Air Force puts designs on a new biofuel

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds fly over the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Las Vegas, Nev.

Tess Vigeland: The Memorial Day holiday here and a public holiday in the U.K. meant a light trading day for oil. But the price of black gold has been rising steadily the last few months. And consumers aren't the only ones feeling the pain. For each jump of $10 a barrel, the Pentagon ends up spending a billion dollars more for fuel. The Air Force uses the most oil. But it's aggressively developing alternative energy solutions. And now the Air Force is building support for biofuel by filling the tanks of its most elite planes with it.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Eve Troeh reports.


Sound of Thunderbirds

Eve Troeh: That's the Thunderbirds -- the elite demonstration squad of the U.S. Air Force. Their precise formations and dives now brought to you by camelina. It's a flax-like plant behind a new biofuel for jets.

Air Force Lieutenant General Norm Seip says the biofuel has no performance or safety issues.

Norm Seip: When you see the Thunderbirds pulling nine G's and going straight up and straight down, that ought to tell folks out there that this 50-50 blend works.

General Seip has been retired about a year. Now he's an energy consultant for the Pentagon. He says the Air Force developed biofuel faster than the market because lives are on the line. Service members delivering fuel in combat zones are vulnerable to attack.

Seip: When I had to write a letter to a family that they'd lost a son or daughter, or a husband or wife, who was on one of those fuel convoys, that brings it home very succinctly.

Seip says military research has driven down the price. But the bio-blend still costs 10 times more than regular fuel. The Air Force can't charge taxpayers that much, so its orders are limited.

Graham Warwick covers technology at "Aviation Week."

Graham Warwick: We're at that point where everybody's sort of waiting for the private sector to step up.

He says it's a critical time for camelina jet fuel. The tech is ready, but the demand isn't there. He says a major company needs to order a 15- or 20-year supply.

Warwick: The airlines can do that because they're private entities, but they're reluctant to take that step.

And, they don't have to. Unlike the military, there's no mandate for airlines to use less oil. Plus they're so squeezed by current fuel costs, they say they can't afford extra for biofuel.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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