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

For Immediate Release: Mar 31, 2022

London, UK—In December 2021, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Global and Royal Air Force (RAF) Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) conducted the first-ever drone flight using synthetic kerosene.

Performed in partnership with British company C3 Biotechnologies Ltd, the initial trial created 15 liters (four gallons) of synthetic fuel in laboratory conditions. This allowed the four-meter, fixed-wing drone to complete a 20-minute test flight in Wiltshire, in South West England, providing valuable data that indicates the fuel performs consistently to a high standard.

“It is exciting and game-changing to work with our allies in the UK to develop a more efficient synthetic aviation fuel," said Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Lorin C. Selby. “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 to 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, China Lake, U.S.A., and at the University of Manchester in the UK 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, in 2020 the technology was integrated into the startup C3 Bio-Technologies Ltd. The next step involved ONR Global partnering with RAF RCO to demonstrate this new capability, culminating in the groundbreaking flight in February 2022.

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

“The RAF needs to ensure that we are at the forefront of technology to safeguard our own resilience and operational capability, whilst 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 is 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 that it is 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 on 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 biomanufacturing 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, senior research chemist and associate at NAWCWD. “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 popular 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.

About the Office of Naval Research

The Department of the Navy’s Office of Naval Research provides the science and technology necessary to maintain the Navy and Marine Corps’ technological advantage. Through its affiliates, ONR is a leader in science and technology with engagement in 50 states, 55 countries, 634 institutions of higher learning and nonprofit institutions, and more than 960 industry partners. ONR, through its commands, including headquarters, ONR Global and the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., employs more than 3,800 people, comprising uniformed, civilian and contract personnel.