On Earth Day, 22 April, the US Navy conducted a test flight of an F/A-18 Super Hornet at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, run on a 50-percent mixture of a fuel refined from the crushed seeds of the flowering Camelina sativa plant. The flight of the Green Hornet, as it was called, followed an Air Force test a month earlier of an A-10C Thunderbolt II at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, fueled with a similar blend.
Both events had the purpose of testing the performance of biofuel/petroleum mixtures with an eye toward the eventual certification of the fuels for routine use. They also demonstrate the efforts of the Department of Defense to increase its use of renewable energy, not only for environmental reasons but also to protect the military from energy price fluctuations and dependence on overseas sources of petroleum.
The DoD spends $20 billion a year on energy and incurs $1.3 billion in additional costs for every $10 per barrel increase in the market price of oil, according to a report recently released by the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate. In addition to vulnerability to price fluctuations, the DoD’s “reliance on fossil fuels also compromises combat effectiveness by restricting mobility, flexibility and endurance on the battlefield,” said the report. “Transportation of fuel to the combat theater is a significant vulnerability as fuel convoys are targets in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The most recent Quadrennial Defense Review, released by the DoD in February 2010, recognized the interplay between climate change and the security environment. “Climate change may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict,” the QDR noted, “placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world.”
The Air Force was encouraged by the results of the March A-10C test, Jeff Braun, director of the Air Force Alternative Fuels Certification Office, told ISN Security Watch, and plans to switch half of its continental US jet fuel consumption to alternative fuels by 2016. The Navy’s goal is to displace half of its petroleum requirement for the entire fleet by 2020. The Army believes it will be using biofuel blends exclusively in the continental US by 2025.
But the DoD’s efforts to switch a portion of its consumption to alternative fuels face a number of hurdles. The growing but still relatively meager production in the US of alternative fuels is one of the challenges it faces as it continues to emphasize the consumption of alternative energy.
The domestic biofuels industry has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, according to the National Biodiesel Board, an industry group. In 1999, less than 2 million liters of biodiesel were refined in the US. Ten years later that figure jumped to over 2 billion liters.
But this production level is embryonic compared to the potential needs of the US military. The Air Force alone burned over 9 billion liters of jet fuel last year. The Defense Energy Support Center, the US military’s centralized purchaser of fuels, purchased less than 4 million gallons of alternative fuels on behalf of the US military last year, mostly for testing and certification programs.
“We are trying to get industry to react to the need with additional capacity,” said Braun.
The Defense Energy Support Center is attempting to jump-start that process with an agreement it signed in March with the Air Transport Association of America to promote widespread commercialization of environmentally friendly aviation fuels.
“The intent of the agreement was to get the collective purchasing power of the military and commercial airline industry together to signal to industry that we are interested in the next generation of alternative aviation fuels,” Mark Iden, the DESC’s deputy director of operations, told ISN Security Watch. “We wanted to show industry that there is a customer base out there to get them to build plants to produce.”
The combined efforts of the two organizations already yielded approval last September for the use of synthetic fuels made from coal, natural gas and biomass in commercial aviation. The next goal will be for approval of a class of jet fuel blends, such as those used in the recent Navy and Air Force tests, by the end of this year.
Certification, capacity and supply
But product certification does not automatically deliver production capacity and adequate supplies. Aerojet, a defense and aerospace company and a subsidiary of GenCorp, is working on a concept with the US Navy that tackles the issue of building out industry capacity to manufacture alternative fuels while also seeking to minimize the costs of transporting the fuel. Aerojet’s is a community-scaled project that would station production facilities near military installations and use locally available agricultural products to refine biofuels.
“We are looking at a range of raw materials, all focusing on producing biofuel on a community scale,” Ron Samborsky, Aerojet’s vice president for renewable energy and sustainability, told ISN Security Watch. “We wanted to avoid building mega-refineries as did the ethanol industry which we think are problematic.”
The community scale of the Aerojet concept drastically reduces operating and transportation costs, according to Samborsky.
Aerojet is also developing a transportable version of the system which has captured the attention of the US Marine Corps. The transportable system comes to address the same issues of fuel availability and costs, as well as environmental responsibility, in forward locations.
“The transportable version can be put on the back of a truck and driven to various locations and operated independently,” said Samborsky.
Getting industry on board
Private industry wants to see a commitment on the part of the military in the form of long-term contracts before investing in an alternative fuels infrastructure. “Currently we are authorized to enter into a five-year contract with up to five one-year options,” said Iden. “Industry has indicated that 20 years would be great.”
Accommodating industry’s contracting requests is one of many issues to be worked out before the US military can achieve its goal of displacing petroleum-based products with alternative fuels to a significant degree. The Army’s 2025 goal provides a clue as to the time line.
“It will take that long,” Paul Skalny, director of the National Automotive Center at the US Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC), told ISN Security Watch “to have the production capacity in place to make the transition.”