May 3, 2005
The world and the United States in particular are facing an energy crisis of potentially catastrophic proportions. Driven by population growth and globalization, the demand for energy is growing at an increasing rate; driven by the inexorability of Hubberts’s Peak, the end of our supply of cheap oil, and hence cheap energy, is in sight. Were that not enough, the specter, however uncertain, of climate change driven by global warming looms ever larger.
What must be done to deal with this crisis is both daunting and complex. A myriad of solutions have been proposed, some of which have merit and others of which do not but have caught the fancy of legislators, CEOs, academic technologists, and the general public.
It is the overall mission of the Clean Fuels Institute to address the issues of consequence and to provide technologically sound advice.
It is the technological opinion of the Clean Fuels Institute that proven technology is currently available that will allow us to deal with this crisis in an environmentally acceptable way, one which is also economically feasible.
The mission of the Clean Fuels Institute is:
1) To perform systems engineering studies of alternate sources of energy, particularly renewable energy, so that these can be compared both economically and environmentally with traditional sources of energy. The techniques for these studies have already been developed in house and applied to a wide range of energy supply based systems.
2) To train others in the application of these techniques to energy and other systems of societal and economic importance.
3) To provide consultation and independent advice to both government and non-government organizations (NGOs) regarding the feasibility and comparative capabilities of energy
The Clean Fuels Institute, in the Department of Chemical Engineering, was founded in the 70’s by Professor Arthur Squires, and it played a prominent role in the development of coal conversion technology. It became dormant when interest in coal failed.
The Institute has recently been revived to deal with the challenges of the energy crisis now facing the nation and the world. Reuel Shinnar, Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering, has been appointed Director of the Institute. He has been joined by Irven Rinard, chairman of the Department of Chemical Engineering, as Associate Director. The Institute will focus its attention on two of the most serious problems confronting us today:
1) Global Warming which is the result of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions and
2) Energy Supply Shortages which will result from the fact that world oil supplies are going to peak within the next twenty to thirty years (if not sooner) and that the U.S. already imports natural gas.
Thus there are important reasons to change the ways in which energy is produced and used, namely, to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and to decrease our dependence upon imported oil and gas. The role of the Institute is to identify the best ways by which to make these changes and to evaluate the technological means to do so.
It is clear that significant changes will be required to meet these challenges. In the long run we will have to make radical changes relying less on fossil fuels and slowly switching to solar and nuclear energy, and biomass, which requires changes in the ways energy is delivered used. Such major changes cannot be achieved in ten or even twenty years; their preparation and accomplishment demand a long lead time. By the time we feel the severity of this problem it will be too late to deal with it effectively. When oil supplies will peak or global warming will have a catastrophic effect cannot be predicted, so, we have to invest in the future in advance through careful planning and evaluation of all options and costs. We must develop a thorough understanding of available technologies based on energy sources that cannot be depleted, such as solar and nuclear energy and of the production of alternative liquid fuels from heavy oil, tar sands and coal as well as biofuels.
It must be also realized that the problems of global warming and energy independence are strongly related to each other. Global warming due to increasing CO2 emissions and other pollution problems is one of the results of increased worldwide energy use, which is predicted to grow due to increased standard of living in developing countries. As energy is essential to our economic well being, we have to look for ways to produce and use energy that have a smaller impact on the environment, searching for a solution to this problem without severely impairing our standard of living. First of all, this requires identifying and further developing breakthrough technology that can achieve this goal. While we have to do aggressive research for new ideas, one cannot base a program on a hope that science will provide us with totally new ideas. We have to search for innovative solutions on utilizing breakthrough inventions and technologies that we have, but do not use as they were made at a time when there was no need for them, or even developed for other purposes.
Among the available ways to stave off the looming shortage of oil and reduce oil imports are to increase use and convert more heavy oil which is available in large quantities from Mexico, to liquefy coal and increase the use and conversion of tar sands of which there are large reserves in Canada. All these technologies will increase greenhouse emissions significantly. Similarly, Professor Shinnar has demonstrated (2-4) that the new H2 cars, which have been proposed for widespread use, will double or triple greenhouse emissions as long as the H2 is produced from fossil fuels or by electricity from the existing grid. This fact is little noticed unless one conducts a thorough evaluation the technology and the total system.
It is important to note that the time available for effective action is short. There is not time to wait for R&D breakthroughs to provide new technologies. We must make a start using available technologies. It is also important to note that technologies are available now.
The best and most efficient way to address global warming on a large scale is likely to be by increasing our use of solar and nuclear energy (1). Few realize that we already have an existing technology for thermal solar energy with storage as was demonstrated on a large scale in California; it is already cost-competitive with nuclear energy and clean coal. The Institute will investigate how much it would cost and what would be needed to eliminate the largest contributor to global warming by replacing all coal-fired power plants with solar or nuclear energy. Our society could do much more to reduce greenhouse emissions than it does now.
Solar and nuclear energy can have one strong immediate effect on reducing greenhouse emissions. They can replace coal power plants, especially the old inefficient ones. But replacing oil and gas requires shifting the way energy is used to direct use of electricity, which also requires a change in the technology of use. The potential of doing this has to be investigated. So we always have to look at the total system. One real problem with the present plans formulated by DOE is that DOE lacks a division or group that can provide this guidance. We hope that the publications of our Institute could make here a significant contribution by moving this discussion into the public domain, by presenting the technical options and their impact in a clear form, for both the scientific and legislative community to discuss. We want to make clear that the Institute does not intend to have any actual laboratory, research or development activities, but will only focus on system studies, identifying the proper technologies and evaluating their potential.
Another goal at the Institute is to demonstrate that the US already has a solid scientific basis for the technology needed to solve all its energy and environmental problems. Research can improve existing technologies but only after a clear plan of implementation is developed. The Institute will address these problems both nationally and on regional levels.
The effectiveness of a large development program depends on our ability to assess the ultimate potential of a new idea. The Institute will benefit from Professor Shinnar's leadership and his wide, thorough and practical experience with the important technologies that can help us solve our energy problems. He has consulted to the power industry and to the oil industry for decades, and has been involved projects ranging from synthetic fuels to coal and gas. In fact, he has made significant enhancements to some of the leading processes now in use.
One of Professor Shinnar’s special achievements, developed during his consulting career and put into a rigorous form through his academic work, is a unique and powerful methodology for evaluating new technologies in all stages of development. He has demonstrated that a rigorous evaluation of the ultimate potential of a new technology or process can be achieved early, while the idea is still in an exploratory stage. The results of the evaluation can be refined later as more data become available.
Previous studies by Professor Shinnar on the proposed hydrogen economy (2-4) showed that solar and nuclear energy are better and cheaper solutions to our energy problems than is the H2 economy which has been proposed. While H2 could have important applications most of its uses require exploratory research before they could even be considered or planned. An urgent energy plan requires that the technology to be proven at least on a small scale. In another study on solar energy, Professor Shinnar showed that thermal solar energy built with storage is presently far superior to solar cells. His two studies highlight a severe problem in our energy research and planning: research managers often make claims about the potential of their programs that exceed what is thermodynamically or technically feasible.
Professor Shinnar’s methodology, is based on the evaluation of the inherent limitations of a process such as thermodynamic constraints, available construction materials, catalysts, existing separation technology, etc. to determine if a newly proposed processes can meet the objectives set. It also estimates the projected cost of a proposed process by comparing it with similar processes -and not just by flow sheeting alone- and attempts to estimate in a differential manner if the process proposed is cost-effective and by how much. This method allows one to check claims made for new processes in a rigorous way that can be clearly understood by both the researcher and his manager (5-7). It also can help determine what steps must be taken before a promising research idea is adopted.
Training and Advisory Activities
Another important mission of the Institute will be to train technical people in this methodology, both scientists and engineers from industry, academia and government agencies in order to make a more general contribution to the development of more effective and rational strategies. However, this will not become a goal in itself. Rather, such training will be associated with the Institute's program of serious work on developing strategies, and evaluating and proposing technologies for solving two of the most critical problems facing of our society. The fact that we are in an academic institution associated with an engineering school allows us to have students take part in our work, making them aware and familiar with the problems of energy supply and use, and the technical environmental and economic problems associated with it. The Institute will also offer courses on these issues.
The Institute will perform evaluations for government agencies, both local and national, industries and other organizations, and actively seek such contracts or grants. It will also seek support from foundations to pursue independent studies for developing plans for dealing with critical problems on a local and a national basis by dealing not only with technology but with the economic measures that have to be taken to promote the efficient implementation of such plans.
Reuel Shinnar (Institute Director) is a Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at City College. He a member of the National Academy of Engineering and is an internationally known expert in reactor design, process control, process economics and process systems engineering with wide experience in industrial practice, particularly in the area of energy systems.
Irven Rinard (Associate Director) spent twenty eight years in industry prior to joining the Chemical Engineering faculty at City College. He was the Director of Systems Engineering and Analytical for the Halcon SD Group. Among his many projects were the analysis of energy processes and environmental modeling and analysis.
1. Shinnar, R.; Citro, F.; "Solar Thermal Energy: The Forgotten Energy Source", (in publication)
2. Shinnar, R., "The H2 Economy, a Persistent Myth”, CEP Magazine, Vol. 100, No. 11, 4, (2004).
3. Shinnar, R., "The Mirage of the H2 Economy”, Clean Techn. Environ. Policy, 6, 223-226, (2004).
4. Shinnar, R., "The Hydrogen Economy, Fuel Cells, and Electric Cars", Technology in Society, Volume 25, Issue 4, Pages 453-576 (2003).
5. Shinnar, R., Fortuna, G. and D. Shapira "Use of Nuclear Energy in Production of Synthesis Natural Gas and Hydrogen from Coal,” IEC Process Design & Devel., 23, 183 (1984).
6. Shinnar, R., Shapira D., and Zakai, S., "Thermochemical and Hybrid Cycles for Hydrogen Production. A Differential Economic Comparison with Electrolysis" I&EC Process Design & Development. 20, 581. (1981).
7. Shinnar, R., “Differential Economic Analysis. Gasoline From Coal”, CHEMTECH, 8, 686-693, (1978).