Navy Secretary: Biofuel Technology Has Arrived


This article first appeared in Aerospace Daily & Defense Report.

Despite continued opposition from lawmakers like U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the U.S. Navy will continue its efforts to leverage biofuels technology for its ships and aircraft, service Secretary Ray Mabus says.

Mabus disputes McCain's contention that the Navy is investing in unproven and costly technology by pursuing a course for biofuels. "The technology is there," he said Oct. 9 during a luncheon in Arlington, Va., hosted by the National Aeronautic Association.

Research shows that biofuels will be a viable alternative for fossil fuel between 2018 and 2024, according to Mabus. "What we can do is speed that up to make it more competitive," he says.

The Navy has been picking up plenty of steam with its biofuels efforts. The service has touted the use of biofuels in recent large-scale exercises and it is putting together a so-called "Green Fleet" of ships that use alternative fuels while also developing a "Green Hornet" F-18 with the same concept.

One of the more interesting alternative fuel concepts being pursued by the Navy is the Office of Naval Research's program to hone the chemistry for producing jet fuel from renewable resources in theater.

The most promising process, the Navy says, would catalytically convert carbon dioxide hydrogen gas directly to liquid hydrocarbon fuel used as JP-5, a process being developed and honed by the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL).

NRL has successfully developed and demonstrated technologies for the recovery of carbon dioxide and the production of hydrogen gas from seawater using an electrochemical acidification cell, and the conversion of those gases to hydrocarbons that can be used to produce jet fuel, the Navy says.

"We don't have a favorite technology," Mabus says. The service is simply keen to develop alternatives.

McCain says Mabus should stick to building and operating ships, not developing fuel for them. "You are the Secretary of the Navy, not the Secretary of Energy," McCain says in a July 27 letter to Mabus.

In that same letter, McCain chastised Mabus for his "decision to buy 450,000 gallons of biofuels at over $26 per gallon for a ‘demonstration' using operations and maintenance funds provided by Congress" as well as the Navy's commitment of $170 million to develop a commercial biofuels refinery. Both moves "will result in a real cost to the readiness and safety of our sailors and Marines," McCain said.

The Navy sees fuel needs as a measure of readiness too. The Navy's Military Sealift Command, the primary supplier of fuel and oil to the fleet, delivered nearly 600 million gal. of fuel to Navy vessels under way in fiscal 2011, operating 15 fleet replenishment oilers around the globe.

Credit: US Navy

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