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Switchgrass Will Power Navy Jet Fighters With 95% Less Greenhouse Emissions

The more you poke at the Navy biofuel initiatives, the more you just seem to rile them up. Earlier this spring, for example, the Navy went ahead and announced a new round of $18 million in matching funds for four new biofuel pilot projects shortly after certain members of Congress tried to put a damper on its biofuel program. In the latest maneuver, today the National Renewable Energy Laboratory piled on with a press release that details all of the resources it’s going to contribute to one of the projects, a switchgrass-based jet biofuel process that is expected to involve 95 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional jet fuel production.

Navy switchgrass biofuel program gets an assist from NREL

Switchgrass courtesy of USDA.

NREL Goes To Bat for Navy Biofuel

When the Navy announced its new biofuel refinery projects in April, the one that caught our eye involved a company we’ve been following, Cobalt Technologies.

Cobalt’s biofuel process uses proprietary microorganisms and natural fermentation to break down the sugar in switchgrass and other woody biomass, converting it directly into butanol which is a precursor to standard JP5 jet fuel. The switchgrass-to-butanol phase of the project already underwent a successful test run at NREL last year.

Under the partnership, NREL will use its pretreatment reactor and enzymatic digester reactors to convert switchgrass into fermentable sugars. Cobalt’s microorganisms will be deployed in the lab’s 9,000-liter fermenters to produce butanol, and the Navy will contribute its own catalyst systems to convert the butanol into jet fuel (yes, the Navy is heavily invested in alternative fuel research).

Another partner in the project, Missouri-based Show Me Energy Cooperative, will supply the switchgrass. The co-op’s headquarters will also serve as a location for a scaled-up biorefinery, assuming the pilot project is successful.

In Your Face, Navy Biofuel Haters

Aside from providing a rundown of all the resources at its disposal to assist Cobalt, the NREL press release goes out of its way to make it clear that if the project is successful in producing cost-competitive jet biofuel, the way has already been prepared to get the process out of the demo phase and into the market:

“The results of testing will help determine whether the process is ready for commercial scale. If so, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Defense are poised to help private firms build the huge biorefineries that would be needed.”

NREL further emphasizes that the success of the pilot project will lead to the growth of a domestic jet fuel production sector that does not depend on imported petroleum feedstock, serving national security interests as well as creating new private sector jobs in the energy field.

That’s on top of the aforementioned 95 percent advantage in greenhouse gas management over petroleum-based jet fuel production.

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Written By

Tina 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. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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