U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin Wolper

Navy Wants Battleships to Run on Seawater

The battleships of the future could be powered by gas sucked right out of the water they sail across. By Marina Koren

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.

(Related: Clean Energy Gets an Unlikely Ally: Military Veterans)

"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.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.