Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Production and Utilization of Renewable Methanol in a Nuclear Economy

10.7 MWe rated methanol electric power plant at Point Lisas, Trinidad (Credit: Mendenhall Technical Services)
Terrestrial and off-shore nuclear power plants could safely and economically provide all of the base load electricity requirements for future carbon neutral  industrial economies. The additional-- peak load-- electrical demands for an industrial region could also be supplied by carbon neutral methanol electric power plants-- if nuclear electricity was also utilized to produce renewable methanol derived from biowaste and waste water resources

Methanol (CH3OH) is, of course, the simplest alcohol, producing only carbon dioxide (CO2) and water after combustion with oxygen. The production of methyl alcohol through the pyrolysis of carbon based materials and their distillation has been known since the time of the ancient Egyptians. Modern techniques of methanol production utilize pyrolysis to produce syngas (synthetic natural gas),  a gaseous mixture of consisting of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen  that is then converted into methanol.

Since approximately 65% to 75% of the CO2 content is wasted during the  synthesis of  syngas into to methanol, introducing additional hydrogen into the synthesis process could potentially increase the production of methanol by three to four times. Sources of carbon neutral hydrogen could, therefore, be produced through nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, and solar electric power through the electrolysis of water.

Plasma arc pyrolysis plants, a commercial technology that's already in existence,  could be used for the conversion of urban and rural biowaste (garbage and sewage) into syngas.  Additional hydrogen can be added to the mix through the production of hydrogen through the electrolysis of water at an electrolysis plant. The syngas and additional hydrogen can then converted into  methanol at a  alcohol methanol synthesis plant.

Diagram of a methanol biowaste complex for the production of methanol and electricity.

Carbon neutral sources of electricity could come  from nuclear, hydroelectic, wind, and solar power plants.  Because the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow, wind and solar facilities only offer intermittent supplies of carbon neutral electricity to the electric grid.  While hydroelectric power plants can supply carbon neutral electricity to the grid 24/7, this renewable energy source  has already reached its maximum capacity in the US and can actually supply less power to the grid during periods of drought-- as is currently the occurring in drought stricken California.

Nuclear power plants, on the other hand, can supply carbon neutral electricity to the grid 24 hours per day.  Except during periods of refueling (once every three years), current light water nuclear power plants in the US have an electrical capacity exceeding 90%. Nuclear power currently produces about 20% of America's electricity supply. But there is currently enough room-- at existing US nuclear sites--  to increase nuclear power production  in the US by at least four to five times the current nuclear capacity without the need to add new locations within the continental US. This could easily be done by gradually adding the next generation of Small Modular Reactors (SMR) to existing sites over the next twenty to thirty years.

A methanol complex using carbon neutral electricity from nuclear and renewable energy could produce methanol from the pyrolysis of urban and rural garbage and sewage-- solving the problems of urban and rural refuse while also producing clean energy. The production of hydrogen from the electrolysis of water could substantial increase methyl alcohol production. Domestic sources of carbon neutral methanol could then be used to fuel methanol electric power plants during peak load demands.  The production of electricity from a methanol electric power plant could be further increased if the waste oxygen from the production of hydrogen were  utilized during fuel combustion instead of air which contains only 20% oxygen and  80% nitrogen. 

While the CO2 produced from a methanol electric  power plant could be exhausted into the air without increasing the net amount of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere, the waste carbon dioxide from the  flu gas could also be recycled.   Post combustion and pre- combustion CO2 capture facilities can collect 85 to 90% of CO2 from flu gas. And power plants that used oxygen can capture as much as 90 to 97% of the CO2 produced from flu gas. Pumping the waste CO2 into the methanol synthesis plants could nearly double  the production of  renewable methanol if even more hydrogen is added to the mix.

Any excess production of methanol from a methanol electric complex would be a valuable commodity that could be exported. Exported methanol could be used  for the base load production of electricity in areas with no access to nuclear power or it could be converted into gasoline or dimethyl ether for trucks and automobiles. Methanol would also be of value to industrial chemical companies.
TVA’s, Sequoyah Nuclear Plant (Credit TVA).

Despite the accidents at Fukushima and Chernobyl, terrestrially based commercial nuclear power are still the safest source of electricity production ever invented. But floating commercial nuclear reactors deployed several kilometers off marine coastlines or even deployed far out into the ocean could enhance nuclear safety even further.

The Earth's oceans, of course,  are certainly no strangers to nuclear power. There are over 140 nuclear powered ships and submarines roaming the Earth's oceans and seas  with more than 12,000 reactor years of marine operations  accumulated since 1954. 

More than 100 million Americans currently  live within 80 kilometers of a commercial nuclear reactor. But undersea electric cables more than 1000 kilometers away from coastlines  are possible.   Floating nuclear power facilities  could be deployed more than  300 kilometers from an American coastline while still being within the US's  200 nautical mile (370 kilometer) exclusive coastal economic zone.  Such floating reactors could, therefore, be deployed far beyond the 80 kilometer exclusion zone recommended by the United States during the height of the  Fukushima nuclear accident.

Of course, a Fukushima type of incident would be impossible for a floating nuclear facilities located in the open ocean since water  is a natural coolant for light water reactor fuel. Ocean waters would serve as an infinite heat sink for fissile material-- essentially making nuclear meltdowns impossible for floating reactors  placed below the water level. Floating nuclear reactors placed dozens of  kilometers offshore would also be immune to potential damage from earthquakes and tsunamis.

The safety of floating nuclear facilities from potential harm from terrorist or other hostile political groups could be enhanced by naval security from  US Coast Guard or other US government authorized security forces. Potential damage to the reactor from a  torpedo could also easily be prevented with an extensive network of  torpedo nets surround the nuclear power facilities.

But, again, even if an attack on a floating nuclear facility was successful, the ocean water would immediately prevent any melting of the nuclear material to occur.  Water also acts as a natural radiation shield. Just a few meters of water can  reduce ionizing radiation to harmless levels of exposure near the radioactive material.

Japanese Methanol Tanker (Credit: SHIN KURUSHIMA DOCKYARD CO)

Ocean Nuclear power plants could also be remotely deployed, more than a thousands of  kilometers away from coastlines for the production of electricity. Methanol powered ships could transport garbage from coastal towns and cities to floating biowaste pyrolysis, water electrolysis,  and methanol synthesis plants remotely powered by underwater electric cables from Ocean Nuclear Power plants just a few kilometers away. The methanol could then be shipped to coastal towns and cities all over the world for the production of electricity or for conversion into gasoline or dimethyl ether for diesel fuel engines.

First Methanol Fueled Ferry (Credit Stena Line)

Combined with nuclear and renewable energy, renewable methanol fueled peak load power plants  could finally end the need for  greenhouse gas polluting coal and natural gas power plants in the US and in the rest of the world.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Establishing a Permanent Human Presence on Mars with a Lunar Architecture

ETLV-2 coupled with an ADEPT deceleration shield on its way the martian  surface
by Marcel F. Williams

"As we reported in August 2013, even after the SLS and Orion are fully developed and ready to transport crew NASA will continue to face significant challenges concerning the long-term sustainability of its human exploration program. For example, unless NASA begins a program to develop landers and surface systems its astronauts will be limited to orbital missions of Mars. Given the time and money necessary to develop these systems, it is unlikely that NASA would be able to conduct any manned surface exploration missions until the late 2030s at the earliest."

NASA Office of Inspector General
February 25, 2015


It is generally agreed by both the Congress and the Executive Branch  that sending humans to the surface of Mars, sometime in the 2030s, should be the long term goal of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).  However, the intermediate destination during the 2020s needed to develop and to mature such space faring capability has been subject to controversy. While some have advocated a return to the lunar surface as a bridge towards Mars, others have argued that the  development of a lunar architecture could actually siphon off  necessary funds for sending humans to the martian surface.

The extraterrestrial deployment of  huge amounts of water will be essential for any interplanetary journey.  Even if some future Mars vessels are  xenon fueled solar electric interplanetary vehicles, crewed missions between cis-lunar space and Mars orbit will still require a substantial tonnage water for drinking, washing, food preparation, the production of air and for mass shielding habitat modules  from the dangers of  cosmic radiation and major solar events. The most expensive source of water for an interplanetary vehicle within cis-lunar space is from the Earth's deep gravity well.  However, water derived from ice in the Moon's polar regions would be a substantially cheaper source since the  Moon has a significantly lower gravity well.  Water, of course,  could also be used for the production of LOX/LH2 propellant necessary for  voyages between cis-lunar space and Mars orbit. 

ADEPT payload deployment scenarios for Mars (Credit: NASA)

Because of its thin atmosphere and higher gravity, Mars is a very different world than the Moon. Still,  habitat modules, propellant producing water depots,  and mobile ground vehicles that could be  utilized on the surface of the Moon could also be used on the surface of Mars.  This could save NASA enormous amounts of money since basically the same surface architecture for the Moon could also be deployed on the surface of Mars. So no new surface infrastructure unique to Mars would not have to be developed.

Vehicles designed to deploy cargoes and crews to the lunar surface could also be used to deploy cargoes and crews to the surface of Mars. But in order to safely deploy cargoes and crews to the martian surface, such  vehicles will need to be  shielded and decelerated through the thin martian atmosphere through the ADEPT or HIAD technologies currently being developed by NASA.

HIAD  decelerator entering martian atmosphere with crew vehicle (credit: Boeing)
HIAD and ADEPT technologies simply use a large expandable heat shield  to protect a spacecraft from the frictional heating of the thin martian atmosphere (100 thinner than the Earth's atmosphere) while also decelerating the vehicle enough to eventually allow the vehicle to utilize retrorockets to hover and land on the martian surface. The weight of these decelerating heat shields approach 50% of the payload being deployed to the surface. But NASA believes that these technologies should   enable them to deploy as much as 40 tonnes of payload to the martian surface. 
C-ETLV-5 cargo lander and ETLV-2 crew lander for deploying cargoes and crew to the surface of the Moon, Mars, and on the surfaces of the moons of Mars
In July of 1962, NASA invited private companies to submit proposals for the development of a Lunar  Module (LM). Seven years later, this lunar landing craft  took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin  to the surface of the Moon. Assuming a similar length of time for the development of a new  Extraterrestrial Landing Vehicle (ETLV), proposals submitted for an ETLV  in 2016 could result in the return of humans to the lunar surface by 2023. Thus, by the 2030's, the ETLV will be a mature landing vehicle ready to deploy humans and cargo to the surface of Mars.

If we assume that NASA's annual human spaceflight related budget remains at approximately $8 billion a year  over the next 25 years, then NASA will spend approximately $200 billion over the next quarter of a century on human spaceflight related technology, operations, and activities. $8 billion a year should be enough for NASA to establish a permanent human presence on the surface of the Moon in the 2020s and on the surface of Mars in the 2030s-- if such efforts are prioritized-- especially if NASA is no longer burdened with the $3 billion a year ISS program during the next two decades. 

Ares vehicle (ETLV-2 and ADEPT deceleration shield) for landing on Mars: A. ETLV-2 begins to dock with DS (deceleration shield); B. ETLV-2 trajectory burn propels the Ares towards Mars; C. ETLV-2 undocks with the DS, turning around 180 degrees; D. ETLV-2 docks with DS in a Mars entry configuration; E.  Ares vehicle enters the Martian atmosphere; F.  ETLV-2 separates from the DS after subsonic deceleration velocity is achieved; G. ETLV-2 decelerates further towards the martian surface before hovering and landing its crew.
A reusable single staged LOX/LH2  ETLV capable of a round trips between the Earth-Moon Lagrange points and the lunar surface should also be capable of easily transporting crews from the surface of Mars to Low Mars Orbit-- or even all the way to the surface of Mars's inner moon, Phobos. HIAD or ADEPT deceleration shield would, again, be used to deploy the crewed ETLV safely to the martian surface. The cost of developing a crewed  lunar landing vehicle  has been estimated to be as much as $8 to $12 billion. So over the course of seven years, the cost for developing an ETLV could range from $1.1 billion to $1.7 billion per year. And that's a cost that is certainly affordable with an $8 billion a year human spaceflight related budget.

ETLV-2 at a sintered landing area being refueled with LOX and LH2 for its departure to Mars orbit. 
Regolith shielded lunar habitats cheaply derived from SLS propellant tank technology could also be deployed to the martian surface using a lunar cargo lander and a, of course, a HIAD or ADEPT deceleration shield. Regolith shielding a martian habitat to a similar degree as a lunar habitat will be necessary since the level of cosmic ray exposure on the martian surface is not substantially lower than on the lunar surface.
Three habitat modules previously deployed by a C-ETLV-5. The pressurized habitats are shielded with 2 meters of martian regolith contained within the automatically deployed regolith wall. Solar charged batteries are used to provide power for the habitat at night. But nearby nuclear power units buried beneath the regolith will also provide supplementary power for the outpost.

Ionizing Radiation on the Surface of the Moon:

38 Rem - annual amount  of cosmic radiation on the Lunar surface during the solar minimum

11 Rem - annual amount of cosmic radiation on the Lunar surface during the solar maximum

Ionizing Radiation on the Surface of Mars:

33 Rem - annual rate of cosmic radiation on the surface of Mars beneath 16 gm/cm3 of Martian atmosphere during the solar minimum

8 Rem - annual rate of cosmic radiation on the surface of Mars beneath 16 gm/cm3 of Martian atmosphere during the solar maximum

Percentage of water contained in different regions on the martian surface.
Lunar water collecting mobile vehicles using microwaves used to extract water from the regolith at the lunar poles could also  be used on much of the martian surface. The water content of the lunar regolith at the lunar poles has been estimated to be approximately 5%. The water content of the martian regolith at the lower latitudes ranges from approximately 1 to 7% depending on the region. But there are large regions near the martian equator that may have regolith with a water content as high as 7%. At higher latitudes, the water content may be as high as 30%. And at the martian poles, the water content could be as much as 70%. 

Mobile water tanker and  microwave water extraction robot on Mars.

Solar powered WPD-LV-5 water storage and propellant producing unit on the surface of Mars. Additional power can be provided by nearby nuclear power units buried beneath the martian regolith. 

Small nuclear power units will probably be necessary to supplement the solar electric power supply at a martian outpost. While batteries and electric flywheels charged during the daytime could provide power for an outpost a night, dust storms could substantially reduce solar electricity for up to a month with dust particles blanketing the solar panels.  But small nuclear power units could run 24 hours a day for several years before having to be replaced. So during dust storms, it might be wise for the outpost  to contract the solar panels while mostly relying on nuclear power until the storm is over. Such nuclear power units for Mars should also probably be  initially tested on the lunar surface in the 2020s for a few years before they are eventually deployed at a martian outpost in the 2030s.

Nuclear power unit on the Moon with its reactor buried beneath the regolith and its cooling panels above the surface. Such units could also be utilized on the martian surface (Credit: NASA).

The Lunar Module

Future Mars Explorers Face Dusty Challenges

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Voyage of Charles Darwin

Fundamentally, science is about discovering the underlying simplicity behind the mystery and complexity of phenomena. And Charles Darwin did just that when he discovered that the diversity of plant and animal species on Earth and the morphological change in plant and animal species found in the fossil record was predominantly due to biological evolution through natural selection.

 The Voyage of Charles Darwin was a BBC biographical miniseries that was originally hosted by astronaut Neil Armstrong when it was first broadcast in the US on PBS.  Its a magnificent reflective journey by Charles Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle, a journey, of course, which later helped Darwin to develop his theory of 'Evolution through Natural Selection'.

The Voyage of Charles Darwin (Episode 1):

The Voyage of Charles Darwin (Episode 2):

The Voyage of Charles Darwin (Episode 3):

The Voyage of Charles Darwin (Episode 4):

The Voyage of Charles Darwin (Episode 5):


The Voyage of Charles Darwin (Episode 6 & 7):

Links and References:

Charles Darwin Wikipedia

The Second Voyage of the Beagle

Sunday, February 8, 2015

DARPA's Jet Fighter Satellite Launch Concept


Artist concept of Jet Fighter carrying a rocket capable of placing a 100lb satellite into orbit. (Credit: DARPA)

References and Links

Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA)

ALASA Wikipedia

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Destination Moon

glennwsmith said... Very nice, Marcel. This is one of the most beautifully put together, forward-looking, and yet also understated videos which I've yet seen from a major space agency -- and it just goes to show that there's a lot of good material out there if you know where to find it.

G. W. (Glenn) Smith


Stena Line to Covert Passenger Ferry to a Methanol Fueled Sea Vessel

michael jordan said...

Stena Germanica RoPax ferry is the first commercial marine vessel to run on Methanol.It is the largest ferry in the Nordic region and second biggest Ro-Pax ferry in the world.For this overall project cost comes to nearly $25.5m.It measures 240m long and 29m wide and lane metres of 3,907m.It is going to accommodate 300 cars and 1,300 passengers and freight capacity of 46,353t.