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. BobB

    It's an experiment, a prototype, a test. Let's hope the principles of economics and mass production will drive the cost down - way down. With Bio-fuels, who needs Saudi, Iraqi, and Iranian oil? Hmmm. Let me think.

    This is not a new concept. 1944, Booker T. Washington was the undesputed leader in bio-fuel engineering. President Truman had him developing fuel from plants as an alternative to oil. The war ended before production started. So, let's be real. It is a publicity event and a step in the right direction.

    You guys really should stop falling all the trees ... the forest is right here.

    April 27, 2010 at 9:28 am | Report abuse |
  2. Oswald Jones

    Seriously people! This is a pilot project. Of course it's going to be more expensive. Once production ramps up, the cost will go down considerably. The only reason petroleum based fuels are so cheap is because of the huge infrastructure in place to mass produce them.

    What we should be more concerned about is not the initial cost of using this plant for fuel, but the environmental impact. Everyone jumped on the corn-based ethanol bandwagon, yet corn is one of the worst crops that can be used for fuel from the amount of water and fertilizer required to grow it to the impact it has on food prices. There is even some debate on whether or not it take more energy to produce ethanol than is recovered from the fuel.

    I would like to see the same studies of this camelina plant performed before everyone starts touting this as the new wonder fuel.

    April 27, 2010 at 9:33 am | Report abuse |
  3. bk

    Yes, $75 a gallon. I'm sure that includes all the research and development costs to see if it's feasible. I'm just guessing that if people started manufacturing it widespread, costs may go down a little bit..

    April 27, 2010 at 9:35 am | Report abuse |
  4. easytheretiger

    $75 per gallon is not a fair estimate. It costs money – lots of it – in R&D investments to take on an initiative like this. That $3MM includes those investments. Wait to see what the cost/gallon is once we move forward into full production. Let's not freak out here, folks.

    April 27, 2010 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
  5. Corey

    Standard grade jet fuel appears to cost approximately $2/gal. Whether these fighters use such a grade, I don't know.

    I cannot imagine that the price would stay at this level for long, however. Every new technology is expensive at the beginning, and I personally applaud the government for investigating green options. As this technology proves to be more feasible, then more acres of land might be devoted towards growing the camelina, reducing the price considerably. And the fact that the camelina can be grown on arid soil that is not currently cultivated is even a greater boon.

    Not only does this have the potential to benefit society by reducing petroleum demand, plus using soil that we would not necessarily be able to use, it also requires then growing more plants, which further reduces carbon dioxide in the air as plants convert it to oxygen.

    Just because the price is high now, doesn't mean that it will remain high. I say give the technology more of a chance to prove itself.

    April 27, 2010 at 9:39 am | Report abuse |
  6. TR

    Ok everyone can stop showing off their math skills. We understand $3 million divided by 40,000 gallons equals $75 per gallon.

    April 27, 2010 at 9:41 am | Report abuse |
  7. Chris

    Given that Jet fuel cost $87.9 per pound and there are 6.7 pounds of fet fuel in one gallon. That's 588.93 per gallon so 75 per gallon is quite a bargon.

    April 27, 2010 at 9:44 am | Report abuse |
  8. Mike R

    I see a lot of people complaining about the $75.00 per gallon price. they should bear in mind that this is "first" effort. If this fuel were to be integrated and produced in mass volumes and not just as R & D, the prices will drop dramatically. There is no mass production at this time for this type fuel, so the initial costs will be expensive. Once it is approved and mass production comes along, you will surely see the costs go down to a competetive level with fossil fuels. We have to start identifying these types of fuels and put them into the system in order to "wean" ourselves from the foriegn suppliers that are strangling us. "nuff said"!

    April 27, 2010 at 9:45 am | Report abuse |
  9. BMC

    It's very expensive, yes, but can you relax for a second. This is what, the first buy in and tests they're doing? There is no competition for this alternative oil yet, no one has created "super flax" yet, and the machinery to extract the oil probably hasn't gotten much focus yet. It's expensive because its new - everything is. Give it chance, these are STEPS in the right direction and should be given a little more credit.

    April 27, 2010 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
  10. steady321

    This story just proves beyond any doubt that environmentalists have no concept of economics or they simply don't care.

    April 27, 2010 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
  11. Chris

    $75 per gallon. I think they smoked the plant first, then did the economics.

    April 27, 2010 at 9:57 am | Report abuse |
  12. Wade W.

    I'm curious if this 3 miilion dollars doesn't include the NRE (non-recurring engineering) costs. I ask because the cost could shift to the cheaper side, signifigantly, given the mixture and testing are completed. Most folks don't realize anything developed by the military goes through rigorous testing and evaluation. Such testing adds considerable cost to such efforts, up-front. If I had written this story, I'd have included a caveat that the costs were development costs, not the actual cost once production was established.

    April 27, 2010 at 9:59 am | Report abuse |
  13. AmyB

    The current F/A-18E/F biofuel test program is evaluating a blend of 50% biofuel/50% petroleum-based fuel. The approximate cost of fuel used in testing is $35/gallon ($33 for the camelina portion plus $1.40 for the petroleum-based portion). Up-front R&D costs are a necessary investment in achieving long-term energy security and efficiencies. As a "first adopter" of biofuels, the Navy, along with the other Military Services and commercial aviation, will demonstrate a significant demand for alternative fuels. It is expected that market forces will drive availability and cost to a level comparable with petroleum-based fuel. Concurrent with the Navy's certification efforts, DARPA, USDA, DOE and industry are aggressively working to commercialize the production technologies to ensure fuel costs are competitive with petroleum.

    April 27, 2010 at 9:59 am | Report abuse |
  14. kevin John Gil

    RE: $75/gal – Oh but it's SO GREEN! It's certainly worth the 4 or 5 times REAL WORLD COST for the warm fuzzy! (As long as TAXPAYERS foot the bill. ) It's the same story with almost ALL 'green' tech, the stuff just can't pay for itself WITHOUT a Gov't subsidy – thus Cap & Tax.

    April 27, 2010 at 9:59 am | Report abuse |
  15. EconomicTheory

    Yes the math says $75/gallon for the fuel and it's definitly more then aviation fuel currently, but it's a test market from a fuel that is not currently used for anything else. If this is a workable technology, just making the product a commercial commidity will bring down the cost. Mass production and competition will do the rest of the job.

    April 27, 2010 at 10:00 am | Report abuse |
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