US Navy sails 1,200 miles on algae biofuel

Newt Gingrich may mock algae as a source of clean fuel, but the U.S. Navy’s got no problem with it. In fact, the Navy is extending – literally – its use of biofuels derived from the stuff.

Last November, a remotely controlled destroyer using a 50-50 blend of algae-derived, hydro-processed oil and a standard petroleum fuel made a 17-hour trek 150 or so miles up the California coast from San Diego to the Naval Surface Warfare Center Port Hueneme. 

That was the Navy’s largest-scale alt-fuel demo – until now. According to Solazyme, the U.S. Navy Frigate fleet ship USS Ford just sailed from its homeport in Everett, Wash., down to San Diego using 25,000 gallons of the company’s Soladiesel blended in even proportions with F-76 military diesel.

Solazyme didn’t say exactly how far the trip was, but charts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [PDF] peg the distance from Seattle (about 30 miles south of Everett) to San Diego at 1,228 nautical miles.

The Navy has set a goal of deploying a “Great Green Fleet” powered entirely by alternative fuels by 2016, and of reaching 50 percent alternative energy use overall by 2020. The service has also tested alternative fuel in a yard patrol boat at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and in a landing craft utility off the Virginia coast.

South San Francisco-based Solazyme, which ferments algae to produce oil that can be refined into fuel, is one of two big players in the Navy’s biofuels program. The other is Louisiana-based Dynamic Fuels, a Tyson Foods-Syntroleum joint venture that makes its fuel from used cooking oil and non-food-grade animal fats. Last December the Navy said it will pay $12 million to purchase a total of 450,000 gallons of biofuels from the companies to help power a carrier group during big maritime exercises this summer.

After November’s remotely controlled biofuel test, the Navy reported “there was absolutely no difference, whatsoever, in the operation or performance of the ship” using the algae-derived fuel. Solazyme said that was the case on this longer voyage as well.

“Feedback from the ship’s engineers was favorable; the crew reported that operational performance of the fuel system and gas turbine engines on the 50/50 blend was…comparable to operations on traditional petroleum F-76,” Solazyme confirmed in a statement.

* Pete Danko, EarthTechling