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Top Gunk: Algae Powered Planes a Possibility

Algae — humble, oily and green — might have a secret identity.

With financial backing from the Pentagon, General Atomics of La Jolla is looking deeper into whether the mild-mannered organism has what it takes to become jet fuel. It is doing so under a three-year contract with the Defense Department’s research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aka Darpa.

The U.S. Department of Defense is pouring millions of dollars into finding alternatives to petroleum-based fuels, and the U.S. Navy wants to lead the pack. The Navy argues that it is too dependent on petroleum.

“It really comes down to a question of energy security for us,” said Tom Hicks, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, in an interview last week. Hicks noted much petroleum comes from nations that are experiencing political unrest or “don’t care for the United States.”

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In late July, the Pentagon closed what was billed as one of the largest-ever requests for proposals for biofuels. Specifically, the Navy asked for 100,000 gallons of aviation fuel and 350,000 gallons of marine diesel fuel for its “Sail the Great Green Fleet” initiative.

The Navy hopes to send a carrier strike group — the ships that accompany an aircraft carrier — to sea on alternative fuel by 2016. Next year it hopes to demonstrate the capability in a small exercise lasting over a few days. Hicks declined to say where the green fleet would be stationed.

The Navy has also set a 2020 goal to get half of its energy, on its land bases and on its ships, from non-fossil fuel sources.

Military officials said that by increasing demand for alternative fuels, they may drive prices for those fuels down.

A Green Hornet

Navy officials report that an F/A-18 Hornet aircraft has flown at 1.7 times the speed of sound on a fuel that is 50 percent plant-based and 50 percent traditional jet fuel. UOP LLC of suburban Chicago, a unit of New Jersey-based Honeywell International Inc., provided the fuel for its first flight on April 22, 2010 —Earth Day — at Patuxent River, Md. The biofuel component of the blend came from camelina plants. Honeywell said it developed its technology to convert camelina to jet fuel in 2007 under a Darpa contract.

Since then the Navy has tested biofuels in a Seahawk helicopter and high-speed small craft. Hicks said the service is busy certifying the fuel in all of its platforms. The Navy wants what it calls a “drop-in” fuel, which would require no alterations to engines or infrastructure.

The enterprise has its doubters. They include James Bartis and Lawrence Van Bibber of the Rand Corp. Their study, which Rand issued in January, suggests there was “no direct military benefit” to using alternative fuels. Hicks dispute the report. He also noted two biofuels companies have had initial public offerings in the months since the Rand report appeared.

A Texas Tie, an Electric Ship

It seems the alternative fuels push is sparking business all over the country, and producing multistate alliances. General Atomics has been working on algae production technology with the Texas A&M University system since 2007.

The Darpa-funded project that has GA researching the conversion of algae to biodiesel was announced in 2009. It was envisioned as a three-year program worth as much as $43 million.

GA has also been working on projects that would propel ships using electric motors. They include a $32.7 million deal to develop a hybrid electric drive system for Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. The deal, announced in 2009 and partially funded by that year’s stimulus bill, was to develop a proof of concept. GA’s partner in the project is DRS Technologies Inc. of New Jersey, a subsidiary of Italy-based Finmeccanica SpA. At the time, GA said the technology would be able to save as much as 12,000 barrels of fuel oil per year.

The electrically driven Navy ship, incidentally, has already arrived at San Diego’s naval station. Instead of boilers and steam turbines, the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island is equipped with gas turbines and a hybrid electric drive system. The ship has earned the nickname “Prius of the Seas,” in a nod to the Toyota Motor Corp. car.

Not to be outdone, the U.S. Air Force has been investigating alternative fuels. It has been testing biofuel blends in its own supersonic aircraft. And it has set a 2016 goal to get half of its domestic fuel in the form of alternative fuel blends — and to get it at a competitive cost.

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