Energy and Materials from the Ocean

MJM Ocean Industries (MJMOI) has a vision of creating sustainable prosperity in a global market. Displacing fossil fuels is at the heart of making this vision a reality. This goal can be accomplished within a global energy market, but it will require major capital investments in a new sustainable energy infrastructure. The scale of the required investment is sobering. Tim Barrett's quote to the left is from an article that ends with the observation: "The problem is that, in order to stabilize emissions, not even reduce them, we have to switch to non-carbonized energy sources at a rate about 2.1 percent per year. That comes out to almost one new nuclear power plant per day." This isn't enough. The legacy fossil fuel based energy infrastructure (which is on the order of 10 Terrawatts) must also be replaced. This will require building the equivalent of 10,000 new power plants.

MJMOI initially investigated methods for reducing the cost of develop ocean thermal energy, commonly referred to as OTEC. The investigation has continued to explore methods alternative methods for using the oceans to produce sustainable energy and materials. A portfolio of technologies has been identified that are financially attractive technologies. 

Option One: Ammonia from Wind Energy

Producing energy in the ocean using wind power platforms has been proposed, but they always involve placing the wind platforms near shore, with power lines run to shore. An alternative approach would have the wind platforms sail in remote regions of the ocean. These platforms would convert the wind to anhydrous ammonia. There is a ready market for ammonia (about 150 million tons per year) and building devices to convert wind to electricity and from electricity to ammonia does not require infrastructure investments for handling the ammonia. The primary use of anhydrous ammonia is as a fertilizer for corn and soybeans. The anhydrous ammonia is produced from natural gas. 

But there is a bigger reason for developing anhydrous ammonia production facilities. It can be used directly as a fuel. It was first used to power buses in 1943. It can be burned directly in internal combustion engines. It has a higher octane rating than gasoline and it can also be used in diesel engines. A more energy efficient alternative, however, would be to use ammonia fuel cells. There are several ammonia fuel cells available today, and it is also possible to use electrolysis to separate the hydrogen from the ammonia and then use the  hydrogen in fuel cells.

The ultimate goal is to wean the world economy off of carbon based energy and replace the electrical grid with pipelines carrying ammonia to energy customers.. Ammonia is the ideal replacement as a liquid fuel and it could also replace natural gas as a primary energy source. The existing market for ammonia provides a stepping stone for building up mass production capabilities for ammonia as a energy transport mechanism. Mass production will drive the cost down on ammonia production and lead to a stable market price for energy.

Option Two: Kelp is on the Way

Raising kelp on giant platforms in the open ocean was first proposed by Howard Wilcox in the early 1970s as a sustainable method for producing biomass. The concept was taken very seriously by the natural gas industry. This was before fracking had been invented and domestic supplies of conventional natural gas were on the decline. Development of experimental platforms was initially funded by the Navy in 1973. Additional funding from the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy followed. General Electric, and the Natural Gas Institute also invested in the development of the technology. When energy prices dropped in the early 1980s the money for research dried up. A report on the research was produced for Congress by the Office of Technology Assessment.

The original Wilcox design included a processing plant on the ocean platform that would convert the biomass to methane gas and ship the gas to shore on ships. Shipping natural gas would be more costly than shipping ammonia, so converting the natural gas to ammonia would likely be one of the products shipped from the kelp farms. The carbon dioxide produced by this process would be mix with other nutrients and delivered to the kelp bed to improve the growth rate of the kelp. Another attractive produce would be to use the methane produced from the kelp to produce the high density polyethylene (HDPE). HDPE is the principle material in the construction of the artificial floor of the open ocean kelp farm.

Option Three: Ocean Based Nuclear Power

The safest place to build a nuclear power plant may be in the ocean. The power plants can be located hundreds of miles from the nearest city or village, thus minimizing the impact of any radiation release. The predictable storm serge and effects of earthquakes are much easier to design around when the reactor is located on a platform that floats.  To make it even safer the power could be generated by a sub-critical nuclear reactor that uses thorium as a fuel instead of uranium. In this type of nuclear reaction the reaction is initiated by a proton beam aimed at a thorium target. The power output would be between 10 and 20 times the power required to create the proton beam. If the beam is stopped the reaction stops. 

Molten salt reactors can operate at much higher temperatures than light water reactors. The ORNL experiments operated at 650 C. Designs are on the drawing board that would operate at over 1000 C. At these high temperatures The heat from the nuclear reaction can be used to generate hydrogen by high temperature dissociation and the waste heat would be used to power a conventional steam power turbine. It may even be useful to consider a final stage that uses hot water from the steam condenser to power the high temperature side of an OTEC based low pressure turbine. As with the wind platforms the end product could be anhydrous ammonia or other energy intensive materials, such as aluminum or steel. 

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