Green RocketThis summer, Flometrics launched a sounding rocket from the Mojave Desert powered by a 100% vegetable oil fuel. Flometrics president Steve Harrington tells me the rocket performed better than expected; the supersonic flight tore the tail fins off the sucker.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency commissioned the fuel from the Energy and Environmental Research Center in North Dakota as part of its BioFuels program. The green jet fuel represents a major breakthrough. It’s the first fuel made from 100% renewable feedstock to meet the specs for military JP-8 jet fuel.

To pull that off, EERC had to create a new process for turning veggie oil into a hydrocarbon fuel without relying on the standard biodiesel manufacturing process that has the oil reacting with alcohol. EERC’s Chris Zygarlicke told me yesterday that instead, his team uses a thermochemical process and secret catalysts to turn veggie oil into isoparaffinic kerosene, and then “upgrades” that with cycloparaffins.

The result is a green biofuel that meets all the specs of petroleum-derived JP-8, meaning that it remains fluid down to -47 degrees F and packs a lot of energy into a relatively small volume.

If you’ve ever tried to run a car on biodiesel in a cold climate, you know how useful a fuel like this could be–and how good for the environment. Next step for EERC and DARPA: develop techniques for manufacturing the stuff in volume at less than $3 a gallon, and then it’s goodbye Middle East oil dependence, hello homegrown green fuel industry.

I lobbied my editors at Popular Science to give the fuel a Best of What’s New award for this year, and I was gratified when it made the cut. Look for it in the December issue.