Emissions Nuclear Renewables

Zero emission synfuel from seawater

Guest post by John Morgan. John runs R&D programmes at a Sydney startup company. He has a PhD in physical chemistry, and research experience in chemical engineering in the US and at CSIRO. He is a regular commenter on BNC.

You can follow John on Twitter @JohnDPMorgan



Liquid hydrocarbons account for about one third of fossil carbon dioxide emissions, and while transition to electric vehicles is possible for some passenger transport, it is simply not feasible to substitute for liquid fuel in most long haul transport, aviation, or agricultural and industrial prime movers. Synthesizing fuel from carbon dioxide extracted from air is possible in principle but horrendously expensive.  Yet, if we are to achieve CO2 levels of 350 ppm from our current 392 ppm, CO2 removal from the biosphere appears necessary.

Two papers published last year described a new approach to zero emissions synfuel, looking at direct carbon dioxide extraction from seawater.  The new insight in these papers is that CO2 is very soluble in seawater, where the concentration is about 140 times higher than in the atmosphere. This could make seawater extraction a lot cheaper than direct air capture.

The work was done by the US Navy (full text here), and by the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC),who each developed membrane processes to extract CO2 from seawater.   The Navy’s interest is military – shipboard production of synthetic jet fuel far from supply lines – but I figure we can beat this sword into a ploughshare.

Rather than going after the CO2 directly with chemical scrubbers, they use electrochemical processes to split seawater into an acid and base stream, and the CO2 bubbles off from the acidified water.  The two streams are recombined and returned to the ocean.  While these processes are novel, they are very similar to a number of ion exchange processes, including desalination, which are currently deployed at scale.

The Navy costed the production of jet fuel at sea.  But they neglected to include the cost of energy for the carbon capture process.  I used the PARC research to estimate it and include it in the Navy costings.  I arrived at $1.78 per litre. I was also able to calculate the cost of just the carbon capture part of the process at about $114 per tonne of CO2.

But if we don’t insist on running these processes on an expensive ocean-going platform, the cost drops to $0.79 per litre for synfuel and $37 /tCO­2.  The costs are rough and there are a number of caveats, but this is surprisingly low. To put it in context, the American Physical Society recently reviewed carbon capture from air, and “optimistically” costed it at about $600/tonne.

The Navy costings are based on commercially available equipment whose capital and operating costs are understood for all processes except the membrane CO2 extraction. Analogous processes like desalination are available for a cost baseline for membrane extraction.  The costing assumed power from Navy nuclear reactors. (They also costed OTEC power – Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion – but this is not a commercially available technology.)

I describe the CO2 capture and fuel synthesis processes below, and show how the costings were derived.  I also consider how the costs would change for civilian nuclear electricity (Table 1).  In brief, accepting the Navy’s assumptions leads to plausible prices for synfuel and carbon capture, but the amount of new power generation required makes very large volume production unlikely.

A spreadsheet with my cost calculations can be downloaded here: Synfuel cost model.

CCS – Carbon capture from seawater

Concepts for carbon capture from air have been developed, but never realized.  The basic idea is to pass air over alkaline scrubbers, such as amine or carbonate solutions, extract the CO2, and recycle the scrubber solution.  Because the concentration of CO2 in air is so low, a very large surface area is required, and the process is energy intensive and overall very expensive.

The American Physical Society prepared a technology assessment on this approach in 2011. The results weren’t promising.  A 1 Mt/yr CO2 extractor comprised five 1 m x 1 m x 1 kilometre long air contactors, occupying about 1.5 km2.  The cost, so far as it could be determined for an undeveloped technology, and making optimistic assumptions, was about $600 per tonne.  Another 2011 study estimated costs based on current experience with trace gas removal systems at about $1000 per tonne.

Graphic – cover of the APS report, with link
Graphic – cover of the APS report, with link

But CO2 is very soluble in water, and its concentration in the ocean is about 140 times higher than in air.  So we are using the whole of the ocean surface as an air contactor right now – for better or worse!  The extraction system is ‘built’, we just need to recover the CO2.

The PARC and Navy researchers both used the clever approach of acidifying seawater with H+ ions generated by water electrolysis, forcing the CO2 to bubble off.  The PARC system in the illustration used a stack of semipermeable membranes sandwiched between two electrodes.  Inside the stack, H+ is generated on one side of a membrane, and OH on the other, which creates alternating acid and alkaline compartments.  CO2 is recovered as gas from the acid stream, which is then recombined with the alkaline stream and returned to the ocean as CO2-depleted seawater.  The Navy process chemistry is similar, but uses ion exchange resin beds instead of the internal membrane stack.

The process has not been scaled up, but the technology and challenges are similar to reverse osmosis desalination, so there seems to be no in principle reason why it couldn’t be.  The lifetime of membranes operated in seawater is also unknown, but again, membrane desalination of seawater shows the problem can be overcome, using techniques like polarity reversal to remove scale formation.

Figure 1.  The membrane separation system developed by PARC.  Seawater (SW) is pumped through alternating bipolar and anion exchange membranes (BPM, AEM), and an electrolyte solution (ES) is pumped past the electrodes, separated from the seawater streams by a cation exchange membrane (CEM). H+ and OH- form on opposite sides of the BPM, creating acidic and basic compartments.
Figure 1. The membrane separation system developed by PARC. Seawater (SW) is pumped through alternating bipolar and anion exchange membranes (BPM, AEM), and an electrolyte solution (ES) is pumped past the electrodes, separated from the seawater streams by a cation exchange membrane (CEM). H+ and OH- form on opposite sides of the BPM, creating acidic and basic compartments.

This process doesn’t require material inputs of acids or bases – they are generated internally by electricity, and it is non-polluting – only the original seawater is discharged, minus the CO2.  The process consumes 242 kJ per mole of CO2.

Applying the capital, operating expense, and cost of energy assumptions made by the Navy researchers gives a carbon capture cost of about $114 per tonne CO2, using Navy nuclear electricity at 7.0 c/kWh.  If sequestered – perhaps by injection into spent offshore oil or gas fields, as this is a marine process – this would be offset by any carbon price that might apply, currently $23/tonne in Australia, for a net $91 per tonne (exclusive of sequestration costs).

The Navy estimated the capital cost of the carbon capture process at $16m for a 715 tCO2 per day plant.  Unfortunately no justification is offered for this cost, so I am unable to check it, and it seems quite low.  I have used this cost as given, but it may underestimate the CO2 capture cost.

As a purely speculative exercise, what would it take to draw atmospheric carbon down to 350 ppm with just this technology?  If we follow the American Physical Society in their technical assessment of direct air capture and set a target of reducing atmospheric CO2 to 350 ppm by capturing 400 Gt over a hundred years, we would need to collect 4 Gt/yr, from the perspective of an already decarbonised society.  We would require the power of about 700 AP-1000 nuclear reactors.  At the Chinese cost of $1.3b apiece and an 80 year lifetime this would cost a bit over $1 trillion dollars.  That sounds like a lot of money. But its only about the cost of America’s 2003 Iraq War spread over the century, so I guess it’s a question of priorities.

CCS – Carbon capture and synfuel

The feedstock for fuel synthesis is hydrogen, and a source of carbon.  Commercial synfuel operations have all used fossil carbon, such as natural gas, or coal in coal-to-liquids processes.  They address availability of liquid hydrocarbons, but are terrible emitters, using fossil carbon both as a material input and to provide the energy to run the process. CO2 extracted from seawater is an ideal carbon source – it embodies negative emissions and is very pure, free of sulphur and other impurities.

In the Navy concept, carbon dioxide is converted to carbon monoxide by reaction with hydrogen.  The carbon monoxide is further condensed with hydrogen in the Fischer-Tropsch process, to produce hydrocarbon.  The overall reaction is, nominally,

11 CO2 + 34 H2 à C11H24 + 22 H2O

Fischer-Tropsch produces a range of pure alkanes, with no aromatics or sulphur, although heavier hydrocarbons may require cracking.  Alternative fuels such as methanol or dimethyl ether could also be produced from the CO2 and H2 feedstock, and would require no further processing.  So the end product is much closer to a final fuel formulation than, say, crude oil.

A source of hydrogen is required, and the energy required to produce the hydrogen is the single most expensive component in the whole process.  The Navy used performance data for large scale 2 MW commercial water electrolysis units that cost $2m each and can produce 485 m3 per hour of hydrogen.

Figure 2.  Hydrogen Technologies 2 MW water electrolysis unit.
Figure 2. Hydrogen Technologies 2 MW water electrolysis unit.

Suppose the whole process were powered by Navy nuclear electricity.  The USS Nimitz has two reactors that together produce 200 MWe.  Using 37 MWe for CO2 capture and 163 MWe for hydrogen generation from 78 electrolyser units, they could produce 24 million litres of fuel per year, for about $1.78 per litre (Table 1).

For context, a small oil refinery produces about 550 million litres per year, while Sasol’s South African coal liquefaction plant, the largest commercial Fischer-Tropsch plant, produces 8.8 billion litres per year.  To produce the same fuel output as the Sasol plant the Navy process would require about 73 GW.  So while the cost per litre may look plausible, the infrastructure required is huge.

Land based operation and other improvements

Not everyone has the Navy’s interest in manufacturing at sea.  What if the process were operated from a land based site?  The largest capital component in the Navy costing is the floating platform, which adds a huge $650m to a 200 MWe power plant.  If the platform cost were taken out, the fuel cost drops to a bargain basement $0.79 per litre, and the carbon capture cost drops to $37 per tonne!

A nuclear site doesn’t come for free, even on land, so these are lower limits to the possible costs.  Maybe we should look at current civilian LCOE nuclear electricity costs.  Nicholson et al. reviewed available data in their 2010 Energy paper and reported electricity costs for established nuclear power.

Table 1 shows synfuel and carbon capture costs for median and low end electricity costs for established nuclear power, and for the low end of current Chinese nuclear builds.  The cheapest Chinese cost gives synfuel at just $0.82 per litre, and carbon capture at just $39 per tonne.

The other major cost component is hydrogen production by electrolysis, which is very energy intensive.  There are more efficient ways to do this, such as using high temperature solid oxide electrolysis cells, or the sulphur-iodine thermolysis cycle.  These processes operate above 800 °C.  High temperature gas reactors could provide this heat, and an efficient HTGR-SI hydrogen production system would further reduce the synfuel cost (though not the carbon capture cost).

1. 2012 Annual Energy Outlook, US EIA.  2. Australian Energy Technology Assessment, Aust. Govt. Bureau of Resource Economics and Energy 2012.  3. Willauer, Hardy & Williams, Naval Research Laboratory 2012, with minor changes.  4. Nicholson, Biegler & Brook, Energy 2010.

CCS – Carbon capture at source

Carbon dioxide can be captured more readily from the flue gases of either coal or natural gas power plants.  The IPCC estimates carbon capture costs from these sources as US$15-75 per tonne CO2.  If we are committed to burning more coal, we might at least use it a second time before releasing it to the atmosphere.  A coal plant supplying CO2 to a Fischer Tropsch plant collocated with a high temperature gas reactor producing hydrogen would produce carbon neutral liquid fuel.

The overall carbon accounting for the electricity and synfuel would be roughly the same as for sequestration, if the synfuel substituted for oil.  It would also avoid the difficult problem of finding a permanent sequestration solution for the CO2.  Its not negative emissions, but it is at least emission free.

Is carbon capture from the ocean worth a carbon credit?

Does it matter whether CO2 is captured from the ocean or from the atmosphere?  I’ve assumed not, so long as CO2 is removed from the biosphere.  Atmospheric CO2 causes global warming, oceanic CO2 causes ocean acidification.  Both have serious consequences.

But if ocean uptake of CO2 were very slow, burning synfuel derived from oceanic carbon would be just as bad for the climate as burning fossil fuels.  If the climate were more sensitive than ocean pH to anthropogenic CO2, we might prefer to leave the carbon in the oceans.  Would seawater carbon capture benefit ocean acidity, or climate, or neither?

Table 2 shows the distribution of carbon between air, land and sea over a recent twenty year period.  Roughly half of our CO2 emissions end up in the atmosphere, a third in the ocean, and a sixth on land.  There is substantial equilibration between ocean and air on a timeframe short enough to be relevant to climate.  There is a complicated tradeoff between marine and climate impacts of CO2 emissions, but it appears carbon capture from either reservoir would be beneficial.

From Table 3.4, The oceanic sink for carbon dioxide, Sabine & Feely 2007


We’re not going to be manufacturing the world’s diesel from seawater anytime soon.  There is a limit to the rate at which we can roll out zero emission power capacity, nuclear or otherwise, and for a long time the most environmentally effective application will be to displace coal power, and gas.  But if we take seriously the need to decarbonise our energy systems, this will have to happen, most likely by mass production of modular nuclear reactors.  It would take many decades to build that capability.  But by then, in a warming world suffering from ocean acidification and hydrocarbon depletion, zero emission synfuel at $1 per litre, and carbon capture at $40 per tonne would look like a bargain.

Maybe its time to stop talking about carbon capture and storage, and start talking about carbon capture and synfuel.

Appendix: Production costs

The Navy researchers provided a rough costing of an ocean-going nuclear powered carbon capture and Fischer-Tropsch synthesis plant, and came up with a fuel cost of production of $1.52 per litre.  They did however neglect to include the cost of energy for the carbon capture process.  I constructed a revised cost model that includes the energy for carbon capture, which I took to be the same as measured by the PARC researchers for their process (242 kJ mol-1).

The energy and cost of seawater pumping was also not accounted for. I estimated this as follows.  In a previous paper on their carbon capture system the Navy researchers describe their ion exchange unit, and give its specifications as

Max Flow: 35 cm3s-1

Max Pressure: 350 kPa

So I write P = QR where R is the hydraulic resistance.  If the max flow occurs at the max pressure, R = 350 kPa/35 cm3s-1 = 1010 Pa s m-3.  The experimental flow rate was 2.5 cm3s-1.  So I can write power = PQ = Q2 R = 0.0625 W for 2.5 cm3s-1, or 2.5 MW for 100 m3s-1.

This is approximately 1% of total process power, so its a minor component, and I don’t include it in the cost.

I allowed the carbon capture and Fischer Tropsch plant costs to scale with production capacity.  Otherwise I have followed the Navy costs and assumptions, including a cost of capital of 8% pa and annual operation and maintenance expenses of 5%.  The main line items are given in Table 3.  For more details, refer to the Navy paper and the spreadsheet.

Some of the Navy capital costs are unsourced and I am unable to verify them.  These include the cost of the CO2 capture and Fischer Tropsch plants, given as $16m and $140m respectively, per 82 000 gallons per day fuel output.  I take these values on faith.

The final cost I arrive at is $1.51 per litre, the same as the original researchers – the increase in assumed power is roughly the power required to run the carbon capture, so the changes mostly cancel out.  This spreadsheet was then used to model the alternative scenarios in Table 1.


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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

45 replies on “Zero emission synfuel from seawater”

Great overview but why focus upon nuclear when wind even offshore is cheaper.

The excess heat is probably also an asset.

The most expensive oil has a production price at $75 per barrel so the threshold cost level is a little higher since the synfuel is readily usable without refinery cost. Also it is unlikely that fossils will be exempted from the external cost permanently.

Navy cost of fuels are very high due to complex logistics and nuclear carriers have excess energy available most of the time at low variable cost.

Further synfuels are cleaner and more efficient and used in very expensive planes where just minor reduction in running cost is way more important than minor increase in fuel cost. The same could also be true for commercial airlines.


As will be readily apparent from the following comment, I’m no chemist, but I’m wondering if we might find it more useful and less carbon emissive (since the fuel we would be extracting as described above would presumably be burned and so re-released into the atmosphere) to also extract the chlorine from the salt and join it with the carbon to make PVC or some other plastic.that would sequester that carbon for a longer time? Shell has some sort of plan for using the solar energy of the Nularbor plain in Australia to provide the power for a CO2 extractive process.


David Benson

You can not use EIA figures. Vattenfall won the tender for Hornsrev 3 with a FIT at 0,77 DKK per kWh ($0,112 per kWh) for 50.000 full load hours and spot market for the remaining 15 years of its design life.

The FIT for Hornsrev 3 is roughly half the “Estimate” from EIA, ($0,2041 per kWh) and the projected average electricity sales price per kWh is roughly a third of EIA’s “Estimate” if the current average spot price is fetched for the electricity sold from Hornsrev 3.

Average electricity sales price over the lifetime is on par with US navy nuclear assumed by John Morgan but if you as he does use production prices over 60 year nuclear power plant design life you can reuse the infrastructure and thus easily secure a production price at $0,02 per kWh as only about 35% of the initial cost is required to refurbish used wind turbines.

John Morgan use a black box calculation to conclude that cheap Chinese nuclear is available at $0,0204 per kWh. Vattenfall is a well renowned utility with several Nuclear plants and all elements in the deal is done according to EU legislation and Danish rules.

Everyone in offshore knows that the price must go down but offshore is still very much a novel technology and thus far more expensive than onshore.


[…] Removing CO2 from sea water has its problems (e.g. it needs energy), but the concentration is about 140 times higher than in air, and some clever ideas for sea extraction have emerged: Though if synfuels are then produce using the CO2, as some suggest, and then burn, the process is no longer overall CO2 negative. For an interesting overview see: […]


I also wonder why we could not deploy this technology immediately using off shore wind farms as the electricity input.

(Is there any way of using the intermittent sources like wind as inputs to the hydrogen production and carbon capture processes or do we need dispatchable power?)

I am interested in finding ways of using intermittent renewables that do not require us to connect them to the grid. We could avoid all sorts of problems:
* no need for new transmission infrastructure
* no need for grid-connected storage or at least as much of it
* we avoid the grid stability and integration issues
* easier to avoid the wind farm NIMBYs
* possibly avoid the sniping from the renewables lobby if they realise that their favourite technology can do more good creating hydrogen/

I would also think that we would save CO2 emissions in the long run if we connected as many nuclear reactors to the grid as soon as possible and used wind and solar farms to produce the synfuel. Isn’t this a more direct route to decarbonisation?


Alex Harvey hopes that the “renewables lobby realises that their favourite technology can do more good creating hydrogen”.

Through the seventies and eighties we did indeed hope that hydrogen would provide the missing storage component to 100% renewables power. But the problems of confinement and chemical inefficiencies creating and converting the intermediate product have never been resolved.

Alex also wants intermittent users to profit from intermittent power and suggests that it could produce synfuel. Alas, the Fisher-Tropsch process that powered Hitler’s armies consumed large amounts of coal to break coal all the way down to hydrogen and CO and then large amounts of heat and pressure to build it up again into synthetic hydrocarbons. Perhaps there are simpler ways to convert hydrogen and CO2 to hydrocarbons, but the author (John Morgan, a chemist) ain’t telling.

There seems to be no chance of a profitable intermittent process in this scenario. Apart from any need to keep hot stuff hot and compressed stuff compressed, the financial problem remains that any intermittent process will have capital equipment paying interest to the banker in the unproductive periods between power. Historically the only enduring intermittent industrial process has been the pumping of water, in action since antiquity, and we haven’t got much further since.


Roger Clifton,

If we accept that wind farms are going to be built anyway, would you prefer to see wind farms provide an intermittent input into the electricity grid, or, even if combined with gas, produce jet fuel while extracting CO2 from sea water?


What you mean “we”, Alex Harvey? If you mean “we” who hope to eliminate all fossil carbon from the world’s power, with a little help from gas, you can count me out. No matter how small you imagine that gas backup to be, it still would emit an unsustainable level of fossil carbon .

The adjacent webpage on “the capacity factor of wind” shows that in a world cluttered by windmills on every skyline, the power would be overwhelmingly supplied by gas, fossil gas. In contrast, in the world sketched above, where transport fuel is to be synthesised from CO2, the provenance must be 7/24/365 noncarbon power.


Roger Clifton,

You are preaching to the choir on this one.

When I consider the requirements for land clearing, steel, concrete, aluminium, and rare earth metals; the embodied energy and pollution; the associated bird and bat deaths; the visual impact on landscapes; the psychological impact on the people and livestock living near them; and of course intermittency; not to mention the cost to taxpayers; it is not obvious to me that wind farms are a net benefit to society or the environment at all.

If I had my way, the Australian government would be following the example of France and building a fleet of nuclear reactors immediately to replace coal plants.

But it’s not going to happen. I don’t have the power to make this happen; and I judge this to be far too politically radical. All of the political parties are taken in by the renewables lobby, and even those who are pro-nuclear mostly favour a carbon price and a market solution. This is the reality.

My concern is that trying to build a 100% renewables electricity grid could actually be such a dumb idea that it turns out to be worse than doing nothing at all. What happens if we build all this infrastructure, the wind farms, grid enhancements, transmission lines, and realise when we get stuck at ~ 40% renewables penetration that we can’t get any further, by which time cheap SMRs have appeared on the global market that make it cheaper just to rebuild the whole network from the ground up?

I question the popular focus on electricity and electrification and the electricity grid.

I am thinking: how can we get the renewables lobby onto our side and out of our way?

What if they could be persuaded to use their renewable energy off the grid. If renewable energy could be used to produce hydrogen, jet fuel, truck fuel, hot water, air conditioning, perhaps this would give us time to build gas and then nuclear plants on the grid.

Even if we just got people thinking more about ways to decarbonise transport and heavy industry instead of the neurotic focus on electricity and without imagining billions of lithium-ion batteries I think it would be a win.


Alex Harvey you are right on the money.

Anti science, anti nuclear political ideology will ensure that emissions will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.

Few COP21 delegates want to know that French emissions from electricity production are just 40g/Wh because it comes from 60GW of nuclear.

Instead almost all emission reduction pledges from 150 countries have followed the German lead and intend to roll out renewable energy generation.

All have ignored the fact that Germany has not reduce its electricity and heat generation CO2 emissions of about 365 million tonnes annually since 1997 despite installing 80GW of renewables.


Excellent piece of research. Some thoughts:

The Navy won’t include the cost of nuclear energy because it’s close to free. They’d run this process with spare capacity from the nuclear plants, which probably run below 50% capacity factor even when at sea. That would increase maintenance costs – and being the Navy, they’re quite high.

It appears there are high and low temperature variants of the Fischer Tropsch process. The high temperature might work better with nuclear heat.


@Alex – are you a chemist? The Fischer Tropsch process requires as a starting point copious quantities of hydrogen. Since the hydrogen has to be created in this scenario by electrolysis, efficiency and safety would be served by doing away with the intermediate step. Could instead the electrolyte be a carbide or carbonate or similar, in which the CO2 and H2O are reduced to hydrocarbon at one end and oxidised to free oxygen at the other?


Sorry, just an engineer and management consultant.

Getting hydrogen is of course the energy intensive piece. Ideally that should come from high temperature reactors – that needs about 850C.



I just noticed your question of 23 June:

Have you considered calculating cost when hydrogen generation takes place using heat from a liquid salt nuclear reactor

I did a very rough calculations some time ago and estimated that if hydrogen was provided high temerature nuclear reactors at the cost per kg H2 estimates I’ve seen (e.g. by DOE and others), the estiated cost per gallon of fuel could be approximately halved from the $3-$6/per gallon estimated by US Navy Research and Audi. here’s an independent estimate of the cost of the Audi diesel concept:


The US Department of Energy has been researching the electro reduction of CO2 to organic chemicals. At Oak Ridge, the Centre for Nanophase Materials Sciences has developed a catalyst that directly converts CO2 to ethanol. Ethanol, C2H5OH, has the crucial carbon-carbon bond that allows the development of heavier hydrocarbons.

The fact that this team were starting with CO2 and water does suggest that they are part of a mission to recycle CO2 into liquid fuels, a mission very much appropriate for DoE. And very much relevant to a quest for “zero net emissions by 2100”.

Note the reaction does not produce hydrogen as an intermediary in the process, instead, it extracts oxygen from water (via hydroxyl ions). This is a major simplification over the Fisher Tropsch process of the preceding discussion, which requires handling of copious quantities of expensive and dangerous hydrogen.

Because the important part of their work is a half potential at the cathode, they made no mention of how they extracted oxygen at the anode, presumably on a noble metal electrode. However this problem too, must be solved as current industry practice (as in aluminium extraction) is to extract oxygen using a graphite electrode and thus emitting CO2 back into the atmosphere.


So NREL says 86% of Light Duty Vehicles (regular cars & trucks & SUV’s, nothing heavy duty) could be charged on today’s grid and power plants, but all running at full power.

“For the United States as a whole, 84% of U.S. cars, pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) could be supported by the existing infrastructure, although the local percentages vary by region. Using the light duty vehicle fleet (LDV) classification, that includes cars,
pickup trucks, SUVs, and vans, the technical potential is 73%. [b]This has a gasoline displacement potential of 6.5 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, or 52% of the nation’s oil imports.

Click to access phev_feasibility_analysis_part1.pdf

So 86% of the petroleum can be replaced by the grid. I make that 9.3 mbd (19.4 mbd * 56% petroleum * 86% NREL claim).

The last 16% of the 56% petroleum = 1.7 mbd.

The heavier trucks & agriculture = 21% diesel, or 4.4 mbd.

Jet fuel = 2.1 mbd.

That’s 8.2 mbd synthetic fuels extra energy required, converted into roughly equivalent electricity at * 1.7 MWh per barrel = 14,000 GWh per day. Woah! So that’s a lot of extra nukes required to manufacture this synfuel. And that’s just the long-haul trucking in America!


Eclipse, thank you for doing the arithmetic, it gives your argument a lot more credibility than without.

One barrel of oil is oilmen’s jargon for 6.1 GJ, so your figure of 8.2 mpd of synthetic fuel is 580 GW of chemical power. Efficiency of synthesis wouldn’t be 100%, so at say 30%, the synthesis would require ~2000 GW of dedicated electricity production. As you say, that’s a lot of extra nukes.


580GW of chemical power would demand the use of ultra high temperature reactors (such as the pebble bed being built in China) with thermo-chemical hydrogen production.

This process is similar in efficiency to electricity production, at close to 60%.

So this would need about 1000GW (thermal) of reactors – perhaps equivalent to 580GW of electrical production.


Alex, yes, thermochemical production of hydrogen using a HTR looks to be much more economical than passing the power to the reaction via electricity. US DoE has the chemical processes in development, or has had, for some time now. Each of them involves oscillating the reduction state of one or two elements so as to pump out oxygen in one phase of the cycle and hydrogen in the other. As far as I know the most efficient requires vast amounts of hot liquid bromine!

I hope they end up using something less exotic, like a sulphur-sulphur cycle, so that spillage would not be long-term bad news for the environment.

High-temperature reactors (HTR) primarily produce high-quality heat for downstream processes. Production of hot hydrogen is only one of them, but there must be many more chemical processes requiring a surge of heat, or a phase of high-temperature, in a refinery. Certainly if such a tool were made available, it would find valuable uses.


Has that all been factored into the sheer cost of the synthetic diesel above? Also, what was the final cost? I couldn’t quite decipher what cost + CO2 sequestration fee meant? Are we saying that synthetic diesel is simply not economically viable without a high carbon tax?


Whaddyer mean, “final”? We have a long way to go yet. Price-driven global conversion to recycled fuel would require it to be cheaper than conventional fuels, derived from fossil carbon.


C’mon! Buying electricity pays for its production. In the opening of this thread, John Morgan factored in the price of electricity, and most recently, Peter Lang, above. Read it again.


Oh I see. So while I got a shock at the sheer number of nukes after you corrected my (lame humanities) attempt at estimating it, it doesn’t really matter. The number of nukes is irrelevant. The price is determined by an estimated cost of nuclear electricity + estimated of the CO2 & hydrogen extraction processes, and the number of nukes just scales as the demand for synthetic diesel increases. If anything, the price may come down with economies of scale. Got it! Man… this numbers stuff trying to model things in the REAL world… give me a sociology paper to write and I’ll kill it! ;-)


Come to think of it, if fuel from nuclear electricity is cheaper than fuel from crude oil, every fuel refinery would have a paddock-full of nukes.

Consider that a modern refinery inputs ~5 GW of chemical energy as crude, of which 20% is burnt for electricity for lighting, pumping, reaction pressure, electrolysis … as well as for brute heating, and also for hydrogen. So there is enough work on site for 1 GW of nuke even before the conversion is underway.


[HTR hydrogen] “looks to be much more economical” – would be better said as – “looks to be much more energy-efficient”


The USS Gerald R Ford, lead ship of a new class of super aircraft carriers, has been commissioned. It has two Bechtel A1B reactors, each capable of 300 MW, thus producing 2 to 3 times as much electric power as the Nimitz class carriers it replaces. The US Navy expects the Gerald R Ford class will be part of the fleet for 90 years, requiring that the class must successfully accept new technology over the decades.

Its electric launching system allows it to launch 25% more aircraft per day. A 40 ton capacity includes the capability to launch the Stingray, an unmanned tanker for aerial refuelling. A previous super carrier, carrying more men, stayed at sea for 160 days, so this carriers endurance would be a lot longer. Clearly, this class of ship will have an enormous consumption of aviation fuel. It would seem that its endurance could be significantly extended if they could manufacture their own aviation fuel at sea.


I love the fact that diesel from seawater is another option for replacing oil in long distance trucking, and that this blog has calculated that it is already economical. That’s fantastic.


Yes, and it’s clean. There is no sulphur, nitrogen, vanadium or ash to remove. It would be so welcome as aviation fuel for passenger traffic.


Diesels produce fine soot, regardless of where the hydrocarbon fuel came from, that turns out to be a health hazard. UK is planning to eliminate diesels from their roads, perhaps by 2040.

Purity of synfuel makes fuel cells more feasible, as the catalysts don’t get poisoned by impurities. Perhaps they will be the next revolution on the roads.


Now we hear France will ban sales of both diesel and petrol vehicles, with UK to follow. German cities are set to exclude diesels from entering. India is considering something similar.

All are concerned for pollution (NOX etc) in their cities, rather than their carbon emissions. For that reason, these are internal combustion engines (ICE) that are being suppressed. Electric motors with battery storage will power commuter vehicles, but this cannot power long-range or heavy haulage vehicles.

An obvious alternative to battery storage, with its attendant charging problems, is fuel cells. With fuel cells, these heavy vehicles can have electric propulsion, with heavy duty energy storage on board, in the form of the appropriate synfuel. The methanol fuel cell is the most obvious candidate, and Nissan has an ethanol version.


Is there a lot of energy lost in producing methanol? What’s the feedstock and what quantities can it be produced in? What’s the bottom line in expenses? I also thought fuel cells were very expensive.

Anyway, Elon’s got an announcement on long distant heavy trucking sometime next month. We’ll see.


EN asks about the energy losses to produce methanol. Well, seeing that synfuel starts with electricity, water and CO2, which is the lowest energy state for carbon, there is actually no energy to be lost from the raw materials, but there is a concern to make efficient use of the energy input from electricity. Seeing as methanol is the simplest of all the liquid hydrocarbons, it is a fair bet to say that any commercial production process would be energy-efficient. For powering electric vehicles, fuel cells using methanol directly are energy-efficient, although when liquid hydrocarbons are broken down to produce hydrogen for hydrogen-based fuel cells, there is generally some energy loss.

Apart from their high energy density, liquid fuels including met this hanol have a considerable advantage over batteries in that their mass decreases across the journey to zero, whereas the battery weighs the same, charged or dead. So powering a heavy vehicle, or a long-range vehicle with methanol-direct fuel cells and a tank of methanol is more practical than powering it with a monster battery.

Methanol has only half the energy density of gasoline. This limits its use in turbine-powered aviation, however piston-powered aircraft engines that use an excess of fuel to cool the engine block consume a similar amount per kilometre.


as you were…
“liquid fuels including methanol have a considerable advantage over batteries in that the burden decreases across the journey”


Hi guys, Bill Gates has commented on these electro-fuels (as he calls them) but says the following. Anyone got other studies that show how we can make synthetic diesel or jet fuel cheaper?

“Another type of alternative fuel is electrofuels. By using electricity to combine the hydrogen molecules in water with the carbon in carbon dioxide, we can create a liquid fuel that works in existing engines. The carbon dioxide this process uses is captured directly from the atmosphere, so burning electrofuels doesn’t add to overall emissions. They’re very expensive, though. Depending on what fuel you’re replacing, electrofuels can cost anywhere from 3 times to 7 times as much as fossil fuels. And like with EVs, the electricity used to create them needs to be from zero-carbon sources to be a real solution.”


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