Truman National Security Project

U.S. Navy Pushes to Use Advanced Biofuels

Flickr_-_Official_U.S._Navy_Imagery_-_The_Great_Green_Fleet_demonstrates_biofuels_during_RIMPAC_2012.

The United States Navy is the greatest naval fighting force in the history of the world and has always been at the cutting edge of improving technology and adapting for the future. Petroleum is restricting naval capabilities because of price fluctuation and the high demand of fuel from ships and aircraft the Navy uses. During a naval energy forum, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus explained, “Every time the cost of a barrel of oil goes up a dollar, it costs the United States Navy $31 million in extra fuel costs… As a nation and as a Navy and Marine Corps, we simply rely too much on a finite and depleting stock of fossil fuels that will most likely continue to rise in cost over the next decades… This creates an obvious vulnerability to our energy security and to our national security and to our future on this planet.” The Navy sees an opportunity through advanced biofuels to move toward producing clean energy in order to reduce its dependence on oil, increase mission capabilities, and continue to adapt to the changing world climate.

Fossil fuels are constraining for naval forces through price instability and high demand. In 2006, the Defense Science Board put together a Task Force to examine Department of Defense (DOD) energy strategy. One of the Task Force’s conclusions was an “unnecessarily high and growing battlespace fuel demand… compromising mission capability and success; requires an excessive support force structure at the expense of operational forces; creates more risk for support operations than necessary; and increases life-cycle operations and support costs.” For example, when the Navy conducts a mission close to shore, fuel is being used for operations. “Because our ships consume energy at the rate they do, we had to steam over the horizon to refuel, and then come back,” Capt. James Goudreau, director of the Navy Energy Coordination Office, “The ability to operate more efficiently means we could stay on station an extra day or three when it absolutely counts the most.” By making the switch to more fuel-efficient engines, such as a hybrid-electric engine, a ship would have to make fewer trips away from shore to refuel. Fewer refueling trips mean missions can be conducted more quickly. Thus the crew can focus on the mission and not be distracted by constant refueling, saving time and increasing efficiency.

The Navy has always sought efficiency by improving technology in order to complete missions effectively. Energy innovation has been a priority for the U.S. Navy since its inception in 1775. The Navy has increased overall efficiency in the past by changing from sails to coal engines during the early 19th century, giving ships the ability to sail against the wind or on non-windy days — an advantage over ships that were still using sails. Then, in the early 20th century, the Navy converted from coal to oil-powered engines. Petroleum engines are more powerful than coal-powered engines and allowed a ship to travel faster and farther in a shorter period of time — an advantage over other navies and increased efficiency. By the 1950s, nuclear-powered engines were added to the naval fleet. Nuclear power allows aircraft carriers and submarines to be out at sea for longer periods of time, therefore further increasing effectiveness and efficiency for missions. These technological advances kept the Navy ahead of other naval fleets.

Today, the Navy sees another opportunity to be more efficient and effective through the use of advanced biofuels. Unveiled in 2012, the “Great Green Fleet” is a carrier strike group comprised of an aircraft carrier, two guided-missile destroyers, a guided-missile cruiser, and an oiler. The Fleet uses a fuel blend made up of 50 percent petroleum and a 50 percent mix of waste food oil and algae biofuel. Algae grows naturally anywhere in the world and can be grown in almost limitless amounts. Waste food oil can also be found anywhere and is already being used in diesel engines. Currently, the Navy is developing different types of feedstocks to function as alternative fuel in conjunction with algae and waste food oil. The 50/50 blend functions just as well as exclusively using petroleum oil and would reduce the Navy’s dependence on what we know to be a limited resource. The creation and success of the Fleet’s ability to operate effectively with 50/50 biofuels proves that continued innovation can produce positive results.

The DOD recognizes that the threat of volatile energy costs can slow down the U.S. Naval fleet. The U.S. Navy can once again rise to the challenge of innovation needed for it to be a continuously effective fighting force and believes it can meet its 21st century objectives through advanced biofuels.

Sharon Haber is a member of Operation Free.