Feb 192011
Abbotsford International Airshow 2009!

Image by Rick Leche via Flickr

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 diesel like 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.

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