This Tiny Plane Just Flew Using Fuel Made Out Of Seawater

Illustration for article titled This Tiny Plane Just Flew Using Fuel Made Out Of Seawater

This scaled-down replica of a World War II-era fighter plane may not look so unusual on the outside. But inside of the engine is something exceptional: a fuel made with a new process using seawater.


The plane, and the fuel inside it, are the work of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, who announced that they've developed a technology that pulls carbon dioxide and hydrogen from seawater and uses them as part of a liquid hydrocarbon fuel

Demonstrating that the fuel is capable of flying the radio-controlled plane is a big step, but what really has them excited is what could happen next: They hope that the process could eventually be used to develop a replacement for petroleum-based jet fuel, this time in planes of standard sizes.

"This is the first time technology of this nature has been demonstrated with the potential for transition, from the laboratory, to full-scale commercial implementation," explained Heather Willauer, a research chemist working on the project.

The NRL estimates that, if all goes well, the development of replacement jet fuels could be expected as soon as within the next 7-10 years.

Image: Naval Research Laboratory


Stephan Zielinski

Great. You still need the energy to drive the process, which isn't a big deal if you've already gone ahead and built a nuclear reactor into your aircraft carrier, but hey.

(With enough energy input, you can synthesize gasoline out of guacamole, or bat urine. The synthesis isn't the hard part. Doing it cheaply is the hard part, and a major expense for the starting-from-scratch synthesis of an alkane from the high-entropy feedstocks of water and carbon dioxide is the energy. On an aircraft carrier, expensive equipment is OK, energy is abundant, and gas stations are likely to be far away, so it makes sense to build equipment that can synthesize a particular form of transportation fuel out of what's on hand. On land, none of these apply. Note too that it is far easier to synthesize gasoline out of natural gas, as you don't have to un-oxidize the carbon and hydrogen. Even starting from wood is easier. [I realize the Navy's press release claims "The predicted cost of jet fuel using these technologies is in the range of $3-$6 per gallon", but by their nature, press releases' level of spin varies from "serious" to "outright lie."])