Biofuel U.S. Navy Warplane Makes Successful Flight

The plane uses a biofuel blend of JP-5 aviation fuel and camelina oil.

An examination of liquid biofuels published in Strategic Studies Quarterly, a peer-reviewed journal for security professionals, has concluded that they fail to provide meaningful benefits when pitted against petroleum products.

“The United States cannot achieve energy security through biofuels, and even the attempt is ironically achieving effects contrary to ‘clean’ and ‘green’ environmental goals and actively threatening global security,” writes US Navy Captain T. A. “Ike” Kiefer.

The US military’s push to diversify energy sources away from fossil fuels has attracted a lot of attention, both positive and negative. While reducing the armed forces’ oil needs has several potential benefits – including potentially lower costs, more reliable supply and reduced emissions in specific situations – there are also cases in which non-fossil energy sources cost more, and consume more energy, than their fossil fuel counterparts.

While some commentary on the US military’s attempt to reduce fossil fuel use lumps all renewables into one category – and sometimes even throws in energy efficiency – Captain Kiefer’s article focuses specifically on the use of biofuels in transportation. He draws on studies conducted by the Rand Corporation and US National Academy of Sciences. And his conclusions indicate that he sees efforts to supplant petroleum fuels with biofuels as driven by politics, rather than comparative analysis.

“If a way existed to reliably supply US transportation energy exclusively from domestic sources with reasonable and stable prices, it would clearly enhance energy security,” writes Kiefer.

But “uncultivated biofuel yields are far too small, diffuse, and infrequent to displace any meaningful fraction of US primary energy needs, and boosting yields through cultivation consumes more energy than it adds to the biomass,” he says. “Furthermore, the harvested biomass requires large amounts of additional energy to convert it into the compact, energy-rich, liquid hydrocarbon form required for compatibility with the nation’s fuel infrastructure, transportation sector, and especially the military. The energy content of the final-product biofuel compared to the energy required to produce it proves to be a very poor investment, especially compared to other alternatives.”

Among his findings:

  • Biodiesel and ethanol are less energy-dense their petroleum-based counterparts.
  • Some biofuels consume more energy than they produce. “Making corn ethanol is a negative energy-balance process.”
  • Commercially viable cellulosic biofuels do not yet exist. “Despite all the subsidies, tax breaks, and fuel-mixing mandates since 2005, there is not a single commercially viable cellulosic ethanol facility in the United States today.” (Range Fuels announced production from what it calls the country’s first commercial cellulosic biofuels plant in August).
  • Biofuels do not reduce price volatility. “Liquid biofuel prices are already as volatile as oil prices and track up and down with the international oil market.”
  • Fossil fuels will still be required to power farm machinery, produce heat and electricity for conversion of biomass to fuel, as feedstock for herbicides and pesticides, and to prepare cultures used in fermentation processes. “The parasitic dependence of biofuels upon fossil fuels precludes any chance of their reducing dependence on foreign oil, assuring domestic supply, or stabilizing prices.”
  • Biofuels are costly. Kiefer cites one estimate that the Navy has never paid less for any biofuel than $1,123.50 per barrel. This does not factor in additional outlays by the US, such as government-funded research and development.
  • Using food crops for fuel can drive up global food prices. “A union of the world’s preeminent food and financial assistance agencies, including the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, has formally called for all G20 nations to drop their biofuels subsidies and mandates because of the impact on food prices around the world.”
  • Lifecycle analysis calls into question the environmental benefits, and water footprint, of biofuels versus their petroleum-based counterparts.

You can read the full article here.