Saturday, March 12, 2011

Partnership for a Sustainable Fuel

The US needs a fuel that can take the place of petroleum for transportation.  This new fuel must be environmentally sustainable and made domestically using sustainable energy sources to avoid emitting pollution and greenhouse gasses.  Furthermore, this new fuel should be safely implemented across the nation using US developed technology and manufacturing. 

Today, the most attractive petroleum replacement fuel is anhydrous ammonia.  It burns very cleanly in gas turbines and internal combustion engines and generates ZERO CO2 emissions when consumed.  It can be produced using electricity from renewable energy sources to avoid CO2 emissions during production.  The US has an extensive infrastructure in place today for transporting, storing and handling ammonia.  The drawbacks to ammonia are that it is toxic and can be lethal to humans in concentrations as low as 5,000 parts per million.  Furthermore, fuel storage for vehicles would need to be completely replaced to accommodate ammonia.  Refueling apparatus would need to be designed for use by the general public. 

However, it is highly likely that alternatives to anhydrous ammonia can be developed that offer the benefits of sustainable production and use while also minimizing or even totally avoiding ammonia’s drawbacks.  Establishing a team effort to develop a sustainable petroleum replacement fuel could be accomplished between the Federal Government and the Petroleum Industry working in partnership toward this important goal.  The best model for this partnership is the Partnership for the Next Generation Vehicle (PNGV) program conducted under the Clinton Administration.  The result from that program was the hybrid power plant that is capable of greatly improving vehicle fuel economy. 

I suggest that the Obama Administration initiate the Partnership for a Sustainable Fuel (PSF) program to develop a replacement for petroleum-derived fuels for transportation.  The lead Government agency could be the Department of Defense since they are the largest consumer of fuel in the federal Government and are eager to have a fuel that cannot be held hostage by foreign nations.  The major petroleum companies would be the industry component of the partnership, similar to the Big Three Automakers under the PNGV program.  Some foreign petroleum companies might even be allowed to participate in the program since the goal would be to ultimately expand the use of this new sustainable fuel worldwide.  The formulation of a new fuel needs to be widely embraced by the energy industry to ensure acceptance. 

The transition to a non-petroleum fuel will not be inexpensive.  On the other hand, if we are really serious about reducing CO2 emissions, a paradigm shift away from petroleum is not only desirable but also necessary.  Producing all of our transportation fuel domestically from sustainable energy sources eliminates our current threat to national security and economic prosperity from oil-rich nations with hostile intent toward the US.  Furthermore, a domestic source of transportation fuel would drastically improve our balance of trade and provide millions of jobs for Americans.  Finally and most importantly, a domestically produced sustainable transportation fuel would enable the US to avoid fighting yet another war over petroleum.  If our competitor for future oil is a major nuclear power, think of the cost of that conflict in destroyed infrastructure and lost civilian and military lives.  The world will become a much cleaner and safer place when all nations transition away from petroleum fuels for transportation. 

The US has the opportunity to lead the effort to develop a new sustainable fuel to replace petroleum.  Let’s seize that initiative and develop the systems to produce this new fuel using American ingenuity and American labor.  I believe our citizens would prefer to rise to the challenge to developing tomorrow’s solutions rather than to perpetuate using the polluting ways of the last century.

Thank you.


  1. Pat, hope you are okay over in Japan. I guess Tokyo is going through rolling blackouts now. If only they had made and stored ample amounts of NH3 made from curtailment or spinning reserves, they would now have had a strategic fuel reserve to use for emergencies like this.

    Gary, always great to hear of the OTEC and NH3 advocacy work you are doing! Mahalo nui!

    We are hosting an OTEC workshop this month at NELHA to build a 1MW OTEC plant here. Rob and Dennis from LM are coming over to my office tomorrow to discuss strategies, etc.

    Brian Cable from NAVFAC is also supposed to be coming this month and I'm hoping that we can attach a micro-HB unit to the OTEC plant.


  2. Gary,

    I think you and I just need to get together and come up with a new fuel like we've already discussed!


    I'm perfectly willing to fund it. I just need to make the money. (Working on it!)

    Skype me!


  3. Dear Gary,

    There has been a lot of hype, publicity, and research support focused on moving toward a "hydrogen economy", but whether that economy will ever materialize as a commercial reality is problematical, especially because doing so poses infrastructural and logistical challenges. In contrast, infrastructural and logistical aspects of ammonia have already been dealt with, witness the fact that ammonia tankers and ammonia pipelines are already in commercial use. Accordingly, I recommend a lot more R&D emphasis on manufacturing and using ammonia, both as an energy-carrier and as an energy-intensive product for use as fertilizer.

    In particular, vast amounts of ocean thermal energy can be transported from a large fleet of "plantships" (factory ships) that graze the oceans near the equator and harvest electrical energy, but that electricity has to be converted and stored, then transported, when it is generated too far from land to be moved to shore by submarine cable. That conversion can be to hydrogen, ammonia, or some other energy-intensive product.

    Today it is premature to predict which candidate energy-storage products will be optimum, both technically and economically. At this time, I would personally be more willing to bet lots—but not all—of our chips on ammonia, rather than to risk the future vast potential of the ocean thermal plantship option by betting so many of our societal chips on hydrogen and so few chips on ammonia. Especially since successfully achieving the plantship option could enable ocean thermal—the only remaining vast, untapped source of renewable energy—to ultimately become the largest global source of carbon-free renewable energy, and thereby provide a significant portion of global energy needs as well as a large factor in mitigating climate change.



  4. With NH3 a few things come together
    - manufacturable from Electricity, water and Nitrogen, raw material available anywhere
    - acceptable volumetric energy density
    - useful as a storage medium as well as a fuel
    - technology to handle, transport, store, dispense exists today
    - safe when modest precautions are taken, not readily combustible under atmospheric conditions
    - in case of accidental spillage no lasting impact on environment, rises, does not pool.
    - entireley CO2 free when made with renewable electricity, no GHG if NOx generation is suppressed, no other contaminants or emissions either.

    A practical solution, doable today! Economically feasible today (almost)! Maybe thats why fossil fuel interests rather suppress it and keep mum on it?