The U.S. Navy launched its largest alternative fuel test to date on Wednesday, pumping 20,000 gallons of algae-based fuel into a destroyer ship that will embark on a 20-hour trip along the California coast.
The success of the Paul H. Foster ship's overnight trip Wednesday from San Diego to Port Hueneme is vital to the Navy's plan to unveil next year a small carrier strike group of small ships, destroyers, cruisers, aircraft, submarines and a carrier run on alternative fuels, including nuclear power. By 2016, the Navy wants to deploy what it calls a "Great Green Fleet" of nuclear vessels, hybrid electric ships and other ships and aircraft powered by biofuels.
The Navy is investing more than $500 million in the budding biofuel industry with the hope that it will be able to supply enough alternative fuel so the maritime branch can cut its dependence on fossil fuel by 50 percent over the next decade, said Cmdr. James Goudreau, director of the Navy Energy Coordination Office.
The biofuel that went into the destroyer was a 50-50 blend of petroleum and a hydro-processed algal oil produced by San Francisco-based Solazyme, which has been changing the genetic makeup of algae to construct a new generation of fuels.
The Navy is working with dozens of companies that have been submitting a slew of alternative fuel samples made from everything from chicken parts and mustard seeds to microorganisms and municipal solid waste.
"We want to buy fuel made from something other than petroleum that will drop in and work seamlessly for our warfighters," said Goudreau, standing in front of the Foster as it was being fueled Wednesday at a San Diego Naval station under blue skies.
The military uses more than 90 percent of the energy consumed by the federal government. Alternative fuels burn cleaner than fossil fuels, require no drilling, and can be produced in the United States.
Solazyme's "bioengineered" algae get fat on sugar beets, switch grass or other plants. The sun's energy, which is stored in the plants, is transformed by the hungry algae into oil, which can be refined into jet fuel, bio-diesel, cooking oil or even cosmetics.
Use of plants to create algae-based fuels has raised some sustainability concerns among environmentalists, who point to other biofuels like ethanol or bio-diesel that rely on a specific crop such as corn or soy beans, which can take a lot of energy to grow.
All branches of the military are looking at biofuels to cut their ties to foreign oil as part of a national security strategy.
But it's not just Washington that will be waiting to see the outcome of the tests the Navy is conducting.
Commercial aviation is increasingly turning to biofuels to fuel its planes.
The Navy has tested algae-based fuel on small ships and individual aircrafts but the Foster is the first destroyer to run on it. No changes were made to the ship's engine to prepare it for the biofuel. Experts will be monitoring its temperature gauges and propulsion, how it runs at different speeds and how much fuel it expends as it chugs along California's Pacific coast.
The ship made the same trip earlier from Port Hueneme to San Diego on petroleum. Naval officials will use data from that trip to compare how the ship performs when running on biofuel.