Driving Deeper Decarbonisation with Hydrogen-Enabled Synthetic Fuels

Nuclear Watch Institute

To meet the Paris climate goals, we must bring global carbon emissions down to zero by mid-century. This will require massively increasing global clean power generation, especially as energy demand is expected to double from current levels to meet rising global energy demand. Nuclear energy can play a key role in ensuring a successful and timely transition, provided it becomes highly competitive everywhere in the world. A concerted effort will be required to make sure new nuclear projects do not experience costly delays or budget overruns, as has happened with recent projects in the United States and Europe.

New commercial offerings are set to drive such needed rapid and cost-effective decarbonisation, beyond generating clean electricity. In September 2020, LucidCatalyst published a new report: Missing Link to a Livable Climate that made a crucial breakthrough in designing new strategies for clean, low cost and large-scale hydrogen and clean synthetic fuels production.

These hydrogen-enabled synthetic fuels would address the two thirds of global energy use beyond the power sector, which includes sectors like shipping, aviation, and industry. These sectors all use fossil fuels like oil and gas for fuel, making them difficult and expensive to decarbonise. Extensive infrastructure is in place supporting the use of fossil fuels, and electrification will only be possible for a small portion of total fuels usage.

We therefore need carbon-neutral “drop-in” fuels that can be produced cost effectively and at scale. The LucidCatalyst team found that the unique attributes of high temperature heat, small environmental footprint, high capacity factor and low cost electricity, combined with very high productivity manufacturing delivery and deployment models, can produce hydrogen-enabled synthetic fuels at prices competitive with oil and gas today.

Hydrogen itself is an emissions-free fuel, and is also entirely renewable: it is derived from water, and burns back into water. Produced using low-carbon methods (instead of oil, gas, and coal), hydrogen would become entirely carbon-neutral, and could play an important role as an energy carrier and feedstock for synthetic fuels.

Refinery-scale Gigafactory and world-class shipyard manufacturing approaches could build these hydrogen production facilities rapidly and at scale. To replace the expected flow of 100 million barrels of oil per day (350EJ by 2050) via these approaches would require an investment of $17 trillion spent over 30 years from 2020-2050. This is less than the $25 trillion the oil and gas industries otherwise intend to spend to produce conventional fuels over the next several decades. And renewables like solar and wind would require a massive $70 trillion to produce equivalent hydrogen.

These facilities could also produce ammonia to fuel marine vessels. Recent modelling done by LucidCatalyst suggests that such a facility could produce ammonia for about $60 per barrel of oil equivalent, which is quite competitive with fossil marine fuel today. It would take about 325 of these to decarbonise today’s global shipping industry. By 2050 this number could grow to 600.

Since publishing this report in September 2020, LucidCatalyst have already experienced strong market interest in these solutions that easily plug into the existing energy infrastructure that powers civilization, cost-competitively and without emissions.

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