News | May 17, 2022

ONR Global, Royal Air Force Partner in First Synthetic-Fueled Drone Flight

By Office of Naval Research (ONR)

Performed in partnership with C3 Biotechnologies Ltd., in the United Kingdom, the British Royal Air Force and the U.S. Navy, successfully completed the first drone flight using synthetic kerosene as part of an ongoing effort to reduce the carbon footprint. Synthetic kerosene is entirely fossil fuel-free, made by mixing raw materials with high sugar levels (e.g. food waste with bacteria) to create an oil substance that is then converted into aviation fuel using chemicals and heat.

The four-meter-long fixed-wing drone completed a 20-minute test flight in Wiltshire (South West England), providing valuable data indicating the fuel performs consistently to a high standard.

Chief of Naval Research, Rear Admiral Lorin C. Selby said, “It is exciting and game-changing to work with our allies in the U.K. to develop a more efficient synthetic aviation fuel. 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.”

The origins of this historic flight go back to 2018. With the world looking toward electric propulsion or synthetic alternative fuels as solutions for commercial flight, ONR Global sponsored work to combine technology developed at the Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, California, and the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom to convert a little-known biological molecule into a high-performance, drop-in synthetic kerosene. 

As the project progressed and turned into a viable and demonstrable solution for aviation, the technology was integrated into the startup C3 Bio-Technologies Ltd. in 2020. The next step involved ONR Global partnering with RAF RCO to demonstrate this new capability, culminating in the groundbreaking flight in February.

This technology provides a viable solution today and leverages the nascent bio-manufacturing industry to create sustainable, secure and environmentally friendly products resilient to commercial market forces and geopolitical uncertainty. 

“The RAF needs to ensure we are at the forefront of technology to safeguard our own resilience and operational capability, while minimizing any impact on the environment,” said RAF Air Vice-Marshal, Lincoln Taylor. “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 process
The power of this project lies in the fact that high-value platform molecules can be developed using proven bioengineering processes. Its concept 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 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 the costly, dirty and energy-intensive distillation processes upon which the conventional petro-chemical industry relies. 

“This project is a prime example of how we can harness the power of biology to change the world as we see it today,” said Patrick Rose, lead ONR Global Science Director. “We should no longer disregard the critical importance of leveraging bio-manufacturing as a strategic investment for national security. 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 Dr. Benjamin G. Harvey, China Lake’s Senior Research Chemist and Associate. “The resulting fuel exhibits higher energy density and lower viscosity compared to conventional jet fuel.”

Synthetic biology involves taking engineering principles and applying them to biology, an interdisciplinary field in constant search of the next revolutionary discovery, finding new ways to reduce the impact of the global carbon production footprint, which is probably the most urgent challenge of today’s international scientific ecosystem. 

ONR Global sponsors scientific efforts outside of the U.S., working with scientists and partners worldwide to discover and advance naval capabilities. Office of Naval Research (ONR) Global and Royal Air Force (RAF) Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) conducted the first-ever drone flight using synthetic kerosene in February.