Monday, August 2, 2010

Is it Time for DOD to Believe in Biofuels?

Even though the DSB ETF 2008 report (my energy bible) calls fuel availability issues DOD's #1 energy security issue, I've never been able to muster much enthusiasm for alternative fuels. Doesn't seem to matter whether they're synthetic fuels derived from coal or nat gas, or bio fuels born of algae, switch grass, sugar cane or bacon. To date the trade-offs they've required in terms of manufacturing costs, use limitations or low production scale have made them less than interesting. Still, as with other early stage technologies, they're worth keeping an eye on because a big-enough breakthrough could change the game.

Here's Boeing's Billy Glover on how perceptions and expectations have changed each year:
Five years ago, drop-in biofuel for aviation was impossible. Four years ago it was unlikely. Three years ago we thought 'maybe there's something here', but now we've got through most of the technical barriers. We are really ahead of where anybody could have predicted.
Military and now commercial aircraft engines are being certified to run on things other than pure jet fuel, and the nascent industry seems set to ... uh ... well ... take off.

Here's a start up example, Accelergy, that's working with DOD right now and has a process that it claims can beat the energy density of petroleum (can anything do that?). According to CEO Tom Vail:
Our target is the section 526 regulations, which require 80 percent of the emissions, that is 20 percent below petroleum. Our initial work is with the Air Force. We are one of only a few that can produce 100 percent synthetic fuels that can reach that 80 percent threshold– and have a 30 percent better energy density than petroleum derived fuels.
Will this stuff mature to the point where it really does provide a significant portion of the Air Force's or Army's or Navy's fuel supply? Despite all the promise, and promises, it's still too early to tell.  But it does feel like we're past the first and second hype cycles and perhaps now drawing closer to something real. Click here and here for more info.

Photo credit: Steve Jurvetson at

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