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Air Force Biofuel Program Gets A Lift From Coke

Now here’s an odd pairing for you: none other than the Coca-Cola company is a strategic partner behind a Wisconsin biofuel company called Virent, which has just announced that the Air Force will be testing one of the first batches of jet biofuel from its newly operative demonstration facility in Madison. This development is noteworthy because it produces drop-in replacements for petroleum fuels from a cocktail of different feedstocks, rather than relying on a single stream.

Speaking of strange bedfellows, the Air Force raised a cloud of fumes earlier this year by publishing a scathing criticism of the Defense Department’s biofuel initiatives in an online journal, but apparently it’s not ready to quit biofuel, at least not yet.

air force jet biofuel test for Virent

Air Force Thunderbirds by Ingrid Truemper.

The Virent Jet Biofuel Cocktail

CleanTechnica first took a peek at Virent back in 2011, intrigued by the company’s focus on nonfood feedstock like pine cones and corn stover, and our sister site has been following the company’s catalytic-based biofuel process since 2008. The process itself originated in research conducted at the University of Wisconsin, dating back through the Bush Administration (for those of you keeping score at home).

For the record, in addition to  the Coca-Cola company, other partners behind the development of the process are Cargill, Honda and Shell.

Virent calls the process BioForming. Unlike fermentation, which produces ethanol, BioForming converts plant sugars directly into a variety of biofuels with a molecular composition identical to their petroleum based rivals.

The process can handle old school feedstocks like beet sugar and corn starch along with next-generation feedstocks including bagasse (woody leftovers from sugar cane processing), corn stover, grasses, sorghum and wood.

That kind of flexibility dovetails with the Obama Administration’s biofuel strategy, which revolves around developing different nonfood biofuel crops to fit regional differences throughout the U.S. and not just in traditional breadbasket states. Shrub willow, for example, has been the focus of intensive study for cultivation on marginal land in northeastern states.

Feedstock flexibility also works out for biofuel refiners, which will be able to micro-manage feedstock purchases to take the best advantage of price and local availability.

As for Coca-Cola, consider the company’s plethora of brightly colored delivery trucks and you can see the attraction of a diverse fuel supply infrastructure that is better insulated from unpredictable global market forces than the current petroleum-centric situation.

Fuel diversity also explains why Coca-Cola has been gung-ho on EPA’s Clean Fleets initiatives (which also includes EVs and other alternative fuel vehicles), with the promise of lower emissions icing the cake.

Air Force Jet Biofuel

The Navy biofuel program has drawn a lot of attention over the past couple of years, incurring the wrath of Republican leadership in the process. However, the Air Force has also been testing jet biofuel on its legendary Thunderbirds demonstration team and it has been playing a key role in certifying aviation biofuel as drop-in ready, a Defense Department effort that is being coordinated with NATO aviation biofuel standards.

For Virent’s jet biofuel, the Air Force will test for performance quality under American Society for Testing and Materials Standards at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

The round of tests will include another critical factor for true “drop-in” biofuels, which is the effect (or rather, the lack thereof) that Virent’s product will have on the fueling infrastructure.

But What About That Nasty Biofuel Report?

The aforementioned report, “Energy Insecurity: The False Promise of Liquid Biofuels,” appeared in the latest issue of the Strategic Studies Quarterly (the Strategic Journal of the United States Air Force) earlier this year.

Though packed with detail, the report is written more in the style of an opinion piece (it was not peer reviewed prior to publication), and it caused hearts to flutter among biofuel doubters because of passages like this:

“The promise and the curse of biofuels is that they…suffer a fatal “catch-22″: uncultivated biofuel yields are far too small, diffuse and infrequent to displace any meaningful fraction of US primary energy needs, and boosting yields through cultivation consumes more energy than it adds to the biomass.”

That’s even before you count in the energy needed for fuel conversion, asserts the author, who then doubles down by claiming that biofuel is not only bad policy, but it actually undermines national security rather than strengthening it:

“The United States cannot achieve energy security through biofuels, and even the attempt is ironically achieving effects contrary to “clean” and “green” environmental goals and actively threatening global security.”

That received a swift but brief rebuttal from the Department of Defense, which left the details to the Department of Energy but noted that the report does not address fuel supply diversity, which is a core issue for Navy ships and aircraft in the context of unstable geopolitics and global fuel monopolies.

On its part, the Department of Energy issued a point by point rebuttal and described the report as a cherry-picked summary of literature, which addresses none of the critical issues involved in comparing biofuel to petroleum and other fuels, despite its impressive level of detail.

Come to think of it, that was probably DOE’s polite way of saying that the report basically amounts to one long troll comment.

DOE also kicked the dead horse by noting that the report relies on a number of out-of-date studies as well as many citations from web postings, “which formal journal papers would not be allowed to cite.”

Our Two Cents On Biofuel

Nevertheless, the report is now part of the anti-biofuel lexicon, so we’ll add our own two cents for the record.

The Department of Defense has long recognized that petroleum dependency is a threat to national security in terms of straightup military operations, but that just scratches the surface of DoD’s emerging commitment to sustainability.

DoD, particularly through the Army, has begun embracing energy efficiency,  community health, and resource conservation as part of its core domestic security mission.

That mission is on a straight-up collision course with the booming U.S. fossil fuel landscape, which includes oil and natural gas fracking (along with fracking wastewater disposal issues), offshore oil drilling, the coal mining practice known as mountaintop removal, the disposal of coal ash from power plants, and transportation impacts as illustrated recently by the Arkansas oil pipeline spill.

The local impacts range across rural communities, cities and open space including national parks, and in that context it’s fair to ask what our active duty military personnel are being asked to preserve, when we send them overseas to fight for their country.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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