Better than Keystone XL: $3/gallon gasoline from seawater

Tar sands oil is the worst type of oil for the climate, producing three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventionally produced oil because of the energy required to extract and process tar sands oil (e.g., see What are the Tar Sands). Tar sands gook contains more than twice the carbon from all the oil burned in human history. The environmental consequences of tar sands development hardly stop with climate change. Nowhere in the world is there a form of oil extraction and processing with more intense impacts on forests and wildlife, freshwater resources, and air quality (see Tar Sands Fever)

Major donors (see 150 Major Democratic Donors Urge Obama to Reject Keystone Pipeline)  and environmentalists such as Jim Hansen, (see Norway, Canada, the United States, and the Tar Sands) have opposed making fuel from Canadian tar sands.

Unfortunately, the letter to President Obama doesn't mention a more attractive alternative that the President should pursue to replace the tar sands oil. I think that is a fundamental weakness of that letter.

America uses nearly 21 million barrels a day of petroleum with nearly 15 million barrels a day utilized for transportation fuel (gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel) and the rest for industrial use. We produce 9 million of those barrels domestically, but we must import more than 12 million barrels a day of petroleum. This is a big problem for us and it hurts our economy.

Here's the key point: Pursuing Keystone XL wouldn't change any of the import numbers at all!

Changing those import numbers is the problem we should be focused on solving! With Keystone XL, we are just changing who we pay for oil. How can we be excited about that? Sure, we'd rather pay Canada than some other countries for the same thing, but tar sands aren't the same as oil from drilling. There are huge environmental issues to consider.

It is much more sensible to oppose Keystone XL if we can show a more attractive (and ideally carbon-neutral) use for those funds. Can we redirect the $70-100 billion dollars the United States is set to invest in tar sands infrastructure into a better alternative? Absolutely!

I'd like to suggest one such superior alternative to Keystone XL that achieves 12 important benefits to the United States (or any country at pursues it) if implemented at scale:

  1. Eliminates our dependence on both foreign and domestic oil.
  2. Produces liquid hydrocarbon fuels for $3/gallon (i.e., it is justifiable on pure economics alone)
  3. Can turn the US from an oil importer into an exporter of synfuels. Not only is this great for the environment, but it would be fantastic for the US economy as well. We can use our superior technology (instead of our natural resources) to become the world's synfuel energy superpower.
  4. Ensures price stability of transportation fuel (because the cost is virtually all upfront and seawater is free, supply is fixed and demand is stable so prices should be very stable unlike the situation today where oil prices are constantly rising because oil is getting harder to find).
  5. Will create a lot of jobs in the US
  6. It creates an inexhaustible and stable supply of fuel (assuming we use fast nuclear reactors for power)
  7. Does not increase carbon emissions (it is a carbon-neutral solution)
  8. It is environmentally friendly (especially if you use fast nuclear since it can consume our existing nuclear waste for fuel)
  9. Produces a fuel that burns cleaner than our existing fuels (i.e., cleaner air since there is no sulfur or mercury)
  10. Restores the natural balance of our oceans by de-acidifying them (by extracting the excess CO2 we've put in) and keeps the oceans from becoming saturated with CO2 (if we switch from fossil fuels to using this process).
  11. Can be used to produce feedstock for animals (see below)
  12. It gives us a great reason to really ramp up nuclear power production in the US. We are way behind as a player in clean energy production. If we keep not making any serious effort to really ramp up our nuclear program, China will be eat our lunch (see China bags contract for nuclear reactor export, India and US worried and other similar articles)

So whether you are a Republican or Democrat, whether you believe in global warming or not, whether you think carbon emissions are important or not, there is at least one of these 12 benefits that will appeal to you as a better alternative to investing in Keystone XL.

So what is this alternative? The short and surprising answer is we can do this today at a competitive price, using today's technology, with no technological breakthroughs required. We've already demonstrated (at laboratory scale) we can do it.

Use the Fischer-Tropsch process using seawater as your source of CO2 and H2 and nuclear power plants to supply the power to make the transformation.

We already have implemented good zero-carbon options for producing electricity (such as nuclear power, wind, solar, etc), but not for liquid fuels. Most of the oil we use is for liquid fuels (gasoline and diesel) for transportation.

We need to start talking about a viable alternative for replacing oil by products with a cleaner and better alternative. Sure we can invest in plug-in hybrids, hybrid methanol-based fuel cell electric vehicles, etc. But that only goes so far.  We have to do something about supplying the liquid hydrocarbon fuels we use today (diesel, gasoline).

The best solution I'm aware of is to make these fuels from seawater!

Why seawater? Because the concentration of CO2 in air is so low, a very large surface area is required, and the process is energy intensive and overall very expensive. But CO2 is very soluble in water, and its concentration in the ocean is about 140 times higher than in air.  So we are using the whole of the ocean surface as an air contactor right now – for better or worse!  The extraction system is ‘built’, we just need to recover the CO2. It's 15 times cheaper to extract the CO2 you need from seawater than from air because nature has done most of the extraction work for you ($37/tonne vs. $600/tonne). While you could extract CO2 from a coal plant, we really need to shut down coal plants anyway, so building a fuel plant that depends on using CO2 from a coal plant is fundamentally a bad idea.

It wasn't until late 2010 in this peer reviewed paper "The feasibility and current estimated capital costs of producing jet fuel at sea using carbon dioxide and hydrogen"  (or see the Navy Report), that someone in the Navy realized we can make synfuel economically from seawater in an environmentally friendly way that is sustainable over the long term. The objective of the Navy project wasn't about how to make synfuel in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way. It was just focused on how to make jet fuel for the ship's planes using the nuclear reactor on board the aircraft carrier. That's really hard. But you could do the same thing on land and it is much more feasible. It just so happens that the accidental consequence of the Navy research is the first and only environmentally friendly and sustainable way to make synfuels and plastics economically on land. That is a stunning accident.

There was no popular press coverage about this breakthrough process at all, and all of it was around the Navy's use, not that this is a way to make America energy independent.

Navy eyes turning sea water into jet fuel (article in the Navy Times): "As one study in the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable energy put it, turning the ocean into fuel is "game changing."

Nuclear Navy's Synfuel from Seawater Program: An interview with Kathy Lewis of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

If we extract CO2 from the oceans, will that create a CO2 imbalance? Well, the amount of CO2 in the ocean is higher due to our CO2 emissions, so we'd actually be helping to restore the natural balance in the oceans. If we extract CO2 from the ocean and not the air, it's going to make global warming worse if the CO2 doesn't equilibrate over a reasonable timescale. Fortunately for us, the CO2 in the oceans equilibrate over a reasonable timescale with air so you are in effect removing CO2 from the air. So this is a carbon neutral cycle with respect to our extract CO2 from seawater, put it in the air, and eventually extract it again from the ocean.

You need a source of cheap carbon free electricity and heat to do this so nuclear reactors are ideal because they provide both in abundant quantities (unlike wind or solar). The cheaper the nuclear power plant can be built (which basically sets the price of the electricity), the cheaper the electricity and thus the cheaper the fuel that can be produced.

You can think of the energy transfer like this: the energy you put into the seawater from nuclear is basically "stored" in the resulting hydrocarbon fuel (actually, only about half gets into the fuel, the rest is used in the work to make the fuel) and then released when the hydrocarbon is burned (or used in a fuel cell).

This sounds preposterous when you look at the raw materials in: seawater, and nuclear energy. But you aren't making something out of nothing. You are essentially putting in energy supplied by nuclear fission into the seawater (which contains carbon and hydrogen) to transform it into an energy storage liquid fuel. So it isn't magic at all. It's a known process that was invented almost 100 years ago! It was used by the Germans in World War II to make 25% of their gasoline, for example. The only novel thing here is extracting carbon from seawater instead of carbon from coal.

The resulting fuel is really clean and burns clean (no sulfur or mercury emissions, etc), and the whole thing is carbon neutral and cheaper than gas is today. If you produce methanol instead of gasoline and run that in a methanol fuel cell in a hybrid electric vehicle, it is very economical compared to gasoline (about half the cost). Producing methanol from this process is cheaper and easier than producing gasoline or diesel fuel, but we don't have a lot of methanol fuel cell vehicles today. But that's fine because even without that, we can still produce liquid hydrocarbon fuels for less cost than today.

The number of new nuclear plants we'd need to replace all the oil use in the US is around 410 new plants (according to the analysis of Daily Kos article below). That's a lot of power plants, but that is a 100% replacement for everything we have today. It would cost less than the Iraq war. Considering we built nearly 100 plants over a 10 year period 40 years ago (and technology has improved since then), this should be possible to do pretty quickly. And we have the money too because we are sending over $400 billion overseas each year for oil. If we spent that money domestically, we could eliminate our entire dependence on foreign sources of oil.

Building IFR plants are much better than LWR plants due to the near total elimination of any long-term nuclear waste that is created (it also uses our existing nuclear waste for fuel and according to experts should produce electricity for less than the cost of conventional nuclear as well). Instead of using a sulfer-iodine cycle which runs at 800 C (which would require a HTGR), you can instead use the Cu-Cl cycle which works at max temperatures of 530C, so is perfectly suited to IFR outlet temps. (see ). The big gain in terms of efficiency is that you can skip the heat --> electricity --> electrolysis --> hydrogen pathway and go heat --> hydrogen, so your total conversion efficiency goes from about 10% to 60% (i.e. you'd need 1/6 of the number of reactors compared to traditional electrolysis).

The Navy work is original, but I believe their implementation is inferior to the PARC approach.  The Navy used a hybrid ion exchange resin/membrane system, while PARC used a much more elegant pure membrane system.  The PARC system is way more compact - important when you’re talking about huge scale up.  I believe it offers much better mass transport properties (important for production rates and parasitic energy losses), much lower material inputs (there’s no bulky polymer resins), and its much more manufacturable.

The bacteria Methylophilus Methylotrophus has been shown to grow extremely well on methanol and has been proven to be a very useful protein rich animal feed supplement broadly comparable or superior to Soybean meal. Although previous attempts at commercialization were upset by rising oil prices and falling prices of soybeans the decoupling of its price (known as "Pruteen") from that of oil and rising prices of agricultural staples may change this is in the relatively near future. This means off peak electricity is can be used to indirectly produce animal feed as well as fuel. This would be a new food chain with its base not in solar energy but nuclear fission.  A remarkable thought.

One intriguing thought is that for permitting and environmental impact reasons, you could build these fuel production nuclear reactors offshore, on ships specially designed for fuel product. Unfortunately, this would be a much higher cost than doing it on land so not economical to do today unless you are the US Navy where even though the cost per gallon is high, it's a viable alternative to the logistical cost of fueling ships. We've had floating nuclear reactors for over 50 years. The US Navy has accumulated over 5,400 "reactor years" of accident-free experience, and operates more than 80 nuclear-powered ships.

In fact, the idea of floating nuclear power stations for commercial use is not so far fetched. China is talking to Russia about building floating nuclear power plants right now (see China to help Russia create fleet of floating nuclear power stations).

There is no demonstration plant nuclear/seawater plant doing this today. There is fundamentally no reason we can't build one today either. The big question to ask is: why aren't we? That is the question that the news media should be asking!

13 reasons I can think of, none of which is compelling enough to stand in the way of spending a few billion dollars to build a single large scale demonstration plant today:

  1. The Navy under funded this project and continues to under fund it even after demonstrating success because it's hard to produce massive quantities on a ship. But on land it is a different story. The people in the Navy don't know about the IFR and haven't connected the dots with this important way of making nuclear power on land that doesn't have any long term waste.
  2. Lack of political will
  3. Very few people even know about it (the research was completed by the US military in late 2010 and it wasn't well publicized at all)
  4. It sounds crazy...fuel from seawater?!
  5. There is no natural special interest with lots of money that is pushing for this: the oil companies aren't going to do it, and the nuclear industry in the US isn't large enough today.
  6. It will take longer than doing yet one more short term "fix" (the original Keystone pipeline ttook 5 years to complete so the time scale we are talking about here is comparable to that).
  7. Congress and the President tend to focus on the short-term quick-fixes that addresses the symptoms rather than on long term solutions that address the root cause of the problem.
  8. Fear that there will be a better solution invented "tomorrow" and we will have gone down the wrong path. But this is true of a lot of things like nuclear power plants which are all "up front" investments and have proven to be safe bets even on 50 year timescales.
  9. This system has never been built beyond lab scale, so problems could arise in scale-up. However, the membrane system is pretty similar to seawater desalination by RO membranes, so there is a lot of very relevant experience with successful scale up of similar systems.
  10. It might take 10 years to make it work on a ship, but it is much faster and easier to build on land. But Washington doesn't like to do anything that is long term, even if makes us energy independent.
  11. Catch-22 logic such as Republicans, who say that "the Navy should not pursue alternative fuel program until alternative fuels are more cost-effective." Therefore, unless a miracle happens, we will never become energy independent because we can't fund the research until the research proves it can't be done. You never get started. This is the reason the current Navy project to turn seawater into jet fuel is under-funded.
  12. The gas and oil companies, even though they should be jumping on this technology (if they were smart), will spend all sorts of money to make sure that there is no competitor to oil and gas.
  13. Environmental groups won't push for this because it involves nuclear power and even though nuclear power hasn't killed anyone in 50 years in the US (other than one "statistical" death from Three Mile Island), nuclear is still not safe enough for most environmentalist groups. Relatively few environmentalists know about the IFR and that it uses nuclear waste for fuel and generates no long term nuclear waste. So they continue to oppose the use of nuclear power. Pandora's Promise which causes 50% of people who oppose nuclear to change their minds may change this when it is released later in 2013.

This is a great idea and worth pursing starting now. It is working now at laboratory scale. It is inevitable that we will need to do this. We can't keep waiting and hoping for a better solution if we have a perfectly good one in our pocket.

If we keep delaying then there will always be these seemingly attractive short term "solutions" which make the problem worse that we end up choosing because we keep putting off doing the right thing. And then we argue that we then lack the funds to do the right thing because we spent the funds on the short term fixes. It is a lot cheaper to get this started right now than later because we start realizing most of the six benefits immediately. The sooner we get started the sooner we can become energy independent and improve our trade balance.

Just one hurricane cost us $81 billion and that is a sideshow compared to what is coming in the future if we keep warming the planet. Reducing the chance of another disaster like this is money well spent. We shouldn't be investing in technology that increases the likelihood of these events (such as tar sands). That's stupid.

We should get started now on building a large scale demonstration plant to prove we can create a viable long term solution to completely end our dependence on foreign oil and lower the price of gasoline and diesel. I don't see any benefit in waiting. I don't know of a better approach than synfuels from seawater. But if we have a better approach to be an net exporter of synfuels, let's tell people about it. If not, let's stop talking and start acting; we should pursue our best option right now and make it a national priority, not a technology that nobody has ever heard of.


Intro Video on Fischer–Tropsch process syngas (hyrodrogen gas + carbon monoxide) + heat, pressure, catalyst yields a variety of hydrocarbon fuels as well as plastics. You can also use water and a nuclear power plant to do the same thing. You can do the same thing with water and carbon dioxide using a modified Fischer–Tropsch process. The technique used by the Navy is similar to this process, but they use a process similar to the ExxonMobil MTG or MTO technology from the 1990s

Carbon neutral synfuel from seawater. John Morgan explains that the US Navy found it was cheaper to extract the CO2 you need to produce synfuel from seawater than from air and compares the costs of on-ship vs. on-land production of synfuel. Excerpts:

  • The work was done by the US Navy (full text here), and by the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), who each developed membrane processes to extract CO2 from seawater.   The Navy’s interest is military – shipboard production of synthetic jet fuel far from supply lines. The Navy costed the production of jet fuel at sea ($6/gallon). But they neglected to include the cost of energy for the carbon capture process. I used the PARC research to estimate it and include it in the Navy costings. I arrived at $1.78 per litre. But if we don’t insist on running these processes on an expensive ocean-going platform, the cost can drop to as low as $0.79/litre for synfuel (just under $3/gallon).
  • Liquid hydrocarbons account for about one third of fossil carbon dioxide emissions, and while transition to electric vehicles is possible for some passenger transport, it is simply not feasible to substitute for liquid fuel in most long haul transport, aviation, or agricultural and industrial prime movers. Synthesizing fuel from carbon dioxide extracted from air is possible in principle but horrendously expensive.
  • Two papers published last year described a new approach to zero emissions synfuel, looking at direct carbon dioxide extraction from seawater.  The new insight in these papers is that CO2 is very soluble in seawater, where the concentration is about 140 times higher than in the atmosphere. This could make seawater extraction a lot cheaper than direct air capture.
  • Half of our CO2 emissions end up in the atmosphere, a third in the ocean, and a sixth on land. There is substantial equilibration between ocean and air on a timeframe short enough to be relevant to climate.
  • Alternative fuels such as methanol or dimethyl ether could also be produced from the CO2 and H2 feedstock, and would require no further processing. 
  • A source of hydrogen is required, and the energy required to produce the hydrogen is the single most expensive component in the whole process. 
  • As a purely speculative exercise, what would it take to draw atmospheric carbon down to 350 ppm with just this technology?  If we follow the American Physical Society in their technical assessment of direct air capture and set a target of reducing atmospheric CO2 to 350 ppm by capturing 400 Gt over a hundred years, we would need to collect 4 Gt/yr, from the perspective of an already decarbonised society.  We would require the power of about 700 AP-1000 nuclear reactors.  At the Chinese cost of $1.3b apiece and an 80 year lifetime this would cost a bit over $1 trillion dollars.  That sounds like a lot of money. But its only about the cost of America’s 2003 Iraq War spread over the century, so I guess it’s a question of priorities.

Nuclear Navy's Synfuel from Seawater Program: An interview with Kathy Lewis of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Note that on a ship you can produce fuel at $6/gallon, but on land you can do it for half that price.

Implementing the “Hydrogen Economy” estimates cost of synfuel produced through various means (coal gasification vs. nuclear) with the best nuclear option costing $1.86/gallon and as low as $1.32/gallon.  It doesn't talk about seawater extraction at all (likely the author wasn't aware of it). It concludes with: The advantages of using synthetic fuels are that neither the transportation vehicle engines nor the fuel-distribution infrastructure of the United States would have to be altered. A synfuel hydrogen economy can be a bridge to a true hydrogen economy in the future.

The Nuclear Synfuel Economy. Excerpts: "only 410 nuclear reactors dedicated to synfuel production would be required for America to become totally independent from foreign and domestic petroleum fuels, ending greenhouse gas pollution from the petroleum economy in the US-- forever." "Fuel cells could also cut the energy cost of methanol in half. So even the highest priced synthetics fuels in the future would probably cost consumers less than they are paying now-- if they drove PHEV-fuel cell automobiles." "How long would it take to build a few hundred nuclear power plants in America? That's a good question since its very difficult to build any nuclear facilities in the US. How long would it take to do this in China. Not very long, IMO, since China is already undertaking one of the most massive nuclear power construction programs in the world. And China is already using methanol as part of their light vehicle transportation needs."

Obama Will Delay Keystone Pipeline (May 13, 2013), Fox News, Varney & Co. where I appear talking about making gas from seawater.

Reader comments

Both the MTG and FT processes should actually be considered specific modifications of the more generically named GTL process in general.  GTL being gas to liquid.  However, since FT is by far the oldest and most well known and longest commercialized GTL process, everyone calls any GTL process FT.  Strictly speaking, however, MTG is not a modification of FT.   We may have written or spoken about our process as FT modified in the past, but when it comes to actual commercialization, talking like this to engineers will ultimately get you in big trouble fast.  Having said that, when I talk about modified MTG, people still say, oh, you mean modified FT.  For the purposes of discussion it really doesn't matter what you call it.  However, FT is generally a one step reactor process when fully scaled and MTG is invariably a two step reactor process when fully scaled.  Even though MTG seems more complex (two vs one reactor), MTG is actually less complex that FT because FT never tell you it needs a syngas reformer in addition to its one step reactor, and that the reformer makes up 90% of the overall FT process.  From a purely Navy point of view it would be very difficult to build an FT process on a ship and much easier to build a modified MTG process on a ship.


During 2004 through 2006 General Atomics worked with NRL to decide which CO2 recovery technique (air or water) would be the best at sea.  At that time we had not yet worked out the final details of the seawater removal scheme, however, the gas/liquid absorption scheme to get the 1,000 metric tons of CO2 we needed per day out of air would have required covering the deck of an aircraft carrier completely to a height of about 10 stories.  So, it could be done but not easily enough to fit on a ship.  The energy costs for CO2 from air appeared to be acceptable to the Navy at that time.

George Stanford, IFR scientist
The info about CO2 from sea water is most interesting. I've been a booster of nuke-powered synfuels for some time. and this looks like the breakthrough that's been needed. --

Chris Uhlik
A lot of people would be A LOT happier paying Canada than Middle Eastern nations.  But the real issue is that there is a global market, so if we buy from Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela, and Canada, this just allows Japan and China to buy from the Middle East so those "frightening / bad people" get money for their oil no matter who we buy oil from.  The problem is buying the oil, not who we pay.  This is kind of complicated, so maybe the way you said it is best after all.

I agree that if you have decided to build your machine on a ship, then you might prefer to process water.

But if you are going to build your machine for the lowest cost on land or water and process air or seawater, I still think you will win by processing air.


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