It’s the new secret weapon fueling the US military. A hardy plant capable of growing in poor soil, camelina sativa produces a bio-fuel that’s now the focus of the US Navy’s drive for alternative fuels in its planes.
Last week an F/A-18 Super Hornet flew from the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Md., powered by a 50/50 mix of aviation fuel and camelina, also known as wild flax. It was the first supersonic fighter to fly on a bio-fuel mix. The event was celebrated by US Navy Secretary Ray Mabus on the Navy’s new official blog, also launched last week .
Officials say that during the 45-minute flight the plane’s engines worked as well on the camelina fuel as on normal aviation fuel – at both subsonic and supersonic speeds.
“The fuel works so well, all I needed to do was just fly the plane.” the plane’s pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Tom Weaver said. Mabus describes the program a “significant milestone” toward operational use of bio-fuels by the Navy.
The Navy says it will take a few months before camelina can be certified as an alternative fuel source, but it has already received 40,000 gallons of camelina bio-fuel from a grower in Montana, at a cost of nearly $3 million. The humble weed is now being cultivated because of its high oil content – with farmers across the Pacific Northwest looking at its potential.
It’s not only the US Navy that’s interested in camelina. In March the US Air Force test-flew an A-10C Thunderbolt from Eglin Air Force base in Florida on the same mix; Japan Air Lines has also tested camelina.
The military program has attracted some of America’s top corporations, including General Electric (which tested the engines) and Honeywell (which blended the fuel), as well as smaller players like Sustainable Oils. But industry sources say it will only be feasible if the new fuel can “drop in” – without expensive aircraft modifications being necessary. It’s a big if – the Navy has a goal of meeting half of its energy needs from alternative sources by 2020.
Navy officials say the next step is to start testing bio-fuels in ships later this year, starting with algae-based fuels.
A new report by the Pew Charitable Trust says the US military is making good progress toward energy efficiency. It cites wind turbines on air bases and the growing use of solar farms in residential areas on bases. The Pew report concludes: “While work remains to be done, the military continues to build on its successful record in managing resources and investing in long-term innovations.”
Environmentalists give a lukewarm welcome to the programs, but say the military should be focusing on other ways to reduce its ‘footprint.’ “Does it really need all those post-WWII military bases in places like Germany and Japan? Does it need to keep all that cold-war hardware in operation? “ asks Michael Graham Richard at Treehugger.com.