Military looking for ways to spin seawater into fuel

DARPA wants to harvest carbon and hydrogen sources in ocean water.

The scientific minds at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) want to look hard at how they can turn the abundance of seawater into a profusion of fuel for all manner of mechanized equipment. 

Specifically the agency is soliciting ideas to utilize the abundance of carbon and hydrogen sources in ocean water to create liquid fuels. DARPA says such ideas should: Identify a novel catalytic route for converting seawater to liquid fuels or intermediates in a known liquid fuel pathway; improve conversion efficiency and conversion rate, as well as enable mass production.

Submissions may focus on harvesting carbon dioxide from the ocean or using the primary form of dissolved carbon dioxide, bicarbonate, directly. Ideas should emphasize unique opportunities for novel catalyst development to facilitate the overall reaction in a minimum number of reaction steps. Significant advances in current density and reaction rate are of particular interest, DARPA stated. 

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The seawater-as-fuel idea isn't DARPA's first foray into using water or other non-traditional sources for energy.

In August DARPA gave General Atomics what ultimately could be a $43 million contract to develop scalable processes for the cost-effective large scale production of algae triglyceride oil and an algae-derived JP-8 jet fuel.

DARPA's Cellulosic and Algal Biofuels program is designed to develop affordable alternatives to petroleum-derived JP-8 from algae and from cellulosic biomass. The program has a crucial financial caveat. Sufficiently energy-dense biofuel oil must be produced at a cost that is competitive with petroleum-derived fuels. DARPA seeks to produce a surrogate JP-8 that would cost less than $3 per gallon at a production rate of 50 million gallons per year.

In the algae-related portion of the program, DARPA is looking to demonstrate algae triglyceride production at a projected production cost of $2 per gallon. In Phase 2, contractors will demonstrate production of algae triglyceride at $1 per gallon. Contractors will develop and demonstrate a process for affordable algae triglyceride production and conversion of the algae triglyceride into biofuel.

The agency is also looking to develop technology that can demonstrate economical and environmentally friendly conversion of coal-to-liquid (CTL) fuels primarily for aviation purposes.

Others too are hot on the alternative fuel trail.  Closely related to the green effort is alternative fuel development including biofuels, as promoted by the FAA's Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) and the last year's  FAA grant to the X Prize Foundation to spur development of renewable aviation fuels and technologies.   According to the FAA CAAFI's specific goals are to promote the development of alternative fuel options that offer equivalent levels of safety and compare favorably with petroleum-based jet fuel on cost and environmental bases.

The FAA and the X PRIZE Foundation meanwhile hope to inspire the private sector and a new generation of individuals on the need and practical solutions offered through alternative fuels and adaptive technologies in aviation, the FAA said.  The FAA said that the X PRIZE Foundation will consult with industry experts to develop a strategy to bring together the best minds in the aviation and science communities to solve the technical challenges and speed up the development and implementation of cost-effective renewable aviation fuels.  These will be environmentally friendly and won't have negative side effects, such as the displacement of food production or the inducement of land use changes that lead to additional greenhouse gas emissions, the group said.

The Air Force too has gone whole hog into the alternative fuel development cycle as well. Last year for example it successfully flew a B-1B aircraft at supersonic speed using an alternate fuel in a flight over the White Sands Missile Range in Texas and New Mexico.  The fuel, a 50/50 blend of synthetic and petroleum gas, is being tested as part of an ongoing Air Force program to use a fuel produced in the US, the Air Force said.    The Air Force wants to fuel half its North American fleet with a synthetic-fuel blend by 2016.

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