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Navy looks to biofuel to power the fleets of the future

By WARREN PEACE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 11, 2010

STUTTGART, Germany — Following the successful test of its F/A-18 “Green Hornet,” the Navy is moving forward with plans to use biofuels in more of its equipment and loosen foreign oil’s grip on the service’s energy supply.

The Navy wants to fuel 50 percent of its vehicles with some form of alternative fuel — mostly biofuel — by 2020. Biofuel is produced from renewable resources, especially plant biomass, vegetable oils, and treated municipal and industrial wastes.

Currently, only 1 percent of the fuel used by the Navy comes from renewable sources. The shift to biofuels was inspired in part by oil market fluctuations, according to Rear Adm. Philip Cullom, the head of the Navy’s Task Force Energy. The Navy spent $5.1 billion for fuel in 2008 when oil prices reached a record high of $147 per barrel, compared to $1.2 billion the previous year, when oil was $33 per barrel.

The Defense Department has an annual energy budget of about $20 billion. For every $10 increase in a barrel of oil, the DOD spends $1.3 billion in additional energy costs, according to a recent DOD press release.

The Navy’s effort to transition to biofuel is similar to what the 1970’s military-run government of Brazil began doing during the oil crisis then. Brazil is now considered by many to be the leader in biofuel integration. In March, Brazil produced its 10 millionth flex-fuel car — petroleum- or ethanol-powered — and those vehicles account for 62 percent of all vehicle production there, according to the Brazilian Association of Vehicle Manufacturers.

Domestically produced biofuel “affords [the Navy] insulation from whatever is happening in the oil market,” said Cullom, the director of Fleet Readiness for the Chief of Naval Operations. “Instead of getting the raw crude from some places overseas — maybe some places that don’t like us — we are going to get the fuel from farmers in the middle of the country on marginal land that isn’t being used much anyway.

“Wouldn’t it be good to put farmers back to work growing fuel for us in a noncompeting way?”

Earth Day 2010 marked a milestone in that effort as the Navy held its first test flight of an F/A-18 Super Hornet powered by 50 percent biofuel and 50 percent conventional petroleum-based jet fuel.

As a result of the success of the “Green Hornet,” the Navy “will move to expand biofuel testing to our marine gas turbine engines and to the engines of our tactical vehicles,” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said in a press release.

In January, the Department of Agriculture announced its partnership with the Navy to produce biofuels and help create a “Green Strike Group,” set to sail on entirely alternative fuels within six years.

The strike group would consist of three to five surface combatant ships, an aircraft carrier, a submarine and an air wing — with all of the prime movers being powered by biofuel except the carrier and submarine, which will continue to use nuclear power. The first generation of biofuels simply don’t have the energy density to power the big ships and aircraft of the military, Cullom explained.

The Navy and the USDA are looking to feedstocks, such as algae and camelina, to produce second- and third-generation biofuels. Camelina is a type of mustard plant that grows in marginal farmland. These feedstocks have a very high-energy density, and the fuels created from them can be engineered to power today’s fleets without redesigning the engines.

“One day you can be using petroleum, the next day you can use a biofuel and it doesn’t matter” Cullom said. “The ship doesn’t know the difference. The captain of the ship doesn’t know the difference, and they effectively get the same amount of energy out of them so you’re not filling up any differently.”

The Navy will need 80,000 barrels of biofuel by 2016, when the Green Strike Group is scheduled to be operational. The demand will jump to 8 million barrels of biofuel annually by 2020.

The Navy is responsible for 25 percent of DOD’s fuel consumption, and the DOD is responsible for about 93 percent of government’s consumption, according to Cullom. The government is responsible for a little less than 2 percent of all U.S. petroleum consumption.

“We can’t make a market,” Cullom said, “but, gosh, we can be the best first adopter of this stuff and point the way for energy security for the Navy and the nation.”


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