Germans plan to make 'synthetic natural' gas from CO2

Megawatt trial: Could be huge for renewables, nuclear

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Could be large for LNG cars - and for nuclear power

Then there's another important plus for the ZSW synthigas plan, which is that natural gas can, of course, be liquefied or compressed and used as a portable fuel. Diesel vehicles can run on LNG with relatively minor modifications and infrastructure - certainly minor compared to converting to an all-electric transport system. They offer superior performance to battery vehicles, too. And best of all, in this case the competition isn't cheap natural gas from underground but tremendously heavily taxed motor fuel, possibly offering profits right away.

There are two main problems here, though. First is the supply of carbon dioxide to make the synthi-gas with. There's tons of the stuff about, of course, but sucking it out of the air or sea is not easy and would consume a lot of energy in itself. Even sequestering it out of fossil powerplant exhausts is a largely unproven idea, and in any case a low-carbon future wouldn't offer any such exhausts to harvest.

Even if the supply of CO2 can be resolved, it's still necessary to generate all of today's total energy usage - electricity, gas, petroleum, coal, all of it - somehow. Some green visionaries consider that this is possible using only renewable power, though their assumptions are very optimistic and rely on most of humanity remaining in poverty - or Western living standards descending a long way to meet slightly-improved ones elsewhere.

Not even the most ardent renewables fanciers could contend that wind, solar et al could supply all current energy demand and huge amounts more to cope with 40 per cent synthigas storage losses and carbon sequestration. Even so, it's a very interesting and potentially useful idea, the more so in that serious ZSW engineers are examining it at multimegawatt scale.

One should note that it is also, potentially, a boon for nuclear power. Green advocates often assert that nuclear power plants must be run at full power all the time, but this is untrue: those of France can and do operate in load-following mode, on average running at perhaps 75 per cent capacity (as opposed to the 30 per cent normal for wind turbines). This is necessary as France gets most of its electricity from nuclear.

It is true, however, that the economics of nuclear power would improve markedly if the plants could run closer to full capacity: which they could potentially do using the ZSW synthigas tech. Gas so produced would be very cheap indeed, as the extra uranium used would barely affect the running costs of a nuclear plant - fuel accounts for a very small proportion of the cost of nuclear electricity, which mainly results from building, decommissioning, safety, personnel etc.

The possible future availability of carbon-neutral, secure natural gas supply is also of serious interest to gas microgeneration fanciers, and for other applications in gas-powered fuel cells such as the recently hugely-splashed "Bloom Box".

No matter where one stands in the modern energy debate, this one could be interesting if it pans out. There's a statement from the German researchers here. ®

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