Illustration by Michael Mardosa
Filling up our vehicles at the gasoline pumps, we often sigh and shrug at rising fuel prices. We might try to limit our travel, lower driving speeds or find other ways to save every gallon.
But for the U.S. military and its fuel needs for transportation, skimping often isn’t possible. In fact, according to recent remarks by U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, every time the price of a barrel of oil goes up a dollar, it costs the Navy $31 million in extra fuel costs. When the price of oil rose at the start of the Libyan political crisis, the Navy’s fuel bill went up $1 billion.
It’s no wonder that the military is very interested in alternative fuels — in particular, the wood-based biofuels being researched and produced at the University of Maine. Three methods, or pathways, to producing biofuel for use in military jets are being explored by UMaine chemical and biological engineers affiliated with the university’s Forest Bioproducts Research Institute (FBRI). The pathways all aim to produce what are known as drop-in fuels — those that can be used easily in a number of fuel tanks and pipelines.
FBRI Director Hemant Pendse was recently awarded a two-year, $1 million grant from the Logistics Research and Development Program of the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) — the Department of Defense’s largest logistics combat support agency — for a wood-to-jet fuel program. The funding will be used to develop a business case for transforming existing forest products manufacturing infrastructure to enable coproduction of military fuels and other chemicals as by-products.
The DLA funding supplements a $1.8 million renewal award from the Department of Energy’s EPSCoR program and another DOE Office of Biomass-funded project.
“In an integrated fashion, the federal departments of Defense, Energy and Agriculture are looking into renewable sources of jet fuel, so this is going to be a major new effort for UMaine,” says Pendse. “We started with wood, which is readily available in Maine because of the certified sustainable wood supply. The wood-based drop-in biofuel technologies being developed here have broader applications, much beyond wood to jet fuel.”