PBMR under consideration for synthetic fuels

15 March 2007

PBMR Pty has held talks with Sasol concerning the use of its Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) in the production of synthetic fuels. South African PBMR Pty is also discussing the advanced reactor's use in extracting oil sands.

PBMR is a small helium-cooled reactor, which its development company, PBMR Pty, says is intrinsically safe. Rated at 400-500 MWt, the modular units could be employed in 'packs' to deliver that thermal power to industrial facilities, generate 165 MWe of electricity each, or a mixture of both.

PBMR Pty's Tom Ferreira confirmed to WNN that Sasol has inquired about using the reactor in its synthetic fuel production. One of Sasol's gas-to-liquid (GTL) products, GTL diesel, is a cleaner-burning vehicle fuel essentially made from atmospheric oxygen and natural gas. The manufacturing process, however, is energy intensive and is usually powered by heat from on-site combustion of natural gas and electricity from the grid. Using dedicated nuclear reactors to provide the electricity and heat would reduce the overall carbon impact of the fuels, while reducing natural gas consumption by 30%. Sasol also use the same process to make GTL naphtha, a paraffinic fuel for ethylene production.

PBMR Pty have identified the Hybrid Sulfur Thermo (HyS) process of manufacturing hydrogen from water. Ferriera said that 750 degreee Celsius heat produced by PBMR could power this process, producing streams of oxygen and hydrogen from an input of water.

The carbon impact of coal-to-liquid (CTL) fuels could also be reduced by employing nuclear heat. Current CTL technologies use coal, water, electricity, hydrogen and oxygen as feedstock. Ferreira suggests that a PBMR could provide all those inputs except coal for very low emissions of carbon dioxide.

Sasol's chief executive, Pat Davies, said: "Obviously we are keen to pursue technologies to help us reduce our carbon footprint."

In addition, Ferreira told WNN that his company had held talks with other oil companies, particularly in Canada: "An opportunity exists to provide nuclear-generated process steam to the oil sands industry."

Ferreira said the use of PBMR to generate steam would not entail extra regulatory implications, but that extra regulation would be required for installation in a hydrogen production facility. This is something yet to be fully addressed. Furthermore, the employment of nuclear reactors by traditionally non-nuclear companies would require serious consideration from safety authorities. It is possible that new expert non-electricity nuclear operating companies could be spun-off from existing nuclear organisations, but there are no plans for this yet.

PBMR Pty is currently preparing to start construction on a demonstration PBMR unit at the Koeberg site in South Africa, which already hosts two pressurized water reactors. Construction should start in 2008 with operation in 2012. South African authorities foresee constructing a fleet of 24 PBMR units for electricity generation between 2016 and 2030.

Further information


WNA's Nuclear Power in South Africa information paper
WNA's Non-Electricity Uses of Nuclear Energy information paper

WNN: Not 'if' but 'when' for nuclear oil sands