Canada is the world leader in synthetic fuel production. I’m talking about the oil sands, of course. Though decried by environmentalists for their carbon intensity, Canada’s oil sands operations are actually a stunning example of payoff from industry- and government-supported research and development. These are impressive operations, from a technological and engineering point of view. They rival the CANDU reactor as a technology R&D success story in this respect.
With our expertise in both synthetic hydrocarbon fuel and nuclear energy, Canada is extremely well-positioned to enter a new synfuel field: one that turns captured carbon dioxide (CO2, the principal greenhouse gas) and hydrogen gas into liquid hydrocarbon fuels chemically identical to the gasoline and diesel we use today.
This involves three areas of current intensive government- and industry-funded R&D, in Canada and around the world:
- Carbon capture, which really means CO2 capture, from the exhaust flue gases of fossil-fired stationary engines, such as coal-fired power generating plants.
- Hydrogen production from water-splitting, which, if the energy to do this is provided by zero-emission sources like nuclear fission, is inherently clean and emission-free.
- Converting CO2 from point #1 into carbon monoxide (CO), and mixing it with hydrogen produced in point #2 to make a range of high-value products, including liquid hydrocarbon fuels.
This is what I call Low Carbon Hydrocarbon Fuel (LCHF). LCHF would represent enormous net reductions in Canada’s man-made greenhouse gas emissions. This is because every litre of synthetic LCHF would directly offset the use of an equivalent litre of petroleum-derived fuel.
Fig. 1, below, illustrates this. Bear in mind that it assumes both 100 percent capture and 100 percent conversion of CO2. Neither capture nor conversion will be 100 percent.
I am currently running a couple of R&D projects—both are government-industry-academia partnerships—that focus on point #3, converting CO2 into CO. This is C1 chemistry, and it is a growing field. Like hydrogen, this is also energy intensive. And like hydrogen production, CO manufacture from CO2 feedstock can be a low-carbon process. In fact, the only way that Fig. 1 can work is if nuclear fission provides the process heat for both hydrogen and CO production.
That shouldn’t be difficult. Canada is a world leader in nuclear energy too.