Gripen Goes Green

 - July 16, 2010, 11:12 PM

Sweden is currently outlining a three-year test plan to test a locally developed biofuel in a Gripen, in a scheme that is partly funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In November 2007, Swedish Biofuels entered into an agreement with U.S. defense technology agency, which is funding several development programs to produce military-grade biofuel from a variety of sources, including algae- and cellulose-based raw materials.

In 2009 the Swedish government launched an effort to reduce the military’s dependency on fossil fuels, seeking to address the challenges of a sustainable fuel supply for the air force. The arguments for biofuel are compelling: not only does it have a dramatic effect on environmental impact, but it also allows the production of fuel in-country, reducing the dependency on a volatile international market that cannot guarantee future supplies.

What is particularly attractive about Swedish Biofuel’s process is that it uses waste vegetable mass, and therefore has no impact on potential food-producing land, which has been one of the main criticisms of other biofuel projects. Waste is first turned into alcohol, and then further refined into a JP-8 surrogate known as BJ-8. This meets all the performance requirements of JP-8 and exceeds them in some key areas, such as having a better heat capability and lower freezing point.

Developing a fuel for the military follows on from civilian projects and focuses on the ability of the fuel to perform in the harsh environment of the military jet engine. Before the fuel is tested in a Gripen, extensive bench tests will be performed. If the trials are successful, the questions of production and distribution at an industrial level will be examined. The goal is to produce a fuel that not only replicates or improves performance, but that does not increase costs or maintenance needs, and does not require aircraft or engine modifications.

Biofuel research is ongoing in several nations, notably the U.S., and is beginning to achieve notable milestones. A number of airlines have flown biofuel trials, and last November an Air France-KLM Boeing 747 conducted the first passenger-carrying flight, with one of its engines powered by a 50:50 mix of regular kerosene and a camelina-based fuel. The same blend was used to power a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet fighter in a flight on April 22 (Earth Day). Last month the Royal Netherlands Air Force and Boeing scored a rotary-wing first by flying an AH-64 Apache powered by a 50:50 mix of JP-8 and a bio-synthetic paraffinic kerosene processed from algae and cooking oil by UOP, part of the Honeywell group.