In December, DARPA awarded a $15 million contract to Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), as well as a $20 million contract to General Atomics, asking the companies to find a biofuel surrogate for JP-8 — the petroleum-based fuel for military jets. Lab tests and smaller-scale experiments have shown that algae oil can be turned into fuel but the military wants something large-scale and cheap to offset the more than $12 billion spent on fuel in 2007.
The trick is finding the right algae for the job out of about 40, 000 species. Many are good at converting nutrients and carbon dioxide into the organic matter that provides oils that can be refined into biofuels. Researchers are running experiments on the effects of temperature, sunlight and other factors on biofuel productivity. Tweak their living conditions — nutrients, carbon dioxide, flow of water — and their ability to produce oil changes along with it, and researchers are searching for a happy medium between rapid growth and oil production.
Research from this Pentagon-funded project could enable use of algae-based fuels in the commercial aviation market, according to Paul Bollinger, a vice president with SAIC, “The military has the potential of serving as a market initiator and the airlines as a market maker.”