Researchers working for the United States Navy say they are around a decade away from mastering a procedure that will make high-powered fuel for the military’s fleet of ships out of run-of-the-mill seawater.
The US Naval Research Laboratory’s Materials Science and Technology Division have already demonstrated that a new, state-of-the-art conversion method can turn ordinary seawater into a liquid hydrocarbon fuel potent enough to power a small model aircraft. Soon, though, they say the same process will provide the Navy with a way of refueling any of its hundreds of ships at sea without relying on the comparably meager fleet of 15 military oil tankers currently tasked with delivering nearly 600 million gallons of fuel to those vessels on an annual basis.
Scientists say it will be another 10 years before ships will likely be able to successfully convert seawater into super-powerful fuel, but the technology is already being hailed as a game changer and is expected to substantially cut costs for the Pentagon.
The process at hand involves extracting carbon dioxide molecules from the ocean water outside of a ship’s hull and using it to produce hydrogen gas, “catalytically converting the CO2 and H2 into jet fuel by a gas-to-liquids process,” according to an article published this week on the Naval Research Laboratory’s website.
“The potential payoff is the ability to produce JP-5 fuel stock at sea reducing the logistics tail on fuel delivery with no environmental burden and increasing the Navy's energy security and independence,” Dr. Heather Willauer, a research chemist who has worked on the procedure for years, explained to the NRL back in 2012. “With such a process, the Navy could avoid the uncertainties inherent in procuring fuel from foreign sources and/or maintaining long supply lines,” she said.
Two years later, Willauer’s research team says they are making substantial progress with regards to their goal of using that process to put a powerful new tool into the hands of the Navy. According to a study in the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy, the new conversion method is fuel is "game changing."
"For us in the military, in the Navy, we have some pretty unusual and different kinds of challenges," AFP quoted Vice Admiral Philip Cullom for an article published on Monday this week. “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."
“It’s a huge milestone for us,” said Cullom.
When the Navy Times first wrote about the procedure in 2012 earlier on in the development process, staff writer Joshua Stewart reported that not only would the program cut costs by generating the fuel on site instead of importing it from the Pentagon’s reserves or an foreign supplier, but not bothering to stock up on gallons upon gallons of fuel — or being at the mercy of one of the military’s few oil tankers — would all together eliminate a number of the costly factors normally involved in keeping the Navy’s fleet afloat.
An analysis conducted by Willauer’s team, Stewart reported then, estimated that fuel made through the conversion process would cost between $3 and $6 per gallon, including start-up costs.
“The report cited the Navy's 2011 average cost for JP-5 at $3.51; media reports have put that number closer to $4. These prices don't include shipping and storage costs, which would be cut drastically or eliminated by making JP-5 at sea,” he wrote.
"Historical data suggest that in nine years, the price of fuel for the Navy could be well over the price of producing a synthetic jet fuel at sea," agreed the authors of the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy study.
According to AFP, Vice Admiral Cullom said that the Navy is in the midst of “very challenging times” that are prompting decision makers to think outside of the box when it comes to finding new ways to fuel the fleet.
“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,” he said.“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.”
On her part, Dr. Willauer called the NRL’s latest advancement “a big breakthrough” that came after nearly a decade of personally working close to the project.
“We've demonstrated the feasibility, we want to improve the process efficiency," she said.
The International Business Times reported this week that most of the Navy’s 289 vessels rely on oil-based fuel, with the exception of some some aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines.