Guest Op-Ed: Nuclear Gasoline

Nuclear powered refineries can use seawater to make net zero synfuels, ending electric vehicle rationale

Guest Op-Ed: Nuclear Gasoline

Nuclear powered refineries can use seawater to make net zero synfuels, ending electric vehicle rationale

Synthesizing fuels with carbon from seawater CO2 and energy from nuclear power will let our US economy continue to use vehicles powered by gasoline and diesel combustion engines, but with net zero CO2 emissions.

US electric vehicles (EVs) are too expensive, averaging $61,000, not counting auto manufacturers’ losses, which cost Ford $73,000 per vehicle. China controls the supply of refined rare earth elements used in EV electric motors, and battery production relies on lithium, nickel, and cobalt not supplied from the US. Replacing our hundred million US cars with EVs each demanding an average 500 watts would require building 50 more gigawatt-scale power plants.

The US has more trucks than autos and will continue to depend on carbon-based fuels for trucking, mining, shipping, and flight, because batteries weigh twenty times more than fuel for the equivalent motive energy. Hydrogen from electrolysis of water is often proposed for fuel, but hydrogen is difficult to store and distribute economically, as Nikola experiences in trucking.

Biofuels are a failing synfuel attempt. Growing corn absorbs CO2 from the air, once expected to offset emissions from burning the ethanol derived from corn. US gasoline is blended with 10% ethanol, but studies show that farming and manufacturing processes emit more CO2 than is offset. Sustainable aviation fuels and other biofuels are too expensive because they use widely dispersed crops for energy sources. Biofuels compete with food for farmland.

Vehicle fuels are molecular chains of hydrogen and carbon refined from pumped up crude oil. Alternatively, gasoline can be made from hydrogen and existing CO2. Direct air capture of CO2 is expensive because it is only 0.04% of air. The US offers capture subsidies of $85 per ton, but costs exceed $600 per ton. CO2 is 140 times more concentrated in seawater than in air.

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Advanced nuclear power reactors can provide reliable, low cost electricity and high temperature heat. Chemical manufacturer Dow is the first US company to embrace this nuclear potential, initially to reduce Dow’s own CO2 emissions.

A nuclear reactor’s cooling seawater flow can also bring dissolved CO2 to a refinery that extracts CO2, electrolyzes water for hydrogen, and operates chemical reactors to synthesize gasoline. Burning it emits the CO2 that was captured from seawater, but the ocean reabsorbs CO2 from the atmosphere to maintain concentration equilibrium, so synthetic gasoline emissions net to zero.

A US Navy Research Laboratory demonstration pilot separated CO2 from seawater, extracted hydrogen, and synthesized jet fuel, using electricity potentially generated by nuclear power plants on ships. The Navy lab estimated jet fuel costs would be $5 per gallon. Bosch estimated CO2-sourced synfuel costs at $4 to $6 per gallon. Today's $3 per gallon wholesale price for gasoline sets a synfuel cost goal.

Advanced nuclear power can supply electricity at 3 cents/kWh and high-temperature heat at 1 cent/kWh. At $3 wholesale per gallon the energy in gasoline sells for 9 cents/kWh, so there is economic margin to make 3 cents of nuclear energy into 9 cents of gasoline energy.

Nobel prize winner George Olah wrote Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy in 2006, proposing CO2-derived methanol to fuel vehicles. In 2012 Carbon Recycling International built a pilot plant in Iceland using water splitting and captured CO2 to produce net zero methanol. The cost was double that made from natural gas, but half that cost was for electricity and the plant lacked economies of scale. Exxon Mobil has developed fluid bed technology to convert methanol to gasoline. Since Olah’s work carbon chemistry has been advanced in thousands of publications, making low cost paths from CO2 to gasoline feasible.

Low cost requires economy of scale. A new, 160,000 barrel per day crude oil refinery costs $6 billion. Supplying all US gasoline with 50 synfuel refineries might entail capital investments of $300 billion, which is much less than $6 trillion for 100 million EVs at $60,000 each.

The US petrochemical industry is capable of developing and building nuclear powered synfuel refineries. The industry maintains safety at refineries with fuels and chemical reactors that are far more hazardous than nuclear reactors. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should step away and let these companies install advanced nuclear heat and power sources under the safety regulations already in force at petrochemical refinery sites.

Nuclear gasoline can reduce CO2 emissions far better than replacing petroleum fueled cars with EVs.

Dr. Robert Hargraves teaches energy policy at Dartmouth’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and is a co-founder of a nuclear engineering company.