Tinker, tailor, sailor, fly: aviation biofuels advance, attract opponents over costs

April 18, 2012 |

As Honeywell and Agrisoma collaborate to pioneer aviation biofuels from a new carinata-based feedstock, critics wonder exactly why the military is paying so much for the biofuels it is utilizing for tests.

In Illinois, UOP announced that Honeywell Green Jet Fuel will be used for the world’s first comprehensive test program using a new biofeedstock specifically designed for biofuel production, new Resonance Energy Feedstock.

Tinker

The test flights, to be done in Canada with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and Agrisoma Biosciences Inc., will also feature in-flight collection of emissions by a trailing aircraft, allowing for later evaluation of the Green Jet Fuel’s emissions performance.

The program will also test blends of Honeywell Green Jet Fuel at higher ratios than previous demonstration flights, which have been conducted using a 50/50 ratio of biofuel and jet fuel produced from petroleum.

Tailor

Resonance is a new industrial oilseed crop, derived from Brassica carinata, with an oil profile optimized for use in the biofuel industry, specifically biojet fuel.  The program will evaluate Honeywell Green Jet Fuel™ refined from Resonance feedstock oil produced in Saskatchewan. The flights, conducted in partnership with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) in Ottawa with funding from the Government of Canada’s Clean Transportation Initiatives, will evaluate the Resonance-based biojet fuel under a number of flight conditions to provide the world’s first ever real-time, in-flight emissions measurements for a biojet fuel.

The Resonance crop used for the biojet fuel was grown in Kincaid, Saskatchewan in the summer of 2011 and is being commercially contracted on significant acres in western Canada for the 2012 crop year.  Resonance has all the features necessary to make it a sustainable energy feedstock crop: a non-food, industrial oilseed; uniquely suited for production in semi-arid areas unsuitable for food oilseed production; excellent agronomic characteristics; good biotic and abiotic stress resistance; and reduced overall crop input requirements.

Soldier

Meanwhile, aviation biofuels for military purposes have been receiving lots of flak in the popular press. The issue? Primarily, cost.

“The Navy has received pressure from Congress,” said a report in DODBuzz, “to justify it’s energy conservation efforts since a RAND report was published in January  stating that biofuels will not help the Navy for at least another decade.”

“[Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Tom Hicks]  estimated that the average energy project for the Navy takes six to eight years before the service sees a return on its investment. Hicks understands that Congress is looking for savings wherever it can and is not eager to pursue additional spending without a quick pay back.

Navy Times chirped, “Biofuels are generally several times as expensive as petroleum-based fuels — the Navy, for example, paid about $26 a gallon in December for 450,000 gallons of a blend of used cooking oil and algae — and there’s a concern among Republican lawmakers that their use would never become economical.”

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus countered, ““If we made all of our decisions on the cost of a new technology, we wouldn’t have nuclear submarines today. We wouldn’t have nuclear carriers today. We wouldn’t have computers today because they’re a lot more expensive than typewriters,” he said in an interview.”

Science 2.0 added, “The Navy recently spent 600% more for algae biofuels than they would for regular fuel, so the worry is they were doing it for non-military related reasons. Namely, to make the president happy.  Now, you don’t ordinarily think of the military as being pro-Obama but the top echelons are political.  Secretary of the Navy Roy Mabus is a Democrat, he was a Democratic governor, he was an ambassador in the 1990s appointed by a Democrat”ic president and he was appointed to his current job by a Democrat.

Policymic.com observed, “In a letter dated March 6, 14 members of Congress told Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus that the Navy’s investment in alternative energy is, effectively, a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Nevertheless, policymic.com writer Jeff Danovich was moved to observe, “According to the Department of Defense, for every dollar spent above $88 per barrel of oil, it costs the Pentagon an additional $31 million. Currently, the price of a barrel of oil is above $100. For the extra money that is being spent on oil, the military has to take the money from some other funds. Funds like training.”

The overall cost to the Navy in added fuel costs, over that $88 per barrel figure. Using the Navy math, it’s $504 million. No alternative under development, excepting biofuels. Should crude climb back to, say, $135 million, the differential would rise to $1.457 billion. The cost of the biofuels buy, aimed at providing enough fuel to test and certify the fleet for alternative fuels in a 50.50 blend? $12 million.

Couple of things we note in general media coverage of the Navy biofuels buy. Reporters seem to be underprepared for their stories – citing, for example, the lower BTUs of biofuels, which are actually associated with ethanol, not the drop-in biofuels sold to the military. Hmm.

Fly

Meanwhile back in Canada, the test flight program will utilize the unique research aircraft of the NRC Flight Research Laboratories, a modified Falcon 20 twin-engine jet that will test the fuel and a T-33 jet equipped to measure in-flight emissions while flying in formation.

Funding from Sustainable Development Technology Canada is supporting the development of the high yielding oilseed crops to be used in the manufacture of biofuels and products previously derived from petroleum based supplies.

The Bottom Line

Aviation biofuels testing and certification is proceeding. But a clear path to low cost fuels needs to be road mapped and milestoned.

Ultimately,. there needs to be a sustainable path to competitively priced fuels. New feedstocks are welcome, but they must be part of a development effort that includes clear, disciplined pathways to affordable fuel. The public may be easily fooled by embedded renewable power charges, since utility bills are tortuously complicated. How much do people pay per KWh. Go figure.

But fuel is priced in billboard fashion on every street corner. The public is highly tuned in on price. A roadmap to parity, based in firm milestones and dates would be helpful. The USDA, USN and DOE are meeting in DC May 18th to think through the issues.

That. for sure, should be item #1.

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