Mean and Green: The Navy’s Stand on Advanced Biofuels

, Senior scientist | March 26, 2012, 5:46 pm EDT
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“Then we needed steel for our vessels, but were getting all of the steel from the UK and Germany. So the US Navy created the US steel industry. Is the biofuel plan an aggressive goal? Yes, but small goals deliver small results.” — Thomas Hicks of the U.S. Navy as quoted in the Guardian, March 12, 2012

The U.S. Navy’s recruiting slogan is “A Global Force for Good,” but I have my doubts as to whether they ever meant that to refer to their role tackling problems like oil dependence and climate change. Yet the Navy—along with the Air Force—is putting its money where its mouth is on these issues with an aggressive plan to replace a third of its enormous oil use with advanced biofuels.

The Navy’s effort is worth noting because it can support the growth of the cellulosic biofuel industry, a critical step in meeting our ambitious biofuels goal—developing an advanced biofuels industry that augments and eventually surpasses the scale of our conventional biofuels industry. Most of our advanced biofuels will need to come from cellulosic sources. We can use leftovers from agriculture and garbage that cannot be recycled, and crops grown specifically for biofuels: perennial grasses that complement our food production system rather than compete with it like today’s food-based fuels (whether made from corn, sugar or vegetable oil). These cellulosic biofuels are cleaner than food-based fuels and fossil fuels, but they are also the only biofuels available at the scale needed to help tackle oil dependence and climate change, which is where the Navy has trained its sights. I’ve laid out a strategic roadmap, called the Billion Gallon Challenge, for getting cellulosic production up to scale to meet that goal, but we’re a few years behind. That’s where the Navy comes in.

The right fuel for the job

As the Navy has developed its biofuels program, they have wisely steered clear of food-based biofuels. The Navy has focused on fuels made from chicken fat, camelina oil, and oil made from algae because this is what can be converted into the diesel and jet fuel the Navy needs with today’s technology (destroyers and fighter jets don’t run on ethanol). This is a good start, but these fat- and oil-based fuels are a small harbor for a big fleet. There simply isn’t enough of this stuff to scale up. Chicken fat is already used to make soaps and detergents. Camelina is a rotational crop, which can be integrated into wheat farming, but it does not produce much oil per acre and there are a limited number of acres  that are suitable, so the potential there is also quite limited (EPA estimates maximum camellia biofuel production of 1-5% of current corn ethanol production). And the algae the Navy has relied on are actually fed sugar rather than sunlight, so they don’t really solve the food-fuel challenge either.

Since there’s already demand for these fats and oils, diverting it all into biofuel production will force the soap and detergent makers to find a substitute. That’s a problem. When you look into the global markets for fats and oils, all roads lead to palm oil: the fastest growing, cheapest source of vegetable oil. Besides being a major food source in India and China (and an ingredient in Girl Scout cookies), a recent UCS report has shown that palm oil production is a major driver of deforestation in Southeast Asia.

The EPA is in the process of finalizing its analysis of palm oil-based biofuels, and its draft analysis shows that because of the deforestation and draining of peat land, palm oil-based biofuels do not meet even the basic requirements for the U.S. renewable fuels program (click here to submit comments on the EPA’s draft rules).

Walking the talk

Cellulosic fuels don’t have these messy side effects, and biomass as a resource is 30 times larger than waste oil. So imagine how pleased I was to read a recent Des Moines Register story, about the Navy work to make cellulosic jet fuel, starting with a 3 million gallon Missouri facility that will open in 2014. It’s encouraging to see, and I hope it’s a sign of more to come. Looking at cellulosic biofuel production more broadly, Poet broke ground on a $250 million cellulosic ethanol plant Tuesday, and it is expected to be completed next year. More plants are on the horizon.

Not even a big player like the Navy can single-handedly change our fuel system. But it’s exciting to see a big buyer step in and drive large-scale demand for cost-effective, environmentally-friendly cellulosic biofuels. I hope the Navy’s position helps drive the necessary private investment and government policies (details available here) to reach our goals for advanced biofuels, and steers away from investing in fuels that compete with food supplies and drive deforestation.

photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Charlie Houser/Released

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  • Ron Steenblik

    What do to mean by calling Camelina a “non-food” crop? It is a highly edible oil, and is being grown on arable land. Yes, some farmers are growing it in rotation with wheat, but you can observe substitution between wheat and Camelina by the variation in planting as a function of the wheat price. The wheat price falls, and more Camelina is grown, and vice-versa. Indeed, the USDA is now even paying farmers to convert good farmland into growing Camelina as a feedstock for aviation biofuels.

    • Ron,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Sounds like you know more about Camelina than I do, and if you have a link to additional information you think is useful, by all means let us all learn a bit more. I would certainly agree that if demand for Camelina for jet fuel expands beyond a certain point, it will start competing with other crops for arable land, water and other resources. As I understood it, EPA’s proposal does not anticipate this happening, but maybe with input from you and other experts, their final rule will correct this analysis.

  • Practical Sam

    Good luck to POET…they’re going to need it! They talk a good, optimistic game but they haven’t ever produced enough cellulosic ethanol to prove out a commercial-scale endeavor. This $250 million US Navy/POET PR stunt will probably end up a hushed-up boondoggle on the order of the $500 million Solyndra debacle? Alternative energy is shaping up to be mostly hoax…just enough result dribbling out to keep dreamers drooling and the “research” funding rolling in.