Friday, May 23, 2008

U.S. military leading the way to cheaper, plentiful fuels?

More than most Americans realize, the U.S. military and space programs have pioneered hundreds of innovations in an array of scientific, medical and aerospace fields—innovations that have been adapted to widespread use in the consumer market. Today's life-saving hospital trauma centers, as just one example, grew out of the Korean War's mobile army surgical hospitals (MASH).

The military is at it again, this time with alternative fuel and energies.

For starters, the Air Force has successfully flown a B-1 Lancer swing-wing bomber at supersonic speeds using a new experimental fuel composed of half traditional petroleum and half coal-based synthetic fuel. The Wall Street Journal reports that a crash program is under way to make this new fuel commonplace for Air Force planes, including combat aircraft.

Behind this push are big military fuel costs—$13.6 billion in 2006. The armed forces use 1.5 percent of all U.S. oil consumption, some 340,000 barrels per day.

If, as expected, the Pentagon successfully enlists industry to begin producing synthetic fuel, a type that South Africa has been using to fuel aircraft for years, this experiment will surely evolve into a new commercial market that eventually could produce fuel costing less than half of today's $130-per-barrel petroleum.

Cost saving is only one significant benefit. Synthetic fuels would also drastically reduce the need for imports from politically risky OPEC countries, and thus improve the military's energy security.

Other alternative fuel projects are afoot in the American military. Last December, according to The Wall Street Journal, a 140-acre field of 72,000 motorized solar panels was opened to produce electricity for Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base. Excess power is sold to nearby communities.

The Pentagon also is studying small nuclear power plants for military bases.

What's striking about the military's rapid development of alternative fuels is that it refutes the knee-jerk whines from Detroit that improvement in fuel efficiency of U.S. automotive vehicles can't possibly be achieved for years and years.

As part of the synthetic fuels project, the military also is insisting that the new fuel be manufactured in ways that eliminate any carbon dioxide emissions. If this is as successful and as swift as the development of the fuel itself, Congress might well use this as a matrix for smokestack industries to find ways of adapting the emission controls to reduce or eliminate spewing poisons into the air.

Energy battles being fought and won by the military at home in the long run may be more significant for Americans than any victories in Iraq.

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