Guess What Could Fuel the Battleships of the Future?

The very oceans that Navy vessels traverse may hold the key to powering their trips on the high seas for generations to come.

National Journal
Marina Koren
Dec. 13, 2013, midnight

The world’s sup­ply of pet­ro­leum is fi­nite. The U.S. Navy, which runs on it, is not. Even­tu­ally, keep­ing its fleet afloat for gen­er­a­tions to come may de­pend on an­oth­er fuel — the kind that doesn’t dry up.

Last month, a na­tion­al-se­cur­ity com­mis­sion ad­vised Con­gress to fund ship­build­ing and in­crease the U.S. nav­al pres­ence in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion in the next dec­ade to com­pete with China’s grow­ing fleet. But up­ping pro­duc­tion of pet­ro­leum fuel to meet po­ten­tial fu­ture de­mands is at odds with the Navy’s plans to re­duce its de­pend­ence on the fossil fuel, the dead­lines for which are fast ap­proach­ing. The De­part­ment of the Navy has pledged to cut pet­ro­leum use in the ser­vice’s com­mer­cial fleet in half by 2015, and pro­duce at least 50 per­cent of its jet fuel us­ing al­tern­at­ive sources by 2020.

The Nav­al Re­search Labor­at­ory, a 90-year-old cor­por­ate re­search hub serving the Navy and Mar­ine Corps, is search­ing for such al­tern­at­ive sources. Led by ana­lyt­ic­al chem­ist Heath­er Wil­lauer, the lab is cur­rently de­vel­op­ing tech­no­logy that sucks up the gases ne­ces­sary to pro­duce syn­thet­ic jet fuel for ships right out of the sea­wa­ter they tread. If and when it be­comes com­mer­cially vi­able, the tech­no­logy could trans­form nav­al op­er­a­tions.

“If they made fuel at sea,” Wil­lauer says, “they wouldn’t be buy­ing it.”

The pro­cess be­gins with a three-chambered cell that re­ceives a stream of sea­wa­ter in the cent­ral com­part­ment. Right now, one of these units sits on the shore of Key West, Fla., at the lab’s Cen­ter for Cor­ro­sion Sci­ence & En­gin­eer­ing fa­cil­ity.

The cell pulls a re­l­at­ively pure and con­cen­trated source of car­bon di­ox­ide from the sea­wa­ter. This source is usu­ally bet­ter than car­bon di­ox­ide re­covered from flue or stack gases pro­duced by the burn­ing of fossil fuels, Wil­lauer says. Such gases re­quire ex­pens­ive, en­ergy-in­tens­ive hard­ware to fur­ther puri­fy them so they’re safe to use and won’t harm liv­ing or­gan­isms.

The cell pro­duces hy­dro­gen, which aids in re­cov­er­ing car­bon di­ox­ide from sea­wa­ter. Both pro­cesses oc­cur in tan­dem. The unit cap­tures up to 92 per­cent of car­bon di­ox­ide from the sea­wa­ter, where it is 140 times high­er in con­cen­tra­tion than in the air. All the en­ergy sup­plied to the cell goes in­to mak­ing hy­dro­gen, not in­to the ex­trac­tion pro­cess, so the re­covered car­bon di­ox­ide is ac­tu­ally free, Wil­lauer says.

The lab then uses an iron-based cata­lyst to con­vert the gases in­to ol­efins, a type of re­act­ive chem­ic­al com­pound. The com­pound can eas­ily un­der­go fur­ther cata­lyt­ic con­ver­sion in­to a li­quid that con­tains hy­dro­car­bon mo­lecules, which can even­tu­ally be trans­formed in­to jet fuel.

This tri-cham­ber cell elim­in­ates the need for elec­tro­lys­is units — large and ex­pens­ive tech­no­lo­gies that use elec­tri­city to drive chem­ic­al re­ac­tions pro­du­cing hy­dro­gen. But even here, hy­dro­gen pro­duc­tion uses up a great deal of en­ergy, which in­creases the amount of car­bon in the air. The car­bon-cap­ture tech­no­logy, al­though more ad­vanced than it was dur­ing the re­search’s be­gin­nings in 2007, could still be more ef­fi­cient, Wil­lauer says.

Wil­lauer and her team have re­ceived com­mer­cial-scale re­act­ors and oth­er equip­ment ne­ces­sary to be­gin pro­du­cing up to one liter a day of fuel. Once they’ve got enough, they can start prep­ping the new fuel to meet nav­al flight spe­cific­a­tions. In Septem­ber, the lab pro­duced enough jet fuel to power the flight of a mod­el plane over the Blos­som Point mil­it­ary re­search fa­cil­ity in Mary­land (a video of the ac­tion is un­der pro­duc­tion). Even­tu­ally, the lab will syn­thes­ize enough fuel to power something much, much big­ger than mod­el planes — Navy ves­sels.

Jet fuel de­rived from sea­wa­ter would cost between $3 and $6 per gal­lon to pro­duce, which is com­par­able to cur­rent prices of pet­ro­leum fuel, Wil­lauer says. “You would have a set price for fuel,” she says. “You don’t have to worry about for­eign mar­kets and this idea that fuel is go­ing to run out.”

A vi­able non-pet­ro­leum fuel could help the Navy tackle two prob­lems sim­ul­tan­eously. The tech­no­logy would be a boon to its al­tern­at­ive en­ergy goals, and would provide a faster and safer pro­cess of re­fuel­ing to its ex­pand­ing fleet.

Filling up the tank at sea is a costly, time-con­sum­ing, and risky ven­ture: Ships have to re­main close to­geth­er, match­ing each oth­er’s speed as they cut through the wa­ter, for hours. Last year, an 844-foot Navy as­sault ship col­lided with a re­fuel­ing tanker as they pre­pared to line up along­side each oth­er to re­fuel when the as­sault ship’s steer­ing mal­func­tioned.

Fast-track­ing the re­search, however, re­quires two things. One, as is of­ten the case in sci­entif­ic re­search, is fund­ing, which Wil­lauer calls a “chal­len­ging is­sue.” The lab re­ceives fund­ing in­tern­ally, but out­side spon­sors, to whom re­search­ers of­ten pitch their pro­jects, can fund the pro­ject. The oth­er re­quire­ment is simply more time to im­prove the tech­no­logy.

Com­bine more money with more time, Wil­lauer says, and sea­wa­ter-sourced jet fuel could be­come a com­mer­cial real­ity in 10 to 15 years. For the Navy, that real­ity could cut costs, boost se­cur­ity, and help to meet en­ergy goals — all while its fleet con­tin­ues to com­pete in in­ter­na­tion­al wa­ters.

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