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. Mark NYC

    Let's just stick to the status quo because it's cheaper, HA. I commend the US armed forces for using their R&D budgets on alternative fuels. Keep up the good work and so my consumer products will be green in the near future.

    April 27, 2010 at 10:28 am | Report abuse |
  2. Sam

    "Does it really need all those post-WWII military bases in places like Germany and Japan?"

    thank god environmentalists aren't running the military. yes, you idiots, we need thoses bases, unless you want to invest money in getting planes that will make it to iraq without needing to refuel.

    April 27, 2010 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
  3. Ryan

    You people need to be a little more realistic. First it said nearly 3 million, not 3 million. Second of all it's a brand new immature technology...so it's going to cost more, even alot more at first until, competition occurs once farmers and entrepeneurs see that the U.S. military and airlines are SERIOUS about using these biofuels.

    Sure the price per gallaon at current is outrageous but it will come down significantly over time. Just be happy that the military is at least trying to ween itself from foriegn independance and paying American farmers for it! Jeez!

    April 27, 2010 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
  4. Duane Johnson

    There is a difference between research costs and commercial costs. This is research and the costs are not out of line given the cost to generate the quantities needed by the Navy. I expect the Navy will be paying commercial rates soon enough.

    April 27, 2010 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
  5. joe

    great news and the government should implement it all over america, to reduce black gold dependency, and let the middle east dring thier oil.

    April 27, 2010 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
  6. stunned

    green is the new retarted.

    April 27, 2010 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
  7. stunned

    sorry, i was green. (retarded)

    April 27, 2010 at 10:38 am | Report abuse |
  8. Mark Smith

    A good rule of thumb is that as manufacturing doubles, cost should drop by 10%. This is but a drop of the total volume of fuel used. Give it a while. Oh, and that $75 goes to Americans as opposed to foreign companies; there are economic benefits to that as well.

    April 27, 2010 at 10:42 am | Report abuse |
  9. hidden

    maybe its a typo and it $75/barrel??

    April 27, 2010 at 10:44 am | Report abuse |
  10. Renee

    Expensive yes. Still, I am amazed at how all these negative comments about alternative fuels. Keep sucking away at the oil tit people. Maybe somebody can answer this, How long would our fleets of ships and planes survuve if the arabs cut us off?

    April 27, 2010 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
  11. Greg

    This is not new technology,
    corporations have benn making biodiesel for decades.
    Look at willydielsel. Jet fuel is acombination of diesel and kerosene. You should be able to replace it with bio diesel. You can also make it from used vegatable oil.
    I understand that the military or any aircraft would want the best fuel so new stock is best but more costly.
    You can purchase 100% Biodiesel for $3 a gallon. So why reinvent the wheel. Its the military properganda making it sound like they invented something great.

    April 27, 2010 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
  12. Carl

    If we look beyond the "gee whiz" aspect of being able to create biofuel, will we begin to explore the potential for this technology? Will we find that the "reality" is that we would have to plant camelina on every square foot of the earth's surface just to produce enough fuel to run the entire US Navy for two months, or some other ridiculous metric? Remember the "miracle" of Ethanol, until we realized it would take every square foot of American soil to plant enough corn to produce 1/6th of the gasoline we currently import. Although the technology may be innovative and "green", it has to be practical to be truly useful in eliminating our dependence on foreign oil. Did anybody from CNN bother to do any actual investigative journalism here or are we (again) simply left with reprinting the propaganda provided by the source?

    April 27, 2010 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
  13. HoJo

    It's an initial test, they are verifying that they can do it with the aircraft without negative impact. The fuel cost will come down if they decide to convert to it and when it's mass produced.

    April 27, 2010 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
  14. kc

    Do any of you morons think it is actually $75 a gallon? Do you think maybe some of the cost might have gone into testing and reasearch?

    April 27, 2010 at 10:54 am | Report abuse |
  15. EG

    You people never think about outside factors, for instance the high cost may be due to limited quantities (i.e. If more people start growing it, the price will go down).

    These arguments are the same as when you complain about the cost of prescriptions. You think about what it costs to produce your bottle of pills but forget about the cost of that very first pill (research, testing, trials, manpower, etc).

    Bigger picture people, we're trying...any step big or small in the right direction is still a good thing.

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