US DoD and alternative energy
May 3, 2011 6:35 PM   Subscribe

Despite continuing inaction and perverse subsidies from the US Federal Government, one of their largest entities, the US Department of Defense, has done the analysis and considers both peak oil and climate change to be a significant threat. In partial response, they're pushing heavily into alternative fuels, with the Air Force aiming to get fully half of its domestic jet fuel from alternative sources by 2016.
posted by wilful (50 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
The hippies have taken over the military! Anyway, i was wondering why the Obama administration wasn't using the military to move the needle on green-tech.
posted by delmoi at 6:45 PM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Napalm: now with 30% ethanol!
posted by Flashman at 6:46 PM on May 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


actually flashman I'm sure thy could make their jellied gasoline 100% bio-derived, giving them internal credits elsewhere!
posted by wilful at 6:51 PM on May 3, 2011


Biodegradable land mines would be nice.
posted by TwelveTwo at 6:53 PM on May 3, 2011 [7 favorites]


So, uh, once the DoD says it then neo-con assholes and deluded tea partiers start believing it, right? Right!?!
posted by codacorolla at 6:53 PM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


If any entity can get this country moving full speed ahead on alternative energy, it's the military. Desegregation, the space program, internet, and sweet camo jackets all started with the military.

What bothers me is that the most likely source of alternative jet fuel is ethanol, which isn't really an improvement over oil, and means some of the massive taxpayer funds to the military get added to the massive taxpayer funds for corn growers. I guess we're going to have to subsidize any alternatives to oil for years to come, though.

The president said this in the last link:

Now, another substitute for oil that holds tremendous promise is renewable biofuels -– not just ethanol, but biofuels made from things like switchgrass and wood chips and biomass.

So they're looking into options besides ethanol. I wonder if we can get as much fuel from those sources as we can from burning corn.
posted by riruro at 6:59 PM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Something is very wrong when the military comes off as a progressive voice advocating education, health and social services.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 7:02 PM on May 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


I wonder if we can get as much fuel from those sources as we can from burning corn.

Theoretically maybe, but so far there has been little success in even proving it is possible in concept to generate fuel from these sorts of stocks at anything like an affordable industrial scale. I am not at all a biofuels naysayer - I tend to think, for example, that Metafilter is harder on ethanol than it deserves - but I have to admit that I've gotten pretty pessimistic about the potential of biofuels, the the extent that I sometimes feel like the only reason they get political support is to justify the continued over-subsidy of ethanol as a hypothetical bridge to an imaginary, actually sustainable fuel future. Whenever a politician mentions switchgrass in particular it just sets my teeth on edge. I'd love to be proven wrong but I've been hearing about the breakthrough on stuff like cellulose to ethanol being just around the corner for 20 years now.
posted by nanojath at 7:09 PM on May 3, 2011


Makes sense -- obviously without oil the current military wouldn't function, and they're so big that despite their funding they can't just buy their way out of the problem forever like rich individuals can. Jet/plane fuel is the toughest because you need incredibly dense fuels, which is why oil is particularly good for planes.
posted by wildcrdj at 7:09 PM on May 3, 2011


On review I apparently have become a bit of a biofuels naysayer.
posted by nanojath at 7:10 PM on May 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


This isn't going to be ethanol. Genetically engineered microbes or algae will crap out something chemically close to jet fuel with an energy density to match. Pilot projects have shown it's possible to produce at $2/gallon, but it is going to take gobs of cash to build the bioreactors, train the staff, and produce consistent product. The genetically engineered organisms are in the lab and proof of concept stage right now. Ground has broken on a few facilities. I'm really optimistic about this technology, but it will take a lot longer to get these plants online with enough reliable supply in anything under 10 years.

Personally I'd love to see some homebrew kit where you have a small scale reactor next to the composter and get a few gallons of gas for the car every week. Toss in your food scraps and get gas for the car.
posted by humanfont at 7:11 PM on May 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


The U.S. Marine Corps is going solar.
posted by Scoo at 7:11 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


"So they're looking into options besides ethanol. I wonder if we can get as much fuel from those sources as we can from burning corn."

Um... the switchgrass, wood chips, and biomass will still be converted to ethanol. Ethanol is not a synonym for corn-based ethanol. (Although apparently it is.)
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 7:12 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Genetically engineered microbes or algae will crap out something chemically close to jet fuel with an energy density to match. Pilot projects have shown it's possible to produce at $2/gallon, but it is going to take gobs of cash to build the bioreactors, train the staff, and produce consistent product. The genetically engineered organisms are in the lab and proof of concept stage right now. Ground has broken on a few facilities. I'm really optimistic about this technology, but it will take a lot longer to get these plants online with enough reliable supply in anything under 10 years."

This is where I've put my money.
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 7:14 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


The algae solution is great in theory but in practise the production tanks choke up and die for a variety of reasons and it's very difficult to scale up what you can do in a test tube to a cost efficient commercial operation. People have been predicting an imminent breakthrough for years but, like fusion power, it's always just over the horizon. The important thing for any defence department is to have security of fuel supply which, given the amount of oil the USA and Canada produces, shouldn't really be a problem in the future. The military is often at the forefront of 'progressive' changes because they literally live or die through being efficient or not. Just as cricket is supposed to be a fuddy duddy game but actually changes more than almost any other sport, so the military is always thought of as being reactionary when it's actually anything but.
posted by joannemullen at 7:22 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Biodegradable land mines would be nice.

Not to derail, but shouldn't this be possible in principle? Building landmines with an explosive charge that has a relatively short shelf-life and a detonator that oxidizes away into nothing after a year or two? Why isn't this already done?
posted by Scientist at 7:24 PM on May 3, 2011 [7 favorites]


Not to derail, but shouldn't this be possible in principle? Building landmines with an explosive charge that has a relatively short shelf-life and a detonator that oxidizes away into nothing after a year or two? Why isn't this already done?

Probably because the landmines need to be able to sit in a warehouse for years before being deployed on short notice rather than being manufactured on an ad hoc basis.
posted by jedicus at 7:27 PM on May 3, 2011


@jedicus If they were properly designed, they could be stored in a nitrogen atmosphere until deployed ... which oughta slow down the decomposition plenty. It's really a great idea - and considering the budget Our Complex gets to play with, should be doable in a nonce.
posted by Twang at 7:45 PM on May 3, 2011


Yeah there should be a simple pulltag, that is removed on deployment, that allows oxidation to start.

Of course, having land mines in the first place is something only barbaric nations do.
posted by wilful at 7:51 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Something is very wrong when the military comes off as a progressive voice advocating education, health and social services.

I'd call it something right. It's refreshing to hear ideas like this from an unexpected source.
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 8:04 PM on May 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Another reason not to have degradable landmines is that often landmines are deployed indefinitely (e.g. the Korean DMZ). If they're degradable, that means having to plant new ones every few years, potentially getting oneself blown up in the process if an old one didn't fully degrade.

A different approach would be a remote detonator with a secret key. Use a few dozen different secret keys all stored in separate places so that even if one key is compromised a given minefield would only lose a fraction of its mines. Then, when the field isn't needed, just blow 'em all up at once.
posted by jedicus at 8:42 PM on May 3, 2011


@Twang If they were properly designed, they could be stored in a nitrogen atmosphere until deployed ... which oughta slow down the decomposition plenty.

The problem isn't so much what kind of land mines the DoD chooses to purchase and store (although I won't deny they have a substantial effect on defining parts of the future arms marketplace, its just that I think it would shake out in the same way that they determine the shape of the market for advanced combat fighters but not so much the market for assault rifles).

That land mines continue to kill and maim thousands of people and won't be replaced by biodegradeable models rests on three overwhelming issues: 1) the untold millions of resilient mines and other UXO already in the ground; 2) the untold millions of Cold War-era resilient mines still sitting in warehouses in Eastern Europe, Russia, China and the global south, waiting for a buyer; 3) the difficulty in arranging nitrogen atmosphere storage in places like eastern Burma, the DRC, West Africa or the Horn.
posted by waterunderground at 8:56 PM on May 3, 2011


I've been a long time lurker, decided to join just to comment on this post. Like joannemullen says, algae is notoriously difficult to deal with outside of a highly controlled environment. Lots of people have done beautiful algae research, but nothing that will scale beyond the bench-scale.

So where will all this liquid fuel come from to meet these mandates? Let's go through the options:

Biodiesel (Fatty acid methyl esters, made from oil/grease and alcohol) production can scale quite easily. Further processing of this biodiesel (treating for acidity/olefin makeup, etc.) provides excellent replacement for anything that's diesel powered. Unfortunately, finding cheap and ethical (i.e. does not compete with food) feedstocks is difficult. In addition, there are other issues (We don't how to produce that much alcohol in scale and how to deal with the by products, glycerol and dirty water). Most of the big biodiesel places across the US are in shutdown mode.

Pryolysis of stuff (not just oils and animal guts, anything that was a hydrocarbon) can produce a lot of crude like product. Pyrolysis is essentially burning without oxygen. You take this crude like product through many processing steps and you can produce most types of fuels.

Gasification of stuff (wood chips, plant matter and COAL) produces a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen called syngas. Syngas is a source of chemicals and fuel. Several processes developed in the 30's let you turn that syngas into liquid fuel that can be used quite readily. The same process will also turn natural gas into liquid fuel. I think we will see a lot more of this process given the US's abundance of coal and recently viable natural gas reserves (Marcellus Shale - This is where the hydrofracking comes in)

If the military wanted liquid fuels in an emergency, they are actually quite readily available. The key issue is energy not liquid fuels.
posted by kproto at 8:57 PM on May 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


Unlike fusion which is always ten years away biofuels are making continuous advances in cost per gallon. Most setbacks have come from failure to keep the research and venture money rolling when oil drops back to $70/barrel. The ARPA-E program and the military push is going to be a major driver. There is a roadmap for Algae that covers the US government plan to make this real.
posted by humanfont at 8:59 PM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


The important thing for any defence department is to have security of fuel supply which, given the amount of oil the USA and Canada produces, shouldn't really be a problem in the future.

But isn't this what the FPP is about? The defence department thinks that the amount of oil from the USA and Canada isn't enough.
posted by harriet vane at 9:33 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


The defence department thinks that the amount of oil from the USA and Canada isn't enough.

Yeah, first of all you have a set of likely conflict scenarios and domestic political expectations in which rationing gasoline to ensure military freedom of movement in an environment of shortage is unlikely to fly.

Second, it's doubtful that very many of the oil products the joint services are presently burning in their operations in the Middle East and Central Asia are coming from Alberta or the GoM. I don't know the details, but while a B-2 or B-52 flying from somewhere on the Plains may be burning domestically produced combustibles, the same is not nearly so likely when we're talking about the Humvees and APCs in Afghanistan and even the anti-piracy task force in the Arabian Sea. Much of this fuel is being purchased directly from regional suppliers, and probably with many of the same kinds of international political and diplomatic efforts that accompanied the Russian Baltic fleet's doomed voyage (and its coaling requirements en route) halfway around the world to engage the Japanese a century ago.

If DoD believes, as many energy scholars do, that Saudi Arabia is on the brink of serious decline as an oil producer (in addition to its steady rise as an oil consumer), the American military's future efforts in the Central theatre of operations are going to require not only renewable fuels, but a regional source for them. Corn ethanol isn't much good as an oil replacement if you have to ship it halfway around the world to support your far-flung theatre of operations.

It also makes sense for the Air Force to be leading the way on alternative sources, since jet fuel apparently accounts for something like 60% of all the fuel consumed by all American military vehicles and ships, both at home and abroad.
posted by waterunderground at 10:52 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


A good start would for higher-ups to encourage the grunts to say "carbon cap" instead of just "cap", as in "your ass".

Also:

"Rangers lead the way...in sustainability!"

"Semper viridis!"

"Organic!"

etc.
posted by tumid dahlia at 11:23 PM on May 3, 2011


The one thing our military can do right now is quit wasting so much jet fuel moving large cargo planes around. As of 2007, the Army as a whole was the single largest consumer of oil, and a good chunk of that is in flying personnel and goods around within the country. If you don't believe me, go ask your local airforce base how many cargo planes are scheduled for the day. If they'd optimize their transfer routes, much like UPS or FedEx does with their packages, they'd save an immense amount of fuel (and money).
posted by spiderskull at 11:40 PM on May 3, 2011


If we remove the dependency on oil, do we still need the military?
posted by fullerine at 12:24 AM on May 4, 2011


If we remove the dependency on oil, do we still need the military?

We are externally dependent on more than just oil.
posted by TwelveTwo at 1:06 AM on May 4, 2011


If they'd optimize their transfer routes, much like UPS or FedEx does with their packages, they'd save an immense amount of fuel (and money).

Are you sure they don't optimize their transfer routes?
posted by effugas at 1:41 AM on May 4, 2011


This isn't going to be ethanol. Genetically engineered microbes or algae will crap out something chemically close to jet fuel with an energy density to match.
Or, like, sugar cane.
posted by delmoi at 3:33 AM on May 4, 2011


Personally I'd love to see some homebrew kit where you have a small scale reactor next to the composter and get a few gallons of gas for the car every week. Toss in your food scraps and get gas for the car.

Yeah, but where are going to get all those Deloreans?
posted by milarepa at 3:34 AM on May 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sure, sugar cane is great in Brazil, but where is the farmland to grow enough to put a dent in the OECD fuel appetite? Or are we going to use farmland currently growing food?
posted by bystander at 4:12 AM on May 4, 2011


This reminds me of a forward-looking heroin addict making sure he has alternative sources for his smack.
posted by jfuller at 5:17 AM on May 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


@bystander: "Or are we going to use farmland currently growing food?"

One of my neighbors is actually a USDA scientist whose project is "find ways to make fuel (or other useful products) out of useless bits of food plants (especially corn)." In theory the goal is to get the same amount of food off currently-productive land while turning the "waste" products into something else. He works a lot with corn because demand for the corn part of the corn has outstripped demand for the "waste" parts of the corn by a lot, apparently. (Since most agricultural production streams do do SOMETHING with the waste parts.)

He acknowledges it can be a bit perverse, though, because sometimes part of the government is trying to DECREASE the acreage devoted to, say, corn turned into HFCS, while another part of the government is working to INCREASE demand for the useless bits of corn to in turn increase demand for acreage of corn ...

I understand there's a similar project at the state university that's trying to generate electricity out of pig shit swamps.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:00 AM on May 4, 2011


We fight wars to fuel the machines we use to fight wars.
posted by sourwookie at 6:16 AM on May 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Why do you guys think this is anathema to the military - or for that matter as though the military is an unusual source for sustainable development.

The entire point of what we do is to be survivable, adaptable and flexible to counter threats ad risks that civilian leadership want to mitigate. How would being energy independent be in conflict with that.

We aren't bureaucrats you know and most of us want to see war end more than the wrench turners and engineers at Lockheed...ya know, cause we bury friends and get 15 surgeries from a secondary IED that sent hot metal into our hip bones. Who the fuck would want to keep doing that?
posted by AndrewKemendo at 6:23 AM on May 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Are we really fighting these (current) wars for oil?

Cuz, man, it's totally not working, like at ALL.
posted by ShutterBun at 6:27 AM on May 4, 2011


Unlike fusion which is always ten years away biofuels are making continuous advances in cost per gallon.

I very sincerely hope you are correct, by the way, humanfront. Things like solar has followed similar cost trajectories and I should talk less and listen more since I have been following the biofuels science a lot less closely in recent years and if they are really surmounting the pragmatic obstacles I'm glad. A lot of the frustration is with politicians of course; it is very easy to say "fuck yeah, switchgrass" but apparently so much harder to subsidize alternatives development at anything like a level that would indicate an actual belief that these alternatives are actually as important or (god forbid) more important than fossil fuels. I'll have to check out the links you've provided.

Are we really fighting these (current) wars for oil?

Cuz, man, it's totally not working, like at ALL.
posted by ShutterBun at 8:27 AM on May 4 [+] [!]


It's all been working out pretty good for oil companies.
posted by nanojath at 7:32 AM on May 4, 2011


Ya all DO understand that the military is burning bio-fuel right now?

A liter of gasoline which is derived from crude oil is made from the decomposition of about 20 metric tonnes of organic material deposited on the ocean floor, millions of years ago.

fusion

report on the Polywell
Low Energy Nuclear Reactions
posted by rough ashlar at 7:43 AM on May 4, 2011


Biodegradable land mines would be nice.

Not to derail, but shouldn't this be possible in principle?


They've actually been around for some time, thought IIRC it's generally a settable expiry timer in the detonator rather than a fixed inherent shelf-life in the explosive.

I think they get some use, but the only countries that still stoop to landmines have a bit of an entitlement attitude about doing whatever the fuck they please with landmines, and the traditional primarily-civilian-killer landmines are still dominant. (IIRC)
posted by -harlequin- at 7:56 AM on May 4, 2011


Claymores: now with more clay!
posted by Flashman at 8:01 AM on May 4, 2011


Cuz, man, it's totally not working, like at ALL.

Why do you say that? It is absolutely working. If you're labouring under the misconception that the purpose of fighting for oil is to keep prices low for US consumers, then you should realise than no, while that would be nice, and it's somewhere down the list, that's not a high-ranking purpose in the struggle, nor a realistic one.

It's not even primarily about price, but as far as price is concerned, consider that a high price on a commodity you control or sell is usually better than a low price on a commodity you control or sell.

The goals of the players in the game generally favour themselves, and you're not a player in the game.

You don't like high prices? What are you going to do about it? I can confidently say that you're going to respond by buying the gas anyway. You're going to go without in other areas of your life so you can pay whatever price is required of you for gas. That means your desires for lower prices are largely irrelevant to the game. (The potential for economic shocks is relevant to the game though, and you're part of that.)
posted by -harlequin- at 8:12 AM on May 4, 2011


2) the untold millions of Cold War-era resilient mines still sitting in warehouses in Eastern Europe, Russia, China and the global south,

Ooh, I'm seeing an outside-the-box paradigm shifting convergent technology idea here: the landmine powered car.

Maybe I can finally get in on some of that sweet defense budget cash now...
posted by quin at 8:50 AM on May 4, 2011


Why haven't all those DOD scientists at Area 51 reverse-engineered the ultimate power source yet? They have had enough time.
posted by JJ86 at 9:06 AM on May 4, 2011


Ya all DO understand that the military is burning bio-fuel right now?

Yes, let us all agree on a pedantic redefinition of a widely understood term that renders it completely useless.
posted by nanojath at 10:19 AM on May 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've been seeing this recently, and I have the same attitude as I have toward corporations embracing "green technology": Anything is better than nothing, and it's great to have some "heavyweights" working on these issues. Anytime anyone does anything productive to bring our society toward a more sustainable existence it's a step in a positive direction (even if it's not perfect or they're "just doing it for profit"). We can use all the effort we can muster.

I understand there's a similar project at the state university that's trying to generate electricity out of pig shit swamps.

They're generally called "biodigesters" and have been used for a long time in some form or another. They are becoming more common and more suited to industrial applications and simply collect the methane that's produced when bacteria anaerobically digest waste. This methane is otherwise vented to the atmosphere, where it functions as an excellent greenhouse gas.

"Wisconsin is home to 18 operating, on-farm manure digesters […] with bacteria producing methane gas that can be burned to make heat and electricity [which] have the effect of keeping 132.5 million pounds of carbon dioxide […] 353,000 pounds of NOx [and] keep more than 27,000 tons of coal from being burned [which] equals 108,768 barrels of oil.

While Wisconsin and the U.S. as a whole are making strides installing more "biogas" facilities, as they are sometimes called, other places are far ahead. Krom pointed out that Germany, for example, has nearly 600 biogas plants up and running." [ref]

Or, like, sugar cane.

I'm not sure exactly what that means, but sugarcane is a raw material that needs to be digested, fermented, or otherwise processed to produce liquid fuels.

In addition, there are other issues (We don't how to produce that much alcohol in scale and how to deal with the by products, glycerol and dirty water). Most of the big biodiesel places across the US are in shutdown mode.

I call balderdash on this "we don't know how" idea, regardless of what producers might say. Methanol can be produced from lots of feedstocks, including syngas, and there are many novel and traditional methods for dealing with the glycerol/water/methanol waste [ref] [ref] [ref]. Now these may not be standard industry practices yet, but they are standard processes and are far from insoluble problems. This is why we have engineers. That being said, a lot of the plant are operating below capacity or not at all, and I haven't seen any good reason why (well, I guess the lack of tax credits plays a role...too bad those poor oil companies need them so bad). Biodiesel magazine has a good worldwide market snapshot you can check out here. I'm really hoping these producers can hang in there, because as the price of oil rises, biodiesel starts looking a lot more "cost-effective".
posted by nTeleKy at 1:00 PM on May 4, 2011


I understand there's a similar project at the state university that's trying to generate electricity out of pig shit swamps.

WHO. RUN. BARTERTOWN?!
posted by nanojath at 5:32 PM on May 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


If only we could find a readily available, easily growable source of biomass.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:42 AM on May 5, 2011


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