Monday, US experts and Navy brass jointly announced a "game-changer" process that extracts carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas from seawater to produce liquid hydrocarbon fuel to power ships and jet aircraft.
The technology means that within 10 years U.S. Navy ships will be able to make their own fuel from seawater thereby doing away with the fuel supply chain and allowing ships to cross oceans and return to ports without need of refueling, according to an AFP report.
Currently, Navy ships depend on a fleet of 15 military oil tankers and land-based fuel depots which means commanders must abandon their missions for hours while refueling. With the exception of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines, navy vessels must sidle up to tankers while underway, often in very bad weather.
"It's a huge milestone for us," says Vice Adm. Philip Cullom.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, according to Cullom.
Ultimately, the goal is to free the Navy of its dependence on oil-based fuels that vary in cost and availability. "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," said Cullom.
He said there is a need to challenge conventional assumptions about energy. adding that over the last six decades we assumed there would be constant access to cheap unlimited amounts of fuel.
The process of converting seawater to fuel capable of powering existing engines of Navy ships and planes involves a catalytic converter of sorts that simultaneously extracts carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas, then converts it into a fuel that looks and smells a lot like petroleum-based fuels. The technology includes a gas– to– liquids refining process.
Dr Heather Willauer, a research chemist who has spent the last 10 years helping to develop the technology, is elated by the prospect of replacing oil with a readily available source that does not have to be mined, shipped or piped in from another source.
"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."
Scientists at the US Naval Research Laboratory estimate the original cost of jet fuel produced by the technology will be between three and six dollars per gallon. After successfully test-flying model aircraft powered by the new fuel source, researchers have focused on improving the quality and increasing the amount of CO2 and hydrogen they can capture.Once the extraction process reaches industrial proportions, the Navy will begin work on an infrastructure that includes installing the seawater-to-fuel technology in its ships.
Experts say equipment could be installed in most large US naval vessels within a decade, making it possible for ships to remain at sea indefinitely.
"For us in the military, in the Navy, we have some pretty unusual and different kinds of challenges," said Cullom. "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."
The vice admiral went on to say, "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."
Cullom says that a crucial benefit of the process is that the alternative fuel can be used in existing engines aboard 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."
Experts say the new alternative fuel technology will at once make the U.S. Navy less vulnerable and far more capable of carrying out long-range missions that require a sustained presence in remote areas of the world.