Molten Salt Reactors and the Coal Industry

 

THE CHALLENGE: BALANCING ENERGY, THE ENVIRONMENT, AND AFFORDABILITY

The United States faces a serious challenge: protecting the environment while increasing energy production at a price point that allows American industry to compete in the world marketplace and allows average consumers to easily afford their energy needs.

Energy needs and costs are on the rise. Strong demand from developing nations aggressively building domestic industries, such as China and India, has impacted global supply. As developing nations embrace individual energy consumption profiles comparable to the average American, the environmental effects will be pronounced.

Now more than ever, the United States needs to adopt a big-picture energy strategy to develop a reliable, cost-effective source of clean energy.

 

The Solution: Coal and Next Generation Energy Technologies

Federal and state governments have set a very high bar on emission and pollution standards. Coal is an economical, abundant fuel source but turning it into a clean source of energy is expensive. In the past, inexpensive energy has been equated with “dirty” energy, but that no longer needs to be the case. By pairing next-generation nuclear technology with American coal the United States can benefit both the economy and the environment, increasing production, giving domestic industries a competitive edge and keeping energy affordable for American citizens.

Synthetic, affordable coal-based fuels could revolutionize the US economy. By harnessing next generation fission technologies, the costs of producing clean coal-based fuels would drop dramatically. This energy source would allow the United States and its allies to halt the purchase of crude oil from unfriendly nations and keep prices low for consumers and industry.

To understand how next generation energy technologies can transform the production of coal- based fuels, it is useful to take a closer look at the history, challenges and opportunities of coal liquefaction.

 

 

COAL LIQUEFACTION

The process of converting coal into liquid transportation (CTL) fuels was first developed by the Germans in 1913, where high-pressure processes for ammonia and methanol production were applied to gasoline production from coal.

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 (link) 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 and most of them are in China(link).

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(link) on liquefaction of Illinois No. 6 bituminous coal concluded that commercial coal to liquid plants using the US Midwestern bituminous coal offer 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 USD. 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) process1 .

The economic viability of these projects depends heavily on crude oil prices. A crude oil price of $72/bbl USD provides a 19.8% rate of return of investment (ROI). Oil prices higher than $44/barrel and $55/barrel provide rate of investment greater than 10% and 15%, respectively2.

According to the Energy Information Agency(link), when the price of crude oil is considered, this technology would have been market competitive since 2005. The two largest reasons why this technology has not been widely adopted are:

 

  • The risk of crude oil prices falling to a price that would not make this technology economically feasible.
  • Because the coal to liquid process itself is powered by burning coal, large amounts of CO2 are produced. Meeting present CO2 emissions standards adds too much cost to the process for it to be competitive.

 

CUTTING-EDGE HIGH TEMPERATURE FISSION TECHNOLOGIES TO THE RESCUE

Next generation technologies like MSRsLC (Molten Salt ReactorsLiquid Core) can produce working heat at a temperature needed to power the conversion process without producing CO2. Moreover, MSRsLC 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 MSRLC designs could realistically produce zero carbon electricity at $.02 3per kilowatt hour which is half the price of coal burning generated electricity. If applied at only a conservative 25% savings to the process, which is already tested and commercialized (coal liquefaction process), MSRsLC could reduce the price necessary for a 10% return on investment for an equivalent barrel of crude to 33$ per barrel (a price not seen in a nearly a decade). This price is not just highly competitive— it is potentially market dominating.

MSRsLC show great promise in providing electricity and heat for our homes and industry, but it is doubtful that the technology could ever be made small enough and economical enough to directly power automobiles. While MSRsLC could produce very large quantities of electricity to power a massive number of electric automobiles (as could coal), it is yet to be seen if average Americans(link) will embrace the limitations of the electric car (range and price).

Batteries offer a set of complex problems, such as the environmental impact of disposing of spent batteries, and sourcing the materials for battery production. While battery technology has come a long way, it is still expensive and much less energy dense than fossil and synthetic fuels. Barring a quantum leap in battery technology, battery energy storage will not be a viable option for the foreseeable future.

Given these circumstances, it makes sense to transition coal to liquid transportation fuel production over the next 30 years while using MSRs to generate electricity for consumers and industry. This is a concept similar to how France transitioned its electricity industry to nuclear, leaving its oil imports for use as transportation fuel.

 

 

ENERGY DENSITY CHART (link)

The following unit conversions may be helpful when considering the data in the table: 1 MJ ≈ 0.28 kWh ≈ 0.37 HPh.

Storage material Energy type Specific energy (MJ/kg) Energy density (MJ/L) Direct uses
Uranium (in breeder) Nuclear fission 80,620,000[2] 1,539,842,000 Electric power plants (nuclear reactors), industrial process heat (to drive chemical reactions, water desalination, etc.)
Thorium (in breeder) Nuclear fission 79,420,000[2] 929,214,000 Electric power plants (nuclear reactors), industrial process heat
Tritium Nuclear decay 583,529  ? Electric power plants (nuclear reactors), industrial process heat
Hydrogen (compressed) Chemical 142 5.6 Rocket engines, automotive engines, grid storage & conversion
methane or natural gas Chemical 55.5 0.0364 Cooking, home heating, automotive engines, lighter fluid
Diesel / Fuel oil Chemical 48 35.8 Automotive engines, power plants[3]
LPG (including Propane / Butane) Chemical 46.4 26 Cooking, home heating, automotive engines, lighter fluid
Jet fuel Chemical 46 37.4 Aircraft
Gasoline (petrol) Chemical 44.4 32.4 Automotive engines, power plants
Fat (animal/vegetable) Chemical 37 34 Human/animal nutrition
Ethanol fuel (E100) Chemical 26.4 20.9 Flex-fuel, racing, stoves, lighting
Coal Chemical 24 Electric power plants, home heating
Methanol fuel (M100) Chemical 19.7 15.6 Racing, model engines, safety
Carbohydrates (including sugars) Chemical 17 Human/animal nutrition
Protein Chemical 16.8 Human/animal nutrition
Wood Chemical 16.2 Heating, outdoor cooking
TNT Chemical 4.6 Explosives
Gunpowder Chemical 3 Explosives
Lithium battery (non-rechargeable) Electrochemical 1.8 4.32 Portable electronic devices, flashlights
Lithium-ion battery Electrochemical 0.36[4]–0.875 0.9–2.63 Laptop computers, mobile devices, some modern electric vehicles
Alkaline battery Electrochemical 0.67 1.8 Portable electronic devices, flashlights
Nickel-metal hydride battery Electrochemical 0.288 0.504–1.08 Portable electronic devices, flashlights
Lead-acid battery Electrochemical 0.17 0.56 Automotive engine ignition
Supercapacitor Electrical (electrostatic) 0.018 Electronic circuits
Electrostatic capacitor Electrical (electrostatic) 0.000036 Electronic circuits
Energy capacities of common storage forms
Storage device Energy type Energy content (MJ) Typical mass Specific energy (MJ/kg) W × H × D (mm) Uses
Automotive lead-acid battery Electrochemical 2.6 15 kg 0.17 230 × 180 × 185 Automotive starter motor and accessories
Sandwich[5] Chemical 1.47 145 grams 10.13 100 × 100 × 8 Human nutrition
Alkaline AA battery Electrochemical 0.0154 23 g 0.616 14.5 × 50.5 × 14.5 Portable electronic equipment, flashlights
Lithium-ion battery [6] Electrochemical 0.0129 20 g 0.645 54.2 × 33.8 × 5.8 Mobile phones

BENEFITS

There are a myriad of benefits to developing a next-generation fission-powered coal liquefaction process, including:

  • Developing an important new market for coal products, reenergizing a strategically vital American industry
  • Jumpstarting the US economy, thanks to an abundant, affordable, reliable supply of environmentally-friendly electricity and fuel
  • Building a pathway to true energy independence, reducing the need for crude oil imports from unfriendly countries
  • Creating new, well-paid American jobs.
  • Reducing America’s carbon footprint to a point beyond that suggested by the Kyoto ProtocolsAccord.
  • Curtailing risks of environmental disasters due to oil spills (Exxon Valdez)(BP Deepwater Horizons oil Rig).
  • Eliminating the significant carbon footprint of crude oil transport vessels(link)
  • Limiting military presence in unstable regions of the world necessary to maintain reliable crudeoil imports.
  • Because synthetic fuels produced from a coal liquefaction process are environmentally cleanerthan fuels produced from crude oil, there will be a reduced need for fuel additives such as ethanol.

 

 

WHY NEXT GENERATION COAL LIQUEFACTION, AND WHY NOW?

Some may ask “Why invest in coal when the United States has plenty of cheap and clean natural gas?” It is estimated that the United States has a 100 year supply(link 1, link 2) of natural gas. That estimate, however, holds true only if America has no economic expansion and does not export any of its domestic natural gas. Changes in these two factors could raise prices and reduce reserves.

With foreign markets paying much more for natural gas than Americans pay at home, exporting this resource is an economically attractive proposition. Additionally, an influx of American natural gas could stabilize many world energy markets, reducing the possibility of future military conflict. But as we become more dependent on natural gas domestically, exporting our natural gas resources will necessarily mean a rise in our domestic natural gas costs(link 1, link 2). It will also increase the overall consumption rate of our reserve. In this scenario, we could realistically be able to realize only a 30-year supply of natural gas, if vast recoverable supplies are not found elsewhere.

A good step toward jumpstarting the US economy would be lowering gasoline and diesel prices to 1990 levels through the development of liquid coal fuels, and exporting natural gas abroad. That maximizes the potential return on natural gas, while creating a reliable domestic source of affordable clean energy.

 

NEXT STEPS

The eGeneration Foundation has identified a path towards a revival of the coal industry and the economic recovery of the United States:

 

  • Technical feasibility study of the next generation coal liquefaction process.
  • Economic feasibility study of the next generation coal liquefaction process.
  • Environmental impact analysis study of the next generation coal liquefaction process.
  • Economic Impact and Job Creation study relating to coal producing states
  • Economic Impact and Job Creation study relating to the entire United States
  • eGeneration industry alliance formed to promote the next generation of coal liquefaction, basedon Liquid Core Molten Salt Reactor next generation nuclear technology

 

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