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  • Warren Duffie, Office of Naval Research Global

US Navy, UK Royal Air Force fuel drone with synthetic kerosene

In February, the U.S. Navy and the U.K. Royal Air Force conducted what the Navy is calling the first-ever drone flight using synthetic kerosene. Performed in partnership with British company C3 Biotechnologies Ltd., the initial trial created four gallons of synthetic fuel in a lab, which allowed the drone to complete a 20-minute test flight in Wiltshire, in South West England, providing valuable data that indicates the fuel performs consistently to a high standard. “It is exciting and game-changing to work with our allies in the U.K. to develop a more efficient synthetic aviation fuel," said Rear Admiral Lorin C. Selby, the chief of naval research. “The U.S. Navy is committed to finding innovative solutions to operational challenges, and the ability to manufacture this fuel without large infrastructure requirements would be groundbreaking for deployed forces.” ONR Global sponsored work in 2018 to combine technology developed at the Naval Air Warfare Center, China Lake, U.S.A., and at the University of Manchester in the U.K. to convert a little-known biological molecule into synthetic kerosene. In 2020, the technology was integrated into the startup C3 Bio-Technologies Ltd.

“The Royal Air Force needs to ensure that we are at the forefront of technology to safeguard our own resilience and operational capability, whilst minimizing any impact on the environment,” said Air Vice-Marshal Lincoln Taylor with the Royal Air Force. “Fuel scarcity and cost will only ever increase in its impact on our operations, and synthetic fuels for our aircraft are one potential solution to this situation as we look to secure the objectives of the next-generation RAF.” The fuel-production process revolves around engineering a halophilic bacteria to produce a high-value platform molecule that can easily be converted to high-performance fuels. The process can be made carbon neutral because the bacteria are maintained with a feedstock that is normally considered to be waste (e.g., food waste, solid waste, grey and black water and, someday in the future, plastics). The bacteria consume this feedstock to grow and produce the desired high-value product, circumventing costly and energy-intensive distillation on which conventional petrochemical processing relies.

“We should no longer disregard the critical importance of leveraging biomanufacturing as a strategic investment for national security,” said Patrick Rose, lead ONR Global science director. “Most important, however, was the team that helped make this possible. We were once again able to demonstrate to the world that ONR Global should be the partner of choice to enable disruptive new technology development.” Engineering bacteria to replicate the same processes can be significantly more sustainable, as it reduces waste streams, limits the production of toxic byproducts and is not dependent on non-sustainable resources such as crude oil.

“Researchers at the Naval Air Warfare Center, Weapons Division—China Lake, have developed high-throughput chemical methods for the conversion of biologically produced linalool into a full-performance jet fuel blendstock,” said Benjamin G. Harvey, senior research chemist and associate at NAWCWD. “The resulting fuel exhibits higher energy density and lower viscosity compared to conventional jet fuel.”

ONR Global sponsors scientific efforts outside of the U.S., working with scientists and partners worldwide to discover and advance naval capabilities.


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