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. Ryan

    Yes it's $75 a gallon....Now. It is that expensive because it isn't being commercially made and processed, only for the sake of these tests. If it turns out to be a good fit for the air force then more suppliers will appear, more plants to process the fuel will be made and the price will drop significantly. It won't be $75/gal once and if they decide to use it permanantly

    April 27, 2010 at 10:01 am | Report abuse |
  2. Travis

    JP-5, known in civilian world as Jet A, typically costs about 5 bucks a gallon. Not sure if this is something DoD should pursue unless they are planning on drastically increasing the number of farmers growing this weed. I am sure the cost would come down substantially. You have to figure there are only a few people even growing this stuff presently, so they can charge pretty much whatever they want.

    April 27, 2010 at 10:03 am | Report abuse |
  3. Jerry A.

    I lost count of how many people said it was dumb to spend $75/gallon on jet fuel. If this were not a TEST CASE, then I would agree. The first samples of anything cost a lot. Mass production will bring the price down.
    .
    For the environmentalists saying that we should first shut down unneeded bases around the world, I say (1) I agree in principle, but geopolitics says otherwise, and (2) why do you think we are spending _Trillions_ of dollars in the Middle East? Silly people. If it were not for crude oil, we might care as little about Iraq as we do about any another failed nation. We need to develop our own fuel sources before we can think about getting out of that war-torn region. The faster the better.

    April 27, 2010 at 10:05 am | Report abuse |
  4. CD

    New/emerging technologies are always expensive, I'm guessing that built into that $75/gallon are the initial "start up" costs of materials, trial & error, etc. that wouldn't exist if this were a refined process. Imagine if we didn't use Jet fuel today and that they had to pay a man to make jet fuel from scratch, developing and buying the technology and resources needed to make 40,000 gallons of high grade jet fuel... I'm guessing it would cost a heck of a lot more than $75/gallon. once the technology is refined, the start up costs capitalized, and the demand for the fuel increased it will becomes very cost effective, but the only way to get over the initial hurtle is to have someone like the Navy making the initial investment.

    April 27, 2010 at 10:06 am | Report abuse |
  5. Skeetz

    Think the more important point is that the jet figher ran on a mix of green and jet fuel, if you can power a jet engine that spins at something like 80K rpms, then is there any reason why this alternative fuel source cant be harnessed for automotive technology or is there something in this alternative fuel sort that may require the higher rpms to burn it correctly? Obviously there is a big need for it, but if it could be synthesized cheaply, then perhaps the cost of fuel could go down significantly

    Alos of significance is that if you can get the growers of poppees, you have an immediate cash crop that the Afghans and Iranians, hell just about any country could grow. There is incentive to get this green technology going

    April 27, 2010 at 10:09 am | Report abuse |
  6. Steve M

    Hooray for that Montana farmer. He is the only one who can see the logic in this product !

    April 27, 2010 at 10:10 am | Report abuse |
  7. Greg

    JP5 cost roughly about $3 a gallon. You also might want to take into consideration that this is new technology that is still in it's developmental stage. As with any new technology, the price for anything experimental is going to be a great deal more in cost than it will be once it is more commercialized. The prices will decrease considerably when there are more of these plants producing at the levels that the oil companies are. Does anyone remember the price of a plasma TV when they were first introduced?

    As a side note, if you think F/A-18's are flying nukes around, you obviously don't know much about Naval Aviation. Do some homework before coming off with such nonsense. Carriers stopped deploying with air delivered nuclear weapons back in the late 80's. Why have a pilot deliver something that can deliver itself?

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

    The use of fuel by a carrier group might be mission specific. I am not a pilot or a chemist, but I heard that traditional fuels coagulate or breakdown at high altitudes due to the cold, and that Bio-Fuels don't do this.

    April 27, 2010 at 10:10 am | Report abuse |
  9. Mr. Dog

    $75 per gallon is expensive, but these are small batches of production. As the use of camalina increases, the price will fall. It's just like any supply/demand equation. RAM used to be $50 a Mb, but as production capacity and manufacture technology increased, the price is down to about 20 cents per Mb.

    Rather than criticize the military for not making long enough strides, we should be encouraging more initiatives like this. The military has been working for years to make their logistics, bases, and machines as environmentally friendly as reasonably possible. Most people just haven't heard about these initiatives because they aren't widely publicized.

    April 27, 2010 at 10:13 am | Report abuse |
  10. Aris

    First, the cost is high because there is little production, if production increases, it will get cheaper, and everything experimental is expensive at first, and yes, it is JET FUEL, not high octane gas for your car. If there is only one farmer producing this, then he can charge whatever he wants, once 1000 farmers are, then they have to compete.

    And the gas you buy for your car is subsidized, if the government didn't subsidize it, the cost per gallon would probably be about $7 a gallon

    Jeff C, instead of wondering what petroleum based fuel costs, wonder what the world economy will do when petroleum runs out?

    Second, good to see progress

    April 27, 2010 at 10:16 am | Report abuse |
  11. Rebecca

    75 a gallon is impressive – wonder if that included the R&D and startup costs that any new venture needs, which would then lead to dramatically reduced prices as you grow/make more and use more...... Anyone think about that?

    April 27, 2010 at 10:19 am | Report abuse |
  12. SS

    JP-5 costs anywhere betwee $5.8 – 6.5/gallon

    April 27, 2010 at 10:21 am | Report abuse |
  13. victor

    You are all wrong, this technology is great for our country. The only hitch is "how do we find another country dumb enough to pay $75/gal for it".... Maybe Elbonia!

    April 27, 2010 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
  14. Dave

    Any new program has apparently ridiculously high costs when it's a new system. I'm sure this stuff, should it work out, will cost more than $5/gallon. It won't be anywhere near $75.

    April 27, 2010 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
  15. Dave

    Initially the cost for any new fuel technology is going to be higher. There are always R&D costs which include setting up the facilities needed to process the new energy source long term. I would not make such a hasty judgement on a single figure when we don't know the details of the initial production costs. Take into account that a single plane costs millions of dollars, and so the Navy would not want to "drop-in" the wrong kind of fuel and potentially waste hundreds of millions of dollars. The idea of not having to retrofit the existing fleet will also be very attractive because modifications would also require an exhorbitant amount of materials and labor cost. This is comparatively a bargain and I would wager that the fuel costs will drop significantly once the refining process becomes routine.

    April 27, 2010 at 10:24 am | Report abuse |
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