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Wright Pat takes a leading role in alternative fuels

Apr 15, 2013

In the repository or "Room of Drums" at Wright Patterson Air Force Base 55 gallon barrels of fuel from all over the world are stored. There are liquid fuels made of coal from South Africa. There's also one made from camelina, a weed. Others come from animal fat. Some have been tested on cross country flights.

The Air Force Research Laboratory's Assured Aerospace Fuels Research Facility Sample Preparation Unit defines alternative fuel as any fuel that doesn't have petroleum. It is a one stop shop for commercial companies looking to ramp up production.

What makes this Wright Patterson refinery unique?

The AFRL helps commercial companies, through technology transfers:

  • Make fuel (in smaller quantities: 50 gallons to 1,000 gallons)
  • Test fuel
  • Store fuel

Wright Pat is taking a leading role in the creation and testing of alternative jet fuels in part because it can make a sample in between what a lab could do and a full-scale refinery.

The University of Dayton is a partner. Professor Heinz Robota is an Ohio research scholar in alternative fuels. He has the scientific responsibility. He has to figure out the catalyst, the conversions, and the refining technology.

Commercial efforts to make alternative fuels:

They are making progress. With a commercial partner, the AFRL is in the process of converting 17-hundred gallons of renewable crude to roughly 500 gallons of what is expected to be a true alternative fuel. Then it will be tested by a major engine manufacturer on a full-scale engine. Past partners have included GE Aviation and Pratt and Whitney.

There are other efforts underway. In the Southeast there isn’t as much demand for paper, so the Southern Yellow Pine is being turned into alternative fuel instead. KiOR, the company doing it, says the price will be the same as a barrel of oil.

Getting the price down

Price is of big concern to the Air Force. Chemical engineer Tim Edwards says the focus over the next couple of years will be to get the price of alternative fuels down.

Right now he is working with the White House, the FAA, the DOE and others to prepare the latest National Aeronautics R&D Plan, a large part of which is focused on aviation fuels.

Here is a longer version of this story.