Foghorn – Liquid Fuel from Seawater

Google X ended their Foghorn project last year, but the technology exists to turn seawater into sea fuel.

When Google engineers read the paper ‘CO2 extraction from seawater using bipolar membrane electrodialysis’ in the Energy and Environmental Science journal in 2012, they were immediately interested. They invited principal author Matthew Eisaman to the Solve for X campus to give a talk on the work, and eventually brought him on as a part of a new moonshot undertaking – Project Foghorn. The goal of Foghorn was to develop fuel from seawater.

Following the moonshot methodology, the ‘huge problem’ that Foghorn tried to solve was climate change. The fact that transportation generates 14% of greenhouse gas emissions was the climate change piece that was chosen to combat. The ‘breakthrough technology’ used was Eisaman’s process that would create hydrocarbons from seawater, and the ‘radical solution’ was the carbon neutral alternative fuel that was called ‘Sea Fuel.’

The process of converting seawater to fuel had four main phases. First the ocean waters absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Using electrolysis the carbon dioxide is pulled from the sea water. (One side effect of this process was the ability to create potable water using conventional desalination methods.) The next process was the catalytic reactor where the seawater was chemically broken into CO2 and Hydrogen. The fourth part of the system was vehicles outfitted to use the sea fuel as an energy source, and the carbon emissions from the vehicles reabsorbed by sea water to begin the process again.

A small scale prototype was built to prove the process and was successful. The cost target of $5 per gallon for the sea fuel, achievable in the next five to ten years, was not successful. After an exhaustive cost estimation process the estimate was still $8-16 per equivalent gasoline gallon. In 2016 the project was ended as an investigation, shelved as a viable method of fuel generation but not cost effective until hydrogen production becomes cheaper and more efficient.

The process of Google X taking on a massive moonshot project, working to develop a proof of concept model, and then doing extensive cost analysis is fascinating. Kathy Cooper wrote an excellent article detailing the three things she learned from turning seawater into fuel, and Fast Company did a long form tech write up of the process and some of the technology and business decisions made by Google. The seawater to sea fuel process is expected to be written and submitted to journals in the next few years so that any inventors, scientists and engineers can use the information and hopefully improve and commercialize the process.