So Much for Peak Oil, Plug-In Hybrids, and Reliance on Foreign Dictators

February 18th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In the New York Times Kenneth Chang reports on a novel application of air capture of carbon dioxide that promises carbon neutral gasoline forever. If commercially viable the technology could prove enormously disruptive to all sorts of interests.

The idea is simple. Air would be blown over a liquid solution of potassium carbonate, which would absorb the carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide would then be extracted and subjected to chemical reactions that would turn it into fuel: methanol, gasoline or jet fuel.

This process could transform carbon dioxide from an unwanted, climate-changing pollutant into a vast resource for renewable fuels. The closed cycle — equal amounts of carbon dioxide emitted and removed — would mean that cars, trucks and airplanes using the synthetic fuels would no longer be contributing to global warming.

Although they have not yet built a synthetic fuel factory, or even a small prototype, the scientists say it is all based on existing technology.

“Everything in the concept has been built, is operating or has a close cousin that is operating,” Dr. Martin said.

The Los Alamos proposal does not violate any laws of physics, and other scientists, like George A. Olah, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist at the University of Southern California, and Klaus Lackner, a professor of geophysics at Columbia University, have independently suggested similar ideas. Dr. Martin said he and Dr. Kubic had worked out their concept in more detail than previous proposals.

There is, however, a major caveat that explains why no one has built a carbon-dioxide-to-gasoline factory: it requires a great deal of energy.

To deal with that problem, the Los Alamos scientists say they have developed a number of innovations, including a new electrochemical process for detaching the carbon dioxide after it has been absorbed into the potassium carbonate solution. The process has been tested in Dr. Kubic’s garage, in a simple apparatus that looks like mutant Tupperware.

Even with those improvements, providing the energy to produce gasoline on a commercial scale — say, 750,000 gallons a day — would require a dedicated power plant, preferably a nuclear one, the scientists say.

According to their analysis, their concept, which would cost about $5 billion to build, could produce gasoline at an operating cost of $1.40 a gallon and would turn economically viable when the price at the pump hits $4.60 a gallon, taking into account construction costs and other expenses in getting the gas to the consumer. With some additional technological advances, the break-even price would drop to $3.40 a gallon, they said.

If their economic numbers are even close to the mark then air capture is coming to a refinery near you. Are you ready?

21 Responses to “So Much for Peak Oil, Plug-In Hybrids, and Reliance on Foreign Dictators”

  1. David B. Benson Says:

    Nope. Not enough uranium to power that many reactors.

    Back to the drawing board…

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  3. Mark Bahner Says:

    Hi Roger,

    I just don’t see how it makes sense to have stationary plants (e.g., coal and gas-fired electrical plants, which together produce ~70 percent of the electricity in the U.S.) that *don’t* have capture, while there *is* capture from the ambient air. The CO2 concentration in the exhaust from stationary plants is more than 1000 times more concentrated than CO2 in ambient air.

    Even if 100 percent of stationary power plants world-wide had capture, transporting the captured CO2 gas to transportation fuels plants using nuclear power to produce the fuels, CO2 emissions be so low that CO2 concentration increases would probably be approximately 1 ppm per year.

    So even with that, the issue of CO2 would go away …for all but scientists interested in keeping concern about the problem alive.

    It’s an indication about the bizarre state of affairs that people are seriously proposing to capture CO2 from power plants and dump it underground as waste.


    P.S. BTW, capture of CO2 with potassium carbonate is not a new idea:

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  5. lucia Says:

    So, to fill current US consumption levels, of about 390 million gallons a day, we’d need about 500 dedicated nuclear power plants, or about 10 per state.

    I have no idea whether David Benson is correct about there being insufficient uranium. Breeder reactors could reduce the need for mined uranium.

    Roger, do the Los Alamos authors have estimates on availability of fuel for the reactors?

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  7. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Lucia- The Los Alamos white paper can be found here:

    They do not characterize the plant that they describe as being the upper end of production capability. So it is not clear what would be required. For comparison, today there are something like 150 refineries in the US.

    I think that it will be a long time before resource constraints are an important factor limiting the building of nuclear power plants. And if you don’t like nuclear, I would guess that coal with CCS would do the trick as well.

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  9. lucia Says:

    I’m in favor of nuclear. I was just wondering if David Benson was remotely correct when he claimed there is not enough uranium to power that many reactors.

    I suspected not. I estimated the number of plants per state to get an idea whether the power needs are truly enormous. Ten plants a state doesn’t sounds like a significant number, and yet not enormous. (I find there are 2776 power plants in the US according to eia.doe. Granted, most aren’t nuclear and some are small.)

    As to capacity limits, I did read in the WSJ that there are issue with production capacity for some essential equipment required to rapidly ramp up our construction of reactors. I can remember which components, but basically, since we haven’t been building many, and new ones are starting to be proposed, there may be some delays in proposed construction. But that’s different from suggesting that there isn’t enough uranium.

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  11. David B. Benson Says:

    lucia — Other countries are also planning to buiild nuclear reactors. It might be wise to discover what the estimates of uranium ores are, understand French, Chinese, etc. plans and so on before starting to pour concrete for more than a few more nuclear power plants.

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  13. lucia Says:

    Davin Benson– In the first comment here, you stated flat out there is not enough uranium.

    I agree that it would be wise to find out if what you said is true. Do you have any information to support your claim?

    I’m just trying to get an estimate based on easily available figures. As the US uses rather more energy per capita than other countries, and it appear the number of plants required here would be modest, the initial glimpse suggests there would be enough uranium.

    Heck, even if we don’t replace all gasoline use everywhere, just eliminated the CO2 American’s currently generate driving their cars every day would seem a step forward in addressing the ever increasing accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere.

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  15. David B. Benson Says:

    Gloomy assessment of uranium supply from MIT:

    Easily located as the link is one of the references in:

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  17. T. Root Says:

    This sounds too good to be true, so maybe it is. All the chemistry is plausible, but the energetics can’t work if you look at the overall process. We burn coal (fossil fuel) to produce energy, catch the CO2 in a clever mechanism, and putting back in some amount of energy convert it back to gasoline (another fossil fuel). From the outside, we’re converting one fossil fuel into another, so the energy to do the CO2-to-gasoline part has to be comparable to the energy release from the coal combustion. There is no net energy production, and no net benefit from the process. Factoring in losses and costs, we’re probably going backwards.

    If the goal is actually to convert nuclear energy into liquid transportation fuel, that might be worthwhile, but it would make more sense to put together an efficient process for this instead.

    Also, from a separations viewpoint, it will be much more expensive per pound of CO2 to reclaim it from air at 380 ppm than to capture it from the 15% level in a smokestack. The caustic sorbent chemistry works on both, but the equipment is smaller and more efficient to run on the more concentrated feed stream (that’s why people like CSS on IGCC plants, which make a 100% CO2 exhaust stream). We might design a process to recover gold from seawater (at 3 ppb, there’s a lot there), but people prefer to mine it from high-grade ore deposits instead!

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  19. lucia Says:

    David Benson,
    The two links you suggest do not support your contention that there is insufficient uranium to support this technology. The suggest there is a temporary shortfall in supply of processed uranium that will delay our ability to ramp up nuclear power generation quickly.

    One of the articles concludes this means we need to make strategic investments in uranium processes.

    I should think for an emerging technology like that described in Roger’s article, saying “there isn’t enough uranium” is sort of like going back in history and telling Ford that cars won’t sell because there too few paved roads.

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  21. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Received by email from Patrick Johnson:

    “Let’s see if I’ve got this right: “Air would be blown over a liquid solution of potassium carbonate, . . .” “Air” in this case presumably means the general CO2-enriched air we all help to create every time we start our cars or turn on a light, not exhaust gasses per-se, so these plants would be giant air-scrubbers. Seems rather inefficient, capturing CO2 at a few hundred PPM, when you could hook up your gadget to the exhaust pipe of some coal-fired plants at several thousand times that concentration. This process pre-dates the DOE study cited by Mark Bahner by several billion years if a still-controversial theory proves out: Prior to the Cambrian Explosion, elemental protists and weathering rocks were locked in a billions of years tug-of-war, a war which was marked by periods in which almost the entire globe was girdled in ice. The Protists pumped CO2 into the atmosphere, which kept the earth warm enough to support life, while weathering rocks sucked it out, sometimes out-pacing the protists’ efforts enough to cause massive ice-ages. Apparently, the explosive development of much more energetic mulit-cellular organisims tipped the balance (mostly) in favor of Life. Were they capable of consideration, our current mob of CO2-obsessers would do well to consider this historical tidbit before prating about the benefits of a carbon-neutral civilization.

    Chang apparently has not heard of entropy, since he did not ask any basic energy-in/energy-out questions, such as, how many units of electrical energy to produce a gallon of gas, or even, what’s the energy in : energy out ratio? All we get is “It requires a great deal of energy.” No kidding. A very simple question, I would think – how much energy input to separate the oxygen atoms from the carbon atom; how much energy output to re-combine? Same dilemma as cracking water into its constituent hydrogens and oxygen. We could perhaps live with the massive inefficiencies inherent in such a system – since liquid fuels are so dense and portable – if there was a cheap, clean, reliable, and virtually inexhaustible source of primary energy. I doubt that nukes are that. I also doubt that $3.60/gallon is a realistic estimate – it would be interesting to see the assumptions built into that figure. And what, exactly, would $5 billion build? A single plant? What capacity? (and for that matter, how do you build a concept?)

    A similar but more elegant solution was proposed over 30 years ago by Ted Taylor (a Los Alamos alumni, BTW), which did use a mostly-safe, mostly-reliable, and virtually inexhaustible energy source (guess what?). Both food and bio-fuels would be grown in huge greenhouses, with atmospheres custom-tailored to whatever crop was being grown. Taylor estimated that traditional open-air agriculture has about a 1% efficiency (solar energy in : food energy out), whereas greenhouse agriculture could would be closer to 10%. Not great, but since sunlight is “free” . . . (see “The Restoration of the Earth” by Theodore Taylor and Charles Humpstone. Long out of print, but used copies can still be gotten through Amazon, Alibris, etc)

    Back to CO2 cracking – even if the technological hurdles could be surmounted – like building thousands of safe, reliable, nuclear plants – why on earth would we want to saddle ourselves with such a Rube Goldberg distribution system and its huge transmission losses? Why not instead a Manhatten Project-scale effort to build a better storage cell and use the electricity directly? As I recall, Los Alamos has some experience with that kind of crash program.”

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  23. David B. Benson Says:

    lucia — Assume there are 200 operating nuclear power plants in the world today. The claim was that, at current prices there is enough uranium for 85 years. Building 500 more, just for the U.S., results in 700 operating nuclear poser plants. Then the uranium ores are only good for 24 years. That is not long enough to payback the investment.

    That was what I was refering to. Of course, assuming an ability to pay more, I gather there are more uranium reserves. But I’ll not attempt an ROI for such scenerios. Over to you.

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  25. lucia Says:

    David Benson,
    If you click the link and read the source supporting the 85 year limit, you will find that reference says this:

    “Fast reactor technology would lengthen this period to over 2500 years.”

    The Wikipedia authors left this bit out.

    This is a considerably longer time periods. The uranium limit is not fundamental.

    The decision not to use fast reactor technology is entirely political, and could be changed.

    Given the urgency of lowering CO2 emissions, while not causing needless economic damage to poor countries (like El Salvador, where I was born) it might be wise to switch.

    Of course, I suspect big oil, refineries or oil rich nations, might oppose the switch to nuclear, since it would cut into their profits, but I don’t see protecting the interest of big oil as being as important as lowering the rate we increase CO2 emissions.

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  27. David B. Benson Says:

    lucia said “… I don’t see protecting the interest of big oil as being as important as lowering the rate we increase CO2 emissions.” That is putting matters rather mildly. I agree, only I would have used much stronger words.

    Regarding various potential nuclear power options, I live in between two of the most polluted DOE reactor sites, to the east in Idaho and to the west in Hanford. Based on a 37 year record of trying to force DOE to do the right thing, I fear I cannot view nuclear power generation, especially ‘fast reactor technology’, with anything but trepidation.

    Maybe the British, French and Germans know how to do all this safely. It is certain that neither the Canadians nor the Russians nor the Americans do.

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  29. lucia Says:

    First, I want to note that this is an enitirely different argument from “there is not enough uranium.” It’s fine to change, but I do want to capture that this switch occurred.

    Second, I used to live in Richland, and worked at PNNL. I once walked over waste in one of the K-basins, and have an “atta-boys” plaque for work on 101-SY (AKA the first major-ly hydrogen burping tank.)

    The problems with clean up are entirely political, and could be solved if *congress* wished to do so and sustained funding for clean up instead of ramping up the cutting funding in fits and bursts.

    I think these political problems could be solved if there was sufficient political will. There has not been.

    FWIS, the problem of rampant waste accumulation at K-basin arose because of entirely political decision by Jimmy Carter, which was absolutely totally out of control of the DOE, Hanford engineers or others.

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  31. David B. Benson Says:

    lucia — I agree it is a change.

    There is not enough uranium, at current prices, using existing nuclear reactor technology.

    Unfortunately I previously left off the final phrase. I suppose I was assuming that nobody (at least in the U.S.), is interested in new, untried technologies. This was based in part on the fact that the new nuclear reactors in the planning stage are not even ‘passively safe’ designs, but just basically more old technology.

    Fundamentally, the decisions rest with the U.S. Congress. IMO, they haven’t done well regarding energy policy for several decades now. However, I certainly know of many matters which were directly under the administrative control of the Secretary of Energy. There have been many mistakes, risking the lives of many people. Possibly even yours. For such misadministration I have helped take a sequence of secretaries to court. Almost always win. Or so I like to think…

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  33. lucia Says:

    Why would you assume no one is interested in new untried technologies to reduce CO2 levels? That’s a peculiarly odd assumption, particular in a commented posted by connecting electronicly to a blog on the internet!

    Americans are adopting new untried technologies everyday. Also, the technologiy Roger is discussing in this blog post is a new untried technology — as are many technologies to develpe renewable fuels.

    I’m all for new technologies to improve energy efficiency, create energy more efficiently of without generating CO2, sequester carbon, reduce pollution, improve the food supply, make better medicines and all around improve our way of life. If our forbears had refused new technologies we’d still be shivering, naked in caves!

    For what it’s worth, the DOE and Hanford have nothing to do with commercial nuclear applications. So, I’m not sure what you think the DOE has to do with commercial energy production. So, I really don’t quite see what argument you are trying to make by connecting issues associated with weapons productions, or Jimmy Carter’s mistakes in dealing with waste to this particular technology..

    It appears your main objection to this technology is you don’t like nukes. You haven’t been very clear about your basis for not liking them, other than that you live between Hanford and Rockc flats and have some issues about various former secretaries of energy.

    I guess it’s fine for you to have angst, but I don’t see how your angst should preclude our going forward with technologies that help reduce CO2, and thus help prevent warming.

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  35. David B. Benson Says:

    lucia — I was thinking of INEEL, in Idaho. Rocky Flats is too many states away and too far south for me to worry about.

    INEEL tests reactor designs, using DOE money. These are supposedly for commericial reactors.

    I personally do not object to a newer design. If nuclear reactors must be used, I would think one of the so-called passively safe designs would be better. (Same problem of fuel shortage, however). My point was that the two or three new constrction nuclear power plants to come before the nucular regulatory commission in the next several months are not innovative designs.

    Hanford, for many years, ran an electric power generating reactor onsite. I’m unsure of the current situation.

    It is not just the former secretaries. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in an article a few years ago, stated that DOE was the most dysfunctional of the departments of government. Given how dysfunctional DOD is, that is saying a lot! Moreover, I have plenty of sources of information which suggest that engineers at INEEL cut corners and leave serious radiation risks exposed.

    Go read about the green run(s) at Hanford.

    Anyway, this is far off-topic for this blog, so perhaps it is best to bring the discussion of this topic to a close.

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  37. lucia Says:

    David Benson,
    Once again you are suggesting there is not enough uranium. 2500 years wort is certainly enough, particularly in the context of an emerging technology described in Roger’s article.

    How in the world is the issue of nuclear plants coming on line in the next few month’s relevant to the emerging technology described here, which isn’t likely to be ramped up in two months? (Answer: It’s not.)

    And why should readers think the technology Roger describes is not useful because you make vague allusions about things you think you know but for some reason don’t specify in comments?

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  39. David B. Benson Says:

    lucia — Using existing nuclear reactor technology, 700 nuclear power generators woudl use up the urnaium ores available at today’s prices in 24 years.

    Multiplying that low figure by 100 or so requires a different technology, one with which there is no longer any experience, anywhere in the world, now that FFTF has been demolished.

    This is not the place to consider all the ramifications of a variety of different possible ways of using nuclear energy, most of which have never been tried. There are other forums for that.

    Goodby on this topic.

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  41. lucia Says:

    Hi David,

    Using breeder reactors, which are technically feasible, the nuclear uranium ores would last roughly more than 5 centuries. So, the technology described here, which removes existing CO2 from air to make synthetic fuel is not uranium limited. That’s clear.

    Yes. To implement this technology will require an investment in new reactor technolgies. But, new technologies are developed all the time. New reactors can be designed and built. I realize this causes you angst but that is no reason not to build them.

    It’s clear you don’t want these to be built for

    However, with regard to the topic of Roger’s blog — which is how we might implement the synthetic fule technology– the discussion appears to have gotten us here:

    If we invest in new, entirely feasible nuclear technologies, there is plenty of uranium available to generate synthetic fuel using the emerging technology Roger discussed.

    This could potentially greatly not only reduce the amount of CO2 introduced into the atmosphere, but remove CO2 we have already reduced. This could potentially eliminate the hazards of global warming.

    Unless good reasons not to implement this technologies can be advanced, the synthetic fuel technology would seem promising. We should invest both in the new technology to develop synthetic fuels and develop better technologies to use nuclear fuels.