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Biofuels

Dear Editor:

Damn the deniers, doubters and bean counters in the do-nothing Congress, it is full speed ahead for the Navy.  So reads the lead for an excellent article in the current issue of Mother Jones. The author, Julia Whitty, was hosted by the Navy on the carrier USS Nimitz during operation Green fleet in July 2012.  This operation was the largest-ever maritime war game, engaging 40 surface ships, six submarines, 200 aircraft and over 25,000 personnel from 22 nations (including Russia).

The U.S. Navy is transitioning to its fifth fuel: from sail to coal to oil to nuclear and now to bio-fuel. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus says every time there were naysayers and every time they were wrong. Every change in fuel has created a squabble in Congress.  When Congress tried to stop Teddy Roosevelt from sending the fleet of coal-fired, steel battleships around the world, Teddy snarled to them, “Try to get it back.”

Fleet Admiral Nimitz (the hero of the battle of Midway) in his early career, after running aground, was assigned to the submarines where he was instrumental in developing the diesel-powered subs. Admiral Rickover, the father of the nuclear submarine, was not popular; his office was a refurbished woman’s restroom. (I was around for the transition to nuclear in the mid fifties, as I was hired by Honeywell to fabricate the ceramic sonar transducers for the first nuclear submarine.)  Of course, aircraft carriers and submarines are now nuclear powered.

Some experts (gigaom.com) believe that the year 2013 will be the make or break year for the Holy Grail of bioengineering, algae-based biofuels.  Every biology lab in the world is fully engaged.  I have space to mention three:  Solazyme Bunge, funded by the Brazilian development Bank and Archer Daniel Midland, Sapphire Energy, backed by Bill Gates of Microsoft and Synthetics Genomics the brainchild of Craig Venter the human genetics guru and backed by Exxon Mobile.  The numbers being bandied about are huge — hundreds of millions in capital outlay and hundreds of thousand tons of product. Venter believes success depends upon developing a new species of algae.  Will one of these behemoths win the prize or will it be a gal in the kitchen?  Stay tuned.

Bob Dungan

Arboles

This story was posted on February 28, 2013.