Monday, January 27, 2014

The Future of Ocean Nuclear Synfuel Production

Artist’s rendition of the Russian floating nuclear power plant “Akademik Lomonosov” (Credit: SevMashZevod)
by Marcel F. Williams

Land based commercial nuclear power  is the safest form of electricity production ever created. No one died as the result of radiation exposure at the Fukushima nuclear facilities in Japan-- despite three meltdowns-- thanks to the inherent safety of the containment structures. But even if you include the mortality rate of the Chernobyl nuclear accident which didn't have a containment structure, the mortality rate for commercial nuclear energy is 90 deaths per trillion kWhr compared to:

Wind, 150 deaths per trillion kWhr

 Rooftop solar,   440 deaths per trillion kWhr,

Hydroelectric, 1400 deaths per trillion kWhr

Natural gas,  4000 deaths per trillion kWhr

Coal, a whopping 170,000 deaths per trillion kWhr.

However, these statistical facts have not alleviated the unreasonable fear that many have of commercial nuclear energy-- nor people's paradoxical phobia of radiation in general. This seems ironic since Americans exist in a society where radioactive materials are commonly used in nearby facilities such as hospitals and clinics. Americans are also  frequently exposed to much higher levels of cosmic radiation when they're flying in the upper atmosphere on airliners. Astronauts endure levels of radiation while in orbit much higher than what would be allowed for nuclear workers on Earth on a daily basis.  Americans also don't seem to have any fear about joining the US Navy to serve on nuclear powered aircraft carriers and submarines. And families don't seem to have any fears about  greeting their sons and daughters and husbands and wives when they depart from nuclear vessels on their return to shore.  

Still, there are many who have an almost innate fear of commercial nuclear power. And this unreasonable fear by some American's could seriously imperil the environment and the  quality of life for future generations.

Humans are currently living within an atmosphere that is alien to our species and even to our 2.6 million year old genus, Homo. Our use of fossil fuels has now pumped so much carbon dioxide into the air  that CO2 now comprises more than  400 parts per million of our atmosphere. These are levels of CO2 that have not existed on the Earth since the Pliocene, a warm epoch that spanned 5.3 million years ago until 2.6 million years ago when sea levels may have been as much as 40 meters higher than they are today. And as the polar  ice caps continue to melt and sea levels continue to rise, there are no signs that our civilization is currently stopping the increase of  greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels. 

Yet the United States and most other industrial countries could easily stop the increase in CO2 levels into the atmosphere within the next 20 to 30 years if we simply built a lot more nuclear power plants for both  electricity and synthetic fuel production. There's already enough room at the more than 60   nuclear sites in the US to increase nuclear generation at each site to at least 8 GWe. That would be more than enough electricity to replace the electricity from fossil fuels in the US.

But what about transportation fuels for automobiles, trucks, ships, plains, and heavy ground vehicles?

Fortunately, a new generation of small nuclear reactors is about to emerge in the United States and in  the rest of the world. These small nuclear reactors offer the promise of an even more enhanced level of commercial nuclear safety while also substantially lowering the cost of manufacturing and deploying nuclear power through centralized manufacturing,  mass production, and transport by barge or rail to a nuclear power facility.

The first of this new generation of small nuclear reactors is being deployed by the Russians-- not the United States. But its not a land based reactor. It is a floating nuclear reactor. And floating nuclear reactors could be the key towards finally galvanizing broad acceptance of nuclear energy for all. 

Russia  intends to  mass produce floating 70 MWe nuclear power plants at shipbuilding facilities. These will then be towed   to coastal waters near industrial centers, towns and cities for the production of electricity and desalinated water.

The US once had the intention of deploying an offshore nuclear power facility as a way to avoid the increasing difficulties of licensing land based reactors. Four larger reactors were to be deployed by Westinghouse just 16 kilometers north of Atlantic City at the mouth of Great Bay. But licensing these off-shore reactors proved to be just as publicly difficult as land based reactors. And the project was eventually canceled.

But what if we deployed some floating nuclear reactors far out to sea-- far away from the  coastal environments of any town or city and the licensing headaches associated with coastal deployment.  Instead, these Ocean Nuclear power plants would be deployed hundreds or even over a thousand kilometers away from continental coastlines for the production of carbon neutral synthetic fuels. These clean synthetic fuels could then be shipped to any fuel port in the world for the production of electricity or for utilization as transportation fuel for automobiles, trucks, plains, and ships.
The conversion of seawater into methanol through nuclear electricity

The US Navy has recently revealed that they have developed a technology that can produce carbon neutral synthetic fuels from seawater by simply using a carbon neutral source of electricity. This technology takes advantage of the fact that the concentration of bound and dissolved carbon dioxide in seawater is  approximately 140 times greater than in the atmosphere. At the same time, the hydrogen contained in the seawater could be extracted through electrolysis and synthesized with CO2 to manufacture a variety of hydrocarbon fuels.

While the US Navy is focusing its attention on using nuclear or renewable OTEC technologies for manufacturing jet fuel at sea, the Navy's new technology  could be easily utilized to manufacture other carbon neutral fuels such as methanol, dimethyl ether, diesel fuel, and even gasoline.

The production of methanol at sea could allow floating nuclear power plants to ship this carbon neutral fuel  to practically any coastal port on Earth-- for  electricity production and for ground transportation fuel. Methanol tankers already exist and  come in a wide variety of sizes for transporting large quantities of methanol.

Methanol is relatively non-corrosive fuel that  remains at a liquid state at room temperature and atmospheric pressure. Methanol requires no specialized containment and can be handled the same way as other oil based liquid fuels.  Since methanol is easily biodegradable  in marine waters, an accidental  tanker spill would be much less damaging to the marine environment and to coastal beaches  than an oil or gasoline spill. 

Japanese Methanol Tanker (Credit: SHIN KURUSHIMA DOCKYARD CO)

For electricity production, methanol can be easily used in  modified natural gas turbines. Tests have shown that,  compared to natural gas,  methanol produces a  higher electrical power output due to the higher mass flow, and significantly reduces NOx and while also producing  no SO2 emissions at all. The clean burning characteristic of methanol are also expected to reduce maintenance costs for a converted natural gas turbine. So using carbon neutral methanol for electric power production would not only reduce global warming but would also mean cleaner air in general. Methanol can be easily pumped via pipelines to modified turbine power plants located in inland regions for distribution to electric power  all over the mainland United States. Of course, on islands such as Hawaii, methanol could finally end the islands'  dependence on high priced oil for electricity.

Methanol can also be used in fuel cell power plants which an be used for back up electricity for buildings or for homes. And methanol fuel cells are currently used to power portable electronic devices.

Methanol electric power plant at Point Lisas, Trinidad (Credit: Mendenhall Technical Services)
Methanol can also be used to power seagoing vessels. And some ocean vessels have already been designed to use methanol in order to reduce pollution from vessels using diesel fuel.

Methanol can also be easily converted into dimethyl ether (DME) through dehydration over a catalyst.  Only moderate modifications are required to enable a diesel fuel engine to burn dimethyl ether. And dimethyl ether is a much cleaner fuel than  diesel fuel for trucks and other heavy ground vehicles.

The further dehydration of dimethyl ether can convert it into high octane gasoline. This carbon neutral gasoline can be either mixed with existing fossil fuel derived sources of gasoline or can be used to completely replace gasoline derived from fossil fuels.

Conversion of Methanol into Dimethyl Ether and Gasoline for ground transportation vehicles
So nuclear power plants floating far out to sea in the worlds oceans could potentially supply carbon neutral fuels for both electricity and transportation fuel for the entire planet. Such Ocean Nuclear  facilities could be easily designed to withstand the havoc of hurricanes, cyclones, and other tropical storms while also being inherently immune to earthquakes and tsunamis. But storm related production disruptions could easily be avoided by locating such facilities in regions where the frequency of tropical storm formation is very infrequent.

The colored areas  are regions where cyclones and hurricanes are most frequently created in the world's oceans (Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
But Ocean Nuclear complexes could still be located at latitudes where winter snow could be avoided in order to attract more employees to work at the remote ocean facilities. Semi-permanently docked cruise ships could be purchased by a large Ocean  Nuplex to provide housing, recreation, restaurants, shopping malls, small hospitals and schools for its nuclear power plant and synfuel operators and engineers and their families.

Since small nuclear reactors will be designed to produce 300 MWe of electricity or less, that means that thousands of small nuclear reactors would have to be mass produced and deployed to sea in order to replace America's  transportation fuel needs alone. If nuclear manufactured methanol were also required to  replace all of America's  peak load electricity production  then several hundred more small reactors would also have to be manufactured. Of course, if the US wanted to export carbon neutral fuels to other countries then thousands more small nuclear power plants would have to be built and deployed to sea.

Centrally manufacturing dozens or even  hundreds of small nuclear reactors in the US every year would dramatically reduce the capital cost  nuclear reactors and, therefore, the cost of synthetic fuels being produce from these Ocean Nuclear facilities.  This would mean millions of high wage manufacturing jobs being created on the American continent for the production of floating nuclear power plants that most Americans would never see. Such nuclear ocean synfuel production facilities could be clustered in an area less than 100 square kilometers (a 10 kilometers by 10 kilometers) while producing 25 to 50 GWe of power for synfuel production.

Large remote Ocean Nuplexes  could also be used to produce jet fuel, and even ammonia for fertilizer (synthesis of atmospheric nitrogen combined with hydrogen extracted from seawater through electrolysis).

US Navy nuclear aircraft carriers could  stop by such Ocean Nuclear complexes to refuel their vessels with jet fuel and also for some R&R for the crew at one or more of the Nuplex cruise ships which could feature a large variety of entertainment and shops  which could add more revenue for the Ocean Nuclear Complex.

Security for Ocean Nuclear facilities could also be provided by the US Coast Guard, easily affordable by a large nuclear complex without any tax payer expense. They would also, of course, have their own security forces.   

There might also be logistical advantages for locating floating  uranium extraction platforms within a few dozen or a few hundred kilometers of an  Ocean Nuclear Complex. There's more than 4 billion tonnes of natural uranium in seawater, enough to power and fuel all of human civilization for over 3000 years. And if the spent fuel is eventually recycled in next generation breeder reactors then uranium could supply civilization with power for more than 300,000 years. However, since the  uranium content of the oceans will be resupplied with its current uranium content in less than 150,000 years, marine uranium could, in theory, supply human energy needs for as long as humans remain on Earth. Of course, this doesn't even include terrestrial thorium supplies and potential extraterrestrial uranium and thorium supplies within the solar system in the future.

Floating airports located perhaps 10 to 100  kilometers  away from an  Ocean Nuplex could take advantage of their proximity to synthetic jet fuel,  cheap electricity, and desalinated water supplies.  Underwater electric power cables that stretch more than 500  kilometers away from their power source are already in existence.

Floating space launch facilities in the future could also take advantage of Ocean Nuclear complexes located near the Earth's equatorial regions to take full delta-v advantage  of the Earth's rotation. Launch facilities located less than 80 kilometers away from an Ocean Nuplex could utilize the abundant hydrogen and oxygen produced at the floating nuclear facility-- for cryogenic rocket fuel

Ironically, Ocean Nuclear facilities might also attract new communities of people living on floating artificial islands. Such floating island communities might be located just 100 to 500 kilometers away from an Ocean Nuclear complex, taking advantage of the cheap nuclear electricity and high paying jobs-- along with the warm climate and spectacular ocean views! But even at just 100 kilometers away from the floating Nuplex, from the balcony of your floating home, you'd still be at least 70  kilometers away from from being able to see the nuclear power facility over the curve of the beautiful blue horizon!

Marcel F. Williams

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