Friday, April 17, 2009

The Nuclear Synfuel Economy

by Marcel F. Williams

Currently, commercial nuclear energy in the US and in the rest of the world is solely utilized for the production of electricity. The 104 commercial nuclear reactors in the US provides nearly 20% of the electricity produced in the United States. But electricity only constitutes about 40% of America's total energy consumption. So even if nuclear power totally supplanted all other electric power generating systems in the US today, nuclear power would still only provide 40% of America's total energy needs. However, the rise of electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEV) over the next few decades could greatly expand the use of electricity in ground transportation vehicles that normally use gasoline.

Petroleum consumption in the US also constitutes approximately 40% of the energy use in the US. America uses nearly 21 million barrels a day of petroleum with nearly 15 million barrels a day utilized for transportation fuel (gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel). But the US currently produces less than 9 million barrels a day of petroleum (the US is still the third largest producers of oil on Earth) and imports more than 12 million barrels a day of petroleum. So the US only produces 43% of its own oil while currently importing more than 57% of the petroleum required for domestic transportation and industrial chemical use.

Chevy Volt PHEV

Gasoline constitutes approximately 61% of the transportation fuel utilized in America. Studies have shown that the use of electricity for PHEVs could potentially displace up to 6.5 million barrels of oil per day, more than half of the imported oil coming to America (31% of total petroleum consumption in the US). Nuclear electricity, therefore, could potentially supplant nearly 31% of US petroleum requirements.

But what about the other 69% of US petroleum needs?

Up to 388 million dry tons a year of urban biowaste, 325 million tons of forest refuse, and 597 million tons of agricultural waste could be exploited from our cities, forest, and current agricultural acreage to produce carbon-neutral biofuels (gasoline, methanol, diesel fuel, and jet fuel), an equivalent of approximately 4 million barrels of oil per day (19% of total US daily petroleum consumption). So the addition of carbon neutral biowaste from urban and rural areas could further reduce US petroleum needs to only 50% of current levels.

Fuel cell methanol vehicle

Methanol fuel cells utilized to power automobiles could be twice as efficient as current automobile engines and could potentially reduce petroleum demand by an additional 3.2 million barrels a day equivalent of oil. That would further reduce daily petroleum needs to just 35% of current levels. Since the US produces 38% of its own petroleum, this would-- in theory-- make the US energy independent from foreign oil. But as the third largest producer of oil on Earth, the US would still remain a major greenhouse gas polluter. Electricity from batteries from plug-in hybrids would provide equivalent cost of only 75 cents per gallon. Fuel cells could also cut the energy cost of methanol in half. So even the highest priced synthetics fuels in the future would probably cost consumers less than they are paying now-- if they drove PHEV-fuel cell automobiles.

The synthesis of biomass into biofuels waste 80% of its carbon content in the form of carbon dioxide. But if hydrogen were added to the mix, biowaste could potentially supply up to 20 million barrels of oil equivalent of biofuels annually. And nuclear power plants could be used to produce hydrogen through the electrolysis of water. However, the extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere may be a more efficient mechanism for supply CO2 for nuclear electrolysis facilities in the long run. So nuclear power in combination with biowaste fuels would not only make the US totally independent of petroleum fuels but would also make the US a major exporter of carbon neutral synfuels.

In a pure nuclear synfuel economy, approximately 1170 nuclear reactors (1100 MWe of capacity each) dedicated for synfuel production, would be required to supply all of the carbon neutral industrial chemical and liquid fuel needs in the US today. However, in a hydrogen-biofuel economy that utilizes urban and rural biowaste in combination with highly efficient automobiles that utilize PHEV and fuel cell technologies, only 410 nuclear reactors dedicated to synfuel production would be required for America to become totally independent from foreign and domestic petroleum fuels, ending greenhouse gas pollution from the petroleum economy in the US-- forever.

References and Links

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory November, 2007

2. G. Olah, A. Goeppert, and G. Prakash, (2006) Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy, Wiley-VCH Verlang, Weinheim, Germany

3. Robert D. Perlack, Lynn L. Wright, Anthony F. Turhollow, Bryce J. Stokes,Donald C. Erbach, Robin L. Graham, (2005)BIOMASS AS FEEDSTOCK FOR A BIOENERGY AND BIOPRODUCTS INDUSTRY: THE TECHNICAL FEASIBILITY OF A BILLION-TON ANNUAL SUPPLY Oak Ridge National Laboratory A Joint Study Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture

4. Agrawal, R, Singh, N R, Ribeiro, F H , Delgass, W N , (Mar 2007) Sustainable fuel for the transportation sector. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104 (12), p.4828-4833,

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

6. Gasoline from Air and Water

7. The Plug-in Hybrid Revolution

© Marcel F. Williams
New Papyrus


RightDemocrat said...

A very interesting analysis. "The Nuclear Synfuel Economy" sounds like a good book title !

Marcel F. Williams said...

I think a Nuclear Synfuel Economy would sound even better off the lips of our politicians:-)

There's no doubt in my mind that if at least some of our nuclear power plants were dedicated towards the production of carbon neutral gasoline, diesel fuel, and jet fuel that popularity and demand for more nuclear power in the US would soar.

Robert Hargraves said...

Methanol is a good fuel for internal combustion engines, as proven by decades of Indy-500 races. We don't need methanol fuel cells to benefit from this. Read George Olah's The Methanol Economy.

It really does take a large number of nuclear power plants to produce enough hydrogen to synthesize fuel in to quantities we now consume. Nuclear electric power plants for electric cars can provide power more efficiently.

Petroleum fuel really has high energy density. Each of the two turbine engines of a 777 aircraft can deliver 100 megawatts (kinetic) of power, using onboard petroleum fuel. That's 20% of the total power output of a typical big 1,000 MW (electric) nuclear power plant, or a coal power plant fed by a mile of railroad coal cars a day!

Marcel F. Williams said...

Further discussion of the Nuclear Synfuel concept can be found at David Walters' site on the Daily Kos

Marcel F. Williams said...

Robert, that's why I'm strongly in favor of the measure that mandates that all future automobiles be flex fuel automobiles capable of using gasoline, ethanol, and methanol.

And we have to make sure that methanol capability is not excluded from the flex fuel legislation by the pro-ethanol farm lobby.

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