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. Eric

    Finally a few comments with intelligence on the $75/gallon cost. Thank-you, Dave. If Toyota only made 100 cars a year they would probably be 10 times the cost, and if you went back in time before current production methods, 10 times that. No one is pursuing this thinking the end cost will be anywhere close to $75/gallon. There are numerous commercial ventures out there because they believe this can be competitive with petrol based fuels. Produced in quantity, camelina oil should be cheaper than rapeseed (canola) because of lower fertilizer and pesticide requirements. You can easily find canola under $5/gallon, and in bulk it is around $3/gallon (e.g. http://www.webstaurantstore.com/suffixitem/101CANOLAOIL/BULK.html).

    April 27, 2010 at 11:12 am | Report abuse |
  2. CTM

    What do you think the first rocket cost that made a couple of spins around the earth? What did it cost to fly the first plane at supersonic speeds? The $3 million for a test that actually worked the first time. That is cheap.

    In the time of war when oil is cut off that 75.00 per gallon would be a bargin. Lets gear up now so we are not dependent on foreign oil for our everyday use. Lets burn a renewable resource in planes trains and automobiles. Lets use land that can't grow anything and grow something we can use. So when we do need to power our planes the cost is even cheaper than what we pay now.

    April 27, 2010 at 11:14 am | Report abuse |
  3. Chris A.

    I doubt that the US Military uses the same type of fuel that we put in our cars, I could be wrong, but come on, this is the fuel that we are putting in the Aircraft and Ships of the US Navy, I would take a guess to say that they might be doing a bit more research into the Fuel than we do, so your statements saying that it is 3 million for 40,000 gallons... it might not be $75 / barrel. We only know about the fuel, we don't know about what else they also had to do (such as research and testing, those type of things)

    in short, there might be more to the story than you know. chill out about it. haha

    April 27, 2010 at 11:20 am | Report abuse |
  4. rmay

    I keep hearing $75.00 is ok because it's tax dollars, and I guess that's supposed to mean nothing to the tax payer.. Also other comments that $75.00 is ok because it's new technology and we don't have the process or resources to extract the oil down pat yet. SORRY but (COLD PRESS) is the technology used to extract the oil and that isn't anything new. Camelina oil isn't something we just stumbled upon recently, it has been used a cooking oil and is a food grade product and is very healthy high in omega 3. Cameline was also a replacement of petrolium products in pesticides. Processing this product is the same as many other plant based oils , the same oils you have in your kitchen.

    April 27, 2010 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
  5. Scott Boye

    My personal experience with biodiesel somewhat mirrors the costs that the Navy sees with its initial tests. A dozen years ago I started blending biodiesel using a home made system that boosted the cost of the ifrst batch to about $30/gal. Once I started to get the production issues smoothed out, the cost per gallon dropped every time I made a new batch. When I figured out a consistant, reliable source for the used cooking oil my costs dropped even further. Four years ago when people were paying $4/gal a the pump, my biodiesel costs were running about $1/gal. Now when I'm lazy I can go to the local gas station and pay $3.35/gal for B99 or I can go out to the barn and blend up 'homebrew' for a dollar a gallon. I've gone from running the pickup on biodiesel to using it in the tractor, backhoe and boat.
    My R&D costs have been essentially my time, which is not insignificant. I tried taking about an acre out of production and planted soybeans for two years. The experiment turned out to be a lot of work for poor results so I've gone back to used cooking oil. If I lived where soybeans grew better I would guess that it may be a more economical way to get my resource.
    I applaud th Navy for the experimentation. Energy independence is a laudable goal. Biofuels will become more prevelant over time and not using food stocks for fuel is better for humans.

    April 27, 2010 at 11:32 am | Report abuse |
  6. Chris

    Oh My God, you people are small minded and short sighted. Foreign oil dependance -pffft – who cares. Green fuels and environmental concerns – pffft – again who cares. This is about power and survival. The cost of av gas in the near future will be rising faster than you can fill the tanks on a C-130. Sure $75/gal seems expensive now, but put 500-1000% on the current price of avgas and then bring the research costs of biofuels back a notch and your price problem disappears.
    This has nothing to do with the environment or foreign oil and has everything to do with the fact that oil scarcity is about to become a global problem. The US military consumes vast quantities of oil to project American military power around the world. With dwindling supplies and the fact that China is sucking up oil contracts like a giant vacuum cleaner, it does not take a Harvard graduate to figure out that the tanks in the US military will be empty in very short order. Couple this knowledge with the empty treasury vault after the bail outs, wars, 40 years of neglect, and the only logical conclusion is that America's glory days are over unless we come up with new ways ofpowering our war machine to maintain our global dominance. The only question is – are we too late

    April 27, 2010 at 11:39 am | Report abuse |
  7. Brad

    People, stop complaining about $75/gallon. Anyone with research and development experience will tell you that the prices for initial research products ESPECIALLY in small quantities (which this amount of fuel is compared to the mass production of JP4 or JP5) are MUCH MUCH higher than the cost of the final product. Give the Navy a chance. I would bet that the final cost (if you were to actually draw out the numbers like the Navy has) will be very competitive with JP5. Making accusations and assumptions based on initial research pricing is just poor logic.

    April 27, 2010 at 11:44 am | Report abuse |
  8. William

    75 bucks a gallon? Wow. I wonder if the Navy is going to go back to anchor rhodes and mooring lines made of natural fibers like hemp in order to reduce their dependence upon synthetic fibers like nylon, which is made from petroleum. I would love to grow hemp for them, but I'm not sure to do with the leaves once the hemp vines are harvested...

    April 27, 2010 at 11:47 am | Report abuse |
  9. Joseph Williams

    How much plant material ( in acers grown) does it take to produces 1 gallon. In the growing and production process, how much energy will be used. I know we need alternatives to a limited resorce, but this will only be work when we produce enough of new fuel to power the production process. $75 a gallon ain't going to cut it. What is the current cost to the U.S. military for one gallon of aviation fuel?

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

    Guess what geniuses? $75/gallon flax fuel is not the only biofuel out there. Other projects toward incorporating biofuel into the armed forces have produced it from algae at $2/gallon. And by the way, the diesel fuel being used in Iraq and Afghanistan ends up costing us $400/gallon right now.

    It's normal for experimental technologies to cost more in the short term. I swear, once Limbaugh said "libs hate oil" the rest of the conservative crowd lost all sense of practicality when it comes to new fuel sources. We need a source of fuel that we can produce domestically. Even if we opened up every possible area for drilling we wouldn't be able to produce enough crude on our own. Our dependence on foreign oil is a national security threat. Thankfully, the U.S. military has recognized this fact and funded research into new technology to find a solution.

    April 27, 2010 at 11:57 am | Report abuse |
  11. PRider

    I worked on this project for a few months in 2009 and yes, development and engineering costs for the first of a kind technology did make it more expensive. However, we believe that as soon as farmers start using the camelina as a rotational (or on purpose) crop, and production facilities are improved, the cost will come down to near what petroleum based jet costs. If it weren't for the Navy going forward with this program we would still be wondering if it were possible. Instead we have proved possibility and can now focus our energy on making it more affordable.

    April 27, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Report abuse |
  12. joe

    it was a ADOPTed to high octane that should be suitable for figther jet and next five years who know it might just 58cent per gallon. try to be patient guys.

    April 27, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Felix_Colorado

    I think that you folks complaining about the cost of fuel here just need to relax. The fuel going into this jet isn't the same junk that you put into your car. The fuel being used is experimental, and I find it great that our military is exploring new fuels. They prepare for every scenario, and this one might just be a global shortage of fossil fuels, or perhaps an attack that cut off our oil supplies. Maybe our domestic stockpile runs out? -who knows. Plus, if the military experimenting with this, it only helps with advancements in the private and commercial sectors later on.

    April 27, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Bill Johnson

    Are you all retarded? A test batch for $75 a gallon is not bad. How much do you think normal jet fuel cost when they were first testing jet fighters? Just like everything once production starts costs will go down so maybe you people should think a little bit instead of being typical Americans that can only skim the surface and think they know everything.

    April 27, 2010 at 12:25 pm | Report abuse |
  15. jeff

    I am amazed at the people who can do the math on this site. That is freakin more amazing than the story itself! I seriously doubt that this could be the final cost of production fuel as this is still in its infancy. They mixed it 50/50 to start with. I'm sure the costs will go down as the product becomes more widespread. Think of it as a first generation fuel. The more it gets used, the cheaper it will become. Law of supply and demand clearly at work. Go Navy!

    April 27, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Report abuse |
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