Two chemists at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, China Lake, Calif., recently accepted a 2011 Assistant Secretary of the Navy Research, Development and Acquisition Dr. Delores M. Etter Top Scientists and Engineers of the Year Award for their technical advancements in the field of renewable energy.
Dr. Ben Harvey, a research chemist, won in the emergent investigator category. Dr. Michael Wright, a senior research chemist, won in the individual category. There were about 35,000 scientists and engineers throughout the Navy who were eligible for this award. Harvey and Wright were selected from 63 nominations within the Naval Air Systems Command.
Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition Sean Stackley presented the annual awards which were established to honor civilian and military employees for exceptional scientific and engineering achievements. Harvey accepted his award during a ceremony at the Pentagon Aug. 17.
Harvey’s work as the lead for several significant technical advances in the development of high-density fuels and high-performance materials derived from renewable and sustainable sources earned him the award. He was the primary investigator on a project that developed a patented process to produce renewable fuels based on components of pine resin that meet and, in some cases, exceed the performance requirements for the missile fuel JP 10.
Harvey expanded his work beyond its original scope and developed a patented process to convert a renewable chemical known as linalool into the missile fuel RJ-4. This renewable fuel is chemically identical to the petroleum-based fuel and therefore can serve as the quintessential drop-in biofuel. Through collaboration with several small companies, which Harvey researched and selected, next generation processes are being investigated that use bioengineered organisms to convert waste biomass into high density jet, diesel, and missile fuels.
“It’s both gratifying and humbling to be recognized for this work, particularly given the quality and breadth of research conducted at NAWCWD,” said Harvey, who explained his job as a nice mix of doing fundamental research with the freedom to explore new ideas and the ultimate goal of transitioning improved technology to the fleet.
In addition to missile fuels, Harvey and his colleagues have developed high density fuels designed for jet and diesel propulsion as well as a high-density, high-octane gasoline that can be conveniently formulated from the side-products of the original missile fuel synthesis. The latter fuel was developed in collaboration with Wright and has been successfully ground tested in a ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle engine. In collaboration with the Unmanned Systems Group, the next step is to conduct a flight test using this fuel and then transition to flight testing with a high density diesel fuel that is expected to enhance the range and time-of-flight of the vehicle. Harvey said he hopes the first flight, contingent on funding, will happen in the next fiscal year. Proposals and collaborators are also in place to accomplish the goals of testing fuels in Tomahawk turbines, diesel engines, and eventually jet aircraft.
“Fundamentally, I’m interested in developing renewable fuels that outperform petroleum based fuels,” said Harvey, who explained it’s his ‘chemical intuition’ (with some help from modeling) that allows him to identify and combine the right molecules for a desired result. “Through this approach we have the opportunity to produce fuels domestically and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while concomitantly providing a tactical advantage to the warfighter.”
“Of course, if we continue to use just pine resin to make missile or jet fuel, we will rapidly reach an annual production limit,” said Harvey, who, along with his collaborators, continues to investigate processes for making fuel from abundant waste biomass like forestry trimmings, waste wood, energy crops, and agricultural waste like corn husks and stalks. “According to the Department of the Energy, these types of sources have the potential to supply up to 30 percent of the nation’s transportation fuels renewably and sustainably, using carbon that would otherwise re-enter the atmosphere as CO2. If we are able to effectively utilize these waste products to produce fuels, chemicals, materials, and energy, a number of economic, strategic, and environmental benefits can be realized.”
Concurrently, Harvey and his colleagues have synthesized new high-performance composite resins from renewable materials. This included preparing the resins from biomass-derived chemicals such as vanillin (the flavor component in vanilla extract), and resveratrol, which is a common antioxidant that can be isolated from plants. The new resins have comparable properties to state-of-the-art petroleum derived materials but can be produced in a sustainable and renewable fashion from waste biomass sources.
The goal is to make renewable, high-performance products at a reasonable cost that will perform comparably or outperform resins made from petroleum. In collaboration with the Air Force Research Lab’s propulsion directorate, the team is working toward the fabrication of a full-performance, renewable composite part that will connect a nozzle assembly to the case of a solid rocket motor.
“Not only do these renewable materials reduce DOD’s carbon footprint and dependence on foreign fossil fuels,” said Dr. Steve Fallis, head of the NAWCWD Chemistry Division, “the materials also exhibit the required properties for demanding DOD applications that are present in radomes, aircraft, structural materials and satellites.”
Harvey, who has less than four years of government service, was cited for his leadership, initiative and potential in advancing environmentally friendly military technologies that will benefit national defense.
“Ben’s efforts have positioned the Navy to effectively establish and develop a solution not only for its own renewable technology needs but also for a much wider range of applications that have the potential to address many of the DoD’s and public sector’s future renewable fuel and materials requirements,” Fallis said.
In response to the Secretary of the Navy’s challenge to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are associated with naval operations, Wright developed a new process for creating full-performance jet fuels based on plant cellulosic waste materials. This patented process offers the Navy a practical alternative to the use of fossil based fuels, which improves the Navy’s capability to reduce its carbon footprint and its dependence on foreign sources of petroleum.
His patented process converts butanol to jet fuel in a clean and energy-efficient manner. Wright was also involved in the subsequent production and testing efforts. The testing proved the biojet fuel met or exceeded all current Navy fuel specifications. These results led to a scaled-up demonstration phase. Next steps call for more demonstrations of increasing scale, which may eventually lead to full-scale platform testing in fleet assets.
Data indicates that the fuel is fully renewable and sustainable, and may yield about 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
“Mike’s work in advancing state-of-the-art biofuel technology is rapidly accelerating the technical readiness of the fleet’s fuel sources and, specifically, is addressing the needs associated with the call for the Great Green Fleet,” said Dr. Robin Nissan, head of NAWCWD’s Research and Intelligence Department.
The Great Green Fleet is a Navy objective that requires the production of eight million gallons of biofuel for fleet use by 2020.
“We couldn’t do any of this without support from our leadership, from the command level down to our branch,” Harvey said. “They foster an atmosphere here that allows us to push the envelope and work on exciting new technology that benefits both the war fighter and the public interest.”