Refueling Today's Military: Reducing the Dependence on Oil, Part One

oday's U.S. military is highly effective for many reasons, the most important of which are directly related to the character and abilities of the men and women who serve in it. Another important reason is access to high-quality, energy-dense liquid fuel, which today comes from oil. Desire for the control of oil was a major cause of World War II, and a lack of access to oil was a major contributor to the loss of the war by the Axis powers.

Because our military fuel is mission-critical and so much of it comes from unstable regions of the world, military leaders are calling for replacement of imported oil-derived fuel with domestic non-oil-derived alternatives to guard against the real threat of battlefield fuel supply interruption.

Depending on the mission, today's military consumes somewhere between 5 billion and 10 billion gallons of fuel per year, and replacing even 50 percent of this much oil will not be easy, quick or cheap, but it is vitally important. In developing a viable oil replacement strategy, it is essential to consider exactly what is needed.

The military is aggressively pursuing the goal of a "single battlefield fuel," the achievement of which will mean that every fuel-powered battlefield unit will run on a single fuel. The rationale is simple: using the wrong fuel can get you killed, and if you only have one fuel, you'll never use the wrong one.

The single fuel being pursued is known as JP-8, a jet fuel similar to kerosene that is heavier than gasoline and lighter than diesel. To qualify as JP-8, a fuel has to be light enough to flow at minus 53 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure against gelling at the low temperatures experienced in high-altitude flying. It must also be heavy enough not to generate spark-ignitable vapors at 100 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure against explosion in the battlefield. In addition to these fuel property requirements, the military specification for JP-8 ensures the best possible balance between performance and safety.

What are the options for getting our military off oil? Three options that come quickly to mind are natural gas, coal and biomass. The key is that, regardless of what the fuel is produced from, it still must meet the JP-8 specifications. This month's column briefly discusses the natural gas and coal options. Next month's will cover the biomass option in terms of new research developments.

Because we are already importing ample natural gas, much of it from the same marginally stable regions that sell us oil, the natural gas option does not appear to improve our nation's security benefits.

The United States has extensive coal resources. Many estimates give us hundreds of years of energy independence if we were to completely replace petroleum and natural gas with coal. However, even though we have plenty of coal that could conceivably compete economically with today's high oil prices, coal comes with its share of challenges. Although lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions from a gallon of coal-derived diesel are at least double those from petroleum-derived diesel because of the high energy input required to convert coal to liquid, many in the U.S. military are supportive of coal-to-liquids technology. Significant members of the leadership have advocated that any major coal-to-liquids push must deal with the resulting carbon dioxide, which likely means underground sequestration.

In next month's issue, we will zero in on one federal agency that is pursuing an entirely new angle-renewable domestic JP-8 from biomass.

Ted Aulich is a senior research manager at the EERC in Grand Forks, N.D. He can be reached at or (701) 777-2982.