Pentagon focused on developing alternative energy

Mon May 10, 2010 6:31pm EDT

* Long term goal to reduce dependence on foreign oil

* Recent tests showed warplanes can fly on bio-fuels

WASHINGTON May 10 (Reuters) - The Pentagon is working hard to promote development of biomass fuels that could power future fighter jets and other warplanes, but defense officials say it could take years to get a full-fledged industry on its feet.

Top U.S. defense officials and executives from the petroleum, alternative fuels and renewable energy sectors are meeting outside Washington this week to address new technology developments and initiatives such as the Pentagon's work on developing biofuels to power military aircraft.

The long-term goal is to decrease U.S. dependence on foreign crude oil, said Air Force Colonel Francis Rechner, director of operations of the Defense Energy Support Center, run by the Pentagon's main logistics agency.

Rechner cited the March flight of an Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II attack plane, powered by a mix of biomass and jet fuel, and the flight of the Navy's "Green Hornet," a Boeing Co (BA.N) F/A-18 fighter jet powered a blend of jet fuel and a biofuel made of camelina, a hardy U.S. plant.

Both aircraft performed well using the new bio-based fuels, he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Mark Iden, Rechner's deputy, said his agency signed an agreement in March with the Air Transport Association, the main industry group for U.S. commercial airlines, to help promote widespread commercialization of environmentally friendly aviation fuels and become less reliant on petroleum.

Together the airline industry and the U.S. military use more than 1.5 million barrels of jet fuel a day.

The challenge now was to promote construction of facilities that could produce large quantities of biofuels using algae, camelina and other plants, Iden said.

He said there was a lot of research and development under way, but it could take years to create a full-fledged industry. "We are literally developing it from scratch," Iden said, adding he expected the Pentagon to issue an initial solicitation for bids from industry within a year or two.

Iden said the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had spurred interest in the Pentagon's work on alternative fuels and underscored the importance of alternative fuels.

But the military would rely on petroleum for a long time, he said. "You're never going to eliminate petroleum."

Rechner said the Obama administration supported the Pentagon's efforts, and President Barack Obama in December nominated Sharon Burke, vice president of the Center for a New American Security think tank, to become the Pentagon's new director of operational energy plans and programs.

That post was aimed at coordinating various energy efficiency and alternative energy programs across the various military services, a good step in the right direction, but Burke's nomination was being held up by lawmakers, he said. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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