LNG: Keeping Australia in the Fight
This submission proposes modifying the Honeywell Aerospace AGT1500 gas turbine in the M1A2 Abrams MBT, and other reciprocating piston diesel engines used by the ADF, to allow them to burn Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) as fuel in addition to diesel (dual fuel). The purpose is to secure a homogenous liquid fuel source in times of constrained supply chain circumstance, such as prolonged armed conflict. Additional dividends could be extracted by utilising the waste cold energy created during the liquid / vapor phase change of the fuel to provide crew cooling and thermal infra-red signature reduction of engine exhaust systems, mitigating threat from top-attack munitions.
Australia presently has almost zero capacity to produce its own diesel. In times of conflict, when naval blockades and A2/AD operations would prevent large fuel carrying ships from reaching our shores, our warfighting capability would be drastically reduced to just a few short weeks.
Wouldn’t it be great to provide a contingency for the warfighter by utilising a liquid fuel that Australia leads the world in producing – liquefied natural gas, (otherwise known as LNG)? My proposed modular LNG tank system solution would make fueling up your combat vehicle on the battlefield as easy as changing the gas bottle on your backyard BBQ!
LNG is already a major transport fuel in many parts of the world, distributed via Virtual Pipeline techniques. Having a fuel source right in our own backyard also keeps 19,000 Australians employed if conflict were to come to our shores, as LNG production will grind to a halt if the LNG ships can’t leave port and storage tanks reach capacity. My proposal would redirect this export fuel to the ADF and extend our warfighting capabilities indefinitely, and therefore help to KEEP AUSTRALIA IN THE FIGHT!
Existing LNG production infrastructure
The volume of natural gas in vapor form shrinks 600 times when liquefied. Australia has an existing cryogenic liquid storage capacity in excess of 3,168,000 nominal cubic meters, spread out across the continent at strategic locations (equating to almost 2 billion cubic meters of gas). These locations are:
- Darwin: 488,000 nm3
- Gladstone: 880,000 nm3
- Barrow Is W.A.: 360,000 nm3
- Karratha: 1,140,000 nm3
- Onslow: 300,000 nm3
- West Kimberly: 70,000 nm3
- Kwinana: 4000 nm3
- Dandenong: 5000 nm3
- Adelaide (TBA)
- Wollongong (TBA)
In 2021, Australia produced 81 million tonnes of LNG. Given that one cubic meter of Liquefied Natural Gas weighs 493 kilograms, which equates to a staggering 97 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year! Therefore, an Army possessing a combat and logistics fleet that was capable of using both diesel and natural gas would have an almost LIMITLESS supply of fuel.
The LNG industry currently employs 19,000 workers. Hostile A2/AD actions in the sea lanes approaching Australia would prevent LNG carriers from leaving port, and LNG production would have to stop as storage tanks reached their maximum limits. Re-directing the LNG to the war fighter would enable these industries to continue operating and maintain economic continuity.
Current LNG engine technology – gas turbines
LNG fueled engines are a Commercial off the Shelf (COTS) technology, in widespread use throughout the world in road, rail and marine applications. In fact, as far back as 1985, Textron Lycoming successfully tested the AGT 1500 gas turbine burning natural gas (methane) as a fuel, with significant reductions in nitrous oxides (NOx) and carbon dioxide when compared to traditional DF-2 fuel. U.S. President Joe Biden’s announcement on April 26, 2022 that all U.S. military vehicles will be climate friendly provides a further pathway for LNG to be used in the 6,600 M1A2s in the U.S. Army inventory. Honeywell Aerospace, the manufacturer of the AGT 1500, is currently investigating this proposal. Dual fuel gas turbines are commonplace in industry, both in mechanical drive and power generation applications.
Current LNG Engine Technology – Reciprocating Diesel Engines
MAN, the parent company that manufacturers the LAND 121 vehicles (HX-77/81), is a world leader in dual fuel marine engines. Caterpillar Engine Co, which provides the 3126 engine for the Bushmaster vehicle, is currently testing LNG powered mine trucks in the Bowen Basin coalfields of Queensland, as is Cummins Engine Co.
Supply Chain – the “Virtual Pipeline”
Virtual pipeline is an alternative method of transporting natural gas to places where there are no pipeline networks available. It is based on a modular system of compression or liquefaction, transport and decompression and/or regasification of natural gas, which communities, industries, gas stations and others can use. By using pre-filled, forward deployed modular LNG tanks, refueling a combat vehicle on the battlefield can be as easy as changing out your BBQ gas bottle at home.
Mobile filling stations, supplied by line haul road vehicles, rail road or littoral shipping vessels would carry out the purging and refilling of the modular, low pressure tanks behind the lines and load them for deployment to the battle front. By simply changing the 500kg tanks and connecting the fuel supply hose, the vehicle would be ready-to-go. Both gas turbines and reciprocating diesels could seamlessly switch between methane and diesel on the run, allowing flexible battlefield operations. Countries with an existing, mature LNG supply chain include USA, Germany, China, Brazil, India, Spain and Nigeria.
Reutilisation of waste energy
LNG usually needs to undergo a phase change to be used as a fuel, and its conversion to the gaseous phase creates waste cold energy. This waste energy could be utilised to mitigate the well-known issue of M1A2 crew hull comfort when operating in tropical climates by providing an exchange medium for the air-conditioning system. Additional waste cooling energy could also be applied to the AGT 1500 exhaust system in order to lower its thermal signature, thus providing a level of anti-detection & anti-targeting technology that protects the military assets and critical infrastructure against EO/IR weapon systems.
Diesel fuel insecurity
Finally, our dire diesel fuel security situation needs to be highlighted. With only two hydrocarbon refineries left in operation in Australia, the majority of our diesel is refined and imported from Singapore and other parts of Asia. Australia has reserved one million barrels of crude oil in the Strategic Oil Reserve of the United States. However, as pointed out in 2017 by the Australian Maritime Officer’s Union:
- Australia does not have immediate access to a liquid fuel product tanker.
- Australian mariners with tanker endorsements are currently not working on tankers and without sea-time on tankers their endorsements will lapse in around 4 years (2021)
Without the ability to import this crude oil, Australia would be reliant on other nations to provide this service, which, in times of regional conflict, cannot be guaranteed.
Using a liquid fuel (that we lead the world in producing) in conjunction with readily available COTS technology would greatly enhance the Australian Defence Force’s ability to defend this great country that we live in, whilst also enabling our economy to continue operating.
This article is a commended entry in the 2022 AARC Short Writing Competition, 'Transforming Land Power'.
The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.
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