Biofuel Powered Jets in the US Military

General Omar Bradley, the last five-star General of the United States Army from World War II and the first military head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, once noted that, “Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics.”

Military units can only accomplish what their equipment allows. Of critical importance to all modern armed forces is the fuel that powers engines, particularly given the high-performance demands of jet airplanes. In its quest to achieve a competitive advantage over future adversaries and secure its logistical base, the US Armed Forces is moving to adopt biofuels for its air fleets, both fixed-wing and helicopter.

The United States Navy has set a goal of obtaining, by the end of this decade, half its fuels from renewable sources. This is not just a talking point on a press release: last year, on Earth Day, the “Green Hornet,” a Navy F/A-18 warplane, broke the sound barrier using a camelina biofuel from Honeywell’s UPO subsidiary.

A US Navy Seahawk Helicopter recently flew on a 50/50 blend of Solajet HRJ-5 and petroleum-derived jet fuel. Solazyme provided the Solajet HRJ-5 algal biofuel. Solazyme’s algal biofuel can serve as a drop-in replacement for traditional jet fuel for military aircraft, with the ultimate goal of freeing the United States Armed Forces from its reliance on imported oil.

At the Air Show at Andrews Air Force Base on Memorial Day 2011, two of the US Air Force’s Thunderbirds, the elite aerial stunt team, were powered by a biofuel blend from camelina flowers. By 2013, the US Air Force seeks to have all of its planes certified for biofuel use.

It is hardly surprising that the military would be at the vanguard of biofuel usage: it is the nature of armed forces to be innovative. The US Armed Forces, as an example, integrated long before the country did. President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 integrated the military in 1948 — American schools were not integrated until the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board in 1954. Furthermore, the Supreme Court was not integrated until 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall, who argued Brown vs. Board of Education before the highest court in the land over a decade before.

Technology also develops more quickly in the military. Many high-tech items that eventually become quotidian civilian products (planes, helicopters, computers, etc.) are initially perfected by the armed forces. The first digital computer, the ENIAC, was used to calculate the trajectory for artillery shells. For biofuels, it is no different.

This is partly due to the military having different goals and objectives than the civilian sector. Armed forces do not have to worry about making a profit; all that matters is accomplishing the goal with acceptable risks and costs. In addition, the safety and comfort requirements are much more relaxed for military missions. It has been difficult to deploy biofuels on commercial flights at present, as airlines must use standard fuels with very precise properties detailed by jet fuel specifications, such as in ASTM D1655.

The first transatlantic biofuel flight took place in June of 2011, with a Gulfstream G450, owned by Honeywell and powered 50/50 by its Green Jet Fuel and petroleum-based jet fuel, flying from New Jersey, USA, to Paris, France. The results of the test flight by the experimental business jet follow:

  • Approximately 5.5 metric tons less of net carbon dioxide was unleashed into the atmosphere;
  • 20 gallons less fuel was burned; and
  • There was no reported difference in performance.

In the military, performance trumps safety. A high-octane gas from Texas oilfields allowed allied warplanes to emerge victorious in World War II. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin once remarked that World War II was a “victory of octanes and engines.” British and American warplanes, due to their superior fuel, could fly faster, climb higher, turn tighter and fight longer than those of the Axis powers, eventually dominating the skies over Europe, Africa and Asia.

In terms of logistics, military commanders must have secure supply lines. With the United States importing well over half its oil at present, biofuels allow for a domestic source of propellant for warplanes, from jet fighters to helicopters. With diversity in fuel type and in some cases lower costs, more funds then become available for other needs (equipment, training, personnel costs, etc.). Polluting less with biofuels, the military will also develop more support from the civilian sector. Using biofuels in high-profile demonstrations, such as the Thunderbirds and “Green Hornet”, assists in recruiting and retention. Biofuels are the latest new technology to be embraced by the US Armed Forces, for all the right reasons.