US Navy adding butanol to jet biofuel repertoire

We’ve seen the military embrace fuels derived from algae as well as fuels made from old cooking grease and animal fats.

And now the U.S. Navy is expanding the search for petroleum alternatives with a deal to make fuels from non-food plant feedstocks.

Cobalt Technologies recently announced a deal between the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD) and the company Albemarle to produce a jet fuel from biobutanol.

The project will use Cobalt Technologies’ bio n-butanol to power army jets, but NAWCWD officials said they hoped commercial jets will eventually follow suit.

The butanol project is the result of a cooperative research and development agreement that the NAWCWD and Cobalt struck in 2010 to develop technology for the conversion of bio n-butanol into full performance jet and diesel fuels, Cobalt said.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), making biobutanol via fermentation of organic matter has been possible since the early 1900s, but for several decades it has been cheaper to make butanol from petrochemicals.

Butanol does hold some advantages over other alternative fuels. It’s heavier than traditional ethanol and more similar to gasoline, making it over 30 percent more efficient than ethanol. California-based Cobalt Technologies has claimed that by producing the bio n-butanol with non-food feedstocks it is making some of the cheapest and most efficient biofuel on the market. 

And because biobutanol doesn’t mix well with water—something ethanol does do—the product can be interchanged very easily with traditional oil products in pipelines and refineries, Jack Huttner, executive vice president for corporate development of Gevo, another biobutanol company, told ClimateWire in January 2010.

But like ethanol, biobutanol poses some economic and environmental challenges. Cobalt has decided to forego food crops in production and instead uses cellulosic feedstock from wood waste. Cellulosic ethanol has proven to be a huge challenge for companies to produce at a viable cost; U.S. law had set a target of using 500 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2012, but refiners say they’ll be unable to find even the drastically scaled back 8.65 million gallon now called for.

But Cobalt believes it is on to something with an advanced catalyst for producing biobutanol. The company announced in early March that a demonstration project with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory “resulted in high sugar conversion (the amount of sugar consumed by the bacteria) and high yields of butanol (the amount of butanol produced by the bacteria).”  The company said the tests confirm that its “process to produce renewable butanol is 40-60 percent less expensive than production of petroleum-based butanol using the traditional oxo-alcohol process.”

The bio n-butanol jet fuel for the military will be processed at Albemarle’s Baton Rouge, La., plant and will be closely monitored by the Aircraft Division of the NAWCAD to ensure it passes the standards of the U.S. Department of Defense, according to the Cobalt press release.

In addition to extensive testing in Navy ships, we have also seen the military testing aviation biofuels. Last October the Navy fueled the unmanned MQ-8B Fire Scout Vertical Take-Off and Landing Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle with a combination of JP-5 aviation fuel and plant-based camelina.

Such blends have been tested by the Air Force in F-22 Raptors while the Navy has used blends in seven different aircraft, including the high-profile Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron.

Shifra Mincer, EarthTechling