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Switching Out of Fossil Fuel Feedstocks

Industrial chemistry time! Let’s stipulate that the world’s chemical feedstock industries, on the whole, are not what you would describe as environmentally friendly. There are a lot of moving parts, and some of them are definitely better than others (in their use of energy, carbon emissions, and use of renewable resources as starting materials), but everything is short of the ideal. What’s the ideal? Well, how about not using natural gas or petroleum as carbon starting materials at all, but rather stripping the carbon dioxide back out of the current waste streams and using that as the feedstock?

Electrochemical activation and conversion of CO2 and water into hydrocarbons and oxygenates could potentially offer a sustainable route to produce many of the world’s most needed commodity chemicals (Fig. 1A). Coupling renewable sources of energy (solar, wind, hydroelectric) with electrochemical reduction of CO2 to chemicals, if done efficiently, could address the nondispatchable nature of renewables by providing storage in chemical bonds. Electrocatalysis also provides a route to transforming carbon resources into chemicals without the need to burn carbon fuels, assuming the CO2 is taken from air.

This article runs the numbers on how close we are to that, what it’ll take to get there, and what the strategies might be. The authors note that as things stand, the more easily realized goals (as is often the case) will make very little impact. For example, producing formic acid electrochemically from carbon dioxide is pretty efficient, but wouldn’t do much because overall formic acid production doesn’t amount to much, either. That could change if someone revs up an efficient fuel-cell system that uses it (for example), but that’s asking for several big developments at once.

At right is a diagram of how the industrial chemicals world might look if carbon dioxide capture and its electrochemical reduction continue to advance. Here are the terms you’re seeing: “HER” is electrolysis, and “CO2R” and “COR” are reduction of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Syngas (synthesis gas), as most chemists will know, is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, and it’s used in a variety of chemical processes – one of those being, as shown, the various types of Fischer-Tropsch reactors to make synthetic fuels. As it stands, syngas is generally produced by steam reforming of natural-gas methane. Hydrogen production via electrolysis, though, is already an industrial route that’s been gaining some share, although the great bulk of the world’s hydrogen still comes from that steam reforming, and recall that one use of it is to go into the Haber-Bosch process that came up here the other week.

The rest of it’s not too trivial, either. You’ll note ethylene (C2H4) in the middle, which gets turned into a lot of the world’s plastics and much else besides. Right now, most of that is produced by steam cracking of natural hydrocarbons (either petroleum naphtha or ethane), so making it from carbon dioxide and/or carbon monoxide would be quite a shift. The Sabatier process shown at the bottom would be used to make renewable natural gas (RNG) – that’s a method to reduce CO2 (or CO) directly down to methane. It’s been around for over a century, with many improvements along the way, but rises and falls in most parts of the world with the price and availability of natural methane (which currently is cheap, as shale gas). To the best of my knowledge, the only place to see it in operation in the US is up around Beulah, North Dakota. In the first half of the 20th century (before the development of the natural gas industry per se), gas was generally produced rather brutally from coal, and the only place in the US to see one of those plants (as a nonworking historic site) is in Seattle.

So the general idea (the whole upper-left portion of that graphic) is farewell to natural gas and to petroleum as chemical feedstocks. It’s a tall order, because those two tend to be cheaper – usually a lot cheaper – than the alternatives. The Fischer-Tropsch process for liquid fuels, for example, was famously used in Germany during World War II, since the country was well-stocked with coal but had basically zero petroleum. Later on, it was developed further in South Africa, for the same reasons, but you can see that it has a certain backs-to-the-wall aspect to it. Other gas-to-liquids processes are in the same category. Overall, whenever natural gas is easily available, no one runs the Sabatier process, and whenever petroleum is easily available, no one runs gas-to-liquids.

On the positive side, the products of carbon dioxide reduction would feed right into existing chemical infrastructure, so it’s basically the front end of the business that’s getting reworked, not the whole thing. There’s also (separately) a lot of work going into CO2 capture, raising the question in every case of what to do with it once you’ve captured it, and turning it back into something useful (and solid!) is an appealing idea.

There are government levers (subsidies, tax breaks, carbon use taxes and so on) that can change the economic landscape, but the paper estimates that you’d need electrochemical efficiencies of at least 60% and electricity available at 4 cents/kilowatt-hr or better to make these ideas profitable (with the usual 30-year-amortization assumption about the plants themselves). How close are we? Many of the processes are currently in the 40-50% efficiency range, and need further scale-up work: within sight, but not there yet. And renewable electricity costs vary a great deal by region. The best cases are getting down around that figure, though, and continuing to improve. One feature of electrochemical synthesis is that it would (as mentioned in the excerpt above) provide a use for the mismatched local excess electrical production that can happen with renewables – it’s storage of energy in chemical bonds as opposed to batteries, flywheels, or what have you. But on the other hand, running a chemical plant 24/7 is by far the most economical way to set things up, so the best solution would be coupling with some steadier source of electricity as well.

The paper goes on to look at the various route in the graphic above and evaluates them according to how feasible they look. Methanol and ethanol are available pretty cheaply now, and those could be tough markets to enter. But ethylene looks like a better bet, not least because it has to be separated from ethane at considerable expense under the current methods, and the electrochemical routes don’t produce ethane at all. There are also some hybrid approaches, like electrochemistry to make syngas followed by biological conversion to other products, that are being tried out right now.

All of this is going to depend on location (ideally next to big emitters of carbon dioxide, and within sight of large users of the products, although that’s not always going to work out), commodity prices, and regulation (taxation, penalties, incentives, etc). It’ll also depend on advances in catalysis and electrochemical engineering, cost of electricity generation, and if someone makes a breakthrough or two in carbon dioxide capture techniques that’ll be just fine, too. All of these are active fields, though, and well worth keeping an eye on. The good news is that it’s not a crazy idea.

64 comments on “Switching Out of Fossil Fuel Feedstocks”

  1. JS says:

    I suggest a grammatical correction here:
    “It’s a tall order, because those tend to be cheaper – usually a lot cheaper – than the alternatives.”
    It’s not clear to me what “those” are. One can infer from reading, but it is better to state the object in the sentence.

    1. anon says:

      Nonsense. It’s perfectly clear as it is.

  2. lbf says:

    An issue is “sunk costs”, that is, the capital already invested in petrochemical plants that needs to be recovered. It’ll be hard to compete with these giant facilities running 24/7, especially if one needs to build a grounds up facility at any scale. Maybe some can be converted?

    1. loupgarous says:

      The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, or “LOOP” already handles about 13% of the US’s current crude oil imports from overseas, and is located 29 km/18 nautical miles offshore from Fourchon, Louisiana.

      LOOP already has ready access to the seawater which the US Naval Research Laboratory’s process for making jet fuel from CO2 (for US$3-6/gallon) requires, and all the needed tankage and pipeline access to plug clean hydrocarbons into the economy of the US. The one question mark there is whether renewable energy sources at LOOP’s Marine Terminal could power CO2-to-hydrocarbon synthesis, or whether compact new-generation nuclear reactors or other “dense” energy would be needed to power the synthesis.

      Many seaports throughout the world have access to abundant seawater, existing refinery and tankage facilities, and pipeline networks. Integrating them with the USNRL’s CO2-to-hydrocarbon process isn’t conceptually difficult. It’s more a matter of deciding when and where to do it.

      1. eub says:

        That’s fascinating, thanks for the pointer. The salt dome storage for a geo geek and the offshore jurisdictional issues for a law geek.

        1. loupgarous says:

          You’re welcome.

          Jurisdictional issues for offshore hydrocarbon production and transshipment have been sorted, largely. LOOP, if I remember right, has its users accept US jurisdiction before they tie up and start offloading, it’s consensual all around.

          The same holds with salt domes, they’ve been used as bulk tankage a long, long time. The US Strategic Petroleum Reserve keeps its emergency stockpile of crude in salt domes and has done since the 1970s.

  3. Red Agent says:

    My thinking on this has long been 180 degrees from this position. Petroleum and natural gas, and coal for that matter, are too important as long term chemical feedstocks to burn just for energy production. We should be using renewables as our energy sources and fossil fuels for chemistry. Synthesizing organic compounds from carbon dioxide and water, while simultaneously burning fossil fuels to carbon dioxide and water for our energy, is a thermodynamic (and environmental / ecological) travesty.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      That’s why the article specifically targets renewable electricity generation costs.

    2. loupgarous says:

      I agree. But even in the worst-case scenario for the NRL process, external energy is used to convert CO2 in seawater to “clean hydrocarbons”.

      Any methane made during the conversion once the plant is producing comes from the conversion process, and so is also not a fossil fuel. It can be burned very cleanly on-site to power the conversion plant.

      The NRL process ought be made carbon-neutral from beginning to end, as its feedstock is dissolved CO2 in seawater. It can replace the fossil fuel currently most in demand for power generation, “natural gas” and eliminate natural gas’ contribution to the increase in global CO2 levels.

    3. JavelinaTex says:

      See my post at the end for fuller thoughts.

      Oil is the overwhelming source of feedstocks for chemicals and most of the feedstocks are near transport fuels in composition. Outside of North America, natural gas is price much closer to oil; hence it is only a slightly lower savings vs oil.

      The value of transportation is a far higher valued use (and much larger scale) than chemicals. So as a consequence, chemicals have to be priced higher, otherwise it would not make sense to make chemicals out of transportation fuel.

  4. Nameless says:

    Is the main application of this “just” as energy storage, so we don’t have to use more coal/oil/gas to heat our homes and light our living rooms (and industry of course…)? In the global perspective most of the carbon is used as energy source and very little is required to make various plastics, pharmaceuticals or other solid matter.

    1. loupgarous says:

      Well, the article targets going from petroleum and natural gas as chemical fred stocks to alkanes made from CO2 by any of a number of synthetic routes.

      But the attention of many of us is diverted to how useful it’d be if we can sequester CO2 in meaningful levels to be converted into hydrocarbons.

      I’ve concentrated on the process I’ve seen more information about, the Naval Research Laboratory’s process for making jet fuel that way, but notice also that this process has a “problem” if making methane at the same time. That “orphan” methane might be useful to supply energy for the NRL process or other necessary activities.

      But would it be possible to “tweak” the NRL process to make just methane? If so, we’d have an alternate, carbon-neutral power source for much of the US’s power grid (which is converting to natural gas as its fuel). It’d be a relatively painless step away from our society’s dependence on fossil fuels. Existing pipelines and other distribution networks could adapt to the new fuel.

      It’s an incremental step away from dependence from fossil fuel that deserves study.

  5. Glassveins says:

    Hey Derek, have you ever heard of Plasma Arc Gasification? Apparently it can produce Syngas from trash without too much trouble. (I also heard it generates enough energy from the breakdown to be self-sustaining)

  6. Barry says:

    for storing surplus generation capacity at e.g. photovoltaic and wind generation sites, it would have to compete with pumped water storage (claims vary from 70% to 87% efficiency) and electrolysis of water to Hydrogen (70-80% efficiency) or batteries (99% efficiency claimed)

    1. Andrew J Dodds says:

      If your target is a practical liquid fuel – Methanol, DME, even Ammonia – then that’s a more valuable product than hydrogen or electricity. You can put Methanol in a standard engine with few changes, and use it as jet fuel.

  7. I had a couple of acquaintances years back that were working the problem of using solar energy more or less directly (by heating a catalyst to very high temperature) to generate CO from CO2. It looks like this is a pretty fundamental feedstock, and I wish they’d made more progress with it.

  8. Algorizmi says:

    No mention of aromatics in the linked paper.

    Benzene from acetylene and phenol from lignin are both interesting routes. I’d like to see what folks here come up with.

  9. AlloG says:

    I came up with an invention that will revolutionize da planet! You place a large stopper/valve with a large weather balloon into a cow’s behind. Ten the balloon fills with methane you float da cow to the slaughter house, and use the methane to power the mechanical de-boning knives.

    No power to move the cows and we save electricity and the planet!

    Its a Win-Win-Win! Except for the cows-

    1. WH says:

      Minor flaw: methane comes out front. You’d have to cannulate the cow and connect the balloon right to the rumen…
      OR you’d just stop de-boning those poor buggers, a Win-Win-Win-Win – except for the milk bag versions

      1. AlloG says:

        How you know such things? Nevermind…..

    2. eub says:

      You might be a type to appreciate robots that digest slugs into methane to power themselves.

  10. exGlaxoid says:

    Sadly, the current use of energy in the US is only about 20% nuclear, and about 10% renewable (mostly old hydroelectric plants, but a growing solar and wind piece.) So the energy it would take to reduce CO2 back to methane or other useful feedstocks would consume about twice of the energy contained in the methane, so again, why not just save the feedstock for chemicals and just burn less fossil fuels? That is way more productive.

    Unless we move much more to nuclear, there is no real way to create the energy needed to reduce CO2 to feedstocks. I am all for solar, wind, etc, but it will take years to replace even 20% of the energy use in the US, and even longer over the world if the population keeps expanding. And the variability of solar make it tough to keep the grid stable if more than 10-20% is solar. People just don’t realize the scale of the modern grid, even huge batteries could only provide 0.01% of the power used in the US.

    We would be much better served to just keep reducing the demand with better building codes, more efficieny, and wiser use of power (maybe cut back in Las Vegas lights?) than to build Rube Goldburg type CO2 recycling systems. (Note, my work even does this type of work, and most people here think it is a poor idea.)

    1. JK says:

      Stephen Pinker talked a bit about this topic in his latest. Nuclear is presently very safe and efficient. Complicating matters, bias against nuclear is pervasive on the left, NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) is bipartisan, and protection of fossil fuels as energy is a cornerstone of the political right. It’s good to read Derek’s post. If only the people in this field could work faster.

      1. Hap says:

        It’s partly a product of fear, but we don’t have any place to put the wastes. Plants that stop working (after about 50 years) are basically dead – the waste has to be left on site until either another place is found or the wastes decay enough to move. Toxic stuff is hard to clean up (and it won’t ever go away unless you can reuse it or burn it), but nuclear seems worse in some ways (you can’t react it or burn it to make it go away – you can only wait until it decays, so if you make a mistake, you can’t even try to clean it up – the land is unusable until the major problems have decayed – and lots of the nuclear products are also toxic). There have already been enough big mistakes to make people question how safe nuclear is, particularly since people have been told lots of times (often by the same people that made the whoopsies) how safe it is. Some of this is also the ability to accurately perceive overall risks in widespread low- to moderate-frequency harms versus low-frequency larger-scale harms.

        I don’t think there is a current energy source that does what nuclear can do, but (like chemistry to some degree) the people running the nuclear industry made a culture of distrust, and now we get to reap the whirlwind.

        1. Pyro says:

          “You can’t react it… to make it go away”

          Yes. Yes you can. It might require specialized reactors (fast neutron reactors, specifically), but considering the actual amount of waste that needs to be disposed of after reprocessing to separate it from the bulk of the material that is still perfectly useful (I believe the figure is around 96-98% of the mass of “waste” is not really waste material at all. Mostly, it’s uranium-238, a little uranium-235, and some plutonium. There’s also some useful radionuclides in there) is so very small, not many fast neutron reactors would be needed to reduce the transuranics to much less long-lived fission products.

        2. loupgarous says:

          We had a place to put the wastes: Yucca Mountain. One man in the Senate obstructed the use of that facility to store long-lived radwaste. Money raised by a Federal fee levied on nuclear power reactors was spent by the Federal government to build and maintain the repository at Yucca Mountain, but after Harry Reid used his power as Senate Majority Leader to bottle up further funds to operate Yucca Mountain, all the Yucca Mountain fees had to be paid back to utilities and their customers.

          Let’s just make sure we’re clear about it – we HAD a long-lived radwaste depository. It died a political death.

    2. fajensen says:

      Nuclear Power, in the way that “we” currently know and use it, is simultaneously insane and extremely wasteful.


      The timescales needed to handle nuclear power lifecycles safely and economically are something we simply cannot manage with the kind of civilisation that we currently have.

      The timescales are is truly ridiculous: If the Roman Empire had managed to deploy only the number and the types of nuclear power plants we currently use, assuming our ancestors survived the immediate pollution released by the Fall of Rome and loss of maintenance, we people living 2000 years later would still be cleaning up some of their messes and having active exclusion zones in Europe. Probably there would be an entire religion or at least a branch of the Catholic Church established around this work. Religion is so far the only human system we know that can run for centuries.

      So, when our industrial civilisation fails or even if it degrades temporarily, lets say some fuck-wit retard draft-dodger advisor to the president, finally gets his war with Iran and it all goes a bit overboard. Maybe someone next on the regime-change list pops an EMP-weapon off on the instigators, then all those actively cooled waste pools and nuclear plants *we already have in place* will lose power, go under-maintained and *they will eventually fail*, releasing some of their content.

      If massive amounts of nuclear power is in use at such a time, then possibly enough material is released to put a certain stop to the next human attempt at an industrial civilisation and clear the runway for the rats!


      In order to load up a nuclear reactor, someone has to literally dynamite, transport and then crush a mountains worth of Uranium ore (or leach the uranium using oxygen enriched water, lots and lots of water). The raw ore must then be refined and enriched to 3-5% U235, using processes plenty nasty involving Uranium Hexafluoride.

      A 1 GW reactor will “consume” about 30 tonnes of fuel, per year, probably equivalent of 300 tonnes of ore. Except it doesn’t really consume the fuel. The fission process will only consume a few % of the Uranium before the fuel is “poisoned” and must be replaced with fresh fuel. One can then clean the fuel, which is basically running the nasty refinement process again, now with stuff radioactive enough to glow in the dark and the tailings “hot” enough too and remote handling of all the plant parts, because going in to fix a leaking valve literally means Death. Nevertheless, this has been tried around the world and abandoned because of the ludicrous expenses. Fast Breeder Reactors can, being more tolerant of impurities, in theory burn more of the fuel and the isotopes. In Practice, they have all been very expensive white elephants, using exotic coolants like liquid metals or molten salts that turned out to be reactive and do real number on dissolving all known construction materials.

      Did I mention that all the mining, transporting and refining of nuclear fuel is done using fossil fuels and fossil chemistry!?

      There are, theoretically better, designs such as “Thorium” and Accelerator/Spallation Driven Fission. Theoretically means that someone first has to build a couple of those and learn whether they are actually any good or just more trouble (the few Thorium projects have all been closed). Belgium is having a trial with “Accelerator Driven Systems” in “MYRRHA”, but, this is research and could take 20 year or so before anyone knows the details.


      The only advantages I see with nuclear power, as currently implemented, is that it will save some nature based on the observation that on average one conventional nuclear plant will cook off every 40 years, thus creating abandoned areas where nature will be able to thrive. But, we could also do that in a friendlier way!


      I think that Nuclear Power is a bad idea, poorly executed by people seemingly wilfully ignorant of all knowledge of common human behaviours and societal dysfunctions (engineers, basically).

      A technology possessed by all manner of grim externalities that can only be hand-waved away, because dealing with them will be ruinously expensive (the hand-waving being the contribution of the money people).

      1. loupgarous says:

        A point… unless you can make large electric motors and alternators for wind powerplants and for electrical motors to replace fossil-fueled cars, trains, buses, and stationary power applications, you’ll be mining thorium whether you wish to or not – thorium’s a co-mineral of lanthanum and other rare earths used in high-efficiency magnets for high-wattage electric motors and wind-powered alternators.

        Presently, the thorium in mine tailings from lanthanum mining operations must be trucked out to storage areas out West (Nuke-vada, I think) because every gram of thorium mined here is a fertile reactor fuel (like U-238, comprising ~99.28%% of natural uranium, unlike that ~0.07% that is fissile U-235).

        The same intelliectual energy now expended effectively outlawing nuclear power would be better spent on insisting that any new nuclear plants (a) run on thorium and (b) incorporate fast-neutron technology to “burn” high-level transuranic waste from within the reactor (U-233, Pa-233, etc) and such waste presently in on-site storage in the power and weapons industry.

        We can’t uninvent nuclear fission, but we can reduce its environmental impact considerably.

        1. loupgarous says:

          First sentence should read

          “A point… when you make large electric motors and alternators for wind powerplants and for electrical motors to replace fossil-fueled cars, trains, buses, and stationary power applications, you’ll be mining thorium whether you wish to or not – thorium’s a co-mineral of lanthanum and other rare earths used in high-efficiency magnets for high-wattage electric motors and wind-powered alternators.”

          Sorry about that.

  11. Marcus Theory says:

    “it has a certain backs-to-the-wall aspect to it” — a professor I knew in grad school always joked that if a nation was using the Fischer-Tropsch reaction, they were a) doing something morally wrong and b) about to be … reconfigured.

  12. Anon says:

    One problem: wouldn’t “unburning” CO2 back into petrochemicals require more energy than we get from burning petrochemicals into CO2 in the first place? Either way, the first and second laws of thermodynamics mean that we’d need even more energy than we’d save. There is no free lunch here.

    1. Hap says:

      You can’t get something for nothing, but I think the point of these methods is to reduce CO2 emissions. Liquid fuels are pretty dense energy sources, and portable, but they generate lots of CO2 which we probably don’t want; if you can take electricity from sources that don’t generate CO2 (nuclear, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, tidal, others if we find them) then you can get the benefits of liquid fuels without global warming. You pay a tax in energy (and money, eventually) in return for reducing the climate effect of liquid fuel use. I wished that non-food crops could be used to make fuels, but they seem to require too much processing and transport costs to break even in CO2. Batteries would negate the need for liquid fuels in lots of applications, and you could just use the electricity directly without the energy waste of another step.

      1. exGlaxoid says:

        “Batteries would negate the need for liquid fuels in lots of applications, and you could just use the electricity directly without the energy waste of another step.”

        Isee this “logic” quite often, but batteries only store power, they don’t create it. So where is the electricity coming from that you are using directly? People just don’t get that fossil fuels represent millions of years of stored solar energy, thus they are a source of stored power. Things like power stroage, batteries, fuel cells, hydrogen, smart grids, CO2 reduction to fuel are all ways to convert energy, NOT create it, and most of them suffer terrible loses during transfers.

        If we want to make this work, we can conserve energy so we don’t burn as much fossil fuels, use more nuclear (we have a fine place to store the waste in NV already built, politics is the only reason it is not is use.), and keep working on solar and wind systems. Tidal is limited greatly, as it would only work in a few places, most of which are already national parks or highly developed coastal areas. Might be hard to get people to let you build power plants at their vacation beach house, just like people in New England don’t want wind turbines there.

        I hope we can find a way to do a better job that we are doing now, but we are not going to build a machine that creates free energy anytime soon. (See laws of thermo for details).

    2. The Lunatic says:

      Yes, which is why the proposed source of power in the article is renewables. Of course, that requires a massive expansion in usable renewable power with all its own massive engineering issues.

  13. Romulus says:

    Chemical products just don’t use up a lot of fossil fuels compared to energy generation. We could safely continue current methods without endangering the climate if we just stop burning fossil fuels. And carbon stored in plastic doesn’t even end up in the atmosphere.

    1. fajensen says:

      And carbon stored in plastic doesn’t even end up in the atmosphere.

      Sure, Instead It ends up in marine lifeforms which then choke on the plastic. :p

  14. Paul says:

    I’ve been thinking about this for a while, ever since in the mid 90’s I saw a diagram that had syngas at the centre and various catalysis routes to different organic chemistry industries around the edges (and of course, now I can’t find said image…)

    To my mind, the hard bit is getting CO2 out of the air – especially with all that water vapour with it’s ridiculous heat of condensation and heat capacity in the air…

    Much of the rest of it looks solved, technically if not economically…

    I’m also of the opinion that we will be looking for a method of timeshifting electricity production on timeframes that batteries just aren’t adequate for…. As renewable energy plant prices fall and more, larger plants get stood up a new low floor for electricity prices will be achieved – any new plants will push that price down. The tipping point will be when we significantly exceed our summertime generation capacity – when we have so much solar power available it’s essentially free power. I’m hoping there will be a lot of effort at that point to make storable fuel for winter use – probably hydrogen, but also liquid (transportable) fuels. Once that happens, the petrochemical industry could indeed be in for a shake up.

    on the plus side, the quality of the feedstock could be a dramatic step up…

    as usual, I’m open to the idea that I’m wrong… tell me what I’m missing…

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      As it stands, carbon dioxide capture from ambient air isn’t really ready for prime time, although there’s a lot of work going into it. The authors of this article are thinking (at least for now) of capturing it from high-concentration waste streams at existing industrial sites (same as many other CO2 sequestration proposals).

      1. Eric Nuxoll says:

        That’s what has me confused about this proposal. If you have to be next to a big CO2 production stream, then wouldn’t it be easier and more efficient to simply displace the production? If it’s a power plant, the electricity used to convert the CO2 would be larger than the plant’s electricity production. If it’s capturing CO2 from mobile sources like a car, how are you going to power the process? If you can carry that much electricity on board then use it to run the car instead. If the CO2 is from a chemical synthesis, there is probably already a route that would reach the same end result without using CO2 as an intermediate step. This only seems useful if you’re trying to pull CO2 out of the air, but our ability to work at those concentrations is still pretty sci-fi, isn’t it?

        1. Hap says:

          Cars mostly don’t use electricity, though – you’d need to replace the cars, and most of the electrics are either limited or expensive. The prices might come down, but that would take time. You’d also have to fix the electrical grid (you might have to do that anyway). Chemical fuels are batteries that exist now and work (big if) – if you can get their CO2 emissions cleared.

          It’d be more efficient not to go through an extra step, but in this case, you can’t do it directly, yet, and the direct way has lots of fixed costs.

      2. loupgarous says:

        CO2’s 140 times as abundant in seawater as it is in the air. You’d need to go through nine million cubic meters of water to make 100,000 gallons of fuel, but a stationary platform located on or in the US’s existing hydrocarbon distribution network wouldn’t be affected as this as badly as, say, an aircraft carrier. Even the side-production of methane in the NRL process could serve as a carbon-neutral energy source for the synthesis.

        Not sure why we’re not hearing much about this lately (the links I shared are from 2012-2014). Did NRL run into a hard stumbling block?

    2. solar says:

      You would only need ~5 billion m2 of high quality solar panels to meet the US energy demand, based on some rough stats that I googled. I was thinking that the estimate that I had previously seen was higher than that.

      1. Nick K says:

        Square root of 5 billion is about 70 000m, or a square 70Km on side of solar panels. That’s huge. What would happen at night? How would you clear snow from an array that big?

        Solar power is completely impractical except for small-scale applications.

        1. Hap says:

          You generally don’t use solar as much in places where there’s lots of snow. The US, China, and Russia have lots of open space that they aren’t using for anything (although Russia’s isn’t snow-free), and for the US and China, it’s also in places that get enough sun (year-round, and intense) to make it worthwhile. You can also use smaller-scale installations (on houses, buildings), and they would help – for the most part, no one’s using their roofs for anything other than keeping water out of their houses.

          Batteries (for large-scale installations – there are chemical batteries for large-scale power storage, or at least medium scale) and other ways of storing power (water pumps, etc.) can smooth out power output (and most power is used during the day, anyway, so when the sun is out is generally the time of peak usage, anyway).

          Solar can’t replace everything (you want a mix of power sources anyway, because stuff happens, and every power source has weaknesses) but I don’t think it’s as impractical as you’re assuming.

          1. Nick K says:

            I think my assertion that solar only works decently for small-scale use off the grid still holds. Remember, too, that snow is not the only problem – PV panels also need to be cleaned. Fancy cleaning a 70×70 Km array?

            Can you name a successful grid-wide solar scheme? The one is South Australia isn’t looking too good.

          2. Hap says:

            I don’t know. My guess is maintain large installations and getting land for them isn’t good (let alone maintaining them). CA’s got solar heating, and there are lots of solar farms, but not full grid scale. Putting them all in one place means making lots of infrastructure, and even if you can do it, maybe it doesn’t make sense (and you’d have to fix your grid, which might have to happen anyway, and have more when power consumption goes up, which it does). Wind at the moment also has such farms, which has some of the same problems as solar (with the addition that you can’t generally put them on houses).

            If you have enough sources of solar (or combined renewable point sources), you can aggregate them, but that involves redoing the grid and avoids scale effects that would increase efficiency. I was thinking of replacing a significant amount of overall power with solar, but to run plants to reduce CO2 requires large point sources, which I don’t know if it can do. I don’t think a lot of people want nuclear, but that’s the major noncarbon source that can do it unless you live next to or on a volcano. If you could get enough from tidal, you could pull of Loupgarous’s idea without the nukes, but I don’t think you can get enough (Bay of Fundy is the only place I know for sure that you can use tidal because of the big tides, and I don’t think the Gulf Coast has those regularly).

          3. eub says:

            Cleaning a 70×70 km array with the resources of the entire United States? I do suspect we can build that many windshield wipers or whatever the hell. As existential problems to solve I’m pretty happy with that one actually.

          4. loupgarous says:

            @Hap, I neglected a well-known source of non-carbon power that is distributed throughout the northern Gulf of Mexico area (where LOOP is): geothermal energy. It’s been studied extensively.
            BLM OPEN FILE REPORT 81-01
            , Jesse L. Hunt, Jr., New Orleans OCS Office, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Department of the Interior,September, 1981
            . Pages 18-22 are where geothermal energy use for industrial processes is explored extensively. The energy is there, and the technology for recovering it is used extensively in that area as you read this.

        2. fajensen says:

          Solar power is completely impractical except for small-scale applications.

          Tell that to “The Markets”. Renewables are crushing everything else on price per kW/h and more money is piling in, kicking off the “Swansons Law”: Every time production of something doubles, the cost of it goes down by 20%.

          Sure, we need people to clean the panels. However, the kind of people we need to do this are not very far from the people collecting shopping trolleys in the supermarket: People who can handle a broom, a bucket and a Golf-cart they can probably clean solar panels. They could even be pot-heads because it won’t matter to a simple task like this. We are *never* going to run out of talent to clean solar panels!

          This compared with a modern 1 GW (thermal) fossil power plant, where one needs operators, on-site automation technicians, skilled engineers of many specialties, probably 30 people and a couple of workshops. Supported by an industrial supply chain that can deliver components, made with special high-temperature allows and such, and all on a JIT-schedule!?

          Solar “flatten” all of that complexity and brittleness into a much more passive system, one that does not depend highly on 1’st word skills, supply train and logistics to operate for extended periods.

          This is an increasingly important quality, with The Orange One sanctioning people left, right and centre, which is partly why even people sitting on oceans of fossils are going to solar, and of course costs again: The second stage of the ‘Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park’ in Dubai came in at 3 cent per kW/h for 20 years. Fossils are eating dust even in places where they are “free” for the taking.

          1. Nick K says:

            If that’s the case, there’s nothing stopping you betting your entire savings on Solar. We’ll see how things stand in ten years.

  15. Red Agent says:

    These pie in the sky schemes always suppose renewable sources for their energy wasting wheel spinning. It still makes more sense economically and thermodynamically to pipe that renewably sourced energy into the grid, and use fossil fuel sources for chemical feedstock. And if the logic is that unburning CO2 might make for a useful large scale battery / energy storage alternative, we’ve got to do better than that.

    1. Hap says:

      Except we already have a distribution system for chemical fuels, and they store lots of power. Batteries are neat, but they aren’t there yet, cost lots of money for the ones that are, and require a lot of rebuilding of electrical infrastructure to make work. If you can generate liquid fuels, you can use the infrastructure you already have to distribute them. If you can clear CO2, you can also potentially ameliorate the problems of CO2 emissions without throwing another wrench into climate.

      People (mostly) don’t like change, and using renewable or nuclear to clear CO2 would leave most things in place – cars, gas stations, and the electrical system.

      1. loupgarous says:

        Many oil refineries along the Gulf Coast (especially the ones on the Intracoastal Waterway, Houston Ship Channel, etc) are located near large bodies of seawater (or brackish water with similar dissolved CO2 levels) could be adapted to producing hydrocarbons from CO2 using the NRL process. It might even be less work to only make methane, the main ingredient in “natural gas”, that way.

        The best way of weaning civilization from carbon fuels is the intermediate step into “carbon neutrality” by making natural gas from CO2 exclusively. It would extend the useful life of the 99% of new electrical power plants in the US licensed to burn natural gas.

  16. Postdoc says:

    Professor Sargent is an author of this article. I have worked with the Sargent lab. Every few years, he puts out a review paper in a new area. He often does this with an external collaborator: in this case, the Jaramillo lab at Stanford. This overview is his preparation to enter a new area and get a publication as well. He did this for quantum dots, and for photovoltaics, for example. It looks like renewable fuel is a new area he is entering.

    I also know Shaffiq Jaffer, a VP at the super major oil company Total, responsible for external outreach and university sponsorships. He originally graduated near that university so he often visits Professor Sargent’s university. I am sure Total is and will be sponsoring more work from these two labs.

    Based on Sargent’s lab’s background and Total’s involvement, I will bet their future work will be in catalysis of one of the upstream steps. This paper is a justification of their intended work and will be referenced as such.

    I have to add that I am not a big fan of Sargent’s approach that emphasizes PR over deep science. We see the Science paper, but his local PR machine is in full force promoting his work among local newspapers and radio interviews, which helps to indirectly drum up funding from Canadian funding agencies. He markets good stories, and hypes his start-up chops, but the impact and success rate of commercial activity is a bit thin.

    1. JavelinaTex says:

      Pretty interesting and plausible, what I have to call, “hypothesis.”

      Queue up the “People will research what Funders will pay for” meme.

  17. zero says:

    This is pretty much exactly what will be necessary to bootstrap the chemical industry on Mars. Making every molecule ourselves with water, CO2 and huge amounts of electricity.
    There is some productive exchange between industry, academic and NASA efforts in the field.

    The thing I’ve always wondered is, how hard would it be to build up an industrial base from scratch with no fossil or animal sources (and very few plant or GM yeast sources), sufficient for med-chem research and production?

    1. Nameless says:

      If you believe management types there’s very little need for (working) animals in the med chem labs

      1. loupgarous says:

        @nameless That’s likely optimistic (from the vantage of telephone sanitizers in the front offices of Big Pharma), but even if they can make new drug molecules from hanging chads and excess hard copy documents, it just presents opportunities for the chemists who no longer work in Pharma to solve issues in other fields with their skills, as @zero mentioned.

        I was recently re-reading one of Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, “The Evitable Conflict”, in which just such GM yeasts and plants as zero mentioned provide the basis for the food industry in Asia. Soybeans are a staple crop throughout the world, their protein textured to make meat substitutes and coagulated (from soy milk) to make tofu, a staple of the Chinese diet and increasingly popular elsewhere on Earth.

        Is the chemistry of synthetic food so much different than med-chem that opportunities for former med-chemists there don’t exist? Serious question. It seems to me that “vatted meat” (a science fiction staple food) could be a lot closer to economically viable (and potentially much, much safer than ranching and the whole meat packing industry) if the biochemistry of how meat comes to exist were better understood.

  18. loupgarous says:

    The US Naval Research Laboratory has led the way in CO2 → hydrocarbon syntheses. As others in this thread have remarked, the available processes require dense energy sources, with nuclear leading the pack.

    The USN needs hydrocarbons to fuel jet and other aircraft which fly off of its nuclear-powered carriers, so NRL’s pushed this work hard. They recently announced ways to make jet fuel from CO2 in seawater at an estimated final cost of US$3-6 per gallon.

    The Navy would no longer have to bring fuel to carriers by oilers (either by replenishing tank farms at naval bases or during underway replenishment) , so this is even “greener” than eco-diesel. The nuclear power needed to power the synthesis and the seawater are already there, aren’t they? You might even be able to free up some tankage volume in the carrier to hold the physical plant needed to make the jet fuel.

    Of course, this is very interesting for seaports like Houston, San Diego, New Orleans and New York (to cite a few) which have either vast tank farms or refineries already, and which could go over to this process to take CO2 from the sea or brackish water in nearby ship channels as a feedstock to make carbon-neutral hydrocarbon fuels.

    Eventually, drawing CO2 out of seawater should either reverse one of the ecological harms of excess CO2 in the atmosphere – excess acidification of the oceans by dissolved CO2 – or have a net carbon “footprint” of zero after the fuel’s burned. You should be able to make hydrocarbon fuels to burn much more cleanly than petroleum-based fuels.

    1. loupgarous says:

      Instead of trying to sequester CO2 from the air, we ought to combine the NRL’s process for making hydrocarbons from dissolved CO2 in seawater with existing hydrocarbon and petroleum-handling infrastructure to make the transition from petroleum to synthetic hydrocarbon feedstocks as seamless as possible.

      The nation’s largest offshore oil terminal, the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port LOOP handles 13 percent of the crude oil the US imports from overseas, about 1.2 million barrels (190,000 m3) a day, and connects by pipeline to 50 percent of the nation’s refining capability. It’s got tankage to temporarily store oil prior to transport overseas, connections to hollow salt domes used to store oil.

      If you need really large-throughput of seawater as a source of dissolved CO2, a place to store the hydrocarbons you make with it, and pipeline capacity to distribute it throughout the US and overseas if needed, LOOP is already there. I’m not sure if wind power over LOOP’s Marine Terminal is enough to power conversion of dissolved CO2 in seawater to hydrocarbons, or another source of power would be needed. New-generation nuclear power reactors of the appropriate size have been designed and could be moored near the Marine Terminal on a barge or freighter to power the synthesis.

      Making new, clean hydrocarbon feedstocks from seawater is a soluble problem (pardon the pun).

    2. loupgarous says:

      It occurs to me the US Navy’s oiler fleet might actually be just as good a place for the NRL’s process of CO2 → hydrocarbon synthesis to occur as the nuclear-powered carriers.

      Those oilers and other support ships will still be doing underway replenishment for carriers and their battlegroup escorts for other expendables, anyway. Why not let them turn dissolved CO2 in seawater to useful alkanes, perhaps fuel for the destroyer escorts and other non-nuclear ships in carrier battle groups and lubricants made to order. It’ll help out until fusion power plants can be made to fit inside the Zumwalt-class destroyers.

  19. eub says:

    Gasworks Park in Seattle is an amazing site with great views from Kite Hill. I recommend it highly. Don’t disturb the lakeshore sediment or dig through the clean topsoil they laid on, though, it’s contaminated down there.

  20. Jeff Posakony says:

    These guys claim to have refined the method to get CO2-derived liquid transport fuels for ~$1/L. Seems to be along the lines of the Navy work.

  21. JavelinaTex says:

    All it will take is super, super, too cheap to meter energy (electricity) on such a vast scale that the best use and first priority will be to replace, coal (and oil derivatives) for power generation, and then natural gas.

    The cheapest ethylene derivative, poly-ethylene is about 40 cents per pound (and don’t trot out the spot price for US ethylene that is in no way an economically sustainable value). That is a value of about $110 per Barrel of oil (6 mil btu). And that is because the vast majority of ethylene is made from near transportation fuels (naphtha or gas oil). Gasoline, Jet & Diesel all sell for around $80/bbl before taxes and distribution.

    Then when you look at transport fuels (jet, diesel, gasoline & bunker) the implied work value ($/bbl divided by tank to shaft or jet) is about $200 to $400 per barrel; so why are we using fossil fuels so “inefficiently”? Because that is the most practical, economical and efficient way to obtain the work we desire. We pay $80/bbl to obtain work we value at $200 to $400 per barrel, and we actually value it even more highly than that (otherwise we would not make the economic exchange).

    Electricity at 4 cents per kw-hr (about the best industrial rate you can find anywhere – and equivalent to fracked natural gas in the most efficient power plant) is $70/bbl. The best home retail rates tend to be twice that, with most three times (CA & New England at four to five times). So $140 to $210/bbl. But you can see the arbitrage value of a battery electric vehicle. So we get batteries cheap enough, we wouldn’t burn refined oil to run them. A huge arbitrage gain!

    What is being proposed here is using electricity to reverse the oxidation that created products of combustion. Convert the water back to hydrogen (and oxygen) and CO2 back to maybe carbon monoxide and oxygen and then the compounds to ethylene or other types of chemicals. To get the CO2, you need to circulate massive amounts of air to remove the 0.04% CO2.

    So to make any of this make sense on the scales we are looking at you would probably have to have electricity available to a massive industrial process for 1 to 2 cents per kwhr and available 24/7/365 (industrial processes run at 85-95 % annual capacity factors). If you had this technology, we wouldn’t be burning fossil fuels at all. Everything humans did before we figured out how to use fossil fuels with our current technology is a MORE EXPENSIVE proposition.

    So this brings up the need for the battery vehicle (highest use of mobile storage; needs a reduction in cost by a factor of two to four). Grid storage of electricity or its ultimate products (will take an order of magnitude reduction of previous).

    So stop tilting at wind turbines and figure out the storage and cheaper nukes and solar panels. The rest will take care of itself

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