The 45 minute test flight, conducted at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, drew hundreds of onlookers, including Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, who has made the exploration and adoption of alternative fuels a priority for the Navy and Marine Corps.
Mabus observed the flight and tracked its data from a Project Engineering Station at the air station's Atlantic Test Range. After the jet landed, he met the pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Tom Weaver, of Billerica, Massachusetts.
"The alternative fuels test program is a significant milestone in the certification and ultimate operational use of biofuels by the Navy and Marine Corps," said Mabus.
"It's important to emphasize, especially on Earth Day, the Navy's commitment to reducing dependence on foreign oil as well as safeguarding our environment," he said. "Our Navy, alongside industry, the other services and federal agency partners, will continue to be an early adopter of alternative energy sources."
The Green Hornet, an F/A-18 Super Hornet strike fighter jet powered by a 50/50 biofuel blend. (Photo by Kelly Schindler courtesy U.S. Navy)
The Green Hornet runs on a 50/50 blend of conventional jet fuel and a biofuel that comes from camelina, a hardy U.S.-grown plant that can thrive even on marginal agricultural lands and does not compete with food crops.
Camelina sativa is a flowering plant in the same family as mustard, cabbage, rapeseed, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and brussels sprouts. Cultivated for 3,000 years in Northern Europe, the short-seasoned, fast-growing crop now is also grown in North America. Sometimes called false flax or gold-of-pleasure, it thrives in the semi-arid conditions of the Northern Plains.
Camelina plants are heavily branched, growing from one to three feet tall, producing seed pods that contain many small, oily seeds. In addition to its use as a biofuel, camelina is used to produce animal feed and vegetable oil for cooking that has an almond-like flavor and aroma and is high in antioxidants and vitamin E.
A life cycle analysis conducted by Michigan Technological University, MTU, shows that jet fuel made from camelina could lower greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 80 percent compared to conventional jet fuel.
David Shonnard, MTU professor of chemical engineering, analyzed the carbon dioxide emissions of jet fuel made from camelina oil over the course of its life cycle, from planting to tailpipe.
"Camelina jet fuel exhibits one of the largest greenhouse gas emission reductions of any agricultural feedstock-derived biofuel I've ever seen," he said. "This is the result of the unique attributes of the crop - its low fertilizer requirements, high oil yield, and the availability of its co-products, such as meal and biomass, for other uses."
Oil from the camelina plant was used in the U.S. Navy's Earth Day test flight. (Photo Montana Dept. of Agriculture)
Camelina was first tested as on a commercial jet by Japan Airlines in January 2009 and was used on November 23, 2009 by Dutch airline company KLM for the first biofuel flight with passengers on board.
The Defense Energy Support Center, which oversees procurement of biofuel for the Navy, recently awarded a $2.7 million contract to Sustainable Oils of Seattle and Bozeman, Montana, for 40,000 gallons of camelina-based fuel.
Sustainable Oils also provided the camelina-based jet fuel that powered the historic flight of a U.S. Air Force A-10C Thunderbolt II on March 25, which flew from Florida's Eglin Air Force Base on a 50-50 blend of camelina-based jet fuel and traditional jet fuel. The 90-minute flight marked the first time that any aircraft has been powered by conventional and biomass-based fuel in all engines.
The Navy's ultimate goal is to develop protocols to certify alternative fuels for use in its aircraft and ships.
"The aircraft flew exactly as we expected - no surprises," said Weaver, pilot for the Earth Day flight test. "The fuel works so well, all I needed to do was just fly the plane."
"Our mission today and for the rest of the flight tests is to confirm that the fuel makes no difference in performance across the Super Hornet's entire flight envelope, from subsonic to supersonic operations," said Mark Swierczek, Naval Air Systems Command propulsion flight test engineer.
"Preliminary results show there was no difference in engine ops attributable to the biofuel," said Swierczek. "Engine performance is normal and as expected."
The Navy Fuels Lab at Patuxent River is developing certification standards for a variety of renewable, alternative fuel sources.
"These flight tests are part of an extensive test and evaluation process that started last fall," said Rick Kamin, the Navy's Fuels team lead. "The fuel's chemical and physical properties were first analyzed in the lab, followed by component and engine performance testing - and now in a series of flight tests covering the entire flight envelope of the Super Hornet - including supersonic operations."
According to Kamin, final approval and certification for the camelina-based biofuel could take another six to nine months.
The Earth Day flight test is one of 15 planned test flights requiring approximately 23 flight-hours to complete, starting in mid-April and concluding by mid-June.
The Green Hornet biofuel program is the first aviation test program to test and evaluate the performance of a 50/50 biofuel blend in supersonic operations - a critical test point to successfully clear the F/A-18 E/F for biofuel operations through its entire flight envelope.
Once successfully demonstrated on the F/A-18 F414 engine, the Navy will expand its certification efforts to other Navy and Marine Corps aircraft and Navy tactical systems.
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