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. Kevin

    $75 a gallon is not the issue.
    Prices go down with mass production.

    Prototype electronics Prototype electronics can cost 10-100 times the mass production cost.

    Also it could bring more stability to regions with poor soil (Middle East) If the had some kind of crop the average rural person could grow and sell that didnt involve drugs.

    April 27, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Tyler520

    Great! Of course hundreds of thousands of people will not be able to eat anymore because biofuels have driven up the price of grain crops and uses arable land for this junk science – a process which uses several gallons of fuel to produce one gallon of biofuel.

    Farming communities across the world cannot afford to eat the food they grow due to the biofuel movement. tribes in Africa now have to PAY to eat mud cakes...all because of a silly fantasy about "magic fuel"

    April 27, 2010 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Aiden

    What all of the armchair economists in this thread are failing to recognize are the economies of scale in producing petroleum based fuels vs. biofuels.

    There is a massive, established plant for the sourcing of raw material and conversion to usable fuel in making Jet A, hence it's seemingly low price, comparatively. On the contrary, there is very little established infrastructure for producing fuel from wild flax.

    It's important to realize that this is a test, and like most test it's more expensive than general production fuels. Likely a specialized processing facility had to be constructed to meet this order, and the amount of wild flax currently being grown for fuel uses is insignificant compared to what it would be if this fuel proved feasible.

    This is basic supply and demand. Or, more aptly, the invisible hand of the free market at work (for those who love to toss the words around as a panacea for the worlds ails).

    April 27, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
  4. CFA

    New tech always costs more. When the fuel is fully integrated the costs will come down. This is the price of progress.

    April 27, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Trigger 11

    As an environmentalist and conservationist, and not just a green train bandwagoner of recent years, I take it as great news that stepos are being taken to improve upon the government's, not just the military's, 'footprint.' It is not economically or environmentally feasible to continue to live as we have in this society the past 50+ years.

    LIving a relatively 'green' life is easy and becomes a matter of habit by reducing consumption and waste and always looking for better, cleaner, more efficient ways of doing things. It's sad so many are resistant to even give it a go, solely based upon misconceptions or downright stubborness.

    Many of us for years have proven that a 'greener' existence is ultimately cheaper and more economical. The same could be tru for society as a whole if the effort is put forth to make the necessary changes to get there.

    April 27, 2010 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Steve

    A Tandy 5000 workstation with 20mhz processor used to cost over $8000...just give the technology some time to develop and the cost will come down.

    April 27, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
  7. john

    For those of you going $75 a gallon is a lot
    1. Have you found out what they are paying for straight jet fuel, I would bet it is just as expensive. It's jet fuel not 98 octan
    2. It's a developing technology, it always costs more.

    April 27, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Charles Gordon

    Reading these comments just proves a lot of people come off half cocked and do not understand the issues or implications involved. Thank goodness some people realize that first costs are not final costs down the road.

    And do not some people know we are buying oil from people who want to kill us. Are they the same ones who ask why we need foreign bases. They may be entitled to their say but I hope they never get to run the show.

    April 27, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
  9. BillShut

    Nice to see all the geniuses here that can divide 3 million dollars by 40 thousand gallons, and figure out that it cost $75/gallon.
    Did any of you then consider that once this proves itself, it's entirely likely that the company making this fuel will be able to mass produce it at a lower cost? Just like any other product? How much did your blu-ray player cost when it first came out? $300?? How much are they now??
    It's only through research and development in these areas that we might someday break out stranglehold on foreign oil sources that currently exists. Kudos to all involved, especially as this might someday force the farmers to stop using fields for food crops to grow corn for ethanol production.....something which would help everyone's pocket book!!

    April 27, 2010 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Max

    PEOPLE PEOPLE PEOPLE.

    Easy with the ignorance. Everyone here is complaining that it is $75 a gallon.

    1. It's experimental. Everything that was the first or experimental has always been expensive. Now, if they see that it is worth using this fuel on all aircraft, and then airlines want to use it the cost will drop significantly.

    2. It takes our military off oil. If we went into war with the entire Middle East we would lose right away as all they have to do is cut off our oil to fuel our planes.

    This is a good thing for the military, it will be a good thing for our unused lands, or even good for the poor in Africa or those in Afghanistan getting them off of making the easy money by joining the Taliban or growing opium.

    Cmon people think things through before you comment.

    April 27, 2010 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Eugen

    This is a lose – lose situation. The article doesn't comment on the fact that we will use up all the oil by the early 20's. This grounds the military unless they can come up with a fuel to replace jet fuel. (not 50/50) There is no way that we are going to produce the fuel we need on a few acres of land in the North West. They are talking about corn land, they are talking about Brazilian forests. Using the cost number in the article a loaded F-18 represents well over $100,000 in fuel. The 30 million doesn't include subsidies paid to these companies to manufacture it so I would say the final cost per fuel up is over a half million. In a word, Bio Fuel sucks.
    The thing is we (they) are spending tax dollars on a fuel that will not be viable beyond 2025.
    There are a bunch of mothers who are going to get rich off of this , including politicians, and in the process they are going to leave us poor and defenseless.
    The answer is hydrogen. This is the direction money for technology should be utilized. One way of producing less expensive hydrogen is high temperature reactors. Europe uses or has used them. In these systems they don't use water as primary coolant but a liquid that can get a lot hotter than water. The heat is used as a catalyst to break down H2O. The residual heat could then be used to produce power. How safe are reactors? Well I was in the Navy for over 20 years on nuclear submarines and as far as I know with the hundreds of reactors sailors have operated they have hardly killed anyone. They know how to make them sailor proof. Hydrogen is the fuel of the future!
    A word of caution about people who use the footprint word. Don't trust them.

    April 27, 2010 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
  12. spike in conshohocken pa

    Has anybody figured out how much per gallon this green fuel is?

    April 27, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  13. barry g

    I think everybody has said it all!!

    April 27, 2010 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
  14. WarMachine

    This thing is a war machine. It was built to scorch earth and destroy people. There is NO point in making it "green". This is a Publicity stunt and most of you bought it.

    April 27, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  15. dafooks

    It's R&D people, not production. Glad to see that 5th grade math paying off – but BUS101 is lost on the masses.

    April 27, 2010 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
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