If a biofuel refined from a scruffy little weedlike plant called camelina can hit supersonic speeds in a Navy fighter jet, imagine what it can do in your car. That’s the idea driving Sustainable Oils, which has been working on high performance aviation biofuel from camelina for about five years. Last fall the company started delivering the first of an initial 40,000 gallon consignment for the Navy to test camelina biofuel on a bench mounted Super Hornet F414 engine.
This year on April 22nd, the U.S. Navy put an F/A-18 Super Hornet in flight using a 50-50 blend of conventional jet and camelina biofuel. Dubbed the Green Hornet in honor of Earth Day, the aircraft is (according to the Navy) the first to reach supersonic speeds using a 50-50 biofuel blend. The Navy might not claim sole ownership of that mark for long: the U.S. Air Force is also testing camelina biofuel.
Sustainable Biofuel from Weeds
To an outside observer it might seem like the biofuel industry has been making a rapid transition out of food crops (bad idea in the first place) and into biofuels based on weeds and other non-food crops. To Sustainable Fuels it’s been a long time coming. In a conversation with Gas 2.0, Scott Johnson of Sustainable Oils detailed why the company began focusing on camelina back when corn ethanol was the only biofuel the U.S. was focusing on. In addition to its biofuel qualities, camelina is a hardy, drought resistant species that can grow on marginal lands with minimal use of fertilizer and pesticides. In wheat farming states like Montana where there are few if any options for crop rotation, camelina can perform that role. That helps improve soil quality, reduce erosion, and provide an extra cash crop for farmers, without taking land from food crops. Camelina can also be harvested with the same equipment used in wheat farming.
What’s Next for Camelina Biofuel
According to a lifecycle analysis of camelina conducted at Michigan Tech with UOP LLC (a Honeywell company), camelina biofuel reduces carbon emissions by 80% compared to petroleum jet fuel. Both the Navy and the Air Force plan on testing a number of different aircraft, and Sustainable Oils is on track to provide an additional 100,000 gallons. Camelina is also starting to nudge its way into the civilian market, with Japan Airlines taking the lead on a camelina fueled 747 test flight.
Image: Green Hornet jet courtesy of U.S. Navy via Sustainable Oils.