US Military Navy hydrogen carbon capture for fuel cells

Published on June 27th, 2016 | by Tina Casey


US Navy Is Hearting Renewable Hydrogen + Fuel Cell Submarines

June 27th, 2016 by  

The US Navy has been hot on the trail of the sustainable warfighter energy supply of the future, and one of its top candidates is renewable hydrogen for use in fuel cells. The “renewable” angle is a key issue, since the primary source of hydrogen today is fossil natural gas. It looks like the Navy has hit upon one solution, with a newly patented one-shot system that extracts hydrogen from seawater, with the added bonus of capturing carbon dioxide, too.

Navy hydrogen carbon capture for fuel cells

Renewable Hydrogen At Sea, From Seawater

CleanTechnica first noticed the Navy’s hydrogen and carbon capture system back in 2012, when the Naval Research Laboratory was working on a way to scavenge jet fuel for its aircraft carriers while at sea.

Aside from the climate benefit of using less petroleum in aircraft, the logistical benefits include reducing the need to conduct risky refueling operations while at sea.

Fast forward to January 2015, and we had this to say about the system’s carbon capture capability:

The real beauty of the device, dubbed the Electrolytic Cation Exchange Module, is that the whole process takes place without requiring additional chemicals or creating toxic byproducts. That’s a huge advantage compared to the conventional processes for recovering CO2 from seawater.

In the latest development, earlier this month the lab announced that it has received a patent for the system, making it the first such system that simultaneously extracts both carbon dioxide and hydrogen from seawater.

With all the ingredients for making synthetic fuel at hand, the Navy anticipates being able to produce practically any kind of fuel it needs from seawater. Aside from JP-5 jet fuel, that includes LNG and CNG, as well as the multi-purpose fuel F-76.

Renewable Energy To Rule The Seas

The logistical and strategic advantages of seagoing energy harvesting are significant. Here is one of the system’s inventors, US Naval Reserve Comdr. Felice DiMascio, on that topic:

A ship’s ability to produce a significant fraction of the battle group’s fuel for operations at sea could reduce the mean time between refueling, and increase the operational flexibility and time on station. Reducing the logistics tail on fuel delivery with the potential to increase the Navy’s energy security and independence, with minimal impact on the environment, were key factors in the development of this program.

So far, the system is still in the proof-of-concept stage, as demonstrated at the lab’s Marine Corrosion Facility at Key West in Florida on a scaled-up version of the initial module.

The earlier versions of the module captured enough carbon dioxide and hydrogen to produce a fraction of a gallon of fuel daily. The next step is to increase the scale and efficiency 40 times over to achieve a one gallon-per-day goal.

That’s a lot of scaling up to do, but by the end of this year the lab expects to have both systems up and running — one for recovering carbon dioxide and hydrogen, and the other for creating hydrocarbon fuels.

For that matter, one gallon per day is pretty small potatoes, but it’s a start.

How About Some Renewable Hydrogen For That Fuel Cell

In case there’s any leftover hydrogen from all that activity, no worries about what to do with that.

The Navy has been collaborating with General Motors on an underwater unmanned vehicle — aka an autonomous mini-submarine — powered by a hydrogen fuel cell that GM developed.

Just last week, the Office of Naval Research and GM announced that the Naval Research Laboratory has evaluated the prototype version of the mini-sub, and it passed with flying colors. The test took place at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Maryland.

Here’s a photo of the little fellow:

navy GM hydrogen fuel cell submarine

Hmmm…why not a battery? The Navy is looking for onboard energy storage with a 60-day endurance framework and it appears that fuel cells are best suited to foot the bill, at least for now.

According to Frank Herr, ONR’s department head for Ocean Battlespace Sensing, yes, that’s right:

Our in-water experiments with an integrated prototype show that fuel cells can be game changers for autonomous underwater systems. Reliability, high energy, and cost effectiveness — all brought to us via GM’s partnering — are particularly important as Navy looks to use UUVs as force multipliers.

So what is GM’s stake in all this? Despite a plethora of skeptics about fuel cells in passenger cars, GM is among a number of global auto companies that are moving forward with fuel cell EV technology. The financials aren’t exactly working out in the street vehicle sector but with a nice Defense Department contract in hand, the company could continue justifying fuel cell vehicle R&D to its shareholders.

Last fall, GM generated a lot of buzz by renaming its GM Powertrain division to GM Propulsion Systems. The shift in nomenclature was aimed at transitioning out of petroleum dependency and into fuel diversity, as articulated by GM:

The new name is another step on our journey to redefine transportation and mobility. Global Propulsion Systems better conveys what we are developing and offering to our customers: an incredibly broad, diverse lineup – ranging from high-tech 3-cylinder gasoline engines to fuel cells, V8 diesel engines to battery electric systems, and 6-, 7-, 8-, 9- and 10-speed to continuously variable transmissions.

Did you catch that part about fuel cells? Aside from the Navy collaboration, GM is already in tight with the Defense Department on fuel cell EVs through its hydrogen-powered vehicle fleet for the US Army in Hawaii, so stay tuned.

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Images: via US Navy, Office of Naval Research.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Wayne Williamson

    Unsure this should be on cleantech. That being said, I can see how the navy would be very interested in this. Then an aircraft carrier has lots of room and probably could produce the jet fuel via bio processes for less and at a much high volume.

  • Mike Gitarev

    I’m not sure that scaled down model is good enough, but thank you for the information, will check story again.

  • A study done in 2014 showed that hydrogen could be produced off-shore from wind turbines for around €3.13 per litre of petrol equivalent. This was using current PEM electrolyser technology for the LCOE, and not taking into account externalities like subsidies (which are being phased out by 2025 by the G7) and defense cost offsetting which rapidly increases the comparative cost of the petroleum. The world’s first 100MW electrolyser for wind farms goes on the market in 2018. And this is not even taking into consideration the vast amount of research in the pipeline, waiting for further commercialisation. We need hydrogen for heavy industry, for fertilizers, for home heating and cooking. Modern gas piping is plastic and therefore able to carry hydrogen. We should not let detractors of this game-changing energy medium destroy our planet.

    • Mike Gitarev

      For chemistry and industry I definitely agree, but for home heating and cooking? Do you really want hydrogen openly fired inside your house? I think it’s extremely risky.

      • You’d probably mix it with some natural gas, and put in the same chemical so you could can smell it. But no, I don’t think it would be risky. This is a common misconception with hydrogen – that its different from other flammable gases. Its not; its just much lighter so it rises in the air and disperses much quicker. Apparently, some modification would have to be done to appliances, but the findings are that it is certainly possible.

        According to a NG supply network:
        ‘hydrogen “poses no significant increase in risk to methane”, and that challenges such as the fact hydrogen burns with a barely visible light blue flame “could be managed through appliance design”.’

        I think the hazard potential of hydrogen is just completely wrong. It was started by the fossil fuel industry and is being perpetuated by the battery-electric crowd. Extensive testing has been done on cars – and the findings are that its safer than gasoline.

        Cars with hydrogen were crashed, subjected to 1000 deg C heat for 60 minutes and finally shot at with rifles. The hydrogen tanks did not explode. Below is what happened (gasoline fuel tank burning):

        • Mike Gitarev

          In case of mix it may be ok; I didn’t read any research about it. My fear was inspired by Hindenburg, not FF or BEV crowd.
          As far as I know, Lockheed is doing helium airships instead of much cheaper hydrogen because of ban on hydrogen near any peoples or infrastructure.

  • Jason hm

    Yep Synthetic hydrocarbon fuel via the Fischer–Tropsch process I’ve been following this tech for awhile. The navy is interest because they can use the nuclear electric to synthesis fuel from seawater..

    Takes enormous amounts of electric but shipping in jet fuel cost 8$ a gallon to a deployed aircraft carrier.

    These guys have the largest pilot plant making synthetic fuel

  • JanVyt

    I do not understand why the decribed hydrogen-production process can be labeled as “renewable”.
    It is based on “electrochemical acidification cell based on chlorine dioxide. It works by using small amounts of electricity to acidify seawater, forming…” So how much chlorine dioxide and “small amount of electricity” do you need? And where do you get the chlorine dioxide to make this process renewable?
    The process may work and be really usefull but to claim it is renewable is almost certanly nonsense.

    The word renewable is used troughout the whole report without a basis. The described fuel cells applications can be usefull and better than alternatives but, please, stop using the term renewable in their discussions. There is no evidence that the required hydrogen will be produced in a renewable way.

  • omar

    your manager (Zak) will fire you because he hate fuel cell

  • Matt

    For a mini sub they have to carry both H2 (or other H compound) and O2. You can’t count on getting from air like a car does. So for “60-day endurance” most of the little yellow baby must be tanks to hold the fuel. That or maybe it is for data gathering and sits idle most of the time.

  • Julian Cox

    Tina, would you please stop seeking to conflate hydrogen with environmental responsibility. What you have described is an electro-fuels scavenging prototype that needs to be driven by a nuclear reactor or else from a generator aboard a ship running on bunker oil. There is no energy produced from seawater as you have allowed unfamiliar readers to assume. As for GM – the take-home message is not GM defying skepticism with fuel cells, it is GM validating skepticism that the only interest in fuel cells emanates from a military industrial complex whose primary function is to absorb taxpayer funding to police the global oil and gas trade – and to maintain that trade by deception if necessary in the form of hydrogen.

    • The US has no non-nuclear aircraft carriers.

      The primary advantage of this system is not environmental friendliness, but that the nuclear carriers, which can deploy indefinitely sans refueling, would also be able to conduct flight operations indefinitely sans refueling.

      Well, assuming 1 gallon of JP-5 per day is sufficient. 😀

      • neroden

        Aircraft carriers are militarily obsolete anyway; I’ve read a bunch of articles about this. The range of the manned airplanes is too short. The range of missiles is *very long* now.

        By the time the aircraft carrier gets within strike range, it can be sunk by shore-to-ship missiles with a longer range, which cost about $10 million each. Enough can be fired in one salvo that they can’t all easily be intercepted, and there’s room for several to miss.

        Even if the planes are replaced with longer-range planes, the planes can probably be shot down by shore-based missiles, and the carrier can still be sunk by shore-based missiles. The carriers cost multibillions of dollars and the airplanes cost $170 million.

        Not convinced? The carriers can also be sunk by the silent fuel-cell / battery-electric submarines, which can run for a month underwater and can’t be detected by anything the US has, including the US’s nuclear subs. (Which are also largely obsolete.)

        • Carl Raymond S

          Well said, but I think the word ‘largely’ belongs before the word ‘obsolete’. A carrier or two would still be handy when picking on nations that are essentially unarmed. (As in not equipped with accurate missiles). Iraq had the scud missile, iirc, which did not appear to qualify as accurate.
          World peace, is the best way to render them fully obsolete.

  • Shiggity

    The irony is that natural gas is helping solar PV crush conventional generation resources now. In the future, when solar PV reigns supreme, it will make advanced synthetic fuels viable.

    Solar will kill fossil fuels then will simply bring liquid fuels back that are much better.

    Liquid fuels aren’t going away, they are being upgraded. In the 2030’s we’ll be using liquid fuels that are fully synthetic / biotechnologically engineered. The secret sauce of the fuels will most likely be custom engineered micro-organisms vastly improving energy density and the ‘mixing’ energy will come from solar PV.

    ICE / diesel look like they are going to take really big hits in the near future. But that’s ok. We’ll get combustion engines that are 10x better pretty soon. Combustion technology has stagnated for a while.

    There are many other ways to achieve highly efficient combustion processes besides the internal variety + pistons.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Liquid fuels will be pushed into smaller and smaller niches. Doing work directly with electricity is cheaper.

      As battery capacities rise it will be possible to operate more and more equipment with electricity and avoid having to divert the energy through chemical plants and internal combustion engines with all the waste that includes.

      • Pobrecito hablador

        I can’t see liquid fuels going away in aviation, for example.
        The energy density advantage of liquid fuels will always beat batteries where weight and volume matters a lot.

        • Bob_Wallace

          You have to leave open the possibility of batteries gaining enough capacity to replace liquid fuels.

          We already have battery powered two seaters with ~200 mile ranges. At somewhere around 400 Wh/kg we reach a point at which long range battery powered air travel becomes possible. We’re around 250 Wh/kg now.

          Don’t forget how much of that energy we carry into the air in fuel tanks gets wasted in inefficient engines.

          • Shane 2

            Battery is possible for short haul but there are currently commercial flights in excess of 8,000 miles without refuelling. You could do that now with synthetic fuels or biofuels but these are still significantly more expensive than fossil. We need a tax on CO2 emissions that is levied by all major economies to level the playing field.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I don’t disagree on a price on carbon. It’s something that I think we will need and will probably establish in the next few years.

            But, again, batteries may be the answer. Just leave the door open.

            And leave the door open for the Hyperloop to replace most flight.

          • Solar Impulse is flying around the world without having to refuel. While this aircraft won’t replace the Boeing triple seven yet, it’s the groundwork of what can be achieved. The solar cells on the SI are only at 23% efficiency and receive about 10 hours of daylight per day. So the aircraft is able to not only fly but it can climb up to 30,000 feet (and the best part) while fully recharging its batteries for its 14 hour night flight.
            As for Photovoltaic efficiency, one company has created a solar cell that is at 43% efficiency. So it’s just a matter of time that we can create an aircraft that can carry the same number of passengers as a 777 with solar power alone. Though I don’t think we’ll reach the speeds of the 777. I’m thinking around 200 knots as opposed to 500 knots currently.


        • DARPA is demonstrating a hybrid electric unmanned VTOL that appears superior to conventional jet technology.

          darpa dot mil/news-events/2016-03-03

          • neroden

            …and NASA’s working on a four-seater powered by batteries.


          • Carl Raymond S

            Julien Cox’s vision of EV disruption when autonomy becomes a thing had everybody talking. I feel that battery aircraft (no cockpit) autonomy should happen years sooner – there’s so much less that can go wrong in the sky. With the noise problem overcome, meaning a regional airstrip near to every medium population, it opens up anywhere to anywhere travel, within distance (double hop if necessary). It’s an equally strong driver for battery growth and development. I hope somebody is working on a commercial model – it’s the same piloting technology as drones, except the goal is to keep everybody alive.

            Range? The key I feel is to make the battery structural. i.e. you fly within it.

    • Julian Cox

      Just FYI – Hydrogen production for hydro-cracking is the single most carbon-intensive contributor to the well to wheel emissions from gasoline. More hydrogen is not a solution – it is exacerbating the worst part of the problem. It is the first thing to displace for the largest net gains across legacy transportation – 50 million tons of annual fossil fuel hydrogen production replaced would reduce global vehicle emissions by 10%. Considering that 4 Gigatons of Crude are produced annually – getting rid of the relatively tiny production of fossil hydrogen is the obvious target. Conversely promoting more hydrogen consumption is the outer limit of irresponsibility – and actual malice on the part of those in the fossil fuel and auto industries that understand the science of it and ought to be ashamed or better still brought to justice.

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