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Air Force Certifying F-16s to Use Biofuels

by John Reed on March 1, 2012

In case you haven’t seen this, the Air Force is flying F-16s on biofuel derived from the camelina plant. Yup, years after the air service certified most of its aviation fleet to fly on coal-derived synthetic fuel (stuff that was pioneered by the Nazis and apartheid-era South African governments because no one liked them and the world cut off their oil supplies) it is now certifying its jets to fly on something a little more environmentally friendly.

(The Navy has been working to get its ships and planes certified to run on biofuels for a while now, too.)

Its plan to certify its aviation fleet to run biofuel is very similar to its previous effort with coal-based fuels. The F-16s are being checked out to fly on a 50/50 blend of camelina oil and regular JP-8 jet fuel. The service has long said that it wants to use its status as the government’s biggest energy buyer t drive the market for alternative fuels that are produced in the United States. This would reduce the military’s reliance on foreign oil, service officials have argued.

Here’s what the service has to say about the effort.

In a joint effort by Airmen from the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and Airmen from the Ohio Air National Guard’s 180th Fighter Wing, the F-16 Fight Falcon is currently undergoing a field service evaluation of biofuel.

As the largest consumer of energy in the Defense Department and $8 billion spent on fuel in fiscal 2011, Air Force officials are working toward making the fleet a little “greener” by researching, testing and ultimately implementing the use of alternative fuels.

Although other airframes, such as the C-17 Globemaster III, have been certified to use biofuel for unrestricted operations, this is the first evaluation of the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Two F-16s from the 180th FW fleet have been designated to test the 50/50 blend of Jet Propellant-8 petroleum and Hydroprocessed Renewable Jet fuel derived from the camelina plant. Camelina is essentially a weed that grows throughout the United States and requires very little horticulture.

The Ohio Air Guard F-16s (shown above) have been flying on biofuel since December and, as expected, there has been almost no noticeable difference in the airplanes’ performance running biofuels versus using pure jet fuel.

The jets have been flying with the blend since mid-December and will continue until the test sample is depleted.

“Our ability to exercise and use this stuff on a small scale or case-by-case basis makes us ideally suited to test the fuel,” said Col. William Gieze, the 180th Mission Support Group commander.

The staff at AFRL worked with commercial fuel manufacturers to develop a blend that would meet Air Force specifications. Considerations such as the flash and freeze points of the fuel were some of the major factors when determining the specifications for the F-16.

“Manufacturers are making alternative fuels for both the military and commercial customers,” said Dr. Tim Edwards, a senior chemical engineer for the AFRL fuels division. “Typically, they’ll send samples of their fuel, and we’ll evaluate and say, ‘Yes, you’re on the right track, this could be a jet fuel.’ When they get to the point where they can make large enough quantities, we’ll hand them over them off to the Alternative Fuels Certification office.”

The Air Force goal, by 2016, is to have half of the fuel that is purchased domestically to be at least a 50/50 blend of conventional and alternative fuel, Edwards said.

Another goal for the researchers and developers was to make the transition as seamless as possible. To date, there has been no additional training, equipment or maintenance required to begin using the fuel.

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