US Navy turns seawater into fuel

Development hailed as a game-changer that could ultimately power planes as well as ships

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2014, 12:13am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2014, 12:13am


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.

We’ve treated energy like air … but the reality is that we do have to worry about it

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

Vice Admiral Philip Cullom said: "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. 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 US$3 to US$6 per gallon, say experts at the US Naval Research Laboratory, who have already flown a model aeroplane with fuel produced from seawater.

Dr Heather Willauer, a research chemist who has spent nearly a decade on the project, has high hopes.

"For the first time we've been able to develop a technology to get CO {-2} 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 CO {-2} and hydrogen they can capture.

However, there is one drawback. Researchers warn it will be at least a decade before US ships are able to produce their own fuel on board.

United States navy to test prototype laser weapon in Persian Gulf

The US Navy plans to install its laser weapon prototype on a ship for testing at sea in the Persian Gulf this summer. The technology, called the laser weapon system, will be the first of its kind to be deployed. The idea is that the laser could zap dangerous swarming small boats and flying drones while on the USS Ponce in the Gulf. Its power can also be scaled down, presenting the navy a non-lethal alternative to ward off threats such as pirates, terrorists and smugglers.

"This is a revolutionary capability," chief of naval research Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder said in a recent statement. "It's absolutely critical that we get this out to sea with our sailors for these trials, because this very affordable technology is going to change the way we fight and save lives."

Data from the Ponce deployment will guide the development of a navy programme for combat-ready lasers installed on vessels, such as guided-missile destroyers and the littoral combat ship, by 2016.