Carbon capture and recycle: the new frontier in Canadian synfuel expertise

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:

  1. Carbon capture, which really means CO2 capture, from the exhaust flue gases of fossil-fired stationary engines, such as coal-fired power generating plants.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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11 years ago

“Environmentalist” who decry petroleum production from oil sands are focused on the CO2 generated during the production phase, while ignoring the elephant in the room, which is the CO2 produced when the products are burned. If the total CO2 from production and use is lumped together, the difference between petroleum from oil sands and from conventional wells is rather small.

A good way to reduce CO2 in the production phase would be to use nuclear energy for oil sands extraction heat, refining process heat and energy, and hydrogen production. I am waiting for some “environmentalist” to suggest this as a solution.

Steve Aplin
11 years ago
Reply to  donb

Of course nuclear would be by far the best way to reduce oil sands well-to-pump GHGs. And of course not a single “environmentalist” would support that.

I look forward with great fondness to the day when that crowd has faded into well-deserved and long-overdue obscurity.

Andrew Jaremko
11 years ago

There is activity with new reactor types as well. Check out Dr. David LeBlanc – Molten Salt Reactors, Canada, and the Athabasca Oil Sands @ Thorium Energy Alliance Conference 4 and David Earnshaw – How the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor LFTR could boost Wyoming’s Economy @ TEAC4 for more ideas. Molten salt reactors, burning uranium or thorium, provide industrial heat at 600 to 700 degrees C that can power industrial processes and improve electricity generation efficiency. Calgary moviemaker Gordon McDowell is producing a thorium documentary about the 2012 TEAC; you’ll find more presentations from the conference and a lot more besides on his channel at the link.

I don’t have a link to anything that briefly summarizes the possibilities, but a good start is Gordon’s whimsically titled 2011 documentary LFTR in 5 Minutes – THORIUM REMIX 2011 which runs 2 hours.

Jay Harris
11 years ago

If you jump ahead in my presentation you can see that there have been patents previously submitted for CO2 recovery and electrolysis for synfuels, by Grumman for the U.S. Navy no less.

Jay Harris,
The Nuclear Native.

11 years ago

I can’t see the point. Why not directly produce power by nukes and shut the coal-fired plants? Synfuels for vehicles strike me as more practical solution. Turning coal into liquids dissipates about half of contained energy, but if hydrogen and process heat is provived from some alternative source, efficiency could be boosted from 50 to 150%. Germans had such project, but then turned berserk after tsunami had hit Bavaria.

Thomas Jørgensen
11 years ago

Economically, this is not going to work, because the base assumption is a large market paying high prices for oil products – and given the time horizon to develop the technology and build the plant, you would end up having your production facility going online in the middle-to-end of the transition to electric automotion. IE: Into a market where oil demand is crashing hard and fast. Not to mention the likelyhood of the fossile fuel plant supplying your flute gas getting legislated out of existance mid-project.

Steve Aplin
11 years ago

Thomas and Rick: I used to be optimistic about all-electric vehicles. But my daily experience with my cell phone battery has tempered that optimism. The limitations of chemical batteries means that the best we can hope for in the long term is good hybrid gasoline/diesel-electric powertrains, in which the plug-in electric part will supply power for city trips (no more than 10 to 15 kilometres on pure electric power) while the conventional ICE part will get us from city to city.

Yes, the electricity to recharge the batteries should all come from zero-carbon sources. That means mostly nuclear, supplemented by carbon-capturing coal, with the captured CO2 being recycled as I have described.