This 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.
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.
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.
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. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.