February 13, 2008
Nuclear Powered Liquid Hydrocarbons For $4.60 Per Gallon

Synthesis of liquid hydrocarbons from atmospheric carbon dioxide and water could be nuclear powered.

Los Alamos National Laboratory has developed a low-risk, transformational concept, called Green Freedom™, for large-scale production of carbon-neutral, sulfur-free fuels and organic chemicals from air and water.

Currently, the principal market for the Green Freedom production concept is fuel for vehicles and aircraft.

At the heart of the technology is a new process for extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and making it available for fuel production using a new form of electrochemical separation. By integrating this electrochemical process with existing technology, researchers have developed a new, practical approach to producing fuels and organic chemicals that permits continued use of existing industrial and transportation infrastructure. Fuel production is driven by carbon-neutral power.

The New York Times reports that using nuclear power plants as an energy source to drive the process will yield liquid fuel for only $4.60 per gallon which is much cheaper than gasoline is projected to get under various doomer scenarios for Peak Oil.

This plan has a minor hurdle, too; the electricity for driving the chemical processes, according to a white paper describing the overarching concept, would come from nuclear power. The proposal says it’d be worth it to have a payoff of steady, secure streams of methanol and gasoline with no carbon added to the atmosphere (and a price for gasoline at the pump of perhaps $4.60 a gallon — comparable to petroleum-based fuels as oil becomes harder to find).

At $4.60 per gallon we can switch to hybrid and diesel cars and keep moving around just as much as we do now.

I see this as good news because it puts a long term ceiling on liquid fuels prices and also puts a long term ceiling on grain costs. Once grain-derived ethanol and biodiesel get above $4.60 a gallon the demand for grain biomass energy will flatten out and biomass energy demand for grains will cease to grow. But since nuclear power plant construction takes years we could still go through a period with much higher transportation fuels costs.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 February 13 06:07 PM  Energy Transportation

David Govett said at February 13, 2008 10:06 PM:

$4.60 today. $5.60 tomorrow. $6.60 the day after. We've heard this before from the Post Office.

BBM said at February 14, 2008 6:53 AM:

I suspect the problems here will be scalability, and the fact that it should ultimately be much cheaper and more efficient to use that nuclear capacity to create electricity for electric vehicles. Maybe as a way to provide small amounts of liquid fuel for PHEVs, or a a way to replace jet fuel it could be more feasible.

Kurt9 said at February 14, 2008 9:45 AM:

This would be an ideal application for Bussard's polywell fusion concept, if it works. The WB7 experiments are on-going and news of success or failure should be available by June of this year.

Gunther said at February 14, 2008 10:32 AM:

Nobody would even consider this approach if not for the CO2 hysteria a la Gore, Hansen, and so on. I've got a better idea. Bury the carbon as biochar, and let algae and synthetic biology microbes make your petrol and diesel.

Use nukes to power EVs, as per comment above.

Nick G said at February 14, 2008 11:11 AM:

The new thing here seems to be the CO2 capture. Do we know how this compares to CO2 capture at fossil-fuel plants?

Do we have any efficiency and cost numbers on the fuel synthesis portion of the process? Is this proven technology?

Nick G said at February 14, 2008 11:38 AM:

Well, a little more research, and I have the following thoughts:

It will take a long time for us to build enough carbon-free power, like nuclear or wind, to replace our coal plants. Using power in this way will always be a much cheaper, more efficient, more effective way of using this power to reduce CO2 than synthesizing fuel.

Further, using electricity directly in Extended Range EV's like the Chevy Volt is about 20 times more efficient: there's a 75% loss in synthesizing the fuel, and a 80% loss in the Internal Combustion Engine. So, we'd get 20x the bang for the buck with EV's.

Finally, we'll have domestic oil for a very long time, in slowly diminishing quantities, for residual uses like long-distance ground travel, air and the DOD.

This makes no sense.

Nick G said at February 14, 2008 12:37 PM:

I'm told that each proposed plant would require a $10 billion investment. Each plant would only supply 18,000 bbl/d.

Assuming 30 year life, and 7% interest, that's $2.92 per gallon for just the capital cost. Electricity, even at $.05/KWH, would have to be at least $5 per gallon (34 KWH/gallon divided by 33% efficiency x $.05/KWH).

That $4.60 figure is impossible. Add in operations, maintenance and fuel taxes, and you're exceeding $10/gallon.

This might just make sense for the DOD in the field, where delivering fuel can cost $70/gallon. They have surplus nuclear power available from naval vessels. OTOH, I don't know how they'll build the air-capture facilities in the field.

Nick G said at February 14, 2008 12:39 PM:

The DOD angle also explains the emphasis on air-capture, which would have to be less efficient than flue-gas capture.

Randall Parker said at February 14, 2008 6:24 PM:


We need liquid fuels for longer distance travel. It is a lot easier to use batteries to power cars for short commutes. But electricity doesn't work well for longer trips and for long distance trucks. Trains can't carry everything.

Nick G,

There's about 115,000 BTU per gallon of gasoline (depending on time of year and geographic locale) or 139,000 BTU per gallon of diesel fuel. Suppose we stick with 115,000 BTU. Well, there's 3413 BTU per kwh. So we are talking 34 kwh of energy per gallon. Assume we lose half the energy of electricity in converting to a liquid fuel. So suppose it takes 68 kwh per gallon. At 5 cents per kwh that's only $3.40 for the energy. So are you still sure that $4.60 per gallon is far fetched?

A dedicated nuke plant could probably achieve greater efficiencies of energy usage for use in hydrocarbon fuel synthesis than using bulk commercial electricity. So the cost might be lower.

Engineer-Poet said at February 15, 2008 7:44 PM:
We need liquid fuels for longer distance travel. It is a lot easier to use batteries to power cars for short commutes. But electricity doesn't work well for longer trips and for long distance trucks. Trains can't carry everything.
Sez who?  This sort of thing is tailor-made for Blade Runner dual-mode trucks (here's a page linking to videos of passive switching).  Electrify the tracks and you've got electric long-haul heavy trucks; use Zebra batteries for the legs from track to loading dock and you've eliminated fuel use.

Here's the main part of my comment on GCC today:

Gasoline from nuclear power only works if it's better (cheaper, cleaner, faster to market) than the alternatives.

Here's a quote from the GreenFreedom pdf:

The analyses estimated a capital cost of $5.0 billion for an 18,400-bbl/day synthetic gasoline plant....
For those keeping track, this is about $270,000 investment to get 1 bbl/day of product, or nearly 3 times what Alberta tar-sands cost.
Nuclear power accounts for more than 50% of the total plant capital investment.
That would be in the neighborhood of $3 billion then, or about what we'd expect for a 1 GWE plant (the reactor power is not specified in the PDF).  If operated via the GreenFreedom process and feeding a vehicle fleet getting 30 MPG, its energy generation would allow 23.2 million vehicle-miles/day.  If it instead supplied 1 GWE to PHEV's using 300 Wh/mile, you'd get 80 million vehicle-miles per day for perhaps 60% of the capital investment.  Other benefits would include less air and noise pollution.

This is like the H2CAR scheme which I ripped apart last year; it appears aimed at preventing public sentiment from getting behind electric propulsion and sealing the fate of the oil companies and exporters.

Wolf-Dog said at February 16, 2008 12:15 AM:

" H2CAR scheme which I ripped apart last year; it appears aimed at preventing public sentiment from getting behind electric propulsion and sealing the fate of the oil companies and exporters."

Absolutely true! Even Alan Greenspan said last week that the U.S. must embrace nuclear power and that pure electric cars msut be charged with nuclear electricity:

Additionally, it is simply not true that the pure electric cars cannot have long range. Already there are electric cars with 250 mile range (still expensive), and in a few years the will be extended to much longer distances at a fraction of the cost.

Sione Vatu said at February 20, 2008 1:39 PM:

"Already there are electric cars with 250 mile range"

Yeah and pigs can grow wings and fly. This electric car stuff is populated with all sorts of hyperbole, promises and snake oil. So far a real electric car that Ma and Pa Kettle can use is not available. Electric cars are nowhere near the performance or economics required.

Perhaps practical battery electric cars are achievable. Perhaps the ICE is simply too good for them. Perhaps another scheme awaits. Right now ICE is all there is.

BTW forget about the H2 fuel cell. It's a non-starter.


Sione Vatu said at February 20, 2008 1:57 PM:

Oh yes. Before I forget.

I just got a European diesel sedan. A tank of diesel costs $70.00 here. That's about 50 litres and it yields a little over 1000km city driving range. I haven't used it on a long trip yet so I don't know what it's range is like on the open road. It's quick enough but I've got much faster vehicles available for that task anyhow. Since most of my driving is in the city these days I'm happy with what I've experienced so far. Good to know it won't be needing a new battery pack worth several thousands of $ in a few years, nor will it need any of that electronic stuff sorted out and repaired either- it aint got none to go wrong.

Now this is an old car. It isn't the latest in Euro tech but it's still far superior than anything electric. The point is that the electric boys have yet to match ten year old ICE tech (well, OK 30 year old tech then). They are shooting for a moving target. That's far harder to do than make up some breathless stories about 250 mile range and so forth. Dreams, like talk or wishes or fantasies, are cheap.

In the end what should succeed is what offers most utility, convenience and value for the $. Finding something that the customer will voluntarily decide he will purchase with his own money is not an easy thing to do. It is even more difficult to make a profit while doing it. The magnitude of the task should not be underestimated.


Frank R. said at July 2, 2008 4:35 PM:

Using nuclear power to produce synthetic gasoline is a realistic solution to the oil problem because it fits into our existing infrastructure. All of the cars, trucks, buses and other vehicles and equipment would continue to be useful as they are now. In addition, the means by which gasoline and diesel are currently distributed and sold to the public would not change. This technology has the potential to provide fuel for the airline industry as well. Over time, as more and more nuclear plants are built, the cost of synthetic gasoline may actually be lower than $4.60 per gallon resulting from the economy of scale. Also, it is important to remember that a nuclear energy plant produces a lot of excess heat energy. All of that excess heat energy could be used instead of electricity to break down the carbon dioxide molecules. Another potential useful purpose for the excess heat energy would be to desalinate seawater for use in municipal water systems. A nuclear plant could produce electricity for the power grid, synthetic gasoline (or diesel) and desalinated drinking waters, and remove CO2 from the atmosphere all at the same time. I know that hard-core environmentalists would say that I'm trying to find a free lunch, but I'm not; I'm just looking for a cheaper lunch. For those that say using nuclear power to produce synthetic gasoline isn't truly “green” my response is that it’s a lot greener than what were doing now.

Frank R.
Philadelphia, PA, USA

Mark S. said at August 9, 2008 12:13 PM:

Q: What's it take for rednecks to change their driving and vehicle buying habits?
A: $4 per gallon (2008 dollar value)! Likewise with anything else we have. Maybe it's the free marketeer in me, but if the price of fuel (as just the most currently newsworthy example) had reflected its actual cost for the last few decades, maybe we would have, as a nation, developed buying habits that would have kept us out of this mess.
[end rant]
Mark S.
Mesa, Az.

andreas stahl said at December 11, 2011 11:57 AM:

i am not interested in who owns a diesel and who does not. the reality is in germany people in germany give a f*** about oil disasters and buy the cheapest fuel available

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