Navy aims to turn seawater into jet fuel

By John Roach

The U.S. Navy may need to look no further than the water around its ships to produce jet fuel, according to a program underway at its research laboratory. The technology would free the Navy from the logistical and economic challenges of refueling ships underway.

In 2011, for example, nearly 600 million gallons of fuel were transferred to Navy vessels at sea from oil tankers. The challenges of doing this are risky in stormy weather, more so while engaged in battle. Add in volatile fossil fuel prices that are projected to trend higher in the future, and producing your own while underway begins to make sense, according to the Navy.

The technology involves extracting carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas from seawater and then using catalysts to convert them into a class of jet fuel called J-5 that meets Navy safety specifications. J-5 has been proposed as the energy source for all Navy operations, including fighter jets as well as shipboard boilers, diesels and marine gas turbines.

This can all be done for between $3 to $6 per gallon, according to a feasibility study published in the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy.

“This cost includes capital costs, operation and maintenance, and electrical generation cost for synthesizing the fuel,” Heather Willauer, the study’s lead author at the Naval Research Laboratory, told NBC News in an email.

The largest capital- and energy-intensive part of the process, she noted, is the hydrogen production, which “requires nearly 60 percent of the amount of energy that would be stored in the liquid hydrocarbon fuel.”

The team elaborates in the paper that the “though the energy balance is unfavorable, electricity cannot and never will be able to fuel jet turbines.”

The electricity to produce the fuel would come from either ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) technology or onboard nuclear power technologies.

More technical details on the process are available in a press release and the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy.

“The technology may be ready for testing at sea in 8 to 10 years, depending on funding,” Willauer noted.

Another renewable energy effort already underway at the Navy involving the use of drop-in biofuels to help gain energy independence has met strong political resistance, especially because the experimental fuels cost $27 per gallon to produce.

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