Debut of 'great green fleet' coming next summer
Written by Jeanette Steele
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Frank Kim holds a glass container with algae based fuel, left, and a container of diesel fuel, right, currently used in ships. The algae-based fuel is being tested in the retired destroyer Paul F. Foster. — Howard Lipin
If the retired destroyer Paul F. Foster arrives in Ventura County Thursday without breaking down or catching fire, the Navy will be one ship closer to its “great green fleet.”
The Navy launched its largest test of algae as a ship fuel Wednesday at a San Diego Bay pier.
The Foster has a gas-turbine engine similar to those in destroyers and cruisers around the U.S. fleet. If the 50-50 blend of algae fuel and regular marine diesel performs well, the Navy will feel confident that it can be used in actual warships.
“Today’s event marks a major milestone in our progress toward a great green fleet,” said Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, speaking at the Point Loma Naval Base pier.
Previously, the Navy had tested algae-based fuel in smaller vessels — yard patrol craft at the U.S. Naval Academy and river-going boats.
The Department of the Navy is experimenting with algae and mustard seed oil as a way to wean itself from petroleum, which is increasingly expensive and is supplied by nations sometimes hostile to the United States.
The 20,000 gallons of “green crude” used Wednesday were supplied by Solazyme, a San Francisco-based biofuel company that grows the algae indoors at an East Coast facility, Navy officials said. Algae contains natural oils that can be harvested, then refined.
If the test is successful — as trials of mustard seed oil in an F/A-18 jet and a helicopter drone have been — the next hurdle for the Navy will be price.
The biofuels industry has not yet produced barrels of fuel that can compete with the cost of petroleum, even at today’s more than $100-a-barrel crude oil prices.
“It’s got to match the market cost,” said Cmdr. James Goudreau, director of the Navy Energy Coordination Office.
“The biggest challenge I think right now is getting to the point that the industry is able to produce in large enough volume to hit a commoditized price.”
The Navy and the U.S. Energy and Agriculture departments are investing $170 million each to fund biofuels development. Private industry is supposed to match that with $500 million of its own money.
The Navy hopes that will spur enough production to push prices down in the next few years, said Tom Hicks, the Navy’s deputy assistant secretary for energy.
The airline industry is also eyeing biofuels. This summer, Lufthansa made its first passenger flight with vegetable oils and animal fat in the tanks.
San Diego is a center for research and development of algae for military and commercial use.
The San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology is a consortium of researchers from The Scripps Research Institute, UC San Diego and Scripps Institution of Oceanography that was formed to develop algae-based technologies.
Also, San Diego-based Sapphire Energy and Synthetic Genomics, the La Jolla company founded by human genome guru J. Craig Venter, are working on affordable versions of algae fuels.
For the past two years, the Navy has had plans to demonstrate a “green” carrier strike group in 2012. Pfannenstiel and Hicks said that test will come this summer, but they wouldn’t say where.
It will include an aircraft carrier — already running on an alternative fuel, nuclear — in addition to destroyers and cruisers, with fighter jets and helicopters accompanying.
In 2016, the Navy wants to deploy that carrier group.
Pfannenstiel said the trip might be a circumnavigation of the earth, as a tip of the hat to the 1907 “great white fleet” that touted early American naval power to the world.