Alternative Fuels For Aviation: Navy and Air Force Are Bullish

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As the world economy slowly rights itself and oil prices are poised to move upward, the Navy and Air Force say they're on track to produce at least half of their fuel requirements by the end of this decade, if not earlier. And for the Navy, that also means propulsion fuel for its non-nuclear surface vessels. In this podcast, Thomas Hicks, the Navy's deputy secretary for energy, told AVweb that ground and flight tests of a 50/50 blend of biofuel and conventional JP-8 in an F-18 testbed have proven highly successful, with no surprises. The services are seeking a drop-in replacement for their traditional petroleum-derived jet fuels and both the Navy and Air Force have proved that, conceptually, they can reach the goal. "To the fleet, it will be a straight drop-in. They won't see any difference," said Rick Kamin, the Navy's lead researcher on alternative fuels. The heat contents, weights and other factors are so similar to JP-8 that no performance or storage and handling exceptions need to be considered, Kamin told us. The Navy favors a 50/50 blend because traditional JP-8 contains enough aromatic compounds to promote swelling of seals, O-rings and gaskets, which pure biofuels cannot do.

Although the specs and performance have been proven in the tests, the economics of these fuels -- so-called hydrotreated renewable jet fuels refined from plants such as camelina and jatropha -- remain unproven. The processes to make biofuels are well along, but large-scale production remains over the horizon. But Hicks believes the biofuels industry will establish itself enough to meet the Navy's goal of putting a "green fleet" battle group to sea in 2016 fueled with the 50/50 blend.

In a related podcast, Shell Oil President John Hofmeister is skeptical that the services will deliver on the proposed timeline. Hofmeister told us that in his experience, biofuels projects are often marked by technical gates that have to met. "When I was at Shell, there was more of a tendency to move that gate than there was to achieve it." Hofmeister believes oil prices will begin a sharp upward rise, resulting in $5 autogas by the end of next year. The reason? U.S. and world demand has recovered to 2007 and 2008 levels and Asian demand exceeds those levels. He says the government's decision to scale back drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico will restrain production that could offset price spikes. Although rising oil prices make biofuels more competitive, Hofmeister says they have another effect: to increase political pressure for more U.S. oil production, driving prices back down. "You reach a competitive price level where biofuels become affordable relative to crude oil, but then crude oil has proven over time that what comes up, will come down. The higher the crude oil price, the greater the political pressure to produce more crude oil." He says the oil is out there and can be produced.

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