Navy Draws Heavy Media Coverage for Biggest Biofuel Sea Trial

It seems doubtful that the U.S. Navy has ever gotten as much media attention for offshore cruising between San Diego and Port Hueneme as the decommissioned destroyer Paul H. Foster received last week.

The Spruance-class destroyer, which has been refitted to serve in various ways as an ocean-going test platform, arrived at the naval base near Oxnard, CA, about 185 miles north of San Diego, Thursday morning after a 17-hour transit powered by a fuel blend that included algae-derived biofuel. It was the Navy’s largest alternative fuel trial.

The overnight sojourn was intended as a demonstration of the Navy’s plan to expand the use of “drop-in” biofuels that would require no changes to Navy engines, ships, supply infrastructure, or fueling piers. The only difference is that the biofuel was derived from algae, or “green crude,” instead of conventional fuels made from petroleum-based crude. (A pretty good account of the demonstration is here.)

San Francisco-based Solazyme provided the algae-based biofuel, which can be produced in its U.S.-based facility in a few days, according to Stephanie Tabor, a spokeswoman for the company. “We use standard industrial fermentation equipment to efficiently scale and accelerate microalgae’s natural oil production time to a few days,” Tabor says in an e-mail this afternoon. Solazyme’s technology is flexible, she says, “and can utilize a wide variety of renewable plant-based sugars, such as sugarcane-based sucrose, dextrose, and sugars from other sustainable biomass sources including cellulosics.”

As we reported last year, the Navy has decided for reasons of energy security, naval strategy, and environmental stewardship to develop and certify alternative fuels that can be used instead of standard-issue ship and aircraft fuels.  Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has announced a goal of conducting a test exercise next year with a “Great Green Fleet”—a 13-ship carrier battle group powered either by nuclear energy or 50-50 blends of biofuels, based on press reports.

The Foster took on about 20,000 gallons of diesel biofuel that Solazyme delivered to the Defense Fuel Supply Point at Naval Base Point Loma. It was blended 50-50 with a standard naval marine diesel known as F-76 (a NATO specification), and used in gas-turbine engines aboard the Foster that are equivalent to engines in U.S. destroyers and cruisers around the world.

“For our program with the Defense Logistics Agency,” Tabor says, “we are supplying the U.S. Navy with renewable F-76 diesel fuel and renewable JP-5 jet fuel for testing and certification.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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