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Agriculture The U.S. Air Force becomes the first to test run an aircraft using a camelina biofuel blend

Published on March 31st, 2010 | by Tina Casey

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U.S. Air Force Pumps Up A-10C Thunderbolt II with Camelina Biofuel

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March 31st, 2010 by
 
The U.S. Air Force becomes the first to test run an aircraft using a camelina biofuel blendThis is a lesson to all weeds: dream big.  Camelina is a scrawny looking plant that also goes by the unflattering moniker “false flax,” yet it may turn out to be the biofuel of choice for U.S. military aircraft.  The U.S. Air Force has just announced the successful flight of an A-10C Thunderbolt II using a blend of half camelina and half conventional jet fuel, and it plans to test the blend on additional aircraft over the next couple of years.  Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy has also set its sights on camelina-based jet fuel.

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Weed though it may be, camelina has also been cultivated as an oilseed crop for centuries and therein lies its charm, sustainably speaking.  Camelina been championed by a number of biofuel companies including Sustainable Oils, which has supplied camelina biofuel for both the Air Force and the Navy test runs.  The company may soon have company; Shell (yes, the petroleum company) is set on becoming the biggest of the big-oil companies to use biofuel as a profitability-booster.

Camelina and the U.S. Military

The Air Force plans on testing the camelina blend on an F-15 Eagle, a C-17 Globemaster III, and an F-22 Raptor, in order to see how it does on aircraft that vary widely in terms of performance, complexity, and fuel efficiency.  The ultimate goal is not just to reduce dependence on foreign oil.  As summed up eloquently by an Air Force spokesperson, the goal is to “…change the culture and mindset of our fuel consumption.”  More domestic production of fossil fuel is not the answer, and the Department of Defense dropped a big fat hint about that last fall, when it pointed out that conventional fuel costs about $400 per gallon to ferry to remote bases.

The Allure of Camelina Biofuel

The carbon emissions of camelina aviation fuel are about 80% less than petroleum jet fuel, according to a life cycle analysis conducted with Michigan Tech University.  Sustainable Oils points out that camelina also has a number of advantages over other biofuel crops.  It is a nonfood crop with a short, fast growing season, it needs less fertilizer, and it needs a relatively low amount of water.  The growing season ends in July, which frees up any late-summer rain to recharge the soil and help prevent soil loss caused by overly dry conditions.  Meal left over from the seed-crushing operation may be suitable for animal feed, though as of now Sustainable Oils and only one other company have approval to sell the meal as feed.  Camelina may also be a good candidate for growing on reclaimed brownfields or other lands that are unsuitable for food crops.

Non-Edible Biofuel

Shell appears to be among those betting on conventional food crops like sugar cane, but companies like Sustainable Oils are deeply involved in the next generation, focusing on biofuel from non-food crops that can be grown under a variety of conditions.  That includes a  number of biofuel-friendly weeds and even biofuel from trees.

Image: U.S. Air Force OA/A-10 Thunderbolt II by Master Sgt. Lance Cheung on wikimedia commons.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • Sven

    Haven’t we learned that bio-fuels, no matter where they come from, are just terrible for the environment? Does anybody on this site believe in the nutrient cycle?

  • juangault

    $400 per gallon to remote locations. Now if the Air Force can get remote energy without Pandoran tentacles to Shell, then maybe us isolationists (and fair commerce) have a chance of survival after all. I think the Air Force will still have someone to bomb, even after this end of the oil age happens.

  • MD

    Instead of leaving land fallow with the CRP program, and paying farmers to plant nothing, farmers should have to plant this instead…

    The only thing you need to worry about with petroleum companies getting on board with this crop is that they may start buying up land like crazy – Soylent Green meet Soylent Biofuel…

  • BK

    That’s really cool, even reducing jet fuel usage by half is a great start.

    Also, that is one sweet looking killing machine.

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