Monday, May 9, 2005

Examining nukes to replace oil

I haven't caught up with President Bush's proposals last week in energy policy. I was traveling and didn't have time to read it as it happened.

When It Comes to Replacing Oil Imports, Nuclear Is No Easy Option, Experts Say (By MATTHEW L. WALD, Published: May 9, 2005 NYTIMES.COM)

Apparently one proposal was to promote the building of more nuclear power plants, as a way to balance energy needs.

Hmmm... The article above says this is using peculiar reasoning:

There is a problem, though: reactors make electricity, not oil. And oil does not make much electricity.

The problem facing us is oil. In the NOW, there is a high price for oil (in the $50-60 range, up from the $25-30 prevalent since 2000, and up from the $10-15 range it had been through most of the 90's). And we see in the near-term future an impact from the "Oil Peak" effect where it will become impossible to increase production of oil products, even in the face of rising demand.

Oil is used largely for fuel for vehicles (cars, trucks, airplanes, etc), which are largely not electrically driven.

Which just means that by proposing nuclear power to balance a problem with oil supplies is a ruse. Another lie from the Bush administration, this time intended to get more nuke plants out there for some reason.

The article does go into some useful figures:

According to the Energy Department, last year the electric utilities used about 207 million barrels of oil, or less than 600,000 barrels a day. (Total American consumption of oil is about 20.5 million barrels a day.)

This says that a mere 2% of the oil used in this country goes to electricity production. Hmmm, not much.

The article goes on to describe a sideways process that could improve the existing oil supply to be more suitable for vehicle use. It's a little complex, so let's take this one step at a time:

Gasoline is made of molecules with a certain ratio of carbon to hydrogen. Part of each barrel of oil consists of molecules with too much carbon to be useful in gasoline; instead, those molecules are used only in low-value products like asphalt and tar.

The technology exists for refineries to break up those molecules and add hydrogen, until the hydrogen-carbon ratio is suitable for making gasoline or diesel.

They go on to explain that heavy oil has a higher ratio of carbon, while light oil has a higher ratio of hydrogen. It is the light oil that we put into vehicles.

Hence, the idea is to convert heavy oil into light oil by adding hydrogen.

For example:

Canada has vast reserves of shale oil, now being converted to ingredients of motor fuel by using natural gas. The gas is used to heat the shale to make its oil flow more easily, and hydrogen, also obtained from the natural gas, is incorporated into the oil to make it suitable for use in gasoline. But a nuclear reactor could do those jobs, delivering both hydrogen and steam for cooking the oil out of the rock, Mr. Herring said.

Another strategy, he said, would be to break down coal, shale oil or other hydrogen fuels into a gas comprising hydrogen and carbon monoxide. At high pressure, these materials could form molecules suitable for making gasoline or diesel. A reactor could provide the energy required.

The "reactor" in question is not the current design of nuclear reactor, but is in the process of being designed and will take another 20+ years to get ready.

The Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, which is owned by the Department of Energy, is working on ways to take very hot steam from a nuclear reactor, then run a small electric current through it to separate the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. If that can be done more cheaply than the current method of producing hydrogen, which uses natural gas, the hydrogen could be used at refineries to make components of gasoline.

Yup, use a nuclear reactor to make heat and with that heat optimize the electrolysis process used to split water into Hydrogen and Oxygen. That gives you some hydrogen you can then use to improve the heavy oil to create light oil.

This sounds like a lot of work, and a very circuitous process, all just to preserve the hold the oil industry has over the U.S.A. It will take a lot of R&D dollars to go this route, and I wonder "why".

Why not use those dollars to improve funding for alternatives like wind, solar, etc..?