Tests of petroleum alternative could lead to certification as Syntroleum seeks plant

Flight tests of a US Air Force Boeing B-52 using synthetic jet fuel are bringing new attention to an old process, but despite high oil prices and increased interest, investment in production is not yet flowing. The 85-year-old Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) process, which converts carbon dioxide and hydrogen into liquid hydrocarbons, can produce lubricants, petrol, diesel or jet fuel.

“If you’re serious about energy independence, then this technology is definitely something to be excited about,” says Gary Gamino, director of investor relations at Syntroleum, the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based maker of the F-T fuel used in the B-52 tests. Practically anything high in carbon can be converted, but so far the company is only equipped to use natural gas to make 70 barrels a day.

During the Second World War Germany used 25 F-T plants to make 124,000 barrels a day. The process is used today by South African company Sasol to convert natural gas and coal into several fuels. And a major deal is warming up between Rentech and Peabody Energy, the largest coal producer in the USA, to convert coal to oil at Rentech’s Colorado plant.

F-T Reactors
© Syntroleum 
 F-T reactors ar Syntroleum's Tulsa plant were mothballed after USAF order

The US Air Force paid $5.4 per litre for 380,000 litres (100,000USgal), but Gamino says a large facility could undercut petroleum prices at oil costs greater than $50 a barrel. Crude oil lately has cost about $65 per barrel. “Higher oil prices have helped the cause, certainly,” he says. “The fact that the USA sits on about one-fourth of the planet’s coal reserves gets a lot of people excited, and the interest from the military gets people even more excited.”

Syntroleum’s Tulsa plant was mothballed after this latest order. “We’re trying to get a commercial plant built somewhere in the world,” says Gamino. One deal in the works is with Swiss company Sustec, to build a coal-to-liquids plant in Germany.” The company is talking with Bluewater Energy Services of the Netherlands to design a floating production and storage facility.

“This fuel has significant environmental advantages,” says Mike Aimone, USAF assistant deputy chief of staff, logistics, installations and mission support. In 100% form the fuel burns clean, but a 50/50 mix lets the air force double the fuel for testing. After initial flights using the blend in two engines, tests will move toward using 100% F-T fuel in all eight of the B-52’s engines. The USAF is on track, Aimone says, “to get to the point where we can get an airworthiness certification of the fuel, in a blend, for that aircraft”.

Source: Flight International