Green Hornet flies supersonic on camelina blend

By Lisa Gibson
Posted April 26, 2010, at 4:44 p.m. CST

In an effort to confirm no difference in performance exists between a 50/50 camelina biofuel blend and standard petroleum-based JP-5, the U.S. Navy will log 23 test flight hours with the biofuel in an unmodified F/A-18 Super Hornet dubbed Green Hornet. The most recent flight was on Earth Day, April 22, when the aircraft broke the sound barrier, travelling at 1.2 mach, according to Billy Ray Brown, public affairs officer for the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division.

The test program is a significant milestone in the certification and operational use of biofuels by the Navy and Marine Corps. "We're trying to certify it as a drop-in replacement," Brown said, adding that all of the feedback thus far indicates the camelina-derived fuel does serve as a drop-in, but tests won't be complete until mid-June. Final approval and certification of the biofuel blend could be six to nine months from the Earth Day flight.

The Navy is not growing the flowered plant nor producing the fuel. Instead, the Defense Energy Support Center awarded a $2.7 million contract to Sustainable Oils, a joint venture between Targeted Growth Inc. and Green Earth Fuels LLC, for 40,000 gallons of the biofuel, according to the Navy. During the fuel procurement process, a request for a proposal is submitted to the Defense Energy Support Center, outlining the needs and requirements, Brown explained, adding that the Navy lab requested a nonpetroleum, nonfood source. "[The Defense Energy Support Center] goes out with all the need requirements to do that collective buy," he said. "[Camelina] fit the bill."

The annual plant has seed pods about the size and shape of a small pea that are about 40 percent oil, compared with soybeans' 20 percent, according to Sustainable Oils, which says it has the largest camelina research program in the nation. The company calls the short-seasoned, fast growing crop the "darling" of biodiesel production. Camelina matures earlier than other crops so it's not dependent on rain later in the summer. It can also be harvested early, allowing the ground to absorb later-season rainfall to enter the next year in a better position, according to Sustainable Oils.

The blend went through the Navy's lab testing programs prior to any test flights. "Before we can use the fuel, we have to make sure we can use the fuel," Brown said. Test and certification protocols will identify fuel chemistry and physical properties testing; material, component and engine performance testing; operational aircraft testing; and fleet trials, according to the Navy. Critical certification requirements include chemical properties, material compatibility, component and propulsion system performance, and weapon system performance.

But testing and certification most likely won't stop with camelina. "The idea is to certify as many different fuels as possible," Brown said. The Navy hopes to source at least half of its total energy consumption from alternative sources by 2020.

The U.S. Air Force is catching on to camelina, as well, and flew an A-10 Thunderbolt II jet on a blend of camelina-derived biofuel and standard JP-8 jet fuel at the end of March. The Air Force has a goal to acquire half of its domestic aviation fuel from alternative fuel blends by 2016.