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The Car Of The Future Will Be Made From Seawater

Hey, maybe we can drink our way out of this mess after all. ARPA-E, the Energy Department’s cutting-edge technology funding branch, has just released grants totaling $66 million for transformative automotive and energy projects, and among the goodies is a cutting-edge process to extract magnesium from seawater. The overall concept is to go back through the automotive supply chain and develop new, energy efficient technologies for introducing more lightweight materials into vehicle manufacturing, so aluminum and titanium are also part of the deal.

As for putting seawater to new uses, we’re going to guess up front that widespread magnesium extraction won’t be enough to counterbalance rising sea levels, even if you factor in the hands-over-fist growth in desalination technology. However, the magnesium project is part of a broader initiative to get global warming emissions from vehicles under control throughout the entire lifecycle, from raw materials sourcing to manufacturing, to recycling.

Squeezing Magnesium From Seawater

ARPA-E is splitting the money into two new programs, so let’s start with our favorite one first. About half the funding, or $32 million, is going to a program called METALS (Modern Electro/Thermochemical Advancements for Light-metal Systems).

This program focuses on new technologies for sourcing, manufacturing and recycling lightweight materials used in automotive manufacturing, including aluminum and titanium as well as magnesium.

ARPA-E gives $66 million for new automotive tech

Printed car by sethoscope.

The project we’re most interested in comes under the heading “Catalyzed Organo-Metathetical Process for Magnesium Production from Seawater.” Spearheaded by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), it’s a two-step process that involves extracting magnesium salt from seawater, then converting it to magnesium.The goal is to chop in half the energy used by conventional magnesium production.

If the project is successful, it would also lower the cost of magnesium, which right now is about seven times more expensive than steel. It would also bring domestic magnesium production back to US shores. Right now, according to PNNL there is only one bulk magnesium plant in the US. It’s big one, but still about one-third of the magnesium used the US is imported, with China being a main supplier.

The development of the process is already under way at PNNL. The energy-saving heart of the process is a new, titanium-based catalyst that will regenerate a key chemical in the extraction process.

The new process also saves energy by dint of its lower operating temperature, which PNNL anticipates will be less than 300 degrees Celsius. By way of comparison, the current process used in the US requires about 900 degrees.

Relatedly, Case Western Reserve University also received a METALS grant for developing a low-cost, low-energy process for manufacturing titanium from titanium salts.

$66 Million For Transformative Automotive And Energy Projects

For the record, private sector partners are also playing a big role in the $66 million round of funding, one familiar name being Alcoa, Inc.The aluminum giant is already known for its aluminum-based, low cost concentrating solar power technology and a “smog-eating,” paint-on coating for buildings. Its METALS assignment is to develop an electrochemical system for manufacturing aluminum, which is expected to cut down on the massive amount of heat wasted in the conventional process.

As for the other $34 million not gobbled up by METALS, that’s going to a new program called REMOTE, for Reducing Emissions using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy.

We’re not totally fangirling over REMOTE because, as the acronym cleverly underscores, the goal is to develop new processes for converting natural gas to liquid transportation fuels, with the specific aim of making it cost-effective to get gas from remote locations.

Given the growing raft of issues surrounding natural gas fracking (the jury is still out on whether or not natural gas is a “cleaner” fuel, btw), we’re not so sure it’s a great idea to encourage more drilling in areas where it would be more difficult to ensure even the minimal oversight that fracking operations are subjected to currently.

On the other hand, chins up. More options for renewable biogas are coming into play, including landfill gas, sewage-to-biogas, and biogas recovery from food and agricultural waste including livestock operations, so the technologies developed through REMOTE could potentially be applied to grow the renewable biogas market, possibly even more than in the fossil gas sector.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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