Fuel is made up of
hydrocarbons, molecules which contain hydrogen and carbon atoms. The largest
natural way to get hydrocarbons is through crude oil reserves, but they are
usually hidden deep underneath and at the most inconvenient places, for
instance, Iraq.1 Due to the increase in
world’s consumption of fuel, the demand for fuel continues to rise. Although
there is a large reserved of oil available, it is not feasible for oil
companies to recover them as it is costlier compared to what they will gain.
This is because consumers will be less likely to pay more. Previously peaceful
nations will be hostile towards the supplier country with more expensive
sources of oil, which could lead to war within countries. In addition, products
that depend on oil for production will be heavily affected such as plastic and
kerosene. Notably, the shipping industry will have no fuel for transportation and
the Navy will not be able to protect its SLOC and contributes to regional peace
and security. The world will not run out of fossil fuel for the next hundreds
of years to maintain our need for electricity. However, we need an alternative
source of energy to replace our reliant needs for fuel, especially for
transportation, which accounts for 35% of the world’s energy consumption.
However, there is another enormous store of hydrogen and carbon through the
ocean and one way to exploit it is with this new technology.2
does it work?
Research has shown that
scientists at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) are using an
electrochemical acidification cell to remove carbon dioxide (CO2)
and produce hydrogen (H2) from seawater, which are the building
blocks of hydrogencarbon and turning them into liquid hydrocarbon fuel. The
reason why scientists are extracting carbon dioxide (CO2) from
seawater is that it is 140 times higher concentration compared to the atmosphere.
The main concept is that the two gases will bounce off to produce the liquid
fuel. Approximately 97% of carbon dioxide can be drawn from water and
successfully convert about 60% of the extracted gases into liquid hydrocarbon
fuel. NRL has successfully proven this theory by flying a model plane using the
new fuel-from-seawater process. Additionally, the price to produce fuel from
this technology would cost nearly $3 to $6 per gallon; equivalent to today’s
low-end fuel, while the current high-end fuel would cost double the amount. The
teams are currently trying to scale up this technique to commercialise it and to
increase output. With more research and development, the technology could be
commercially feasible in less than 10 years.3
How will this contribute to the Navy?
Currently, our Navy vessels depend on oil-based refuelling
when they sail to other ports or need a replenishment ship at sea. The
capability of a naval vessel to generate fuel gives numerous advantages such as
the invention of reverse osmosis plant on board. Firstly, during conflict or
war, Singapore’s Landing Ship Tank (LST) is able to sustain a continuous supply
of fuel without spending time away from the mission to refuel at the nearest
port; this could be crucial if the surrounding countries are not friendly
forces. Secondly, fuel is an important asset and its supply are often targeted
during the conflict, which would be a disadvantage to countries like Singapore
without natural resources. Thirdly, replenishment at sea could be dangerous
without proper training as ships have to coordinate perfectly in order to
receive the fuel. This could increase the vulnerability resulting from
unprotected fuel delivery at sea. Lastly, not all ports that the Navy sailed
to; have clean fuel oil and this could potentially delay a mission.
Strategically, it makes a lot of sense by being self-reliant and generating
fuel on board; the Navy could remove all possible risks that could threaten its
success during the execution of a mission.4
contrast, other researchers have shown that.
However, on the flip side of the coin is that in order
to run the plant, there is a need to power up the system by using electricity.
If your ship is generating electricity from fuel, then we will probably end up
using more fuel than creating. The next issue is the waste and inefficiency of
the process. To produce a substantial amount of liquid hydrocarbons a large
amount of seawater is to be used as it is going to shrink considerably when gas
is being compressed to liquid. A 2010 report estimated that to produce 378.54
cubic metres of jet fuel in a day and if the system is 100% efficient; the
minimum amount of seawater to be processed is about 8,900,000 cubic metres.
Lastly, on top of the 60% of the gases produced are turned into a useful
product, about 25% of harmful pollutant greenhouse gases such as methane will
It is not all gloom and doom; if this system can be
coupled with a renewable energy source such as solar cells, or perhaps even
more ideally a small nuclear reactor – which could be possible in the future,
then the system has the potential to be very sustainable in the long-term.6 By
building on the success of the first model, NRL has scaled-up their production
to improve on the efficiency and significantly increase the end product of
producing more synthetic liquid fuel. This second-generation prototype is
capable of producing up to one gallon of fuel per day, an increase of
approximately 40 times compared to the first model. NRL are optimizing their
research by collaborating with commercial industry by using their large-scale
chemical reactor. They have narrowed down to two areas of focus. Mainly two
parts of the process being; carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen (H2) production
and recovery, and synthesis of hydrocarbons from carbon dioxide (CO2) and
hydrogen (H2) with consideration of minimum greenhouse gases produced.
According to reports, by end 2016, NRL are installing and integrating these two
key processes at their Key West Facilities to further improve and assess how to
fully develop an end-to-end production that is capable of being installed on
board naval warships.7 By developing a game-changing technology like
this which could potentially be deployed out at sea, really reinvents the way
we do business, logistics and ensure the readiness of our vessels. It also
translates to freedom of actions without worrying about foreign sources of oil,
fluctuating prices, increase Navy’s security and independence with minimum
impact on the environment were the key factors in the development of this
Martin. 2014. “Sorry, Everyone, Making Fuel Out of Seawater Isn’t Gonna
Save Humanity | VICE News”. VICE News.
2 Martinez, Mike. 2002. “WHAT
HAPPENS WHEN WE RUN OUT OF PETROLEUM?”. Ffden-2.phys.uaf.edu.
3 Willmott, Don. 2014. “Fuel
from Seawater? What’s the Catch?”. Smithsonian.
4 Ezez. 2014. “Using Seawater To
Create Jet Fuel”. IFLScience.
5 Robbins, Martin. 2014. “Sorry,
Everyone, Making Fuel Out of Seawater Isn’t Gonna Save Humanity | VICE
News”. VICE News.
6 Ezez. 2014. “Using Seawater To
Create Jet Fuel”. IFLScience. http://www.iflscience.com/technology/using-seawater-create-jet-fuel/.
7 Parry, Daniel. 2016. “NRL
Seawater Carbon Capture Process Receives U.S. Patent – U.S. Naval Research
8 Thomas, Emily. 2017. “U.S.
Navy Has Found A Way To Turn Seawater Into Fuel”. HuffPost UK.