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RAF MILDENHALL, England — Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.

It appears legislation also may spur innovation. And a whole lot of spare industrial parts doesn’t hurt, either.

For years, the U.S. Air Force has benefited from a jet-refueling recycling program that saw a private British energy firm collect, refine and resell the commodity as household heating fuel. The program saved the Air Force the expense and hassle of disposing of its unusable jet fuel and made the firm a hefty profit.

Both sides were happy.

But when the British government passed new regulations in 2005 that required jet fuel to be disposed of as hazardous waste, the comfortable collusion between the Air Force and the British fuel recycling firm ended abruptly. And the Air Force suddenly found itself stuck with the expense of disposing of the fuel.

Enter Paul Murfitt, a 46- year-old Ministry of Defence employee who works as a technical charge hand in the fuels department of the 100th Civil Engineering Squadron. Based on his own rudimentary preliminary testing — and endowed with a good deal of ingenuity — he set out to construct a device that could recycle the unusable jet fuel on base into heating fuel.

“I had already experimented with running waste fuel in some of our pumps and compressors with good results, so I knew we had a chance to make it work,” Murfitt said.

A simple pitch to the Civil Engineering Squadron commander resulted in a $22,000 grant, and Murfitt got to work cannibalizing spare or unused components on base to construct a fuel recycling apparatus.

“It was amazing how much stuff and spare parts we really had laying around this place,” he said. “I could not have done it for so cheap without all the parts we got for free.”

The system is fairly straightforward. The waste fuel, which comes from the aircraft fuel tanks and runoff from the underground reservoirs collected in more than 200 receptacles, is collected daily and run through a filtration system that takes but a few hours to complete — the first time.

The fuel is often filtered several times to ensure it reaches a purity threshold. The fluid often goes in resembling river water sludge, and comes out pure enough to supply the base heating units.

“We try not to lose any fuel whatsoever,” Murfitt said. “It’s expensive stuff.”

Deputy base engineer Dan Soto said the project attracted the attention of Dr. Ron Ritter, the Air Force’s civilian special assistant of the new efficiency-seeking Smart Ops 21 project, during a recent visit to RAF Mildenhall.

“He said it was one of the most exciting concepts that he’s seen on his tour of Air Force bases,” Soto said. “It is exciting because we’ve done it for so little and can save a lot.”

More relaxed regulations on disposing of jet fuel in other parts of the world where the Air Force operates means the program is not applicable servicewide.

Nevertheless, the savings on RAF Mildenhall are significant, with the Air Force paying $2 per gallon to buy heating fuel and $2 per gallon to dispose of used jet fuel. Thus, every gallon Murfitt’s contraption can recycle saves the base $4.

“Right now we just want to make sure this project works as well as we think it does now, and if so, we’ll see who else is interested,” Soto said.


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