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Navy Fuels Lab Explores New Fuel Resources

Looking for some new standard oils

There’s a lot of work ahead if the U.S. Navy is to ply global blue waters unfettered by energy concerns in the 21st century. Navy researchers expect global fuel production to peak in five to 15 years and with it, large swings in price and availability. The responsibility to develop alternative sources of energy and to maintain the quality of existing and proposed fuels falls to a group of defense department and service-specific organizations, at the forefront of which is the Navy’s Fuels and Lubricants Laboratory at NAS Patuxent River.

With Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’ late 2009 declaration that the service will strive to source 50 percent of its energy from alternative sources by 2020, the Navy Fuels Team has more on its plate than just ensuring the quality and supply of traditional fuels.

The range of propulsion fuels the Navy is considering is wide. In conjunction with the Naval Research Laboratory, the Pentagon’s Defense Energy Support Center, and a collective called the Tri-Service POL Users Group which ties the organizations together, the Navy Fuels Lab is evaluating synthetic fuel production at sea, enhancement of fuel energy density, exploration and extraction of undersea methane hydrates, fuel cells, batteries, and more.

“The secretary’s goals have made it clear to us in the laboratory world and those in the field that these fuels are coming,” Navy Fuels Team and Navy Fuels Lab leader Nick Kaman said. “Our challenge is to make sure they can be used safely across all of our systems. We’re trying to crack this as fast as we can.”

Traditionally, the Patuxent River-based Navy Fuels Lab has been responsible for all tactical platform fuels testing and certification, from the MIL-SPEC F-76 distillate normally used in shipboard diesels, gas turbines and boilers to the JP-5 aviation fuel used in the Navy’s aircraft fleet. Currently, the Navy consumes seven different types of petroleum-based fuel, burning approximately 35 million barrels per year. Most of the service’s fuels research, development, testing and evaluation is undertaken at Patuxent River. A team of 15 works conventional fuels issues and standardization, and, increasingly, on alternative fuels projects.

The range of propulsion fuels the Navy is considering is wide. In conjunction with the Naval Research Laboratory, the Pentagon’s Defense Energy Support Center, and a collective called the Tri-Service POL Users Group which ties the organizations together, the Navy Fuels Lab is evaluating synthetic fuel production at sea, enhancement of fuel energy density, exploration and extraction of undersea methane hydrates, fuel cells, batteries, and more. Successful exploitation of a combination of the above fuel resources would give battle groups independence from fleet oilers and provide an operational cushion from potential future fuel shortfalls.

John Bigus, left, a fuels engineer assigned to Naval Air Warfare Center-Aircraft Division in Patuxent River, Md., explains the greening of Navy Fuels at the first Naval Energy Forum hosted by the Office of Naval Research and Task Force Energy. Bigus stands in front of a display of camelina and algae fuels and processes for the production of renewable fuels to be tested in Navy ships and aircraft. U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams.

Biofuels research and evaluation is presently the most advanced. The U.S. Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division’s (NAWCAD) recent “Green Hornet” camelina-fueled F/A-18F program is one of several biofuel initiatives under consideration by the Navy Fuels Team. Another algae-derived fuel for use in ships is in test production by San Francisco-based start-up Solazyme which grows algae on sugar in a dark environment. The government has contracted for a batch of 20,055 gallons of algae fuel from Solazyme, which will be evaluated and potentially certified by the Navy Fuels/Lubricants Lab.

“We’re looking at a number of different chemistries and feed sources in the laboratory,” Kaman said. “Most of these are still in small, pilot-production quantities so there aren’t yet the sample quantities to do large scale testing. But we give folks in the Navy an idea of what the potential feed stocks beyond camelina and algae are.”

Regardless of the particular fuel source, NAWCAD spokesman Billy Ray Brown explained that it must meet a trio of requirements.

“The three goals are fuel security, something that is renewable, and that we can produce and provide for ourselves to reduce our reliance on foreign sources of oil. It [also] has to be cost effective. Then, obviously, [there are] environmental benefits that could potentially derive from that.”

The Navy Fuels Lab at Pax is well suited to identifying fuels that meet the above goals precisely because it is so active in ensuring the quality and standardization of current fossil fuels, Kaman said.

“The same people who are working today’s fleet service problems are also looking at tomorrow’s fuel alternatives. They have a good handle on the problems we’ve seen in the past and a step up on identifying potential issues that may arise with some of the alternatives we’re looking at.”

The Navy Fuels Team doesn’t hesitate to share data and ideas with other services and industry. In fact, Kaman says that the data generated from the Green Hornet program will be shared to the “maximum extent possible” and that the Navy will leverage industry know-how as much as it can.

“From a collective Navy perspective, we’re talking to big oil as well as new groups who are looking to produce these fuels. We share what we think the challenges are and where we think the Navy is going as well. The positive side of that for the government and military is that we’re not the only people sending out a demand signal. These fuels are something that would be readily used in the commercial market. ”

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Eric Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...