In 2009, the Belchatow coal plant released 29,500,000 metric tons of the dangerous fossil fuel waste carbon dioxide (and undoubtedly large quantities of other wastes such as acid sulfur and nitrogen acid gases as well as heavy metals) into the planetary atmosphere, according to the CARMA data. It produced 25,615,000 MWh of electricity, meaning that the plant is said - according to CARMA to release - 1.15 MT per MWh, which is defined as its "intensity" - the figure on the right in the CARMA webpage if you're looking at it is obviously kg per MWh.
Back in 2007, when I still felt a compunction to write here a lot - albeit with way too much self seriousness - I spoke of my ideas about how to phase out dangerous fossil fuels. That diary was called The Utility of Light: Getting Real with the Existing Energy Infrastructure. If I had any idea that any of these ideas would be taken seriously or acted upon in a serious way, I must have been seriously deluded. Actually these ideas are discussed widely in the scientific literature, and the technology for accomplishing these things has greatly advanced - at least on a lab scale - but there is no political will, either in democracies, oligarchies, or dictatorships anywhere to actually do any of these things on an industrial scale, and almost none to do it even on a pilot scale.
Humanity - especially in democracies - will get what it deserves.
I keep track of monthly year-to-year increases in carbon dioxide concentrations in an excel spreadsheet I've put together from Mauna Loa data and I rank them according to how "bad" they are. For instance, I can show that the January 2011 to January 2012 increase, which was 1.90 ppm, was the the 14th worst of the last 54 years (going back to 1958), that the corresponding 2011 to 2012 monthly increases were for February, 1.86 ppm (17th worst), March, 2.05 ppm (12th worst), April, 2.90 ppm (2nd worst), May, 2.62 ppm (4th worst), June, 2.17 ppm. (8th worst), July, 1.90 ppm, (14th worst), August, 2.23 (8th worst) and September, (13th worst).
There has not been a year to year decrease in month to month carbon dioxide concentrations since the period September 1973 to September 1974, where the slight decrease (-0.10 ppm) may have been related to the oil shortages observed in that period.
For the 2011 to 2012 data listed above, I have highlighted those months for which the increases were in the top five over the last 54 years, April and May, which as luck would have it when the Japanese began killing their own citizens by shutting all of their nuclear power plants for Fukushima related "stress tests."
More than a coincidence? I certainly suspect as much.
I say "killing their own citizens" when I talk about the Japanese government's decision to conduct "stress tests" on its nuclear plants inasmuch as it is indisputable that fossil fuel plants kill people whenever they operate, since they dump toxic waste directly into the planetary atmosphere with inadequate - if any - treatment. This waste kills huge numbers of people, many thousands of them each day. There is a zero probability that any of these plants can operate for any period, even a half hour, without killing people. (For the record, the scientific literature and other literature is replete with discussions of the epidemiology associated with climate change and other air pollution.) During the "stress tests" all of the electricity that was formerly made using nuclear energy was made by burning dangerous fossil fuels, so many that Japan's balance of payments actually fell into the red from buying the stuff.
What is clear from the above data about carbon dioxide jumps in 2012 is this: In 2012, after decades of endless talk about how in some magical future we're going to take climate change seriously we are living in a year where 2 months (out of a total of 9 completed thus far) are in the top 5 worst in history for increases in dangerous fossil fuel concentrations in the atmosphere, 4 are in the top 10 and all of them are easily in the top 20. This suggests that any talk of "climate progress" is pure self delusional garbage, even if Joe Romm apparently makes a good living at shilling it.
From where I sit, Joe Romm and his unfortune ilk is more of a cause of the failure of humanity to address climate change, certainly than a person who attempted to enact reasonable responses to climate change, one of which would be to expand rather than malign (and attempt to destroy) with insipid selective attention, what was, for thirty years the world's largest, by far, source of climate change gas free primary energy. From where I sit he is like a person who has been trained to correctly diagnose cancer and then incorrectly announces that no medical procedures will prove as worthwhile for curing said cancer as visiting a shaman in Peru.
The overall average for the year to year monthly increases observed at Mauna Loa, recorded over 363 months in 53 years is 1.45 ppm. Since 2006, when I started writing here only 5 months have been below this 53 year average: March and April of 2008, as the joys of the collapsing Bush economy began to kick in, November of 2009, and March and April of 2011, these probably partially related to the partial temporary shut down of Japan owing to a natural disaster that killed something like 20,000 people, zero of whom, it would appear, died from immediate radiation poisoning despite much caterwauling about it.
The average increase for 2012 has been 2.20 ppm per month as compared to the previous year's month. This suggests that 2012 with be anywhere from the 4th to the 7th worst year ever recorded at Mauna Loa: This, 20 years after Al Gore began discussing the issue during the 1992 primaries and election and we all got wedgies in our underwear about the issue.
Don't worry, be happy. Heckuva job humanity!
No matter who wins the upcoming election - the loon with the etch-a-sketch or the bright but constrained guy who now lives in the White House - be sure to drive to the mall this Christmas to get a Sierra Club calendar - printed on recycled paper of course - or else someone might not know how environmentally aware you are.
Anyway, about making gasoline from carbon dioxide belched out of the Belchatow coal plant in Poland:
The chemistry of making gasoline (or very gasoline-like) components from a carbon oxides (monoxide or dioxide) have been known for nearly a century. The process is generally called the "Fischer Tropsch process." If one searches "Fischer Tropsch" on Google Scholar, one will get over 800,000 hits. The first commercial plant for doing this was opened in 1936 by Ruhrchemie in (then) Nazi Germany. cf: Energy & Fuels 2009, 23, 2342–2358 The source of the carbon oxide (and the energy) for this process was coal wherever the practice was used in the twentieth century. So the chemistry of this process cannot be considered exotic.
We now hear all about "coal gasification" these days as if it was something new, but this business has been in practice for millennia - at least in some parts of the world - but most of the time the gas is carbon dioxide - with a little carbon monoxide - and it is simply dumped into the atmosphere. We call this process, known since ancient times, "combustion."
The chemistry and physics of the capture of carbon dioxide from dilute streams is also very well understood. Recent developments in this technology have become very, very, very sophisticated and it is now clearly even feasible to capture carbon dioxide from the air, although no one will do this, because well, it involves investments that are not short term, and um, we don't do anything except for immediate gratification. Of course the caveat for this technology involves the use of additional energy, and if that energy comes from dangerous fossil fuels, well what would be the point?
Gasoline is a very complex mixture, even when produced in a single refinery. The majority of the compounds found in gasoline are carbons generally having between 5 and 10 carbons, and in general (with the exception of some cyclic compounds, unsaturated compounds having double bonds, and some aromatic compounds like toluene and carcinogenic benzene) these compounds have the general formula CxH2x+2. These types of compounds are referred to by chemists as "alkanes." According to this link the average molecular weight of gasoline compounds is 105. This is very close to the molecular weight of compounds having the formula C7H16 (100.2), of which there are many, including n-heptane, monomethyl hexanes, dimethyl pentanes, ethyl pentane, blah, blah, blah...
Let us consider the production of a typical C7H16 compound. The enthalpy of formation of these compounds - a measure of the energy required to make them, which varies slightly - is roughly, let's say, -49 kcal/mol (-201 kJ/mol), meaning that it would release about 201 kJ of energy to make about 100 grams of a C7H16 from the elements.
The reaction for making C7 hydrocarbons (probably a mixture of them) is as follows:
7 CO2 + 30 H2 -> C7H16 + 14 H2O
If the water is recycled to make hydrogen via water splitting (by any means) the overall reaction is
7 CO2 + 8 H2O -> C7H16 + 11 O2.
This reaction should be unsurprising, since it looks very much like photosynthesis, the main mechanism for the formation of fossil oil and gas. The reaction of course doesn't produce sugar like photosynthesis - and the reason has to do with the nature of the conditions and the catalysts - but it's the same general idea. In photosynthesis the energy for the reaction is of course solar energy captured by chlorophyll in a thermodynamically inefficient process. The inefficiency didn't matter for the formation of oil and gas, since hundreds of millions of years were involved in fixing the carbon dioxide. Fischer Tropsch chemistry can be (in pure energy terms) considerably more efficient, depending on the pathways employed to perform it.
I pointed out that the heat of formation of C7H16 releases 201 kJ of energy, however the formation of water from its elements, hydrogen and oxygen releases 285 kJ/mol and the formation of carbon dioxide releases about 393 kJ/mol.
It follows from the equations and information above that to produce one mole of C7H16 from 8 moles of water and 7 moles of carbon dioxide would require, as enthalpy, 4840 kJ of energy. (This excludes a consideration of the entropy of various steps this reaction.) This discussion thus ignores inherent inefficiencies (energy - entropy - losses) that must be involved in any process of this type. Even considering this ideal state, this is an awful lot of energy. One mole of C7H16 is, again, about 100 grams.
Of course the energy invested in the process demonstrates the reason that gasoline is such a compact and useful fuel: This entire scheme is nothing more than an energy storage and transport scheme.
Now suppose that clean energy - in my mind nuclear energy is the only clean and sustainable energy there is - were available to effect this transformation (most likely in a variety of process steps), how much C7H16 could we produce by capturing and hydrogenating the carbon dioxide belching out of the Belchatow coal plant? We are told that the plant dumps 29,000,000 metric tons of the dangerous fossil fuel waste carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.
Were this 100% captured (something that is even under the best conditions unlikely) this would represent 660 million moles of carbon dioxide, which at a 100% yield (also unlikely) would result, considering the stoichiometry, in the production of 9.4 million tons of C7H16, which is equivalent to roughly 69 million barrels of gasoline. The process would consume (not counting water used for cooling - if such water is used) about 14 million tons of water. This water would - of course - be returned the environment when the synthetic gasoline was burned.
The world consumes about 89 million barrels of oil per day as of 2011, the highest total ever recorded by the way.
Since the FT process does not produce only C7 hydrocarbons, but also produces C6, C8, C9, C10 and other hydrocarbon compounds and because the process would not give perfectly high yields, these numbers are strictly, and loosely "ballpark."
Obviously the advantage of this scheme would be - were it not too late - to eliminate all the carbon dumping associated with gasoline on earth.
Petroleum is responsible for about 11 billion of the 31 billion metric tons of the dangerous fossil fuel waste carbon dioxide that humanity dumps each year in its favorite waste dump, the planetary atmosphere.
I have thought (and read) an awful lot about these sorts of processes over the years - to no apparent good to either humanity nor to myself - and some general considerations indicate that the types of systems required are considerably different than the industrial infrastructure with which we have come irretrievably to suffer. I will discuss some issues that might have needed to be addressed were it not too late to do so.
The energy requirement - not even counting the thermodynamic energy cost of removing carbon dioxide from the dangerous fossil fuel waste stream - would be on the order of half an exajoule to reduce carbon dioxide to C7H16 using water as the reducing agent. (Humanity as a whole now consumes on the order of 520 exajoules per year.)
A 1000 MWe nuclear plant produces about 3000 MW(th) which translates to about 0.1 exajoules of thermal energy per year per plant. Nuclear power plants do not dump carbon dioxide waste into the atmosphere, and unless hit something like a tsunami and earthquake, essentially release very little else into the environment. (It should be noted that even after being hit with an earthquake and a tsunami - as famously happened at Fukushima - the overall health consequences of releasing significant quantities of the stuff inside nuclear reactors has proved to be of trivial consequence when compared with the normal day to day death and health toll of dangerous fossil fuels, despite the insipid gnashing of teeth associated with Fukushima and the total disregard for the consequences of dangerous fossil fuel use.) However one problematic item that nuclear power plants do dump into the environment is waste heat.
Of course, if one had 5 or 6 nuclear plants dedicated to the reduction and conversion of dangerous coal waste being belched by the Belchatow coal plant into gasoline, arguably one wouldn't need the coal plant in the first place, especially if the side product - a fairly easy adaptation - of said reduction was, um, electricity. Just saying...
Note however that the Fischer-Tropsch process can be used with, for instance, biomass, probably much more efficiently and cheaply than is carried out in all these "cellulosic ethanol" schemes we used to hear all about until - like most of these grand so called "renewable energy" schemes, they turned out to not work very well.
Here is a very recent paper, among the hundreds of thousands of Fischer Tropsch papers that seem to be around, on an aspect of the biomass based Fischer Tropsch system:
Energy Fuels 2012, 26, 1363−1379
Anyway the separation of the dangerous fossil fuel waste carbon dioxide also requires additional energy. In one of my last diaries here, one I wrote this summer, I gave a feel for the thermodynamic energy cost for removing carbon dioxide from air.
That diary is here: Direct Capture of Carbon Dioxide From the Air.
With a few exceptions, most of the nuclear reactors on earth do not use their waste heat; as stated previously they dump it. As our glaciers collapse, and fresh water resources collapse from this and other climate related factors, this waste heat is an environmental problem. It follows that it would be wise to utilize this heat.
Happily, with the use of some very modern absorbents, it would be very possible to consider the use of this current waste heat to do things like remove carbon dioxide from dangerous fossil fuel waste dumping waste pipes, also called "smokestacks." Typically dangerous fossil fuel waste dumping waste pipes have carbon dioxide concentrations on the order of 4 or 5%, compared with 0.04% (and climbing) in air.
However the overwhelming majority of nuclear reactors that now exist on earth are not designed to do this. This sort of thing would involve very high temperature reactors. Many designs for these were explored in different ways in the early part of the second half of the last century, but stupidity pushed them all to the wayside.
So much the worse for us.
As it turns out, the laws of thermodynamics require that any increase in the efficiency of a system - an efficient system being one that is able to obtain maximal amounts of exergy or useful energy - is one (even if this seems paradoxical) that operates at very high temperatures.
It is pretty clear to me that modern materials science, which has developed things that people in the 1950's and 1960's could only have dreamed about, broadens the understanding of technologies that might have achieved these things, had humanity turned out to be somewhat less stupid than it is. These days, you hear many people wax nostalgic on the internet for the LFTR - the liquid fluoride thorium reactor - and it's all kind of cute - and maybe such a reactor could be jury rigged to do these sorts of things, but that would involve more or less a kind of conservatism, i.e. a lack of imagination. And although the LFTR - like the PWR and the BWR and the HWR were all great ideas, with a little imagination we could have gone much farther.
Anyway. About Fischer Tropsch gasoline:
Note that I do not favor the continued production of gasoline, except for very esoteric purposes. It is true of course, that one cannot burn gasoline without killing people, so it seems a terrible waste to convert clean nuclear energy into something that is generally associated with filthy fossil fuels. While it is true that FT gasoline and FT diesel tend to burn somewhat more cleanly than their fossil based analogs, much better, and much cleaner, and a much more economically available fuel - which could also be used to displace all natural gas and all LPG applications is dimethyl ether, DME. That's just a disclaimer though. It doesn't matter what I think.
Mostly I wrote this diary off the top of my head, but in the old days - at least later in my tenure here - I wrote diaries based on my readings in the primary scientific literature. This made writing diaries a sort of exercise for me in which I learned things that I didn't know. Since the mere writing of this diary is for "old time's sake," I couldn't help referring, at the end of the writing, to the scientific literature on this topic.
There are oodles of publications on this topic, many of which I encountered before in other reading for other projects. However a more recent one that struck me was that which was published in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, if only because of the title of the journal. The article is here: Sustainable hydrocarbon fuels by recycling CO2 and H2O with renewable or nuclear energy. Interestingly some of the authors apparently work in that offshore oil and gas drilling hellhole, Denmark. Denmark is most famous in my mind for working to shut a Swedish nuclear power plant that produces more energy than all of the infamous wind turbines in that red herring (or red lutefisk) country.
That's right, folks. One could build just one nuclear power plant and produce as much energy - with far less carbon dioxide generating internet based advertising - as all the wind turbines in Denmark. In the year 2009, Denmark's 5052 wind turbines produced just 6721 GWh of electricity. The average continuous power output represented by 6721 GWh of electricity is the equivalent of a 766 MWe powerplant operating at 100% of capacity utilization, a figure that the vast majority of the more than 400 operating nuclear powerplants produce in one small building.
Whether wind turbines really are a path to phasing out dangerous fossil fuels is highly debatable if not in closed anti-intellectual enclaves like Greenpeace or even "Nuclear Free DKos," then certainly in the scientific literature. Wind turbines depend on access to dangerous natural gas, and thus entrench the gas industry, it's fracking, it's immense climate change potential - because of the very high climate forcing potential of methane. But destroying effective climate change infrastructure for dubious infrastructure is absurd. The wind industry, even with the benefit of decades of mindless cheering has never, not once, produced 10% of the energy associated with nuclear industry, which is often maligned by people who, in my opinion, simply can't think, never mind add, subtract, multiply and divide.
None of the above commentary about the Danish origins of the above referenced paper's authors is designed, of course, to cast any aspersions on the authors of this paper nor the editors of the journal. They obviously get it even if the vastly overpaid employees of the professional anti-nuke industry don't. (Someone should ask Ed Lyman if Fukushima produced 50,000 short term deaths, but why bother? He is paid to make stupid claims, and isn't going to change his mind now. He'd lose is job at the Union of Concerned "Scientists," where the word "Scientists" is either an affectation or oxymoron when referring to much of the membership.)
This stuff about nuclear or renewable gasoline (or related fuel) from recycled CO2 is all very cute, almost to the point of absurdity, because none of this will or can (under the circumstances of having quibbled insipidly until it is clearly too late) happen.
I should have in my life played with being L. Ron Hubbard or Amory Lovins or some other kind of science fiction writer playing my fantasies out as though they were somehow connected with reality, but, um, that wasn't me.
All that whining aside, I kind of miss my old self, the 2007 self, who thought - no matter how naively - that such things might have been possible.
Anyway. Heckuva job humanity. While you were all waiting for the solar and wind nirvana, the planet fell apart, and it's a shame I guess, because it seems to have been such a rare and interesting - such a beautiful - planet.
Have a wonderful weekend.
For old time's sake, it's been a pleasure to chat.