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Science breakthrough turns seawater to fuel

Thursday - 4/10/2014, 5:55am  ET

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A radio-controlled replica of a World War II P-51 Mustang took flight to demonstrate proof-of-concept. (WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. - A fuel of the future may have oceans of supply.

Navy researchers have developed a technology to convert seawater to hydrocarbons that can be used to produce fuel.

The breakthrough is a carbon capture process for carbon dioxide recovery and hydrogen production, according to the Naval Research Laboratory. Those can be captured in quantities sufficient to make synthetic fuel.

"We pull the components of carbon dioxide and hydrogen out of the seawater," says Heather Willauer, a research chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory.

Those components are extracted using an electrolytic cation exchange module.

A catalyst facilitates the reduction and hydrogenation of carbon dioxide in order to form hydrocarbons, which can be used as fuel.

"You can potentially make jet fuel; you can make diesel fuel; you can make methanol; you can make liquid natural gas to power automobiles," Willauer says.

From seawater to fuel. Bottles below the model plane demonstrate the before and after of the fuel from the sea concept. (WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)

This isn't a fantastical dream. Researchers have already used seawater to power a flight, if a model one.

The team started by making liquid fuel in the lab.

"As a milestone, we wanted to demonstrate it in an internal combustion engine," she says.

The off-the-shelf plane was a radio-controlled replica of the World War II P-51 Mustang, made famous by the Tuskegee Airmen.

The plane flew. Proof-of-concept accomplished.

"It was a turning point in our research to demonstrate that we could do this," Willauer says.

Researchers still need seven to nine years to further develop the technology, they say.

The laboratory projects jet fuel produced this way would cost between $3-$6 per gallon, which is just slightly more than current jet fuel prices.

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