Wednesday, May 31, 2006

What Price: Nuclear Power?

What price will we pay for nuclear power? The price of uranium has now risen beyond $40 per pound after spending many years at around a quarter of that. One is reminded of the recent surge in oil prices, and it does enmesh into a prognosis that energy is going to become increasingly expensive, and probably rare. Although many other metals, notably copper, have also experienced a huge rise in their cost on the open market mainly from a massive demand for them in China, uranium has attracted interest from people who previously had paid no attention to it or indeed to nuclear power at all. This is a boon to the industry, but any benefits might prove purely short term gains, as speculators, who may well leave as quickly as they came, are thought to have caused some of the escalation in the price of uranium. There are now around 300 different companies who supply uranium, and it is generally believed that the world will need increasing quantities of it as a "primary" source (i.e. as dug out of the ground) in order to decrease its reliance on "secondary" uranium (i.e. as recovered from used nuclear fuel rods by reprocessing, or as fabricated from dismantled nuclear weapons). I was recently told by someone from a well known British nuclear energy company that the U.K. had sufficient uranium reserves in the form of nuclear warheads to provide the nation's 20% share of its electricity production for 100 years. That, I presume would mean using fast breeder reactors. In any event, the rising demand for nuclear power in China, Russia, India, the U.S. and the U.K. will necessitate the increased mining of uranium, although India is fortunate in having substantial reserves of thorium (232) which can be converted into the fissile nuclear fuel, uranium-233 by irradiation with neutrons, so this country may be less dependent on the flexings of the world uranium market.
However, as with "Peak Oil" there are few indicators that more uranium is in the pipeline. In both the years 2004 and 2005, world production of uranium was around 40,000 tonnes, and 2006 looks about the same. It is interesting to compare this figure with the approximately 75,000 tonnes of uranium that is actually "burnt" by the global nuclear powered electricity industry, and so nearly half of it must come from "secondary" sources, according to simple arithmetic, as has been the case for the past twenty years. There is considerable disagreement as to exactly how much uranium exists on Earth. It is true that along with other metals such as tin, tungsten and molybdenum, uranium is not geologically rare. However, it is the quality of the ore that is at issue, and there are only available reserves of high-grade uranium ore estimated at around 3-4 million tonnes, which is just sufficient to empower the world's static nuclear power industry for about 50 years. Any envisaged expansion must secure more uranium, or the current proposal, emphatically spoken of by the U.K. Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is at most a hugely costly short-term measure, and probably best avoided. Fast breeder reactors were heralded as "the future" in the 1970's, but little development of this technology has in fact materialised since then, mainly due to the perceived risks of handling plutonium as the reactor fuel, and the necessity to use liquid sodium metal or the liquid alloy of sodium and potassium, which explodes on contact with water, as the "coolant" (heat exchange medium). Neither ordinary (light, H2O) water nor heavy water (deuterium oxide, D2O) can be used to cool a fast breeder reactor since these materials moderate (slow down) the fast neutrons that are most effective in "breeding" uranium-238 into plutonium-239 as the fissile nuclear fuel.
Ultimately, the stage is realised at which more energy must be expended in extracting the uranium fuel than is actually recovered by its use in a nuclear power plant - a clearly self-defeating exercise, particularly if it is true that we need to employ nuclear in order to reduce our carbon emissions; obviously we would in this case be producing more CO2 by using nuclear than without it. The issue of security of supply remains a thorny matter, as Europe (which includes us in the U.K.) buys all its uranium from Russia, who get much of that from Kazakhstan, and one can only speculate upon the political situation that might prevail in 10, 20 or more years in this rapidly changing world, upon which we witness the shift in economic and political clout, which seems mainly to follow available resources and their implications. Perhaps the current "suppliers" of the various fuels we all depend upon (oil, gas, uranium and coal) will find it more expedient to simply hang on to them for their own use, rather than selling them on for cash.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Water: Drought in the U.K.

2006 seems to be a year for decade anniversaries: other than the oft applauded win of the World Cup by England in 1966, mostly of less than happy events. 40 years ago (also 1966) in the South Wales of my boyhood we witnessed the Aberfan Disaster, when a slag-heap "slipped" and engulfed a school wiping out, it is said, an entire generation. 20 years ago the unit 4 reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in what is now Ukraine. 30 years ago we had severe water shortages and fires, mostly caused by the extreme heat of the summer in 1976, and some by arsonists. Such was the extent of the drought that standpipes were introduced in some areas, the mains water was switched off and it was necessary to queue up with buckets to collect enough water for drinking, cooking and washing. Cars went about dirty, as the traditional British Sunday morning activity of "cleaning the car" wastefully with a hosepipe had to be suspended. Hosepipe bans had long been introduced by this stage of the season. Now it appears, we will suffer water shortages once again.
It is mainly the south east of England that will be affected, for various reasons. Number one is that about 20% of the entire U.K. population lives here, and accordingly the water demand is particularly high. Secondly, it doesn't rain that much in these parts, and both problems are compounded by the antiquated infrastructure used to deliver water. The latter is common throughout the country, but the pressures on demand in the south east are sufficient to lay bare the threads of the problem. Worst hit is Kent at "High Risk", with Greater London and its surrounds coming second in the "At risk" category. The rest of the country is at "Normal risk", so it's business as usual to the north and west of this corner of England. Wales, as I well remember is not short of rain: my childhood image of that neck of the woods is one of rain pouring down upon and running off grey slate roofs. I recall that the west country (Gloucestershire) where we moved to next was similarly provided with rain. I also remember the fresh green lushness and smell of the earth of both regions, especially after a good rainstorm, in those simpler times.
The aspect of "leakage" from the pipes used to transport water around the various parts of the country is very serious, since anywhere up to 25% of the water is lost en-route. This sums up to a total of 3.6 billion litres of water every day - a staggering total when one considers that in the U.K. each person uses an average of 150 litres, and so this amount of "lost" water would be enough to provide for 24 million people, or 40% of the entire U.K.'s population of 60 million. It could meet the water requirements of the south east of England twice over for that matter!
In all probability, if these holes in the infrastructure were plugged-up, there would be no water shortage, but to do so costs money, and therefore the price of water "at the tap" would increase. Since much water is used commercially, there would be a knock on affect in the price of other goods and services too, much as we shall see as we slide down the pricey edge of Hubbert's Peak, following Peak Oil, trumpeting out the age of cheap oil.
It is pretty much the same problem with providing that other essential: energy. The most cost-effective action would be to cut-back on waste, and implement energy efficiency schemes. We could easily use about half the water and less than half the energy that we do now, whereupon many of our problems would be eliminated: water shortages in the south east and the need to build a new generation of nuclear power plants, but some bizarre system of accounting always seems to get in the way of common sense; that and lack of clear elected leadership.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Hydrogen City: Independent of Oil.

A group of Danish companies have just released a visionary concept called H2PIA (to sound like "utopia") for the construction of the world's first hydrogen-powered city. The idea of using hydrogen as an energy source is not without its critics, including myself. It is a wonderful idea in principle, being so clean as a "fuel" that children could drink the combustion product from it "pure water" unharmed, as it dripped brightly from the exhaust pipe of a fuel-cell powered "green car". However, hydrogen is not a fuel, but an energy carrier, and it is necessary to generate the hydrogen in the first place using some primary form of energy, e.g. by reforming methane (which produces CO2) or by the electrolysis of water, which is impractical on the scale required to substitute for our current petroleum based fuel requirements using renewable sources of electricity. Interestingly, "petrol" is also an energy carrier, and contains a vast amount of energy generated by the geology of the earth over probably millions of years, as is true of all carbon based "fossil" fuels. Energy in the form of hydrogen, in contrast, would need to be locked in on a rather shorter timescale.
H2PIA is far more ambitious in concept, though, and aims to fuel an entire city using hydrogen, not just its vehicles. It is similarly based on fuel-cell technology, and the Danes plan to begin building it next year. The concept is based upon an almost utopian system of ethics: Freedom, Clean Energy; Creativity and Innovation. This sounds to me like something the European Union would have funded in the past, and maybe they still will? One great advantage is that the citizens of H2PIA will be independent of oil, which sounds fine, but an answer to the question of where the hydrogen is to come from is not obvious, not to me at least. I am not aware of any "hard sums" relating quantity to renewable energy provision, and so I am not yet convinced as to the viability of the scheme. However, if they can get around this matter they would indeed have "freedom". Clean energy: sure, if they can produce all the hydrogen from sun or wind, that would be true, but as I say, I would need to see some hard sums, including energy losses (e.g. at least 50% overall for water electrolysis and fuel-cell "combustion", even allowing for an at best 20% capacity factor efficiency for wind-energy).
Creativity and innovation? Who could argue that the notion is neither of these? It would bring together different kinds of business, research institutes and policies and obviate nasty smelly cars in a sustainable way. Again, I would like to see the sums. Perhaps it is practicable for a small city although as I have shown before, substituting the entire national fuel requirement of petrol by "renewable" hydrogen, e.g. from wind-power is not a realistic proposition.
H2PIA would be a complete urban community, with residential houses, businesses, shops, cars and roads. i.e. On the surface, it would look like a normal community, with all the amenities of say my own, the village of Caversham, with its population of just less than 10,000. It is intended to use cutting edge Danish technology, in terms of energy efficient buildings constructed from modern materials, and fabricated according to the latest energy research, so that energy efficiency is an intrinsic feature of the concept.
H2PIA Public: this is the city's central hydrogen production, storage and distribution network, and contains a central CHP (combined heating and power) plant based on hydrogen fuel cells. The hydrogen "filling station" would also be here, where you could load the car up with it.
H2PIA Share: this is the town centre with its stimulating mixture of shops, public spaces, businesses, recreational areas and all other amenities. It is claimed that on a deeper level, here H2PIA will provide the circumstances that allow for a fusion of work (yes, people will need jobs amid the concept), leisure and fun - and create a context for optimism, creativity, joy and life and confidence in the future. Steady on! This really does sound like utopia.
Villa Plugged: plugged constitutes a communal residence for the younger town residents, and is an open, creative and inspiring milieu, created by young people - for young people. Villa plugged gets electricity and heat from the central electricity supply.
Villa Unplugged: is created for families who enjoy light, air and freedom of movement. The villas are not attached to the communal energy supply, and manage their own personal storage of hydrogen and energy production for their homes and cars. Although presumably, they can still fill-up at the central store?
Villa Hybrid: (no, not cars), but this is a family residence where the concepts of plugged and unplugged are combined and so the families produce their own energy but are also connected to the common energy grid which they supply with any excess energy (electricity) they might produce. Interestingly, the car is also part of this and is made use of even when it is not on the road, when its fuel cell produces energy for the common grid.
It all sounds like communism to me: a great idea, but I doubt its egalitarian ideals would work smoothly in practice. Nonetheless, I shall watch this project with interest.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Water of Convenience.

It requires 50 litres of water to produce a single pack of lettuce, as stocked on the shelves of a typical high street supermarket. This is a striking reflection of the way modern western society squanders an increasingly precious resource, which along with oil will engender future conflicts and wars, as their supply dwindles in the face of a rising global population. I have written on the subject of water in a previous posting "Water Water Everywhere - but less than we think, in which I refer to the quantity of water that is used per day by the average citizen of various countries around the world: so, if an average American uses around 500 litres daily and a Britain about 150 litres, many in Africa have to get by on less than 10 litres a day. Hence, the production of a pack of lettuce in Kenya is equivalent to the daily water ration for five people. Shocking!
There is a growing appetite among western consumers for "out of season" products, rather than following the natural growing season as was the case certainly when I was a child. One even looked forward to particular favourites "coming into season" following the months during which they would ripen and fluorish. Apart from local "farmers' markets" this is largely no longer the case, and we expect to go into the local supermarket to buy whatever produce we like, whenever we want it, and at as low a price as possible. In the developing world, the production of cash crops is one of the few means out of poverty, although such activities run against the conflicting demands of globalisation and sustainability.
India is a good example, where major companies such as Coca-Cola (which used to contain cocaine in its original 19th century formulation) are encouraged to open factories which consume vast volumes of the available water, while at the same time small farmers are committing suicide in recored numbers, in the hopeless face of drought.
The main problem is our culture of convenience, also known as the "throw-away society" which along with the "disposable family" is hardly a route to great contentment or to sustainable lifestyles. Increasingly, our own home-grown fresh produce is bagged-up rather than being sold loose. I have often noticed that when the latter option is available, the price/kg reveals that the containment in the bag increases the price by anything up to five-fold. I always buy loose, as a matter of principle in equal measure with economic considerations. The bottled water industry transports millions of gallons of water between different countries: as world water shortages soar, "water" may become a major commodity, with the price of shares in it in the ascendent.
We can all sow the seeds by which to change this convenience culture, on a personal level, by encouraging demand for locally produced food and shunning that grown in an unsustainable fashion in the third world, thus sending the message to suppliers that a different kind of market is emerging. On both moral and economic grounds this must desist: the problems of water shortage are self-evident, and can only become more acute as global warming, drought and loss of clean water supplies occur through e.g. saline contamination as sea levels rise.
It is instructive to look on the packet and see where exactly particular crops were exported from, e.g. tomatoes from west Africa, which require the use of desalination plants to supply enough water to grow them, such is the pressure on this basic resource, which it has been said is "more precious than gold". Indeed it is so, since we can all live without gold, but not without enough clean water.
The acclaimed biologist Paul Erlich concluded in his book The Population Bomb, published forty years ago, that the world population was growing so fast that food production could not keep pace with it. The crash that he memorably forecast did not happen because of a combination of vast irrigation schemes that were introduced in the developing world, and cheap chemical fertilisers, derived from gas and oil. Today the world grows twice as much food as it did a generation back, but it requires three times as much water to do so. Around three quarters of all water extracted from the environment - from rivers, lakes and accessible aquifers - is used to irrigate crops. The situation cannot be maintained, and an increasing base level demand from numbers of population many of whom aspire to a western lifestyle will push humankind over the edge of stability. Undoubtedly wars will be fought over water, and as a salient example, the Egyptian government has threatened military action against any upstream country that dams the Nile or its tributaries, such is the country's economic dependence on exports of vegetables.
Particular environmental stresses on water are worth mentioning. To produce one litre of Coca-Cola requires three litres of water. Around one Coca-Cola bottling plant in India the water table has fallen by 10 metres since it opened, sucking local farms dry. In Ecuador, rose production with its attendent heavy use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides has contaminated rivers and ground water with the loss of large numbers of animal and plant species, and tainting drinking water that people need. An explosion of coffee plantations in Vietnam has provided much needed fiscal wealth but water scarcities are now common both in terms of volume and contamination of what remains available. In China, paddy fields expel 2,000 tonnes of water for every tonne of rice they produce.
The implications for future rice provision are clear, since half the entire world's population will depend on rice by 2025, including the west which demands ever increasing amounts of this staple food.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Hybrid Cars are not so Green?

To set us all a good example, would be Prime Minister David Cameron, and actual governmental ministers Gordon Brown (more likely to become the next P.M. after Tony Blair) and John Prescott have all got hybrid cars. A "hybrid", in this context at least, is a car with a self-charging electric motor that runs alongside a petrol engine. The hybrid is generally perceived as a "green" conscience smoother for those who can't or won't give up their cars, and are prepared to pay around 10 - 20% more for that priviledge, although the edge is taken off that by a very low road tax of anly £40 a year, to encourage the adoption of these vehicles more widely. Significantly, hybrids are also exempted from the £8 a day congestion charge in London - which Ken Livingstone looks set to raise for other kinds of vehicle.
The realities of hybrid efficiencies have been called into question as a result of a new study commisioned by "Which?" magazine, that has investigated three different makes of car. As one example, the recently promoted Honda Civic was found to achieve a mere 28 - 34 mile per gallon fuel-to-road output, which is by far lower than the most efficient petrol or diesel powered cars, and around only half the 54 mpg value claimed in Honda's advertising brochures. David Cameron drives a Toyota Lexus RX400, but this only provided 25 - 34 mpg during the Which? experiment, and is around twice the fuel consumption of the most efficient diesel-run car. The U.K.'s best selling hybrid, the Prius, did manage 45 - 50 mpg, but again this is rather shy of the 66 mpg figure claimed for it. Nonetheless, since it is shown that the car produces 44% less CO2 than a standard "non-hybrid" equivalent, it is still a promising machine.
A senior researcher at Which?, George Marshall-Thornhill said he was "surprised" by these results, and offered a possible explanation for them. In essence, rather than doing an in-house, "wheel on rollers" type of determination of the cars' efficiencies, under controlled laboratory conditions, the cars were just driven around as they would normally be in practice, on a variety of roads and at a range of speeds, which surely is a more reliable measure of a car's performance in reality. A spokesman from Toyota said the "claimed" figures were produced by the vehicle certification agency rather than the manufacturer, and that "all cars are tested in the same way - and the published figures come from those tests. Which?'s figures would have been greatly influenced by the road conditions at the time". Well, of course they would, as indeed will be the case when anyone buys a car and drives the kids to school in it, goes off to work, or for any other purpose for that matter. Real life is not conducted under clinical conditions.
On another tack, Which? have looked into bio-diesel, aiming at motorists who want to "go green" without stumping up the extra cash to buy a hybrid car. It is the old argument being trotted out agin, that because growing the crops to produce bio-diesel consumes CO2, then 70% of CO2 emissions can be eliminated overall, from that pumped into the atmosphere by burning the stuff in cars. I applaud this more realistic estimate of 70%, as opposed to the innumerate "bio-diesel is 'carbon neutral'" claims often made for it. However, to grow "bio-diesel" crops on sufficient scale to replace the 54 million tonnes of petroleum fuel that is currently burned in the U.K. alone, every year, is simply impractical. I have done the sums before (please see my previous posting for the details if you are interested: "Biofuels - How Practical are They?"), and concluded that we would need about 5 times the total area of arable land in the U.K. for this purpose. In other words, even if we were to stop growing food entirely and turn all our fertile land over to bio-diesel production, we could still only provide 20% of current fuel use. Makes you think, doesn't it?
In Sweden apparently, 13% of new cars are now sold that run on bio-ethanol, mixed with 15% petrol. Sounds good, but Sweden is a fairly small country, and is all their bio-ethanol home-grown? I doubt it, since Sweden has a very short growing season. A lovely country, where people traditionally eat a lot of meat, got from animals that can graze the moss under the snow during the rest of the year, i.e. Rudolph and his friends, many of which are still radioactive (though healthy) as a legacy of Chernobyl. I shall look into the energy economics of bio-ethanol, but my gut instinct is that it is not much better than bio-diesel as a truthfully effective substitution for petrol (gasoline). Ethanol has poor thermodynamics as a fuel, and can only deliver around 60% as much energy as petrol, pound for pound. It is also extremely acre- (hectare) intensive as a crop.
Assuming that we wished to run the U.K.'s transportation requirements on bio-ethanol, and presuming further that an equivalent quantity of fuel could be derived per unit area as bio-diesel, the"bio-fuel" sum becomes worse since we could only provide 20% x 60 % = 12% of our massive 54 million tonnes annual fuel budget by its means.
Apparently Ford and Saab now sell cars in the U.K. that will run on the 85% bio-ethanol:15% petrol mix, but vide supra, this is merely hype and a conscience tax imposed upon the gullible. I deliberately don't run a car, and remain firm in my conviction that cutting the number of cars by about 90% (possible by localising communities) and cutting unnecessary plane flights, which consume about a quarter of all fuel in the U.K., is the key to solving the problems threatening humankind by "Peak Oil". 10% of our current petrol equivalent might be provided by alternative means, e.g. from gas or coal liquifaction, and even a relatively small contribution from bio-fuels, but not the equivalent of 54 million tonnes of it. I think we should forget about hybrids and focus more directly on limiting our fuel use in the first place.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Blair goes Nuclear.

A new generation of nuclear reactors is now vehemently "on" according to the U.K.'s Prime Minister, Tony Blair. There has been some conflict of opinion about this issue: on the one side is Professor Sir David King, the government's Chief Scientific Advisor, who believes that nuclear is the correct option to avoid CO2 emissions ("reduce" is a more accurate word than "avoid"), while Sir Jonathon Porritt, who heads the government-incepted Sustainable Development Commission panel is, on balance, opposed to the idea. It would appear that the coin has fallen on the face of nuclear. Indeed, at face value, there is some sense to the idea. Nuclear currently provides around 18% of Britain's electricity, and all but one (Sizewell B) of the present generation of reactors are due for decommissioning by 2025. If we don't replace them, then what?
On reading through yesterday's newspapers (The Guardian in particular) I don't see any mention of what type of reactors are to be implemented, and this is undoubtedly a key point. If the world continues to use fission reactors (which "burn" uranium enriched in the isotope uranium 235) it will run out of uranium within 50 years, and long before then, the mining, milling, extraction, enrichment and fabrication of nuclear fuel rods will become counterproductive in terms of the quantity of fossil fuel required to run the gamut of these processes. i.e. Nuclear will produce more CO2 by burning more conventional fuel than it generates in terms of electricity: a good case for cutting out the middle man, in this case "nuclear".
As an alternative strategy, the known reserves of uranium could be significantly stretched-out by a factor of about 60 (i.e. to last 3,000 years as a simple sum), if it were employed in fast breeder reactors, which convert the majority uranium isotope (238) into plutonium by in-situ neutron irradiation. However, this will render vast amounts of plutonium available: a wonderful weapon for terrorists or anyone else with a grudge. The one benefit of this method is that there will be less "depleted uranium" available for fabrication into armaments and missile warheads, which is what is done with the left-over uranium, after uranium-235 enrichment. Put another way, the uranium-235 is extracted by centrifugation of the gas uranium hexafluoride, since it is lighter than the uranium-238 version, which is hence depleted in uranium-235.
The enriched and depleted uranium hexafluoride are both hydrolysed (reacted with water) to form uranium oxide (U3O8). The uranium-235 enriched U3O8 is then used as a nuclear fuel, while the depleted (or uranium-238 enriched) U3O8 is reduced (a chemical term meaning "deprived of oxygen") to metallic uranium, a very dense material (weighing in at 19 grams per cubic centimetre; 1.6 times the density of lead) that either blocks a punch when made into the housing of a tank, or packs one when fabricated into the warhead of a missile.
In the latter case, the effect is particularly charming, since a depleted uranium missile tears its way into a tank, heating up in the process to around 1,000 degrees C. whereupon the metal ignites and exposes the enemy tank crew to a fireball of burning metal. Bye-Bye. So, fast breeders might discourage this eventuality.
It is not just the replacement of the contemporary nuclear power stations that is envisaged, however, since Professor King believes that we could realistically provide 40% of the U.K.'s electricity using nuclear. Clearly if the whole world were to follow this example, it would run out of uranium in just over 20 years, so I presume it is "fast breeder" technology that is intended. The French are committed to fast breeders in the long term of their nuclear power programme. We should heed their views, since France with its very limited natural resources produces almost 80% of its electrical power using nuclear, and are sensibly and well aware of the limitations of uranium fuel. Currently, all European countries, including the U.K., buy their uranium from Russia.The U.S. gets its supply from Canada - along with much of its oil. So, CO2 emissions aside, there is the issue of "security of supply". Since the U.K. has no reserves of uranium, it must depend on good relations between Europe and Russia to provide it.
Naively, one might speculate that supply is not "secure" of any resource not native to one's own shores; however, Europe has two years worth of uranium in stock, and it is presumed that if anything were to go awry politically, this would buy sufficient time to find a new source. Canada? The same concern applies to supplies of oil and gas, and the U.K., having used-up its own North-Sea provision and sold the rest off, is now a net importer of these precious fuels.
It is all rather worrying. Increasingly we are dependent on energy stocks that are honed from politically maverick regions of the world. Surely, a more appropriate strategy is to provide from our own resources - those of nature, sun, wind and water - but only having first eliminated all unnecessary and wasteful practices, such as those of draughty buildings and profligate transportation. Recently, the Oxford (university) Environmental Change Institute concluded that we could provide 20% of our electricity in the U.K. using "sea" power, i.e. tidal stream and wave power, which almost exactly matches the amount we are seeking to generate via Mr Blair's new generation of nuclear power stations. So, why don't we do it?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

China and U.S. "Head to Head" over Oil.

In 1993 China became a net oil importer, and has since then probed the globe in a frenetic quest to draw sufficient of it to fuel its ever thirsty industrialisation programme, which aims to pull the majority of Chinese out of poverty. Fuel, therefore, is the only brake that will be applied to this accelerating vehicle, not CO2 emissions nor any other political rhetoric, which may be perceived as a prerogative of the rich, e.g. Kyoto. However, China's search for oil has rubbed Washington up the wrong way, in particular its preparedness to deal with perceived rogue regimes, such as Iran and Sudan, simply because it wants their oil. Iran it should be remembered is the world's third largest oil producer, after Saudi and Russia. Now, China may be about to bring angst closer to the U.S. homeland, by training its sights on a new oil domain, namely the western hemisphere.
Recently, Chinese state owned oil companies have been exploring extensive oil deals with Canada, who are now the main supplier of oil to the U.S. One of China's largest oil companies, Sinopec, wants to buy stakes in the Alberta oilsands, and the Canadian giant Enbridge is forging ahead with a plan to construct a pipeline at a cost of $2.5 billion to bring oil from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia, where it can be shipped across the Pacific to China. Although these putative deals remain on the drawing board, it must be a source of concern to Washington
that, as world oil supplies dwindle and tar-sand oil becomes economically viable, the U.S. will not keep a monopoly hold on such an increasingly precious resource. One might wonder in this oil-drying world why SUV's (4 by 4's we call them over here) that only do 4 miles to the gallon are so popular in the U.S. It doesn't make sense, but perhaps while Washington are concerned, at least for the future, while there is money to be made now, nothing will change very much.
Another hammer blow on the warning gong came recently from Venezuela, who are America's fourth largest oil provider. In his visit to Beijing, President Hugo Chavez signed new agreements that will allow Chinese companies to explore for oil and gas in Venezuela, and to set up refineries to process anything they do find there. This is a deliberate policy, as President Chavez has stated that he wishes to reduce his country's dependence on selling oil to the U.S., as he put it: "We have been producing and exporting oil for more than 100 years but they have been years of dependence on the United States. Now we are free and we make our resources available to the great country of China".
Now this is not good news in terms of world stability. As U.S. oil imports are expected to surge by 70% over the next 20 years in consequence of a combination of reduced domestic oil production (U.S. oil "peaked" in about 1970) and rising demand, the U.S. really can't afford to lose resource from these two countries, Canada and Venezuela, which together supply about a third of its imported oil. More saliently, China is even considering bidding for U.S. oil companies: according to the Financial Times, China National Offshore Oil Corp., which is the country's third largest oil and gas dealer, is looking at making a $13 billion bid on Unocal, America's ninth largest oil company. As this could be the thin end of the wedge, I envisage some governmental constraints being imposed "back home" in the U.S., as surely no elected leadership would want to see its country run out of gas in short order. Unless they think that any shortfall might be met by oil supplies from elsewhere in the world, when the time is necessary?
Thus the U.S. will become increasingly reliant on imports from politically tumultuous regions notably the unfurling Middle East, along with west Africa and the Caspian regions, presumably the latter in competition with Russia, e.g Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. This is in contradistinction to President Bush's pledge to make the U.S. less dependent on "countries that don't particularly like us". many in Canada and Venezuela are of the opinion that the U.S. has taken them for granted and that a bit of competition from China might be a good thing, and could provide some political leverage over Washington in such issues as trade disputes over lumber and beef in Canada, and economic sanctions for human trafficking in Venezuela.
Until recently, China had concentrated on the Middle East, especially on Iraq. However, the arranged chess-board was wiped clear of pieces by the 2003 war, as a consequence of which China lost its stakes in Iraqui oil. This above all has changed China's view and sent its scouts further afield to look for alternative sources. It is estimated that by 2020 China will need 600 million tonnes of oil per year (triple the current consumption) to fuel the rise in numbers of cars, office and apartment blocks, and other symbols of industrial growth. Frankly, I doubt that meeting this demand is possible, but will in any case prove a tug-of-war with the rest of the world, and particularly the U.S. Now we are a net oil importer, I wonder how these islands of the U.K. will stand-up in the contest?
Under the rule of Mao Zedong, China industrialised rapidly, but within a philosophy of sustainability. That China should be self-contained and independent of the outside world, in terms of oil from its own production in the northeast of the country, near the city of Daqing. That was then. Now the government's quest to secure foreign oil fields is fuelled by the fear that one day there will be insufficient oil to satisfy worldwide demands, i.e "Peak Oil", and that China will be left high and dry. In international relations expert at Fuadan University said: "If the world oil stocks were exceeded by growth, who would provide energy to China? America would protect its own energy supply. The U.S. is China's major competitor".
All of these considerations are undoubtedly true. Self evident, one might say. There are a lot of us on the planet, with widely disparate qualities of life in terms of economic wealth (and indeed other measures of wealth, beyond just material possessions and a bank balance). However, the driver to industrialisation in countries like China, India and Brazil is an aspiration to a "western" lifestyle, which in truth even the west can no longer afford. The current industrial expansion is clearly unsustainable, since it is not possible to extract sufficient resources from the Earth to provide 6.5 billion people (9 billion by 2050, so it is estimated) with the material "comfort" that we in the west pretty much take for granted. If the west can't carry on in this way, then what hope for the "developing" nations.
I can envisage a day when the world is far less oil and energy intensive, simply because there are insufficient resources remaining to permit undue profligacy in these matters. Perhaps by that stage it might be a fairer, more "even" world with less materialistic values. Maybe. Maybe not. But even if we do get there, I think we are in for a pretty bumpy road along the way.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Zeolites and World Markets.

Given that the current world production of zeolites amounts to around 4 million tonnes annually, a resource that shows no sign of running-out, it is of interest to predict how this market may behave , say to 2010. As I have noted "Zeolites - La Roca Magica" and "Zeolites - the Stones that Boil", these are unique materials with many highly important applications, particularly in environmental chemistry. They are hydrated aluminosilicates consisting of a negatively charged framework of micropores of molecular dimensions (usually less than 13 A in size) whose charge is balanced by sufficient positively charged cations to provide an overall electrical neutrality. In naturally occurring zeolites, the cations are mostly of the alkali and alkaline earth metals, respectively sodium and potassium and calcium and magnesium. The first mineral to be classified as a zeolite was discovered in 1756, since when about 48 natural zeolite types have been identified.
The most common natural zeolites are analcime, chabazite, clinoptilolite, heulandite (there is some speculation as to whether heulandite and clinoptilolite should simply be classified as one mineral), laumontite, phillipsite, ferrierite and erionite (which due to its fibrous nature and high iron content is a Class 1 carcinogen). Overwhelmingly, clinoptilolite is the major zeolite used for commercial applications, while chabazite and mordenite are used on a lesser scale. In an effort to exploit its extensive deposits in the United States, laumontite has come into focus as a potential commercial product. A further 150 zeolites have been artificially synthesised, the first of which was made in 1949 in the Linde division of the Union Carbide Corporation in the U.S. (Linde A, or zeolite A), and the most commercially important are zeolites A, X, Y and ZSM-5.
The natural zeolites have not gained the commercial niche-market of the synthetic forms, mainly because of limitations in availability (need to import), large variations in mineral composition (synthetic zeolites are more uniform in composition, don't need to be extracted from surrounding tuffaceous rock "tuff", clay and limestone etc), crystal size (synthetic zeolites are more uniform in this respect too, although the grains of them tend to be larger than those of their natural counterparts), porosity and pore diameter. Synthetic zeolites are generally constructed around an organic "template" which defines the above properties more precisely than nature does.
Nonetheless, natural zeolites are used on a huge scale for more low-tech applications, particularly in environmental clean-up operations, cat-litter, animal feed, fertilisers, aquaculture (fish farming), soil amendment, radioactive decontamination, industrial water softeners, heavy metal removal, heat storage, solar refrigeration and pollution control and overwhelmingly for use in light-weight cement: mostly in China, which uses 2.5 million out of the annual 4 million tonnes mined globally for this particular purpose.
The largest market for synthetic zeolite is as a water softener "builder" in detergents. As an alternative to "phosphates"which were found to cause algal blooms in lakes, around 1.3 million tonnes of zeolite A is used annually. The traditional sodium tripolyphosphate has been banned on environmental grounds, although the problem of algal bloom is not entirely eliminated since most of the "phosphate" originates from human activities, including agricultural use of "phosphate" fertilisers. With market saturation and production overcapacity in the regions of the "Industrial Triad" the potential growth market for zeolites is in the Asia-pacific region. Synthetic zeolites are also used on a large scale in the petrochemical industry for catalytic "cracking" (an inherently "green(ish)" process since it enables the production of specific product fractions from oil, specialty chemical feedstocks (e.g. para-xylene for the polyester textile industry) using less energy than would be the case without them.
There are environmental drivers to reformulate gasoline and to reduce sulphur emissions which have provided a boon to the zeolite market. The catalytic activities and selective nature of zeolites can be tuned to a considerable degree by modifying both the zeolite framework and the cations it contains. Average levels of zeolites in fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) catalysts have risen in general and ZSM-5 is now used increasingly in such catalytic composites to increase olefin (alkene) production. In terms of product selectivity, zeolites show overwhelming advantages over the more traditional Lewis Acid catalysts such as aluminium chloride and phosphoric acid based materials. Although such zeolite catalysts are used on a scale of around 117,000 tonnes annually, i.e. less than one tenth that used in detergents, the value basis is around 55% of the global market.
In the future, a greater volume is expected for the automobile industry, since by the use of zeolites in catalytic converters, the more fuel-efficient "lean burn engine" can still be used but still keeping such empowered vehicles within projected emissions targets. The lean burn engine is efficient because it runs at a higher temperature than normal and converts more of the fuel to miles on the road. However, the higher temperature also tends to "fix", combine nitrogen and oxygen , thus pumping out more NOx pollution, which the metal-loaded zeolite catalyst is able to decompose before it can escape and cause problems.
The global market for natural zeolites is expected to grow from 3.98 million tonnes to 5.5 million tonnes by 2010. In the same time period, the consumption of synthetic zeolites is projected to amount to 1.86 million tonnes. The value of the combined market would then amount to $3 billion (and that is excluding the total value of the products themselves whose production depends on zeolites).
It all looks very rosy, and one might be tempted to make extrapolative projections into the future. The only problem is that the entire zeolite industry: extraction or synthesis, and the source of chemical feedstocks for the range of industries in which they are involved (including food production using chemical fertilisers) depends on oil either at some stage or directly or both. Such economic predictions are surely only valid so long as cheap oil is available, or else a completely alternative picture might emerge. Economists and industrialists, and all of us for that matter, should not be rhetorically swept away from the imminent reality that is "Peak Oil".

Friday, May 12, 2006

Chernobyl - How many Really will Die?

In reflecting upon the aftermath of the world's most devastating nuclear disaster, which happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power station 20 years ago in the early hours of 26 April, it is noteworthy to find that consensus has yet to be met on precise numbers of its victims.
The Chernobyl disaster occurred at 01:23 a.m. on 26 April, 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripiat, Ukraine. Because there was no containment building, a plume of radioactive fallout drifted over large areas of the former U.S.S.R., western Europe and the eastern United States. In the U.S.S.R., Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were badly contaminated, resulting in the evacuation and resettlement of over 336,000 people. Official post-Soviet data indicates that about 60% of the radioactive fallout landed in Belarus. According to the 2006 TORCH report, the disaster released more than 300 times the radioactive fallout from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, half of which landed outside the three Soviet republics: in total 34% of the Earth's surface was contaminated by it.
The countries of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, now independent, have been burdened with continuing and substantial decontamination and health care costs. Soviet-era secrecy has obfuscated arriving at an accurate figure for the number of deaths, for example Soviet authorities forbade doctors to cite "radiation" as a cause of death; presumably some other cause e.g. "pneumonia" was instead ascribed on death certificates in such cases. Most of the expected cancer deaths have yet to occur, and will be difficult to attribute specifically to the accident.
A 2005 report (Chernobyl Forum), led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World health organisation (WHO), concludes that 56 direct deaths are a result of the immediate events at Chernobyl. This is the sum of 47 "liquidators" - those sent in immediately to stabilise the blazing reactor and the 9 children who are known to have died from thyroid cancer as a result of ingesting radioactive iodine from the radioactive plume. They estimate that up to 9000 people, of the more than 6 million most heavily exposed to radiation from Chernobyl will die from some form of cancer as a consequence.
Greenpeace, however, has challenged these figures in a new report. Based on research at the Belarus National Academy of Sciences, the Greenpeace report concludes that worldwide 2 billion people have been affected by the fallout from Chernobyl and that 270,000 of them will develop cancer as a consequence of this, of which 93,000 will prove fatal. In contrast, the Chernobyl Forum, which is a group of 8 U.N. agencies along with the governments of those most heavily contaminated countries Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, is adamant that the toll is in the thousands only (not that this is insignificant!).
Gregory Haertl, a spokesman for the Geneva-based WHO said the organisation stood by its figures of 9000, while Greenpeace anti-nuclear campaigner Ivan Blokov has accused the IAEA of "whitewashing the impacts of the most serious nuclear accident in human history".
As I noted in my previous posting "Chernobyl (26th April 2006); 20 Years On" it is not only the deaths that occurred directly or even those that may subsequently be attributed to the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster itself, e.g. cancer and other diseases of radiation exposure in relation to those who were thereby contaminated. The decline in social conditions, fragmentation of communities and a pervading spirit of despair has undoubtedly contributed to unhealthy lifestyle changes (e.g. cigarettes and vodka) amid the cloud of thinking that Chernobyl will "get you" or your children in the end, and the future is dark and hopeless. This may well have led to many more deaths or will do than Chernobyl did alone.
Official estimates from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are that around 25,000 people died by 2005 , but 20 years on, many of the "survivors'" descendents are still suffering the effects of the nuclear fallout. There are problems (also noted in nuclear workers - men) that radiation exposure of a parent who remains apparently healthy may show-up as birth defects in their children. Out of the 3 million people that the Ukrainian government recognise as victims of Chernobyl, 642,000 are children, and many of this population continue to live in the vicinity of the moth-balled power station, despite the fact that the soil and water are heavily radioactively contaminated for 30 km around.
Chernobyl's last functioning reactor was shut down in December 2000, and the 3500 people who still work there are mainly involved in maintaining the giant concrete sarcophagus used to contain further emissions of radiation. The initial shell was installed fairly rapidly, but over the years huge steel girders have been installed in order to prop up the foundations and external walls of the sarcophagus. It is thought that presently the sarcophagus is in a "satisfactory condition" but that it must be further stabilised before a second and stronger wall, nicknamed "The Arch" can be built. The 190 metre wide and 200 metre long "Arch" will be made in the shape of a half-cylinder and will literally slide over the existing sarcophagus: I presume thereby providing containment even in the event that the latter does finally collapse as has been feared practically since its construction, as it was - and had to be, given the prevailing circumstances - put up in a rapid and perhaps shoddy manner. The steel structure of the Arch will weigh in at more than 18000 tonnes - more than twice the steel used to make the Eiffel Tower.
As far as future emissions from Chernobyl are concerned, let's hope that is the end of it, but either way, the human legacy looks set as a perennial problem.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Bargain Nuclear Waste Disposal and China Nuclear Power.

It seems that the massive £70 billion cost of cleaning-up 20 of the U.K.'s civil nuclear sites, Sellafield being the largest, could be cut by up to 25% (£17.5 billion) if British Nuclear Group (BNG) is bought up by Washington Group, which controls a third of the U.S. nuclear remediation market. It is expected that the U.K. decommissioning programme could generate £2 billion a year, a lucrative amount, considering the initial outlay of somewhere between £250 million and £1 billion needed to buy up BNG, which is effectively "state-owned" and is a company with contracts to operate nuclear sites within the U.K., including Sellafield.
The government wants to privatise BNG, which is a part of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., by the end of 2007. Bidders will be chosen later this year, and then invited to submit tenders in the spring of 2007. The process will be a tough contest, and Washington will have to compete against other potential buyers with clout, incuding other "Americans", Bechtel and CH2M Hill and the U.K.'s own Amec.
Washington has the contract to clean-up the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and claims that it has saved the U.S. government $16 billion (around £9 billion) - also about a quarter of the original estimate, so this presumably is the basis of the competitive deal offered to the U.K.? - and that the timescale for its decommissioning has been reduced by 23 years.
Some are sceptical that such an apparent bargain might apply in the U.K., on the basis that the huge savings made in the U.S. stem largely from reducing the scope of the clean-up operations, which sounds almost like a suggestion of "cutting-corners". Washington challenge this criticism insisting that they have made their savings through greater operating efficiency and better use of facilities. One example they give is that they have saved $450 million by converting an old reactor at Savannah River into a plutonium storage facility, which obviates the need to build a new storehouse for it.
The president of the Washington Group Energy and Environment Division Preston Rahe said that if Washington do succeed in buying BNG it will reopen the THORP (Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant) at Sellafield. Now this will strike terror into those many hearts who protested vehemently against THORP being opened in the first place. It was closed last year following the discovery that radioactive material had somehow leaked from it. Washington also intend to continue production of MOX "mixed oxide". MOX is a mixture of Uranium Oxide (U3O8) and Plutonium Oxide (PuO2) fabricated into a fuel for use in nuclear power stations, which is derived from uranium and plutonium extracted from nuclear waste by "reprocessing".
In some respects, THORP is a good thing, since it literally consumes high level nuclear waste, and it can also be used to turn weapons grade uranium (90% uranium 235) and plutonium (239) derived from nuclear warheads into a fuel suitable for peaceful electricity generation. It would be one way to get rid of them all, if humankind wanted this agenda, rather than the U.S., Russia and U.K.'s intention to revamp their respective nuclear arsenals. I have been told that there is enough uranium and plutonium available in warheads in the U.K. to supply us with nuclear generated electricity (using breeder reactors) for 100 years.
Legislation was brought in during the Jimmy Carter period which prevents the export of nuclear waste from the U.S. on the grounds that to do so might encourage nuclear proliferation; however, it is expected that these constraints are likely to be relaxed. This raises the possibility of shipping nuclear waste from the U.S. over here for reprocessing, which Mr Rahe describes as "an interesting and creative idea". I doubt those opposed to THORP in the first place will share his views.
In terms of nuclear proliferation, the nuclear industry in China is rather interesting, and is a good example that the whole picture can't necessarily be viewed from statistics alone. Asia is a growth market for nuclear power, as it is for all other kinds of power required to quench its inexhaustable thirst for industrial growth. From 1996 to 2003, no new reactor was brought on-line in the U.S., nor was any such intention to do so been declared. In contrast, China brought 6 on line, plus another one in Pakistan during that same period. This should nonetheless be viewed in context, and the growth in the use of nuclear power is quite in line with the increased consumption of petroleum (gas has not traditionally featured heavily in China's energy-mix) and coal that has occurred. However, there are more ambitious nuclear plans afoot.
As China wrestles to diversify its energy industry, the consequent ecomonic and political reverberations will be felt around the world; notably in regard to securing an adequate supply of oil as the United States are also thrashing to achieve. Indeed, China's leaders think that using more nuclear power will reduce its reliance on imported foreign oil and help eliminate the palls of smog that burning the former fuel has left hanging over its cities. At present, 9 reactors provide 2% of China's electricity, which is just one eighth of the global average. However, the target is to raise this to 4 percent (40 Gigawatts) over the next 15 years by building 30 new reactors. This means building 2 new reactors every year (I know that's obvious but I thought I would stress the fact), which is quite an ambitious target.
Unlike most other countries, China has an especially mixed range of reactor technologies in operation within its borders, since it has used Canadian, French and Russian designs, and is considering buying another from the U.S. along with developing its own technology. For instance, at Tsinghua University, a "pebble-bed" reactor is being tested, which uses fuel "pebbles" - about the size of tennis balls and wrapped in graphite. It is believed impossible that the nuclear fuel could melt in this arrangement since graphite has a higher melting point than uranium oxide (I'm not sure graphite does actually "melt" in the conventional sense, but vapourises directly?) and acts as a shield over the oxide.
Despite the new research, the usual issues of radioactive waste and nuclear safety (Chernobyl) prevail, and the Chinese government may have trouble persuading utilities to help fund their putative nuclear expansion. To place this in context, a 2 Gigawatt nuclear power plant costs about $3 billion, which needs to be put up front (guaranteed anyway). Disposing of the 1000 tonnes per year of radioactive waste produced by the expanding industry is rather a headache but there are plans to expand a small facility in western Gansu province to deal with much of the spent fuel, although there are fears that in fact it will be the poorest areas that are forced to accommodate the waste in some form or another.
I note that the U.K. government's Chief Scientific Advisor Professor Sir David King is intent that in this country we will have at least one more new generation of nuclear power stations. I have written about this before, but I read it more and more frequently and in various different publications, most lately in "Chemistry World", so it does rather look as though we will maintain our present capacity with new, even if there is no actual proliferation of nuclear power.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Massive New European Wind Farm.

I note this morning that 2,000 wind turbines are to be installed in the southern North Sea by the Irish company Airtricity and ABB, the Swedish based engineering group, which will provide 10 Gigawatts (10,000 Megawatts) of power, sufficient it is thought to supply 8 million homes. This is part of the provision of a European supergrid, linking wind farms from the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, The Irish Sea and the Mediterranean. The great advantage of this system is that essentially the wind will always be blowing somewhere, and it is proposed this will lead to constancy of supply, which is a problem with a conventional wind farm: i.e. either you put up with a very up-and-down supply - which would be no good for most electrical devices such as computers and televisions - or you store the electricity in some way, e.g. by charging batteries of some kind or more nebulously, but as some think, in the form of hydrogen produced from that electricity by the electrolysis of water.
This sounds like a fantastic idea in principle. However, if I understand the proposal correctly, providing 10 Gigawatts (GW) of full capacity wind energy by 2000 turbines means that the capacity of each is: 10 x 10*9/2000 = 5 x 10 *6, or 5 Megawatts (MW). I know that turbines rated at 2 MW exist, but I thought that 5 MW was still on the drawing board, but I guess it will take some time to approve the plan and so the technology might well have moved on by then. O.K.
Now in terms of an actual generating capacity, since turbines don't run at full capacity most of the time, if ever, we need to multiply that figure by the "capacity factor", which is reckoned on considerable Danish and German experience at a maximum of 0.2. In other words we would get 0.2 x 10 GW = 2 GW in total from the 2000 turbine farm. So each home would get 2GW/8 million = 250 watts per unit. Now this is a useful amount, and using energy efficient light bulbs it could certainly light most houses, but it couldn't boil a standard electric kettle (about 2 kW) , but it could boil a lower capacity one if you simply waited about 8 times longer.

The annual electricity consumption of a typical U.K. house is about 3500 kWh/year or about 10 kWh/day. So at 0.25 kW (250 watts), this might supply 0.25 x 24 = 6 kWh/day or 2,200 kWh/year. If we work on more energy efficient devices too, then we are not far off our requirements. I am hopeful that this might work in fact, at least for the purpose of providing a domestic supply.

The 2000 turbines are to be installed in the southern part of the North Sea between Britain, Germany and the Netherlands. The companies involved have emphasised that the construction of the power grid itself will enable free access of electricity trade between European countries, which has always been a hurdle. A cable linking the grids over 1,000 km would stretch the length of an average weather front, and so would collect wind power from each farm contained in the network, to provide a constant level of power for those countries that are linked up to the grid, and get around the "on-off" aspect intrinsic to a single farm, i.e. the peaks and troughs are averaged out to a near constant baseline value.

I think this sounds promising. However, we still need to address the problem of how to substitute for cheap oil, and the cheap fuel that we get from it, in short order. The "super-grid" does not help here, and nor is it intended to. Certainly it would help delay the problem of "Peak Gas" (which much European electricity is made from) the date of which has been revised down to about 2030 from the 2100 I heard originally.

The success of the scheme depends on it getting regulatory support and financial backing from a bank (the European Investment Bank, say) and appropriate industrial partners. I wish it well.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Ponds, Leaks and "Lethal Beams".

According to Nirex, which is responsible for matters related to the storage of Britain's nuclear waste and decommissioning the plants that produced it, a lot more information (and time?) will be necessary before any determined effort can be made to clean-out the "cooling-ponds" at Sellafield, and to decontaminate radioactively polluted land both at Sellafield and other nuclear sites, and to sort-out the leaky waste-shaft at Dounreay, the fast-breeder installation located on the coast of Scotland. Dounreay is the name of a now ruinous castle on the north coast of Caithness, in the Highlands of Scotland, and is 9 miles from Thurso, a town that grew rapidly once the nuclear facility was established.
50 years back, the Sellafield ponds were an integral part of the programme which developed the U.K. into a nuclear power, both in terms of weapons technology and in the 1960's to provide electricity from that first generation of "Magnox" reactors. Now, the NDA (Nuclear Decommissioning Agency) intends to spend a third of its £1 billion budget on emptying them, and remediating any land that has been contaminated by leakage of radioactive material over the long time of their use, a strategy for which will be determined once the extent of this is known.
The "ponds" are radioactive junkyards, which contain machine parts and reactor components such as cladding from the magnox reactors, among others. (I have been told by an "old hand" that there are even old bicycles dumped in them). Two of the ponds are open, and are not a pretty sight. In fairness, the ponds and much of the older construction of the Sellafield facilities belong to a far more cavalier age.
British Nuclear group Sellafield faces a rather more immediate problem, namely a criminal prosecution by The Health and Safety Executive in connection with a serious leak of "radioactive liquor" inside a heavily shielded facility at THORP (the infamous Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant). Apparently the material had leaked out for nine months without arousing suspicion, to the extent that there is now enough to fill an olympic-sized smimming pool so radioactive that no-one can go anywhere near it. Since it not feasible to deal with the matter using robots either, I can only guess that it will just have to sit there, hoping that there is no leakage of that plutonium and uranium contaminated "liquor", otherwise the problem will become more urgent.
There is one other - more bizarre - incident too. Apparently an old cancer therapy unit (probably containing cobalt-60, which is an intense gamma-ray emitter) was being carried on the back of a lorry from Leeds to Sellafield for decommissioning. Apparently a safety-cap had inadvertently been left off the cargo before it made its 130 mile journey, sanguinely irradiating the picturesque route as it crossed the Pennines. Luckily, the highly focussed "needle" beam was pointing downwards (as it would for its purpose of irradiating tumours, when you think about the configuration of the procedure) so no harm was done. However, the haulage firm responsible for its transportation was fined £250,000 in February, I guess to make an example of them.
The independent Sellafield watchdog "the West Cumbria Sites Stakeholder Group" is undertaking an enquiry into the incident and its chairman David Moore has reassured the public that nothing of the kind can ever happen again.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Re: 'The "New" Chemistry'

As I mentioned in my previous posting, "The New Chemistry", my Alma Mater, the department of Chemistry at the University of Sussex (then called the School of Molecular Sciences, and now part of a Faculty hybrid of chemistry, biology, biochemistry, psychology and others, which in its heyday could boast of 2 Nobel laureates and I recall..7 Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS), including some of the world's most renowned authorities on organosilicon and organometallic chemistry), has announced its almost certain closure or rehybridisation to that end. There is a real problem in the physical sciences in the U.K., borne by the decline in manufacturing industry - which is in any case doomed by the prospect of "Peak Oil" - and by the fact that "science" is expensive. In a former life as a professor at one of the "new" universities, I was insisted that arts post-graduates should be funded - or their departments, in reality - at the same rate as science post-grads. I did indeed make the point that since we had to run the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR; and in "NMR Imaging" an adaptation of it, now called MRI, because uninformed people get understandably worried by the term "nuclear"), mass spectrometry and other facilities, compared with just needing the library (not a cheap resource either) a pencil and a pad of paper, this was nonsense.
However, it is the case that universities other than the lofty towers of the Great and the Good can't afford to run a chemistry department any more unless the government props it all up. This is no surprise, given the lack of industry - where I joined as a 16 year old school-leaver and then went on to study part-time at Croydon Technical College for the ONC and HNC, before attending Sussex University where I did my B.Sc and D.Phil (the same as a Ph.D, but being unofficially called "Balliol by the Sea" it had adopted that designation according to the Oxford traditions of those initially appointed to derive that institution). Having been on the receiving-end of the consequential years, I have occasionally felt a pang of envy at the idea of being appointed to a permanent academic post without the requirement of a formal interview - on a wink-and-a-nod, in the Great British Tradition - you were "one of the chaps" and that was that. You were in.
But science costs a lot of money. There is no level playing-field (a lovely expression based on the public school playing fields of again the Great and the Good).
In some institutions there has in all likelihood been a stage of arrogance and complacency - that surely "we" can't go to the wall as the Poly's and Colleges have, but a rude awakening has stirred the entire academic system of this country. It is a matter of simple economics, but is this a deliberate purpose or a consequential shadow of government will? Are "they" really "out" to slim-down the academic science system into a few "chosen" departments? Given the destruction of the (e.g. British coal) industry of the United Kingdom, I guess there is no perceived need for the quantity of scientifically trained people in the workforce any longer. However, to keep the numbers of young unemployed down, which would be a political thin-edge, we have to do something with them and hence education and training is the euphemistic alternative to the dole. I have heard and reprimanded students for saying something along the lines of "Oh I suppose if I wasn't here I'd be on the Dole". Great! What kind of an attitude is that?! But it is an attitude of no alternative or solid prospects.
The HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) has been quoted on the following remarks which are self-emphatic in explaining the current situation and nor are they particularly consoling that it will change. Even the Royal society of Chemistry has stated that we might be left with just 6 out of the hundred or so departments offering chemistry a decade or so back, when we had more industry - fuelled by oil, let's not forget that essential source of everything: The HEFCE had not been given enough "powers or political support", but had encouraged a "market" within which vice-chancellors were very powerful. Indeed, a vice-chancellor is now Chief Executive Officer of a multi-million pound annual turn-over organisation, and has to balance the books.
So, do we need or want science, or not? I think some determined and solid decision should be made beyond lip service and supplications to the future, and as with all other aspects of human society this must be balanced against natural and human resources. Where are we going as a human society? I would love to hear some clear guidance on this matter, otherwise we will simply trot-along in ultimatum to an outcome that perhaps we should have prepared for.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Gorbachev goes Green about Chernobyl.

As noted in previous postings, the 20th anniversary of the explosion at the Unit 4 reactor in the Chernobyl nuclear power station has now recently passed. In commemoration of this fact, and more poignantly its aftermath, the former U.S.S.R. president, Mikhail Gorbachev, who is also the Founder and Chairman of "Green Cross International" has called the leaders of the G8 nations to commit to the future provision of energy by the use of renewable sources and its more efficient use. This was sent along with a personal letter from Gorbachev in an "Energy Security" brief to leaders of G8 parliament countries and their heads of state (so presumably Her Majesty The Queen received one? Or Prince Charles, perhaps, who is highly committed to "environment" issues).
Fronted by Gorbechev, Green Cross International and "Global Security", its American Sister body, have urged the G8 to support sustainable energy, in part to the sum of $50 billion to create a "Global Solar Fund". I would guess that Jeremy Leggett CEO of Solarcentury, the UK's leading solar photovoltaics company would applaud this instigation, since Leggett is furthermore a director of the world's first private equity renewable energy fund, Bank Sarasin's New Energies Invest AG and serves on the UK Government's Renewables Advisory Board. Hopefully the two funds if placed upon the market together will not come into confrontation.
There is the separate issue of just what proportion of the world's current electricity usage might be provided even by $50 billion worth of "solar panels", however. I have heard it said that the entire U.S. electricity could be provided by covering one tenth of the area of Arizona with solar panels. I live in the village of Caversham in the U.K., not there, but from my travels in America I recall that Arizona is a pretty big place, so covering 1/10 of it (or that scale elsewhere in America, which by European standards is in total extremely large) would be a considerable undertaking. Would it even be possible to fabricate sufficient of them on a world scale - I doubt it very much, unless the other edge of Gorby's sword is used to smite the vast and rising energy use both in the developed and developing world, into something more realistically manageable.
Gorbachev believes that the Solar Fund would help the developing world in their rise as industrial powers and could be installed so to prevent "black-outs" (or "brown-outs", as in the infamous novel "entitled "Brown-out on Sunset Boulevard", brown-outs being somewhat less protracted and less extensive abrupt electricity shortages) in major cities with huge electricity and other energy requirements.
It is undoubtedly true that humanity is facing massive issues of energy security and supply - the societal consequences of failing to manage this task being practically unthinkable. An exponential expansion of renewables in general and solar, according to Gorbachev, is required to provide "clean" (i.e. non-polluting) energy in perpetuity, but I doubt the Heyday can be sustained. Once the crop is cut, unlike "hay", it cannot be grown again. Once the oil and gas are gone then that is probably that, and the scale of generating hydrogen by water electrolysis using renewably (solar?) generated electricity that would be necessary, along with a storage and supply infrastructure of a scale that no government or scientific advisor has dared even mention, as an alternative to that entirety is more than likely out of the question.
Once we have exhausted our existing resources, how will we have enough energy to fuel the fabrication of solar panels or indeed any other kind of sustainable resource.
Gorbachev argues on economic grounds that nuclear power is not the answer either, pointing out that the industry is kept running to a large extent propped up by government subsidies, in the U.S. to the extent of $260 billion in the years 1947 through to 1999. The same commitment to renewables was a meager 2.1% of that during the same period. The provision of nuclear is only a long-term option in any case if we convert the precious world resource of uranium to plutonium in fast breeder reactors. India is less immediately reliant on uranium, with its huge natural resource of thorium, an element that can also be "bred" into a fissile form (uranium 233) by injecting a neutron into the nucleus of thorium 232 (similar to creating plutonium 239 from uranium 238). However, even resources of thorium are ultimately exhaustible, hence the issue persists.
I'm all for renewables in principle, but remain unconvinced that they can substitute for the colossal and rising overall energy demand that humankind is placing on the limits of the globe. If we make a truthful commitment to cutting that first, we may be in with a chance of "sustainable humanity".

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

China Climate Change.

China is a rapidly industrialising nation and from the late 1980's it has changed from a producer of surplus energy to a net importer. In consequence it is now the case that China is the worst emitter of CO2 other than the United States. Since China is a developing nation it is not bound to hold-back its emissions by the Kyoto Treaty, and would probably be reluctant to do so as it works to industrialise itself out of poverty. The government there is nevertheless in possession of the facts about climate change and the nation is making efforts to find alternative sources of energy - including solar and wind-power - in an effort to reduce its emissions. In 2005, a report was published which reviewed the whole picture about China's energy and climate change and concluded that similar effects are to be expected in China as pertain everywhere else: for example, sea levels have risen by between 1 and 2.5 mm per year, and temperatures during the same period on average increased by 0.6 - 0.8 degrees C. Given its geography, climate change will render the China at risk of damage from sea level rises, drought, flooding, sand storms (e.g. from the Gobi Desert), tropical cyclones and periods of excessive heat (heat waves).
China is made up of different climatic zones and physical landscapes: the north west of the country is arid and semi-arid, and is particularly susceptible to forces of erosion; in contrast, a warmer climate might prove a driver for increased agricultural output in the north east. In the central and eastern regions, winters tend to be cold and summers are hot, and it is here that a booming building industry is demanding ever increasing amounts of energy to fuel it. The coasts of the south and east are densely populated and could be damaged economically by sea level rises, especially in the Zhujiang and Yangtze areas. It is China's large dependence on coal, which pays 75% of the national total energy bill that lies at the root of the problem of rising emissions, coupled with booming industry and rapid urbanisation. In the year 2000 China contributed about 15% of the worlds anthropogenic CO2, while America produced about 21%, but according to an analysis by the Pew Centre in the U.S., China will exceed America within 20 years.
In 1960, China's industrial sector burned around 300 million tonnes of coal equivalent, which doubled by 1980, and by 2000 that had more than doubled again; in 2004 the quantity accelerated to almost 2 billion tonnes, and exceeded the county's production output of 1.85 billion tonnes coal equivalent (tce). Hence in just a decade, China has shifted from being a net exporter to a new importer of coal.
There seems little doubt that the demand will continue to ascend as China is now a "developing giant" with a propelling economy, but the same problems that we see in more developed nations, of pollution and energy supply are now paramount there too. Can we really continue to "fuel the dragon", as I read a headline the other day, who's hunger grows unabated.
Although China has never been in denial about climate change it has maintained the view (quite reasonably) that it is developed countries who must bear responsibility for past emissions, and that they should also limit future emissions, helping developing nations such as there's to do likewise in the future by providing new technologies to assist them to that end. On the international stage, China considers that negotiations over climate change as central to foreign policy and that it and other developing countries need to defend their rights in regard to any treaty's and decisions.
Although China has refused to limit its emissions during international negotiations, on its own soil, China is working to diversify - to find ways for energy efficiency and new sources of it, including renewables. The reasons, however, are not mainly a desire to comply with the developed world's global climate policy but primarily matters of society and economy. That issues of security of supply and pollution are paramount, as they are in the U.K., and elsewhere. To this end, there is heavy investment ongoing in hydropower, nuclear, solar, wind and biomass - the whole portfolio that the U.K. government has also envisaged with which to provide energy up to 2050, as I wrote about in my very first of these postings. Impressively, south-west China is thought to be capable of producing 40 gigawatts of hydropower by 2020, which could supply dozens of cities with populations of around half a million.
As the negotions unfold in the wake of Kyoto, many are of the opinion that China will need to cut its emissions beyond 2012, but given the levels of poverty there, with mean incomes below $110 in 2004, there is still much development required before a significant elevation of living standards can be expected. It is in China's best interests to participate in the world efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change both internationally and in their own back yard. It seems likely that China will not so much reduce its emissions especially, but will provide some of the additional demands of its surging economic expansion using renewable sources.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Coal is the new "Green".

Is seems that coal is back on the agenda as a means to avoid troubles of energy supply, i.e. of "oil" from the Middle East. Some even claim that it will protect against global warning, although this is hard to believe as coal is by definition a carbon-based fuel and if you burn it surely CO2 will be released into the atmosphere, just the same as when oil or gas are burnt. Interestingly, in about 1900, when the population of the U.K. was about 40 million (now it is nearer 60 million) the per capita energy consumption overall was greater than it is now, so we have got some things right in terms of energy efficiency, and everyone has heard of the smogs of the 1950's, one of which is thought to have killed 4,000 of the population of Greater London - a "pea-souper" as such events were called in the amusing Cockney analogy of the air being about as non-transparent as pea soup. "The Clean Air Act" largely eliminated this phenomenon.The main problem was that particles were released into the atmosphere, coated with sulphuric acid generated by burning sulphurous coal, of sufficient smallness to be inhaled into the deep-lung. The ingestion thus of this material is believed to trigger heart attacks and brain aneurysms (similar to strokes but worse since the iron in the blood actually destroys the brain tissue).
But coal, once literally the black sheep of the energy family, is now being welcomed back into the fold. It was the burning of coal that provided the majority of the U.K.'s energy before the Second World War, hence the higher rate of consumption in the "good" old days. Coal is traditionally associated with "filth". Its extraction leads to slag-heaps. As a boy, growing up in South Wales, I well remember black-faced men emerging from the "pit", and coming home to strip-wash at the kitchen sink before eating their dinner ("tea" we used to call it), and maybe off to the pub for a few pints of weak, warm Welsh beer...or maybe off to Chapel, as the Methodist religion is known as colloquially in that area. "Bible Black" Dylan Thomas described the night as in the fantasy village of Llareggub in "Under Milk Wood", the name being "Bugger All" spelled backwards. Llareggub was reportedly changed to Llaregyb by the B.B.C. censors when the play was first broadcast. I also remember well the "Aberfan Disaster" in 1966, when a slag heap suffered a land slide and engulfed a school, killing off practically an entire generation of that town, Aberfan. My father helped-out in the rescue operations, afterwards.
In the first posting of this "blog" I mentioned that a commission by "The Royal Society" has determined that coal should be an important component of the energy mix that it has concluded to be essential for providing the U.K.'s energy to 2050. We may have changed some of our minds by then...who knows? Gas is no longer a cheap and seemingly inexhaustible source of energy, as it was in the 1990's when the nation switched to gas from coal in the follow-on to the decimation of the United Kingdom's coal industry in the mid 1980's. Effectively this was the end of the power of the Trade Unions, and to post an emphasis to that end, some of the pits were sealed up with concrete, which will need to be blasted back open if we are to ensure a domestic supply. Indeed, security of supply became a households phrase regarding gas when Russia cut-off its supplies to Ukraine last winter.
Richard Budge, who has been dubbed "King Coal" has been reported as saying that he has garnered sufficient cash (from a Russian businessman) to re-open a Colliery at Hatfield in South Yorkshire. This was indeed in the heartland of the industrial conflict overdriven by Arthur Scargill in 1985, as I remember it. Budge has also announced that he wants to build a carbon capture and sequestration plant in situ there, thus making the process cleaner and more "green" than in the bad old days. Presumably too, the technology for coal extraction has improved and is a less labour intensive and dangerous practice than is infamously remembered, especially by those of us who knew the mining villages back then, in my case in the South Wales of my childhood. In analogy, two German giants, RWE and E.ON have reported their intentions to run similar "clean coal" plants.
I believe that we still produce about 17% of our energy (that is the total budget) from coal, and this proportion looks set to rise. As far as the argument about CO2 emissions goes I'm not sure that burning coal makes much difference - indeed, we looked good in the U.K. in this regard when we switched from coal to cheap gas - however, it is the element of carbon capture that is key here, and could be applied to any carbon fuel driven plant, whatever its source, be that coal, oil or gas. I do have some reservations about the safety of this untested technology though - what would happen if a "well" of stored CO2 were to become suddenly released? I would reckon that the impact, both on local animal and human life - since CO2 is a suffocating gas, and is responsible for most deaths in the beer brewing industry - and longer term global warming could be catastrophic.
President George Bush proclaimed this year that America is "addicted to oil". Well, so are we and the rest of Europe, and the developing nations especially China, India and Brazil, so all in all, devising another source of energy is paramount, and coal of which there is plenty available around the world is a likely option for that. Coal provides something near to 75% of China's energy, and as the developing nations advance their process of industrialisation it will almost certainly prove a heavy source of electricity to enable that outcome. The developing countries, however, are less concerned with CO2 emissions, and so our best efforts will be drowned out by atmospheric CO2 contributions from elsewhere.
It would be false to think that the U.K. coal industry had died out, and indeed we produce about 20 million tonnes of the 50 million tonnes we consume every year, the missing 30 million tonnes being imported more cheaply from elsewhere (e.g. Germany) than we can dig it up on these shores. However, this may change, and with rising gas prices our coal may be the more profitable option. As ever, it is economic drivers that change behaviour, and I suspect that carbon capture will take a back seat ride in the longer run, while we await the results of the great "climate change experiment" that each and every one of us is taking part in and will, or subsequent generations of us will, witness.