Air Force Pioneers the Future of Synthetic Jet Fuel

Unmanned aircraft Image
An unmanned aircraft takes flight for the first time powered by 100% synthetic jet fuel from captured carbon dioxide. The Air Force’s Project FIERCE opened a new era for the jet fuel supply chain. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Jet fuel relies on a complex network of drillers, refiners, and shippers, but those who were near the Hsu STEM Range in Laurel Hill, Florida recently heard the sound of a small jet flying, heralding a new era for the jet fuel supply chain. Led by the Air Force’s Project FIERCE, this was the first demonstration of a technology that could allow flightlines and airports to generate fuel on-site in the future.

Since 2008, the Air Force has used alternative fuels, known as sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), that require blending with traditional fossil fuels. Most of these alternative fuels require refinement or blending by large refineries. In recent years, energy companies, engine/aircraft manufacturers, and airlines have come together to explore new fuel synthesis technologies that would not require blending with fossil fuels.

Beginning in fall 2021, as part of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s Blue Horizons Fellowship, Project FIERCE partnered with the Air Force Research Laboratory, AIR COMPANY and the Hsu Educational Foundation to create and test a fully synthetic “drop-in” replacement jet fuel from captured carbon dioxide and water. The most recent round of testing confirmed it as the first fuel made entirely from carbon dioxide emissions that matches the properties and performance of Jet A-1, and contains all necessary components of jet fuel, including aromatics. This synthetic jet fuel, distributed under the name AIRMADE SAF, is net carbon neutral. It requires as much captured carbon input as is emitted when the fuel is burned, but rather than contributing additional emissions, it recycles them.

The Department of Defense is largely tied to the commercial energy and fuel markets, both domestically and abroad. A complex system of pipelines, ships, trucks, and aircraft ensures fuel is delivered to bases. However, many areas of operation cannot always easily access the supply chain and fuel storage is limited in capacity. With this challenge in mind, Project FIERCE’s proof of concept explored the idea of on-site fuel generation. For now, just a few gallons can be produced in a day, but as this technology develops, forward bases could benefit from diversified supply, or operate independently without fuel resupply requirements.

The unmanned flight test team at the Hsu Educational Foundation executed the first flight demonstration with the 100% synthetic jet fuel. This collaboration between the Air Force and the Hsu Educational Foundation is a public-private partnership that is accelerating dual-use technology. As one of many programs building the STEM ecosystem in Northwest Florida, the Hsu Foundation is a Federal Aviation Administration-designated recreational unmanned aerial system safety test administrator and is serving an appointment to the FAA’s Advanced Aviation Advisory Committee.