Navy on course to meeting energy conservation on ships

Thursday - 10/28/2010, 6:57am EDT

WFED's Max Cacas

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By Max Cacas
Reporter
Federal News Radio

A Navy task force charged with energy conservation reached an important first milestone last week, just about a year after it received the assignment.

Rear Adm. Phillip Collum, director of the chief of Naval Operations Energy and Environmental Readiness Division, and head of the Task Force Energy, said an experimental ship recently conducted a full throttle test run using a 50-50 mix of bio-fuel and traditional diesel fuel.

"By running that RCB-X at its maximum power and throughout that test that was a Wright Brothers moment for the Navy and it's a waypoint for the Navy," he said during a conference call with reporters and bloggers Wednesday. "That's one of many tests that we'll be doing over the next year to test and certify all of our ships and all of our type-model series that fly off of aircraft carriers so that we will be able to meet the requirements for this 2012 great green fleet -- the demonstration of it in 2012 and then the actual sailing of it in 2016."

The RCB-X that Collum refers to is the 49-foot Riverine Command Boat - Experimental, which the Navy one day hopes to use for patrols in rivers and bays. He said it's an ideal place for them to begin testing the use of alternative fuels in all ships.

"The RCB-X fits into that because it was an experimental ship that was being run on prototype fuel," Collum said. "The prototype fuel was a 50-50 blend of an algae-based biofuel and the other 50 percent was normal petroleum. It's a drop-in replacement fuel. And what that means is, it's invisible to the operator. It looks, smells and acts like petroleum, yet its feedstock, where it comes from, is a biofuel, and that, when you look at the -- at the overall process, should remove CO2, as opposed to adding more CO2 throughout the process."

Collum added the 50-50 mix gives the Navy more flexibility in the number of fuels it can use, with an end goal of one day the service can use it without having to change the technology of their engines.

Collum said that the full throttle biofuel test of the RCBX took place Oct. 22 at the naval base in Norfolk, Va.

"We had started this whole series of tests that we ran the RCB-X through," he said. "It culminated in a full-power run. That's what we did on Friday. And the vessel ran 44.5 knots, which is above the normally top-rated speed of 43 knots, and performed fine."

The successful test of the alternative fuel river patrol boat comes almost one year to the day that Navy Secretary Ray Mabus laid out for the Navy and Marine Corps five ambitious steps for energy conservation at the Navy Energy Forum in McLean, Va.

Among those goals are creating, by 2012, a green Strike group tasked with developing next generation nuclear vessels, and ships powered by biofuels, and deploying that fleet by 2016.

Initially, the first supplies of the experimental biodiesel fuel cost as much as $400 a gallon, but with time, that price is now down to around $60 a barrel.

Collum said by diving into the use of alternative biofuels today, the Navy can look ahead to the day when its ships will need to refuel in foreign ports of call where an economic advantage will go to the ships and planes that can use the increasingly popular biofuel.

"You know that the Air Force is also interested in using these fuels," he said. "I'm sure you've read many of the articles that I read, that the aviation industry is very keen about using these as well, because they know that when they fly overseas, they may need to be using biofuels or they will end up paying carbon taxes in other parts of the world. And other companies -- the aircraft manufacturing companies are also hard at work making sure that their aircraft will function on these things as well."

The Navy isn't the only branch of the military testing alternative fuels. Collum said the Coast Guard and the Air Force also are working closely with the Navy's Task Force Energy.

And Collum said with the successful test of the RCBX on biodiesel under their wing, the Navy will expand the test to larger ships of the fleet:

"It's always best, of course, when you're doing testing like this to start small, start with engines that you know are ones -- and this is a -- RCB-X is powered by a diesel engine that will give you the learning that you need to ensure that when you start to use it in other engines, that we'll see the performance -- we'll be able to extrapolate the performance that we see on one into the next ones," he said. "The next big step that we make is in terms of Cummins diesels, a 250-hour test that we'll be doing on a Cummins diesel. And then after that, the next series of tests that we'll do will be on a Rolls-Royce. It's an Allison 501 K gas turbine engine. We use those engines to provide electrical power for the vast majority of our surface combatant, surface ships."