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A jet on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Refueling Navy ships and jets while they are at sea is a dangerous and tricky business. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Lorenzo J. Burleson)

Fueled by the Ocean

Navy scientists have discovered an efficient way to power jets and ships using seawater

By Laura Leigh Davidson | November 29 , 2012
<p>Jet fuel is produced specifically to run jet and ship engines. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jerine Lee)</p>

Jet fuel is produced specifically to run jet and ship engines. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jerine Lee)

United States Navy ships sail many long missions in some of the most remote parts of the world. But when they need fuel while out at sea, the crew can’t just pull up and fill the ship’s tanks at a local rest stop. Refueling massive Navy vessels is a tricky and expensive business.

But the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) may be on to a solution. Navy scientists have created a system to extract, or remove, the raw ingredients of jet fuel directly from the waters in which the ships sail.

Making jet fuel requires hydrogen (H) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Both of these elements can be found in the air. However, NRL scientists realized that they could gather a lot more carbon dioxide from seawater–which surrounds the Navy’s ships!

Once they have the raw materials, scientists combine the hydrogen and carbon dioxide to create a hydrocarbon. They process the hydrocarbon even further to produce the desired product—usable jet fuel.

THE FUTURE OF FUEL?

The Navy isn’t the only organization working to make new synthetic (or human-made) fuels. British scientists at Air Fuel Synthesis, a company in the United Kingdom, are working to make gasoline from air and water.

The gasoline we currently use contains pollutants (chemicals that are bad for the environment) such as sulfur. By making the gasoline from scratch, scientists can make cleaner fuel that wouldn’t include these pollutants.

With all of the complex science involved, you might think it would cost a lot of money to create fuel from seawater. But the NRL says its latest lab tests show that the process will produce jet fuel at a cost of about $3 to $6 per gallon. This price is comparable to and possibly cheaper than what the Navy currently pays.

NRL scientists plan to continue testing their water-into-jet-fuel process on the open sea.

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