The modern U.S. Navy may be about to put a 3,000-year-old weedlike biofuel crop in its tank. Camelina, the “new darling” of next-generation biofuels, is among a small group of biofuels under consideration for testing this year by the U.S. Navy. One of the aircraft to be tested is the F/A-18 Super Hornet strike fighter, the latest incarnation of the battle-proven Hornet. Sustainable Oils of Montana has just won a contract to provide 40,000 gallons of camelina-based jet fuel to the Navy, so the chances look good for putting the ancient crop to a new use.
The Naval Air Systems Command fuels team will start with a lab analysis of the new fuels, then move on to charting their performance on a bench-mounted Super Hornet F414 engine before moving on to the big one, an in-flight test. Some time in 2010, the Navy could be flying high on a more sustainable fuel.
The U.S. Navy and Biofuels
As part of the U.S. military’s strategic move away from petroleum and other hard core fossil fuels, the Navy is looking to incorporate high performance biofuels into its operations. According to a spokesman for the Navy’s fuels team, the conditions are strict. In order to meet the Navy’s strategic and environmental stewardship goals, the feedstock must be next-generation; in other words, it can’t be a food crop. Ethanol is not an option because it ignites too easily for safe use on board ships, and its energy content is too low for long range missions. Commercial biodiesel is also unsuitable for seagoing use because it contains esters (oxygen compounds) that absorb water too easily. Among other factors, the fuels team will examine how the camelina-based fuel reacts in aircraft and how it weathers the long-term storage conditions demanded by Naval operations.
Camelina as a Biofuel Feedstock
According to a Sustainable Oils life cycle analysis, camelina-based jet produces 84% less carbon emissions than petroleum fuel. The company is careful to note that it is not a “miracle crop,” – though often considered a weed, camelina does require management – but it can be cultivated with relatively little water, fertilizer, or weed control products. Its use as an oilseed crop in Europe dates back more than 3,000 years, where it was grown for lamp oil, edible oil, and fodder for livestock. Its short growing season helps lower its water demands, especially in the summer months, enabling more late-season rainfall to return to the water table. A hardy plant, camelina can also grow on marginal lands that could not be used for food crops, and it can function as a rotational crop, significantly boosting yields of wheat and other crops grown in the same field.
The Future of Biofuels
The swift and disruptive rise of corn-based biofuels is thankfully being met by the emergence of more sustainable biofuel feedstocks and more sustainable methods for cultivating large biofuel crops. Aside from algae feedstock, camelina is among several weeds or weedlike alternatives in development. Even a weed has to grow somewhere, though, so the next problem to be tackled is finding space to grow non-food biofuel crops without destroying more undeveloped land or compromising food harvests. In Utah, a proposal to harvest weeds along highway margins offers at least one promising way out of the dilemma. Though off to a shaky start, biofuel crops are here to stay.
Image: Ian Vaughan on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.