Putting veggies on the front line: U.S. Navy seeks biofuels for jets

Biofuels recently got a big boost from the U.S. Navy with an announcement that Naval Air Systems Command would flight test fighter jets running on biofuels next spring or summer. This is a big vote of confidence for biofuels, given that fuel failure in a combat aircraft is likely to be a life-threatening event, particularly at higher speeds.

The Navy plans on putting three types of biofuels through their land-based paces by test firing engines in December and January of 2009. This is the second big aviation biofuels announcement in August, coming after an announcement that biofuels will be certified for use in commercial aviation by 2011. Last week, Rick Kamin, the Navy fuels lead, stated that "Our major goal is a drop-in replacement" for the Navy's petroleum-based fuels. "The field won't know the difference."
That's an amibitous but worthy goal. Both military and commercial flight budgets are highly exposed to oil price fluctuations. If such fluctuations and political risk exposure can be eliminated, its likely that airfares would become more stable and airlines could operate without needing expensive fuel-hedging strategies. Beyond that, fuels derived from plants are more eco-friendly: burning biofuels doesn't increase the net amount of Greenhouse gases because plants absorb CO2 as they grow.

The Navy has asked for 40,000 gallons of jet fuel to test. The fuel could be made from any number of feedstocks including algae, jatropha, and camelina. In a politically astute move, the Navy specifically is looking for feedstocks not derived from crops used for human food, such as corn, palm or soy oil.

To make the biofuels flight-ready, the Navy will likely mix them with standard petroleum-based jet fuel. Biofuels lack a key compound that helps seal gaskets and rubber seams in jet engines These natural fuels also lack the lubricating ability of petroleum-based products, an absence that concerns engineers who fear that using biofuels alone could cause rapid wear and tear on less well-lubricated jet turbines.

The Navy also needs to test for a host of other factors, including: how difficult it is to separate biofuels from water, how well these fuels handle long-term storage common on aircraft carriers, and how much they will cost to refine as compared to standard jet fuels. The Navy hopes to have a biofuel candidate ready for normal flight duty by 2013, a relatively quick timetable considering the leap of faith that flying on plant fumes requires.
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