Transport today means fossil fuels. How do we decarbonize the movement of people and goods in an expanding global economy?
Transportation is vital for a prosperous society. Children need to get to school, workers to the factory, doctors to the hospital. According to the American Automobile Association, the average American drives 17,600 minutes per year, reaching around 10,000 miles annually. Goods are commonly produced where it is cheapest to produce them, not where they are most needed.
Transportation today is dominated by fossil fuels, making it a strong contributor to climate change. As transportation is so important for a functioning economy, the sector is set to continue to grow in the coming decades. Decarbonizing transport is therefore a priority.
Many exciting possibilities for carbon-neutral fuels exist, ranging from hydrogen fuel cells and synthetic fuels to electric cars charged using clean energy sources.
A growing trend in the vehicle market today is the use of electric vehicles (EVs), which have gone up in number four-fold since 2013, recently reaching 2 million EVs on the road. This sounds like a lot but only represents one-sixth of one percent of all vehicles in the world.
A transition to electric vehicles without transitioning to clean electricity generation sources might decrease overall emissions by only about 8 percent. While this decrease is significant, it is not enough to fight the threat of climate change. Additionally, the batteries powering electric cars carry significant mining impacts and challenges for recycling.
If only it were possible to power our transport with a fuel as energy-dense as gasoline or jet fuel but without the environmental impacts…
Using advanced nuclear technology and synthetic fuels (synfuels).
Let’s focus on two of the synfuels with the most potential: hydrogen fuel cells and synthetic methanol fuels using carbon capture technology.
Hydrogen fuel cells can be powered with hydrogen generated through high temperature steam electrolysis, requiring temperatures around 850 Celsius (Bragg-sitton et al.). These temperatures can be provided without carbon emissions through the use of molten salt or high-temperature gas reactors.
The other primary clean fuel is methanol produced with carbon-capture technology. The chemical properties of methanol make it suited for use in an internal combustion engine with little to no modification (Olah et al.). Methanol production requires heat at least 260 degrees Celsius (Olah et al.), which is a temperature that could be comfortably supplied by carbon-free, reliable nuclear reactors.
Synfuels produced using advanced nuclear power would enable continued growth in transportation without a parallel growth in carbon emissions. It’s time to harness the power of the atom!
Bragg-sitton, Shannon M., et al. Nuclear-Renewable Hybrid Energy Systems : 2016 Technology Development Program Plan Idaho National Laboratory. no. March, 2016, doi:10.2172/1333006.
International Energy Agency. “Global EV Outlook 2017: Two Million and Counting.” IEA Publications, 2017, pp. 1–71, doi:10.1787/9789264278882-en.
Johnson, Tamra. Americans Spend an Average of 17,600 Minutes Driving Each Year. 2016, pp. 2014–15, http://newsroom.aaa.com/2016/09/americans-spend-average-17600-minutes-driving-year/.
Olah, George A., et al. “Chemical Recycling of Carbon Dioxide to Methanol and Dimethyl Ether : From Greenhouse Gas to Renewable , Environmentally Carbon Neutral Fuels and Synthetic Hydrocarbons Chemical Recycling of Carbon Dioxide to Methanol and Dimethyl Ether : From Greenhouse.” Journal of Organic Chemistry, vol. 74, no. 2, 2009, 2009, pp. 487–98, doi:10.1021/jo801260f.
The Statistics. Number of Vehicles on the Road. 2018, pp. 2015–18, https://www.statista.com/statistics/281134/number-of-vehicles-in-use-worldwide/.
Transportation Sector Energy Consumption. Vol. 96, no. 10, United States Energy Information Administration, 2016.
About the Author: Robby Kile is a nuclear engineering student and research fellow at Generation Atomic whose interests lie in advanced reactor design, especially the non-power uses of reactors. Robby is a strong proponent of nuclear energy as a tool for fighting climate change and energy poverty around the world.