Military biofuel efforts questioned, defended

  • 05-Feb-2011 02:02 EST
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Last year’s flight tests of the F/A-18 “Green Hornet” used a 50% blend of camelina. The U.S. Navy is pushing for advances that will allow for the use of 100% camelina.

The U.S. Navy is fighting back after Rand Corp. dropped a bomb on the military’s biofuel efforts.

“If the U.S. military increases its use of alternative fuels, there will be no direct benefit to the nation's armed forces,” according to a recently release Rand study titled “Alternative Fuels for Military Applications." “Any benefits from investment in alternative fuels by the U.S. Department of Defense will accrue to the nation as a whole rather than to mission-specific needs of the military.”

The study was based on an examination of alternative jet and naval fuels that can be produced from coal or various renewable resources, including seed oils, waste oils, and algae.

Tom Hicks, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, questioned the study’s accuracy and impartiality at a roundtable in Washington held to discuss the report. The Jan. 25 roundtable was held one day after the study was submitted to the U.S. Department of Defense per the National Defense Authorization Act of 2009.

"The lack of engagement with the leading voice on alternative energy, the secretariat, has caused us to have reservations about this report,” Hicks said. “We haven't been consulted or asked to provide input on the secretariat level. Unfortunately, we think there are some misrepresentations and some factual errors regarding to the Navy's certification and testing efforts."

Said James Bartis, lead author of the study and a senior policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization: "To realize the national benefits of alternative fuels, the military needs to reassess where it is placing its emphasis in both fuel testing and technology development. Too much emphasis is focused on seed-derived oils that displace food production, have very limited production potential, and may cause greenhouse gas emissions well above those of conventional petroleum fuels."

The military also has invested in advanced technology to produce jet fuel from algae-derived oils. According to the study, algae-derived fuel is a research topic and not an emerging option that the military can use to supply its operations.

From the perspective of technical viability, a number of alternative fuels can meet military fuel requirements, according to the report. But uncertainties remain regarding their commercial viability—namely, how much these fuels will cost and what effect they may have on the environment, particularly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

"The Department of Defense consumes more fuel than any other federal agency, but military fuel demand is only a very small fraction of civilian demand, and civilian demand is what drives competition, innovation, and production," Bartis said. "Further, we found that testing and certification efforts by the military services are far outpacing commercial development."

Researchers concluded it makes more sense for the military to direct its efforts toward using energy more efficiently. Providing war fighters with more energy-efficient equipment such as aircraft and combat vehicles improves operational effectiveness, saves money, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Hicks countered by saying, “We feel like there are absolutely national security issues that are directly related to the alternative fuel issue that are not reflected in the report."

On Jan. 21, Hicks’s boss, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, pushed for more biofuel development at a clean-tech conference in Washington, D.C. The competition among countries for natural resources such as oil “has been one of the fundamental causes of war for centuries,” he said. Mabus issued a challenge to the biofuel industry while noting the significance of a series of biofuel flight tests conducted by the Navy on an F/A-18 Super Hornet last April.

“It was a 50-50 camelina and avgas blend,” he said. “Now, we would have done it on 100 percent camelina, except biofuels don’t quite have the detergent functions we need for the engines yet. And I hope that those of you in the biofuel industry here will take that last statement as a challenge. We would like to run this airplane, and all the other things that we do, on 100 percent biofuels.”

The Navy later extended biofuel testing to MH-60 helicopters and a Riverine command ship. “And we did those on an algae-based biofuel blend,” said Mabus. “In every case, the engines absolutely could not tell the difference.”

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