Can the Defense Department Be a Significant Driver of New Biofuels Technology?

To carry out military and humanitarian missions around the world, U.S. forces require reliable fuel supplies and secure supply lines. At the micro level, the military is as much at the mercy of high oil and gasoline prices as the average consumer. In addition, when you calculate the fully burdened cost of fuels, for instance a gallon of jet fuel delivered to the front lines in Afghanistan, it can be upwards of $400 per gallon. And, on a macro level, oil often comes from regions of the world that are not U.S. military allies. The need for great energy independence is therefore a very important national security issue.

U.S. troops, their trucks, ships and airplanes use close to 2 percent of the nation’s energy on an annual basis, making the military a small but significant consumer of fuel. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) used about 120 million barrels of oil for fuel.

To turn this around, the DOD has set goals to reduce its energy demand and increase its use of renewable energy – acquiring 50 percent of supplies from renewable sources that meet U.S. greenhouse gas emission initiatives by 2020. According to the DOD’s Quadrennial Defense Review in 2010, fuel efficiency and access to fuel supplies in friendly countries around the world are important “force multipliers.” They increase the military’s ability to operate where needed while limiting the number of combat forces needed to protect supply lines.

Navy Director for Operational Energy Chris Tindal reviewed progress on the Navy’s plans to deploy a Great Green Fleet powered by renewable and low-carbon energy by 2016 in a speech this month at BIO’s World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology in Toronto, Canada. According to Tindal, “We want to be able to pull into different ports around the globe and be able to refuel on biofuels.” In other words, the Navy does not want to sail its Great Green Fleet with a long convoy of tankers providing the fuel, as this would recreate the need to protect a long supply line – a disadvantage similar to the current reliance on oil.

Advanced biofuels represent the best near term option for meeting military needs. Tactical biorefineries can be established in strategic locations, such as Hawaii or other friendly countries with large supplies of biomass, in order to make use of local feedstocks to produce sustainable biofuels military consumption.

The Navy and Air Force have both worked with a variety of biofuel suppliers to conduct tests and certify that biofuels meet exacting DOD requirements for performance and cost. For instance, Solazyme – a California algae oil producer –delivered to the Navy 20,000 gallons of jet and diesel from algae, the largest amount of advanced biofuel ever produced. And Sustainable Oils – a renewable fuel producer in Montana – supplied camelina-based bio-jet fuel for a 2010 test flight at supersonic speeds of the U.S. Navy's F/A-18 “Green Hornet” aircraft.

There is a potential to benefit civilian aviation as well. As Tindal noted in his speech, the military can help biotech and algae biofuel companies scale up their technologies and drive prices down by acting as an early adopter. The U.S. military exercises sufficient purchasing power to drive development of new fuels in sufficient quantities at the right price. The private commercial airline industry and the military collectively use 1.5 million barrels of jet fuel per day.

There are legislative efforts that would help the military become the technology leader in scaling up commercial production of sustainable biofuels, such as algae. BIO supports legislation allowing the Department of Defense to engage in long-term contracts for purchasing biofuels. These contracts would provide significant market stability for small companies trying to commercialize new technologies and would help them to attract private investment to build the small biorefineries in strategic locations around the world that the military needs.

Beyond that we support more aggressive actions by DOD to build commercial-scale biofuels units that can prove multiple technologies and speed delivery of high volumes of advanced biofuels to our war fighters. A more aggressive approach can not only help ensure a secure, cost-effective and environmentally sustainable fuel supply for DOD, but also help drive advanced biofuel commercialization activities domestically. DOD has already showed interest in developing a “tactical biorefinery “that is mounted on skids and can be deployed overseas to convert kitchen waste and other solid waste to fuel. DOD is a significant driver of innovation and technology commercialization and we are beginning to see some encouraging signs with regard to advanced biofuels.