Military biofuels

The U.S. military’s commitment to drop-in, deployment-ready biofuels that have the potential to provide fuel supply security and a ready source of fuels near the field of combat is underway.

Each year fuel consumption by the U.S. military accounts for 93 percent of the federal government’s fuel use. As both the largest government and individual petroleum consumer in the U.S., the Department of Defense plays a significant role in steering bioenergy developments. Its commitment to alternative energy from both a volume standpoint and through its visible leadership position is expected to markedly advance bioenergy in the next decade.

Within the Department of Defense, the Air Force is the largest fuel consumer, using as much as 2.5 billion gallons of aviation fuel per year. It is followed by the Navy, using approximately 1.3 billion gallons of fuel a year, and the Army with as much as 1.1 billion gallons annually.


Each military branch has recently announced aggressive alternative energy goals. The Army is aiming for 25 percent renewable energy by 2025.
The Air Force intends to have half of its domestic aviation fuel requirements met by alternative fuel blends by 2016. And the Navy says it will increase use of alternative energy to 50 percent by 2020.

These commitments are being backed by substantial financial investments. The Department of Defense anticipates awarding up to $30 million in funds for the Defense Production Act Title III Advanced Drop-In Biofuels Production Project. The initiative calls for domestically produced feedstocks that are renewable and do not compete with food or feed production. The fuels have to have lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions less than or equal to those of conventional petroleum-derived fuels. The fuels must also be produced in integrated biorefineries with capacities of 10 million-plus gallons of neat biofuel per year. Further, fuels must be graded for military operational use by the time the commercial-scale biorefinery comes online.

In addition, the Army recently proposed industry partnerships to develop renewable energy,and President Obama last year announced a combined $510 million partnership among the departments of the Navy, Agriculture, and Energy; and the private sector to produce drop-in aviation and marine biofuels for military and commercial transportation.


Despite criticisms by some members of Congress of military biofuels spending in the current economic climate, administration and military officials are standing by their commitments. They cite three compelling benefits to bio-based energy: energy-security/energy independence, economic benefits, and combat readiness.

“In 2009, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus outlined five energy goals for the Department of the Navy that seek to reduce our vulnerabilities to foreign sources of fossil fuel, as well as enhance our combat capabilities and increase our mission effectiveness,” said Tom Hicks, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for energy.

Brent Erickson, executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s Industrial and Environmental Section, addressed the economic reasons in a recent media roundtable on military use of bioenergy. Erickson noted that in fiscal year 2011-12, the Department of Defense wound up $5.6 billion over its military-operations and maintenance budget due to unanticipated increases in fuel expenditures.

For the Navy, every $1 increase in the price per barrel of fuel translates into a $30 million annual cost that, practically speaking, amounted to a near $1 billion increase in expenditures. To make up for this, the Navy says it now faces the difficult choice of flying less, steaming ships less, and training less, while sustaining its facilities.

In reflecting on combat-readiness, at the recent 7th Annual Military Energy Alternatives Conference in Falls Church, Va., Comdr. James Goudreau, director of the Navy Energy Coordination Office, said, “First and foremost, Navy energy is about the war fighter. Our reason to pursue these initiatives is to deliver greater combat capability. Reduced consumption of energy and increased use of alternative energy comprise the Navy’s two-pronged approach to improving combat capability and achieving energy security.”


Robert Diltz, technical lead at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL’s) Energy Group at Tyndall Air Force Base, focuses on alternative energy as well. In volatile combat regions, he observes, combat capability means it is of utmost importance to reduce the amount of fuel that must be shipped to the forward lines. That, he says, calls for optimal production of potential power onsite.

Research for applications in the field focuses on maximizing every bit of energy yield. Ongoing AFRL projects have examined options such as oxygenated biodiesel (using a butanol blend to prolong diesel shelf-life) and treatment of available agricultural residues to extract usable sugars to boost energy output.


The Navy’s Hicks acknowledged that military R&D and testing of biofuels is, in effect, supporting future development of economies of commercial scale. But, he says, the energy and national security benefits justify the investments.

“When the military does testing and research and development on biofuels, such as in the Green Hornet, the Riverine Command Boat, and the Seahawk helicopter, for instance, we know that we are paying R&D dollars,” Hicks said. “In the big scheme of things, this is still a very small percentage—far less than 1 percent—of the main budget we have for our overall aviation and ship fuels.”

The investments signal a strong market demand over time, according to Chris Tindel, the Navy’s director of operational energy. Ultimately, Tindel said, purchase orders will send a clear signal about the Department of Defense’s commitment to support bioenergy production going forward.


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