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October 1, 2012

Biofuels and the Navy

IPI expert referenced: Merrill Matthews | In The News | Media Hit
  Braintree Forum

By Neil Russo


Pop: Here we go again, Mom; the push for green energy is still in full bloom. A few months ago, we heard about the Navy using biofuel to power some ships of the fleet, and how satisfied the secretary of the Navy was even though the biofuel cost about $27 a gallon!

According to Merrill Mathews Jr. from the Institute for Policy Innovation in Texas (, our government's Energy Information Administration stated oil, natural gas and coal were responsible for 83 percent of U.S. energy consumption in 2010. Nuclear was 9 percent, biofuels 1 percent and other renewables 7 percent.

What really hits a nerve for me is the statement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services that wind turbines kill about half a million birds a year! That figure includes raptors like eagles!

Well there is an article in the Sept. 24 edition of Forbes magazine, "Military Dividend" by Todd Woody, in which he discusses the Navy's embarkation on a financially dubious biofuel program, and there are private startups anxious to cash in. In a stretch of the New Mexico desert, 30 acres are covered with huge oblong pools that contain growing algae at the Sapphire Energy Green Crude Farm. It is being funded with $85 million from Bill Gates and other investors - good to see the private sector involved - plus $104 million in government cash and loan guarantees - not so good! This is the world's only commercial outdoor algae bio refinery. It went online this summer, and will eventually expand to 300 acres. The plan is to produce 1.5 million gallons of green crude oil a year from pond scum fed a diet of carbon dioxide and sunlight.

Mom: The U.S. Navy's green energy warrior, Vice Adm. Philip Cullom, descended on the demonstration plant last year even before Sapphire broke ground to grill executives on the technology and its potential to fuel ships of the fleet and jet fighters. Sapphire executive Tim Zenk stated that the military has given Sapphire a great challenge to meet.

But is this a project that will come to fruition? The federal government does not have a record of much success in its promotion and support for alternative energy projects: Solyndra, FutureGen, A123's electric batteries, synfuels - all born of best intentions and bloated budgets!

At the present, Sapphire has not earned a penny from the Pentagon; funding is coming from the energy and agriculture departments. They have, however, been sending their biofuel for evaluation to the Defense Department from the very beginning. Zenk has stated that no other entity has the deep pockets to make the technologies real.

Our military is the nation's largest consumer of oil, and the Navy wants to wean itself from petroleum. This, at a time when the United States purportedly has more oil potential than Saudi Arabia and natural gas discoveries have gone through the rooffiRecently, I heard a statement by the gentleman who used to be CEO of Shell Oil Company that we can make gasoline from natural gas!

The Navy has intentions of getting half of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. It has been buying small amounts of expensive biofuels at four times the cost of conventional fuels! Some Republican Congressman have become outraged by the practice and have intentions to bar the military from purchasing any fuel that costs more than petroleum!

Pop: Only time will tell if the military's biofuel endeavor is a multibillion dollar folly, or the inception of another global industry. One thing is for certain - the Pentagon's interest and support is spurring the entrepreneurial zeal of startups like Sapphire. In our disintegrating economy, entrepreneurial zeal is a good thing. Government largess is not good since we owe creditors $16 trillion!

Off the coast of Hawaii last July, the Navy set out its first strike force powered by a blend of standard aviation fuel and a mixture of algae and used cooking oil! The F/A-18 fighter jets and the E-2C Hawkeyes patrolling the airspace and the Seahawk helicopters were powered by 450,000 gallons of biofuel produced by Solazyme and Dynamic Fuels.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus is determined to build an energy-independent flotilla by 2016. Cullom, deputy chief of naval operations for fleet readiness and logistics, has stated that movement is forward and there will be no letup!

Solazyme grows heterotrophic (derive nourishment from organic substances) algae that consume sugar and excrete crude oil. They grow the algae in bioreactors. Once Solazyme supplied small amounts of biofuel for evaluation, the Department of Defense awarded it a contract in 2010. The following year, a Boeing 737 flew the first commercial flight on Solazyme's Solajet fuel.

Mom: One impressive result of the increased military work has been the discovery of new strains of algae, and while testing strains, scientists found algae that produces what tastes very much like olive oil. It is considered healthier and could replace eggs and butter in a large variety of foods. Solazyme has struck deals with Unilever and Roquette, the French food conglomerate. Dow Chemical said it would tap a strain of algae for use in electrical transformer insulating fluids.

Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, says that at least 12 of his 45-member companies are expected to put bids in to tap into the $210 million in Defense Department funding to produce biofuels. The major problem for the biofuel companies is whether they can provide the 8 million barrels that the Navy needs annually.

Sierra Energy, a startup based in Davis, Calif., is developing technology to turn a blast furnace into a machine that can vaporize garbage and produce diesel fuel or electricity. A lowtech-looking metal cylinder is connected to a conveyor belt that feeds it discarded bottles, plastic, metal and other detritus. Oxygen and steam injected into the cylinder incinerates the trash, leaving a gas that can be refined into diesel. It has caught the eye of the Marines for use on remote battlefield bases.

The first challenge facing biofuel producers is whether they can they make biofuel low enough in price to compete with petroleum. The second is whether they will they be able to supply the amount needed by the military, especially in time of war. Will biofuel be better put to use in other aspects? The developing entrepreneurship and strides being taken in new technology might well justify the money expended by the government. Only time will tell.


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