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Navy powers model plane using fuel made from sea water


April 9, 2014

The mini Mustang, ready to take to the air

The mini Mustang, ready to take to the air

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Although no one is saying that aircraft carriers will soon be able to fuel their jet fighters using water from the ocean, such a scenario has recently come a step closer to reality. Scientists from the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) have successfully flown a radio-controlled airplane that was running purely on fuel derived from sea water.

The fuel was obtained using NRL's gas-to-liquid technology. This involved running sea water through the group's E-CEM (electrolytic cation exchange module) Carbon Capture Skid, which removed carbon dioxide from the water at 92 percent efficiency while simultaneously producing hydrogen as part of the process. Using a metal catalyst in a separate reactor system, the CO2 and hydrogen gases were then converted into a liquid hydrocarbon fuel.

NRL's E-CEM Carbon Capture Skid
NRL's E-CEM Carbon Capture Skid

In a proof-of-concept test performed last September at Blossom Point, Maryland, that fuel was used to power an RC model P-51 Mustang's unmodified two-stroke engine. It marked the first time that the fuel had been used in a conventional combustion engine, and was made public this Monday.

The researchers are now working on upscaling the system to a commercial scale. NRL notes that apart from its use in fuel production, the CO2 could also have applications in the fields of horticulture or aquaculture.

More details on how the gas-to-liquid process works can be found in the video below.

Source: NRL

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth

And the gas and oil companies will crush this over night.. LOL.

Skip Michael
9th April, 2014 @ 04:52 pm PDT

How was the convertor powered and at what efficiency? What can be done and what is practical are two very different things.

9th April, 2014 @ 06:56 pm PDT

Fascinating, but how does the value of the inputs compare to the value of the outputs ?

Martin Hone
9th April, 2014 @ 06:58 pm PDT

i don't understand. If i do electrolysis on water i can get hydrogen and run something off of that. of course the energy input is greater than the output. what is different about this? terrible reporting to not clarify this obvious question.

Robert Hirsch
9th April, 2014 @ 09:25 pm PDT

Did they really make all the fuel including the lubricant as it was a two stroke ?

This does have uses even if it is not efficient energy wise. The example given is for an aircraft carrier with some of these being nuclear powered and this would mean they do not need to visit a port or tanker for aircraft fuel. Would also be useful when providing fuel after a disaster in remote locations.

Stephen Colbourne
9th April, 2014 @ 09:58 pm PDT

It's a starting point, boys.

Noel K Frothingham
10th April, 2014 @ 12:34 am PDT

This story is not about a new source of energy - it's about producing jet fuel at a price cheap enough for the US Navy to seriously consider this method. Projected costs are up to 6 US dollars per gallon I believe. It works out cheaper and more convenient than relying on fuel resupply via tankers when out at sea.

Also, there is no electrolysis involved - it is a series of chemical reactions designed to produce various hydrocarbons, using as a starting point CO2 and H2.

10th April, 2014 @ 02:28 am PDT

As mentioned by nearly all the above, the projected EROEI figures for the final system are key. If we could build these plants near old mine workings, we might be able to use carbon capture and storage to keep the CO2 out of the atmosphere and thus stop it adding to global warming and ocean acidification. In fact, widespread deployment of this technology could assist in combating both.

Mel Tisdale
10th April, 2014 @ 03:57 am PDT

This is a good tech for the Nuclear Navy. It would allow them to operate with fewer tenders and vastly lower logistics exepnses.

As to the expense question: I've never seen a figure for jet fuel, but in a generator story they quoted $400/gallon of diesel delivered to theater. If jet fuel on a carrier is anywhere near that price this thing could be inefficient and expensive and still cost less.

Reading the comapny website they state:

"The predicted cost of jet fuel using these technologies is in the range of $3-$6 per gallon, and with sufficient funding and partnerships, this approach could be commercially viable within the next seven to ten years."

So there is the answer on cost. If this can produce fuel on board the carrier then it will without a doubt save millions and improve logistics.

10th April, 2014 @ 06:14 am PDT

what does this have to do with anything that flies?

it takes a whole chemistry lab to make this fuel

plus who knows how much water it took to get these 18 drops of gas


10th April, 2014 @ 08:34 am PDT


how much energy does it take to get the carbon separated from the dioxide?

i mean co2 is a waste product from burning stuff

you can;t exactly burn it again

something like this only works if you have a cheap/free source of energy

(just like separating hydrogen from water, then burning it, the separating process is energy-expensive)

like solar

but if you have that, then why not put it on the grid.?


10th April, 2014 @ 08:37 am PDT

Step sideways to another hydrocarbon fuel source. Bad. Bad. Bad.

10th April, 2014 @ 08:45 am PDT

Seems this could be an effective way to use wind, solar or wave energy obtained in remote locations where their is no local consumption. For example, a floating (or stationary like an oil rig) offshore windmill could produce fuel, and passing ships could refuel from there. The military could use this to keep their ships fueled without the need to stop at harbors, where they might be vulnerable to attack (think USS Cole). Island nations or states (like Hawaii) could use it for some of their fuel needs.

10th April, 2014 @ 09:02 am PDT

I think there 2 very important questions no one seems to be asking:

1) what are the emissions from burning the fuel produced? I seriously doubt it recombines back into equal amounts of water.

2) what quantity of water does it take to produce what quantity of fuel?

I understand our oceans are large, but water is the one resource we can't just burn away. talk about ecological disaster.

10th April, 2014 @ 09:54 am PDT

Nuclear power required to pump the CO2 -> CO + O2 conversion along with the NaCl + H20 => H2 + NaOH + Cl2 conversion.

BIG energy loser. Probably save billions putting nukes on all ships with 'fuel' for aircraft only

10th April, 2014 @ 10:28 am PDT

Improvement over the Fisher-Tropsch US Navy idea of extracting CO2 from the sea and combining with H2 produced by electrolysis.

My money is still on salinity gradient energy (SGE) more specifically the reverse electrodialysis (RED) method of using cation & anion membranes to produce energy. This would be great for offshore rigs & ocean going vessels.

10th April, 2014 @ 11:14 am PDT

So this has potential. Batteries still suck. Liquid hydrocarbon fuels are still our best and most potent method of storing energy for later use in mechanical application.

If, for example, you rigged a solar farm on the coast of Texas to churn ocean water into hydrocarbon fuel using sunlight, that'd be spiffy. Of course, you'd need to wait for it to be cost effective to want to do it for real, but it is an otherwise cheap renewable energy source.

Follow up question: what is the catalyst, how expensive is it, and how long do they last?

10th April, 2014 @ 01:58 pm PDT

SWIFT fuels all ready makes 100 plus octane fuel from sugar.

...we grow sugar.

Oil companies control the politicians.

...we elect politicians.

Jackie Ferrucci
10th April, 2014 @ 04:29 pm PDT

I keep remembering the second law of thermodynamics; You can't win, you can't break even, and you can't get out of the game. entropy always wins. How many watts input is required to produce a watt's worth of liquid hydrocarbon.

Still teamed with a nuclear powered ships they might be able to keep the aircraft flying without benefit of a fleet oiler. (tanker ship)

@ Jackie Ferrucci

Yes ethanol is a high obtain fuel but using farmland to produce motor fuel is just stupid.

10th April, 2014 @ 08:47 pm PDT

As others have pointed out, this press release neglects (purposely?) to mention that you need more energy to produce the fuel than what is produced by burning the fuel, giving you a net loss of energy. The good news is that nuclear power can easily provide the energy needed to do this. At 3$ per gallon, this would be quite cost competitive to gas (kerosene?) from crude oil. For a nuclear powered navy, this is great. Maybe there are even civilian applications for this. I can see people with solar panels convert excess solar energy into gasoline for powering a generator during times when the solar energy is insufficient (at night, in winter, etc). It sure opens up a lot of possibilities. The real issue remains though, where you get the energy from that drives the technology to produce the fuel. I would say nuclear power...

11th April, 2014 @ 07:21 am PDT

Oil companies Vs. The US Navy.

How ironic is it that the Navy (the force most often deployed to go to places where we're having issues with our Oil suppliers) to solve the world's energy needs by solving it's own energy need. You can't make this stuff up.

Daniel Gregory
15th April, 2014 @ 01:11 pm PDT

Geesh, all the nay-sayers.

You could build these things into a fuel tender, and then collect the solar energy to run the process with floating solar cells.

The ocean is big and relatively flat; two useful aspects for solar energy.

Imagine solar cells stitched into large inflatable rafts. You’d need a waterproof, transparent top layer.

None of that is very difficult.

Transporting fuel to a war theater is expensive; ask the Nazis.

Oh, wait, you can’t, we shot them.

BTW, “wle”, hydrocarbons are chains of carbon molecules with hydrogen atoms attached.

The CO2 can be broken up for parts. And for the hydrogen part, one of the Stimulus projects found that Cobalt in a tea bag makes a very effective electrolysis catalyst.

William Carr
21st April, 2014 @ 05:11 pm PDT
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