DARPA awards two contracts totalling $35 million for research into affordable military jet fuel from algae
Wed 7 Jan 2009 – General Atomics and Science Applications International Corp (SAIC) have each been awarded contracts by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the central research and development organization for the US Department of Defense, to develop the technical capability, commercial algae production experience, resources, and commitment to demonstrate and ultimately commercialize the affordable production of military JP-8 surrogate fuel from algal feedstocks. The aim is to drive down the cost of algae triglyceride oil from around $30 per gallon to as little as $1 to $2 per gallon.
The contracts are part of DARPA’s ‘BioFuels – Cellulosic and Algal Feedstocks’ programme set up in 2007 to explore energy alternatives and fuel efficiency efforts in a bid to reduce the US military’s reliance on traditional fuel. JP-8, similar to Jet A commercial aviation fuel, constitutes more than 90% of the total fuel used by the Department of Defense (DoD). The DoD is said to be the largest single user of petroleum products in the world and spent $12.6 billion on jet fuel, diesel and other fuels in 2007. In 2006, it purchased over 71 million barrels of JP-8 at a cost of $6.1 billion.
San Diego-based General Atomics, who was awarded a $19.9 million contract, will work with a number of partners including Scripps Institutions of Oceanography, Arizona State University, Blue Sun Biodiesel, Texas A&M AgriLIFE, Hawaii Bio Energy and the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center. Although it will look at ways of lowering algae production costs, General Atomics plans to focus on increasing the yield per acre. The contract is due to be completed by June 2010.
The company was founded in 1955 for “the purpose of harnessing the power of nuclear technologies for the benefit of mankind”. General Atomics describes itself as one of the world’s leading resources for high-technology systems development ranging from the nuclear fuel cycle to remotely operated surveillance aircraft (the Predator UAV), airborne sensors, and advanced electric, electronic, wireless and laser technologies. It is reported to have begun researching biofuels at its San Diego campus about two years ago and now has a team of about 20 working on the project.
SAIC, also based in San Diego, was awarded $14.9 million to conduct research at a number of its facilities across the US, and is due to complete by March 2010. The work will cut across several business areas within SAIC, including marine biology as well as an energy team that is focused on alternative fuel solutions.
This is the second of two programmes DARPA is sponsoring. In the first, three contractors – General Electric Global Research, UOP and the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center – are looking at processes to convert crop oils into surrogate JP-8. It is focused on developing JP-8 that is indistinguishable from petroleum-based JP-8 but that it is 100% biofuel and not a blend with a petroleum-based fuel. It is looking at oils from diverse crops which do not compete with food crops and involve processes that are feedstock-flexible. These feedstocks include soy, camelina, canola, coconut oils, algae and cuphea.
The three contractors were due to deliver 100 litres of surrogate JP-8 biofuel to DARPA for laboratory testing late in 2008.
DARPA also sponsored a study conducted in 2007 by Logos Technologies looking at other feedstock possibilities such as cellulosic materials (switchgrass, poplar, eucalyptus, etc) and algae, and Swedish Biofuels is investigating the use of waste products such as seed hulls.