NPR: Air Force And Navy Turn To Biofuels

Source: Elizabeth Shogren, National Public Radio, September 26, 2011.

This C-130 is just one of a growing  list of military aircraft that have successfully flown on a 50 percent blend of jet biofuel. Half of the fuel powering this plane at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas, is made from a weedlike plant called camelina.

The Pentagon’s hunt for an alternative to petroleum has turned a lowly weed and animal fat into something indistinguishable from jet fuel, and now the military is trying to kick-start a new biofuel industry.

“To flip the line from Field of Dreams, if the Navy comes, they will build it,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in a recent speech.

The Air Force and the Navy have been busy testing their aircraft — everything from fighter jets to unmanned spy planes — on jet biofuel. Together with the Departments of Energy and Agriculture, the Navy has launched a project to invest up to half a billion dollars in biofuel refineries.

Mabus says he is committed to getting 50 percent of the Navy’s fuel for aircraft and surface ships from renewable sources by 2020 because dependence on foreign oil makes the U.S. military vulnerable.

“We buy too much fossil fuels from potentially or actually volatile places on earth,” Mabus says.

There are lots of negative consequences of relying on foreign oil. For instance, when conflicts abroad spook the petroleum market, the military faces massive increases in fuel costs.

Science Fiction Becomes Reality

The fast pace of the development of jet biofuel has surprised even the experts.

After President George W. Bush called on the country to kick its addiction to foreign oil several years ago, the Air Force first focused on turning coal into liquid fuel. But it soon switched its focus to biofuels.

Air Force Maj. Josh Frey pilots a plane running on jet biofuel. Frey says his  C-130 flies the same on 50 percent biofuel as it does on petroleum.Air Force Maj. Josh Frey pilots a plane running on jet biofuel. Frey says his C-130 flies the same on 50 percent biofuel as it does on petroleum.

“When we first started, nobody had any clue that the biofuels were so close behind,” says Jeffrey Braun, who heads the Air Force biofuels program. “We thought it was going to be another 10 years before we started looking at biofuels but it turned out it was about two years.”

High-tech chemical processing makes the jet biofuel nearly indistinguishable from petroleum jet fuel. It doesn’t matter whether refiners start with beef fat, leftover cooking oil or a plant like camelina. Camelina is promising because it can be grown on fallow wheat fields so it doesn’t displace food crops, and tests show it can reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent compared with petroleum.

Already, the Air Force has approved F-15 and F-16 fighters and C-17 transport planes to use 50 percent biofuel. The Navy plans to approve all its planes and surface ships to run on green energy by the end of the fall.

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