U.S. military jets, vehicles to run on biofuels and animal-corpse grease

Published 5 October 2009

Honeywell says the U.S. Air Force will buy 400,000 gallons of algae/weeds/corpse-fat jet fuel, and the U.S. Navy will take 190,000 gallons

The U.S. military is making its own contribution to the environment — and to U.S. energy independence. The U.S. Air Force is already on its way to making its their aircraft run on coal, and the other services have just ordered 600,000 gallons of renewable jet fuel made from weeds, algae, or rendered fat from animal corpses.

Lewis Page writes that the news of the biofuel push comes from Honeywell subsidiary UOP, which has been developing sustainable/renewable biofuels for use in jet engines since 2007, originally under the auspices of ever-inquisitive DARPA. The Pentagon research arm originally called for jet fuel made from sources “including but not limited to plants, algae, fungi, and bacteria,” but the program seems to have developed along more conventional lines.

The past two years have seen trials of various kinds of “sustainable” or “second generation” biofuel in airliners, generally involving jatropha nuts, algae, or similar feedstocks. Ordinary biofuels made from crops grown on farmland have been recently blamed for driving up food prices and causing hunger, and reliance on them was criticize because it would tie up far more arable land than is realistically available if they came into widespread use.

Algae, which can grow on unused water surfaces, is thus seen as a good candidate for feedstock; so are plants such as jatropha or camelina weeds, able perhaps to grow on unused land. Another option is the use of fatty grease from livestock carcasses in the form of tallow — livestock which would have been raised anyway.

Honeywell says the U.S. Air Force will buy 400,000 gallons of algae/weeds/corpse-fat jet fuel, and the U.S. Navy will take 190,000 gallons. These fuels will be mixed with regular fossil juice to produce synthetic JP-8 which will be tested out for use on the full range of military aircraft.

Page writes that the idea is not to reduce the U.S. forces’ carbon burden as such, but rather to provide an alternative source of supply in the event of war or crisis cutting off traditional sources. Nonetheless, by developing the technology, the contract may lead to more use of possibly sustainable biofuels by civil air transport.

Synthetic jetfuel made from coal using the Fischer-Tropsch process is already certified on many U.S. military aircraft, but this is worse in carbon emissions than using crude oil. About a ton of coal has to be burned to produce a ton of synthifuel with this method. The U.S. Air Force says this is not its main concern; what concerns the service is that America has abundant coal reserves, but has to import crude oil. “We are pleased to see that the U.S. military is taking this important step toward the use of bio-derived jet fuel on its platforms,” says UOP chieftain Jennifer Holmgren.