Start of something green – the DND Aviation Fuels Program

Pierre Poitras, Senior Technical Authority for Fuels & Lubricants sits at his computer.
Pierre Poitras, Senior Technical Authority for Fuels & Lubricants.

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By DMGSP-4 Materiel Group Internal Communications Team

It’s only two little paragraphs in the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) documents on aviation turbine fuel, but these paragraphs open the door for the use of alternative fuels in Canadian Armed Forces aircraft.

The paragraphs also represent years of work to qualify different types of aircraft engines on alternative jet fuels for a Quality Engineering Test Establishment (QETE) team led by Pierre Poitras, Senior Technical Authority for Fuels and Lubricants.

The CGSB documents are essentially the recipe books for the manufacture of jet fuel for Canadian military and civilian aircraft, explains Mr. Poitras, who is chair of the CGSB committee on aviation fuels. Ensuring that the Canadian standard meets the ASTM International standard for jet fuel means interoperability with allied air forces. It also encourages fuel manufacturers to develop new jet alternative fuels; if the new fuel meets the CGSB standard, it is automatically approved for use in civilian and CAF aircraft.

Mr. Poitras says part of his job is “technology watch” and he has been aware of developments in the area of alternate fuels for years – the first generation of synthetic fuels and the second generation of biofuels derived from canola and non-edible plants.

He knew the U.S. military was interested in alternative fuels, driven by their need to become less dependent on foreign oil. It was also clear that working with allied countries to develop biofuel standards for aircraft models they have in common was key to interoperability.

In 2009 the CAF, represented by QETE, participated in a joint venture with the U.S. Air Force and Navy to certify the CF-18 F-404 engine using an alternative fuel. This initiative was also closely watched by the Royal Australian Air Force which also flies the aircraft.

The fuel in this case was a 50/50 blend of conventional military jet fuel and a synthetic fuel made from natural gas and coal. There was rigorous testing at the National Research Council’s Institute for Aerospace Research for performance and emissions and the fuel was approved for use in the CF 18 F-404 engine.

This was followed in 2011 by another joint venture between the CAF, the U.S. Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force to certify the CC-130H Hercules aircraft on a biofuel blend – conventional fuel blended with a fuel derived from the Camelina plant. Camelina has seeds with a heavy concentration of oil, and when refined, turns into a fuel like crude oil extracted from the ground.

The first test flight took place in 2012 at 8 Wing Trenton. After the flight, the Hercules pilot, Major Wayne Sippola, said, “The biofuel mix performed exactly like the straight F-34 fuel; we didn’t see any difference whatsoever.”

This interchangeability with conventional fossil fuel is key. Any alternative fuel certified for military use needs to be a “drop-in” fuel, meaning it needs to perform exactly like a conventional petroleum-derived fuel without any need to adapt the aircraft engine, fuel system or the fuel distribution network.

A conventional jet fuel blended with plant sourced biofuel is better for the environment because it can reduce carbon emissions by up to 40 per cent. One made with non-edible plants is preferable because it does not compete with the food chain.

Throughout the process of certifying this fuel the QETE team learned invaluable lessons to be applied when biojet fuels become standard. These lessons were shared with the Technical Cooperation Panel and the Air and Space Interoperability Council, an international group of personnel specialists from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, and with NATO’s aviation fuels committee.

While a protocol for approving and qualifying synthetic fuel for aviation use has been included by the CGSB, Mr. Poitras says there is still much to be done before these fuels are in general use in Canadian military aircraft. Regarding ground fuels, “The organic compounds in biodiesel fuel, for example, are more susceptible to oxidation and can degrade more quickly than conventional jet fuel which has a significant effect on storage,” he says. “We need to know how long the fuel can be stored and still be useable.”

For now, the Department of National Defence is working with NATO allies to certify common platforms to increase interoperability and with technical airworthiness authorities to ensure a smooth integration of alternative fuels in the DND supply chain. As well, DND continues to support fuel manufacturers and research organization in promoting alternative fuels.

This work on alternate fuels is part of the Defence Energy and Environment Strategy which outlines a commitment to environmentally responsible and sustainable energy consumption. It includes initiatives to achieve less energy waste, cleaner energy, a reduced Defence environmental footprint and better management of energy and environmental performance.

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