News / USA

US Fighter Jet Powered by Plant Fuel

US Navy, commercial airlines study camelina-based biofuel

Multimedia

Audio

The US Navy is testing a fuel for its fighter jets that is 50 percent petroleum-based and 50 percent derived from a seed called camelina.
The US Navy is testing a fuel for its fighter jets that is 50 percent petroleum-based and 50 percent derived from a seed called camelina.

The roar of jet engines splits the air over the U.S. Navy's testing grounds in Patuxent River, Maryland, as an F-18 fighter plane takes to the skies. Powering this supersonic jet fighter is a fuel that is 50 percent petroleum-based and 50 percent derived from a seed called camelina.

Amid concerns about climate change, volatile oil prices and, most recently, a massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. Navy and the commercial aviation industry are testing biofuels derived from camelina and other sources as an alternative to crude oil.

Rick Kamin, heads of the Navy's alternative-fuel testing program, has nothing against petroleum.

"Petroleum is great," he says. "We've developed all our systems forever to operate on petroleum. The issue with petroleum is, importing the petroleum, price volatility of petroleum, and shipping a lot of our dollars to buy the petroleum overseas."

Kamin says domestically produced biofuels could help make the Navy's fuel supply more secure -- and less dependent on imported oil -- while helping farmers and workers at home.

Massage oil to jet fuel

Powering supersonic jets is just the latest use for this ancient oilseed.

"If you were a Roman senator, after a hard day at the Forum, you may have walked home and stopped in with your masseuse for a little relaxation and a good massage, and he may have used camelina oil as the lubricant," says

Scott Johnson, president of the biofuel company Sustainable Oils.

Johnson says in the 19th century camelina oil was a popular lamp fuel.

Today, Kamin says, it works just as well as petroleum fuel to power jet airplanes.

"Every test we've put these fuels into our systems, everything has looked no worse than petroleum and sometimes performed even better than our petroleum fuel," he says.

Chemically speaking, it's not surprising, says renewable fuels chief Jim Rekoske at refinery equipment maker Honeywell UOP, because the camelina-based fuel "is not that different from a diesel fuel or a jet fuel."

And fighter plane fuel is not that different from passenger plane fuel. Japan Airlines was one of several that successfully flight-tested biofuels last year.

High cost of petroleum

Recent spikes in oil prices are a big factor driving the interest in biofuels. The airlines still reeling from the 2008 spike in crude oil prices.

"I think with crude oil prices as high as they are, it incentivizes a lot of people to look for the alternative," says John Rau, head of fuels management for American Airlines. "When crude is at 100 dollars a barrel, it changes things pretty dramatically."

But environmental concerns are a factor, too. Burning fuel creates carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Growing plants absorb carbon dioxide as they grow.

Rekoske says the increasing interest in biofuels has created an opportunity to,"number one, extend our business into something that's very important for the environment, and number two, to extend it in an impactful and meaningful way."

In the next decade, Rekoske's goal is for up to one-third of all U.S. transportation fuels to be biofuels, including camelina oil.

Food vs. fuel

But Jim Bartis at the RAND Corporation is not convinced that growing camelina to replace crude oil is such a good idea. According to a study he co-authored at RAND, "Producing just one percent of the oil used in the United States would require 10 percent of all the crop land in the United States," he says. "All crop land. Not just crop land devoted to seed crops. That's a huge amount of displacement."

Displacing all that crop land would affect food production. And if camelina displaces wheat, for example, he says, "That means somewhere else in the world, someone's going to be clearing a forest or grassland so wheat can grow."

Clearing a forest releases large amounts of greenhouse gases that may cancel out the benefits of replacing petroleum.

Right now, the question is moot, because very few farmers grow camelina.

$15 per liter

And, says the Navy's Rick Kamen, "There are no full-scale production plants to make this type of fuel. So there needs to be a commercial investment."

Kamin says commercial investment would bring down the price. The Navy paid about $15 per liter to test camelina fuel, compared to about $1 per liter for petroleum fuel.

Camelina is just one candidate for the biofuel of the future. Others range from animal fats to algae. Honeywell UOP's Jim Rekoske says we'll need them all.

"Those can all provide, by themselves, only a small fraction. But in aggregate, they can now start to make, again, an impactful difference."

A difference that may help change what powers the Navy's fighters, as well as the American economy.

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs