Refinery to flight: The journey of a barrel of jet fuel

By Ronald Inman, DLA Energy Public Affairs

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Like blood moving through the body, jet fuel flows through the Defense Logistics Agency Energy’s supply chains around the world to keep warfighters in flight.

Crude oil is converted to many products at a refinery. This transformation of crude oil into many products leads to DLA Energy purchasing fuel from the refinery. These products, like jet fuel, then begin the journey though the DLA Energy distribution supply chain.

DLA Energy Americas is one of the four DLA Energy regional offices responsible for ensuring a barrel of oil that completes its transformation into jet fuel is tested, received, stored, transported, accounted for and distributed to the warfighter.

Randy Cottrell is the DLA Energy Americas East at Houston supply operations manager. He and his 34-member team, including 15 fuel supply planners, ensure fuel moves in a timely manner to support five combatant commands, seven major pipeline distribution systems and 300 military bases across three time zones.

Cottrell and his team track 5,000 fuel movements per month and move 1.2 billion gallons of bulk petroleum products each year.

“The transportation of fuel is not as easy as it might appear on the surface,” Cottrell said. “DLA Energy does an excellent job of supporting the military services and federal agencies, making a complicated fuels distribution system seem easy when fuel appears at their front door, on time and meeting quality specifications.”

DLA Energy transported more than 130 million barrels of fuel worldwide in 2016, according to the 2016 DLA Energy Fact Book. Over 80 million of those were moved within the continental United States. One barrel holds 42 gallons of fuel.

At home and overseas, a transportation network spans thousands of miles and uses roads, rail, pipeline and waterways to bring the fuel to those who need it, when they need it.

The Air Force is DLA Energy Americas East at Houston’s biggest fuel customer. In 2016, 830 million gallons of fuel were distributed to Air Force bases in the DLA Energy Americas area of responsibility.

Joint Base Andrews, home to the Air Force District of Washington’s 11th Wing, is an important DLA Energy customer. The wing supports contingency operations and provides security on the world’s highest-visibility flight line for presidential aircraft Air Force One and more than a dozen types of aircraft.

Making sure JBA has the right fuel at the right time to fly its missions is a supply planner’s job.

“The supply planner is basically a scheduler of fuel, getting fuel from the refinery to the customer,” Cottrell said.

JBA, located in Prince George’s County, Maryland, is supplied by a DLA Energy contract for 24 million gallons of F-24 jet fuel to support Air Force missions. F-24 is a commercial Jet A fuel containing specialty additives to keep it fi t for use in demanding conditions.

Larry Lewis is a DLA Energy Americas East at Houston supply planner who works with JBA’s fuel services contractor. As JBA’s supply planner, Lewis monitors and analyzes the base’s daily fuel inventory through reports from DLA Energy and Fuels Manager Defense software. He ensures the base is above its control limit – the operational amount of fuel the base is required to maintain, which is established by DLA Energy’s Bulk Petroleum Inventory Management Plan.

Each month he creates stock transfer orders to let vendors and suppliers know what quantity of fuel is needed at a particular location.

“The most important aspect of my job is making sure my customers’ needs are met so they can complete their mission,” Lewis said. “We track consumption projections to suppliers as far out as 90 days prior to the movement of the fuel.”

The transformation

The journey of a barrel of jet fuel to JBA begins in the heart of the U.S. petroleum industry: Houston, Texas. F-24 begins as Jet A commercial jet fuel, which is refined from crude oil. One of multiple suppliers is notified of the amount of product required by the supply planner.

Phillip Chang, a chemist for DLA Energy’s Quality Technical Support Directorate, explained crude oil’s transformation to fuel.

“Crude oil is a mixture of thousands of compounds in liquid state found naturally in the earth. The refinery buys or draws from inventory the crude oil that’s best-suited to their refinery to produce the most products and profit,” Chang said.

“Next, the crude oil goes through many physical separations [distillation] and chemical changes to become refined final products like gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, fuel oil and others,” he said. “The final product is tested at the lab to make sure it meets the specifications for the intended product such as [jet fuels] Jet A and JP-8 or diesel, and is then stored in tanks until delivery.”

The journey begins

The journey of a barrel of jet fuel to JBA starts months prior to delivery, Cottrell said. Ordering and transporting fuel requires coordination, and there can be consequences if it is not properly planned and executed in advance.

“Pipelines are especially busy and often reach full volume allocations during peak periods,” Cottrell said. “Peak periods occur when several pipeline customers want to ship fuel at the same time. This mostly happens in the winter when the pipelines are shipping heating fuel, but can also occur during peak summer months when airports have heavy fuel consumption due to increased air travelers going on vacation.”

Most DLA Energy Americas-supplied fuel travels by pipeline.

“Regulation requires the regional supply planner to send the supplier the fuel order at least 15 days before the fuel is to be transported,” Cottrell said. After the supplier provides the product, the jet fuel is shipped either directly from the refinery into the Colonial Pipeline (a 5,000 mile pipeline stretching from Houston to New Jersey) or from the refinery into Defense Fuel Support Point Houston, a commercially-owned and contractor-operated terminal, and then to the Colonial Pipeline.

“It takes a minimum of 20 days for fuel in the Colonial Pipeline to travel north to DFSP Baltimore,” Cottrell said.

At DFSP Baltimore, an Energy quality assurance representative ensures three liquid additives are added to the fuel as it’s loaded onto the barge, transforming it into jet fuel with military additives – F-24.

Additizing it all up

“The use of additives is required to meet the unique requirements and specifications of military aircraft,” said Richard Knapp, DLA Energy Quality Technical Support Quality Operations division chief. “Fuel system icing inhibitor is required to prevent the water from forming ice crystals that could block fuel lines,” Knapp said.

Another additive prevents the buildup of static electricity while the fuel is moved.

“Static can lead to high-energy sparks in an explosive environment,” Knapp explained. “Static dissipater additives reduce this hazard by increasing the electrical conductivity of the fuel, which promotes a rapid relaxation of any static charge.”

Joining the static preventer is an additive to prevent corrosion and allow the fuel to keep parts lubricated.

“The fuels have been through severe processing at the refinery,” Knapp said. “By introducing the corrosion inhibitor, parts can keep a thin layer of fuel between them. The additive prevents corrosion of the metal parts caused by oxidation and lubricates surfaces to limit wear.”

“The QAR only accepts discharge of the fuel as F-24 when the additization is complete,” Cottrell said.

Keeping an eye on quality

“Once the Jet A is in DFSP Baltimore’s storage tanks, the regional supply planner schedules a barge carrier contracted by DLA Energy to move the fuel,” Cottrell said. “Regional QARs monitor barge loading and ensure product purity.”

Next, the barge travels to DFSP Anacostia, Washington, D.C., and discharges the fuel into a pipeline that runs to tanks on JBA. Specialists monitor the fuel to make sure none has been lost or diverted. If they find excessive gains or losses, the specialists start an investigation. They also ensure fuel transactions are processed promptly using Fuels Manager Defense software to ensure auditable accountability along the journey.

On mission

Finally, jet fuel is scheduled for delivery from DFSP Anacostia storage tanks to JBA, where contracted personnel load Air Force R-11 fuel trucks and deliver the fuel to base aircraft.

“The delivery of F-24 to JBA is just one of DLA’s Energy’s four major bulk-purchase programs for fuel,” Cottrell noted.

JBA falls under the Inland East Gulf Coast program, and the other domestic program is Rocky Mountain West. Internationally, the WestPac program covers the Western Pacific and Middle East, while the Atlantic/European/ Mediterranean program covers those areas.

The journey from refinery to flight is just one segment of DLA Energy’s larger process of providing fuel. Before contracts are even awarded, DLA Energy’s Supply Planning and Acquisition Bulk Fuel Contracting branch puts in significant time and effort.

“Most DLA Energy customers have no idea what work is involved in ensuring a location has fuel to meet the warfighter mission. All they know is that the product is ready when they open the valve,” Cottrell said.