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Fighter jet takes to the sky with biofuel blend

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The U.S. Air Force begins test flights for a plant-powered, hydrocarbon synthetic jet fuel. Are greener fighter fuels ready to take off?

The U.S. Air Force consumes 2.4 billion gallons of jet fuel each year.

The 40th Flight Test Squadron is on a mission to change that. They are climbing into the cockpits of jets filled, in part, with alternative fuels.

Last Thursday an A-10C Thunderbolt II took off from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida powered by Hydrotreated Renewable Jet (HRJ) and JP-8 (Jet Propellant 8, the military standard and kerosene-based). Though military researchers have yet to analyze the flight data, the mission is being considered a success: a fighter jet can fly on a synthetic fuel blend.

The flight is the latest step in the Air Force's R&D process to assess various biofuels,testing both biomass materials and methods for processing the biological materials.

Derived from animal fats and plant oils, HRJ is cleaner burning than conventional petroleum-based fuels. The refining process for the synthetic jet fuel is also less polluting. Helping to fire up this first-ever feasibility flight was the camelina plant, a weed that grows easily and is not a food source.

Air Force:

The A-10 has the ability to segregate its fuel system so one set of fuel tanks can be paired to one engine while the other set can be paired to the other engine without mixing fuel between systems. This makes the A-10 a perfect platform to begin testing fuel blends, according to Capt. Andrew Radzicki, a test engineer with the 40th Flight Test Squadron.

The military also has these jets in their HRJ testing sights:

F-15 Eagle: a tactical fighter that will test HRJ's performance parameters
C-17 Globemaster III: a huge fuel guzzler
F-22 Raptor: the newest and most complex jet

By 2012, the Air Force hopes to have all of their aircraft certified to fly using alternative fuels. If they can do it, maybe a commercial airline supplement for Jet A fuel will be in hot pursuit. The Air Force is collaborating with the industry through the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative.

Check out the flight footage here.


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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure