Marine molten salt reactor technology could be used to generate green ammonia and methanol from seawater to fuel ships
A panel of technical experts debated the potential for using nuclear power for maritime purposes at Riviera’s Advanced atomic: a zero-emission energy revolution for ocean transportation webinar. This event, sponsored by Core Power, was held on 8 March 2021 as part of Riviera’s Marine Fuels Webinar Week.
On the panel were Core Power (UK) chief executive Mikal Bøe, Anglo-Eastern Univan Group chief executive Bjørn Hojgaard, Green Marine Associates owner Dr Edmund Hughes and Lloyd’s Register global head of risk management Vince Jenkins.
They discussed how marine propulsion in the future could involve nuclear technology akin to the advanced micro-reactor systems being developed. These could be based on marine molten salt reactor technology being developed for testing in the US.
Dr Hughes explained how the maritime industry needs to consider nuclear power technology for implementing its goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions. “We need to take atomic technology seriously,” he said. “Shipping needs an energy transition, so it is about which energy to use to achieve the carbon intensity and zero-emissions targets.”
IMO has set targets to reduce carbon intensity and greenhouse gas emissions from the industry in 2040 and 2050. Alternative fuels are already being used, such as LNG and LPG, some are under development including methanol and ammonia, and a few potential fuels are being considered.
“We need to be more sustainable going forward,” said Dr Hughes. “Shipping needs to reduce emissions – there is a clear agenda, and the 2050 target is just a stepping stone towards decarbonisation within this century,” he continued.
He expects the shipping industry to respond to the challenges of climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions without impacting global trade. “We are looking at the fourth propulsion revolution,” Dr Hughes said. “There are a number of challenges. For its energy efficiency and lack of emissions, nuclear advanced technology with modular reactors will need to be considered.”
Mr Bøe agreed and said this advanced technology is a commercially attractive, safe and reliable means of running merchant vessels with zero emissions. “This technology is a game-changer,” he said.
“Our industry is facing major challenges and we are looking forward to bringing a revolutionary way for most to benefit from,” he said. “This molten salt reactor technology is changing the way we do things and is radically different from old nuclear power plants.”
Core Power is a lead partner in a joint venture consortium of major corporations to build the first marine molten salt reactors. It is designing a prototype reactor with funding from the US authorities ready to start testing in 2024. A key element of this project is to develop mass manufacturing of mini molten salt reactors for marine and industry.
“Molten salt reactors are a different form of atomics. It has energy density 2M times more than diesel, so there are huge amounts of stored energy,” said Mr Bøe. “They are 97% fuel efficient and there is little waste.” These could be built to generate 15-50 MW and have a lifetime of 6-30 years.
“They can be built for a dynamic environment to cope with pitching, rolling and vibrating with no operations issues,” said Mr Bøe. “There would be few moving parts and minimal maintenance, and with low-cost mass manufacturing, running costs would be below diesel and LNG.”
One of the potential applications is for a fuel production storage and offloading (FPSO) ship. Its molten salt reactor would produce enough power to combine hydrogen from seawater with nitrogen in the air to form green ammonia, or carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to generate methanol for shipping.
Smaller versions could be installed on ships to operate without intervention for 30 years, heating steam to go through a turbine to generate electricity for propulsion.
“The energy density we get is a unique opportunity for shipping to go to a zero-emissions future,” said Mr Boa. “We have to do it by 2050 anyway, so let’s get started now.”
He lists the operational advantages, as there are no propeller shafts, no torque curve, no engineroom, and an opportunity to design more efficient hullforms.
“A fully electric ship with massively enhanced security features could do 10 knots more than their diesel forefathers, with no bunkering nor oil spills. Ships can even deliver electric power to ports.”
Mr Hojgaard was optimistic about the potential of molten salt reactor technology in shipping to enable the industry to cut emissions and reduce the impact of climate change. “Nuclear is the answer and the sooner we can adopt atomics, the sooner we can do something about global warming,” he said. “Molten salt reactors cannot be compared with the old nuclear technology.”
He anticipates ships will be ordered with this technology on board because of the operational advantages. “Ships will be able to run for 25-30 years without refuelling,” he said. “The most complex part will be the steam turbines.”
Mr Hojgaard is also positive about the afterlife for these reactors when ships are ready to be recycled. “We could take out the core, refuel it and use it on other ships,” he said. “Nuclear waste would be very small as new technology uses 98% of the fissile material.”
Mr Jenkins provided perspective from a class society which produced guidelines on the maritime use of nuclear power.
Lloyd’s Register’s 2010 draft provisional rules provided a high-level framework for developments. Acceptance of rules would be required by both land-based nuclear and maritime regulators, said Mr Jenkins. “There needs to be integration of a licensed reactor into a ship,” he said. Rules would be goal-based covering design principles and detailed engineering. Nine goals would cover engineering and safety systems, hull structures and radiation protection.
Under Lloyd’s Register’s provisional nuclear propulsion rules, there would be a design authority and a duty holder. The design authority would be a group of people from various organisations charged with the overall responsibility for the safe design, construction and operation of a nuclear-propelled ship and whose members are acceptable to the nuclear administration and Lloyd’s Register.
Once the ship is completed, a duty holder would become legally responsible for the operation of the nuclear-propelled ship and its eventual disposal and decommissioning.
Mr Bøe said after the success of the first molten salt reactors, the first commercial reactor for a newbuild ship would be ready 2028-2030. “We are talking with shipowners, and some are interested in this technology, and talking with a few shipyards about the technology,” he said.
Around three quarters of the attendees of this webinar agreed with Mr Bøe’s optimism, with 76% of those responding to a poll question saying they expect to see ships using atomic power in the future.
Even more unanimous was the response to the question whether the energy density of a fuel is important, of which 90% thought it mattered.
There was also enthusiasm for developing FPSOs to produce green fuels. 84% of the attendees agreed there would be floating assets using atomic power to produce zero-carbon fuels in the future.
When they were asked whether nuclear power is a viable solution to decarbonise the shipping sector by the end of the century, 47% agreed and 42% strongly agreed. Just 6% disagreed and 5% strongly disagreed.
They were then asked whether governments should support a demonstrator project for a merchant ship fitted with an advanced reactor, with 80% saying yes and the other fifth saying no.
There may be barriers to adoption and implementation of atomic power generators in ships. Attendees were asked their opinion on what might be a barrier to atomic ships of the future, 61% of those responding thought it would be public acceptance, 17% said lack of existing regulation, 16% thought it would be perceived cost and 7% because it is a different technology.
On Riviera’s Advanced atomic: a zero-emission energy revolution for ocean transportation webinar panel were (left to right) Core Power (UK) chief executive Mikal Boe, Anglo-Eastern Univan Group chief executive Bjørn Hojgaard, Green Marine Associates owner Dr Edmund Hughes, Lloyd’s Register global head of risk management Vince Jenkins
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