RAF completes first drone flight using synthetic fuel

The Royal Air Force (RAF) has marked a new milestone in its journey towards a more sustainable future after it successfully completed a drone flight using synthetic aviation fuel under Project Vermeer.

The completion of this latest milestone was announced by the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) on March 16, noting that the four-metre drone was flown using synthetic kerosene, which is entirely free of fossil-based materials. This flight was carried out under Project Vermeer, which was launched in mid-2021, and in collaboration with UK-based C3 Biotechnologies Ltd and the US Navy.

According to the UK MOD, the initial trial created 15 litres of fuel in laboratory conditions. “Following successful engine testing, the fixed-wing drone completed a 20-minute test flight in Wiltshire, providing valuable data that indicates the fuel performs consistently to a high standard,” the ministry said.

Project Vermeer [MOD Crown Copyright/SAC Ryan Murray]
As part of Project Vermeer, the RAF successfully demonstrated the use of synthetic kerosene as a more sustainable alternative to fossil fuels during a 20-minute test flight with a fixed-wing UAV in March 2022. MOD Crown Copyright/SAC Ryan Murray

AVM Lincoln Taylor, the Chief of Staff Capability at RAF Air Command, said: “The RAF needs to ensure that we are at the forefront of technology to safeguard our own resilience and operational capability, whilst minimising our damage to the environment. 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 of tomorrow.”

Synthetic kerosene is created through the mixing of raw materials with high sugar levels (such as food waste) with bacteria to create an oil-based substance that is subsequently converted into aviation fuel using chemicals and heat. “As the process does not require large-scale infrastructure, synthetic kerosene can be made anywhere, making it an attractive option for military deployments around the world,” the UK MOD added.

This recent flight marks the second big win for the RAF in its quest towards a more sustainable future, in which the air arm aims to use synthetic fuels to power its aircraft fleets, whether it be unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or fighter platforms. In November 2021, the air arm marked its first success under Project Martin - completing a short, manned flight from Cotswold Airport, Gloucestershire, using an Ikarus C42 microlight powered by Zero Petroleum’s synthetic UL91 fuel, which is made by combining hydrogen extracted from water and carbon gathered from atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Rear Adm Lorin C Selby, Chief of US Naval Research with the US Navy, added: “It is exciting and game-changing to work with our allies in the UK to develop a more efficient synthetic aviation fuel. The US Navy is committed to finding innovative solutions to operational challenges, and the ability to manufacture this fuel without large infrastructure requirements would be ground-breaking for deployed forces.”