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American Forces Press Service

DARPA Works Toward DoD Energy Independence

By Ian Graham
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 9, 2009 – Scientists are working to create energy self-sufficiency for the Defense Department, the nation’s largest single consumer of energy, a defense expert said.

“Energy has always been an important point in the military. You can go back into history and look at fodder to feed the horses in the Napoleonic Wars, and you can look at today in Afghanistan where energy is a key enabler, or in some cases, a key limitation,” said Barbara McQuiston, special assistant for energy at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

McQuiston discussed the agency’s research and development efforts aimed at tactical energy independence during an Oct. 6 webcast of “Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military” on Pentagon Web radio.

DARPA's goal is to generate cost-effective, alternative energy technologies for the military by addressing energy generation, conversion, control and conservation from sustainable sources, she said.

The military consumes an average of 60 to 75 million barrels per year in jet fuel alone, she said. DARPA is looking at creating new opportunities that could be “game changers” in the field of sustainable energy sources to help satisfy the military’s critical need for fuel.

“I think Peter Drucker always said it well … ‘If you want to control the future, you need to create it,’” McQuiston said. “So DARPA invests in science and technology to make these changes.

“When we looked at energy, what we were looking at was the diversification of energy sources and moving away from a reliance on fossil fuel to create better energy security for ourselves now and in the future,” she added.

While many agencies –- particularly the Department of Energy and Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy -- are researching alternative fuels and working toward energy independence on a broad civilian level, DARPA focuses purely on military applications, McQuiston said.

For instance, DARPA is exploring the possibility of creating bio jet fuel from sources -- including a variety of nonfood crops -- using rich oils such as camelina sativa and algae, and cellulose and hemicelluloses, which are biomass and biowaste materials. Two companies working for DARPA are looking into converting algae directly into jet fuel in a scalable and cost-effective way for military applications.

“Biofuel is a huge area [of DARPA’s research],” McQuiston said. “Again, jet fuel is 60 to 75 million barrels per year of JP8 [jet fuel] that powers both the jets and the generators. Being able to get JP8 from a renewable source means you can generate JP8 anywhere in the world independently.”

As in its previous endeavors -- including projects that brought the Internet and GPS to life -- DARPA wants its fuel research to drastically change the landscape of military fuel consumption, she said.

McQuiston said advancing technology in conversion is key to that goal. Algae conversion is showing efficiency that potentially could lead to renewable jet fuel that costs less than $1 per gallon. The current efficiency of jet fuel converted from cellulose and rich oils likely will dictate a cost below $3 per gallon, she added.

“At DARPA we’re looking at things that are high risk but have high benefits for the future,” she said. “What are some of these aspects we can push out to really enable a different future? In the area of energy, the hard part is to identify and demonstrate ways to efficiently harness and convert the flow of energy.

“There’s energy all around us in abundance,” she added. “Can we convert what’s around us into a form of energy that can be used for the military to create tactical energy independence?”

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