Comments on RAND Corporation Report, “Alternative Fuels for Military Applications”

Peer Review Committee, Algae Biomass Organization

The following is a review of the RAND Corporation’s January 2011 report,” Alternative Fuels for Military Applications.” The comments were provided by the Algae Biomass Organization’s Peer Review Committee, chaired by Keith Cooksey, Ph.D. and John Benemman, Ph.D..

The main recommendation of the RAND Corporation’s January 2011 report, “Alternative Fuels for Military Applications,” is that that the military should abandon its efforts focused  on utilizing  fuels derived from biomass – including algal biomass – and focus, instead, on alternative fuels derived from Fischer-Tropsch coal-to-liquids  processes. This report appears to be mostly based on earlier RAND report by the first author (Bartis et al., 2008), which is quoted extensively throughout.

However, based on the literature citations provided by the authors of the report, it is unclear that the authors have any knowledge about algae specifically or advanced biofuels in general. In the report, virtually no biofuels-related research is cited, save for a handful of telephone conversations, some news articles and press releases, a couple of promotional company presentations, and one web site (of “Solarzyme” [sic]).  One notable exception are the papers by Fargione et al., 2008, and Searchinger et al., 2008, in Science, which played a significant role in driving the debate over biofuels and  indirect land use controversy. However, these studies are not related to biofuels production technologies and processes themselves, but rather the possible, but actually rather controversial, environmental impacts of biofuels production.   The only reference in the report specifically addressing algal biomass stems from a review by Wijffles and Barbosa (Science, 2010) focusing on photobioreactors and a “prospectus” for a 2009 Nexant study.  We believe this lack of technical background disqualifies the study from serious consideration.

However, it is accurate to state, as the report’s authors did, that Fischer-Tropsch processes are certainly technically feasible.  Fischer-Tropsch coal-to-liquids technologies were utilized by Germany in the Second World War and the South African government during apartheid, and may still help Qatar and other nations utilize stranded natural gas otherwise flared.

But it is important to note that these technologies are far from proven at commercial scale under current and near-term economic conditions.  Equally troubling is that greenhouse gas emissions from Fischer-Tropsch processes are approximately three times greater than those from petroleum.  The report’s authors argument that carbon capture from Fischer-Tropsch is inexpensive, and that the carbon captured from these processes can be disposed of easily, rests upon a series of assumptions about feasibility that should be considered tenuous at best. The use of algae to sequester the carbon dioxide followed by co-firing of the biomass produced is still a research topic.

At a more technical level, much is made of coal/biomass combinations for Fischer-Tropsch processes, specifically in a recommended 60/40 ratio.  This is questionable: coal and biomass have very different properties and requirements for Fischer-Tropsch processes (e.g. in the initial gasification), and in required scales of production.  Biomass is a very small-scale technology (<<1% the possible scale of coal Fischer-Tropsch processes), and adding 1.5 times as much coal still will not bring it even to the 1% scale.  This is based on a complete misunderstanding of the requirements and costs of biomass production and procurement, which underlies biofuels conversion.

While the report contains some major simplifications and unchallenged assumptions regarding coal-to-liquids technologies, we do also believe that it is equally simplistic to claim that the military can obtain all to its fuel from microalgae or other biofuels. The military, just as the U.S. Department of Energy, with its different priorities and needs, must explore all plausible alternatives, to the point where they can indeed be rejected as unfeasible, or advanced to further development.  First-generation biofuels, ethanol from corn or oils from soybean, for example, can and have been rejected for military applications.  But beyond that there are still many options – including second generation biofuels derived from algae – that need to be evaluated, researched, advanced and developed.

The report states repeatedly that there are “uncertainties regarding production potential and commercial viability, especially affordability and lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions.” We believe that this merely states the obvious: if there were no uncertainties there would be no need for the Department of Defense to undertake its current research, development and procurement efforts.

It is crucial to note that algae-based biofuels are among a broad range of renewable energy technologies that are currently being pursued and developed towards demonstration and deployment at commercial scales.  Nuclear power, electrification of transportation and Fischer-Tropsch technologies are all also far from certain, considering issues such as waste disposal, coal supply and greenhouse gas emissions, let alone the economic and technological issues involved.

Finally, the report’s conclusion that algae-based biofuels are “at least two decades” (p.79) away from having a significant presence in the marketplace must be rejected.  Of course, it is well recognized that any energy technology, including those favored by the authors of the report, will take decades to capture major market shares in the energy and transportation markets.  A major advantage of microalgae, and other microbial processes, is that the generation times are fast, allowing relatively fast (research, development and demonstration) compared this with higher crops, which require a whole season for demonstration of a cultivar, vs. a week for microalgae. We believe that these unique characteristics of algae could enable biofuels derived from algae to enter the marketplace at commercial scale in a significantly shorter time frame than most other technologies under development, assuming continuing R&D investments and achievement of the required techno-economic goals.