Friday, December 16, 2011

Worries about DOD's Green Biofuels

On 1 September 2009, DLA Energy , which oversees procurement of biofuel for the Navy, awarded to San Francisco-based company Solazyme a contract worth $223,500 for delivering 1,500 gallons of algae derived jet fuel (Hydrotreated Renewable HRJ-5) for testing and certification by the US Navy. This makes $149 per gallon.

The DLA Energy, in early 2010 awarded a $2.7 million contract to Sustainable Oils of Seattle and Bozeman, Mont. for 40,000 gallons of the camelina-based fuel. This makes $67.5 per gallon.

The media was quite after these awards.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on 5 December 2011 the Defense Logistics Agency signed a contract to purchase 450,000 gallons of advanced drop-in biofuel. The contract is the largest government purchase of biofuel in history, and provides $12 million to suppliers Dynamic Fuels LLC (a joint venture of Tyson Foods, Inc. and Syntroleum Corporation) and Solazyme. Solazyme’s biofuel is algae-based, while Dynamic’s is made from used cooking oil and non-food-grade animal fats.  (this makes $26.6 per gallon).

I don’t understand why now there is big news coverage and fuzz about the government grants to unprofitable “green” projects in general and Navy’s biofuel deal in particular.

Some call it even Jet-Fuel Gate arising from “green” fanaticism. I guess this has a lot to do with (again so called) SolyndraGate (the $535 million Obama stimulus loan guarantee to solar panel maker Solyndra on the eve of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy).

An interesting article by J.E. Dyer at Hot Air provides extensive details of Solazyme: T.J. Glauthier “strategic advisor” at Solazyme, worked on the energy part of Obama’s trillion-dollar stimulus bill. Then Solazyme gets a $21.8 million grant from the stimulus bill and uses this money to open the largest biofuel plant in North America, located in Louisiana. And now the company (together with Dynamic Fuels LLC) is given $12 million contract to provide biofuels to US Navy.

Investors Business Daily put a harsh editorial on the subject adding that “You can save the Earth and make money too! Provided you have the right political connections to get your hands into taxpayer wallets, of course."

All these make many people skeptical about the DOD’s green biofuels hysteria.

Wired.com ran a story on 5 December 2011 with a catchy title: Navy’s Big Biofuel Bet: 450,000 Gallons at 8 Times the Price of Oil. (by the way, it was not 8 times the price of oil, $26.6 per gallon compared to $3.95 per gallon) The article itself may be not original but the comments indeed underline many of the pros and cons of military use of biofuels. These comments show that people want to see other things beyond the costs.

Here are some of them:

“Why would we want to build infrastructure to produce a product that is less energy dense, is more expensive to produce, and is not in supply worldwide. “

“It's not the Pentagon's job to choose what the next fuel source should be. There is plenty of value in R&D, but R&D doesn't require the operational fleet to buy Bio Fuels in bulk at substantial price premium to better fuels for no purpose. Why do we need an entire strike group running on bio fuel, other than entertainment? What's the purpose? It's more expensive, will require more frequent refueling, and increase maintenance costs.”

Many things have been said against new fuel for ships: - Coal (....but the wind works just great and is cheaper). - Oil (...but coal works just great and is cheaper). - Nuclear (....but diesel works just great and is cheaper).

BUT “Bio isn't any better than JP-5, in fact, it isn't as good. It doesn't perform as well per pound. Nuclear doesn't need to refuel as much. Oil is much easier to move and handle than coal, and powered ships steam faster than wind. Each of those steps had a value delivered. What is the performance value improvement of bio fuel over JP-5. What is the reason to justify the 10x cost differential?”

“the National Security strategies from the last 30-50 years and see that the Gulf area is listed as an "vital national interest" - and it wasn't because of the fishing.”

“If they really wanted to get us off foreign oil then they would turn to hydrogen as the "New Fuel".

Time has come to make a reality check for some of the claims advanced by the green fuels industry and the US military officials. My skepticism to the DOD biofuels endeavor would change only if I could see hard facts on these points, not empty talks and promises.

Capt Michael Cole, Deputy Chief, Lab Division AFPA/PTPLA had an interesting analogy in his presentation on 9 May 2011. He says “If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it's a duck.” SO, he says, “If it looks like ‘on spec’ fuel, smells like jet fuel and burns like jet fuel, it’s jet fuel.” Well, not necessarily.

In order to be considered a viable alternative, any JP-8 challenger must closely approximate or be better in all the criteria I list below.
·         First, it must meet current petroleum based JP-8 and F-76 energy density standards.
·         Second, it must be drop-in fuel (that no modifications to the engines are required to burn the fuel.)
·         Third, it must meet military demand in terms transportability and stability (making use of the existing delivery infrastructure and storage capacity)
·         Fourth, it must be cost competitive
·         Fifth, it must be produced in large quantities preferably in the US.
·         Sixth, it must allow the aircraft to continue to operate with commercially available fuel supplies.

Take the first item, energy density, which in my opinion is the most important.
An ideal alternative fuel would minimize both mass and volume for a given energy content since this will have major impact on the vehicle range. Pound for pound, wood as a fuel contained more energy than the human muscle-based carbohydrate economy it displaced; coal contained twice again as much; oil raises the ante twice again and nuclear sources many times more. In this context, biofuels are less dense. Less energy density at a higher cost doesn't sound like the roadmap to success for the reality. (Aviation Biofuels: Real or Green Fantasy?) If we want to pick up a winner to replace oil then the replacement should be better or equivalent in energy density and cost to crude oil based fuels.
Energy content can be expressed either gravimetrically (energy per unit mass of fuel) or volumetrically (energy per unit volume of fuel). Energy content is assessed by comparing the energy of the fuel per unit volume, but must also be assessed by comparing the energy per unit weight. In order to meet JP-8 fuel density standards, an alternative fuel must meet both criteria.
Let me give you one example. Ethanol for instance only delivers three-quarters as much energy per gallon of petroleum derived gasoline, meaning significantly lower miles per gallon, necessitating more frequent fill-ups. Navy Secretary Mabus tells in every occasion that US naval vessels are most at risk during refueling, as the USS Cole was when it was attacked in 2000 in the Yemeni port of Aden. He should demonstrate and prove that Navy alternative fuels will require less refueling.
I would like to make a suggestion to media reporters and DOD officials. Please don’t focus solely on the cost aspect of the biofuels. That is only one part of the story. Better focus on whether the DOD is doing the right/wrong thing for right/wrong reasons.

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