By Vice Adm. Phil Cullom
Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Fleet Readiness and Logistics
Dr. Heather Willauer and her team at the Naval Research Laboratory recently announced technology they developed that converts seawater to a liquid hydrocarbon fuel.
In a proof of concept test using the molecularly restructured seawater, they successfully flew a radio-controlled aircraft with an unmodified internal combustion engine.
Centuries ago we used to talk about alchemists attempting to convert lead into gold. This, however, is not alchemy; this is real science.
Although this technology may not be commercially viable for 10 years or more, I want you to understand why having alternative sources of energy is really important to your Navy. As a global force, we deliver 1.25 billion gallons of fuel worldwide to operators annually. Operationally, this is an Achilles’ heel.
I remember years ago when I was aboard my destroyer in the Adriatic, on station, prepared, with Tomahawks, ready to answer our Nation’s call to use them if necessary.
I would have to leave that station every few days to be able to rendezvous with the oiler far out in the Mediterranean. When I did that, I was no longer available for the mission. That’s what this revolutionary game changer is about – the idea that maybe you won’t have to leave station to go find the oiler – maybe you’ll be able to produce that fuel where you are – at sea.
We need to reinvent how we create energy, how we value energy and how we consume energy. We need to challenge the assumptions that are a result of the last six decades of constant access to cheap, seemingly unlimited amounts of fuel. Developing game changing technology – combined with other advanced power sources such as biofuels and solar panels – will enable the Navy to do just this at sea and on land. Some options, like drop-in biofuels, are available today, have already been certified for our use, and will be commercially viable in the near term. In fact, the plan in place will begin delivering biofuel at less than $4 per gallon beginning in 2016.
Converting fuel from seawater, when produced at economies of scale, could provide a new source of power for our ships and aircraft. It will make us less reliant on fuel from specific ports, reduce or nearly eliminate our need for fuel resupply, and, thereby, increase our independence, resilience and combat effectiveness.
Imagine the flexibility we might have if we could make all the fuel we needed for our maritime forces while at sea:
- Decreased dependence on oilers, enabling our aircraft carriers, cruisers, and destroyers to travel farther and have greater flexibility in which route to take.
- Less oiler movement in and out of port, making it harder for adversaries to detect where we are operating.
- Destroyers that would normally escort oilers now being dedicated to other missions.
After more than a decade of war, our adversaries have found certain soft underbellies to our operations. They know that when you go after the logistics and resupply of fuel, that’s an easier target than confronting our frontline forces. What if we removed that from the equation? Can you imagine a time when an aircraft carrier doesn’t have to wait for the oiler to come steaming alongside it to deliver jet fuel? It truly does change things. It prevents what could one day be our ‘maritime IED moment.’
The Navy has always been at the forefront of energy innovation. You might say it’s one of our core competencies. We innovated and created capability when we shifted from sail to coal, coal to oil, and then introduced nuclear propulsion. I think the American people expect us in the military to have a sense of vision, of where things can go in the future.
This is, I believe, an element of that.