First flight takes place of an aircraft solely powered by jet biofuel blend derived from plant biomass
An A-10C Thunderbolt II from Eglin Air Force Base flies along the coast of Florida during the first flight of an aircraft powered solely by a biomass-derived jet fuel blend (photo: USAF)
Thu 8 Apr 2010 – The US Air Force has carried out the first-ever feasibility flight powered solely by a blended hydrotreated renewable jet fuel. The twin-engined A-10C Thunderbolt used a 50/50 blend of conventional military JP-8 jet fuel and a biofuel derived from camelina. A recent report projects that one billion gallons of camelina biofuel could be available to the aviation and biodiesel sectors by 2025. Meanwhile, camelina producer and supplier Great Plains has entered an into agreement with Accelergy to blend camelina oil with coal to create a jet biofuel in a process it claims to be 20 percent lower in CO2 emissions.
The A-10 demonstration flight, described by the pilot as “uneventful and predictable”, took off from the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida after a two-month ground test period. The A-10 has the ability to segregate its fuel system so that one set of fuel tanks can be paired to one engine while the other set can be paired to the other engine without mixing fuel between systems. This makes the aircraft a perfect platform to begin testing fuel blends, said Capt. Andrew Radzicki, a test engineer with the 40th Flight Test Squadron, which conducted the demonstration flight.
Officials from the Alternative Fuels Certification Office oversaw the flight.
According to the US Air Force (USAF), a second demonstration flight is planned for this summer using an F-15 Eagle, a twin-engined tactical fighter, to test performance parameters. Later in the year, test flights are planned using a C-17 Globemaster III, a large military transporter, and an F-22 Raptor stealth fighter.
Last week, during a visit to the Andrews Air Force Base, President Obama announced that on April 22 – Earth Day – a US Navy F-18 Green Hornet fighter aircraft is due to undertake the first-ever supersonic biofuel flight. The fuel will be a 50/50 blend of camelina and conventional naval jet fuel.
Camelina has the advantage as a biomass since it is already grown in North America. A US pioneer in the manufacture and marketing of fuel and chemicals from the plant, Great Plains – The Camelina Company, has just entered into an agreement with Texas-based Accelergy Corporation to produce jet fuel from blended camelina oil and domestic coal using coal-biomass-to-liquid technology (CBTL). Great Plains supplied camelina oil for producing the blend used to power the KLM biofuel flight last November.
CBTL transforms raw material into feedstock through a gasification process, which is then turned to fuel using a liquefaction process that requires thermal and catalytic reactions. Accelergy claims the process provides 20% lower CO2 emissions than conventional refining methods, resulting, it says, in cleaner burning fuel and more efficient engines. Great Plains says the technology has been proven in laboratory and small scale pilot projects, and the agreement will help fulfil the next required step of commercial demonstration and accelerate scale-up.
“To date, there has been limited construction of facilities capable of producing these synthetic fuels in commercial quantities,” said Dr Rocco Fiato, Vice President of Business Development and Planning at Accelergy. “The slow adoption and construction of these facilities is the result of the need for technological improvements in synthetic fuel production processes.”
Fiato said the technology and the use of camelina would provide meaningful quantities of jet biofuel for military use.
The USAF consumes 2.4 billion gallons of jet fuel per year and has set a short-term goal to have all its aircraft certified to fly using alternative fuels by 2012. By 2016, half of the continental US military jet fuel requirement is mandated to be met by alternative fuels – a goal driven by as much a desire for energy independence from imported fossil-based fuels as for environmental concerns.
Sustainable Oils, which sourced the camelina for the Japan Airlines’ biofuel demonstration flight, signed two contracts in September and October last year to supply the USAF with a total of 140,000 gallons of camelina-based jet fuel, with an option on a further 250,000 gallons.
According to the company, camelina was selected not only because of its successful commercial flight trials but also because it does not compete with food crops – it can be grown in rotation with wheat – and has been proven to reduce carbon emissions by more than 80%. In addition, camelina has a naturally high oil content, can be grown on marginal land, is drought tolerant and requires less fertilizer and herbicides.
The camelina for the USAF contract was primarily grown and harvested in 2009 by farmers in Montana. Sustainable Oils, which claims to have the largest camelina research programme in the US, also has several field trials in Washington State.
A new report from Biomass Advisors, the research division of Biofuels Digest, projects that one billion gallons of camelina biofuel would be produced annually for the aviation and biodiesel sectors by 2025. This would create 25,000 new jobs, produce over $5.5 billion in new revenues and $3.5 billion in new agricultural income for US and Canadian farmers.
The projections are contained in the 116-page ‘Camelina Aviation Biofuels Market Opportunity and Renewable Energy Strategy Report’, which offers assessment and analysis of the crop.
Although the growth of camelina as an aviation biofuel would seem to be driven by US military needs, the crop is also expected to find its way into commercial aviation use.
Last December, a group of 14 major airlines, led by the Air Transport Association of America, signed memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with AltAir Fuels for future supplies of camelina-derived renewable jet fuel and diesel (see story). Under the agreement, the airlines from the United States, Mexico, Canada and Germany will negotiate a future purchase of up to 750 million gallons.
The fuel is to be produced at a new facility in Anacortes, Washington State, from camelina sourced from Sustainable Oils and refined using technology from Honeywell’s UOP. Operations are slated to begin in 2012, with the potential for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport becoming the world’s first major airport to supply its airline customers with drop-in renewable jet fuel.