Coal-to-Liquids in Defense Authorization Bill

Hopes that the Air Force would abandon CTL may have been premature. There is a backdoor approach in the works. According to Politico,

Democrats have all but pushed coal out of the clean energy debates, but the coal lobby might have found a new tap into the U.S. Treasury: the Pentagon.

The Defense Authorization Bill now being debated in the Senate includes a provision that would allow energy companies to sign 10-year contracts with the military to produce synthetic fuel.

The article goes on to describe the history behind the coal-to-liquids push at the Air Force. It quotes former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne as saying:

It was really about minimizing the impact on American society for the energy crisis and using the marketplace as a lever to induce a different future. That’s one of the things a military department can and should do.

So the Air Force seeks “to induce a different future” for the US: one of worsened global warming. Is that what a military department “should do?” Perhaps it’s not surprising that the Bush Administration is using the Pentagon as a back-door for pushing an energy deal that is so destructive to the climate, since a ruined climate means more regional wars and crises for the Pentagon to deal with (see “The moving Fingar writes: Reduced Dominance Is Predicted for U.S.“)!

A pro-CTL group reports the Pentagon isn’t waiting for the above bill. DARPA plans to spend $4.5 million to support demonstration projects.

In other news, General Electric president Jeff Immelt in a joint announcement with Google today said Thursday of jumpstarting the clean energy transition, “I don’t think this is hard. I’d say health care is hard. Solving the U.S. health care system (is hard). Energy actually isn’t hard. The technology exists. Doesn’t need to be invented. It needs to be applied.” Too bad the Air Force hasn’t gotten that message.

–Earl K.

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12 Responses to Coal-to-Liquids in Defense Authorization Bill

  1. Jay Alt says:

    The firms involved in coal-to-liquid are busily Greenwashing by claiming a gasification process can use bio-feedstocks. It’s possible but won’t happen anytime soon – there are no systems for growing and gathering feedstocks. The proposed CTL plants are sited at the mine mouth.

  2. You can do many things with electricity. Flying airplanes isn’t one of them. This is why the future of airlines is so questionable. It is also why the air force is interested in liquid fuel from coal. they need secure sources of liquid fuel. Coal provides one.

  3. Earl Killian says:

    Robert Armstrong, if we dramatically reduce our use of petroleum for personal transportation, then the US will be producing plenty of it to fuel the Air Force. The highest priority should be the shift away from fossil-derived fuel for cars. It solves the Air Force’s problem for decades. While it is difficult to see biofuels powering but a small fraction of car miles, having them power airplanes seems quite plausible.

    About the last thing we need is a coal-to-liquids push. It solves nothing that cannot be better solved by other methods.

  4. David B. Benson says:


    can be applied to any biomass feedstack. Doesn’t have to be coal.

  5. Earl Killian says:

    David Benson, that’s true, but there are several points to consider.

    (1) The particular plants being proposed for the Air Force would run on coal. Please note in the cited article, it said for example,

    Out of that mission for change grew the Malmstrom Air Force Base project in Montana. The idea: Offer land to an energy company to build a privately funded fuel plant, and sell the fuel back to the Air Force.

    The Montana base’s infrastructure made it an ideal choice. Situated near coal reserves, it has a railway line for coal transportation; it also has an existing oil pipeline and storage tanks leftover from the bombers and refueling tankers that used to be based there.

    (2) Until the biomass is grown organically and without fossil fuel inputs, biomass will have greenhouse pollution associated with it (e.g. from the fertilizer produced from fossil fuels). This is minor compared to the next point.

    (3) Biofuels of whatever form perpetuate internal combustion technology, which is inefficient, wasteful, and polluting. (On the last point, see Mark Jacobson’s E85 papers for example.) We need to move to Zero Emission Vehicles in our cities at least to make our air clean to breathe; burning liquid fuel in internal combustion engines will always be problematic for clean air.

    If one had sufficient biomass, the best thing to do with it is to produce electricity to power plug-ins. Turning it into methanol, gasoline, ethanol, butanol, or whatever is inherently inferior.

    (4) Because of point 3 above, the Air Force’s attempt to ““to induce a different future” is not just a setback for the Air Force, it is a setback for the entire US, which could see better solutions thwarted by the “quick hack” approach being taken.

  6. Earl Killian says:

    David Bensson, sugarcane, where it grows, is considered tremendously productive, but have you ever seen estimates at how efficiently it converts the sun’s energy into sugar?

    Aldo V da Rosa’s textbook Fundamentals of Renewable Energy Processes has chapter 13 on biomass with some figures worth knowing. For example, he writes

    At present, 75 tons of raw sugar cane are produced annually per hectare in Brazil. The cane delivered to the processing plant is called burned and cropped (b&c) and represents 77% of the mass of the raw cane. The reason for this reduction is that the stalks are separated from the leaves (which are burned and whose ashes are left in the field as fertilizer) and from the roots that remain in the ground to sprout for the next crop. Average cane production is, therefore, 58 tons of b&c per hectare per year. Each ton of b&c yields 740 kg of juice (135 kg of sucrose and 605 kg of water) and 260 kg of moist bagasse (130 kg of dry bagasse). Since the higher heating value of sucrose is 16.5 MJ/kg, and that of the bagasse is 19.2 MJ/kg, the total heating value of a ton of b&c is 4.7 GJ of which 2.2 GJ come from the sucrose and 2.5 from the bagasse. Per hectare per year, the biomass produced corresponds to 0.27 TJ. This is equivalent to 0.86 W per square meter. Assuming an average insolation of 225 W per square meter, the photosynthetic efficiency of sugar cane is 0.38%.

    And sugar cane is considered once of the best energy crops!

    He goes on to say,

    the 135 kg of sucrose found in 1 ton of b&c are transformed into 70 liters of ethanol with a combustion energy of 1.7 GJ. The practical sucrose-ethanol efficiency is, therefore, 76% (compare with theoretical 97%). One hectare of sugar cane yields 4600 liters of ethanol per year (without any additional energy input because bagasse produced exceeds the amount needed to distill the final product). This however does not include the energy used in tilling, transportation, and so on. Thus, the solar energy-to-ethanol conversion efficiency is 0.13%.

  7. David B. Benson says:

    Earl Killian — Jet airplanes need jet fuel. I gather some experiments show that 50% will do, mixed with something else.

    I agree that the conversion efficiency is low, but this is certainly better than CTL!

    Internal combustion engines are going to be around for a long time. Can you imagine an electric powered farm or semi tractor? How about ocean vessels?

  8. David B. Benson says:

    Here is an article about algae to jet fuel, at surprisingly low cost:

  9. David B. Benson says:

    Here is another plan gong forward to produce liquid fuels:

  10. Earl Killian says:

    David Benson, yes, sugar to jet fuel is better than CTL. Sorry for overreacting. Thanks for the links.

  11. John McCormick says:

    Earl, you said:

    [If one had sufficient biomass, the best thing to do with it is to produce electricity to power plug-ins.]

    I offer the following: (knowing you are not advocating biomass to kilowatts)

    I am using 4300-7300 Btu/lb content of ag residue (range due to moisture content) found on the Bioenergy Feedstock Development Programs at ORNL web page. Then, I chose the Alabama Power Co. Barry plant’s coal-burning units which burned a total of 4.3 MM tons to generate 10 billion kwhr in 2007. That equates to 10,252 btu/kwhr. Not an efficient plant, but I am now going to convert its feedstock to biomass fuel.

    The biomass demand to generate the coal-fired generation from Barry would be:

    @ 4300 Btu/lb = 8,600,000 Btu/ton
    @ 7300 Btu/lb = 14,600,000 Btu/ton

    Total Btu demand to the boilers is 102,287,738,000,000 Btu

    Wet ag residue = 12 million tons
    Dry ag residue = 7 million tons.

    Earl, I use those only to try to keep the idea of boimass feedstock for electric generation in perspective.

    I agree with your post regarding sugar as feedstock for liquid fuels and I believe we both agree on the massive complexity of assuring aviation it will have adequate and quality fuels but coal to liquids (as the Air Force envisions) is not the answer.

    The long term fuel availability for global aviation may have to include nuclear power to split water to free up the hydrogen to react with CO2 sequestered from fossil fuel burning plants to create carbon monoxide then fed into a Fishcer-Tropsch to produce diesel and refined products.

    The reverse water-gas shift:

    CO2 + H2 = CO + H2O

    Sounds too radical to suggest on this blog? But, I offer a vision provided by Jules Verne:

    “I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, of an intensity of which coal is not capable.”

    Jules Verne, The Mysterious Island (1874)

    Senator McCain did not invent the Blackberry. And, Jules did not invent nuclear powered submarines. But, his vision far surpassed anything McCain offers.

    John McCormick