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Published on September 22nd, 2016 | by Tina Casey


100% “Invisible” Biofuel Powers US Navy’s Green Growler

September 22nd, 2016 by  

So, that was fast. Just a few years ago CleanTechnica took note of when the US Navy began demonstrating 50–50 biofuel blends in its aircraft. Despite loud objections from certain members of Congress, the Navy has been pushing forward with its biofuel initiatives and the result is the first test flight of a 100% jet biofuel earlier this month.

US Navy biofuel aircraft

Invisible Jet Biofuel For The US Navy

Things appear to have gone swimmingly with the test flight. The idea was to develop an “invisible” JP-5 jet fuel substitute that could be dropped into an existing aircraft — in this case Boeing’s advanced electronics jamming EA-18G Growler — without the pilot noticing any difference in performance.

Here’s the review from Lt. Cmdr. Bradley Fairfax, the pilot who flew the Growler on its September 1 flight at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland:

From takeoff to landing, you couldn’t tell any difference…The information presented to us in the airplane is pretty simplified but, as far as I could tell, the aircraft flew completely the same as [petroleum-based] JP-5 for the whole flight.

Don’t just take his word for it. Mary Picard, the Navy engineer who conducted the test monitoring from the ground, had this to say:

What we have seen is that the 100-percent bio-JP-5 appears to be basically transparent. It looks just like petroleum JP-5 in the airplane. So far, everything looks good and we haven’t noticed a difference.

As for performance, we’re assuming expectations would be high for an EA-18G flying on 100% biofuel. Boeing describes the aircraft thusly:

The EA-18G Growler is the most advanced airborne electronic attack (AEA) platform and is the only one in production today. A variant of the combat-proven F/A-18F Super Hornet, the Growler provides tactical jamming and electronic protection to U.S. military forces and allies around the world.

Boeing, by the way, has been front and center in the push to transition the aircraft industry out of petroleum dependency. The company has been waxing enthusiastic about the potentials for a salt-tolerant plant called salicornia, so it probably won’t surprise you to know that Boeing has paired up with Abu Dhabi’s Masdar to demonstrate a seawater-based biofuel crop system that also filters water and grows fish, to boot.

Agnostic Jet Biofuel For The US Navy

Biofuel took some hard knocks after the Bush Administration touched off a global food crisis with a biofuel policy that emphasized corn-to-ethanol, but the industry has already advanced to next-generation technologies and feedstocks.

That brings up another criteria of importance to the Navy,  source agnosticism. In other words, the Navy doesn’t care what the source is, as long as the final product meets performance standards.

Combined with the elimination of blending requirements, source agnosticism provides a huge logistical and strategic advantage over petroleum fuel.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Florida company that produced the fuel, Applied Research Associates, in partnership with Chevron Lummus Global (yes, that Chevron).

ARA lists some points in favor of its biofuel conversion process, dubbed Biofuels Isoconversion:

  • Feedstock agnostic – compatible with a wide range of waste fats, oils, and greases – no pretreatment other than filtering required.
  • Produces 100% drop-in fuels that meet petroleum specifications without blending.
  • Very short residence time means small footprint and low capital cost.

According to ARA, the process “converts any renewable fat, oil, and grease feedstock into high yields of 100% drop-in, pure hydrocarbon fuels that meet petroleum fuels specifications and other valuable chemicals.”

Here’s a visual explainer from ARA:

ARA biofuel for US Navy

Note that the biocrude can be dropped into existing refineries, which is where Chevron comes in.

Relatedly, the 100% biofuel product can be stored and transported in existing infrastructure without loss of quality, and without damaging pipes, tanks, and other equipment.

ARA and the Navy are really on a roll this year. Just last month the Navy put 18,000 gallons of ARA’s “ReadiDiesel” 100% biodiesel successfully through its paces, using a test ship in California.

Navy To Biofuel Haters: Go Jump In A Lake

As for those naysayers in Congress, Chevron is not the only big oil company to ramp up its interest in biofuels. That certainly complicates the picture for Republican legislators who have been undercutting the Obama Administration’s clean power initiatives (we’re looking at you, Jim Inhofe and John McCain).

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus also got in some digs by issuing this statement about the results of the Green Growler test flight:

…In the middle of the 19th century, we went from sail to coal. In the early 20th century, we moved from coal to oil. In the middle of the 20th century, we pioneered nuclear as a propulsion method. Every single time we moved to a new form of power, as we are doing now with alternative fuel, people had doubts; and every single time they were wrong.

So. There.

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Images: Top (cropped) via US Navy by Adam Skoczylas, bottom (screenshot) via ARA.

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About the Author

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+.

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