LONDON – Britain’s Royal Air Force has taken a landmark step towards slashing carbon emissions from its aircraft, announcing Nov. 17 that the service had completed the world’s first flight using 100 percent synthetic fuel together with commercial partner Zero Petroleum.
Using the company’s UL91 fuel the flight of the Ikarus C42 microlight plane from Cotswold Airport on Nov. 2 lasted 21 minutes.
The successful voyage by senior RAF test pilot Group Captain Peter Hackett has been logged by Guinness World Records as a world first for an aircraft using only synthetic fuel.
The initiative, part of a wider effort to reduce carbon emissions known as Project Martin, is partly funded by the RAF. Work on the role of synthetic fuels in reducing RAF emissions is being led by the air service’s Rapid Capabilities Office.
In a statement the MoD said the technology “has the potential to save 80-90% of carbon per flight, supporting the RAF’s vision that synthetic fuels will have a major role in powering the fast jets of the future.”
The RAF has previously signaled its intention to start replacing petroleum-based fuels on aircraft later this decade.
The replacement of 90 piston-powered Grob Aircraft T1 Tutor elementary flying trainers could be one of the first aircraft to be carbon emission free.
Zero Petroleum is a small British company founded by the hugely successful Formula One racing engineer Paddy Lowe and Nilay Shah, head of chemical engineering at Imperial College London.
Lowe said the aviation fuel, known as ZERO SynAvGas, was “developed in five months and ran successfully in the aircraft as a whole-blend without any modification to the aircraft or the engine.
“The engine manufacturer Rotax’s measurements and the test pilot’s observations showed no difference in power or general performance compared to standard fossil fuel,” said the Zero Petroleum chief executive.
The fuel is manufactured by extracting hydrogen from water and carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide. Using energy generated from renewable sources like wind or solar, these are combined to create the synthetic fuel.
Zero Petroleum and its technology partner IGTL designed and built a production plant in record time in Peterhead, Scotland.
The plant was then positioned at Billia Croo, in the Orkney Islands, for fuel manufacturing operations during September and October.
British Defence Procurement Minister Jeremy Quin said the development illustrated the military’s determination to pursue “net zero” alongside meeting operational commitments.
“Whilst green technologies like electric and hydrogen power generation are viable for many RAF platforms, high-performance aircraft require a liquid fuel alternative, like the UL91, to maintain operational capabilities,” he said.
“This is the first innovation of many, with a range of research and development activities underway to consider the viability of synthetic fuels without compromising aircraft performance,” Quin added.
The RAF plans to have its first net zero emissions airbase by 2025, and has set a goal of a net zero force by 2040.
Chief of the Air Staff Air Marshal Sir Mike Wigston is due to make a keynote speech in London Nov. 23 detailing the air service’s plans to achieve net zero emissions.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.