Sending in the Marines to Support Biofuels

The military has ambitious plans to move beyond oil and gas

Fuels made from sources as diverse as plant waste, chicken fat, and old french-fry oil have been successfully used in diesel cars and trucks around the world. Soon, they may become a regular part of the fuel mix for U.S. fighter jets, tanks, and ships. The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines have ambitious plans to wean themselves from oil and gas and trim the $14.5 billion they pay for fuel every year. “Reliance on fossil fuels is simply too much of a vulnerability for a military organization to have,” says U.S. Navy Secretary Raymond Mabus.

The U.S. Air Force is on track to certify its 40-plus aircraft models to burn fuels derived from waste oils and plants by 2013. “If the fuel is available, whether it’s in Afghanistan or it’s in Kentucky, we want to be able to use it,” says Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary Kevin Geiss. The Navy and Marines aim to shift half their energy use from oil, gas, and coal by 2020. And the Army expects to get a quarter of its energy from renewable sources by 2025.

Producers of biofuels believe interest from the military will boost their industry by creating a reliable pool of buyers. That’s what’s needed to help drive prices for biofuels from their current $10 per gallon to the $3 to $4 needed to become commercially viable, says James Rekoske, vice-president of renewable energy at UOP, a subsidiary of Honeywell International that has developed biofuels for jets. With steady demand, he says, more companies will be willing to invest the $300 million-plus required to build refineries. “You can’t take a 10-year contract from an American airline to the bank and get the financing that you need,” says Rekoske, whose company expects to deliver about 800,000 gallons of jet biofuel from 2009 to 2012 for military tests. “You can if you have a 10-year contract from the U.S. Navy.”

President Barack Obama in August announced that the Navy and other government agencies would plow $510 million into the commercial development of biofuels by 2014. The Navy expects to ramp up its biofuel use to 3 million gallons in 2016 from 900,000 gallons next year. “The U.S. military is by far the largest user [of fuel] in the country, so we can create a market for it,” Mabus says.

The military’s drive to reduce dependence on fossil fuels goes beyond transport. The armed forces are developing wind and solar farms to power U.S. bases and is looking for a way to use renewable sources of energy in combat zones such as Afghanistan, where a study last year showed that one Marine is killed or wounded for every 50 fuel and water convoys. Under a 2005 law, federal agencies must obtain at least 5 percent of their electricity from renewable sources in 2010-12, and at least 7.5 percent afterward.

The Air Force has worked with plane manufacturers Boeing and Lockheed Martin and engine makers Rolls-Royce Holdings, General Electric, and Pratt & Whitney in testing the biofuels, which don’t require any modifications to existing equipment. The fuels used were made by UOP, Sustainable Oils, and Dynamic Fuels, a venture by chicken producer Tyson Foods and Syntroleum, an alternative fuel maker in Tulsa. The results of the military tests have been shared with commercial airlines, many of which have carried out their own trials.

Major Aaron Jelinek, the lead solo pilot in the Air Force’s Thunderbirds flight demonstration team, in May flew an F16 fighter jet powered by a fuel made from camelina, an oil-bearing plant that’s drought- and freeze-resistant. Flying over Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, Jelinek performed loops, rolls, and other aerobatic maneuvers with no problems. “It was a normal demonstration,” Jelinek says, “doing the exact same maneuvers and the exact same show sequence as any other day.”

By 2016 the Air Force wants to be able to get half its fuel from alternative sources, equivalent to 400 million gallons of biofuels or other combustibles. “You can’t tell the difference,” says Jeff Braun, director of the Alternative Fuels Certification Office. “Whether you’re burning a camelina blend, a tallow blend, or another fuel that’s made up of a bunch of waste greases.”


    The bottom line: The military plans to use more biofuels for jets, tanks, and ships, which could help bring prices down from $10 per gallon to $3 to $4.

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