Office of Naval Research Promotes Alternative Energy Development, Education in Asia-Pacific

By David Smalley

Anuenue Elementary School in Honolulu, Hawaii, is an unlikely spot to discover how the Navy is shaping the future of alternative energy.

Students there are being introduced to science and engineering at early ages, and their teachers given advanced training in science and technology instruction techniques.

“Early science and engineering education and training is very important,” says Charles Naumu, the school’s principal. “This is the foundation for the future.”

Richard Carlin, director of the Office of Naval Research sea warfare and weapons department, says, “As the secretary of the Navy and others have noted, energy independence is literally a matter of national security.” Carlin is the champion of a program called the Asia-Pacific technology and education partnership, or APTEP (, which supports development of alternative energy — from encouraging early science education, to supporting innovative small businesses in the energy field.

“Our science and technology workforce is aging,” notes Carlin. “By 2020, more than 50 percent will be retirement-eligible. It’s urgent to replenish those ranks in order for the United States to continue to advance in the years ahead, and nowhere is this need more urgent than in the power and energy arena.”

As Department of Defense leaders have made clear, the issue of fuel costs associated with enormous use of oil by even one aircraft carrier, for instance, is a strategic concern. The nation can’t afford not to invest in alternative energy, with Department of Defense energy costs totaling almost $19 billion annually.

Security, risk and costs are all factors in Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’ ambitious energy goals, including a vision for a “great green fleet” for the nation’s defenders.

“The United States Navy and Marine Corps rely far too much on petroleum, a dependency that degrades the strategic position of our country and the tactical performance of our forces,” Mabus observed in 2009. “The global supply of oil is finite. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find and exploit, and over time, costs continue to rise.”

So the battle for energy independence takes place in spots like Anuenue Elementary and other schools in Honolulu with teachers getting APTEP-provided training and tools to teach science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

It takes place in locations like the Hawaii Sustainable Energy Research Facility, which with APTEP support is helping to advance fuel-cell technology — something supporters see as holding revolutionary possibilities for powering vehicles, pier-side generators, unmanned undersea platforms and more.

And the energy battle takes place most visibly in the marketplace, where APTEP supports a program called Energy Excelerator, helping startup companies bring new products from the lab to the civilian and military user.

Hawaii has become the new frontier for energy exploration. The state’s unique features make it the nation’s alternative-energy test bed. For naval researchers, Hawaii’s ports, laboratory facilities and unmatched abundance of reliable wind, solar, wave, geothermal and other natural resources make it the perfect place to experiment, explore and develop new power and energy capabilities.

Hawaii’s physical location is a plus as well, as the United States continues a well-publicized pivot to the Pacific Rim. The state’s geographic spot makes it a natural anchor for research partnerships with America’s Asia-Pacific allies including Thailand, Japan, Australia and Vietnam.

Energy research has become a quiet but growing part of America’s strategic and diplomatic vision.

Even Hawaii’s energy liabilities — it’s a state nearly 90 percent dependent on expensive imported oil — serve to create strong local support for energy-related work.

“We are a state with clear logistical interest in moving forward and supporting alternative energy,” says Dawn Lippert, director of Energy Excelerator. “We have abundant opportunities to explore solar, geothermal, wind and other energy options, and our political leaders as well as population are incredibly supportive of this effort.”

Researchers know that energy improvement will take time, and likely not come in one “Eureka!” moment.  

“APTEP takes a multifaceted approach to advancing energy independence for the Navy,” says Carlin. “Since energy, in its broadest sense, touches virtually every aspect of our daily lives, it makes sense to look at multiple ways to discover, coordinate or support advanced energy research.”

APTEP is centered around three main themes: education and the workforce; research and technology; and business and the marketplace.

Through education programs, APTEP supports training for teachers and students. When students graduate from high school with a strong foundation in STEM subjects, many go to college, where APTEP supports energy programs in places like the University of Hawaii.

Some of those college graduates ultimately join the energy research community, developing innovative new technologies.

APTEP’s marketplace vision helps innovative products and small businesses traverse an often difficult road to viability.

One of the critical components to discovering energy alternatives is improved STEM education. Research shows this process can’t start too early.

“It is incumbent upon us as educators — teachers and those supporting the students — to prepare them for a world that we may not be familiar with,” says Kathy Kawaguchi, director of the APTEP-supported engineering success in STEM program at Chaminade University in Honolulu.

“These programs have to engage students, all while recognizing and respecting the distinctive history and culture of the state,” notes Carlin. “It’s important to ensure that the projects are understood by the kids to be compatible with their cultural environment.”

That’s certainly the case at Anuenue Elementary, which also serves as a Hawaii immersion school. There, children speak Hawaiian daily in class, and students even sound the traditional Hawaiian conch at the start of the day. Some energy-related lessons are translated from English to Hawaiian.

“At our elementary school, we’re trying to cover the main science and engineering programs that are covered in all the other schools — and that includes the biological, the physical and all other environmental sciences,” says Naumu. “With the support of ONR, we’re able to do that while helping the students learn about contributions made by the early Hawaiians.”

The number of partnering elementary schools is growing, and teachers report more kids are embracing science, engineering and math. Another elementary school partner is Palolo Elementary, where young students proudly show visitors impressive science and technology projects they have undertaken, via assignments from teachers who have gone through Chaminade University training.  

“Not only do all of these programs give us a grounding so that we can do things we are actually interested in, such as STEM topics, but it also gives us a community that we can bounce ideas off of,” says Roosevelt High School senior Sareef Parran. “I think the information I have gained from the program is invaluable.”

APTEP also supports breakthroughs in power and energy research. Some of those efforts take place in a lab at the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, part of the University of Hawaii and a key ONR partner.

“HNEI conducts work on a wide variety of alternative energy areas that benefit both the state and address national issues,” says the institute’s director, Rick Rocheleau. “We do work in energy efficiency, electrochemical power systems, fuel cells and batteries — alternatives to conventional internal combustion engines.”

Researchers are looking into methane hydrates, potentially a huge source of fuel in the deep ocean. Other promising technologies include biofuels; power generation; and the development of micro-power grids — resilient, smaller electrical grids that draw from sustainable natural energy sources.

These micro-grids, in particular, offer opportunities to increase renewable power generation while increasing energy reliability and security. Three U.S. naval bases are currently being reviewed for micro-grid applicability. Leaders at HNEI and the Applied Research Laboratory at the University of Hawaii are working with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command to develop a plan for the Navy’s energy needs in the state.

One micro-grid is currently in operation on Maui, and two others are planned for Molokai and Coconut islands.

Partnerships have emerged from micro-grid efforts. The Chiang Mai World Green City, for instance, was established two years ago at Chiang Mai Rajabhat University in Thailand, with support from ONR. The region uses solar cells, batteries for energy storage and a direct-current microgrid to power more than 20 buildings over 200 acres, including residences, offices, businesses and a vegetable farm.

“This system is unique in that it uses direct current to power an entire community,” Carlin says. “While this concept is perfect for isolated and remote communities, it also could be used in the future on naval installations and even ships at sea to bring power to our sailors and Marines wherever they are.”

Scientists in Thailand will establish another smart grid-powered village at the University of Phayao, and introduce sustainable technologies to military barracks and other communities throughout the country.

Research partnerships have taken root in Vietnam as well. HNEI and the Institute of Energy Science of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology recently signed a memorandum of understanding to train technical personnel and exchange scientific data regarding renewable energy.

Innovative companies working on alternative energy products face a number of obstacles — including an often dizzying array of bureaucratic paperwork. The APTEP-supported Energy Excelerator program helps promising companies and ideas, says Carlin. “The Energy Excelerator team has done some outstanding work finding and supporting innovative small businesses working on alternative energy, and not only funding seed efforts, but, very importantly, bringing in mentors.”

The Excelerator team works with the entrepreneur and venture capital communities, pairing volunteers from those arenas with nascent energy-related companies. “What I really want is technology that is applicable for the Navy, but that can also be commercially successful, driven by the marketplace,” says Carlin. “If you listen to what the secretary [Mabus] has to say about the various energy research areas, such as biofuels for instance: The things we need to pursue for the Navy need to be competitively priced.”

The program works to create startup programs for innovative firms. “It is really difficult to commercialize new energy technology,” notes Dawn Lippert, senior manager at EE. “It is often a long road; it takes a lot of capital and a fair amount of patience.”

Some of the programs that have been brought to market through EE support include advanced products in energy storage and batteries, smart grid technologies, transportation solutions and more. The group accepts about 15 companies per year out of a typical application pool of more than 200.

David Smalley is a writer and support contractor at the Office of Naval Research.

Topics: Energy, Energy Security

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