Now that the headline above has caught your attention – and perhaps your fear – let me clarify that I am not talking about a plan to shrink nuclear submarine engines for use in Chinese autos or anything like that.
Rather, I’m referring to an alternative, environmentally heroic automobile fuel called methanol that hit the international headlines last Friday when Britain’s Air Fuel Synthesis announced it had produced 5 litres of the stuff out of thin air.
Air Fuel’s methanol is not a fossil fuel, so it does not spew CO2 the way today’s petrol (gasoline) and diesel do. Better yet: It actually removes CO2 from the air, because CO2 is one of the raw ingredients in the company’s methanol recipe. The other is hydrogen. Mix the two together, and eureka, you have methanol.
The problem is that in order to cook up that elixir, Air Fuel requires a lot of energy – more than the end product will deliver. As everyone knows, extracting hydrogen is energy intensive. So too is the process of sucking CO2 into the cauldron. Air Fuel is applying a lot of electrolysis – in other words, a lot of electricity (for a closer look at the recipe, have a look at what I wrote on my CBS blog).
That’s where China and nuclear power come in.
Air Fuel Synthesis, please meet the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics. SINAP is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and it is developing an alternative type of nuclear reactor – a high temperature liquid thorium molten salt reactor (TMSR) – just for you.
Yes, believe it or not, SINAP is targeting methanol production as one of the key potential uses for the TMSR it hopes to whip into a small demonstrator reactor by 2015 or soon thereafter.
We know this because SINAP’s Dr. Kun Chen says so in a presentation that you can view here.
Speaking at the University of California Berkeley last August about the TMSR, SINAP’s Dr. Chen notes, “One of the solutions for the carbon capture is that we can use the heat from the high temperature reactors to capture carbon dioxide because we can produce hydrogen by using the high temperature reactor. Then if we can combine the carbon dioxide and hydrogen we can have methanol.”
About 12 minutes in, professor Chen describes the methanol production and use process as a possible “carbon neutral” energy cycle.
“People talk about batteries to store electric power, but the power can also be stored in the liquid fuel,” he says. “By doing this, we may be able to have a carbon neutral cycle.”
THE POWER OF MOONSHINE
In case you’re wondering: Yes, methanol in a different guise is wood alcohol – the homegrown hooch that folklore says can rob you of your vision.
But as an industrial scale fuel, it could represent a blindingly good solution to the world’s energy and global warming crises. Nobel prize winning chemist George Olah first posited the “methanol economy” back in the 1990s.
Chen is not the only nuclear expert thinking that nuclear can help the greening of cars.
“It’s unlikely that we’re going to see nuclear reactors directly powering cars or airplanes or anything like that, but it’s much more likely that what we would do is apply a nuclear power plant to produce fuel that can be used as an energy carrier,” says professor Tim Abram of the University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute in England, who I spoke with a week ago before news broke from Air Fuel.
Abram notes that heat from high temperature nuclear reactors could assist in the electrolysis or thermo chemical treatment of water that would yield hydrogen.
Experts disagree over whether that hydrogen should go straight into environmentally friendly hydrogen fuel cells – fuel cells give off no CO2, only electricity and water – or whether fuel manufacturers should combine hydrogen with CO2 to make methanol. One argument for methanol is that it can travel through existing fossil fuel infrastructure, while hydrogen requires an entirely new distribution system.
We’ll save that debate for another time. The point is that many scientists like Chen and Abram are working toward applying nuclear technology to solve transportation’s ecological challenges. (Abram runs Rolls Royce’s nuclear “university technology centre” at Manchester, where he thinks broadly about nuclear-linked propulsion on land, air and sea).
It’s all part of the notion that alternative nuclear like TMSRs can safely provide clean industrial heat, as well as generate electricity. TMSRs are meltdown proof and can operate at much higher temperatures than conventional water-cooled reactors. Scorching TMSR heat could thus be of use to high-temperature industrial processes. As we noted in our last post, that could include oil, gas and coal fields such as those in North Dakota, where a molten salt reactor movement is afoot.
It could also include the steel, chemical and cement industries, among many others.
This has all the early stage look and feel of a disruptive, transformative technology that will come together.
China, with its commitment to alternative nuclear, will play a key role. Chen’s TMSR is just one of many alternative nuclear projects underway in China that also include pebble bed, fast neutron, and accelerator-driven reactors, all of which auger safety and operational improvements over conventional nuclear.
That’s one reason I’m on my way to Shanghai next week for the Thorium Energy Conference, where speakers from China and around the world will share progress reports. I’ll be blogging from there. As a warmup, watch for a more detailed report about SINAP’s TMSR.
Meanwhile, ask the manager at your local petrol station when he might be getting in some methanol.
Photo: Viva Chile via Wikimedia.