You have to wonder how these things get started. Or maybe you don’t. The world is always filled with fantasies and wishful thinking. Newspapers and the Internet just make them circulate a little faster.
On April 7, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), Materials Science and Technology Division put out a press release announcing it has developed an efficient way of synthesizing a jet fuel using carbon dioxide and hydrogen. There is nothing novel about this. You can synthesize just about any hydrocarbon from CO2 and hydrogen given enough energy and the right catalysts. What was unusual about the Navy’s development is that the process is compact and efficient enough to be done on board a ship. The hydrogen would be extracted through standard electrolysis from seawater. The carbon dioxide would come from the air. As the press release described it:
NRL has made significant advances in the development of a gas-to-liquids (GTL) synthesis process to convert CO2 and H2 from seawater to a fuel-like fraction of C9-C16 molecules. In the first patented step, an iron-based catalyst has been developed that can achieve CO2 conversion levels up to 60 percent and decrease unwanted methane production in favor of longer-chain unsaturated hydrocarbons (olefins).
The release said specifically that the process would be utilized in producing jet fuel — fuel for flying airplanes. Presumably this would be done aboard aircraft carriers.
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. Pursuing remote land-based options would be the first step towards a future sea-based solution.
Alright, an interesting development. Kind of like the Army’s plans for “going green” by growing crops around forward bases and turning them into biofuels. By the time the story hit the press, however, it had completely changed. The Navy had invented a way of using seawater to power its ships. All this would free the military from fossil fuels.
First to garble the story was the International Business Times. “Goodbye, Oil: US Navy Cracks New Renewable Energy Technology To Turn Seawater Into Fuel, Allowing Ships To Stay At Sea Longer,” ran the headline over a report the next day. “The Navy’s 289 vessels all rely on oil-based fuel, with the exception of some aircraft carriers and 72 submarines that rely on nuclear propulsion,” wrote reporter Christopher Harress. “Moving away from that reliance would free the military from fuel shortages and fluctuations in price.” CNBC immediately reproduced the story verbatim under the headline: “US Navy Wants to Power Warships With Seawater.”
Emily Thomas of the Huffington Post fell hook, line, and sinker for the whole thing, directly quoting IBT: “Currently, most of the Navy’s vessels rely entirely on oil-based fuel, with the exception of some aircraft carriers and submarines that use nuclear propulsion, reports the International Business Times. The ability to render fuel from seawater may change that.”
Others quickly followed. FoxNews blew it with a headline, “Powering the Ships of the Future? Navy Develops the Technology to Turn Seawater into Fuel.” The supposed scientific experts at Discover didn’t get it right either. “If Navy ships create their own fuel they can remain operational 100 percent of the time, rather than conducting frequent fuel-ups with tankers while at sea, which can be tricky in rough weather,” reported Carl Engelking imaginatively.
Even DefenseSystems.com, a website devoted exclusively to military ordnance, got it all confused: “It might not be cold fusion,” wrote Kevin McCaney, “but researchers at the Naval Research Laboratory have, on a small scale, tapped into what could prove to be a nearly unlimited source of fuel for air, sea and even land vessels.”
All this is remarkably reminiscent of the hysteria that used to be created over using hydrogen as fuel. Hydrogen burns cleanly. The only exhaust is warm water. It’s the most abundant element in the universe. It’s just sitting out there waiting to be employed.
All these stories overlook the inconvenient fact that it takes energy to do all these things. It takes energy to split hydrogen out of water. It takes energy to synthesize it back into a hydrocarbon. And because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, energy is always lost in the process. Consequently, you always end up with less energy than when you started.
Now it may make a certain sense to split water at some central location to produce hydrogen that can be put into automobiles to cut down on widely distributed auto pollution. That would require a huge central power plant. But where is this energy going to come from when you’re on board a ship? You’d have to have a power source to start that is greater than what you end up with. That may make sense when it comes to manufacturing jet fuel from the reactor aboard a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. It may in fact be quite efficient. But powering Navy ships with seawater fuel made with the fuel you’ve already got on board — it’s crazy.
To its credit, most of the conservative press didn’t make the same mistake. “There’s nothing particularly odd about the basic thing that’s being done here,” wrote Todd Worstall in Forbes:
Seawater contains both carbon dioxide and hydrogen: the CO2 is dissolved into the water and the hydrogen is that H2 part of H2O. So, if you can separate out those two parts then you’ve got carbon and hydrogen and then we know how to make hydrocarbons from those two and oil is simply one type of hydrocarbon.…
However, and here’s the economic point to this, such a system is simply not going to be economic, not in general usage. Currently they say that a gallon of avgas will cost in the $4-$6 range and when it’s possible to pump up oil in Saudi for $15 a barrel that price just doesn’t work.… It’s also worth pointing out that this process is an energy sink. When we drill for oil we get a net addition to the useful power available to us. This process reduces the amount of power available to us. We have to put more energy into the system than we get out of it.
The Washington Times was also careful to specify the process produces jet fuel for airplanes, not ships.
That such misconceptions can get around so quickly only shows what a difficult time many reporters have in dealing with basic energy concepts. It’s the same as those reports that appear regularly on how Germany is rapidly moving toward solar utopia or Japan is going to replace Fukushima with offshore wind or Tasmania will soon be running completely on renewable energy. Germany is now burning more coal than ever and is hugely dependent on Russia natural gas, as we’re finding out. Japan has reversed its 30-year positive trade balance and now spends $300 billion a year importing fossil fuels. As for Tasmania, if it does run on renewable energy, it will probably be firewood, which already provides 80 percent of its energy anyway.
However, all this shouldn’t deter the energy utopians. Next week look for a story on how someone in Bulgaria has invented a perpetual motion machine.