A promising technological breakthrough by the U.S. Navy may herald future development of a unique energy system to power pumping stations and desalinization plants battling the effects of sea level rise.
CNN reported on Thursday, April 10, 2014 that a new stealth destroyer, the USS Zumwalt, may someday draw carbon dioxide and hydrogen from sea water “and turn it into forms of gasoline.”
That’s right. Ocean water into fuel.
According to researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, Materials Science and Technology Division, “an electrolytic cation exchange module” has been tested to remove carbon dioxide from ocean water and produce hydrogen gas, which can be converted to liquid hydrocarbons by using a metal catalyst in a reactor system.
The Navy says fuel which has been produced using this method has already powered an engine of a “small model aircraft” in a proof-to-concept test. (See above video).
CNN also reports the conversion from sea water to fuel process could be scaled up to produce jet fuel.
Vice Admiral Phil Cullom, writing on NavyLive, a military blog, on April 7, 2014, refers to the process as using “molecularly restructured seawater.” He speculates the technology may not be “commercially viable” for 10 years or more, but when it is used, it will revolutionize Navy logistics by eliminating the need for fuel supply ships to rendezvous with vessels on station for refueling purposes.
So how might such technologies, when perfected, be used to facilitate sea level rise adaptation?
Imagine municipal storm sewer pumping stations and desalinization plants using fuel produced from sea water for their primary source of power.
Ocean water is boundless in quantity, and one of the primary causes of rising seas is increasing amounts of carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere into water. If we take Co2 from the oceans, which have a higher concentration of carbon dioxide than the atmosphere, we eliminate the need to get fuel from other, more traditional sources, like land and ocean-based oil deposits.
Rising sea levels already threaten fresh water supplies and exacerbates tidal flooding, especially in South Florida. If ocean-based carbon dioxide can be harnessed to power public infrastructure machinery designed to produce fresh water and storm sewer pumping stations working to keep threatened areas dry, the operating cost of such systems could be reduced. This, in turn, could allow vulnerable and fiscally strained municipalities to lengthen their adaptation process without incurring escalating energy demands.
Other potential benefits from “seawater to fuel” systems could be envisioned for coastal areas that lose access to traditional power sources during hurricanes, or even harnessed by developing nations that have limited access to energy production and distribution systems.
As the oceans absorb more and more carbon dioxide, "designer fuels" from seawater may help lessen dependence on existing greenhouse gas producing carbon fuel sources.
According to Dr. Heather Willauer, a Naval Research Chemist, “We’ve developed a technology at the Naval Research Laboratory that does indeed process seawater.” She was quoted in the Department of Defense blog “Armed With Science.” It pulls the components, carbon dioxide and hydrogen, from the seawater. Then we take those components and we recombine them over a NRL-developed catalyst to make, essentially, designer fuel.”
Dr. Willauer adds, “We can produce, depending on the transition metal on the catalyst – for example iron, cobalt, nickel, copper – you can make methanol, you can make olefins that could be converted to jet fuel, you can make natural gas, all kinds of neat things. It’s amazing,”
There are immediate development problems to be overcome, however. Patrick Tucker, writing in DefenseOne.com, commented on April 10, 2014, "The breakthrough, though impressive, does not mean that we will be filling jets and ships with seawater in the very near future. The fixed-bed catalysis process Willauer and her team used to recover the hydrogen and the CO2 from the seawater is highly energy-intensive, requiring almost twice as much electricity to convert the water into fuel components as the process yields in terms of power." DefenseOne.com states Dr. Willauer "says the numbers should get better in the years ahead."
Even though seven to 10 years off, this technology has another benefit. Dr. Willhauer points out, “It’s a net-zero carbon footprint.” “So you’re taking the carbon, you put it in a fuel, it you burn it, it goes back [in] the atmosphere, but you’re not creating anything more. I’m not getting fossil fuel out of the ground and putting more CO2 in the air, I’m actually using the CO2 from the environment.”
Civilian adaptation of this amazing technology in light of sea level rise is inevitable. With this development, the challenges offered by nature with swelling oceans may also provide a once unknown solution for powering coastal areas with inexpensive and plentiful energy in the escalating fight against sea level rise.
Through Dr. Willauer's work with her team, the incredible is now credible. Sea level planners need to watch this technology very carefully. Laws need to be flexible enough for use of this technology when it is commercially available. Local, regional and state governments need to be ready for commercial implementation when the time comes.