August 21, 2009

News Roundup: New Energy in the Armed Services

In recent weeks a number of developments have been taking place within the armed services – in particular the Marine Corps and the Navy – to increase energy efficiency and develop alternative fuel technology.

The inaugural United States Marine Corps Energy Summit took place last week where top brass spoke to the necessity of reducing energy consumption. The operational energy demands of the USMC are huge: in one day in Afghanistan, U.S. Marines now burn through more than 800,000 gallons of fuel. In order to reduce threats to convoys that supply Marines’ logistics needs, such as fuel, Commandant of the Marine Corps General James T. Conway suggests greater battlefield energy efficiency.  His call is no empty rally cry; this week Marines in Afghanistan began the first ever energy audit in a war zone.

Efforts are taking place off the battlefield, too. General Conway has conveyed his interest in creating “net-zero” installations, which would cover their own energy demands with on-site production technologies. Examples are already in place in Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow. Together, the energy summit and the audit represent important steps towards the greening of the U.S. Marine Corps.

The U.S. Navy has also been taking some significant steps recently, looking at a variety of alternative fuels for their systems and beginning to test how well they function. As New Scientist reports, Navy scientists are looking into the potential to make jet fuel from seawater – something the Navy has an abundance of. The process involves extracting the carbon dioxide from seawater, and combining it with hydrogen to make a kerosene-based hydrocarbon fuel.

Meanwhile the Navy recently announced that it would begin test flights for the F/A-18 Super Hornet using biofuels. Significantly, the Navy has indicated that the biofuels in question would not be either ethanol or esters-rich biodiesel, two of the more well-known biofuels. While the exact makeup of the biofuel is unknown at this point, jatropha-, camelina-, and algae-based fuels are being considered.

While algae may seem a humorous choice for the Navy, the use of algae in particular seems to be gaining traction in recent months. In July, Exxon announced that it was investing some $600 million in the development of algae-based biofuels, despite Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson’s known skepticism on the subject. And just yesterday the New York Times’ Green Inc. Blog reported that an outfit in California has developed a type of algae that absorbs over twice as much carbon dioxide as normal algae, thus doubling the production of biofuel. If these trends continue, it may turn out – rather ironically – that some solution to the Navy’s operational fuel challenges has been underneath their fleet the entire time.