Using ethanol fuel for the military is more expensive, less efficient

Rolf E. Westgard - University guest faculty

The administrationâÄôs latest energy boondoggle is President Barack ObamaâÄôs announcement of a $510 million taxpayer program to support four new cellulose biofuel plants. The motivation is to secure a safe domestic source of fuel for the U.S. Navy and Air Force.

The four plants are supposed to produce ethanol fuel for military aircraft from non-food cellulose stocks like crop waste, grasses and algae. A 50-50 blend of modified ethanol with conventional aviation gas tests well in military aircraft.

But, as undersecretary of the Air Force Erin Conaton recently said, âÄúRight now, that biomass fuel is about 10 times the cost of JP-8, the current military aviation jet fuel.âÄù

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 calls for the production of 250 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2011. Realistically, we will struggle to produce 4 million gallons.

A method for unlocking sugars from cellulose was discovered in 1819. But 200 years of trying has not produced an effective production process. 

Another problem with crop waste and grasses is that substantial amounts of diesel fuel are needed for transport. And it takes a whole lot of cellulose to make a small amount of transportation fuel. 

ThereâÄôs no shortage of proven aviation JP-8 fuel and other conventional fuels for our military without having to import from unfriendly sources. It is all available from U.S. refineries which process crude oil from North America.

When the biofuel industry is able to provide the quantity of fuel the Air Force requires at a good price, âÄúwe will be ready to buy from them,âÄù undersecretary Conaton said.

DonâÄôt wait up for that occasion. Just get ready to add another $510 million to the $6 billion weâÄôre already paying in subsidies for the ethanol industry in 2011.