The U.S. Military’s Great Green Gamble Spurs Biofuel Startups
by Todd Woody (Forbes Magazine) …Funded with $85 million from Bill Gates and other investors – plus $104 million in government cash and loan guarantees – the world’s only commercial outdoor algal biorefinery went online this summer and will eventually expand to 300 acres. The plan: extract 1.5 million gallons of green crude oil a year from patented pond scum fed a diet of carbon dioxide and sunlight.
Even before San Diego-based Sapphire broke ground on the demonstration plant last year, the U.S. Navy’s green energy warrior, Vice Admiral Philip Cullom, descended on the desert site to grill Sapphire execs on their technology and its potential to fuel battleships and jet fighters. “No question, the military has focused the company and given us a great challenge to meet,” says Sapphire executive Tim Zenk, standing on the catwalk of a tank where a mechanical arm is harvesting thick green goo pumped in from the algae ponds.
…The U.S. military, the nation’s single largest oil consumer, wants to wean itself from petroleum, and is deploying its immense buying power and authority to commercialize nascent technologies deemed to be in the national interest.
…It will be years before we know if the military’s biofuels bet is a multibillion-dollar folly – or if the armed forces have planted the seeds of another global industry, as it did with nuclear power, semiconductors and the Internet.
…We flew on algae and used cooking oil mixed in a 50-50 blend with standard petroleum aviation juice. Some 450,000 gallons of that biofuel, produced by Silicon Valley’s Solazyme and Dynamic Fuels, is also powering the 71 aircraft on deck – the F/A-18 fighter jets screaming across the blue skies above us, the E-2C Hawkeyes patrolling the surrounding airspace and the Seahawk helicopters ferrying Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and top Navy brass between two biofueled destroyers and a guided missile cruiser steaming alongside the nuclear-powered Nimitz.
…It’s not just about biofuels. The Marines are tapping solar and other technologies to make battlefield bases in Afghanistan energy independent and more impervious to enemy disruptions of supply lines that have extracted a high price in blood and treasure.
… The commercial aviation industry is eager to become a major buyer of biofuels as a hedge against oil price spikes that can wipe out years of profit. But cash-strapped airlines are counting on the military to get production rolling.
… In a wood-paneled office aboard the Nimitz, Vice Admiral Cullom points out that when the Navy decided to build nuclear-powered ships like this one, the technology was too expensive to be commercially viable. Yet the nuclear fleet projected American power to the far corners of the globe and laid the groundwork for a domestic nuclear power industry.