WOW! The word “wow” only moderately conveys the historic events that unfolded this summer during the Department of Navy’s Rim of the Pacific Exercises (RIMPAC) Great Green Fleet (GGF) demonstration. The might and power of the United States Navy coupled with that of scores of other Pacific Rim counties was impressive, but moreover a number of the great ships and aircraft were fueled by a mix of algae and animal fats.
Yes, advanced biofuels produced from American grown algae and waste animal fats powering the all-powerful military platforms! The man with the vision behind this innovation, Secretary of Navy Ray Mabus, would proudly note the Navy’s continuing global leadership as an innovator – having led maritime vessels from sails to coal-fired steam, from coal to oil and nuclear; and now the transition to advanced biofuels. Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) would later expounded upon that message of innovation, “We can, as a nation, change the fuel production and distribution paradigm in the world, if we are consistent in our efforts to increase our production and use of domestic biofuels which are important to our energy and national security as well as create jobs.”
For nearly four years, Secretaries Mabus and Vilsack have made a coordinated and concerted effort to support the development and stand-up of a domestic biofuels sector. The USDA has lent support to furthering research and business start-ups for biomass production and waste stream diversion, and the Navy has sought to test, demonstrate and accelerate investments in advanced biofuels for use in its many platforms. Both secretaries have identified the importance of establishing geographically diverse supply sources of biomass and biofuels and noted that the State of Hawaii has a strategic role to play; hence, the RIMPAC exercises off-shore from Honolulu Hawaii was a perfect match to demonstrate the capacity advanced biofuels in the GGF.
On the designated day for the GGF demonstration, I represented the USDA and traveled with navy and congressional staff and representatives of the several airlines; assembling before daybreak for briefings and preparations for transport on a propeller-driven aircraft out to the USS Nimitz, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. We donned military issue life jackets, goggles and cranial helmets with ear muffs; yet, the ear protection only afforded limited attenuation of the excessive noise throughout much of the day.
We headed out onto tarmac of Hickam Air Force Base and took seats facing the back of the no-frills plane. Squinting to see in the suddenly dark space as the back hatch closed, a mixture of 50 percent biofuels and fossil fuels raced through the aircraft’s engines, and the roar became deafening. The engines, gorged with the algae and animal fat mix; and the plane roared down the runway and into the sky.
Traveling 45 miles due north of Honolulu, through the aircraft’s single viewing pane, naval vessels could be seen dotting the sea and the horizon. Cruisers, destroyers and then the USS Nimitz came into view.
After we landed on the Nimitz and scrambled out of the aircraft, we were hit by the full might of steel upon the sea – the carrier’s deck 1,100 feet in length and 250 feet wide with a 10-story high bridge for observation and traffic control. Jets everywhere, attended to by squadrons of seamen grabbed in Navy Working Uniforms, colored light-weight turtle necks defining each squad’s role in the GGF demonstration.
Keeping to an aggressive schedule, we viewed various operations including radar and navigation rooms; a tactical operation room for RIMPAC led this year by the Chilean Navy; and anchors the size of an office.
Secretary Mabus heralded the multi-day GGF demonstration, which was supported with the purchase of 450,000 gallons of non-food waste (used cooking oil) from Louisiana-based Dynamic Fuels LLC, included algae produced by Solazyme. Meeting the Navy’s criteria, the fuel was: 1) “drop-in” and compatible with existing technology; 2) derived from non-food sources; and 3) its combustion would not increase the carbon footprint.
Back at the Flag Deck, the GGF demonstrations ramped up with a dozen jets in high idle, rocking and trembling with a deafening roar of engines each waiting to be catapulted from the deck of the USS Nimitz. Once air-born, the 50/50 biofuel blend kicked in and the jets soared and flashed by the carrier at great speed and in tight formation. Flying the world’s most advanced aircraft with precise precision, the pilots accomplished mid-air refueling and touch and go maneuvers. The crew on deck and the spectators were enveloped fumes from fuel, oils and metallic dust; combined with heat emanating from the engines and the thunderous rumble, and everyone agreed that this was as Secretary Mabus stated, “A historic day.”