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Arnold contributes to first supersonic flight using synthetic fuel

  • Published
When a B-1B Lancer became the first Air Force aircraft to fly at supersonic speed using a 50/50 blend of synthetic and petroleum-based fuels March 19, the Arnold Engineering Development Center work force knew they played a significant role in supporting the flight.

Since 2006, AEDC men and women have actively supported the Air Force's evaluation and certification of this alternative fuel, which is derived from natural gas or coal using the Fischer-Tropsch process, for use in all Air Force aircraft.

The center's support began when AEDC's 717th Test Squadron was designated as the responsible testing organization for Fischer-Tropsch, or FT, fuels certification testing. A team from AEDC took its technical expertise and specialized equipment to Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., to assist time-critical, ground testing of a 50/50 blend of FT and JP-8 fuels on a TF33 jet engine. The TF33 powers the B-52 Stratofortress bomber.

"The lessons learned from the initial FT fuel demonstration of the B-52 engine laid the foundation for the successful testing of the B-1 Lancer Bomber engine using a synthetic/JP-8 blend that was conducted in AEDC's J-1 jet engine altitude test cell in 2007," said Ed Tucker, 717th Test Squadron test project engineer.

Testing at AEDC on the F101 engine, which powers the B-1B, was the first series to qualify a high performance, afterburning engine with FT fuel for a combat aircraft.

The successful flight of the B-1B reinforced the feasibility of the projected timeline for the Air Force's alternative fuels initiative.

"The goal is to have every Air Force aircraft using synthetic fuel blends by 2011," said Maj. Don Rhymer, assigned to the Air Force Alternative Fuels Certification Office. "By 2016 we hope at least 50 percent of this fuel will be produced domestically."

Air Force officials previously had tested the fuel blend in the B-52, the first aircraft to use the fuel, and the C-17 Globemaster III. The B-52 is certified to fly using a 50/50 blend of FT fuel and JP-8, while officials are in the process of certifying the C-17.

Within the federal government, the Air Force is the single largest user of aviation fuel, using an estimated 3 billion gallons per year. Each time the price of oil goes up $10 per barrel, it costs the Air Force an additional $600 million for fuel. The FT process gives the Air Force a viable alternative to conventional jet fuel.

In the long term, synthetic fuel created using the FT process could cost an estimated $30 to $50 less per barrel than its petroleum counterpart.

"This innovative domestically-produced fuel will help alleviate our dependence on foreign energy sources," Major Rhymer said.

Alternative fuels can be produced from domestically available hydrocarbon products like natural gas, coal and shale, and then gasified and converted into any number of liquid fuel products.

"There was no noticeable difference flying with this fuel," said Capt. Rick Fournier, the B-1B synthetic fuel flight mission commander. "I would have no problem flying an aircraft using this fuel in peacetime or combat." 

(Courtesy of Arnold Engineering Development Center Public Affairs)

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