Navy Captain publishes report disputing military biofuel use

By Erin Voegele | May 21, 2013

A report disputing the promise of liquid biofuels to the U.S. military has been published in the spring issue of Strategic Studies Quarterly, the strategic journal of the U.S. Air Force. The issue also includes rebuttals submitted by the U.S. DOE and U.S. DOD.

In his report, titled “Energy Insecurity: The False Promise of Liquid Biofuels,” U.S.  Navy Captain T.A. “Ike” Kiefer states that the promise and curse of biofuels is that they are limited by the energy living organisms harvest from the sun. He said liquid biofuels suffer from a fatal catch-22 in that uncultivated biofuel yields are too small, diffuse and infrequent to displace a meaningful fraction of U.S. energy needs, while increasing yield through cultivation results in a negative energy balance. In the report, Kiefer calls biofuels “a modern-day attempt at perpetual motion that is doomed by the laws of thermodynamics and a fatal dependence on fossil fuel energy.” 

The report addresses ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, biodiesel, water use, food-versus-fuel, power density, land use, and several other factors. It also describes several recommendations made by Kiefer. For example, he recommends that the U.S. government cease funding of biofuels and instead offer prizes for milestones met in direct fuel photosynthesis, which he calls a much more worthy line of research.

“Imagine if the US military developed a weapon that could threaten millions around the world with hunger, accelerate global warming, incite widespread instability and revolution, provide our competitors and enemies with cheaper energy, and reduce America’s economy to a permanent state of recession,” said Kiefer in the report. “What would be the sense and the morality of employing such a weapon? We are already building that weapon—it is our biofuels program. For the sake of our national energy strategy and global security, we must face the sober facts and reject biofuels while advocating an overall national energy strategy compatible with the laws of chemistry, physics, biology, and economics.”

In its rebuttal, the DOE points out that Kiefer’s paper does not include any analysis of critical issues of energy systems, including petroleum systems and biofuel systems. Rather, the DOE calls his paper a summary of literature. “Furthermore, the summary of biofuel literatures in this paper has been tailored with literatures with negative points of views and results for biofuels. There are equally important, if not more important, literatures with credible analyses and objective results of biofuels, which were either overlooked or ignored by the author,” said the DOE.  

The DOE also stressed that Kiefer confused present purchase prices for certain fuels for fleet testing with the long-term goals of government research and development investment. “The present purchase prices reflect current production at very limited scale and limited technology advancement,” said the DOE in its response. “Government R&D investments are intended to overcome key technology barriers so that in the long term biofuels can become vital national energy options. If one uses the status quo to decide what society should or should not do, many technology innovations and civilization advancements would not have occurred.”

The DOD also offered a rebuttal to Kiefer’s paper, noting it “highlights interesting but ultimately misleading opinions on the challenges the Department of Defense faces in harnessing energy innovation.”

 “As one of the world’s largest consumers of liquid fuels, the Department does have an interest in diversification of our supplies, especially for our legacy fleet of ships and planes, which will be with us for decades to come,” said the DOE in its rebuttal. “Since 2003, DoD has made a small but important investment in alternative fuels, mostly R&D by the military Services to ensure that defense equipment can operate on a range of alternative fuels. The Department has a policy of only purchasing operational quantities of such fuels if they are cost competitive with conventional fuels. References to per-gallon prices DoD is paying for alternative fuels refers to small quantities of test fuel purchased as part of R&D programs. Additionally, the Department is only looking to purchase drop-in alternative fuels for tactical use, and not ethanol or biodiesel.”

A full copy of Kiefer’s paper along with the DOD and DOE rebuttals can be downloaded from the Strategic Studies Quarterly website