Biofuels have been taking a bit of a bashing lately, with people suggesting that maybe they aren't so green after all. And this is not to mention the fact they could require unacceptably large amounts of cropland to produce, so driving up food prices.
But now the somewhat beleaguered biofuel lobby has received a boost from US Air Force (USAF) secretary Michael Wynne. The USAF apparently accounts for 80 per cent of the US government's fuel usage, and to a noticeable degree this is dependent on foreign supplies.
According to Noah Shachtman of Wired magazine, reporting on a speech made at this week's DARPATech conference in California, Mr Wynne is keen to be free of capricious foreign oil sources and their effects on his budget. It seems that a $10 price rise for a barrel of oil costs the USAF another $600m over a year.
"In the event of another war, those costs could double again," said Wynne.
He's also worried about undue political/economic leverage exerted on America by oil cartels and producers. This is a very old problem for Western superpower armed forces, of course. The Royal Navy's switch to oil-fired ships prior to World War I led to troublesome entanglements in the Persian Gulf for Britain, with the consequences still playing out today.
The Royal Navy circa 1900 didn't feel it could stay with coal-powered ships: but to make a start on Mr Wynne's independence push the US air force in 2007 is taking a step back in time, trialling coal-powered heavy bombers and transports.
The Los Angeles Daily News reports that tests are underway with mighty eight-engined B-52s (veteran planes; the Royal Navy's Edwardian Dreadnought-class battleships are only twice as old). The B-52s haven't been fitted with fireboxes and coal bunkers, and USAF airmen won't have to strip to the waist and shovel coal. Rather, the bombers have been filled up with a 50-50 mix of ordinary jet juice and "Fischer-Tropsch" synthetic fuel, made by Oklahoma company Syntroleum.
Thus far, the synthi-fuel is made from natural gas, but Syntroleum apparently reckons it could produce it from coal, which is abundant in America. Plans are also afoot to try the domestically-sourced avgas in monster C-17 intercontinental transport aircraft.
And that's just the beginning. DARPA, the Pentagon nutty-professor farm which secretary Wynne addressed on Tuesday, are looking to make jet fuel out of all kinds of stuff. In a recent request for ideas, they sought notions for "a surrogate for petroleum based military jet fuel (JP-8) from oil-rich crops produced by either agriculture or aquaculture (including but not limited to plants, algae, fungi, and bacteria)..."
Bio-fuel, in other words: and they're not just talking about boring old corn alcohol. We particularly like the notion of fungus-fuel - derived perhaps from mushrooms - powering the mighty American air armadas of the future as they set out to put foot to ass for their country.
Of course, if the DARPA mushroom-fuel (mushroleum? mushroline?) tech took off bigtime in civvy street - the way, for instance, DARPA's internet did - the West's dependence on oil might disappear.
"Think of the withdrawal of leverage it [alternative fuels] would bring from petty dictators or cartels," said Wynne on Tuesday.
Depending on your view of the reasons behind the Iraq war, the mushroleum fuel project might actually put the Pentagon out of a job, as the need to keep the Middle East stable and exporting oil disappeared. We might even - again, depending on your view of what and who ultimately funds jihadi extremism - see al-Qaeda dwindle into insignificance, as newly hard-up oil autocrats ceased funding them.
Alternatively, of course, the West would merely find itself embroiled in new wars, fighting for control of the rich mushroom fields or algae lakes of some other region. ®