KETR

Air Force And Navy Turn To Biofuels

Sep 22, 2011
Originally published on September 26, 2011 8:01 pm

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.

"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.

One Big Catch

The Air Force hopes to get half of the fuel it uses for domestic flights from alternative sources by 2016. But the small batches of biofuel made so far cost about 10 times the price of traditional fuel. Braun says that's a hurdle for Pentagon officials.

"They're committed as long as they can get these fuels at cost-competitive pricing. So that means that industry is going to have to step up their production and start creating much larger quantities of fuel," he says.

Producers say that has created a classic chicken and egg problem.

"To build a refinery at scale is hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. If you don't have known customers you will not ever build that facility," says Tom Todaro, CEO of Altair, a company turning camelina into jet fuel.

Todaro says larger plants will produce cheaper fuel.

"We've demonstrated this works. We're going to demonstrate very, very quickly that it's surprisingly affordable," Todaro adds.

The military isn't the only potential big customer. Airlines want jet biofuel too, but they're not in the best financial shape to back a new industry.

"We can't get there by ourselves," Sharon Pinkerton, a vice president of the Air Transport Association, told a recent Senate hearing.

Industry officials hope the federal government's effort will help the nascent industry get off the ground.

In addition to the program to help fund new refineries, the Agriculture Department has awarded incentives to lure farmers to start growing camelina.

A pioneer in the biofuel industry predicted that the federal investment will enable the Navy to reach its renewable fuel targets and create a "snowball effect" that will make it easier to start supplying commercial airlines with biofuel too.

"That's why I'm very excited about what the government and the administration are doing because I think this is going to be a fantastic kick-start for the advanced biofuel industry," says Jim Rekoske, a vice president of Honeywell UOP's renewable energy unit, which developed the jet biofuel.

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The military is also trying to make big changes in what fuel it uses. The Air Force and Navy have been testing their aircraft, everything from fighters to unmanned spy planes on fuel made from vegetable oil or even animal fat.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren took a ride in the cockpit of an Air Force jet flying on bio-fuel.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONTROL TOWER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible) on runway 1-6, (unintelligible) via Alpha...

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Major Josh Frey has been piloting C130s for a dozen years over a rock in Afghanistan. On all his missions, the fuel came from one source, petroleum.

JOSH FREY: ...checklist.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You're cleared for take-off.

FREY: Okay.

SHOGREN: But on this flight, half of the fuel comes from the seed of a plant called camelina. Frey released data about how his engines are performing to Master Sergeant Jason Hale.

(SOUNDBITE OF DATA RELEASE)

FREY: Are you ready, Sergeant Hale?

JASON HALE: Yes, sir. Let's go.

FREY: Number one, 42-60?

SHOGREN: Hale's onboard to verify that the biofuel works.

FREY: Good to go? All right. (unintelligible)

SHOGREN: As we fly over west Texas, Frey takes a few minutes to talk.

FREY: I never would have known the difference, to be honest. It flies exactly the same. I never would've known the difference.

SHOGREN: That's how all the Air Force test flights of bio-jet fuel have gone. Jeffrey Braun heads up the Air Force Alternative Fuels Program.

JEFFREY BRAUN: We wanted it to be boring and it was boring.

SHOGREN: So far, 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. Braun says when President Bush called on the country to kick its addiction to oil several years ago, the military first focused on turning coal into liquid fuel.

BRAUN: When we first started, nobody had any clue that the biofuels were so close behind. We thought it was going to be another 10 years before we start looking at biofuels, but it turned out it was about two years.

SHOGREN: High-tech chemical processing makes the bio-jet fuel 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 and doesn't displace food crops.

Braun says there are lots of reasons going to biofuel makes sense for the Pentagon.

BRAUN: Economically, it could be a real cost saver. Strategically, it would guarantee supplies for our aircraft. And then, environmentally, I mean, that just goes without saying.

SHOGREN: Studies show fuel made from camelina can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80 percent. The Air Force hopes to get half the fuel it uses for domestic flights from alternative sources by 2016. But the small batches of biofuel made so far cost about 10 times more than traditional fuel. Braun says that's a hurdle for Pentagon officials.

BRAUN: They're committed as long as they can get these fuels at cost-competitive pricing. So that means that industry is going to have to step up their production and start creating much larger quantities of fuel.

TOM TODARO: Well, that's a classic chicken and the egg problem.

SHOGREN: Tom Todaro is the CEO of Altair, one of the companies that's turning camelina into jet fuel.

TODARO: To build a refinery at scale is hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. If you don't have known customers, you will not ever build that facility.

SHOGREN: Todaro says larger plants will produce cheaper fuel.

TODARO: We've demonstrated this works. We're going to demonstrate very, very quickly that it's surprisingly affordable.

SHOGREN: The military isn't the only potential big customer. Airlines want biofuel, too. But Sharon Pinkerton, from the Air Transport Association, says the airlines aren't in financial shape to back a new industry.

SHARON PINKERTON: We can't get there by ourselves.

SHOGREN: The federal government is stepping in. It's giving incentives to farmers to start growing camelina. And the departments of Navy, energy and agriculture are planning to invest half a billion dollars in biofuel refineries.

RAY MABUS: To flip the line from "Field of Dreams," if the Navy comes, they will build it.

SHOGREN: Navy Secretary Ray Mabus says he's often asked why he's such a big fan of biofuels.

MABUS: The answer is pretty straightforward. We buy too much fossil fuels from potentially or actually volatile places on earth.

SHOGREN: Mabus says this leaves the U.S. military vulnerable. That's why he's committed to getting half of the Navy's fuel from renewable sources by 2020.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.