Category Archives: Conservation and Renewable Energy

The Navy takes to the sea to combat climate change

The U.S. Naval research Lab 's Building 72. (Photo/Image provided courtesy of the Naval Research Laboratory.)

The U.S. Naval research Lab ‘s Building 72.
(Photo/Image provided courtesy of the Naval Research Laboratory.)

As the source for almost all things, the ocean may just be where we find solutions to climate change as well.  This past spring the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) announced that it had developed a process to extract carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas from the ocean and convert it into fuel-like molecules. This process could eventually fuel Navy jets and help provide energy independence for our military.

While this development flew mostly under the radar when announced, it opens the door for big possibilities. Turning seawater into fuel could one day help reduce our nation’s dependence on oil and our carbon footprint to steer us towards a more sustainable future. With ocean’s accounting for 96.5 percent of the 71 percent of the earth’s water this new energy option is abundant and available.

Today, we hear from Dr. Heather Willauer, a research chemist in the Materials Science and Technology Division at the NRL. Dr. Willauer explains the revolutionary process of turning seawater into fuel-like molecules, what this means for the military and our nation’s future, and how the Navy is combating climate change and researching alternative energies. We welcome her insights.

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A team of Vanguard I scientists mount the satellite in the rocket.  (Photo/Image provided courtesy of the Naval Research Laboratory.)

A team of Vanguard I scientists mount the satellite in the rocket.
(Photo/Image provided courtesy of the Naval Research Laboratory.)

What work happens at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory?
Founded in 1923, NRL is a campus-like complex of diverse scientific facilities headquartered in Washington, D.C. With a compliment of approximately 2,800 employees consisting of researchers, engineers, technicians and support personnel, the laboratory carries out basic and applied research on the forefront of the physical and chemical sciences, computer science, and engineering

Who works at the Naval Research Laboratory?
The internal organization is divided into five directorates; four conducting scientific research, and one designated the Naval Center for Space Technology. The varying directorates employ civilian federal workers, contractors, students from academia, and U.S. Navy and Marine Corps personnel.

Who oversees the work of the Naval Research Laboratory?
Overall laboratory management is under the direction of a Navy commanding officer and civilian director of research. As a Navy Working Capital Fund, all costs, including overhead, are recovered through sponsor-funded research projects. These include the Chief of Naval Research, Naval Systems Commands and other government agencies to further include the U.S. Air Force, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Department of Energy, NASA, and other nongovernment entities.

This past spring, the Naval Research Laboratory announced it had developed a process to extract carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas from the ocean and convert it into fuel-like molecules that could eventually be used to fuel jets. Can you tell us how this process will work?
Using a novel NRL electrolytic cation exchange module (E-CEM) cell, up to 92 percent of both dissolved and bound carbon dioxide (in the form of carbonates and bicarbonates) can be removed from seawater. The total concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in seawater is 140 times greater than that in air. In addition to CO2, the module produces hydrogen gas (H2) at the cathode as a by-product. NRL and partners have developed a carbon capture system that demonstrates the continuous and efficient production of CO2 and H2 from seawater. Seawater processed by this technology, may be returned to the sea, since no additional chemicals or pollutants are introduced.

Credit: Deposit Photos via DailyTech

Credit: Deposit Photos via DailyTech

Two further processing steps takes these reactants and coverts them to synthetic fuel. The first is an NRL patented process that addresses the conversion of CO2 and H2 to olefins (short chain carbon molecules). The second step consists of conversion of olefins to a fuel-like fraction of C9-C16 molecules by transforming a simple carbon chain to a complex chain using zeolite catalysts. NRL currently operates a lab-scale system that is capable of producing up to 500 milliliters of liquid hydrocarbons (C9-C16) a day. Additional research and development are necessary to enhance the efficiency of chemical reactions for tailoring the mixed hydrocarbons to a fuel-like fraction. By far, the key scientific challenge that NRL continues to study at the basic science level is to accomplish greater CO2 and H2 conversion efficiencies to the hydrocarbon fuel fraction of interest. Effects of catalyst composition, size, and distribution are parts of this study. The ultimate long-term goal would be for the liquid hydrocarbon production to be specifically tailored to meet or exceed all current military fuel performance standards.

When did this research first start?
Dr. Dennis R. Hardy who is currently retired from NRL developed the concept in 2002. The program was funded by NRL’s core research funds in 2007.

Credit: U.S. Navy via Wired

Credit: U.S. Navy via Wired

What is the benefit of this development for the Navy and the other branches of the U.S. military?
The technology will ensure naval energy independence and minimize global logistics footprint by producing up to 100 percent of fuel operational needs at or near the point of use at sea or on land. This allows greater “Freedom of Action” for the warfighter while meeting Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) milestones for carbon neutrality and strategic fuel autonomy. This novel technology provides potential fuel cost stabilizing solutions for next generation Navy and U.S. Marine Corps platforms and installations.

What benefit does it have beyond the military?
It could be envisioned that one day this process would be powered by alternative renewable energy such as ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC), wave energy power, and off shore wind energy. The environmental benefit is a process that has a net zero carbon footprint. The other viable benefit is a way to capture, convert, and store electricity, produced by alternative energy, as a versatile, high-energy-density synthetic liquid hydrocarbon that can be used as a fuel.



What other research and development related to reducing the effects of climate change is the Naval Research Laboratory currently conducting?
NRL conducts research to help better understand changes to Earth’s climate and the impacts these changes may present to the Earth environment. These include the study of atmospheric and oceanic interfaces, geophysical and meteorological factors, upper atmosphere anomalies, and space weather. Additional satellite laboratories, the Marine Meteorology Division in Monterey, Calif., and the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, aid in this research.

In less direct terms, NRL is involved in research pertaining to alternative energies such as solar, fusion and benthic fuel cell technologies that provide renewable energy sources that can be more efficient, lower operating costs, and contribute toward a reduction in the overall carbon footprint for the Navy and Department of Defense.



When does the Navy anticipate that the technology it discovered to extract carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas from the ocean to create jet fuel will be ready for commercial implementation and how would this solution transition from being a military solution to a commercial solution for the airlines, corporate and personally operated aircraft?
Commercial implementation will depend on funding. Currently, it is estimated at the present low level of funding, the program will not exist in the next 5 to 10 years. Conversely, a proportionate amount of future research, if properly funded, could provide the necessary steps to scale-up this technology to a commercially viable product in the next decade.

What’s in store for the Naval Research Laboratory next year?
NRL will continue its research on improving catalyst stability that is currently funded through NRL’s core basic research program. Concurrently, NRL will actively maintain its efforts to obtain commercial and government funding to improve the energy and process efficiencies of the individual technologies and scale and integrate the technologies as “proof of concept.”

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Learn more about NRL’s innovative research and stay up to date on new their new climate change discoveries and developments here.

Liz Faris, Account Manager
Collaborative Services, Inc.
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San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project: Growing fresh communities

This week as we start our series exploring projects and ideas related to sustainability, conservation and renewable energy that have big potential. Do you like to eat? Do you like fresh great tasting food and want to easily find it in your local community? Then you will have an appetite for this week’s interview.

What started as a group of strangers who came together to save local farm land, evolved into a new community of farming and local food enthusiasts. From this group, the idea for a collective local food and farming network in San Diego County began to grow, resulting in The San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project. For nearly 15 years, the project has provided a range of classes for all ages, volunteer opportunities and social events to residents across the county. With a recently renewed lease on their Tijuana River Valley Regional Park farm, the project is looking forward to the expanding their work and mission in the next year.

Credit: San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project

Credit: San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project

We welcome Mel Lions, Director of San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project. He shares the history of the project, its current efforts and what we can continue to look forward to from the project (in addition to tasty, fresh, locally grown food). We welcome his insights.

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How did the idea for San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project originate?
In December 2000, a local farmer called a group of his friends together to inform us that the land he’d been renting was going on the market, that a developer was interested in turning the rich farmland into a gated polo field surrounded by mansions. Instead, our friend proposed that the community buy the land to preserve it as farmland. The farmer was using about four acres out of 160, most of which was growing hay. The land had ample well water, had only ever been farmed, and enjoyed deep, rich soil. We didn’t know each other but we knew him and the delicious food he was able to grow, and decided this was a worthwhile effort.

We were enthusiastic and idealistic, but had no formal organization, no business plan, and mostly no idea that we had little chance of raising $8 million in a short amount of time. But because we were clueless, we tried. We developed a concept to take the 160 acres and install a variety of agricultural ventures — including row and field crops, dairy and eggs, grains and pasture — to unite the various operations into a cooperative venture, and use the entire operation as a place to train the next generation of farmers.

Credit: San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project

Credit: San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project

As we went around the community urging people to “buy the farm!” the most common response we got was, “Why? Why should I give you money from my pocket to do that?” While the local food movement was awakening in other cities around the country, we discovered that it did not exist in San Diego in the year 2001, and we ultimately failed to buy the land.

But over those two years of effort we had grown to like each other. We found we worked well together, that the cause was worthy, and decided that we were the ones to instigate the local-food movement for San Diego. We reorganized as an educational group, going all over town showing free movies about food and then leading discussions, setting up tables at local events, talking to many thousands of people about the importance of local farms to our community’s health, economy and environment. We grew our membership and expanded our outreach, and then gave ourselves a name that encapsulated our work: San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project. We were now a thing.

Our theme this month is projects and ideas that may be on a smaller scale but have the potential to have a big impact. What is the big idea your project is promoting?
We want to see food growing where we live: in our yards, our places of worship, our schools, and in the fertile fields surrounding our cities. Before the onset of the globalized food system in the 1990s, for ten millennia most food was grown in or near a city or town. Food grown where we live needs far less petroleum inputs to get to market, is picked for flavor and nutrition instead of for how it holds up to transportation, is better tasting and more nutritious, and supports the local economy rather than some mega-agribusiness that doesn’t live here.

Food is one of our primary connections to the environment; how we choose to eat food has a huge effect on the soil, water and atmosphere. Industrial food production is one of the most environmentally destructive industries. So we teach people how to grow food right here — from the small, backyard scale to small-scale farming — and empower them to take back control of their food from global agribusiness, to enjoy eating the most delicious and nutritious food around, and to marvel at the wonders of soil and nature and our relationship to all that lives. This would take us back to the way we once grew food and would have a tremendous effect on the environment. And our food would taste better too!

What are some of the ways your project works to encourage the growth and consumption of regional food?
We have two primary programs: Victory Gardens San Diego, where we teach people how to grow food in their yards, schools, and community spaces; and Wild Willow Farm & Education Center where we teach small-scale farming and serve as a community hub for local foodies. At Wild Willow Farm, we offer classes for adults on the fundamentals of growing food, and workshops on many topics from beekeeping to food preservation. We offer field trips to students of all ages, where we give hands-on lessons on topics ranging from the earthworm life cycle, how to make a school garden, cooking (and eating!) demonstrations, and tie agricultural ideas into science, math, and art.

Credit: San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project

Credit: San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project

Our website serves as a resource for people who are looking to support local food, offering lists of local farmers markets, small-farm CSAs, restaurants that feature local food, community groups with a food focus, and generally helping people who are looking to make a locally based change in their eating lifestyle.

 San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project started 14 years ago. What have been some of the biggest challenges and successes you have had to date?
Needing to raise $8 million in a couple years was a challenge, that’s for sure! But that failure only clarified the need and steeled our determination to be a force for change. Certainly gathering a group of people durable enough and determined to take this work on has been a challenge, but by keeping the purpose front and center, by being persistent and not giving up, and working hard to say “yes” as much as possible, opportunities opened up and we’ve found a solid team committed to make it work. After ten years as a volunteer group, people now have meaningful jobs with us.

Other primary hurdles have been bureaucratic: figuring out and meeting all the legal and regulatory requirements that have presented themselves. This has included forming a corporation, getting non-profit status, facing the myriad rules of small business, employment law, farming regulations, and leasing land. Dealing with these remains a full-time, non-agricultural job.

Our successes can be witnessed in the community of people who gather with us to grow food and collectively build the world we want to live in. Where there was once a handful of strangers, now there are hundreds — thousands — of people who have been affected by our message and efforts.

Credit: Roman-Photography/San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project

Credit: Roman-Photography/San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project

How does our community benefit when we buy and eat locally grown food?
Nature has a wondrous way of providing peak nutrition at the moment of peak flavor. Our food is more enjoyable and nutritious when we eat something picked for flavor rather than for profit. When we buy produce at a farmers market where there is no middle-man, the farmer gets a bigger piece of the pie and is more likely to spend that money back in the local economy, where it circulates (like blood!) and supports other local businesses; whereas most of the money spent at a supermarket supports an industrial food chain of which the farmer gets the littlest and last share. Plus farmers markets are vibrant community hubs where you can interact with your neighbors in unexpected ways and help bring the community alive.

Growing food in your front yard gives you instant connection to the people in your neighborhood, who will stop and engage with you, ask questions, give advice. I guarantee you can grow enough food to give away to your neighbors, strengthening your connection with those who live around you.

In the history of humanity, in every culture in the world, we’ve always celebrated our culture milestones with food. Every time we gather for any occasion, whether religious or secular, for births, rights of passage, marriage or death, there is food. Isn’t it a validation of the importance of our culture when we prepare and share the best of what we have, rather than what is the cheapest and most convenient?

San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project just signed a lease with the County of San Diego Department of Parks and Recreation to continue to farm and teach in the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park for the next five years. This area is home to your project’s Wild Willow Farm and Education Center. Can you tell our readers more about what happens at Wild Willow Farm?
There are three cornerstones in Wild Willow Farm’s structure: Agriculture, Education and Community. Each of these interact to create a vibrant and growing network of citizens who are activated to create a more vital and connected food network for our region.

During the week at Wild Willow Farm, we have farm-school students learning basic farming skills from our talented teaching staff. Every Saturday we host farm-school classes, open volunteering, and community events. Once a month from March through October, we host a free open house/potluck, with farm and nature tours, yoga, local musicians, specialty classes, and of course food, including delicious farm-fresh pizza on sourdough crust cooked in our wood-fired oven. As the sun goes down we light a fire in our cob bonfire ring and invite everyone to pound a drum and dance, and celebrate the connections offered by our community.

Credit: San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project

Credit: San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project

What types of educational classes and events does your organization offer?
Most of our work centers on education and community building. Toward those ends we offer home-gardening courses through our Victory Gardens San Diego program. These are usually three weekend classes at people’s homes. It’s a hands-on approach that takes novices through every vital stage in growing food, with the homeowner getting a garden built in their yard.

At Wild Willow Farm & Education Center, we offer year-round courses in small-scale sustainable farming, teaching at levels from basic to advanced in our School for Sustainable Farming. Every Saturday we invite the public to volunteer on the farm and get hands-on experience while enjoying fresh air and good food, all while connecting with interesting and engaging people.

At the farm we offer periodic classes in subjects ranging from beekeeping to fruit-tree care, fermentation to medicinal herbs. We host social events and monthly community gatherings to celebrate and network with people who understand the importance that good food has in creating an enjoyable, delicious and meaningful life.

 How does your project engage and inform the public about its efforts? What tools and methods do you use?
Our primary outreach is via our website, social media and our periodic newsletter. Because we’ve been around for a while, we’ve got friends and partners all over San Diego, and this network offers us a broad reach into our market. Now that we’ve established our farm and gotten a new lease, we expect to do further outreach to local print and broadcast media as well.

The Farmers Market in the Little Italy Community of San Diego, CA. (Credit:

The Farmers Market in the Little Italy Community of San Diego, CA.

Your organization helps people find locally grown food in San Diego County. Your website provides a list of restaurants, organic markets, farmers markets, farm stands, wholesale distributors, etc. Is not being able to find locally grown food a common complaint you hear? Why do you think it difficult for people to find locally grown food?
It used to be, but not so much any more! But every day there are folks just entering the local food scene, and by listing resources we give them a hand up. Also, more restaurants are offering locally sourced ingredients and we want to encourage them by giving them free promotion for taking that leap. The more restaurants and markets that serve or sell locally grown food, the more people are exposed to the local food concept.

There are some structural issues that would make access to local food easier, such as reinstitution of a local food hub where local farmers could aggregate their products so more restaurants and markets could source locally grown produce. A couple decades ago, downtown San Diego had a number of produce wholesalers who purchased food from local farmers, but this system was abandoned and replaced by larger, Los Angeles-based food distribution centers. So now, even food that is grown in San Diego and consumed here has probably been to Los Angeles and back!

This movement is all about connections. Helping get people connected to where their food comes from remains one of our primary purposes.

What’s next for San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project? What should people look forward to on the horizon?
We intend to keep expanding our work: offering more classes, connecting to more school kids, expanding our farm, adding depth to our efforts. The difference between gardening and farming is that farming is a business, so in 2015 we’ll be offering advanced farming courses in the Business of Farming, teaching classes in production planning, regulatory and certification requirements for small farmers, employment issues, and other non-horticultural necessities of farming.

We’re working to do more outreach to local schools, helping mentor school gardens and nutrition programs, and offering after-school programs at the farm to give students a healthy, outdoor activity to meet their service-learning requirements.

Because Wild Willow Farm is in a park where we’re not allowed live, longer range we’d like to get land of our own where we can live and grow our farm school — the only one in Southern California, and one of the few in the country that offer year-round growing — and offer staff and student residency and community-building programs. This is perhaps a refined echo of our original effort that failed.

How can San Diegans get involved in the San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project? Are there other projects or networks like yours nationally that you can share with our readers in other parts of the country?
We invite everyone to come to the farm every Saturday and volunteer and get their hands dirty. We host events throughout the year, so keep checking our website or sign up for our newsletter to stay informed about what we’re doing. During the warm months (March – October), we host a free community open house/potluck where you can enjoy a unique experience and meet a lot of people involved in this movement.

While we are an entirely local organization, there are organizations and efforts springing up all over the country — too many to name — so the best bet would be to meet people at your local farmers market or search the web for sustainable food in your area. “Foodies” by nature are gregarious and interesting, and I promise that by connecting to your local food network, you will be enjoying the most fabulous and delicious food!

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We hope this interview left you hungry for more. Click here to learn more about the San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project and to find locally grown food across San Diego County.

Liz Faris, Account Manager
Collaborative Services, Inc.
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