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Navy Green: Military Investigates Biofuels to Power Its Ships and Planes

The U.S. Navy will begin testing biofuels from camelina and algae
Super Hornet taking off



Courtesy of U.S. Navy

Ships powered by algae and planes flying on weeds: that's part of the future the U.S. Navy hopes to bring to fruition. This week, the seagoing branch of the military purchased 40,000 gallons of jet fuel derived from camelina—a weedy relative of canola—and 20,055 gallons of algae-derived diesellike fuel for ships.

"The intent is for these fuels to be drop-in replacements," although initially they will be blended with their conventional counterparts, says Jeanne Binder, research and development program manager at the Defense Energy Support Center (DESC), the U.S. Department of Defense's combat logistics support agency. "The test results will bear that out."

As the renewable fuels are delivered in increasing batches in coming months, the Navy will begin lab testing them. The Navy hopes to put the biofuels in active planes and ships in 2010 and 2011, respectively, according to Billy Ray Brown, spokesman for the U.S. Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division. "The three goals are fuel security, something that is renewable, and that we can produce and provide for ourselves to reduce our reliance on foreign sources of oil. It [also] has to be cost-effective. Then, obviously, the environmental benefits that could potentially derive from that."

The first green plane? An F/A-18 Super Hornet, or "green" Hornet, which is tentatively scheduled to take to the skies with a blend of conventional and bio-based jet fuel in tests next summer. The first biofueled ship has yet to be selected, Brown says.

As it stands, the Navy uses at least seven different types of petroleum-based fuel and burns nearly 35 million barrels per year. The challenge will be finding biofuels that can work in the many different types of aircraft, ships, engines, boilers and turbines employed by the fighting force. "We're at the very beginning. It's going to be seven, 10, 15 years" before this is in widespread use, Brown says. "We have to be very meticulous in what we're doing."

Particularly, the Navy is trying to be meticulous about the sources of its alternative fuels, mandating those that do not compete with food, like ethanol from corn does. Algae, although used in the nutraceutical industry, is not considered a food crop and camelina can be used as a rotation crop with wheat. "What we're doing is giving [the farmer] an economic alternative to having the ground sit fallow," says Scott Johnson, president and general manager of Sustainable Oils, the camelina biofuel supplier.

Sustainable Oils, which also breeds the camelina seeds it then contracts with the farmer to grow, planted about 8,000 acres this year, the bulk in Montana, which should yield roughly 400,000 gallons of the unrefined oil, Johnson says. That camelina oil was then trucked to a pilot refinery run by UOP, LLC, in Bayport, Tex., which turned it into the jet biofuel or other petroleum-based product required. The first jet biofuel will be delivered on September 15 and a UOP-sponsored assessment shows that camelina jet biofuel reduces carbon emissions by 80 percent compared with conventional kerosene.

The U.S. government will pay $2.7 million for the 40,000 gallons of jet biofuel from camelina, or $67.50 per gallon, although that price includes some research and development, DESC cautions. "The Navy is asking for quantities that are not commercial quantities," Johnson explains. "So the process involved is a batch process and some of the costs that are involved are very expensive to set up."

The company also sells the meal left over after crushing the camelina oil seeds as a U.S. Food and Drug Administration–approved feed for broiler chickens. "We expect to grow close to 50,000 acres in Montana next year," Johnson says, as well as add more approved uses of the leftover meal.

The algae-derived fuel for use in ships will be grown by Solazyme, a San Francisco–based start-up that grows its algae on sugar in the dark. The company leases fermenters, such as those used by the pharmaceutical industry to produce insulin, along with other existing industrial infrastructure to create batches of its product, although it declined to specify where it would produce this particular bio-oil. Nor will it reveal its refining partner.

If Solazyme succeeds, it will be the first biofuel company to actually produce algal oil from its own algae and deliver it. Sapphire Energy, a competitor, had supplied jet biofuel to the first commercial flight powered in part by the tiny aquatic plants but had purchased the bio-oil from Cyanotech Corp., which grows algae for the nutritional market.

The U.S. government will pay $8.5 million for the contracted 20,055 gallons of algal fuel from Solazyme, the bulk of which must be supplied within a year. That would be nearly $424 per gallon but "applying price per gallon to that contract would not be a very fair assessment," says DESC's Binder, because of the much greater research and development investment needed to make algae-based fuel a reality.

Ultimately, the Navy is looking for as many fuels as possible, ranging from nuclear to biofuels—even seawater, which could be transformed into jet fuel by energy-intensive chemistry. And the Navy is not alone. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has spent $35 million to sponsor research into oil from algae and the Air Force is also looking for cleaner ways to fly and fight. Additional biofuel contracts pending with DESC should be awarded by mid-September. That's for "up to 400,000 gallons of renewable jet fuel" for the Air Force, says DESC's Frank Pane, director of energy plans and programs. This "is a start of our ability to support [the U.S. military] as they look at alternative fuels or renewables for their future energy needs."

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