Biofuels and the military

Remember when biofuels were going to save us from peak oil and climate change all at the same time? Those heady days of the mid naughties, when ethanol made from cellulose, and biodiesel from algae, was going to be produced in enormous quantities at any moment. The fact that the biofuels actually available could only be produced in tiny quantities, had an energy return on energy invested just barely above 1, and were sucking up huge quantities of arable land and water, was a temporary blip. Oh, and the massive subsidies to farmers on both sides of the Atlantic through biofuel mandates? Just getting the market started.

As of 2012, algal biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol remain laboratory curiosities. But that hasn’t stopped the US military, for some reason, to keep throwing money at getting their war machines to run on the stuff. And ASPI’s Eliza Garnsey seems to think that the Australian military should follow suit, not only for the supposed environmental benefits, but also:

Developing more efficient energy sources will reduce fuel demand and associated logistical challenges. Investing in research to develop biofuels beyond their current optimal performance ranges could, in the long term, reduce the need to transport large volumes of fuel and the associated human costs of this logistical operation.

Going even further to develop renewable energy sources to power military equipment will dramatically improve operational risk and increase defence resilience in battle zones.

Where do I start?

About the only thing that’s correct in the section that I’ve quoted is that reducing the need to transport fuel would indeed “dramatically improve operational risk and increase defence resilience in battle zones”.

However, biofuels – even if they were to become available at low prices, in non-trivial quantities, and without the environmental and social disasters that current limited biofuel production has inflicted on the third world, offer nothing that would substantially reduce the need for fuel transport.

Biodiesel and the biologically-derived aviation fuels that the USAF and airlines have been playing around with, are in terms of their combustion properties, all but identical to petroleum-derived fuel. As far as the engines that burn them go, it’s all pretty much the same. That’s their appeal, in large part. But that also means that you’re going to have to transport just as much biofuel to the battle as you would petroleum-derived fuels. As such, the supply lines would be no more or less vulnerable.

It’s also worth noting that both the Australian and US militaries’ fuel usage is a drop in the bucket, when you compare it to the amounts used by the respective civilian economies. If we ever got to a point where we couldn’t supply petroleum-fuel to our war machines, the chaos in a still petroleum-dependent broader society would be such that the problems of the military would almost be the least of our problems – see Germany, 1945.

If the Australian or the US military wants to reduce their operational risk from fuel transport, the only way to do so is reduce the amount of fuel it uses, biofuels or not. There is actually quite a lot the two militaries could do in this regard, as much American military hardware has historically been the same way that American cars are; with no regard whatsoever for energy efficiency. The Abrams tank is a classic example, with a gas turbine engine that not only burns ridiculous amounts of fuel when in motion, it burns ridiculous amounts of fuel idling.

The US military is investing in biofuels for other reasons, most of them to do with keeping Congresscritters in agricultural states happy. Australia would be mad to invest our own military R&D dollars in such folly.

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One Response to Biofuels and the military

  1. AC Stewart says:

    “The fact that the biofuels actually available could only be produced in tiny quantities, had an energy return on energy invested just barely above 1, and were sucking up huge quantities of arable land and water, was a temporary blip. ”

    Don’t bother me with details I’m creative. 🙂

    Obama spruiked what he called ‘changing the energy economy’ all during ’08. I kinda liked the sound of it until I started wondering how you do that as a politician. Schwarzanegger was also spruiking bio-fuels which was ironic as he’s a disciple of Friedman. Despite this he, like Obama, advocated the command approach with respect to carbon pricing. Federally, Obama decided to make our choice of energy source for us. When doing so he made an assumption that viable synthetic ethanol would be created. Yet he’s a lawyer not a chemist.

    Nice to be reading you again.

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