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. Jason

    "Environmentalists give a lukewarm welcome to the programs"

    Oh really? What, you were expecting environmentalists to approve of anything the military does?

    April 27, 2010 at 7:07 am | Report abuse |
  2. Flabbergasted

    Let's see $3,000,000 divided by 40,000 gallons equals $75/gallon. WHAT - DID I DO THAT RIGHT?!?!! What numbskull thought that $75/gallon is a "good deal"? Who did the math for this? Goldman Sachs?

    April 27, 2010 at 7:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Areskar

      It's a developmental fuel. Once mass production of it becomes common place to replace/reduce existing JP-5 & JP-8 demands the price should drop dramatically. I still think hydrogen is a more viable long term solution as it would have both the greater availability and the greater thrust potential (that's why they use liquid hydrogen in rocket boosters) but that would require an entirely new aircraft design so it's at least 20 years away. Besides, at least the Navy spent $75/gal on something made in the USA instead of importing it from the Saudi's...

      July 9, 2010 at 2:41 am | Report abuse |
  3. Steve

    Lets be honest here, this is solely a publicity event. Had I not been a Naval Aviator myself, I might buy into this. The reality is that an F-18 probably burns from 7 to 10 thousand pounds of fuel per hour which is a relatively small figure for a combat aircraft. There's no way that current fuel generation technology can even come close to providing fuel in sufficient quantities to sustain one carrier battle group, let alone the entire military. That 40,000 gallons of oil from Montana at $75 a gallon will run ten aircraft for about 10 hours. That's not economically feasible, especially given today's economy in the US...

    April 27, 2010 at 7:36 am | Report abuse |
  4. Ralph Gentry

    Maybe a solar powered fighter would be cheeper. $75 a gallon and I though premium was expensive.

    April 27, 2010 at 7:38 am | Report abuse |
  5. Chris

    Did I really just read that the U.S. government is paying $75 per gallon for alternative fuels? And we're being told that oil is keeping us enslaved...

    April 27, 2010 at 7:41 am | Report abuse |
  6. Cevin, WI

    Poor soil, like the mountains of Afghanistan? It would be great to help them find a source of income besides opium.

    If fuel can be grown in places that DON'T otherwise produce cash crops (i.e. corn), it will transform the world's economy.

    April 27, 2010 at 7:43 am | Report abuse |
  7. Brian Shaw

    Hmmm. I did the math. $3,000,000 divided by 40,000 gallons. That works out to $75/gallon. Standard military economics.

    April 27, 2010 at 7:58 am | Report abuse |
  8. Ken

    This also has a strategic application. We need to be able to fuel our military in case our supply of foreign oil is cut off.

    April 27, 2010 at 8:13 am | Report abuse |
  9. Chad

    75 bucks a gallon eh? I think I need start growing this plant...

    April 27, 2010 at 8:23 am | Report abuse |
  10. Fred

    I know the technology is really what's important but is anyone doing the math on this? That's nearly $75 per gallon when Jet A is currently selling for less than $5 per gallon!

    April 27, 2010 at 8:25 am | Report abuse |
  11. JB

    40,000 gallons of camelina bio-fuel, at a cost of nearly $3 million?! So we're paying $75 a gallon for this stuff?! Ugh, way to be cost-effective Uncle Sam.... at least I can sleep well at night knowing the nuclear warheads that'll one day be strapped to that F/A-18 will be flown around in an eco-friendly manner.

    April 27, 2010 at 8:27 am | Report abuse |
  12. Peter Rymwid Photography

    So, what's an extra cost for it and who is paying for it (again)?

    April 27, 2010 at 8:32 am | Report abuse |
  13. Steve

    $3mm for 40,000 Gallons? That's $75 a gallon! What a bargain! Only about 17+x the cost of Normal Jet Fuel.....

    April 27, 2010 at 8:39 am | Report abuse |
  14. Patriot

    Michael Graham Richard is an lookuing at the wrong issue. Yes, the forward deployment of our forces is a profound and critical question that must be continually evaluated by our government. In a perfect world, we would not need a kick butt military. Unfortunately, the hard reality is that we don't choose where the bad guys come from, and there will always be people who will seek to kill us. Sorry Mr. Richard..

    Instead of focusing on the fact that we can use this new fuel as a supplemennt to wean the military from imported oil, he changes the subject. Kudos to our military and DARPA for this inovation. FYI, Mr. Richard, DARPA started this little thing called ARPA NET a long time ago which became the world wide web.....

    Mr. Richard, before you think I am some wack job right wing nut, I am not. I am a trained environmental engineer who is a political independent.

    April 27, 2010 at 8:39 am | Report abuse |
  15. JR

    Not to rain their parade but must to make sure did anyone check to see how much you can buy JP5 off the open market. My math says 3 mllion divided by 40,000 gallons = $75.00 per gallon. Is this not like the $600 hammer or the $1200 toilet seat?
    Would just me nice to have a comparision before we commit this type of money.

    April 27, 2010 at 8:44 am | Report abuse |
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