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RAND study says advanced biofuels offer no direct military benefit

| January 26, 2011

In Washington, the RAND Corporation, the national defense research institute, released a study on the use of alternative fuels in military applications. RAND has highlighted that “If the U.S. military increases its use of alternative fuels, there will be no direct benefit to the nation’s armed forces,” and said that “To realize the national benefits of alternative fuels, the military needs to reassess where it is placing its emphasis in both fuel testing and technology development. 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.”

RAND also opined that “algae-derived fuel is a research topic and not an emerging option that the military can use to supply its operations.”

By way of response, the Algal Biomass Organization criticized RAND for failing to contact, inspect, meet or otherwise directly weigh a  major algal fuel enterprise and directly evaluate its technology, timelines, or the applications of its products for military uses.

A copy of the study is available here.

The Digest’s Take

We hereby sentence the authors to a one-year subscription to Biofuels Digest.

We continue to sound the alarm on “studies” that are, in essence, reviews of peer-reviewed literature reviews and interviews with secondary sources. It’s the research equivalent of money laundering, the classic road to data that is past its use-by date, and often leads to a sniffling academic who talked to nobody of importance. Imagine the value of a review of military hardware opportunities without a phone call to Boeing, Lockheed or General Dynamics. Uh, guys, the number for the Algal Biomass Organization is (763) 458-0068.

Once again we saw the old dodge: interviews with researchers on alternative fuels development invariably result in calls for more research. Doh! Why do so many newbies in this space fall for this? More research is required on the wheel, but let’s not confuse that with the opportunity for commercial applications of the wheel based on what is known today, or in Julius Caesar’s time.

And in a “yikes” moment, we note that RAND is apparently unaware of projects aimed at developing small-scale bioreactors, suitable for producing fuels from a range of locally available feedstocks and forward, in-theater production. Isn’t RAND supposed to be in the know? Uh, guys, the number for the CIA is (703) 482-0623.

Industry reaction

Will Thurmond, CEO, Emerging Markets Online

Is it simply a coincidence that RAND’s study on alternative fuels for the military, the “Clean Coal” Coalition’s advertising campaign, and the State of the Union address were released on the same day? In contrast to greenwashing by some big electric cos, this is brown-washing by friends of coal by proxy via one RAND oil and coal consultant who says CTL or Coal To Liquids via Fischer-Tropsch gasification technology, is a better solution than biofuels.

Simply put, the facts do not support the opinion of one RAND analyst. This is uncommon to see such irresponsible and innacurate data from a highly reputable organization. As for the algae comments in the study, the ABO, BIO and the US Navy have addressed the facts well: the U.S. military, DARPA, the NAVY, and the Air Force all are seriously engaged in biofuels and algae ventures as a way to offset future oil supply shocks. The fact that one RAND analyst did not contact the Algal Biomass Organization, BIO, the National Algae Association, the Advanced Biofuels Association, the National Biodiesel Board, the Renewable Fuels Association, the American Biofuels Council, NREL, UCSD, Scripps, Los Alamos National Labs, NASA, Arizona State University, or any reputable analysts at Biofuels Digest, Biofuels Journal, Biodiesel Magazine, Algae Industry Magazine, etc underscores the “expert opinion” political bias and nature of this study.

In the world of biofuels, there is an abundance of opinion, but a shortage of facts. There are very few algae analysts or studies that have gone through the rigorous due diligence of visiting 30 or more algae production and R&D sites, in person, to see what the real status of the industry is. There are two – Exxon, and one Houston analyst (yours truly), that have done due diligence and research the old fashioned way by visiting several dozen companies on site and in person to make a proper techno-economic feasibility assessment. Is it any wonder when Exxon finally weighed in on biofuels, that they chose algae as the transport fuel of the future? Is it any wonder why Chevron, BP, Valero, Marathon, Bill Gates, the Rockefeller Foundation, Richard Branson,  DARPA, and the Navy are betting big on algae? These organizations do not invest without serious due diligence and R&D first. The observation of the facts are paramount in making a useful, informed, accurate, and responsible analysis. The future of US energy security, national security, economic security, and environmental security depends on it.

John Plaza, CEO, Imperium Renewables

As one of the leading companies in the development of Renewable Jet fuel from biomass, Imperium Renewables is extremely disappointed by the research report released today by the RAND Corporation.

Imperium has been on the leading edge of efforts to commercialize alternative fuels from biomass for use by both the civilian and defense fleets in the United States since 2006. Not one effort was made by the RAND Corporation to contact anyone at our company to better understand the developments taking place at Imperium. In talking with other leaders in our space, it appears they were not contacted either.

So it’s no surprise then, that RAND dismisses current renewable jet fuel technologies. What’s worse, however, is their recommendation to abandon current, proven technologies and feedstocks and turn to unproven technologies, using unsustainable feedstock (coal), World War II-era technology (Fischer-Tropsch), and undeveloped processes (Carbon capture and sequestration). RAND may as well have suggested that we abandon our investments in stealth fighter and drone programs and go back to Flying Fortresses.

Imperium is committed to continuing to innovate and develop technologies for the production of renewable fuels, including for aviation, that move us away from destructive and non-renewable resources such as coal and towards truly sustainable, low carbon domestic feedstocks.

Advanced Biofuels Association President Michael McAdams

Shame on the RAND Corporation as it does a great disservice to itself and our nation by wrongly criticizing the Department of Defense and its investment in advanced biofuels and deployment of a Great Green Fleet.  The RAND study clearly embraces the failed energy policies of the past.  The technologies and benefits of advanced biofuels are real.  Every day we are seeing example after example of real world applications from state of the art biorefineries going online to commercial airliners to SUVs and Formula One race cars all fueled with advanced biofuels. America cannot afford to step back in time as RAND would have us do and have future generations pay for that mistake.”

The Algal Biomass Organization

1)      It is our understanding that researchers at RAND did not reach out to any of the leading algae companies. Given that most of the cutting edge algae-fuels research is taking place today in the private sector where companies rightly protect their intellectual property, and given that the industry has made significant progress in the past three years, we believe the report is likely based on outdated information. In our opinion, basing sweeping policy recommendations on such data is misguided if not reckless.

2)      The positioning of the entire US algae industry as a “research topic” is frankly both demeaning and patently false. We have more than 100 companies, academic institutions and national laboratories working to develop the algae-to-fuels industry.  Algae-derived fuels have already been tested and/or used in motor vehicles and commercial aircraft, and last fall’s successful test of a Navy Riverine Command boat showed that algae fuels are ready for use. It is unclear to us whether or not any actual “green” CTL fuels have been produced or tested.

3)      We believe algae commercialization is far closer than RAND suggests. A 2010 report by Greentech Media projected annual US production of 6 billion gallons of algae fuel by 2022. On the contrary, the RAND report calls the potential for commercial production of CTL fuels over the next decade “very limited.”

4)      We will continue to work on behalf of the US algae industry to inform policymakers of the true potential of algae-based fuels as a long term, viable source of renewable fuels for the military.

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