April 26th, 2010
03:19 PM ET

Security Brief: The Navy's new secret weapon? Going green

It’s the new secret weapon fueling the US military. A hardy plant capable of growing in poor soil, camelina sativa produces a bio-fuel that’s now the focus of the US Navy’s drive for alternative fuels in its planes.

Last week an F/A-18 Super Hornet flew from the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Md., powered by a 50/50 mix of aviation fuel and camelina, also known as wild flax. It was the first supersonic fighter to fly on a bio-fuel mix. The event was celebrated by US Navy Secretary Ray Mabus on the Navy’s new official blog, also launched last week .

Officials say that during the 45-minute flight the plane’s engines worked as well on the camelina fuel as on normal aviation fuel – at both subsonic and supersonic speeds.

“The fuel works so well, all I needed to do was just fly the plane.” the plane’s pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Tom Weaver said. Mabus describes the program a “significant milestone” toward operational use of bio-fuels by the Navy.

The Navy says it will take a few months before camelina can be certified as an alternative fuel source, but it has already received 40,000 gallons of camelina bio-fuel from a grower in Montana, at a cost of nearly $3 million. The humble weed is now being cultivated because of its high oil content – with farmers across the Pacific Northwest looking at its potential.

It’s not only the US Navy that’s interested in camelina. In March the US Air Force test-flew an A-10C Thunderbolt from Eglin Air Force base in Florida on the same mix; Japan Air Lines has also tested camelina.

The military program has attracted some of America’s top corporations, including General Electric (which tested the engines) and Honeywell (which blended the fuel), as well as smaller players like Sustainable Oils. But industry sources say it will only be feasible if the new fuel can “drop in” – without expensive aircraft modifications being necessary. It’s a big if – the Navy has a goal of meeting half of its energy needs from alternative sources by 2020.

Navy officials say the next step is to start testing bio-fuels in ships later this year, starting with algae-based fuels.

A new report by the Pew Charitable Trust says the US military is making good progress toward energy efficiency. It cites wind turbines on air bases and the growing use of solar farms in residential areas on bases. The Pew report concludes: “While work remains to be done, the military continues to build on its successful record in managing resources and investing in long-term innovations.”

Environmentalists give a lukewarm welcome to the programs, but say the military should be focusing on other ways to reduce its ‘footprint.’ “Does it really need all those post-WWII military bases in places like Germany and Japan? Does it need to keep all that cold-war hardware in operation? “ asks Michael Graham Richard at Treehugger.com.

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soundoff (116 Responses)
  1. Nick

    It's $75/gallon because this is in development. Of course the price will go down when/if this stuff gets mass produced. Ignorant people with opinions are very dangerous.

    April 27, 2010 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Kristen

    $75/gallon is about right for an experimental biofuel. Could have gotten biodiesel for about $2/gallon but that is an established industry (according to everyone who wants to drop farm subsidies). It is unlikely that this will ever be mass produced because the growing seasons are short where it is viable. On the plus side, a bunch of people will run out and get venture capital to start manufacturing plants which will promptly go under in a year or two. Doesn't anyone remember ethanol?

    April 27, 2010 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Travis

    Using our food to fuel anything but eating is the pinnacle of human stupidity.

    April 27, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Patriot

    @WarMachine – that war machine you denigrate is the exact same thing that assures you can say what you want when you want. War is bad yes and evading it should be done at all costs. But if you haven't figured out yet, there are bad people out there who don't like us and would probably kill you on the spot if you dissed them. Like or not, our military does keep us safe.

    April 27, 2010 at 8:02 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Larry

    Algae is our future. After being on the job market for most of this past year and looking into alternative energy prospects, the many advantages of algae became clear. I can't find a single downside to this energy option. If anyone knows of one, please chime in. I ended up returning to work in the semiconductor industry, but still closely watching the algae industry.
    One company in particular, Aquatic Energy, appears to know what they are doing. This last statement on their Algae Facts page puts algae potential into perspective..."Just 15,000 square miles of algae could replace all the petroleum used in the U.S. in one year: according to the Department of Energy. To translate, that’s an amount about one-sixth the size of Minnesota."
    ( http://aquaticenergy.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=88&Itemid=85 )

    April 27, 2010 at 10:31 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Pray4Justice

    It's going to take a major catastrophy to end our dependence upon crude oil. Maybe the Gulf Coast spill will end this craziness and help us grasp other greener fuelss like algae instead.... AND I MEAN TODAY, NOT TOMORROW!

    May 8, 2010 at 8:37 am | Report abuse |
  7. Dorkus

    Delete this story and fast! Our military using "Green" fuel? Does Rush know about this, or Cheney? When they do find out, heads will roll and it will be back to Good Old Petroleum, you can bet on that!

    May 9, 2010 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Best Military Weapons

    An attention-grabbing discussion is worth comment. I feel that you must write more on this subject, it may not be a taboo subject but usually people are not sufficient to talk on such topics. To the next. Cheers

    April 9, 2012 at 11:13 am | Report abuse |
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