Obama Administration announces project funding for jet biofuels as politicians seek to restrict military purchase
Fri 6 July 2012 – The US Navy together with the Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Energy (DOE) are to make available $30 million in federal funding to match private investments in commercial-scale advanced drop-in biofuels for aviation and shipping transportation. The prime aim of the funding is to form one or more domestic value chains that will lead to the construction of a commercial-scale biorefinery capable of supplying 10 million gallons a year. Further $32 million complementary funding is also to be made available in earlier stage advanced biofuels research, including pilot and demonstration scale biorefineries. The announcements come as Congress moves to prevent the military from spending more on purchasing alternative fuels than fossil fuels. Meanwhile, the USDA is to collaborate with GE Aviation to provide renewable jet fuel for engine testing at its Cincinnati, Ohio facility.
Last August, President Obama announced that the three agencies would invest up to $510 million over three years in partnership with the private sector to produce advanced, drop-in aviation and marine biofuels to power military and commercial transportation (see article). The $30 million funding effort by the Navy and USDA will primarily be used to produce military grade JP-5 and JP-8 jet and F-76 shipping biofuels but US military and commercial aviation interests are collaborating closely in the quest to commercialise alternative fuels so commercial aviation stands also to be a long-term beneficiary.
Welcoming the announcement, Nancy Young, Vice President Environmental Affairs of US airline industry body A4A, said: “The new round of government investment strengthens the momentum to turn advanced aviation biofuels into reality, enhance America’s energy security and reduce greenhouse gas emissions while creating jobs. The government support of a new biorefinery moves us closer to our goal of making the fuels commercially viable and building on the industry’s impressive environmental record.”
The value chains established under the commercial-scale project will include feedstock production, conversion facilities and fuel blending, transportation and logistics. The government intends to form an Integrated Biofuels Production Enterprise (IBPE) comprised of partnerships that establish the complete value chain.
The effort will include the design, construction and/or retrofit, validation, qualification and operation of a domestic commercial-scale IBPE that meets the production capacity of at least 10 million gallons per year of approved and certified neat biofuels targeted for military operational use.
The funding has been made possible through the Defense Production Act (DPA), which dates back over half a century and has been used to boost other military-strategic industries such steel, aluminium, titanium, semiconductors, beryllium and radiation-hardened electronics.
To qualify, the proposed biorefinery must be located within the United States or Canada and use a domestically-produced acceptable feedstock. Deemed acceptable is renewable biomass from, for example, wood and crop residues, animal and food wastes, and municipal solid wastes. Other ‘transitional’ feedstocks such as corn starch, cane, soybean and beet can be used but must offer a credible transition plan to renewable biomass materials.
“This is an important time for the biofuels industry to step up and show the Department of the Navy how they have developed biofuels that are certified and certifiable for military use,” commented Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “The ability for US industry to make, create and innovate has never been more important to our national and energy security. I know that through this DPA effort the nation will be able to harvest an aviation biofuels industry to satisfy the world’s needs, not just our US military.”
The separate $32 million funding from the DOE includes $20 million to support innovative pilot and demonstration scale biorefineries that could produce renewable biofuels that meet military specifications for jet fuel and shipboard diesel using a variety of non-food biomass feedstocks, waste-based materials and algae. These projects may support new plant construction, retrofits on existing US biorefineries or operation at plants ready to begin construction at the pilot or pre-commercial scale. The investment will also help federal and local governments, private developers and industry collect accurate data on the cost of producing fuels made from biomass and waste feedstocks.
The $12 million funding balance will be used to support up to eight projects focused on researching ways to develop bio-based transportation fuels and products using synthetic biological processing, an innovative technique to enable efficient, cost-saving conversion of non-food biomass to biofuels. The projects will be led by small businesses, universities, national laboratories and industry, which will seek to overcome the technical and scientific barriers to cost-competitive advanced biofuels and bioproducts.
The funding announcements come as politicians in both the House and Senate object to the very high premiums the military is currently paying for biofuels. One House amendment would ban the Defense Department from buying alternative fuels that cost more than fossil fuels, whereas another would exempt the department from existing legislation that requires the government buy only alternative fuels that are less polluting than fossil fuels. Some senators support the House amendments and could even seek greater restrictions.
Foreseeing the potential damage to the development of alternative fuels if the military were proscribed over the price they could pay for them, the US commercial aviation industry came together in late May to write an open letter to Senators Carl Levin and John McCain, both senior members of the Committee on Armed Services, to express its concern over the adoption of the amendment.
“We write to express our strong support for initiatives by the Department of Defense (DoD) to research, test and deploy biofuels in the aviation sector,” said the 13 industry associations. “Such efforts to develop alternative energy sources to foreign oil are critical to ensuring that our country can become more energy independent while helping protect against high costs and volatility in this market. DoD’s work is being leveraged to move more quickly toward commercial viability of alternatives by demonstrating large scale production as well as making the price more competitive. In addition to helping address our nation’s energy challenges, DoD’s work on alternative fuels will help meet our nation’s environmental challenges as well.”
They added that the contribution of alternative fuels in achieving the industry’s worldwide carbon emissions reduction targets could be a ‘game changer’.
Meanwhile, the USDA has announced a collaboration with GE Aviation, the Ohio Aerospace Institute, air carriers and producer groups to develop a Midwest-regional strategy to provide renewable jet fuel at GE’s Cincinnati facility.
USDA recently awarded a Value Added Producer Grant to the Ohio Soybean Council to help initiate a pilot project through Ohio State University’s Bioproducts Innovation Center to refine jet biofuel from soybean oil produced by a farmer-owner cooperative in western Ohio. Such a pilot project could provide the basis for commercialising renewable jet fuel production for future aviation purchases, said USDA.
“We have an incredible opportunity to create thousands of new jobs and drive economic development in rural communities across America by developing innovative ways to use agricultural products to help reduce our reliance on foreign oil,” commented Secretary Vilsack. “USDA’s collaboration with GE Aviation will bring together multiple sectors of Ohio’s economy, including agricultural producers, to foster new innovations in the field of renewable fuels while bolstering new economic opportunities in the Midwest.”
GE Aviation anticipates purchasing up to 5 million gallons of jet biofuel beginning in 2015.