Montana grows jet fuel

A video of an Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt test flight two weeks ago at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida seems unremarkable at first—just a modern warplane doing its thing. But then Jeff Braun, director of the Air Force's Alternative Fuels Certification Office, appears after the landing to say that the aircraft, also called a "Warthog," was powered by a 50/50 blend of regular jet fuel and fuel made from camelina.

"What's special about what happened today," Braun says on the runway, "is that we're using a fuel that's derived from a plant oil, so it's a renewable resource."

And Montana farmers grew that camelina.

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As the U.S. military moves toward renewable and domestic fuel, it has turned to Seattle-based Sustainable Oils to help provide it. The company, which operates a facility and employs four in Bozeman, formed in 2007 as a joint venture between biotech company Targeted Growth, Inc. and Houston-based biofuel producer Green Earth Fuels, LLC.

Last year, Sustainable Oils purchased camelina—a small-seeded, cool-climate, dryland oilseed crop—from about 45 Montana producers. The camelina was processed by Montana Specialty Mills in Great Falls, and then shipped to a refinery in Texas. The company then sold about 100,000 gallons of camelina-based jet fuel to the Air Force, and another 40,000 gallons to the Navy.

"Basically," says Scott Johnson, Sustainable Oils' president and general manager, "that Warthog, and soon the F-18 [Green Hornet]"—scheduled for a test flight on Earth Day, April 22—"are flying on what about 10 months ago were little scraggly plants in a Montana farmer's field."

A week after the test flight, President Obama mentioned it as an example of "a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy."

Just as important, the plane's pilot, Maj. Chris Seager, says the camelina fuel worked perfectly: "I could not tell the difference between that and the normal JP-8 [fuel] that we fly."

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