The United States should develop and deploy on an industrial scale advanced nuclear liquid core molten salt reactors, especially those fueled by Thorium and nuclear waste, for the conversion of American coal, natural gas, and other carbon sources to large volumes of liquid transportation fuels. Production of large volumes of synthetic liquid transportation fuels, especially synthetic gasoline and synthetic diesel fuel, has the potential to lead to American energy independence and completely eliminate Middle East oil-producing nations as a geopolitical force. The current low price of crude oil would drop precipitously and the resultant low price would become permanent. The Middle East would be driven from the transportation fuels market, and would thereby lose the financial ability to support terrorist nations and non-state terrorist organizations.
The development of Molten Salt Reactors would be a boon to the American coal and natural gas industries, which MSRs would complement; they would not compete. In fact, the adoption of Molten Salt Reactor technology will be a boon to American industry and job creation in general.
This would also occur without prejudice to the United States oil industry, because these new nuclear reactors have other properties which will significantly lower the production costs of American oil, much of which is presently unrecoverable at a reasonable price.
The process of converting coal into liquid transportation fuels has been around for many years. Coal liquefaction was first developed in 1913 in Germany. In 1925, Fischer and Tropsch developed the FT (Fischer Tropsch) process to convert Synthetic Natural Gas into intermediate wax products, which were finally converted into diesel, naphtha and kerosene using a hydro-cracking unit.
During the Second World War, Germany produced large amounts of transport fuels via DCL (Direct Coal Liquefaction) and ICL (Indirect Coal Liquefaction) technologies. This was an expensive process adopted primarily because of a German insufficiency of natural petroleum resources. Today, the world’s largest Coal-to-Liquids (CTL) production capacity is located in South Africa, based on locally available low-cost coal. Numerous demonstration units have been built elsewhere, but only a few industrial plants are currently under construction, most of them are in China.
Performance and costs of coal liquefaction plants have been reviewed as the result of an interest in alternative production of transport fuels driven by the 2008 oil price peak. A study on liquefaction of Illinois No. 6 bituminous coal concluded that commercial coal to liquid plants using the US Midwestern bituminous coal offered good economic opportunities. The investment cost of a CTL plant with a production capacity of 50,000 barrels per day of diesel and gasoline is around $ 4.85 billion (US$ 2014). The coal preparation and gasification in the CTL process account for almost 50% of the total investment cost, the rest of the cost being for the GTL (Gas to Liquids) process.
The economic viability of these projects depends heavily on crude oil prices. A crude oil price of $72/bbl (2014 US$) provides a 19.8% rate of return of investment (ROI). Oil prices higher than $44/bbl and $55/bbl provide ROI greater than 10% and 15%, respectively.
According to the Energy Information Agency, this technology would have been market competitive since 2005 when the price of crude oil is considered. The two largest reasons why this technology has not been widely adopted is:
- The risk of crude oil prices falling to a price that would not make this technology economically feasible.
- Since the coal to liquid process itself is powered by burning coal, large amounts of CO2 are produced. Getting CO2 emissions down would add too much cost to the process to meet the regulatory standards for the process to be competitive.
Next Generation Technologies like LCMSRs (Liquid Core Molten Salt Reactors) can produce working heat at a temperature needed to power the conversion process without the production of CO2. Moreover, LCMSRs can power this process at a superior price point.
Cost estimates and nearly four decades of taxpayer funded research at national laboratories have shown that some LCMSRs designs could realistically produce Zero Carbon electricity at $.02 per kilowatt hour. By a general rule of thumb, this is half the price of coal burning generated electricity. If applied at only a conservative 25% savings to the process, which is already tested and commercialized (coal liquefaction process), LCMSRs could reduce the price necessary for a 10% ROI for an equivalent barrel of crude to 33$ per barrel (a price not seen in a nearly a decade). This price is not only potentially highly competitive, but possibly market dominating.
There are myriad benefits to developing a next generation fission powered coal liquefaction process. Here we highlight some major benefits.
- Provide a new market for Coal Products
- Reduce crude oil imports from countries that do not have America’s best interests at heart.
- Reduce the U.S. military presence in unstable regions of the world necessary to maintain reliable crude oil imports.
- Reduce risks of environmental disasters due to oil tanker spill and oil rig accidents.
- Eliminate the carbon footprint of the vessels that transport crude oil to America (A non-trivial portion of CO2 produced from oil).
- Because synthetic fuels produced from a coal liquefaction process are environmentally cleaner than fuels produced from crude oil, there will be a reduced need for fuel additives such as ethanol.
- Transitioning electricity production to next generation high temperature fission will dramatically reduce America’s carbon footprint to a point beyond that suggested by the Kyoto Protocols Accord.
- Revitalize America’s manufacturing industries.
- Produce domestic and good paying American jobs.
- Preserve a vital and strategic American industry.
A manufacturing renaissance is under way in the United States, and it is being driven in part by a natural gas boom thanks to new natural gas wells and shale fracturing technology. The questions on everyone’s mind are: How long will this natural gas boom last? Is there a way to maximize our domestic benefit ? Is there a way to prolong this manufacturing renaissance?
Although not without a carbon footprint, natural gas is a clean and environmentally friendly energy resource that is expected to constitute an increasingly greater part of world energy consumption over the next few decades. While current natural gas reserves are more than sufficient to meet the forecasted demand, natural gas often has to be stored and transported over long distances from gas well to the consumer, as winter consumption still far exceeds the rate of production.
The logistical transportation and storage challenges posed by natural gas potentially could be solved by transporting and storing natural gas in liquid form (LNG, Liquefied Natural Gas). Such liquefaction, storage, and transport are associated with considerable cost and use of energy, however, which currently places these technologies out of the realm of economic feasibility for the domestic American market. The same is not true for foreign markets, however, where prices are currently higher than in is our domestic market.
Furthermore, natural gas has historically been a very price-volatile energy resource, even with massive domestic reserves, making it financially attractive to produce synthetic or substitute natural gas from coal, petrocoke, biomass or municipal solid and organic wastes in order to secure a more stable long term price by means of diverse and stable feedstocks.
Converting much less price-volatile raw materials into a synthetic natural gas that can be used in an existing natural gas network offers greater flexibility in addressing the storage and the distribution aspects of natural gas. The conversion of solid fuels/feedstocks as a general source of energy makes these sources another domestic source of inexpensive synthetic liquid transportation fuels to replace Middle East oil.
The low American natural gas prices have sparked interest in large-scale Liquid Natural Gas exports to higher-priced markets, such as Europe and Asia, where LNG storage and transportation makes sense. While high volumes of LNG exports would increase profits to the oil and gas sector, the resulting increase in domestic gas prices will potentially disrupt the growth in domestic manufacturing, natural gas fleet vehicle conversions, and electricity generators. Consequently, the United States is faced with a critical policy decision today: how to balance future demand for LNG exports with the realization of domestic value added opportunities of cheap natural gas.
Why are we not converting current potential feedstocks, such as coal, into SNG (Synthetic/Substitute Natural Gas)? The answer, not surprisingly, is the current cost of the process to turn coal into Synthetic Natural Gas. With natural gas prices at record low, and with current SNG technology, it just isn’t profitable to produce SNG because it cannot compete with the glut of cheap natural gas on the market.
Energy is a major cost in producing SNG, however. If the cost of production of energy can be reduced, the cost of Synthetic Natural Gas will also be reduced.
The conversion of coal and other feedstocks into Synthetic Natural Gas takes place in several steps, all of which require energy:
- gasification of coal, petcoke, biomass or waste to produce a gas rich in hydrogen and carbon monoxide
- a shift conversion process to adjust the ratio between hydrogen and carbon monoxide
- acid gas removal, where carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphides are removed in a washing process
- high temperature methanation to convert carbon oxides and hydrogen to methane (Synthetic Natural Gas) followed by drying and possibly compression of the product SNG to pipeline conditions
- production of oxygen for the gasification process in an Air Separation Unit
- recovery of sulphur from the acid gas removal unit, for example by converting the sulphur to concentrated sulphuric acid in a Wet Sulphuric Acid (WSA) unit
Instead of using Synthetic Natural Gas, a carbon producer derived from the process, to power the process itself, the heat from a modular MSR (Molten Salt Reactor) can be used to power the process. A thorium powered MSR reactor has the potential to cut the cost of heat by more than half, which would radically reduce the cost of producing Synthetic Natural Gas.
An additional benefit is that because Molten Salt Reactors can be made very small, they can be placed very close to coal sources (and other feedstock resources) so Synthetic Natural Gas could be produced upon demand, thereby greatly reducing the need to store and transport Synthetic Natural Gas over vast distances.
Natural gas companies should embrace producing Synthetic Natural Gas with Nuclear Molten Salt Reactor technology
As traditional coal-fired power plants are replaced with natural gas plants due to environmental regulations, and as additional natural gas peaker plants are needed on the grid to complement intermittent power supply generators, domestic natural gas usage will dramatically increase over the next decade. Additionally, it makes sense to allow export of our natural gas to nations that will pay a premium for this resource.
As demand for natural gas increases, though, the price for natural gas will increase as well, and because there is such a massive swing in the electrical generation sector to use natural gas domestically in place of coal, our domestic economy will be dramatically and negatively impacted by any rising cost of natural gas as it raises the cost of electricity.
As the cost of electricity rises the negative impact upon the economy will likely cause greater regulation and controls in the natural gas industry, which means reduced profits for natural gas companies. It is this fear by the public and legislators that may kill many LNG export terminal projects if nothing is done to alleviate the situation.
Another concern is that just as fleet owners of diesel trucks are converting to LNG, doubts about long-lasting low natural gas prices could very easily slam the brakes on the developing natural gas transportation fuel sector. In the long term, the transportation fuel market for the natural gas industry offers the potential of far more profit per cubic yard of natural gas than the electrical generation sector because of the mass sale to individuals rather than volume sales to electrical generator utilities.
Demonstrating to the public, legislators, and the transportation industry that developing Molten Salt Reactor technology over the next couple decades to produce Synthetic Natural Gas will head off any long-term spikes in the price of domestic natural gas due to exportation would allay fears and promote long-term investment. Because MSRs would also produce electricity at a much lower cost than does natural gas, and will naturally supplant electrical generation derived from natural gas, it makes sense to let market forces transition a large portion of the natural gas electrical generation sector to a much higher profit transportation fuel market over the next several decades.
It makes sense for U.S. policy makers to embrace private industry exporting our natural gas to higher profit markets in other countries, as long as there is no long-term negative effect on the U.S. economy. If the natural gas industry can demonstrate through investment in Molten Salt Reactor technology that they can extend the domestic natural gas boom, potentially in perpetuity, with economically viable Synthetic Natural Gas production, there would be little reason to stand in opposition to licensing Liquid Natural Gas export hubs in the U.S. This would be a free market windfall for the American natural gas industry.
Additionally, as recently related by Samuel Thernstrom, America has vast untapped reserves of oil in the form of EOR (Enhanced Oil Recovery) plays from traditionally played out oil fields, and from heavy oil reserves. These reserves need tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide in various forms in order to harvest usable oil. The process to produce Synthetic Natural Gas produces large amounts of high purity carbon dioxide that, unlike with traditional coal fired power plants, is easily captured and can help fuel yet another renaissance in the oil recovery industry. Domestic Synthetic Natural Gas plants can help spur the domestic oil industry through inexpensive carbon dioxide used in Enhanced Oil Recovery to dominate world markets, especially including those in the crude-rich Middle East.
What if Compressed Natural Gas and Liquid Natural Gas are not adopted by the public as transportation fuel?
While Compressed Natural Gas is much cheaper than the current market price of gasoline, and Liquid Natural Gas offers semi-truck fleet owners large savings over the present cost of diesel, there is a large drawback in the cost of converting gasoline and diesel engines to the use of either CNG or LNG. Then there is the chicken and the egg question of the infrastructure required to support convenient refueling of vehicles using CNG and LNG on the road. Will the market make it happen, or would unwonted government intervention be required? It might not happen at all.
Thankfully, a robust and proven technology can again come to the rescue. GTL (Gas to Liquid) technology is a well-proven and already economically viable process to convert natural gas or Synthetic Natural Gas into Synthetic Gasoline and/or Synthetic Diesel Fuel. In fact, Sasol Ltd. of South Africa is breaking ground in 2015 on an $11 billion Lake Charles, LA Gas to Liquid plant that will produce 96,000 barrels per day of diesel fuel and other chemicals (source). Using a Molten Salt Reactor to power this type of conversion can make the Gas to Liquid process even more profitable, and produce transportation fuel that is even more competitive in the American market.
Developing Molten Salt Reactor Technology is a Preferred Solution to the Crisis of Energy Independence and National Security
Developing Liquid Core Molten Salt Reactor technology makes sense from several different perspectives across many different energy sectors. Some LCMSR designs can consume 98% of present day nuclear waste stockpiles while producing electricity, thus eliminating a long-standing, and previously almost unsolvable, environmental problem for the traditional nuclear industry and our national security. Molten Salt Reactors can be adapted for use as the power source for oil refinery production and the fractionation process, which would reduce the cost of gasoline and other petroleum based chemicals in the crude to fractional distillation process. LCMSRs can be used to produce the massive amount of cheap electricity required for the economically viable plasma gasification of municipal solid waste, which would dramatically reduce the amount of wastes placed in landfills and produce Synthetic Natural Gas at the same time. Molten Salt Reactors can be adapted for use to transform kerogen shale plays into crude oil using either the reactor’s high heat or electricity it produces.
Liquid Core Molten Salt Reactors can produce economically attractive high temperature heat that can be used in heavy oil recovery for remote areas such as Alaska’s North Slope. Not only can the carbon dioxide and ammonia produced from manufacturing Synthetic Natural Gas be used for enhanced oil recovery, but also this high purity carbon and ammonia can be used in next generation FO (Forward Osmosis) desalination plants to produce fresh water very cheaply (much more cheaply than using reverse osmosis). (source) With the hundreds of ways that MSRs can impact multiple industries, first movers and adopters of Molten Salt Reactor technology have the potential to realize many market benefits over those that do not embrace the technology.
America’s being the first nation to adopt, deploy, and commercialize Molten Salt Reactor technology will create United States energy independence. Moreover, the development of Molten Salt Reactor Technology will lower the world price of oil and defang the hostile Middle East oil producing countries’ hold over America and their financing of terrorism worldwide.
 Thernstrom, Samuel: “The Next Shale Revolution?” The Weekly Standard (December 29, 2014), pp. 22-29