Thursday, February 19, 2009

Synfuels and the Price of Oil

by Marcel F. Williams

In January of 2007, petroleum prices dipped below $60 per barrel. But by March of 2008, oil prices had begun to peak above the $100 per barrel mark. And by July of 2008, oil prices had risen above $140 per barrel! But as the global economy began to decline, oil prices had again fallen below $100 per barrel by October of 2008 and as of late February 2009, the price of oil now stands at below $40 per barrel. Average gasoline prices in the US have also declined from a record $4.11 per gallon in July of 2008 to below $2.00 a gallon as of February of 2009.

Advocates of alternative fuels have bemoaned the current low price of oil as a hindrance towards weaning America off foreign oil and the petroleum fuel economy. However, I view low oil prices as a great economic opportunity to gradually introduce the higher priced carbon neutral synthetic fuels into the American hydrocarbon fuel economy as a component of our total liquid transportation fuel economy.

In 2006, the USA consumed more than 20 million barrels of oil per day while producing only 8 million barrels of oil daily while importing more than 12 million barrels of oil per day.

Thanks to America's importation of huge amounts of foreign oil, several hundred billion dollars of America's national wealth is being exported to foreign nations on an annual basis. And as we continue to use petroleum products for fuel and industrial chemicals, we continue to add substantially more excess CO2 to the atmosphere which is heating up our planet, accelerating the melting of the ice caps, and raising global sea levels.

With oil prices so low, some have argued that this is a perfect time to increase taxes on gasoline in order to fund alternative fuels and to provide incentives for drivers to continue to conserve fuel. However, some believe that raising taxes during a global economic recession (or depression) is a bad idea. However, I believe that mandating the a certain percentage of all gasoline, diesel fuel, and aviation fuel be composed of carbon neutral synfuels is a better alternative than raising taxes and would be a far more effective means for moving America away from the petroleum fuel economy.

If the Federal government mandated that just 5% of all gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel and industrial hydrocarbon chemicals in the US be composed of carbon neutral hydrocarbon fuels and industrial chemicals by the year 2015 and 10% by the year 2020 then a huge new carbon neutral synfuel industry could be created in the United States that could possibly completely replace the need for foreign and domestic petroleum in the US by the year 2050 and possibly even sooner.

Sources for these carbon neutral hydrocarbon fuels and industrial chemicals could come from:

1. Urban biowaste (garbage and sewage)
2. Rural biowaste (agricultural biowaste and forest by products)
3. Hydrogen from water electrolysis combined with CO2 extracted from air via clean nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, and solar electric power resources.

All of these sources of hydrocarbons could produce carbon neutral gasoline, diesel fuel, aviation fuel, methanol, methane, in addition to industrial chemicals such as hydrogen and ammonia. However, there is only enough easily available urban and rural biowaste to supply about 6% of America's total petroleum needs. So any substantial environmentally friendly increase in carbon neutral synfuels beyond that level would probably require a substantial increase in synfuels from the synthesis of hydrogen and carbon dioxide via clean nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, and solar electricity resources.

The current cost of these synthetic fuels and industrial chemicals would be generally higher than similar fuels derived from petroleum. However, these relatively more expensive synfuels would only be a small percentage of the total fuel cost since they would initially only be a small percentage of the total fuel content.

For instance, the GreenFreedom advocates argue that current nuclear reactors combined with electrolysis and CO2 extraction technologies could produce 18,000 barrels of oil equivalent gasoline per day for a 1000 MWe nuclear reactor at an estimated operating cost of just $1.40 per gallon. However, this doesn't include the capital cost of the nuclear reactor and the associated synthetic fuel facility and a reasonable profit margin which they conclude would raise the price of nuclear produced gasoline to $4.60 per gallon. Of course the capital cost of nuclear reactors and synfuel facilities would probably fall dramatically due to economies of mass production since it would require the construction of at least 700 new 1GWe reactors to produce enough gasoline for US consumption, or perhaps only half as many reactors (350) if all gasoline vehicles in the US are PHEV (plug-in-electric vehicles) in the 2020s.

So if all gasoline in the US were required to consist of at least 10% carbon neutral gasoline then $2.00 per gallon gasoline from petroleum combined with $4.60 per gallon of carbon neutral gasoline would cost $2.26 per gallon. Of course, if you're driving one of those future plug-in-hybrid vehicles (PHEV) in the 2020s then the cost of electricity could cost you as little as $0.75 per gallon. So your equivalent cost per gallon using 50% electricity, 45% gasoline from petroleum and 5% carbon neutral synthetic gasoline would be approximately $1.88 per gallon. Using nuclear derived carbon neutral gasoline alone in a PHEV would cost you approximately $3.05 per gallon which is still far below the peak cost of $4.11 per gallon US consumers payed for gasoline in July of 2008.

References and Links

1. Green Freedom: A concept for producing carbon-neutral synthetic fuels and chemicals, Los Alamos Labs, November 2007 F.J. Martin and WL Kubic,

2. Gasoline from Air and Water

3. Gasoline from Nuclear and Renewable Energy

4. The Plug-in-Hybrid Revolution

5. Crude Oil Futures

6. Petroleum (Wikipedia)

7. Country energy profiles


snilon said...

I agee with your theory that now is the time to implent a plan to decrease our demand of fossil fuel. And I am thrilled that you have even mentioned using renewable alternatives in the equation of solving our problems. It shows that you are open to the idea that nuclear may not be the absolute when it comes to curing our dependancy.

But why are you opposed to adding a tax to gas and have it pay for the development of altenative energies? If we are using the Kyoto Protocal as a guideline for countries to purchase GHG emission reductions credits -otherwise known as "Carbon Credits", why can't we impliment the same principal to the purchase of gasoline.

Our goverment has proven time and time again that implenting a tax can be done with the bat of an eye. If we tax the gas as a "trade" for the carbon emissions and put it towards removing fossil fuel altogether from our lives, it will start us on a road to be responsible for our actions and quit screaming for someone else to solve our probelms.


Marcel F. Williams said...

Most people prefer taxes on the big guys rather than on themselves. And raising taxes on the average Joe and Jane during an economic recession (or depression)may be counter productive and could put some of the Republican nut cases back in office.

That's why, I prefer mandates with the threat of carbon pollution taxes if those mandates are not met.
Right now, there is no carbon neutral gasoline, diesel fuel, or jet fuel industry in the US or the world-- even though we've had the technology to do so for several decades now.

snilon said...

Sure, most people prefer someone else to take responsibilty for the wrong in the world, but that doesn't make it go away.

They tax cigarettes don't they?

They already tax gas for the state and the roads, etc. What's an extra 10 cents for renewable energy?

Marcel F. Williams said...

Of course mandating that current fuels be composed of generally more expensive carbon neutral synfuels would also increase cost to the consumer. However, I believe consumers wouldn't mind a slight increase in cost if they knew that the fuel that they were using was helping the environment.

But over the long run, the cost of synfuels will eventually be lower than the cost of petroleum fuels as it becomes more efficient to produce them and as cheap sources of petroleum run out.

On the other hand, with a simple tax on gasoline, they would always wonder if the higher taxes were really being used for nuclear and renewable fuels that would help to clean up our environment and end our dependency on foreign oil.

But generally, I'm all for taxes on pollution and polluters no matter from what source. And I'm strongly in favor of Federal loans for utilities and states that want to build more nuclear and renewable energy plants and more carbon neutral synfuel facilities.

But I think mandates would make the transition from a petroleum fuel economy to a carbon neutral synfuel economy much much quicker.

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