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The Greening of the U.S. Military

October 16, 2009


Historically the U.S. military has not been known for its commitment to environmental protection. Over the past decade or so, however, the military, like so many other organizations, has come to realize that going green can make a lot of sense. If you want your pilots to be the best trained in the world, they have to spend time in the air and that takes a lot of fuel. The more efficient the engines the less fuel is used and the more affordable flight time becomes. Fuel efficiency is as important on land and at sea as it is in the air. The United States Navy, for example, is testing a new underwater hull coating aimed at reducing drag and saving fuel [“Cruiser Sails With Fuel-Saving Coating,” Navy News, 5 October 2009].

“The special coating is part of Naval Sea Systems Command’s (NAVSEA) Fleet Readiness Research & Development Program (FRR&DP) Underwater Hull Coatings initiative to apply new anti-fouling hull coatings on Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Marine fouling causes hydrodynamic drag, significantly impairing fuel efficiency, and coatings to prevent or inhibit this growth are constantly evolving.”

The first ship to test this coating was the USS Cole (DDG 67), a guided missile destroyer. The second ship to receive it will be the USS Port Royal (CG 73), a cruiser. The coating is a silicone-based, non-toxic technology that provides a very smooth, slick, low friction surface. Because it is so slick, marine life cannot attach to it or attach so weakly that they are washed away when the ships are underway. Eventually, the coating is expected to be applied to 70-plus active ships across the two classes. Once fully implemented, “the program could potentially deliver fuel consumption cost avoidances of more than $12.6 million per year, based on fuel oil prices of $100 per barrel.”

In addition to applying coatings to the underside of its ships, the Navy has also adopted hybrid technologies to make its ships more efficient [“Navy goes green with new hybrid ship,” by , Steve Liewer, San Diego Union-Tribune, 15 September 2009].

“Like virtually all Navy vessels, the new amphibious assault ship Makin Island is painted haze gray. But Capt. Bob Kopas, commander of the ship, sees nothing but green — the color of environmental friendliness. The Makin Island pulled into North Island Naval Air Station … following a two-month journey from Northrop Grumman’s Ingalls Shipbuilding yard in Pascagoula, Miss., and around the southern tip of South America. … The Makin Island will be commissioned here Oct. 24. Kopas said the ship saved 900,000 gallons of fuel, worth more than $2 million, on its maiden cruise because of a first-of-its-kind mating of gas turbine engines and electric motors. The motors are used at low speeds — roughly 75 percent of the time — and the engine kicks in at high speeds. … The Navy predicts it will save $250 million in fuel costs over the life of the ship. Some analysts foresee the Makin Island heralding a shift to a fuel-efficient, all-electric fleet. ‘It’s a watershed for the Navy,’ said Scott Truver, an independent naval analyst based in Washington, D.C. ‘It’s a generational change.’ Makin Island is the first Navy vessel to combine gas turbines with auxiliary motors that run off the ship’s electrical grid. … In another nod to environmentally friendly technology, the Makin Island features four reverse-osmosis water-purification systems. Each holds 50,000 gallons, dwarfing the capacity of other ships. There’s plenty of water, and that means no more of the Navy’s infamous short showers.”

Ray Mabus, the Secretary of the Navy, says that the service is committed to becoming greener [“Navy secretary seeks greener fleet,” by Kate Wiltrout, The Virginia-Pilot, 16 October 2009].

“The secretary of the Navy [has] outlined five energy goals for the Navy and Marines in the next decade. Four involve reducing the consumption of fossil fuels, increasing use of alternative energies and factoring energy costs into the price tag of every new ship, engine or building. The fifth might be the most radical: Mabus committed to fielding by 2012 a ‘green’ strike group composed of aircraft powered by biofuels, surface ships that operate on hybrid power supplies, and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. The ‘green; fleet won’t just be for show, Mabus said. The strike group will deploy by 2016.”

The Navy is testing an “aviation fuel derived from the camelina plant” to replace its current petroleum-based fuel JP-5. It also recently tested a hydrogen-powered UAV.

“The Ion Tiger UAV set a record for hydrogen-powered flight. The aircraft, which is developed by the Naval Research Laboratory, the University of Hawaii and two commercial companies, stayed aloft for 23 hours, 17 minutes. At 37 pounds, the Ion Tiger is lighter than drones that use petroleum-based fuel. It hasn’t been deployed but holds promise because it produces electrical energy directly from hydrogen gas and air. That means it’s quiet and has a low heat signature.”

The Navy is also exploring the feasibility of underwater solar power “to power underwater unmanned vehicles and sensors” and “a closed-cycle vacuum recovery system” to clean the flight decks on aircraft carriers. The system “will speed up flight-deck cleaning operations, cost less and eliminate the environmental impact of detergents.” The Navy is not alone among the military services in trying to find more efficient ways to use energy. The Army and Marine Corps are becoming more reliant on electronic devices, which means that their soldiers and marines have to carry spare batteries as well as spare ammunition. Batteries can be extremely heavy. Often the services turn to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for solutions [“Can the military find the answer to alternative energy?,” by Steve LeVine, BusinessWeek, 3 August 2009 print issue]. LeVine reports that DARPA is leading the charge on trying to find energy saving devices and greener fuels. To learn more about DARPA, read my post entitled Happy Birthday DARPA. LeVine begins with a story about how DARPA went about improving the battery situation.

“Nine years ago, Robert J. Nowak, an electro-chemicals expert for the Defense Dept., learned that senior generals weren’t happy with their troops’ electronic gear. While the night-vision, laser, and GPS devices worked well, the batteries that powered them weighed some 25 pounds per soldier, heavy enough to hurt some of the troops. So Nowak, who worked at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Defense Dept.’s famous research branch, solicited bids for a new device that would power a soldier’s gear at a tenth of the weight and a fraction of the $100 cost of the batteries. Today, the original 18 companies that took up Nowak’s challenge have been whittled down to two: Livermore (Calif.)-based UltraCell and Adaptive Materials of Ann Arbor, Mich. Their solution: small, sturdy fuel cells that can power a soldier’s clutch of mobile devices for a week on a gallon or so of methanol or propane. Battle-ready versions of the fuel cells will be available this year. DARPA regards the result as a game-changer for the military—akin to the potential shift in the automobile market from gasoline-driven to hybrid or electric cars.”

Just the Internet, another DARPA creation, the batteries it is helping develop will likely have benefits that far outreach the needs of the military. According to LeVine, fuel cell manufacturers are first targeting “city police forces and makers of recreational vehicles.” He continues:

“Other breakthroughs have helped lead to the commercial development of semiconductors, GPS, and UNIX, the widely used computer operating system. There have been some serious gaffes as well, including mechanical elephants to carry troops through Vietnam’s jungles and an ill-conceived search for people gifted with psychic powers. But on the whole, DARPA has a strong record of bringing ideas from the lab to the real world.”

LeVine then asks the billion dollar question: “Can DARPA now score another double success by changing how both the military and civilian worlds consume and produce energy?” He reports that the agency is investing approximately $100 million annually into research on alternative energy. The reason that DARPA is so concerned about energy is because the military services “are voracious consumers of energy.”

“As a result they have become perilously dependent on long, costly, and vulnerable convoys of diesel-fuel tankers. More vehicles are used to transport and guard the fuel—mostly for running generators for air conditioning, laptops, and other gear at U.S. bases and posts—than are deployed in actual combat, according to a May report by the Military Advisory Board. With the expense of convoys and guards thrown in, the cost of a gallon of fuel used at the front can range from $15 to several hundred dollars, says the same report. So the Army has set an overall goal of significantly reducing its fuel requirements. Under its plan, fuel and supply shipments to 5,000-troop brigades would be reduced from the current once every few days to just once a month.”

According to LeVine, “DARPA describes itself as an incubator of long-shot technologies too risky for almost anyone else to take on. The agency operates by issuing challenges to companies that are so tough they are called ‘DARPA-hard.'” Because the technologies are so risky, DARPA pays companies to tackle them. Organizations that rise to challenges appreciate DARPA because, “other than imposing strict reporting requirements, the agency gets out of the way of the researchers’ work.” LeVine continues his article by describing some of projects DARPA researchers are working on.

“In addition to spurring the development of palm-size fuel cells, DARPA has contracted with companies to miniaturize solar cells that would supplant the need for generators. It now wants to develop inexpensive diesel and jet fuel from algae that could be produced in the battle zone. All three programs include the aim of accelerating the manufacture of any new product by private companies, from whom the military could buy.”

To read more about algae-based biofuels, read my posts The Potential of Pond Scum, Biofuel from Algae, and Fuels of Tomorrow — Part 2, Biofuels. LeVine reports that DARPA is as ambitious as it is tenacious. For example, it’s supporting research into ways to double the current efficiency of solar panels in an affordable way.

“DuPont and the University of Delaware are partners in a DARPA contract worth up to $100 million to elevate [solar panel] efficiency [from 20%] to 40%, at an affordable price. The idea is to capture the sunlight that would normally fall across an entire solar panel and concentrate it into a cell about the size of a fingernail. A number of those miniaturized cells would be arrayed across a panel that could be folded up and toted into battle, where it would power the needs of a half-dozen to a dozen soldiers. … DARPA wants the cost of the new panel not to exceed $1,500—compared with the more than $15,000 DuPont recently spent on a working model of the panel and its cells. Dan Laubacher, DuPont’s manager for the project, says the system is at least two years away from delivery to the military. But as production ramps up, he says, the ultimate cost ‘could be lower’ than the $1,500 targeted by DARPA. Eventually, as costs come down, DuPont hopes to sell the panels to utilities.”

DARPA’s aim, of course, is to change how the military goes to into conflict — making it lighter, faster, and more efficient. LeVine wonders “how much the agency could change the commercial alternative energy industry.” There haven’t been any big alternative breakthroughs to date, but, based on DARPA’s track record, I wouldn’t bet against it.

“However, some argue that alternative energy is not similar to other DARPA efforts in the past, when the agency had a tremendous impact. In nurturing a proto-Internet, for example, DARPA was alone in the field. Now hundreds of companies are exploring solar panel technology, doing advanced battery research, and experimenting with algae-based biofuels. This is also a global field, where Japan, Germany, and China already have the lead in critical areas.”

DARPA wants to bring down the cost of algae-based biofuel to $3/gallon. Some people believe that target is impossible. Skeptics believe that $10/gallon is a more realistic price. “DARPA’s answer, as expressed by Nowak, is simple: ‘If you want to change the world,’ he says, ‘set the bar high.'” Whether it is DARPA researchers that achieve fuel efficiency breakthroughs or someone else, you can bet that the military will embrace the results.

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