Biofuel does not benefit military – study

Here is an interesting study from RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, which reported that there is no direct benefit for the US military in using renewable fuels.

As you’ve read from the blog from time to time, there had been increasing investment developments in biofuels for military use. Here are some examples:

  • U.S. Navy to develop technology for the conversion of biobutanol into full performance jet and diesel fuels in collaboration with Cobalt Technologies. 
  • US Navy and the Department of Defense collaborating with Solazyme for algae-based fuel.
  • US Navy and Air Force developing camelina-based jet fuel via collaboration with Sustainable Oils.

According to the RAND study it makes more sense for the military to direct its efforts toward using energy more efficiently rather than in developing biofuels for military use.

“Providing war fighters with more energy-efficient equipment such as aircraft or combat vehicles improves operational effectiveness, saves money and reduces greenhouse gas emissions,” said James Bartis, lead author of the study and a senior policy researcher at RAND.

Here’s some of the reasons according to RAND why biofuels do not benefit the military:

  • Too much emphasis is focused on seed-derived oils that displace food production, have very limited production potential and may cause greenhouse gas emissions well above those of conventional petroleum fuels
  • Algae-derived fuel is a research topic and not an emerging option that the military can use to supply its operations

  • Uncertainties remain regarding their commercial viability — namely, how much these fuels will cost and what effect they may have on the environment, particularly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions

  • Military fuel demand is only a very small fraction of civilian demand, and civilian demand is what drives competition, innovation and production

The RAND study recommended that Fischer-Tropsch fuels — alternative fuels produced via an updated version of a process used by Germany during World War II — are the most promising option for affordably and cleanly meeting specifications for military fuels.

Here are other recommendations proposed from the study:

  • The Department of Defense should complete testing and certification of Fischer-Tropsch liquids for use in 50/50 fuel blends, but testing at higher concentrations is not appropriate considering the very limited commercial production anticipated over at least the next decade.
  • Minimize resources directed at testing and certification of hydrotreated renewable oils, including oils derived from seed crops (e.g., camelina) and algae. Testing and certifying these fuels in high-performance propulsion systems used by the military is simply not on the critical path for resolving the uncertainties associated with these fuels.

  • Considering the absence of military benefits, the Department of Defense and Congress should reconsider whether defense appropriations should continue to support the development of advanced alternative fuel technologies.
  • If the Department of Defense is to continue to support alternative fuels, its role and the Department of Energy’s role need to be clarified.

  •  For technical, logistical and security reasons, research directed at advanced concepts for forward-based production of energy should focus on electric power as opposed to specification-grade military fuels for use in weapon systems.

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