The Navy Research Laboratory's alternative energy projects -- each costing less than $500,000 -- are modest ventures that barely register in the Pentagon's gargantuan budget.
But if history's a guide, what happens there at the Naval Research Laboratory will play a role in the nation's energy future.
For decades, the lab has developed technological breakthroughs -- among them, radar and GPS -- on a budget that major corporations and universities would consider laughable.
"The Navy has been at the forefront of several energy revolutions," said Thomas Hicks, the service's deputy assistant secretary for energy. "First, there was the switch from sail power to coal, then from coal to oil, and then we added nuclear. We see this as part of what our mission is -- to play the role of leading innovator for society at large."
Navy researchers target problems unique to the naval mission, then scramble for cash dispensed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Department of Energy, the Office of Naval Research and others. Competition for cash is fierce, with the lion's share going toward available technologies to help the Navy meet its ambitious, short-term energy goals.
But the Navy also knows it needs aggressive research to develop game-changing innovation, and it has a long-term plan stating that.
"People who think they know the answer are fooling themselves," Jeff Marqusee, director of the Defense Department's Environmental Security Technology Certification Program, told a recent Washington, D.C., gathering of energy entrepreneurs. "There are a lot of answers out there, most of them you haven't heard of."
Leading the Navy Research Laboratory's search for answers is Bhakta Rath, who heads its materials science division. At the top of his wish list: an innovative way of fueling jets aboard aircraft carriers, floating cities that stay at sea for months at a time and store about 5 million gallons of jet fuel.
What if, he asks, carriers could turn seawater into fuel?
Rath is working on that, a development he says could be as near as 15 years away. His team has patented technology to extract carbon from seawater that would then use a time-honored process, called Fischer-Tropsch, to turn a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen into liquid fuel.
"Ocean water can be electrolyzed to produce hydrogen -- that's not a problem," Rath said. "The challenge is, can we extract enough carbon from the ocean? Ocean water has roughly about 2 percent carbon dioxide dissolved in the water, but that's not enough."
Rath's team is tapping CO2 from carbonates and bicarbonates in ocean water. The process demands a lot of electricity, for which researchers are counting on another burgeoning technology, ocean thermal energy conversion. That process creates electricity using the temperature difference between warm surface water and cold deep water and is currently being tested by the Navy in Hawaii.
"This is a totally disruptive phenomenon," Rath said. "It would allow us to create fuel when we need it, where we need it, and how much we need it."
Getting more from biofuels
Given the military's large investments in biofuels, Navy researches are also pushing to get more power per gallon.
The camelina-derived biofuel blend the military is testing on vehicles has 10 to 20 percent less energy density than straight petroleum, Rath said.
"That's a significant reduction," he said. "But we wondered: Why can't we increase the energy density rather than decrease it?"
It is a question that industry scientists, academics and military researchers are also tackling. Rath has teamed his lab with the University of Hawaii, the University of Utah, Louisiana State University and the Naval Academy to look for ways to squeeze more power from existing fuels.
One path they're trying is nanotechnology, working with materials at the atomic or subatomic level. Scientists have known for decades that solid nanoparticles such as boron, carbon and aluminum have far higher energy density than liquid hydrocarbons, but they had not been able to harness them to boost the power of liquid fuels. Now, with advances in nanotechnology, they are able to create particles that work with fuel additives.
The Navy's research coalition effort is trying to keep the particles floating in fuels and making sure they burn at the same time the fuel does.
"We have demonstrated in preliminary studies that we can increase the energy density of fuel by so much as 15 to 20 percent," Rath said.
At sea, borates produced as a byproduct of that fuel would likely settle harmlessly in water. But on land, the effect of borates on human health would have to be tested because nano-sized particles would likely remain in the air as exhaust for a period of time.
If the tests go well and the project gets funding, Rath said the more powerful fuel could make its way into naval ships in five to seven years and to commercial vessels not long after.
'We're not lacking ideas'
To be sure, military energy research is nothing new. The Pentagon has always been looking to reduce energy use and improve performance.
But the branches' energy goals add a new level of precision to that quest.
The big question for researchers is whether adequate funding will allow them to succeed. So far, the Navy has been betting on ready-to-go biofuels. Hicks said the Navy has invested $25 million to test its vehicles on biofuel blends.
But technologies being explored at the Naval Research Laboratory do not fall into a single category within the Navy's current funding systems. That makes it next to impossible to track investments in alternative energy research and could make for a disconnect between the Navy's overall energy strategy and what actually gets funded.
Rath laments the number of good ideas that get lost to archival papers. Right now his team is also working on developing spray-on photovoltaics, harvesting electricity from the ocean's sediment and developing miniature fuel cells to power unmanned vehicles in the air and underwater.
"We're not lacking ideas," Rath said. "We're lacking funding."
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