Last week researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s (NRL) Materials Science and Technology Division announced the successful flight of a small model airplane powered by a liquid hydrocarbon taken from seawater. Yes, that’s right. The ocean.
While it may just sound like a group of scientists flying a toy plane, the development could mean a future powered by one of the world’s largest infinite natural resources (here comes the oil industry hand-wringing).
The process, which extracts carbon dioxide and hydrogen from ocean water and recombines it into hydrocarbon chains, may advance efforts to refuel aircraft carriers and vessels while out at sea. The Navy currently relies on 15 oil tankers to deliver almost 600 million gallons of fuel to vessels at sea per year, according to the BBC. Though it takes an exhaustive 23,000 gallons of ocean water to create just one gallon of fuel, vessels equipped with nuclear reactors onboard can process the very water they float on to refuel, without having to wait for an oil tanker to help out.
Researchers anticipate the new process will be ready in the next seven to 10 years, with the goal of dramatically reducing the $4 to $5 billion the military spends annually on 1.3 billion gallons of fuel. The potential green fuel would cost an estimated $3 to $6 per gallon—an expensive undertaking—but within target of the rising costs of gas. In 2012 the Navy paid about $3.60 a gallon.
Currently the Navy’s 289 vessels rely on oil-powered fuel but approximately 72 submarines and some select aircraft carriers are powered by nuclear energy. So should we expect to run our cars on saltwater anytime soon? Not so much. The Navy hopes to partner with universities for further research and plans to scale up the system onto land-based stations before shipping off a ocean-powered ship.
Regardless, the new development means that reliance on oil could be a thing of the past in the not-so-distant future and yes, some day you could be pumping the Atlantic and Pacific over regular and premium at the corner station.