US Navy 'game-changer': converting seawater into fuel

By AFP
Published: April 7, 2014
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The development of a liquid hydrocarbon fuel is being hailed as "a game-changer" because it would significantly shorten the supply chain, a weak link that makes any force easier to attack. PHOTO: REUTERS/FILE

The development of a liquid hydrocarbon fuel is being hailed as "a game-changer" because it would significantly shorten the supply chain, a weak link that makes any force easier to attack. PHOTO: REUTERS/FILE

WASHINGTON: The US Navy believes it has finally worked out the solution to a problem that has intrigued scientists for decades: how to take seawater and use it as fuel.

The development of a liquid hydrocarbon fuel is being hailed as “a game-changer” because it would significantly shorten the supply chain, a weak link that makes any force easier to attack.

The US has a fleet of 15 military oil tankers, and only aircraft carriers and some submarines are equipped with nuclear propulsion.

All other vessels must frequently abandon their mission for a few hours to navigate in parallel with the tanker, a delicate operation, especially in bad weather.

The ultimate goal is to eventually get away from the dependence on oil altogether, which would also mean the navy is no longer hostage to potential shortages of oil or fluctuations in its cost.

Vice Admiral Philip Cullom declared: “It’s a huge milestone for us.”

“We are in very challenging times where we really do have to think in pretty innovative ways to look at how we create energy, how we value energy and how we consume it.

“We need to challenge the results of the assumptions that are the result of the last six decades of constant access to cheap, unlimited amounts of fuel,” added Cullom.

“Basically, we’ve treated energy like air, something that’s always there and that we don’t worry about too much. But the reality is that we do have to worry about it.”

US experts have found out how to extract carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas from seawater.

Then using a catalytic converter, they transformed them into a fuel by a gas-to-liquids process. They hope the fuel will not only be able to power ships, but also planes.

That means instead of relying on tankers, ships will be able to produce fuel at sea.

The predicted cost of jet fuel using the technology is in the range of three to six dollars per gallon, say experts at the US Naval Research Laboratory, who have already flown a model airplane with fuel produced from seawater.

Dr Heather Willauer, a research chemist who has spent nearly a decade on the project, can hardly hide her enthusiasm.

“For the first time we’ve been able to develop a technology to get CO2 and hydrogen from seawater simultaneously, that’s a big breakthrough,” she said, adding that the fuel “doesn’t look or smell very different.”

Now that they have demonstrated it can work, the next step is to produce it in industrial quantities. But before that, in partnership with several universities, the experts want to improve the amount of CO2 and hydrogen they can capture.

“We’ve demonstrated the feasibility, we want to improve the process efficiency,” explained Willauer.

Collum is just as excited.

“For us in the military, in the Navy, we have some pretty unusual and different kinds of challenges,” he said.

“We don’t necessarily go to a gas station to get our fuel, our gas station comes to us in terms of an oiler, a replenishment ship.

“Developing a game-changing technology like this, seawater to fuel, really is something that reinvents a lot of the way we can do business when you think about logistics, readiness.”

A crucial benefit, says Collum, is that the fuel can be used in the same engines already fitted in ships and aircraft.

“If you don’t want to re-engineer every ship, every type of engine, every aircraft, that’s why we need what we call drop-in replacement fuels that look, smell and essentially are the same as any kind of petroleum-based fuels.”

Drawbacks? Only one, it seems: researchers warn it will be at least a decade before US ships are able to produce their own fuel on board.

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Reader Comments (12)

  • unbelievable
    Apr 7, 2014 - 8:33PM

    If true and it can be unscaled for civilian application I suspect OPEC is worried.

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  • Parvez
    Apr 7, 2014 - 11:54PM

    We had a guy who said he could run his car on water……..REMEMBER.

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  • Adil Khan
    Apr 7, 2014 - 11:57PM

    Pakistani technicians also claimed the same but our media and the so called experts rubbished their claims and made sure that the claimants were not be heard from again.

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  • TightPatloon
    Apr 7, 2014 - 11:58PM

    What about that Sindhi guy who made the water car kit? Pakistan is light years ahead in technology from the merikans. Only we dont have a good govt who will support the water car kit and make it a water ship kit.

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  • Salman
    Apr 8, 2014 - 12:30AM

    US would go for invasion of countries with a sea then?

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  • truthbetold
    Apr 8, 2014 - 1:25AM

    Something terribly wrong here. This sounds very much like Agha Waqar’s “invention” the car that runs on water. Wonder if the US navy has hired Waqar to do this research. Just as in the case of Agha Waqar’s water car, this US navy “invention” also violates the laws of thermodynamics.

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  • A. Khan
    Apr 8, 2014 - 1:32AM

    This is great news, as it has even greater civilian applications. No more dependence on oil exporters.

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  • Bill
    Apr 8, 2014 - 3:22AM

    Yo man, there was this guy, who made this car that ran on water, man. And the oil companies, they bought it from him ya know so, like they could stick stick it to us at the gas pump, ya know.

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  • HADI SAKEY
    Apr 8, 2014 - 5:53AM

    For the first time the American scientists have extracted CO2 and Hydrogen simultaneously. This is a breakthrough and if the findings are correct Americans will succeed in their mission.
    Please do not mix up the Pakistani fraudulent unscientific approach to run the car on water.

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  • Mirza
    Apr 8, 2014 - 8:27AM

    No big deal they just copied our idea. We have already “invented/discovered” water as a replacement of gasoline fuel. The US should be ashamed of stealing our great ideas and discoveries. We should sue them in the US and International courts for stealing our ideas and technologies.

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  • Pakistani Scientist
    Apr 8, 2014 - 9:13PM

    Incredible. Those who are drawing parallels to Agha Waqar’s water kit clearly have no scientific understanding of it all. Agha Waqar claimed to have produced H2 from water to be used in a combustion engine. That’s completely different from what this research is about. Extraction of H2 from water via electrolysis and extraction of dissolved CO2 can be converted to syn gas or light hydrcarbons via catalytic conversion at high temperatures. This is a well known processes but it has been made feasible through this piece of research. It is utterly different from what Agha Waqar was claiming which was simply a fraud which didn’t even work.

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  • Observer
    Apr 9, 2014 - 10:32PM

    @Pakistani Scientist:

    Those who are drawing parallels to Agha Waqar’s water kit clearly have no scientific understanding of it all. Agha Waqar claimed to have produced H2 from water to be used in a combustion engine. That’s completely different from what this research is about. Extraction of H2 from water via electrolysis and extraction of dissolved CO2 can be converted to syn gas or light hydrcarbons via catalytic conversion at high temperatures.”

    I am afraid your scientific understanding stands to be questioned. The comparison of Agha Waqar’s “invention” and this US Navy invention have one very important thing in common. They both violate the fundamental laws of thermodynamics. Making syngas as you state needs energy input. According to thermodynamic laws the efficiency of this process- production of syngas and then use it to provide energy for work- can’t be over 100% efficient. This so-called navy invention would mean that your are producing more energy than what is needed expend on syngas production from seawater or any other means.

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