The sellout crowd that turned out Friday to watch the Phillies win their home opener against the Houston Astros in Philadelphia was treated to a pre-game glimpse into the future.
No, not another National League East pennant, though anything is possible on opening day. Instead, minutes before the first pitch, fans were treated to the first “green” flyover as an Air Force F-15 fighter jet streaked over Citizens Bank Park powered in part by fuel made from plant oil.
One of the four jets from the 335th Fighter Squadron based in North Carolina flew on a blend of 50 percent traditional jet fuel and 50 percent synthetic biomass fuel made from camelina oil grown in Montana. Unlike ethanol, which is made from corn, camelina is a weed in the mustard family and not usually considered edible. It is also considered more fuel-efficient than ethanol.
The milestone air show came two days after President Barack Obama sought to revive his battered energy policy. In a speech at Georgetown University, Obama said the nation’s energy future depends on making fuel out of renewable resources to reduce reliance on foreign oil and polluting fossil fuels.
“Just last week, our Air Force used an advanced bio-fuel blend to fly an F-22 Raptor faster than the speed the sound,” Obama said of the first operational test of the new fuel. “In fact the Air Force is aiming to get half of its domestic jet fuel from alternative sources by 2016. And I’m directing the Navy and the Department of Energy and Agriculture to work with the private sector to create advanced bio-fuels that can power not just fighter jets, but also trucks and commercial airliners.”
The U.S. Air Force is the biggest user of aviation fuel in the Department of Defense -- it burns 2.5 billion gallons a year, or the equivalent of a small airline -- and it accounts for 10% of the total domestic jet fuel market. It has taken the lead in researching and testing new biofuels that can be used not only by military aircraft but by commercial airlines.
Private air carriers are eager to find commercially viable, environmentally friendly alternative fuels, especially before the European Union slaps a planned carbon tax on planes landing or taking off from its airports in 2012. They are working with universities, the military and other government agencies through the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative to develop fuels made from plant seed oil, animal fat and various waste greases.
The F-22 and F-15 flights prove high-performance jets can fly on synthetic fuel. The challenge, now, is to produce the fuel at a reasonable price.
Half of the $45 million budget for the Air Force development program, which began in January 2009, has been used to buy gas. The first batch of synthetic test fuel cost a whopping $65 per gallon. By the time of the second fill-up in the fall of 2010, price had dropped to $35 per gallon.
Though significantly lower, that price is still more than 10 times the average $3.03 per gallon the Air Force pays for conventional jet fuel. So until manufacturers can produce the eco-friendly fuels in larger volumes, aircrews will keep flying on carbon.
“The goal is to be prepared to use the fuel when it becomes cost-competitive in quantities we need,” Jeff Braun, chief of the Air Force’s alternative fuels certification division, told HuffPost. “We are relying on industry and fuel producers to make the necessary investments in plants and start making the fuel” to bring the price down for both military and commercial use.
But even as companies slowly scale up production, the Air Force says it has no plans to fly combat missions using beef tallow anytime soon.