Energy Independence: Creating Fuel from Seawater

Throughout history, there have been many wondrous tales of people gifted with the ability to convert one object into another.  Greek gods could change shape.  King Midas had a golden touch.  Alchemists could turn plants into potions strong enough to bend the heart or control the mind.

But those were all just stories.

This is real life, and in real life, the Naval Research Laboratory has announced that they have been able to successfully convert seawater into usable, legitimate fuel.

Photo: Well, it certainly smelled legit. On display at the 2014 Sea, Air and Space Expo in National Harbor, Md., April 8, this is a sample of the real fuel that was developed at the Naval Research Lab. (DoD photo by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

Well, it certainly smelled legit. On display at the 2014 Sea, Air and Space Expo in National Harbor, Md., April 8, this is a sample of the real fuel that was developed at the Naval Research Lab. (DoD photo by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

In a proof of concept test, using the molecularly restructured seawater, they successfully flew a radio-controlled aircraft with an unmodified internal combustion engine.

“This is pretty forward-thinking out there.  This is present shock, not future shock,” said Vice Adm. Phil Cullom, Naval Operations for Fleet Readiness and Logistics deputy chief.  He spoke with me during the Sea, Air and Space Expo last week to tell me a little about why this is so significant for the fleet, and how a technology ten years ahead of its time has been eight years in the making.

“What is just absolutely revolutionary about [this technology] is that, if you no longer have to worry about where that oiler is, you remove so much of the vulnerability that we have at sea,” Vice Adm. Cullom points out.

Especially when, operationally, fuel distribution is our Achilles heel.  As a global force, Adm. Cullom says we deliver 1.25 billion gallons of fuel worldwide to operators annually, where the fuel trucks and resupply lines are soft targets.

“The way I look at it, adversaries look to the last conflicts to figure out future conflicts,” he tells me.  “So if you remove one of those ‘soft targets’ then you don’t even have to figure out how to protect it.”

He goes on to say that this is something that is long standing.  It’s also a topic that’s near and dear to Adm. Cullom’s heart.  Something that he, as a career sailor, understands the value of all too well.

“In 1998, I was in the Adriatic, and I was there for the Kosovo conflict,” he said.  “Every X number of days, I would have to leave my station to go out into the Mediterranean where it was safe, to be able to rendezvous with the oiler to get my fuel.  When I had to rendezvous out there, I was nowhere near the position where my tomahawk missiles were valuable.  That’s why this matters.  If you could get the fuel where you’re at, you don’t have to go to the oiler.”

Adm. Cullom says we need to challenge the assumptions that are a result of the last six decades of constant access to cheap, seemingly unlimited amounts of fuel. Some options, like drop-in biofuels, are available today and have already been certified for use.  Those, he says, will be commercially viable soon, and there is a plan in place which will begin delivering biofuel at less than $4 per gallon beginning in 2016.

 “We need to reinvent how we create energy, how we value energy and how we consume energy.” – Vice Adm. Phil Cullom

How it works

The brain power behind this revolutionary science comes from research chemist Dr. Heather Willauer and her team at the Naval Research Lab. The science behind the incredible conversion is all about utilizing resource.  Molecularly.

Photo: Dr. Heather Willauer shows off her synthetic fuel wares at the 2014 Sea, Air and Space Expo in National Harbor, Md., April 8. (DoD photo by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

Dr. Heather Willauer shows off her synthetic fuel wares at the 2014 Sea, Air and Space Expo in National Harbor, Md., April 8. (DoD photo by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

“We’ve developed a technology at the Naval Research Laboratory that does indeed process seawater,” Dr. Willauer told me during a recent interview at the Sea, Air and Space Expo.  “It pulls the components, carbon dioxide and hydrogen, from the seawater.  Then we take those components and we recombine them over a NRL-developed catalyst to make, essentially, designer fuel.”

Fueled by a liquid hydrocarbon—a component of NRL’s novel gas-to-liquid process that uses CO2 and H2 as feedstock—the research team demonstrated sustained flight of a radio-controlled P-51 replica of the legendary Red Tail Squadron, powered by an off-the-shelf and unmodified two-stroke internal combustion engine.

“We can produce, depending on the transition metal on the catalyst – for example iron, cobalt, nickel, copper – you can make methanol, you can make olefins that could be converted to jet fuel, you can make natural gas, all kinds of neat things.  It’s amazing,” Dr. Willhauer said.

Using an innovative and proprietary NRL electrolytic cation exchange module (E-CEM), both dissolved and bound CO2 are removed from seawater at 92 percent efficiency by re-equilibrating carbonate and bicarbonate to CO2 and simultaneously producing H2.  The gases are then converted to liquid hydrocarbons by a metal catalyst in a reactor system.  So why are they using seawater to do this dirty work?  Simply put, it’s got the most, well, gas.

“There are 100 milligrams of CO2 in seawater, which is 140 times more concentrated in seawater than it is in air,” Dr. Willauer tells me.  “I say that because I have to explain that I have to process about 23,000 gallons of seawater to make a gallon of fuel.”

I guess it’s a good thing there’s a lot of that lying around the Earth, then.  It’s not like we’re for want of seawater at the moment.  Now, if she had to pull the CO2 out of actual air, the technology would be much bigger and much larger.  She would also still need a source of hydrogen.  So, given the available materials for this, seawater does seem like the best option.

“It’s a net-zero carbon footprint,” she explains.  “So you’re taking the carbon, you put it in a fuel, it you burn it, it goes back [in] the atmosphere, but you’re not creating anything more.  I’m not getting fossil fuel out of the ground and putting more CO2 in the air, I’m actually using the CO2 from the environment.”

The real wow-factor here is the needs-based fuel creation.  The ability to make fuel when you need it, and the type that you need, as you go along, is something that has numerous benefits for the military.

There are plans to start moving this technology forward so that it can become a beneficial reality for the Navy as well, but Dr. Willauer says that they still have a few more milestones to achieve before it becomes usable, and they will need funding to start scaling and demonstrating these technologies.

This adventure still has about 7-10 years to go, NRL speculates, before the technology can be rolled out and mass-utilized, but the steps being taken now are the groundbreaking ones leading to that very future.

“We’re really excited, because we actually made a fuel that worked in an internal combustion engine from CO2 and hydrogen,” she said. “We’re on the right path, making the right components and demonstrating them.”

The Naval Research Lab also has a low current system that pulls CO2 out of seawater, so you could pick up a source of green CO2 for algae, to make fuel or plant growth.  Dr. Willauer says that this is just one of many different biofuel and alternative fuel options.

“We want to be another alternative solution,” she said.  “It’s not necessarily going to be the one and only solution to alternative fuels, it’s just one solution that hopefully many people are going to use.”

What it will accomplish

The potential payoff, according to the Navy, is the ability to produce fuel stock at sea or in remote locations.  Aside from being convenient – utilizing resources around you for an immediate need is a benefit that speaks for itself – this will reduce the logistics tail on fuel delivery with no environmental burden.  This also increases the Navy’s energy security and independence.

Photo: The guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton (CG 59) and the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) are underway in formation during the Great Green Fleet demonstration portion of the Rim of the Pacific 2012 exercise, July 18, 2012. Princeton and Nimitz took on a 50-50 blend of advanced biofuel and traditional petroleum-based fuel. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Eva-Marie Ramsaran/Released)

The guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton (CG 59) and the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) are underway in formation during the Great Green Fleet demonstration portion of the Rim of the Pacific 2012 exercise, July 18, 2012. Princeton and Nimitz took on a 50-50 blend of advanced biofuel and traditional petroleum-based fuel. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Eva-Marie Ramsaran/Released)

This seawater/fuel conversion has all the long chain carbons that are needed, which means that it’s also a drop-in replacement.  This means that aircraft, ships, automobiles, they won’t need some kind of special intake engine to operate using this synthetic fuel.  All they need are the parts they already have.  This is also a needs-based conversion, and it’s not limited to just one type of fuel.

“We know that it works,” Adm. Cullom says.  “We’ve flown a small radio-controlled aircraft [using this fuel], so we know it works. It looks, smells and acts just like petroleum fuel.  It has all the right components.”

When it comes to moving forward, he says that this is about how it’s going to make the mission easier and more effective, and how fuel on-the-go is going to make missions safer for service members.  Submarines will be able to go under the ice and not have to worry about resurfacing.  Aircraft carriers could carry more fuel for the airplanes, because they won’t need to carry any for the ship.

“This is really good for the Navy to be able to work on this, but just like the space program, the ancillary effects are unfathomable, and they’re priceless.”

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

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  • yumtacos

    How many gallons of fuel are needed to pump the 23,000 gallon of seawater and process it into a single gallon of fuel?

  • http://fibonacci-financial.blogspot.com/ KumoBob

    I’m guessing photovoltaic is the initial source of power. If so it sounds like a great way to store that type of energy, but yumtaco brought up a really good question. 23,000 gallons of sea water is going to require a lot of energy. Is that taken into consideration when stating 92% efficiency?

  • Preacher John

    I think your guess this will use PV (an inefficient power-generator) is probably wrong – I expect this will be implemented using nuclear power ship-board, e.g. large nuclear powered ships like aircraft carriers will make the fuel to run their air group and associated vessels in the carrier group.