Project Foghorn
Creating clean fuel from seawater

Burning fossil fuels accounts for nearly 97% of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions

Project Foghorn aimed to radically reduce these emissions by pulling carbon and hydrogen out of seawater and combining it to create a new type of carbon-neutral fuel. To be a viable alternative to conventional fuels, however, it also needed to be cost-competitive with gasoline — a hurdle the team ultimately found too high.

Various samples and materials used by the Foghorn team to develop seawater fuel

Making a cost-effective system

Inspired by a scientific paper that detailed a promising process, the team started collaborating with researchers at PARC to develop an end-to-end prototype and see if it was possible to make “seawater fuel.” After a few months of work, in early 2014, the team successfully created methanol. But it turned out creating the fuel wasn't the hard part. Creating it at a reasonable cost was.

Kathy Hannun, Project Lead for Foghorn

Early theoretical models suggested that it would be possible to make seawater fuel for somewhere between $5 and $10 per gasoline gallon equivalent (gge). So when work began, the team set themselves a cost target of $8 per gge and outlined a path to $5 per gge within five years. This way, seawater fuel would be cost-competitive enough to give them a foothold in markets like the Nordic countries where gasoline is very expensive.

As the team’s investigation continued, some barriers to meeting these targets became apparent. First, to create enough fuel they would need to pump a significant amount of seawater which would be incredibly expensive. The second challenge was finding a cheap source of hydrogen. After investigating a number of hydrogen creation processes, they came across a technique called solid oxide electrolysis. This technique uses energy to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. Unfortunately, after meeting with numerous experts in this field, the team learned that generating a reliable and cheap source of hydrogen would take more than five years of research and significant capital investment.

Project Foghorn equipment for converting seawater into fuel

The process of turning seawater into fuel

The sea naturally absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Carbon dioxide is extracted from seawater and hydrogen is produced via electrolysis using renewable energy sources.
Inside a catalytic reactor, hydrogen is reacted with carbon dioxide to make a liquid fuel for vehicles — what we call sea fuel.
Vehicles are powered by sea fuel. Carbon dioxide from vehicles is re-absorbed into the sea to be used again.

The future of sea fuel

In January 2016, after two years of work, the team decided to end their investigation. The cost models sent a loud-and-clear message: because of the current and projected cost of hydrogen, seawater fuel wasn’t worth pursuing — for now.

The project was far from wasted time and energy. We invite builders, inventors, scientists, and engineers around the globe to examine our research and analysis here and here. Perhaps our work will save them some time or provide a leg up in their search for a carbon-neutral fuel.