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A think-tank report blasts the U.S. Navy's plan to build a "green fleet", including recent trials of the algae-fueled Riverine Command Boat (RCB-X).  (Source:

The report fails to account for the cost to our nation's security of continuing to rely on unstable foreign oil sources (image: Iraq militants in the street).  (Source: Kaykaz Center)
Is the Navy's costly biofuels bid mission critical or a bridge to far?

The U.S. armed forces have long been interested in cutting their reliance on foreign oil and moving to alternative fuel source, such as homegrown biofuels.  The U.S. Navy revealed in October that it purchased 20,055 gallons of algae-based biofuel at a cost of $424/gallon to power its ships at sea.

Rand Corp., a leading U.S. think-tank, chimed in on the Navy's biofuels program this month, with its National Defense Research Institute arm releasing a report criticizing how fast the Navy hopes to deploy the technology.  

James Bartis, a senior policy researcher at Rand Corp, authored the report.  In it he writes, "The Department of Defense consumes more fuel than any other federal agency, but military fuel demand is only a very small fraction of civilian demand, and civilian demand is what drives competition, innovation, and production."

The federal government consumes 2 percent of the nation's total annual fuel budget.  Of that, the Defense Department consumes 80 percent.

The report targets many of the types of biofuels the Navy believes are the most promising, such as algae.  It states, "[Algae fuel is a] research topic and not an emerging option that the military can use to supply its operations."

The report also attacked the use of plant-based camelina oil.  That oil comes from Camelina sativa, a false flax plant, which produces oil seeds.  Advantages are that it is fast growing and can thrive on marginal land that couldn't be used for food crops.  The Navy successfully test-flew a F/A-18 fighter jet powered by the biofuel last month.  Still, the Rand report claims this effort to be useless and says that the Navy should stop pouring money into it.

Tom Hicks, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy for energy, fired back with a conference call to reporters.  In it he labeled the report as "factually inaccurate" and "a misrepresentation" of the state of the biofuels industry.  He reiterated his belief (and the Navy's belief) that the biofuel industry would reach a mature state between 2012 and 2016.  Presumably with that mature state would come steady supplies and lower costs.

Mr. Hicks points out the armed forces are one of the biggest individual fuel consumers after the commercial airlines, and that airlines didn't have the resources or focus to push biofuels.  He states, "We feel that our approach to attractive energies - specifically biofuels - is the right one."

Mr. Hicks patently rejected that the think-tank paper would have an effect on the Navy's course.

He has the backing of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus who has stated that by 2016, the Navy will have set sail a "green fleet" powered solely on alternative fuels, and that by 2020 fifty percent of the Navy's fuel supply would come from biofuels.  Secretary Mabus emphasized in a blog post that a critical milestone occurred when recent tests showed biofuels performing on par with their fossil fuel equivalents.  He writes, "Just as importantly, neither of these fuels impacts food supply, the carbon footprint in terms of production is low, and the cost of each is rapidly falling."

One thing that the Navy doesn't explicitly say is that the biofuels program may have far less to do with being "green" than removing the security risk of depending on a source of fuel from unstable foreign nations like the Middle East or Venezuela, many of which have expressed hostility to the U.S. or are home to factions hostile to U.S. interests.  The Rand report almost entirely overlooked this factor.  After all, if the Air Force is willing to spend billions per stealth bomber, is $424 per gallon really that high a cost to secure the fuel supply of our nation's fleets?

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USA a ok?
By heerohawwah on 1/26/2011 3:11:36 PM , Rating: 5
" After all, if the Air Force is willing to spend billions per stealth bomber, is $424 per gallon really that high a cost to secure the fuel supply of our nation's fleets? "

Thats some great logical thinking...and people wonder why the USA has gone broke.

Though I think its fair to say that if the US Navy was actually serious about an in-house sustainable fuel source then nuclear power is the only option.

RE: USA a ok?
By gamerk2 on 1/26/11, Rating: -1
RE: USA a ok?
By Acid Rain on 1/26/2011 3:36:26 PM , Rating: 3
Actually Australia has almost a quarter of the known uranium ore reserves.

Unlike conventional fossil fuel based energy, the price of raw fossil fuel is not the major price component in nuclear fission and much smaller amounts of raw material are needed.

All in all this make nuclear energy cost and availably much less volatile.

RE: USA a ok?
By MPE on 1/26/2011 3:36:41 PM , Rating: 2
No it is worst in some parts of Africa where genocide is almost the norm. The infighting in Mid-East is more well known because of our political and economic interest there.

RE: USA a ok?
By Flunk on 1/26/2011 3:38:16 PM , Rating: 2
The USA also has good reserves of Uranium, they just don't mine them because of all the health risks associated with Uranium mining.

RE: USA a ok?
By MrTeal on 1/26/2011 4:09:14 PM , Rating: 5
I'm going to get downrated for the wiki link, but...

RE: USA a ok?
By Solandri on 1/26/2011 5:26:03 PM , Rating: 5
Actually, I think you want the list of known uranium reserves. Many countries with small reserves are producing a lot for their own nuclear power/weapons programs, and many countries with large reserves are not producing much because it's cheaper just to buy it from low-labor-cost countries.

Australia by far has the world's largest reserves. For reference, in 60 years of nuclear energy production, the U.S. has only used about 60,000 tons of uranium. The vast majority of it hasn't been reprocessed. Currently we use about 2000 tons of uranium/yr to provide about 20% of our electricity. So with reprocessing we could conceivably get it down to below 1000 tons/yr to provide 100% of our electricity. Meaning the U.S. has over 200 years of known uranium reserves. And that's not even getting into thorium reserves. I dunno about you, but I have to think that we're gonna figure out fusion reactors within 200 years.

RE: USA a ok?
By zmatt on 1/26/2011 4:03:52 PM , Rating: 3
Nuclear is only an option on the largest ships. You can't have nuclear powered destroyer or a nuclear powered jet. At one point we did have nuclear cruisers but they weren't any better than conventional ones and were very expensive. The air force experimented with nuclear aircraft and even put a reactor on a B-36 in the 1950's but it never powered the aircraft, and even if it did you would increase the cost significantly, and think of the repercussions if one were to crash or be shot down. nuclear power only makes sense in carries which are large enough and have a large enough power requirement and subs whose special operating parameters make them ideal.

RE: USA a ok?
By Amiga500 on 1/27/2011 5:32:05 AM , Rating: 3
You can have a nuclear powered destroyer. Easily.

There is not a substantial difference in size between the Arleigh Burke guided missile destroyers and the California class missile cruisers.

Arleigh Burke:
Tonnage: 8,300 - 10,000 tons
Length: 505-509 ft
Beam: 59 ft
Draft: 30.5 ft

Tonnage: 10,800 tons
Length: 587 ft
Beam: 61 ft
Draft: 31.5 ft

Whether it is financially worthwhile or not is a different story*, but ask any Admiral, and they'll be glad to have freedom of maneuverability regardless of bunker levels.

*Oh, also probably worthwhile bearing in mind the California's were built in the early '70s; reactors have moved on a bit in the intervening 40 years. :-)

RE: USA a ok?
By marvdmartian on 1/27/2011 1:07:49 PM , Rating: 1
Another cost that comes with running nuclear reactors is the qualified manpower that has to be trained to run those reactors. Nothing against the guys running "conventional" power plants, but it takes much less training to run a gas turbine power plant than it does to operate a nuclear powered plant.

Nuclear trained sailors require not only more than a year's worth of high quality, high pressure training (with a corresponding higher failure rate), before they're even allowed out to the fleet. There they start a 2-3 year watch station training program, learning how to operate the specific nuclear plant on that ship. They're in high demand, and the cream of the crop of young men and women that join the navy.

By keeping the nuclear powered vessels limited to carriers and subs, the navy also limits the qualified manpower they require to run those complicated power plants.

RE: USA a ok?
By marvdmartian on 1/27/2011 1:13:43 PM , Rating: 1
Oh, there's also the cost of fuel to run the reactors, which (unlike the nuclear fuel that civilian power plants use) is highly enriched, to 97+ percent. More enrichment equals more cost (versus the still relatively low cost of "dino" fuel").

RE: USA a ok?
By Wastral on 1/27/2011 6:23:20 PM , Rating: 2
As a nuclear proponent, I hear you.

On the other hand there really hasn't been any advance in nuclear reactors in 40 years. Due to all the idiotic moron fears about nuclear materials.

The reason nuclear reactors today aren't any different than 40 years ago is because we need higher temperature materials that DON'T degrade under nuclear neutron bombardment. There has been 0, NO advancement in this area. We can burn NG, and coal on top of said nuclear fission pile to get higher temperatures for the steam turbine, but the fundamental constraint to thermal efficiency and power output of the nuclear reactor is the fission rods themselves. IE theier CLADDING on said fission rods. This is what is holding us back.

Yes, people have proposed new higher temperature liquid nuclear fission, but its drawback is that its efficiency on a mass basis and volume basis is HORRID. Where the hell are you going to put that on a ship??? Even a Carrier, it would prohibitive to place such a reactor aboard. So, we are stuck with the same ol' temperature threshold of the cladding material on nuclear rods of 40 years ago. IE 1970's.

Until a new material comes out that can withstand neutron bombardment to clad said uranium rods, there won't be any significant efficiency improvement on a power density basis unless of course we can figure out how to get said liquid uranium florium mixture to output more power in a less massive infrastructure.

Yes, I think its hopelessly stupid NOT to have far more nuclear reactors in operation in the USA, and for Pete's sake Reuse the old damned material!!! Everyone else does it, except the stupid greenies won't allow us to do it because oh horrors, it produces plutonium, as if we don't have reactors already that do so for the military... Idiots.

RE: USA a ok?
By jonmcc33 on 1/27/2011 10:02:51 PM , Rating: 2
Considering the cost to maintain the current 55 year old B-52 bomber fleet? Which is the lesser of two evils?

"Nowadays you can buy a CPU cheaper than the CPU fan." -- Unnamed AMD executive

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