Sunday, December 11, 2011

US Navy’s Green Fuel Reality and Fantasy

On 17 November 2011, in preparation for the Navy's largest demonstration of shipboard alternative fuel use, NAVSUP Fleet Logistics Center San Diego tested 20,000 gallons of a 50-50 blend of algal oil (produced by Solazyme) and petroleum F-76 at SDTS, a decommissioned Spruance-class destroyer formerly known as Paul F. Foster (EDD 964).

Later on, the US Navy successfully concluded its final alternative fuel demonstration for 2011 with the December 7-9, 2011 operational tests of the 50/50 algae-derived, hydro-processed algal oil and petroleum F-76 blend in a landing craft air cushion (LCAC) amphibious transport vehicle. LCAC 91 received approximately 5,000 gallons of the 50/50 algal blend. The tests also marked the fastest speed achieved to date by a US Navy surface ship using alternative fuel blends, as LCAC 91 reached 50 knots. The fastest speed demonstrated on the 50/50 algal blend in previous tests was 44.5 knots by the Riverine Command Boat (experimental) (RCB-X).

Source: US Navy

Let me remind you that as part of his energy security goals, outlined in March 2011 in the "Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future," President Obama directed the Departments of Agriculture, Energy and Navy to work together to advance a domestic industry capable of producing drop-in biofuel substitutes for diesel and jet fuel. Responding to that challenge, in August 2011, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Energy and Navy announced a partnership to invest up to $510 million during the next three years (in partnership with the private sector) to produce advanced drop-in biofuel to power military and commercial transportation.

While that investment awaits Congressional action, by using the existing authority Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on 5 December 2011 the Defense Logistics Agency signed a contract to purchase 450,000 gallons of advanced drop-in biofuel. The contract is the largest government purchase of biofuel in history, and provides $12 million to suppliers Dynamic Fuels LLC (a joint venture of Tyson Foods, Inc. and Syntroleum Corporation) and Solazyme. Solazyme’s biofuel is algae-based, while Dynamic’s is made from used cooking oil and non-food-grade animal fats.  (this makes $26.6 per gallon).

The fuels will be mixed (50-50 blend) with petroleum-based diesel and aviation fuel to power a Navy carrier group (ships and aircraft) taking part in the Rim of the Pacific exercise, the world’s largest international maritime exercise, scheduled to take place off Hawaii in the summer of 2012 (Navy to Demonstrate Biofuel Use During Exercise). This will be Navy's demonstration of a Green Strike Group.

Andy Rojeski, a management committee member for Dynamic Fuels is reported as saying that  "We believe the federal government's commitment to procure more energy from renewable sources will help make our high performance, environmentally friendly fuel more cost competitive…."  Excuse me! DLA Energy’s FY 2012 Standard Prices (Effective 1 Oct 2011) shows standard price for conventional F76 $3.94 and JP-8 $3.95 per gallon. Is $26.6 cost competitive? We know that some commercial airlines (KLM, Finnair etc) use renewable jet fuel produced by Dynamic Fuels in some of their scheduled flight. I really wonder how much they pay for the fuel.

The Navy’s annual fuel consumption is more than 1.26 billion gallons. So, the purchase of 0.00045 billion gallon is not a significant amount to justify the claim of the Secretary Mabus: “We think that this represents a major step in energy independence for the United States in making the United States Navy a better war-fighting operation.”

I hear more and more claims from the US officials that biofuel use lessens America’s dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels and increases the nation’s ability to compete in the global energy market.

An opinion letter appeared on the Oil and Gas Journal starts with the following sentence: The administration's latest energy boondoggle is a $510 million cellulose biofuel program to produce fuel for the Department of Defense in the name of national security.” (I didn’t know what boondoggle means. Apparently the term is used for projects that waste time and money.)

In 1819, Henri Braconnot, a French chemist, first discovered how to unlock the sugars from cellulose by treating biomass with sulfuric acid, a process used today. Nearly 200 years later we still try to make it happen at affordable price by throwing millions of dollar subsidies for premature production plants. Let me be clear, I am not against the biofuels industry but in my opinion the DOD’s biased, unjustified and inappropriate approach to biofuels is incorrect.  

Time has come to make a reality check for some of the claims advanced by the green fuels industry and the US military officials. For such a reality check let us have a look what kind of properties these biofuels should have.

·         First, they must meet current JP-8 and F-76 energy density standards
·         Second, they must be drop-in fuel (that no modifications to the engines are required to burn the fuel.)
·         Third, they must meet military demand in terms transportability and stability
·         Fourth, they must be cost competitive
·         Fifth, they must be produced in large quantities preferably in the US.

Number two and partly five is so far satisfied. In my opinion, the most important item in the above given list is Number one. That is to say, any good alternative fuel must minimize both mass and volume for a given energy content. Have you seen a comparison of volumetric and gravimetric energy contents of the alternative fuels (that are tested and purchased by the US military) with the conventional JP-8 and F-76? I haven’t seen yet. Unless I see that their energy density standards are close or better than the conventional petroleum I will remain a skeptical. (I will elaborate this issue in a later post).

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