The Navy Just Turned Seawater Into Jet Fuel

With a stable and, hopefully, clean electricity source, seawater-based fuel could reduce dependence on oil.

National Journal
Patrick Tucker, Defense One
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Patrick Tucker, Defense One
April 10, 2014, 1:03 p.m.

An­noun­cing a ma­jor break­through, Navy re­search­ers for the first time have con­ver­ted sea­wa­ter in­to CO2 and hy­dro­gen, which could be used to pro­duce jet fuel with­in a dec­ade.

In the next sev­en to ten years, the mil­it­ary will be able to run jets, ships, and oth­er vehicles on a fuel de­rived from sea­wa­ter, ac­cord­ing to Heath­er Wil­lauer, a re­search chem­ist with the Nav­al Re­search Labor­at­ory or NRL.

“It has to meet mil­it­ary spe­cific­a­tions to go in­to a jet,” Wil­lauer said, at the an­nu­al Sea Air Space Expo near Wash­ing­ton, D.C., on Tues­day. “We haven’t ac­tu­ally made it to the spe­cific­a­tions stage yet. But we know we’re in the hy­dro-car­bon re­gion and it shouldn’t be very dif­fi­cult to meet that spe­cific­a­tion.”

The break­through, though im­press­ive, does not mean that we will be filling jets and ships with sea­wa­ter in the very near fu­ture. The fixed-bed cata­lys­is pro­cess Wil­lauer and her team used to re­cov­er the hy­dro­gen and the CO2 from the sea­wa­ter is highly en­ergy-in­tens­ive, re­quir­ing al­most twice as much elec­tri­city to con­vert the wa­ter in­to fuel com­pon­ents as the pro­cess yields in terms of power. Cata­lys­is is a pro­cess that com­bines chem­ic­als, en­ergy and pres­sure to ac­cel­er­ate chem­ic­al re­ac­tions. At cur­rent en­ergy pri­cing, the cost of the fuel is between $3 to $7 per gal­lon. Wil­lauer says the num­bers should get bet­ter in the years ahead.

With a stable and, hope­fully, clean elec­tri­city source, sea­wa­ter-based fuel could re­duce de­pend­ence on oil or oth­er pol­lut­ing fuel sources, first in the mil­it­ary and then else­where. “The idea is really from a lo­gist­ics stand­point, you’re no longer de­pend­ent on for­eign fossil fuel,” said Wil­lauer. “You can make fuel where and when you need so you can stay on sta­tion, and it el­ev­ates that bur­den cost of fuel, of car­ry­ing it to dif­fer­ent parts of the world.”

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