that it provides a lot of energy for a given volume of fuel. Other fuels can supply as much energy for a given weight, but none for that volume. That causes a real problem for aircraft and supersonic aircraft are especially vulnerable to big performance hits if they were to have to switch to alternate fuels. Liquified coal, on the other hand, provides about the same power density as kerosene. One big opportunity I see for making domestic aircraft ‘clean’ is beamed microwave energy. Aircraft could use microwave energy beamed to them from ground stations to heat the air compressed in their engines. This type of airplane could stay airborne forever and would be very reliable as long as the ground power didn’t run out. It would be great for high traffic air corridors. You’d think the libs would be all over this concept.

  7. The problem with corn ethenol is you ruin a food crop to make it. Using sugar like Brazil does is one thing, as its not a food staple, but using something that you eat, and feed animals drives up food costs, and you burn more fuel harvesting and producing the fuel than you get out of the process… Using corn and vegetable based oils is much wiser because its a byproduct of processing food grains, as well as being usable after its been used for cooking. Hell, use waste oil. Filter it and burn it as fuel instead of just sticking it in a waste storage facility and letting it rot. Cant solve it with just that, but its a start, especially for guys like me that can’t afford to live any closer to work and have to drive 30 miles one way just to get there Oh, and did I mention that modern Diesels running on veggie oil run cleaner than gas engines and Diesels running on petrolium products?

  8. Liquid coal can be made clean with carbon sequestration.’ We must have a different definition of ‘clean’. CO2 is perfectly clean. I breathe it out constantly. Soot, unburnt hydrocarbons, nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxide, etc. – those things are not clean. A fuel which burns totally to CO2 and H2O is perfectly clean. You may have some issue with CO2, but I don’t think its cleanliness is that issue.

  9. Ethanol is not dirty at all, at least from sugar cane, and this corn ethanol is just an american aberration.

  10. Coal mined via Mountaintop Removal w/little cleanup requirements = Cheap energy (but there is a significant environemtnal pricetag there somewhere in the future.) Coal mined conventionally = not so cheap but still nicely priced. Coal energy + coal2liquids = higher priced coal Coal energy + C2L + Carbon Sequestration = very highly priced coal An addiioonal source of price-increasing market demand on coal was an MIT discovery that Coal can make great building material when processed right. C2L and Sequestration are not cheap, nor is the environmental price of mountaintop removal. Most of these costs will borne by tax payers in the form of yet more corporate welfare for a doomed industry. They are already begging for the 100s of Millions of dollars necessary to develop sequestration further. There is the additional issues of what to do with all the useless and toxic mercury, a byproduct of coal mining and burning. I suspect it would be easier for coal energy companies to simply buy Carbon-Credits/ Cap-n Trade than to bother with the costs of converting plants to do sequestraion and insuring that the CO2 stays put for the next billion years.

  11. I think you’re missing the point. The USAF is not investing in coal liquification for environmental purposes. They are investing in it for strategic reasons. That’s a very good idea if you like being an American. As for what kind of technologies we should be investigating for environmental purposes, I’ve already covered that.

  12. Hey Dfens, I can’t really environmental purposes as something not strategic, but that is just me i guess.

  13. I don’t see the USAF doing this for environmental reasons either. I do think it is a good idea for them to see if it can be done with existing hardware. My not so subtle point was that increasing the demand for coal by expanding Coal2Liquids and the added energy costs of carbon sequestration with added and possibly hidden environmental costs on coal mining and energy production will price it out of the market …unless there is yet more corporate welfare for the fossil fuel industry. My more cynical self suggests that it is being expanded as a kind of corporate wrlfare for the coal lobbyists. Why else expand Coal2Liquids short of a major war?

  14. The way I see it, it is the job of the US military to think about what they’re going to do if there is another major war. To wait until it is upon us is to wait too late. That’s especially true at the speed things can happen today.