World-first RAF flight powered by synthetic fuel

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The RAF and Zero Petroleum have announced the successful completion of the world’s first flight to be entirely powered by synthetic fuel.

The RAF
Photo credit: Zero Petroleum

An Ikarus C42 microlight aircraft flown by Group Captain Peter Hackett completed the short flight at Cotswold Airport earlier this month, powered by Zero Petroleum’s synthetic fuel. The RAF and Zero Petroleum have won a Guinness World Record for the achievement.

Zero Petroleum’s synthetic UL91 fuel is manufactured by extracting hydrogen from water and carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide. According to the London-based company, the process then uses Direct FT (a proprietary and highly advanced version of Fischer-Tropsch) to directly manufacture target fuels (gasoline, kerosene and diesel) at high yield and with no need for refinery upgrading.

The innovation, part of the RAF’s Project MARTIN, is believed to have the potential to save 80-90 per cent of carbon per flight.

Minister for Defence Procurement, Jeremy Quin, said: “Whilst green technologies like electric and hydrogen are viable for many RAF platforms, high-performance aircraft require a liquid fuel alternative, like the UL91, to maintain operational capabilities.”

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A range of research and development activities are currently underway to consider the viability of synthetic fuels without compromising aircraft performance. 

Prior to the flight, the synthetic fuel was tested with CFS Aero. According to the MOD, the engine performed as if it were running fossil fuel but ran at a lower temperature, which could extend engine lifespan.

Paddy Lowe, CEO of Zero Petroleum said the project demonstrates the validity of the company’s synthetic fuel and its potential to eliminate fossil CO2 emissions from difficult but critical sectors including transport.

“We are particularly proud of the fact that our high-grade aviation gasoline ZERO SynAvGas was developed in just five months and ran successfully in the aircraft as a whole-blend without any modification whatsoever to the aircraft or the engine,” Lowe said in a statement.

“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.”

The breakthrough supports ambitions laid out in the Defence Command Paper and is backed by the £24bn defence settlement, including a £6.6bn R&D investment. The RAF aims for its first Net Zero airbase by 2025, and a Net Zero force by 2040.