Mabus: Biofuel tech has arrived

Despite continued opposition from lawmakers like U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the U.S. Navy will continue its efforts to leverage biofuels technology for its ships and aircraft, service Secretary Ray Mabus says.

Mabus disputes McCain’s contention that the Navy is investing in unproven and costly technology by pursuing a course for biofuels. “The technology is there,” he said Oct. 9 during a luncheon in Arlington, Va., hosted by the National Aeronautic Association.

Research shows that biofuels will be a viable alternative for fossil fuel between 2018 and 2024, according to Mabus. “What we can do is speed that up to make it more competitive,” he says.

The Navy has been picking up plenty of steam with its biofuels efforts. The service has touted the use of biofuels in recent large-scale exercises and it is putting together a so-called “Green Fleet” of ships that use alternative fuels while also developing a “Green Hornet” F-18 with the same concept.

One of the more interesting alternative fuel concepts being pursued by the Navy is the Office of Naval Research’s program to hone the chemistry for producing jet fuel from renewable resources in theater.

The most promising process, the Navy says, would catalytically convert carbon dioxide hydrogen gas directly to liquid hydrocarbon fuel used as JP-5, a process being developed and honed by the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL).

NRL has successfully developed and demonstrated technologies for the recovery of carbon dioxide and the production of hydrogen gas from seawater using an electrochemical acidification cell, and the conversion of those gases to hydrocarbons that can be used to produce jet fuel, the Navy says.

“We don’t have a favorite technology,” Mabus says. The service is simply keen to develop alternatives.

McCain says Mabus should stick to building and operating ships, not developing fuel for them. “You are the Secretary of the Navy, not the Secretary of Energy,” McCain says in a July 27 letter to Mabus.

In that same letter, McCain chastised Mabus for his “decision to buy 450,000 gallons of biofuels at over $26 per gallon for a ‘demonstration’ using operations and maintenance funds provided by Congress” as well as the Navy’s commitment of $170 million to develop a commercial biofuels refinery. Both moves “will result in a real cost to the readiness and safety of our sailors and Marines,” McCain said.

The Navy sees fuel needs as a measure of readiness too. The Navy’s Military Sealift Command, the primary supplier of fuel and oil to the fleet, delivered nearly 600 million gal. of fuel to Navy vessels under way in fiscal 2011, operating 15 fleet replenishment oilers around the globe.

— By Michael Fabey

— This article first appeared in Aerospace Daily & Defense Report.

  • Jay

    Is it just me or is McCain being stupid for big oil? This is a great opportunity for us to be more effective in theater without the need to rely on refueling. One less thing for the enemy to blow up or attack.

    Also we need our military leaders to be concious of the resources or aircraft, vessels, and vehicles are using, ESPECIALLY in this economy.

    • Curt

      So buying 450,000gal of biofuel at $26 a gal makes sense for the Navy. Thats basically shorting the fleet 2 million gallons because they are budgeted for about $4 gal. Notice his criticism was directed at the use of O&M funds to buy the fuel.

      Paying $170 million to help set up a commercial refinery makes sense for the Navy? Not the US government mind you, but the NAVY!. Since we don’t have a budget, this is being redirected from other programs. Sorry, better use on NAVY funds.

      And the alternate fuel hyped here, not part of the Green Navy BIOfuels program at all. Research and funding started way back in the Bush presidency and probably even before that.

      So yes, its just you

    • blight_

      I think the Navy would’ve been better served by paying the DOE rather than bootstrapping it and duplicating a capability already in play elsewhere in government or private sector.

    • Peter

      It is just you. Those of us, who have spent a lifetime in the energy industry and actually know and understand “the technology” that Mabus is talking about, look at this scam in amazement. This technology will not produce biofuels at a cost anywhere near fossil fuels for a long, long time to come – and most likely never.

      The Navy should focus on protecting our county.

    • Citizen

      I am Navy(retired) with 15 years experience as a comptroller. What Senator McCain (Captain, USN (retired) is saying is that the millions of dollars spent on OBAMA- Forced Energy programs are taking funds away from the Operation & Maintenance funds that are ALWAYS insufficient for daily operations. Like his one-term friend, Carter, OBAMA has too many wild-eyed goofy plans that do not add to the effect- ivenese of operations but divert funds from required missions. SECNAV has no guts to tell SECDEF/POTUS they are both wrong!!

    • wzrd1

      He has to take care of his campaign contributors.

  • Chris

    This whole debate when it happened I think was becuase some Senators and Congressmen saw the military’s efforts at reducing energy and fuel consumption as being the all dreaded “going green”. Too bad these efforts are being lumped in with being Liberal as well. They saw the Nay’s efforts as well as being an end run around their wishes as an affront. They need to calm down and let the DOD do what’s best for themselves. McCain isn’t stupid – he knows readiness and logistics are a huge factor in winning wars but he was letting his hate of “green” get the better of him. Once again the military is going to give the U.S. a huge piece of innovation that will help justify all the money we spend on the DOD.

    • SecretSquid

      I thought deterring, fighting, and winning the nation’s wars is what justified all the money we spend on DoD.

    • Citizen

      I wonder if there were not additional cost incurred to permit the use of these fuels in engines and other components that were not originally built to accept these fuels?

  • joshdennis1

    Well technically it isn’t the navy’s job and they are using funds differently than what they were allocated for. With that said if the government wont give the Dept of Energy the money to do it somebody else has to do it. Either way it needs to be done

  • James

    I would like to believe that biofuel use is a good idea but the cost is quite prohibitive. Gas at approx $4/gal vs biofuel at $26+ per gal. There would have to be a significant development in the production process of biofuel (re cost) for this to be a viable option.

  • Stan

    It’s worth the premium if it gets us the hell out of Middle East. Let Chinese deal with them.

  • larrie

    Solyndra, anyone?

  • Vaporhead

    Sorry, but the private sector should experiment with this. We need to stop wasting tax dollars on it until the price of this fuel is comparable with big oil.

  • Lance

    BioFuel for ships good planes not so much… not reliable now. Overall nice idea but for Carriers and Id say even some subs and Cruisers a nuke generator for a engine would be optimal. For smaller destroyers and amphibious ships bio fuel would be nice.

    By the way John McCain is bought by BIG OIL so he opposes ay new fuel research.

  • RCDC

    Probably they can do more research on how to lower the cost from $26/per gallon to $1 per gallon. It’s sea water , shouldn’t it be free or cheap?

    • Curt

      re-read, you are mixing apples and oranges. Bio-Fuel $26/gal. Seawater to JP-5 fuel in R&D.

  • Sean

    The Navy is currently trying desperately to hang on to any semblance of the former glory they used to project. The coming decades shall see great downtrends in terms of power projection for any nation. Producing liquid fuels from other sources just requires more energy. You aren’t producing energy, you are just converting it from one form to another, which takes lots of energy to get there. We live in an era of unarticulated hedonism.

    • f1b0nacc1

      I don’t disagree that you aren’t producing energy when you synthesize fuel, but that really isn’t the point. If you have large amounts of ‘free’ electricity available (i.e. a reactor on a ship, for instance), then the fact that synthesizing fuel is a net energy loss is quite irrelevant, as the lost energy isn’t being used in the first place.

    • Citizen

      I agree with your comments – well, most of them….if OBAMA is re-elected, there will be very little, if any, force projection!! There will always be a need to “stand” our ground in the world. China is already using its new Navy to intimidate the countries in the South China Sea. You are correct in that the high cost of the fuel also includes the high cost of making that fuel!! Cost of new fuel plus cost of current fuel to make new fuel = waste of fuel!!!

  • Beledari

    Question. making fuel from food is all well and good. But what happens when that supply is shortened by a drought or some other disaster?

    Currently 1/5 of our corn is decreed by law to go to biofuels. However the current drought and shortages around the world of corn and other such food stocks has lead to already high food prices, This has driven up the price of food and made it more expensive to raise livestock and horses.

    Of course we have enough fuel under the US to fuel the nation for hundreds and hundreds of years but thats not “green”.

    biofuels are Bullshit unless they can be made cheaper without billions in subsidies.

  • Beledari

    I think what McCain and others oppose is the Bio fuels. Not the idea od making fuel with sea water.

    Another thing about biofuels. They eat up the engines and produce less power.

  • scooter

    For one this is a no brainer. Diversification is not only common sense but key to success. You never put all your eggs in one basket. It seems to me the oil companies have the Republicans in there wallet at the expense of national security. There actually trying to mute diversification of promising energy tech that can have great benefits to the military. Its sad when large corp use there influence In politics have to disrupt promising tech. I question McCain’s thought process its not logical its not even debatable. And to disrespect Mabus by telling him you have no experience in energy and should not make that decision is just stupid. What experience do you have as politician to make that assertion. Your a politician.

  • Nathan

    The seawater alternative supposedly costs $4/gal, look it up. The biofuel they used as a demonstration was $26/gal, which was an overinflated cost owing to the fact there was no infrastructure already present to supply it (hence the reason for creating their own biofuel plant).

    Seawater fuel at $4/gal is a gamechanger. The cost comparison favours this option exponentially when you take into account the transport, shipbuilding and time it takes to currently supply the fleets. The civilian application when the technology transfers from the military sector is something you can’t put a price on.

  • tmb2

    Lance, all of our carriers and subs are already nuclear. The cruisers and destroyers are the ones experimenting with this fuel.

  • Belesari

    WTF how am i listed as Beledari???

  • Jon Deere

    I find this discussion on the merits and costs of bio-fuel amusing. The oil and petro-chemical industry was heavily subsidized by Government in its developmental phase. Taxpayer money built the infrastructure for the oil industry. The same is true of nuclear energy. The taxpayer paid for it before it became profitable.

    The fact is, it’s remarkable ANYONE could seriously oppose the use of seawater for jet fuel if it increases tactical capability and reduces vulnerability of our supply chain. Similarly, diversifying our energy reliance is a good thing, the infrastructure for renewable energy sources should be put in place without hesitation. When it comes to national security, ideology should be put to one side.

    If we simply rename “green energy” as “meat eating, gun totting, real man energy” I’m sure it would get far more support.

  • hefe

    I think the idea makes good strategic sense. If there is another large scale war in the middle east, what will the Navy do? Say “Please give us oil while we bomb you?” The fact is our army and navy always do better when they have options. Go Green!

  • Roland

    Now let’s commercialize it and have everybody to use it and invest on it at an affordable price competitive to the price of oil, on cars, machines, to produce electricity, run engines, etc.

  • Seth

    The fuck is wrong with McCain!? We built our CVN’s with reactors to cut down on fuel cost and make the deploy/refit ratio much more favorable. Even the slimmest possibility of using seawater as a fuel source should be pursued. If a CVN has the capability to top off her bunkers with seawater, rather than JP-5, the mission capable reach is helped in every capacity. In addition, removing a fuel tanker from the bubble means one less hull the Aegis teams have to worry about defending, and these people have the gall to say new fuel types will hurt our level of readiness? WTF.

  • blight_

    I wonder how much the Navy invested in fuel in the early days of the petroleum age, when people still had coal powered ships. It wasn’t that long ago, mind you.

    During WW1 the navy had a mix of coal and oil. The United States had plenty of both, and it chose the new technology versus coal. It’s always tempting to stick to what you have (coal) and not pay for the R&D and endure the development hiccups of a new fuel input.

    If Canada cuts us off our fuel habit, then we really have nothing except our own shale and whatever hydraulic fracturing can recover. If it’s part of a world war, then any fuel supplies we have will be divided between the army, navy and the air force.

    I think Germany in ’44/’45 (post-Romania) is illustrative of what happens to a nation with powerful tanks but no fuel to transport them.

  • combat seabee

    All you “seawater proponents”, get in a fighter and go up there in an unproven fuel, I dare you!!

  • aabh

    $170 million … thats like two three F-18E/F.

  • SecretSquid

    You’re saying the Navy should adopt the DoE’s mission because DoE is underfunded (in YOUR personal opinion) by the elected representatives in Congress? That’s not how things work in the Republic, Josh…at least not in one that respects the Constitution and the idea of the consent of the governed. Navy bureaucrats don’t get to override Congress.

    Are you aware that our Navy will soon be smaller than it was before WWI? The Navy’s got a problem meeting its basic warfighting mission for the foreseeable future. It should not squander its resources chasing unicorns with the Green Energy lobby or bankrolling speculative Green Energy start-ups.

  • Karl

    To crack sea water into CO2 and hydrogen takes massive amounts of electric power. This given, with a nuculer plant, we can produce a bio fuel while at sea. Jet fighters can’t carry reactors; but this idea really makes sense to develop and use this tecnology for military as well as civilian.

  • Robert House

    And after that what happens to the sea water and the sea life when the elements from the sea water is removed and returned?

    Anyone know……….of course not…… would be like DDT, effects not known for YEARS!!