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Fueling the future: AF works to ‘home-grow’ biofuels for DOD, industry

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFNS) -- A need to address increases in petroleum costs with an environmentally friendly fuel source has led to a new way of looking at production—and the Defense Production Act Title III Program Office, part of the Air Force Research Laboratory, is playing a critical role in commercializing this technology.

In simplest terms, a biofuel is a fuel produced from living matter that includes plant waste and animal fat, rather than a fuel produced through the geological process, such as coal, diesel and petroleum. Biofuels are environmentally friendly and form from renewable resources. Most of all, biofuels are helping to expand military energy sources, improving reliability while decreasing dependence on foreign fuel sources—benefits that President Barack Obama and the Defense Department stress are critical to national security.

“The military services were directed by the president to address the production of biofuels so we could mitigate the vulnerabilities faced when the price of fuel went up,” said James Neely, a program manager in the DPA Title III Program Office. “When there is any disruption to the supply of petroleum-based fuels, the financial impact on DOD budgets is tremendous. A $1 change in the price of a barrel can result in billions of dollars in expense.”

The DPA Title III Program Office carries out presidential directives focused on advancing “home-grown” domestic production capabilities for leading edge technologies for national security. Through government and industry partnerships and financial incentives, the program plays a role in assuring domestic ability to produce.

“We have unique authorities through Title III, allowing us to enter into partnerships with commercial industry to put a manufacturing capability in place in response to a specific DOD need for technology,” Neely said. “Biofuels are determined as essential to national security; we are working to move the technology into the domestic industrial base, with the end goal of a consistent supply at a competitive cost.”

The biofuel program enables Neely and his team to work with a number of different companies to develop feedstock, acquire equipment and help firms develop a business strategy enabling them to sustain the production and distribution of biofuel for use not only by the DOD, but industry as well. Overall biofuel technology has been in development for years; the Title III office is working with industry to commercialize the technology so that it is a viable and affordable option for all, Neely said.

One recent success of the biofuel program is the Bio-Synthetic Paraffinic Kerosene (BSPK) project. The project led to the retrofitting of an idle California-based refinery, making it possible to manufacture large-scale batches of biofuel for military and industry use. This particular type of biofuel is manufactured using the hydro-processed esters and fatty acids (HEFA) process. The process blends non-edible natural oils and agricultural wastes with hydrogen and a catalyst. The resulting fuel is able to blend with petroleum jet fuel in a 50-50 proportion, integrating into existing engine systems, including aircraft, without modification.

The Navy integrated BSPK biofuels into the launch of the Great Green Fleet in January 2016, deploying the first carrier strike group to use alternative fuel blends and energy efficient systems to power ships for combat. The Air Force has qualified biofuels for use in almost all of their equipment and weapons systems, said Neely, and while they have purchased units for testing, fuller implementation depends strongly on cost and availability.

While biofuels have a strong benefit for the military, industry interest has helped drive these programs forward. For example, United Airlines has purchased biofuel for use in its fleet to power regular flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“The benefit to the Air Force is that we will not be dependent on a single source of supply or international supply for our military fleets in the future. We are growing the domestic base, creating jobs and building industry capability. These home-grown capabilities are helping America stay great,” Neely said.