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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Filed under: Military • Security Brief
soundoff (116 Responses)
  1. Michael Tierney

    Okay, $3mil / 40k gal = $75/gal. Even assuming this is the undiluted cost – it's a 50/50 mix – that's still $37.50/gal. What does a gallon of straight petroleum-based JP5 cost?

    April 27, 2010 at 8:53 am | Report abuse |
  2. Jeff C

    At $75 per gallon I am not sure this is something the navy should pursue......

    April 27, 2010 at 8:55 am | Report abuse |
  3. Chris

    At $75 per gallon are we really saving the earth or lining someone's pockets

    April 27, 2010 at 9:01 am | Report abuse |
  4. John

    $75 a gallon?

    What the heck, it's only tax dollars, it's not like it's real money.

    April 27, 2010 at 9:03 am | Report abuse |
  5. PriceShocked

    Are these figures correct? 40,000 GALLONS for $3,000,000 or should it be BARRELS? If it's gallons, then that comes out to a whopping $75.00/gal. That's $72.73 more than the $2.27 average cost of jet fuel per gallon (figure from The Jet Fuel Price Monitor, a joint IATA – Platts initiative). I'm all for going the USAF going green, but why can't the Pentagon pay only a slight bit over competitive pricing instead 33 times more?

    April 27, 2010 at 9:08 am | Report abuse |
  6. Tony S

    Our government has no limits for military spending...$75 per gallon, just put it on the VISA.

    April 27, 2010 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
  7. Rico

    It isn't just about the cost of the fuel, its also about the ability to run our military on as little oil as possible. It's a stratigic move, were we ever to be cut off oil supply from the Middle East we could still operate our military with the blend of the biofuel.

    April 27, 2010 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
  8. Hal

    What a great story. This is how American tax dollars should be spent: protecting the country, seeking American energy independence through greener sources, pioneering 21st century solutions that may re-energize the economy using (not abusing) American resources and its people.

    If camelina is good enough for a F-18 Super Hornet, it should be good enough for a F-150 supercab.

    April 27, 2010 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
  9. Bill

    Why does the Navy think that paying $75 for a gallon of fuel is efficiant?????

    April 27, 2010 at 9:18 am | Report abuse |
  10. Ryan P

    Yes, $75 / gallon is outrageous, but it's experimental technology. Anyone remember what the first computers cost? How about the first LCD TVs? As the technology becomes more efficient, and more farmers start producing this oil, it will all bring the price tag down on a per gallon basis. New technology costs money.

    April 27, 2010 at 9:19 am | Report abuse |
  11. Tyler

    The fact that the military found something that can cut cost down by a little and it makes some people happy that were cutting down emissions with this flex fuel i say its better than nothing it truly is a milestone for the military

    April 27, 2010 at 9:21 am | Report abuse |
  12. Peter

    If this biofuel is adopted for the military they will most likely order millions (if not billions) of gallons of camalina every year. Just like every other "new" product the price will go down, especially if more growers pop up to meet the demand for the huge amount of fuel needed for thousands of military aircraft. Don't get too hung up on the price of the initial test batch.

    April 27, 2010 at 9:21 am | Report abuse |
  13. Liz M.

    All of you seem to be missing the point. We wont HAVE regular fuel soon...its all going to run out and then we're all screwed. Sure its expensive, but its better than our nation's defense jeopardized because we dont have any fuel to run our ships or planes or whatever. Besides...i have children to think about. I dont want them to end up living in a mess that MY generation could have fixed. At least the government is actually trying to solve a problem rather than cram a solution together at the last minute like they usually do.

    April 27, 2010 at 9:22 am | Report abuse |
  14. Tyler

    Woah Woah wait a minute how much is it for normal gas in gallons for these fighters??

    April 27, 2010 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
  15. JustMe

    You guys are a bunch of idiots. Of course the first shippments of this kind of stuff are going to be incredibly expense and not cost effectie. The average pc today is around $1200 the same pc in 1970 would have cost the equivalent of 250k! The first 2 or 3 levels of production of these type of innovations always cost more. They are effectively doing research – not buying a commodotiy product. So get off you high horse and cut them some slack they are trying to progess our nation to a bio friendly solution over time.

    Btw i love the idea of replacing poppies with the stuff

    Kudo US Military

    April 27, 2010 at 9:27 am | Report abuse |
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