One More Step Toward an Alternatively Fueled Military

So last week the Navy sailed an old Spruance class destroyer, the USS Paul H. Foster up the California coast running on 20,000-gallons of algae-based biofuel mix in the latest and largest test, to-date, of the Pentagon’s efforts to run its vehicles on alternative fuels.

(on a side note, the Foster is the last remaining Spruance class ship in service, the Navy uses her to test out new weapons and self defense technology as its Self Defense Test Ship.)

As expected, no one noticed any difference between running the ship on biofuel mixed with petroleum versus running on pure petroleum. The Foster’s 17-hour cruise served as a test run for the Navy’s plan to send a carrier battle group on a biofuel-powered cruise sometime next year. Like previous tests involving alternative fuel mixes, that cruise should be a non-event with no one able to tell the difference between running the ships on aglae-based fuel and standard fuel.

The real question surrounding the military’s use of alternative fuels is whether or not it can use its status as the government’s largest energy buyer to drive down the costs of biofuels so that they can compete with traditional petroleum.

As you know, alternative fuels make sense from a national security perspective. The Pentagon is interested in moving its bases off the vulnerable and aging national energy grid by powering them with wind and solar energy plants. Meanwhile, powering ships, planes and ground vehicles with biofuels made in the United States means the military will be less vulnerable to disruptions in foreign oil supplies.

Still, shifting from petroleum to biofuel will require the military to put down significant up-front investment in expensive alternative fuels to drive prices down at a time when the budget-makers are looking to cut billions from defense coffers. We’ll see what happens.

  • Musson1

    There is up to 200 X the amount of CO2 in sea water than in the atmosphere. Using power from a nuclear reactor - CO2 can be extracted and combined with H2 using the Fischer Tropsch process. The result could easily be tuned into Jet Fuel.

    Carriers could make their own jet fuel at sea.

    • blight

      Quantatively, that still isn’t a lot of CO2 in the water. Realistically you won’t be making large quantities at all.

    • FormerDirtDart

      While this may be theoretically possible, it’s likely far from a useful application. I doubt you would be able to squeeze in ship-board infrastructure to produce even a marginal amount of the fuel used on a daily basis.

      • Musson1

        Historically, what you say is true. But, with the advent of the new Fischer-Tropsch Catalysts - compact systems are currently being demonstrated by the air force at Wright Patterson .

    • Good Idea, Musson1!

      If you start making sense like that … they’ll put you in a padded room. At the very least, they’ll ignore you. They aren’t looking for real solutions, like the one you offer. They’re only interested in running up the national debt.

      • blight

        Given ppm CO2 in seawater,calculate mols carbon per gallon, then convert to mols of theoretical carbon.

        Probably requires massive scoops that will induce drag to suck up seawater. More carbon from plankton, etc than CO2, but not enough for even a turboprop. You are also generating hydrogen gas to make hydrocarbons: Which is NOT Fischer tropsch.

        You’d have better luck growing bamboo and pressure/heat crushing it for petrol along with human waste.

        • blight

          Correction, it is FT but H2 remains a serious shipboard hazard.Are you carrying H2? Are you making it by hydrolysis?

          Pressure crushing organic material might work better, and you can use solid wastes as your inputs. More carbon than a few ppm in seawater, and for this to work the limiting reactant is a carbon source…unless your CVN is going to have a giant apparatus to filter seawater like a gilled fish.Think you can do (classified) knots with giant gills?

    • Jeff M

      Might be easier to use a different reaction that combines elemental carbon (coal) with H2. The smaller reactor core would be the hard part, you can make synthetic fuels pretty easy. This isn’t Mars.

      I think would be interesting is cryogenic fueled jet designs… Liquid H2. It’d require three times as big of a fuel tank for the same jet, but the fuel would weigh about a third as much. I don’t see any major complications either, just an insulated tank. It should also have some benefits for the efficiency of the combustor as well, useful for hypersonic scramjet engines also.

    • blight

      Some numbers suggest 300 ppm. One million gallons of seawater would produce 300 of CO2 in abstract terms. Then depending on the composition of jet fuel, you recover even less fuel.

      Bear in mind you’ve accepted the drag, space and weight penalty of a apparatus designed to ingest massive quantities of seawater. pushing that kind of water around probably increases your wake and makes you very susceptible to passive sonar.

      Refitting CVNs to carry this stuff is infeasible. it may even be too late to redesign the Fords.

      I’ll recheck the numbers after thanksgiving.

      • Mastro

        Probably make more sense to have an oiler have the system- and then refuel the carrier at sea.

        I imagine a carrier could plant an acre of corn and feed its men that way- but better to just bring in food.

    • Musson

      Syntroleum and Oxford Catalysts are at the fore front of this technology. Right now - this is a DARPA type project. The fuel works. But, scaling up from Lab to production will take time and money.

    • blight

      The Nims apparently have a 400,000 gallon desal capacity per day. Assuming each gallon can be quantified as a part (rather than doing part with mol or atom quantities), that’s 120 gallons of CO2 from the desal seawater.

      Since you’re making Cn hydrocarbons, your total recovery is less than 120 gallons of fuel. In the long run, the problem is one of scale. What might work better is a domestic “eliminate waste” effort that would make WW2 Americans proud. Instead of just rationing aluminum foil and steel for the war effort, biomass not used to grow victory gardens would be sent to plants to be gasified in economy of scale and turned into fuel, then ship the fuel to the troops as needed. Alternatively, building massive coastal facilities on Pacific islands like Midway, Wake, French Frigate Shoals etc to take in seawater for their CO2 for “forward fueling” might work.

  • John Moore

    They talk about national security but they would rather buy oil from the middle east over CA to the north go figure that one?

    • SJE

      ? Most US oil already comes from Canada. Other major sources for the USA are in Latin America and Africa. The US could survive without ME oil. The key thing about ME oil is not the supply to the USA, but (i) that OTHER nations rely more heavily on it (ii) supply is fungible (iii) the ME is the only supplier that can readily control the world price.

      • Praetorian

        Mean while we found 3.5 to 6 million barrels of oil under North D. ( est. ).

        • ew-3

          Some indicate it’s as much as 24 BILLION barrels in the Bakken field of North Dakota and Montana.

          Let the drilling begin.

        • ew-3

          Actually, I think the expected yield is closer to 10 to 20 BILLION barrels.

        • ew-3

          It’s closer to 10 to 20 BILLION barrels.

        • blight

          KSA cranks out 10m barrels per day. 6m is a blip in our domestic consumption.

          • ew-3

            Actually it’s expected that the fields of ND and MT will produce 10 to 20 BILLION barrels.

            Add to that ANWR and the Caribbean and the cost of CA and all the other places ruled off limits due to questionable eco standards we’d become a member of OPEC.

  • Glockster20

    But what is the real cost of using the BIO FUEL? i was reading where some of the airlines are using it and the cost was 4Xs the cost of regualr fuel. I do understand that the more it is used there is a possibilty of the price going down. But ther real question what is the cost up front?

    • blight

      “Cost” of other fuel is lower because nobody paid the cost of crushing the organic material underground until it liquified into oil. The military is planning ahead for the day oil costs asymptotically jump due to depletion, such that national security won’t be impaired by natural resource realities.

      • SJE

        I think its more important that they are planning ahead for a supply disruption. The Taliban and Pakistan have used US fuel supplies into Afghanistan as a choke point. Fuel supplies were a big strategic advantage the Allies had in WWII. Even in WWI, the lack of certain lubricants limited the performance of German fighter planes.

        What USMIL is not doing so well is finding ways to reduce fuel consumption, which is (in theory) better and easier. If anything, the USMIL is trending towards more fuel: robot carriers, jets instead of props, Abrams tanks etc. Troops use liquid fuel to heat, instead of sticks. All of these technical advances allow USMIL to be faster, more powerful, and more capable. However, it is a single point of vulnerability. A serious loss of fuel supply and the USMIL loses a lot of its advantages over other forces.

        • Pat

          Yes, but attacking oil refineries wasn’t all that successful. Look at the Ploesti, Romania raids. It was really attacks on the distribution/transportation systems plus the capture of eastern oil fields by the Russians late in the war that did it.

          • SJE

            I completely agree: supply lines are key. The Japanese were particularly weak re supplies during WWII, and the US Afghanistan mission is most vulnerable regarding fuel. All of this says we need to consider ways to lower fuel usage.

            For example, the US uses heavier trucks, tanks, and planes than many allies. This saves lives in the battle field, but that must be subtracted from the lives that are lost getting the fuel to the battle. IIRC, for a while we lost more people doing supplies than actual fighting.

    • TMB

      Biofuel is expensive (and I believe federally subsidized) in part due to the small amount we use. There is also the matter of what you’re using for the “bio” portion. Biofuel made from corn for instance requires enormous amounts of energy to grow the corn and convert it into fuel, which also depends on what the local power plant is running off of. The issue is similar to the electric car debate.

      When we first started doing biofuels, farmers stopped selling the corn for food and the price of some corn-based foodstuffs skyrocketed. In Brazil, they use sugar-based biofuel, but are clearcutting rainforest in order to grow the quantities needed.

  • William C.

    It’s cool seeing one of the old Spruance class destroyers still at sea. The Arleigh Burke class has superior capabilites but the Spruances did have two 5 inch guns as opposed to one.

    • blight

      Burkes have VLS.

      • William C.

        I don’t mean to claim the Spruances were better ship. The Brukes are vastly superior in any number of categories. I just wish they kept a second 5 inch gun.

    • Nicky

      I think we should start selling off our old Spruance class destroyers to countries like Taiwan and the Philippines. Heck we need the cash and countries need the hardware. So why not see about selling what ever is left from the Spruance class destroyers

      • FormerDirtDart

        Umm…sell what? Except for the USS Paul H. Foster, all the Spruance class have been disposed of. The Arthur W. Radford is a reef, and the rest have been scrapped, or blown up as targets. The “Kidd’s” are already serving in the Republic of China Navy.

        • Mastro

          They sure SINKEX’d them faster than the government does- well- anything.

          I imagine they preferred to buy shiny new Burkes than to upgrade a few Spruances-

          Too late now- jeez- you think the Philippines could have used a couple instead of those old Coast Guard cutters.

      • blight

        They need SSKs, torpedoes, mines, TLAMs (ex-GLCM especially), maybe flight1 Burkes and our older Ticos. Upkeep can be reallocated to newer Burkes.

  • PolicyWonk

    Where corn has been used to produce ethanol that is mixed with gasoline, corn is a lousy and inefficient source. Rather, industrial hemp as an alternative: yields 10X the fuel corn does; can grow anywhere; doesn’t mess up the soil; is disease/inset resistant; and creates many more useful byproducts (biodegradable plastics, superior paper, and more durable cloth than cotton). And the only thing anyone who smokes industrial help is a splitting headache.

    • Riceball

      Don’t know about hemp but I’ve read that algae is a great source of bio-fuel, you get a very good return on your investment with algae. The other great thing about algae is that it can be grown nearly anywhere, including on the tops of buildings thus not using up valuable to grow fuel instead of food.

  • DockScience

    Can’t we just paint dancing unicorns on the sides of the ships to show our green piety?

  • Sgt.TAB

    hey, how about self-contained hydrogen generators that release zero emissons, oh sorry if the government developed that it would cut jobs in the energy field the atmospher will just have to suffer.

    • blight

      The best source of hydrogen would be through electrolysis of water or a dehydrogenation reaction using hydrocarbon as a feedstock. Ah yes, those scarce hydrocarbons.

      That said, there’s also the power density of hydrogen, and the explosive possibilities of a fuel cell reaction in a combat situation. Standard fuel cell reaction is H2+O2 -> H2O. Remember that Apollo 13 took severe damage from an electrical spark in the O2 tanks. An A-10 fueled on a hydrogen/oxygen fuel cell might not be so survivable…

  • monkeylove

    The U.S. military released two reports containing warnings of a drop in global oil production soon, leading to major disruptions in various countries due to problems with other sources of energy (lower EROEIs, the need for petrochemicals, etc.). With that, one may assume that such technologies will be used to supplement whatever is needed to keep the military running, as part of policies that will be implemented at the expense of citizens.