“Because we are developing technologies to potentially be used by the Navy, that goes into the technology when we develop it,” says Dr Willauer. “We want to make sure it has as small a footprint, and a small a size as possible, and keep those constraints in mind.”
The team is also willing to stick its neck out and predict a cost for jet fuel produced by the process of $3 to $6 per gallon.
If they were able to keep to that cost – and there are plenty of people who think that the real cost would be much higher – it would give it the edge over another fuel the Navy is currently experimenting with.
Earlier this summer, the Navy ran its first large-scale exercise fuelled by a $12m blend of biofuels produced from everything from chicken bones to algae. The Pacific demonstration was part of a project known as Great Green Fleet. During the manoeuvres, F/A-18 Super Hornets and other aircraft screamed off the flight deck of the USS Nimitz over the Pacific Ocean powered by conventional jet fuel mixed with the biofuels. Two destroyers and a cruiser also ploughed the oceans fuelled by a similar mix.
All went well with the exercise, until the costs came in. The biofuel mix cost around $26 per gallon ($6 per litre), significantly more than the $3.50 per gallon ($1 per litre) paid for regular fuel. Critics pointed out that the Navy’s job was defending the US, not helping the emerging biofuel industry bring down its costs, a point that has been compounded by looming defence cuts. For now, the Navy is continuing with its vision and has reiterated its commitment to have half of its fleet powered by alternative energy sources by 2020.
But don’t expect that fleet to be accompanied by refueling ships, sucking in seawater. That research is far behind the biofuel work. It will take six to eight years for the NRL to fully develop the seawater idea, depending on funding. And then it will take many more years to build working systems. By then, the Great Green Fleet may have already sailed.