Should the military pay $10 per gallon for advanced biofuels?

I came across a USDA summary report from earlier in this year about the programs sponsored by the government to produce bio-based aviation fuels (http://www.usda.gov/documents/usda-farm-to-fly-report-jan-2012.pdf and by the way, there’s a quick overview of the Advanced Hardwood Biofuels – Pacific Northwest project, to which I’ve contributed over the past year). In some ways, aviation fuels are the prime candidate for a transition to bio-based production. Ground vehicles can more easily accept bulky or heavy power systems than aircraft. A lithium-ion battery pack can power a Prius at just the cost of a little lost cabin space. On planes, the extra weight and low energy density are an absolute killer, which forces aircraft to use energy-dense liquid fuels. Ethanol isn’t great jet fuel, but already we’re starting to see some better options move from the lab bench to pilot scale (for example, ZeaChem ferments biomass to acetic acid, then uses high-temperature gas phase catalytic chemistry to assemble medium-chain hydrocarbons, i.e. jet fuel, out of the smaller building blocks). Like any other new technology, it’s pricey. The optimistic projections say we can produce the stuff for about the cost of a gallon of today’s gasoline. The optimistic projections are almost never right, at least not at first.

In the U.S., there may be a market for which cost is not a factor. The U.S. military is intensely interested in securing  a fuel supply that isn’t vulnerable to disruption by foreign powers (a dubious claim, since you’d expect that the military would get first claim to oil in a crisis), could be produced close to where forces are deployed and is friendlier to the environment.  I have no idea whether this last goal is just P.R. or awareness that at some point they may be subject to carbon-emissions regulation during peacetime activities, either way, I’m happy to see it. The military, particularly the Navy and Air Force, have aggressively funded research and development into bio-based aviation and maritime petroleum substitutes. They’ve also tested early fuels in several of their vehicles, including FA-18 and F-22 jets.

The military states that it’s willing to bear the cost of early technology in order to achieve it’s goals. This may well mean $10/gallon aviation gasoline and marine diesel, though in very small quantities, for a few years. The question for policy makers and budget analysts is whether this is s good idea? Should the military be footing the bill for an advanced technology? Or should it be focusing on cost minimization, in the face of continuing budget pressure?

I’d argue that a few demonstration projects, like the ones currently under way, represent a relatively small investment  when compared to the rest of the military R&D budget. If an honest, critical review of these projects at their conclusion determines that there is a realistic pathway towards obtaining cost-competitive biofuels in a reasonable timeline, then the military should proceed. Many civilian technologies were developed and demonstrated by the military and it’s one of the reasons why the U.S. has enjoyed a robust tech sector for many decades. This is not just an example of using military funds for civilian ends (though one could argue that we can and should use military funds for non-military ends wherever possible), rather, there are legitimate security goals here. The military’s long-term vision is the ability to deploy modular, transportable fuel production units (likely based on algae) along with troops in order to reduce the cost and risk of supplying units in dangerous territory. Failing that, they’d like to be able to deploy modular conversion facilities and feed them with local biomass. Both of these would represent a significant cost reduction for future missions and security benefit. More importantly, if the U.S. ever gets serious about reducing GHG emissions, the military will either have to join in the act or stick out as an obvious case of exceptionalism. With low-carbon biofuels, the military could maintain its rigorous training regime in a carbon constrained world. Either way, as long as money isn’t thrown at obviously doomed projects, it seems like a worthwhile investment.    

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