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MoD in push for alternative military energy tech

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The UK armed forces are looking to make a shift away from fossil fuels and into a range of alternative energy sources, according to reports. This is born as much from concerns over prices and security of supplies as any green motivation.

The Sunday Times reports that Paul Stein, MoD science/tech honcho, outlined the new camo-green thinking in a speech to the Royal Aeronautical Society in London last week.

Specific notions discussed included the use of synthetic fuel for aircraft. The US Air Force, alarmed by its dependence on crude oil from volatile regions such as Nigeria and the Gulf, has already certified several of its aircraft fleets to use synthetic liquid fuel made from coal or natural gas. This move is actually much less green - in terms of CO2 equivalent emissions - than using ordinary jetfuel, as a tonne of feedstock is normally burned in the conversion plant for each tonne of juice produced. The move is more brown, or even black, than it is green.

However, coal and gas for synthi-fuel are seen as possibly cheaper and easier to obtain than crude from the potentially war-torn African and Arabian/Persian coasts.

In the longer run, many in the aviation world hope that jet fuel could be made from sources such as saltwater algae. This would avoid the controversial use of food crops, the uncertainties of crude oil and the heavy carbon burden of fossil synthetics. However, algae able to grow in seawater without carbon-intensive fertilisers seem a long way off.

Other future MoD ploys, according to Stein, might include the use of biodiesel made from hardy jatropha plants which can grow in deserts. Such fuel might one day run the powerplants of British warships and tanks, though again there are obstacles ahead. Ultra-lightweight aircraft like the Qinetiq Zephyr testbed - now a contender in the US "Vulture" programme - might run instead on solar power.

The MoD is already, of course, a major UK user of secure low-carbon energy. The Royal Navy's latest submarines, the Astute class, will run on nuclear power for 25 years without refuelling at all, enabling them to ignore fuel supply issues during their operational life.

Apart from diversifed energy sources, the MoD also wants to big up certain other forms of new technology. In particular, there is apparently a desire for more unmanned aircraft able to carry weapons. At present, the UK has two Reaper drones which could be armed, but aren't. The new Watchkeeper aircraft due in service soon won't be able to carry weapons as it is too small. Under the Taranis project, however, Blighty will develop a small robot stealth bomber able to fly an entire mission including weapons delivery without human input.

Another key desire is the development of armoured vehicles which are invulnerable to likely enemy weapons and yet light enough to be air freighted. This goal is proving extremely difficult to achieve for war-wagon designers at present.

Read the Sunday Times report here. ®

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