Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Code Green For US Biofuels

By Spencer Diamond

The name “Green Hornet” may conjure up images of superhero crime fighters riding around in a souped up Chrystler Imperial, but Hollywood may have been taking a page out of the US Navy’s secret playbook. Only a year earlier of the aforementioned movie, the Navy made a public demonstration of an F/A-18 Super Hornet with the ability to fly on a 50-50 blend of standard jet fuel and camelina derived biofuel. This F/A-18, dubbed the “Green Hornet”, is just one example of the Navy’s mission to half its consumption of fossil fuels by 2020. The Navy, which uses 1.5 billion gallons of fuel annually, has become increasingly concerned about obtaining oil from foreign sources, and has called on both industry and academia to develop biofuel solutions for its fleet.

In its call to arms the Navy has directly reached out to the SD-CAB and its partners as pioneers in the areas of algal and bacterial derived biofuels. A speech by Richard A. Kamin of the Navy Fuels Team at the annual SD-CAB symposium this past April highlighted the importance of algae and bacteria in the Department of Defense (DoD) strategy to produce more fuel domestically. Specifically there is hope that technologies can be developed in time to fuel their “green” strike group that will operate completely without conventional fuel by 2016. One of the major challenges involved in this transition is the difference in chemical properties between petroleum and algal derived fuels. The lower density and a lack of aromatic compounds characteristic of algal derived fuels can have an adverse effect on systems not designed for their use. Currently the Navy compensates for these issues by using mixtures of renewable and petroleum derived fuels, but complete independence from petroleum may require specialized engineering of fuel producing microbes.

One SD-CAB investigator, Prof. Steven Briggs, has been applying a proteomics approach to figure out how microalgae regulate their production of lipids under stress. Comparing the proteins found in cells producing and not-producing lipids will give researchers a clue as to which proteins are responsible for controlling various aspects of lipid production. Knowing what proteins control the production of lipids will allow SD-CAB researchers to engineer algal strains to produce both more oil as well as oil with different properties. For the Navy, the development of this technology would mean the ability to manipulate the type of oil they are producing to better suit the needs of their ships and aircrafts. It seems our nation’s air support is going to be calling in the scientist support.

Spencer Diamond is a graduate student at UCSD and a guest blogger and volunteer with SD-CAB. You can contact him at

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