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US airforce looks to buy Californian garbage jet fuel

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An American tech-licencing company says it is in negotiations with the US Air Force - and unnamed airlines - to supply jet fuel made from Californian household waste. A combination of high oil prices, a military push to find secure fuel sources, and governmental incentives are expected to make the business case viable.

Flight International reports that the Solena Group intends to take biomass waste from communities in northern and central California and convert this to synthetic gas.

This will be done using the company's proprietary "plasma gasification" tech, which uses 5,000°C plasma arcs to convert household wastes - or coal, coke etc - into gas fuel. Solena claims that the energy value of the syngas output is four times that required to run the plasma furnaces, making the process self-powering.

In the proposed jet-fuel deal, the syngas would then be further processed into liquid fuel suitable for use in aircraft. Such processes typically burn a tonne of feedstock for each tonne of go-juice produced, but apparently Solena reckons it can still produce 1,800 barrels of fuel per day in California - enough to fly a jumbo jet to Australia and halfway back again.

The plasma gasification, the gas-to-liquid conversion and finally the airliner engines will release substantial amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. However, this carbon would eventually have been emitted from the decomposing biomass waste if it were simply dumped, and the airliners would have burned fossil fuel instead; so the idea is climate-change-friendly overall. It also saves on landfill, of course.

The commercial economics would seem highly uncertain, however, and Solena chief Robert Do was unwilling to name any airlines in connection with the project. He did say that the present high prices of crude oil - and consequently of ordinary fossil jet fuel - made the business case viable.

"We feel that we can survive at the current commercial market price," he told Flight.

That said, apparently the Solena numbers also rely on a US biofuels tax credit which will vanish under current plans in 2008: and production cannot begin until 2011. The current crude price can't be relied on not to drop over such a timescale either.

On the other hand, the US Air Force's desire for fuel supplies independent of crude imports isn't going away. This at least would seem to offer a firm customer for Solena's garbage-juice, and a customer potentially willing to be tied down in a longer-term deal at a price higher than airlines would be willing to pay.

The USAF wants to be getting at least 150 kilobarrels a day from non-petroleum sources by 2010, so it could easily take all of Solena's initial planned output. Realistically, the air force seems likely to be Solena's main customer - though airlines might well get involved for publicity and research purposes.

It doesn't seem plausible that one could ever run very much of the airline industry on biomass-waste fuel anyway: US aviation uses 1.6 megabarrels daily, almost 1,000 times what Solena reckons to produce from north-central Californian garbage.

Solena has plans for the future, however. Like many in the airline game, the company sees algae-based biofuel as the solution. Rather than dreaming of miracle/terrifying scum blooms able to live in saltwater and draw their carbon from atmospheric CO2, Solena proposes that relatively ordinary algae be nourished using sequestered carbon from coal powerplants.

This would be substantially easier than making algae grow without artificial carbon inputs. However, it would essentially involve shifting carbon emissions from the powerplant stack to airliner exhausts - rather than eliminating them as many would prefer.

But emissions would be reduced overall; and crude oil imports to the West, with their possible associated costs in jihadi terrorism and global military campaigns, would also be reduced. ®

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