It’s exciting and fascinating to watch the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) take shape. The NGNP is a graphite moderated, gas-cooled nuclear reactor that draws on nearly half a century of R&D and operational experience with these kinds of reactors in the civilian nuclear sector. This will be a high-temperature machine—above 700°C at the outlet. Current water cooled reactors’ outlet temperatures are in the 250° to 350° range.
The high temperature of NGNP opens the door to a radical change in the hydrocarbon fuel sector. An entire new class of hydrocarbon products is now possible. This is because NGNP, and other reactors with similar temperature, will revolutionize the hydrogen market, by finally making water-derived hydrogen competitive, as a commodity, with natural gas-derived hydrogen.
This will make hydrogen-intensive chemical manufacturing processes—like oil sands upgrading, fertilizer production, and petroleum refining—far less carbon-intensive. Water-derived hydrogen involves none of the process carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that come with natural gas-derived hydrogen. And of course the process heat comes from nuclear fission, which is also CO2-free.
This explains why organizations like Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada, Potash Corp., and ConocoPhilips are part of the NGNP Industry Alliance. All represent industries that are under the gun because of economic pressures (the continental price of natural gas will not stay cheap forever) and environmental concerns.
But beyond satisfying the demand for hydrogen in current industries, what doors will the cheap, clean, plentiful hydrogen from NGNP open?
The real breakthrough will come with the advent of hydrocarbon fuels made from recycled CO2. As I mentioned in “Game-changing nuclear moves in the US,” carbon is about the closest anything has ever come to being a perfect storage material for hydrogen. Hydrogen on its own is an extremely uncooperative substance when it comes to fueling motorized vehicles like the ones we use today. You cannot use it in a normal-size fuel tank; it has to be so pressurized that only a spherical or cylindrical tank will suffice, and tanks of that shape are not practical in the current vehicle fleet.
But if you store hydrogen in a molecular bond with carbon, you get a fuel that is liquid at most temperatures found on this planet. That allows you much more latitude when it comes to fuel tank design. It also gives your vehicle a reasonable range—400 to 500 kilometers from a single tank.
To use CO2 as a raw material to make liquid hydrocarbons, it is best to first turn it into carbon monoxide (CO), which is far more reactive and therefore useful than CO2. To make CO from CO2, you need heat and hydrogen.
Hence the NGNP’s vital role in the new fuel economy. If the heat for both water- and CO2-splitting comes from a zero-carbon source, then you’ve got a low-carbon manufacturing process.
And if the CO2 itself were to come from the captured emissions of coal-fired power plants, then fuels made from it would contain recycled carbon.
That’s the Three Rs in action.
Well, that CO2 is still ending up in the atmosphere, from originally being sequestered in coal beds. True, you have used it twice instead of once, so halving the burden, but best of all would be to recover CO2 from the atmosphere or oceans. Then you’re really looking at zero carbon fuel.
Yes, the carbon that was originally in the ground still winds up in the atmosphere. But at least if we use fuel whose carbonaceous component comes from coal then we’re not using petroleum-derived fuel, thereby eliminating one major source category of anthropogenic CO2.
So using this kind of fuel—let’s call it low carbon hydrocarbon fuel, or LCHF—instead of petroleum would represent an absolute reduction of CO2.
But you are absolutely right about CO2 recovery from the atmosphere instead of from coal plants. Fuel made from that CO2 would represent an even bigger reduction.
I’m just trying to go for the more concentrated source of CO2. But if we can develop better ways of capturing CO2 from coal-plant exhaust than the clunky old MEA-based methods, then we’re on the right track to take on atmospheric CO2. It’s all about separating CO2 from nitrogen.
“But if we can develop better ways of capturing CO2 from coal-plant exhaust …”
Enhanced weathering seems better to me, not least because it works with existing coal plants rather than requiring special new ones to be built. It does this by snatching CO2 out of plain air in an entropy-increasing way.
More at http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/withouthotair/c31/page_246.shtml .
“the continental price of natural gas will not stay cheap forever”
That’s a fallacious point. The question is not whether NG will stay cheap, but whether or not NG will stay cheaper than a similar fuel processed by nuclear power.
Canada has about 490 kT of U, representing the (vast) majority of continental supply. The US alone burns about 25 kT a year, so we basically have about 20 years supply.
In comparison, there’s about 2000 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of NG in North American economically recoverable shale gas deposits alone. Consumption is surprisingly steady at a little under 30 Tcf a year. So that’s over 60 years supply.
I haven’t seen a single recent analysis that doesn’t suggest we’ll hit peak uranium well before peak gas. As commodity prices follow a supply/demand system, I can’t imagine any scenario in the foreseeable future under which NG will be more expensive that similar fuels cooked up in a reactor.
Steve – thanks for this post. I’ve bookmarked the NGNP industry alliance site but the link to the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) PDF file is broken. I’d really like to read it.
Other people are interested in applying nuclear heat to industrial processes. In particular, Jim Holm at Coal2Nuclear wants to use reactors running at about 700 Celsius to repower coal fired power plants, salvaging virtually all of the existing infrastructure, licenses and permits, and operator skills in the process. Now he’s added converting the coal that would have been burned in the plant to gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel as well, using the empty coal yards to build the new facilities. The coal infrastructure is there; he wants to use it.
I think it’s important to focus on the value of high temperature heat and think as broadly as possible about repowering our industrial heat use with nuclear. Cal Abel, who I encountered on Rod Adams’s AtomicInsights blog, has a patent pending for a high temperature heat pump using supercritical CO2 as the working fluid that could extend the use of nuclear heat beyond the 700 Celsius range as well.
Jim Holm has his favorite reactor, the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR), the NGNP group have theirs, and Brave New Climate likes the integral fast reactor (IFR). I think it’s time to acknowledge there’s room for all the reactors (and more!) and focus on the benefits and opportunities. Think of all the ways to use industrial heat, produced in compact, high powered, inherently safe, low footprint, mass produced nuclear reactors. The industry players in NGNP get the point; it’s time to spread the message further.