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Algae Away! US Navy Invests In Alternative Fuels

For every 50 fuel convoys deployed by the US military, one soldier dies or gets injured.

An astounding figure shared by Thomas Hicks, deputy assistant secretary of the US Navy for energy, at the Clinton Global Initiative meetings in New York Tuesday on a panel about innovations in green technology.

The Navy, along with other branches of the military, recognizes the need to switch to alternative fuels both to reduce the risks in getting fuel into theaters of war and to reduce its exposure to price volatility.

Last year, the Navy spent over $11 billion on fossil fuels and intends to reduce petroleum use by half by 2020, which could mean replacing it with as much as 8 millions barrels of biofuels a year.

“On alternative fuels, we feel a bit alone out there,” Hicks told me. “But the reality is the ships and planes we have today are going to be the ships and planes we have 10-20 years from now. We need to focus on finding alternatives now to use in that fleet.”

To meet this goal, the Navy is partnering with Solazyme, a producer of algae-based oils, among others.

“At Solazyme, we make oil by converting plentiful, sustainable biomass-based plant sugars into tailored oils that serve the multitude of applications the world demands,” said Jonathan Wolfson, CEO of Solazyme, also speaking on the panel at CGI. “We do this by feeding a variety of sustainable, biomass-derived sugars from things like switch grass, sugar cane, and municipal green waste to algae in big stainless steel tanks and the algae convert those plant sugars into oil. They do it rapidly and efficiently.”

Solazyme’s technology is helping the US Department of Defense with its self-imposed mandate to reduce its carbon footprint, combat global climate change and lead in the development of clean and renewable energy sources.

The company is supplying algal jet fuel as well as a diesel ship fuel for use in military boats and, this summer, the Navy tested a Solazyme-produced fuel in its Seahawk helicopters.

“A key agent of change in the adoption of sustainable, renewable fuels is one of our oldest US government institutions — the Navy,” said Wolfson. “If we wanted our technology to scale, we had to work with a partner who could demonstrate scale.”

The American military represents significant purchasing power to drive market realities, increasing the opportunity for success of new fuels and potential adoption in the marketplace.

On Wednesday, Pew Charitable Trusts published a report, “From Barracks to the Battlefield,” stating that DOD investments in renewable energy is “projected to reach $3 billion by 2015 and $10 billion by 2030.”

Still, the move is not without its critics who question why the military is switching to alternative, especially unknown fuels.

“Time and again, military leaders have invested in new ways of harnessing energy to enhance the strength, speed, range and power of armed forces,” according to the Pew report.

The report goes on to note, “Navies that once relied on wind power transitioned to coal, then oil and eventually nuclear power to propel fleets across the seas. Air forces harnessed jet propulsion and made superiority in the skies a central component of strategic doctrine. And on land there have been continuous improvements to tactical and non-tactical vehicles to meet the needs of ever-changing military missions.”

In other words, on renewable energy solutions, the military is leading the way.

Scott Edward Anderson's picture

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Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Sep 28, 2011 9:13 pm GMT

Hard to know what to say anymore, Scott.

While at Oxford I had the chance to meet a Russian Ph.D. (bio)chem student and started a chat about biofuels. He was dismissive of the bio-poop type fuels like ethanol and brought up the German rape(seed) effort. So I mentioned solar collector temperatures, and he knew right away what the idea was and said he never heard of that before.

The point is, bio-poop fuels take a few million years to accumulate to exploitable quantities. Real time fuel production benefits from a high temperature kick in the accelerator. And real scientists understand this fact.

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