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DOE Selects Four Pilot Projects for Military Drop-in Biofuels Development

After a tumultuous year of opposition and rebuttals from members of Congress, the U.S. biofuels industry was able to maintain support from the more-than-willing U.S. military. The Department of Energy (DOE) announced the next phase of development plans last week – it granted $18 million to four biorefineries to develop pilot-scale drop-in biofuels projects to meet military specifications for jet fuel and ship diesel.

The military has shown eager support for the biofuels industry through past purchases of drop-in biofuels for demonstration and testing purposes. In December 2011, the Navy purchased 450,000 gallons of cooking oil- and algae-based drop-in fuels for the jets and vessels to be displayed in the Great Green Fleet during the summer 2012 Rim of the Pacific demonstration (RIMPAC) in Hawaii. The biofuels were mixed in a 50/50 blend with traditional fossil fuels, which amounted to about $15 per gallon.

“We’re pursuing alternative energy because our reliance on foreign oil is a very significant and well-recognized military vulnerability,” said Secretary of the Navy General Ray Mabus. “Energy security has got to be at the top of our agenda. The ability to use fuels other than oil and gas is absolutely critical. It will increase our flexibility, it will increase competition, and it will reduce the service’s vulnerability to rapid and unforeseen changes in the price of oil.” 

Though the RIMPAC demonstration was a success, several bills were introduced in Congress to block the military from purchasing biofuels that were more expensive than traditional fuels and prohibit the construction of new facilities, stating that the military should not be responsible for developing new industries.

“I understand that alternative fuels may help our guys in the field, but wouldn’t you agree that the thing they’d be more concerned about is having more ships, more planes, more prepositioned stocks,” said Representative Randy Forbes during a hearing with Mabus. “Shouldn’t we refocus our priorities and make those things our priorities instead of advancing a biofuels market?”

In November of 2012, Congress voted in favor of biofuels and the immediate threat was eliminated. The DOE and DOD were then able to move forward with plans to select pilot projects to further the research and development of non-feedstock drop-in fuels. 

"Advanced biofuels are an important part of President Obama's all-of-the-above strategy to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil, improve our energy security, and protect our air and water," said departing energy secretary Steven Chu in a statement. "The innovative biorefinery projects announced today mark an important step toward producing fuels for our American military and the civil aviation industry from renewable resources found right here in the United States."

According to the DOE, the following projects were selected:

Frontline Bioenergy LLCM (up to $4.2 million; Ames, Iowa): Building on prior commercial-scale gasification success, Frontline BioEnergy, along with its project partners SGC Energia, Stanley Consultants, and Delphi Engineering and Construction LLC, will build and integrate an innovative new pilot scale TarFreeGas™ reactor and new gas conditioning processes with an existing Fischer Tropsch (FT) unit capable of producing 1 barrel per day of FT liquids from woody biomass, municipal solid waste, and refuse derived fuel at the Iowa Energy Center's Biomass Energy Conversion Facility in Nevada, Iowa. These liquids will be upgraded to produce samples of biofuels that meet military specifications.

Cobalt Technologies (up to $2.5 million; Mountain View, California): Cobalt Technologies will operate a pilot-scale integrated biorefinery to convert switchgrass to bio-jet fuel. Together with its partners, including the Naval Air Warfare China Lake Weapons Division, Show Me Energy Cooperative, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Cobalt intends to build a pilot-scale facility to purify and convert butanol to jet fuel. Cobalt will operate the integrated pilot-scale biorefinery to evaluate scalability of the process and assess the facility's greenhouse gas emissions.

Mercurius Biorefining, Inc. (up to $4.6 million; Ferndale, Washington): For its project, Mercurius will build and operate a pilot plant that uses an innovative process that converts the cellulosic biomass into non-sugar intermediates, which are further processed into drop-in bio-jet fuel and chemicals. Several organizations are participating in this consortium led by Mercurius Biorefining, including Purdue University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Incitor.

BioProcess Algae (up to $6.4 million; Shenandoah, Iowa): The BioProcess Algae project will evaluate an innovative algal growth platform that will produce hydrocarbon fuels meeting military specifications using renewable carbon dioxide, lignocellulosic sugars, and waste heat. The proposed biorefinery will integrate low-cost autotrophic algal production, accelerated lipid production, and lipid conversion. While the primary product from the proposed biorefinery will be military fuels, the facility will also co-produce additional products, including other hydrocarbons, glycerine, and animal feed.

Lead image: David Acosta Allely via Shutterstock 

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