Friday, March 30, 2007

Platinum Barrier to Fuel cells.

Platinum is a very rare metal. Since the amount of "new" platinum on the world market is around only 150 tonnes annually (about 1/50th of world gold production), and demand is already outstripping this supply, it is debatable whether enough of it might be provided to fabricate the putative fantastic number of fuel cells that will be necessary to "burn" hydrogen for the purpose of fuelling vehicles under the regime of the "Hydrogen Economy", and this may prove yet another nail in the coffin of this increasingly unlikely future scenario. Significant reserves for platinum production are highly localised, and over 90% of the world's production is concentrated in only two regions of South Africa and in Russia. Even in relatively rich ores, the proportion of platinum is very small. As a rough guide, the amount of platinum in these ores is around 3 parts per million, which means that one tonne of ore needs to be mined and processed, in order to provide 3 grams of highly purified platinum, which is about enough to make a small engagement ring.

It is pressure on curbing environmental emissions that is responsible for much of the increase in demand for platinum which is employed in catalytic converters, and takes around 41% of the total market, almost exactly the same quantity as is used to make jewelry. It might seem obvious to solve this problem by simply producing more platinum, but this is far easier suggested than accomplished, since platinum mining and production is attended with considerable difficulties. Most platinum mining is carried out underground, although some open-cast mining does exist. The actual mining of the raw ore is highly labour-intensive, and miners use hand-held pneumatic drills to bore holes into which sticks of explosives are placed, and the ore is blasted out before being drawn-up to the surface. The ore is then crushed and milled and then concentrated using "froth flotation" technology. The flotation-concentrate is then dried and smelted in an electric furnace at temperatures above 1,500 degrees C. Base metals, such as copper, nickel and cobalt are separated at another refinery and the residues in which the "Platinum Group Metals" (PGM) are concentrated are processed to separate the PGM from gold and silver.

This is the most difficult part of the process, involving a combination of solvent extraction and ion-exchange techniques, and the metals are finally extracted into "aqua regia" (or a mixture of concentrated hydrochloric acid and chlorine gas) ultimately obtaining gold, platinum and palladium. There are significant environmental impacts from platinum mining and production, which include groundwater pollution and the release of sulphur dioxide, ammonia, chlorine and hydrogen chloride into the atmosphere. However, the industry is beginning to address some of these problems. Nevertheless, 6 kilograms of carbon are emitted during the process per gramme of platinum recovered, which equates to about 300 - 600 kg for a contemporary fuel-cell powered car. It is also worth mentioning that currently, one such car costs around half-a-million dollars (US) to produce, although undoubtedly that price tag will fall appreciably if the technology becomes more widely adopted. The above figure for carbon emissions incurred during platinum manufacture for fuel cells assumes that 50 - 100 grammes of platinum are needed for an average fuel-cell powered car, but the current industry target is to achieve a loading of 15 g per 70 kW engine, while the US DOE target is closer to 12 g per 70 kW engine.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that world production of platinum could be doubled (while acknowledging there is no certainty that it could) from 150 to 300 tonnes per year, thus providing an extra 150 tonnes to make fuel-cells from, simple arithmetic and the best possible scenario would suggest that 150 tonnes x 1000 kg x 1000 g/12 g = 12,500,000 such fuel cells might be fabricated each year. This of course must be compared with a world total of 700 million road vehicles. Certainly, platinum can be recycled to maintain the status quo number of cars, but it would take at least 700/12.5 = 56 years before all that fleet were replaced by hydrogen powered fuel cells, by which time the oil-age will essentially be long over.

Add-in the tremendous cost of building and supplying the hydrogen infrastructure, including the manufacture of hydrogen (which is not a fuel and must be synthesised from other raw materials), and the problem is enormous. Of course, energy must be provided to power the platinum production processes and to finally manufacture fuel cells, but to make hydrogen as well. So we need to agree, at the outset, as to which sources all this energy will come from. There will be only about half the world's present reserves of oil remaining in 15 years time (much of which is used as a chemical feedstock for industry apart from as a fuel), and we might by that stage have introduced 187.5 million fuel-cell based vehicles, which is only one fifth of the current oil-powered number of them. I suspect too, that trying to utilise the existing transportation infrastructure might be conceived as the better option over subscribing to a huge and untested new network, and may well take precedent over an expansion of the fuel cell/hydrogen industry essentially from scratch, especially in terms of the production and management of hydrogen itself.

Will we ever run out of platinum? I managed to find some figures suggesting that the world reserve of PGM is around 71,000 tonnes (close to the resource of 80,000 tonnes). Since the proportion of platinum to palladium (the main contenders) varies from place to place (i.e. it is about 2:1 in South Africa but 1:3 in Russia) I shall take a rough estimate that 50% of this is platinum. That gives us 35,500 x 1000 x 1000/12 = 3 billion cars worth! So, actually running out of platinum doesn't seem to be the problem, it is just providing all the energy for the isolation of the pure element, and to fabricate the fuel-cells ultimately, make the new cars, generate, store and transport the hydrogen etc., that is! However, even if we can get around all these problems and bring the technology on line, the total number of vehicles worldwide will likely be reduced to about one quarter of the current number at best, in 15 years, and using conventional fuel-cells, closer to 5 - 10%!

The more sensible option seems to be to generate biodiesel from algae (admittedly, also an untested technology on the very large scale), and burn that in efficient diesel engines, thus being able to exploit much of the existing transport infrastructure. It seems likely that there will be a cut in the level of transportation as the world oil production level falls, whatever alternatives we try to bring in its place, but just how much depends on our choice of technology and how quickly we act upon it.

Related Reading.
"U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2005 - Platinum-Group Metals."
"Platinum Today: Resources in South Africa."
"Department for Transport - Platinum and hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles."

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Peak Oil - the ratchet slips another notch.

There is a general agreement that most of the oil there is to be found has now been found, and the world is using it up at an inexorable rate. My understanding is there are around one trillion (one thousand billion) barrels remaining in known geological holdings, and we get through just over 30 billion barrels of oil each year: thus, simple arithmetic suggests there are about 33 years worth left. Growth in demand is relentless, not only from the West but in the form of ever more aggressive efforts from China and India, who are undergoing an unprecedented phase of industrial expansion. To maintain the pace of this will to convert a dominantly agrarian culture into a technologically underpinned (and hugely populous) society demands oil, and in colossal quantities, almost certainly for longer than 3 decades. Clearly, supplying greater quantities of oil, year on year to meet rising demand, will exhaust its finite supply more quickly, and most likely there are rather less than 30 years of it in hand. As I stress, even that figure is based on simple arithmetic and may prove reassuringly misleading.

An oil-well is not like a water-well, and it cannot similarly and simply be drained to bottom. How much oil can actually be extracted depends on many factors, especially the local geology which dictates the nature, and permeability of the rock that contains it. I have mentioned previously some speculations that less oil will be finally obtained even from the giant fields in Saudi, because the enhanced recovery methods used to match the enormous world thirst for oil have probably damaged the rock rendering it less permeable, and in consequence less of the total oil will finally flow out through it, toward mostly Western oil refineries. It is noteworthy too that something like 9 million barrels of oil are extracted per day from Saudi, and the resulting empty-volume is filled by 9 million barrels of water. Thus a considerable demand is placed on a secondary resource - water - in order to extract oil.

Modern exploration for petroleum is an accomplished technical procedure. Seismic measurements shot in a set of 3-D grid-lines will reveal structural differences within particular strata, or geologic/sedimentary basins, and hence show any significant oil prospects where drilling might prove worthwhile. Today, it is fair to say that there are precious few areas where exploration for petroleum cannot be performed with success, if regional seismic studies indicate there is a good chance of finding substantial petroleum fields, i.e. those which might yield 100 million barrels of oil or more. However, in spite of assiduous efforts by the oil companies of the world, only a few of the major fields promised by geologists were actually found. Those accessible oil reserves had all been recognised previously, and most of their major fields already located. The upshot is that while many major finds were made in the late 1960's, which new off-shore production technology had brought on-stream to bring the OPEC producers to heel in the mid-1970's, no new major oil provinces (producing between 7 and 35 billion barrels) have been discovered since 1980.

Advances in 3-D seismic measurements and horizontal-drilling techniques have enhanced the rate of oil-recovery from known fields, but they have not proved the existence of major new fields, and so the known oil reserves of the planet remain finite. There persist contradictions over figures for resources versus reserves, and the picture looks misguidedly rosy when all forms of oil are accounted for on a single balance sheet - namely all the oil in the ground, oil from tar sands, and even from putative (i.e. as yet non-existent) coal liquefaction plants. Use of either term depends on whose pocket is being dipped into: "resources" means "your" money, while "reserves" is "my" money. Hence oil "reserves" are those that are profitable, while "resources" (which include everything that might be flagged-up, even on theoretical grounds) may be less readily obtained at any sensible fiscal or energy costs. Put another way, conservative bankers will not lend money on "resources" - "reserves" yes!

There are various estimates as to when the peak in production ("Peak Oil") will come. Some are of the opinion that it has already happened, but other than optimistic projections from the oil industry itself, all predictions are that it will be around 2010 (i.e. in a couple of years from now). Beyond the peak, production will fall. The world currently runs mainly on the "sweet", "light crude" oil which is readily refined into fuel, and as the wells are drained further down, and the barrel (literally and metaphorically) is scraped to yield further supplies over time, the quality of that oil will fall too, meaning that the oil provided is of a dirtier, "heavier" kind that is more intensive in effort and energy to purify and refine - hence it will become more expensive, both on account of its quantity and its quality. Expressed alternatively its EROEI (energy returned on energy invested), which currently stands at about 8, will fall. Oil from tar sands has an EROEI of about 3.

The result may be a collapse of the world economy, after which the societies of many Western countries will begin to look like that in Russia. The West (United States especially) will find itself competing with China for every tanker of oil. This places the fulcrum of world stability firmly in the sands of the Middle East. The New York Times printed an article in their March 5, 2007 edition, "Oil innovations pump new life into old wells,"which essentially sent the message that new technology casts doubt on the threat or practical reality of peak oil. In support of this view, they note that production is "up" from the Kern River Field in California and Duri Field in Indonesia, and that the Means Field in Texas is expected to yield double the original estimates, all thanks to innovations in technology. However, what was not mentioned is the rapid decline in production rates of an ever increasing number of large fields. Overall production from California and Texas has fallen markedly, in spite of all the technology that has been thrown there to try and avert this outcome.

The broad picture is that supplies of oil worldwide from large conventional fields are falling. If we were to believe that there is 4.7 trillion barrels available as a resource - that would suggest there is around 150 years worth left to us. However, it is unlikely that most of that will ever become a "reserve", because the EROEI or simply the requisite quantities of gas and water etc. required to produce it cannot be met. The truth is that the world is beginning to run out of oil, an eventuality we must now confront and plan-for.

Related Reading.
(1) Energy Bulletin, "Peak Oil: What the media don't want you to know," and references and links appended there.
(2) L.F. Ivanhoe, "Get Ready for Another Oil Shock", printed in The Futurist, January/February 1997. It is interesting to look back 10 years.
(3) C.J.Rhodes, previous articles in

Monday, March 26, 2007

China's Explores Ultra-Deep Drilling.

In southwestern Sichuan Province the drilling of a well 8,875 metres deep has begun, with the intention to explore an untapped underground oil and gas field. The project is underpinned with an investment of of 300 million yuan (almost 40 million US dollars); the drilling was commenced on March 20th in Mianzhu City and is expected to take 676 days to complete. The well is named "Chuanke No.1 Well", and according to Zhang Xiaopeng, who is the deputy chief engineer of Sinopec's southwest China oil and gas company, the first 100 metres have been drilled-out smoothly. It is hoped that by drilling this well, more will be learned about the distribution of oil and gas in the "ultra-deep stratum", which is the geological term for the stratum lying at depths greater than 7,000 metres. In April 2006, the discovery of the Pughang Gas Field, the largest ever located in China with a holding of 356 billion cubic metres, was announced by Sinopec in northeastern China.

In July 2006, the drilling of the "Tashen No. 1 Well" was completed in Tahe oilfield in the Tarim basin in northwest China, at 8,408 metres deep, but no gas was discovered there. It is hoped that the Chuanke No. 1 Well will provide a breakthrough in gas exploration in the ultra-deep stratum. Indeed, the drilling-rig that the Chinese are using is designed to drill as deep as 12,000 metres, which is close to the depth of the SG-3, drilled in 1989 down to 12,262 meters (7.6 miles), on the Kola Peninsular, in the far north of Russia. That borehole is usually referred to as "Kola", in fact the deepest of several that were made there.

In an effort to extend world oil supplies, many deep-sea drilling projects are being undertaken, for example in the Gulf of Mexico. China is also adopting this plan and PetroChina, which is the nation's major oil and gas producer, intends to spend 100 million yuan (13 million US dollars) in the spring of 2008 to drill its first deep-water well in the South China Sea. Offshore drilling involves particular problems and a large investment in different equipment than is employed for onshore operations, where PetroChina has considerable expertise. The well will be drilled near Xisha, which is an island located 280 km southeast of Hainan Island, and in waters 3,000 m deep. Since China does not as yet have its own deep-water drilling vessels, the offshore specialist CNOOC's sister firm, China Oilfield Services, has formed a collaboration with the Parent China National Offshore Oil Corp. to build a deep-water drilling-rig using Norwegian technology, at a cost of $600 million (US).

China's deep water is effectively virgin territory, and has attracted US and Canadian investors, including Husky Energy, who announced a major discovery of gas in deep waters of the South China Sea last July. In a separate enterprise, the capacity of the Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline (which is owned equally by China national Petroleum Corp. and Kazakhstan's Kazmunaigaz) is planned to be doubled to provide 20 million tonnes of oil per year, and the expansion programme could begin in 2008.

India too has an interest in China's deep-sea exploration projects, since this is also a nation in an unprecedented phase of industrialisation and technological development, activities that are crucially underpinned by securing adequate supplies of oil and gas. To aid the common aims of these two great and populous nations, China is seeking close cooperation with India in the oil and gas industry. Wang Tao, senior vice-president of the World Petroleum Congress and also a former Chinese government minister, said: "We would like India to participate in our offshore and deep-sea projects and also explore jointly opportunities abroad." He further confirmed that, "plans for cooperation has the mandate from the Chinese president." Presumably this means "opportunities" in the Middle East, Africa and South America; clearly in competition with supplying the resource needs of The West.

Both countries are ramping-up world demand for petroleum to fuel their massive economic growth, and it makes sense that the two mighty eastern neighbours should support one another rather than entering into squabbles between themselves, especially when an East-West conflict over oil comes about - as it inevitably will, for a resource that is in decline. Then what, I wonder? It is interesting that the resource of military might is growing in the hands of The West (including the UK) and Russia, both of whom are revamping their nuclear arsenals. Recently, India came second place to China as a result of the latter's tough manoeuvres to claim a piece of Canada's PetroKazakhstan, with major activities is Kazakhstan, which is one of several examples where Indian and Chinese companies have been pitted against each other. On the other hand, a viable cooperation between India and China in the Greater Nile Project in Sudan was demonstrated by a consequently enhanced production of oil there.

Meeting the inexorable world demand for oil is a major challenge, and will become increasingly so as the world reserve declines. There is potentially a large resource of oil, if unconventional sources such as tar sands, shales and coal-liquefaction are included, but these sources are highly dependent on other resources, especially gas and water to recover them. It is debatable exactly how much of the acknowledged "trillion barrels" that remain in conventional oil-wells are really recoverable. In any event, the world is running out of cheap oil, and this may well precipitate East-West conflict, while it is debatable who will take who's side precisely out of the nations of the US, Europe, South America, Russia, and China-India. In any event, deep-drilling operations (in rock or deep-water) are a last resort for conventional oil and gas extraction and such worldwide investment as is ongoing can be heard as an alarm that the world needs to find alternatives sooner rather than too-late.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Not Enough Uranium for Nuclear Expansion?

This is the conclusion of Thomas Heff, a research affiliate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who believes that the proposed escalation in the world's nuclear power facilities will lead to a shortfall in the quantities of fuel (mainly enriched uranium) necessary to run the reactors. He thinks that uranium "inventories" (reserves) are dwindling fast, and that there is a slackening in investment in securing future supplies, certainly in the face of proposed numbers of new nuclear plants to be inaugurated across the world. He said, "Just as large numbers of new reactors are being planned, we are only starting to emerge from 20 years of underinvestment in the production capacity for the nuclear fuel to operate them. There has been a nuclear industry myopia; they didn't take a long-term view."

I feel that this appraisal is a little disingenuous, since it ignores the fact that there was no "long-term view" possible for the nuclear industry. Since the early 1970's (and before, but the anti-nuclear movement gathered strength then), public opposition to nuclear power had been almost palpable. The explosion of the Unit 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986 really seemed to ring-in the death-knell for this form of energy, and not only were there no plans (certainly in the West) to build more nuclear power stations, but a generalised opinion that the existing ones should be closed down. Although "Chernobyl" occurred within the reaches of the former USSR, Russia has to the best of my knowledge never been entirely anti-nuclear, probably because the communists were great fans of nuclear-power, and that resulting infrastructure based around nuclear would be extremely difficult to replace with alternative forms of power stations, especially in the lean economic times that have followed the collapse of communism at the end of the 1980's.

For example, in the Republic of Armenia, the controversial Metsamor nuclear power plant (NPP) has been subject to repeated and ongoing calls for its closure, and from countries as far afield as Austria. However, since the Armenian NPP produces close to half the country's electricity, to close it would impose considerable demands upon other resources. Much of the opposition to Metsamor is down to its location - on an earthquake fault line. When in 1988, much of northern Armenia was devastated by an earthquake, the NPP was closed over fears for its safety, but the result was an ecological calamity of such proportions that even some of the environmentalists called for its reopening, on the grounds that the devastation of the forests for firewood and the draining of the main freshwater lake Sevan for hydroelectric power were destroying the ecology of the region. Although the European Union has given various forms of aid to "encourage" Armenia to close Metsamor, and there are efforts to introduce a huge wind-farm and divert rivers for hydroelectric production, closing the NPP does not appear a reasonable option, at least not in the short term. I have a great affection for Armenia, and I have friends there, and I do fear for the future of this small land-locked country, which is entirely dependent on imported fuels - even uranium, flown-in from Russia to run the NPP - especially as world oil-supplies begin to dwindle. However, one might fear for many countries with limited indigenous reserves of natural oil and gas, which now includes the UK!

The final message from MIT is that if the world is to seriously expand its nuclear operations, then a huge injection of investment capital (and exploration and production engineering) will be necessary to garner the requisite nuclear fuels. In Russia, efforts to do precisely this appear to be already underway. It appears that Russia will shortly sign an agreement with Kazakhstan over an international uranium enrichment facility in East Siberia. Kazakhstan holds 15% of the world's known reserves of uranium, and so will be in a good position to supply the material for enrichment at the Angarsk plant, which is also intended to offer uranium enrichment services to other countries who wish to develop nuclear energy for civilian (i.e. non-military) purposes. I wonder if this will eventually include Iran, or will they instead persist in developing their own independent enrichment programme?

While there is undoubtedly a major issue of how quickly uranium might be brought into the enlarging marketplace that nuclear expansion will bring, this is surely underpinned by the matter of how much uranium there is in the world to be feasibly extracted, milled and fabricated into nuclear fuel rods. As a rough estimate, there are about 3 million tonnes of uranium as a known reserve. Assuming the world gets through 65,000 tonnes of it per year, that would equate to 3 x 10^6/65,000 = 46 years worth. However, this is a rather simplistic assumption, although it has been widely promulgated as evidence that nuclear has no future. Along these lines, if the current level of nuclear power were expanded to provide all the world's electricity the uranium would run out in under 10 years. However, reserves are not the same as resources, and as that existing uranium reserve becomes depleted, more of the resource will be mined and processed, even well below the 0.035% (350 parts per million) uranium concentration limit below which currently the resource is not considered economically worth including among the figures for the reserve. This is the uranium concentration found at the Rossing Mine in Namibia, which is regarded as low-grade ore. Since the energy cost of annually mining 3,000 tonnes of uranium from Rossing is 1 Petajoule of energy, and this much uranium can provide 15 Gigawatt-years of power (around 470 Petajoules) , the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) is close to 500.

The average concentration of uranium in the Earth's crust is around 2.7 parts per million, and soils associated with phosphate minerals can contain around 50 - 500 ppm of uranium. Some shales and phosphate rocks contain 10-20 ppm of uranium, and given their abundance, are estimated to contain a total quantity of uranium perhaps 8,000 times that of the rocks currently being explored. Even mining these very low-grade ores would allow the recovery of energy with an EROEI of 15-30. Hence, unlike conventional oil, it appears that a shortage of uranium per se, is not a problem. However, it may well be that the shortage of oil and gas used in the mining and processing of uranium is a problem, and that supplies of these other fuels will compete with the other purposes that society currently has for them, including electricity production, but mainly for transportation.

On a final note, the use of uranium in fission reactors is very wasteful, since it only uses about 0.5% of the total uranium (most of the uranium-238 and some of the uranium-235 is rejected by the uranium enrichment process). The majority of the material can be used in fast-breeder reactors but there are many objections to these on grounds of safely, whether real or perceived, and it is not helped that Dounreay with hardly the best of safety records, was a fast-breeder reactor. There was, as I recall, also a fire from the liquid sodium coolant in a fast breeder reactor in Japan. There are large reserves of thorium (about 1.2 million tonnes) known in minerals containing around 12% thorium; the mean abundance of thorium in the Earth's crust (around 8 ppm) is three times that of uranium, and since all the thorium can (must) be "bred" into uranium 233 as the fissile fuel, with many safety advantages over the uranium-238 to plutonium-239 "breeder" route, this could also be supplied in abundant amounts.

In principle, there is an abundance of nuclear fuel, but my fear is that we may run-out of the other resources needed to get hold of it first, e.g. gas and oil, unless some strategy is imposed that effectively makes the industry self-sustaining; for example if some of the electrical power produced from "nuclear" can be used to extract and process more of the uranium and thorium to feed the same purpose. Otherwise I don't see how there is "enough for thousands of years" if we end up without the means to tap into it. It takes resources to extract resources, and without an integrated plan, nuclear power may yet prove of only short-term benefit, however much uranium and thorium there is, and at whatever theoretical EROEI.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Russia gives Iran Ultimatum over Enrichment?

Moscow has told Iran that it will hold back enriched uranium fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power station if the country refuses to end its uranium enrichment programme, in accord with demands from the United Nations Security Council. This ultimatum was given by the secretary of the Russian National Security Council, Igor Ivanov, to the Iranian deputy chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Hosseini Tash. The veracity of this report in the New York Times is however denied by Mr Tash, which is significant because he is also deputy secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, who said on state radio on Tuesday: "No, I deny this news and the situation was completely the other way round. Mr Ivanov was trying to convince us that these issued are not related" - meaning that there is no connection between the matter of providing nuclear fuel for Bushehr and the UN demand that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment programme.

The US State Department remains non-committal on the whole business, but "a senior European official" is quoted as saying, "We consider this a very important decision by the Russians (obviously believing the story). It shows that our disagreements with the Russians about the dangers of Iran's nuclear programme are tactical. Fundamentally the Russians don't want a nuclear Iran." If that is true, there may be a number of reasons for why not. Many people fear that if Iran persists in contravening the wishes of the UN, the US may impose sanctions against them or indeed resort to military action, thus effectively extending the war-zone from its neighbour, Iraq. How the world could impose sanctions on Iran, say in terms of refusing to buy its oil, is not easy to envisage especially in view of the unquenchable thirst for the oil from this, the world's fourth largest producer of the commodity, from both East and West. China probably would not join-in the imposition of any sanctions, which would remain a restriction for the West, unless the waterways for its carriage were blockaded from the US military bases that flank that particular region, which would affect all destination countries. Russia may just not want trouble on its own doorstep, or sanctions to overspill and affect its own markets, which buy some of Iran's oil too, although Russia is the world's second largest producer of oil.

The UN Security Council was expected to vote this week to impose new sanctions on Iran for continuing with its enrichment programme, which they fear will create heavily-enriched uranium (HEU) for fabrication into a nuclear warhead. Tehran denies this, and insists that the sole purpose of the programme is to provide nuclear fuel for electricity generation. Russia has previously offered to enrich uranium for Iran on Russian territory, which should appease the UN, but Iran appears intent on securing its own technology, and there might well be good, non-military reasons for that. I have read that Israel has missiles capable of destroying Iranian nuclear facilities, and were they to be deployed for that purpose, the whole situation in the Middle East could become extremely unfortunate, with no knowing the extent of its outcome.

In the last month, Russian officials have acknowledged that there was a delay in the supply of nuclear fuel into the port-city of Bushehr, for which they blamed a simple lack of payment from Iran, and nothing so complicated as the wider political agenda of nuclear proliferation. The story remains murky, however, since a report on The Times web site claims that Russia had confirmed in an interview that the fuel would only be delivered once Iran had frozen its enrichment of uranium.

Meanwhile, Russia is projected to build 3 new nuclear power plants, beginning in 2016, and four more starting around 2018-2020. Given the decline in oil-production that is expected to bite into world markets within a decade, this makes sense, among the expected new generation of "nuclear" that many nations, including the UK are discussing the inauguration of. The industry is expected to accelerate construction of nuclear power stations without funding from the central government, according to the head of the Federal Atomic Agency, Sergei Kiriyenko, who is confident that costs for the enlargement of the nuclear power base can be borne at their own expense. He believes that the Russian atomic energy industry will become self-sustaining by 2015, following the injection by the government of 674 billion Rubles (£26 billion).

Monday, March 19, 2007

Mobile Nuclear Power Stations?

I came across an interesting notion, which is one of "small" mobile nuclear reactors that might be used in stand-alone applications. The US are keen on the idea because such a "power plant" might meet the needs of developing nations without the risk that the by-products (e.g. plutonium) could be used to make weapons - hence the device is intended to be kept sealed, and delivered to a site where it would provide electricity for around 30 years, by which time its fuel would be spent and it could then be removed for replacement or refuelling. It's developers claim that it would be impossible to remove fissile material from the reactor core which would be maintained within a "tamper-proof" cask, protected by a "thicket" of security alarms. The device is known as the Small, Sealed, Transportable, Autonomous Reactor (SSTAR), and would generate power without requiring either refuelling or maintenance. In contrast, conventional nuclear reactors are attended with the potential threat of proliferation because they must be charged periodically with new fuel, which later has to be removed for replenishment: both steps allow an opportunity for fissile material to be diverted to weapons programmes, as is believed to have happened in North Korea and in Iran.

Conventional nuclear power stations produce typically around one Gigawatt of electricity (from around 3 GW of thermal power), which is far more than is necessary for a power plant somewhere in a developing country where there is no extensive national electricity grid to distribute it. In the SSTAR, the nuclear fuel, along with a lead coolant and a steam generator will be sealed within the housing, along with steam-pipes that can be connected to an external steam-turbine for producing electricity. An apparatus to produce 100 Megawatts would be 15 metres high, three metres in diameter and weigh 500 tonnes - O.K., I use the word "Mobile" loosely, but such an entity could be moved! A 10 MW generator would weigh-in more modestly at under 200 tonnes. It is intended that the US will take charge of the delivery and installation of the SSTAR, moving it by ship and by truck to its final intended location. When the fuel ultimately is exhausted, the "old" reactor would be taken-away by the supplier, intended for recycling or disposal. The DoE (Department of Energy) hopes to have a prototype operating by 2015.

There are undoubtedly technical challenges to be overcome before this can become a reality. In conventional reactors, the fission chain-reaction depletes the uranium-235 fuel in the fuel-rods, and so they need to be replaced every few years. For a reactor to run unmolested for 30 years, as is planned for the SSTAR, the sealed reactor would need to be of the fast-breeder type, which uses some of the fast-neutrons to "breed" fresh fuel from uranium-238 into plutonium-239. To extend the lifetime of the reactor, the cylindrical reactor core will be fabricated so that fission is sustained only when it is surrounded by a cylindrical metal mirror that reflects neutrons back into the fuel. Over the course of the operating time for the device, the mirror will move slowly from one end of the core to the other, consuming fuel as it goes, but the engineering physics involved to render the process reliable over such a long time and with the components continually exposed to high doses of radiation will be formidable.

Automated controls will monitor continuously the status of the covert reactor, adjusting its electrical output as necessary, according to Craig Smith of the DoE funded Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Should "tampering" be detected (somebody taking a hammer and chisel to it?), the automated mechanism would shut down the reactor as it would if malfunctioning is detected. Alerts will be transmitted over secure satellite radio channels to the DoE or to an unspecified international agency placed in charge of overseeing the operation of the SSTARs. It does begin to smack of "Big Brother", though, and would any country really be prepared to hand-over control of its electricity provision to the US? Imagine if the reactor could be shut-down from remote, via the same secure satellite channels?! It is debatable too that every country would care what the US thought of them, and hack the thing open regardless of how loud the alarm was sounding ("ear-plugs" in!), thus getting hold of the plutonium-rich fuel for redirection to a dirty bomb or an actual nuclear device.

I would have more confidence if the SSTARs were to be fuelled using thorium, for the reasons I outlined in my posting last December - "Thorium gets good press over uranium" - which poses far less of a threat in terms of weapons proliferation; although the design might need to be more complex, so as not to over-expose the protactinium-233 to neutrons, converting it to protactinium-234, before it has the chance to decay to uranium-233, which is the desired "breeder-fuel". However, it might be possible to use thorium in a small scale reactor of the liquid fluoride kind, which might be incorporated in such a device rather than the massive accelerator-driven thorium reactors which could not. I think thorium might prove altogether a more convenient fuel than uranium for SSTAR and similar types of small-scale nuclear reactors.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Land Use is Key to Reducing Carbon Emissions.

Changes in land use are sometimes blamed in discussions about human-induced global warming, along with the more usually stressed burning of fossil fuels. In a related context, it is now thought that the heaths and moorlands of the UK might prove themselves as a key instrument for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, thus scoring on the "black" side of the balance sheet for carbon emissions. However, researchers in the Stockholm Institute at York University have warned that the moorlands are a timebomb for climate change, because the combination of a warmer climate and poor land management are causing them to dry out, hence releasing "carbon" (as CO2 and methane). It is reckoned that 13 million tonnes of "carbon" is released each year from soil across the UK., which is around one tenth that produced by the nation's industries, and that better land management could limit these emissions by 400,000 tonnes of carbon per year, which is the equivalent of removing 2% of the UK's cars from the roads.
Dr Andreas Heinemeyer said: "The heather moorlands are a potential timebomb as far as carbon emissions are concerned. Global warming appears to be accelerating the release of carbon from the soil into the atmosphere. The amount of carbon in the peat soil means that this could have a catastrophic effect on global warming. It could lead to a vicious circle with global warming causing more carbon emissions, which in turn cause climate change."
The significance of this work is that is provides a microcosm of the world situation. There are billions of tonnes of "carbon" locked-up in permafrost, e.g. in Siberia, and it appears that the warming climate is causing the decomposition of the methane-hydrates they contain, thus releasing methane into the atmosphere. The actual radiative forcing factor for methane is around 100x that for CO2, meaning that one tonne of methane has a heating effect of about 275 tonnes of CO2 (allowing for the larger molecular mass of CO2 - 44 compared to 16 for methane). Nearly half of the human CO2 emissions can also be blamed on changes in land use - poor soil management (using chemical fertilisers without replacing the organic component, which leads to a steady loss of carbon from the soil), cutting down and burning forests etc.
The main cause of CO2 increasing in the atmosphere, however , is burning fossil fuels, and much of that for transportation. Although there remains speculation over the precise role this may have in forcing climate change, the obvious way around the phenomenon per se is to burn less oil as a fuel. As the world's oil supply runs out, that contribution will necessarily fall; however, we will then be left with trying to find alternatives to keep the world running, albeit according to a completely different format, based on localisation not globalisation.
It would be an obvious circumvention of both CO2 emissions and squandering preciously limited oil supplies to find some alternatives to the status quo as immediately as is practicable. I am heartened that in principle at least, large quantities of "oil" might be grown in the form of algae, which seems to address the central issue here - leaving petroleum "oil" alone and also withdrawing CO2 from the atmosphere, acting as a kind of carbon "holding tank". If CO2 is indeed the culprit for the warming Earth, then this action will help to reduce the warming and drying of the wetlands. Energy to drive farm machinery and a terrestrial carbon source (algal fertiliser, if you like) might also be provided for the rejuvenation of the carbon content of soils which will aid both their role as carbon sinks and an improved crop yield (in general) from these better soils. We may begin to find a symbiotic solution to many of our problems which we have the tendency to perceive in reductionist isolation. Nature does not work in this way, and the necessary holistic approaches may be at hand.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Biofuel from Algae - Salvation from Peak Oil?

It is nice to have an optimistic note on which to mark the start of Spring, and that could be the production of biofuels from algae. I have considered the viability of biofuels in various of these postings, and concluded that without seriously compromising food production (or eliminating it entirely) it is impossible to provide enough crop-based fuels to replace the massive quantities of oil that we currently use to run our transportation fleet of cars and planes. However, I am abruptly more upbeat about the situation potentially, having seen some truly astounding figures about the amount of biodiesel that might be obtained from farming algae, rather than from growing crops. For example, whereas the yield of biodiesel from soybean is 357 kg/hectare/year and 1,000 kg/ha/year from rapeseed, it is 79,832 kg/ha/year from algae, i.e. about 80 tonnes/ha! There are some algae that yield around 50% of their own weight of oil, and from one study it might be deduced that the yield is around 125 tonnes/ha on the basis that 200,000 hectares of land could produce 7.5 billion gallons (one quad) of biodiesel.

[Since there are 3.875 litres to the US gallon, that equals 7.5 x 10^9 x 3.875 = 2.91 x 10^10 litres. Since there are 159 litres to the barrel and 7.3 barrels to the tonne (accepted average), that amounts to: 2.91 x 10^10/(159 x 7.3) = 2.51 x 10^7 tonnes of biodiesel produced from 200,000 hectares, i.e. 2.51 x 10^7/200,000 = 125.5 tonnes/ha].

I am going to attempt some rough calculations, just to deduce some estimates of scale. In the UK we use around 57 million tonnes of oil to run all our transport - cars, planes, the whole lot. Another 16 million tonnes are used as a chemical feedstock for industry etc. However, I will look at only the fuel budget for now. Diesel engines are more efficient in their tank to wheel use of fuel than spark-ignition engines which burn gasoline (petrol), meaning that we could reduce that total by 30%, to 40 million tonnes by switching all forms of transport to run on Diesel "compression" engines. If we take the optimistic 125 tonnes/ha figure for the yield of biodiesel from algae, that implies a crop area of 40 x 10^6/125 = 320,000 hectares, or 3,200 square kilometers (km^2).
Now this is only 1.3% of the area of the UK mainland, which does look feasible, especially in comparison with values of up to five times the entire area of arable land there is, that I have deduced would be necessary to provide sufficient biofuels derived from land-based crops!
There is no need to use arable land in any case, since the algae would be grown in ponds, and these could be installed essentially anywhere, even in off-shore locations, i.e. growing the material on seawater, because salt concentration appears to assist the algal-growth.
We can make some guess as to the thickness of the algae too. One hectare = 100 m x 100 m = 10,000 m^2. Hence, 320,000 ha = 3.2 x 10^9 m^2. The volume of 40 million tonnes of biodiesel at a specific gravity of 0.84 (based on 79,832 kg = 95,000 litres; so, 80 tonnes = 95 m^3) = 4.76 x 10^7 m^3. Hence, spread over 3.2 x 10^9 m^2 gives a thickness of 4.76 x 10^7 m^3/3.2 x 10^9 m^2 = 0.015 m = 1.5 cm. So, assuming that 50% of it is "oil", that gives a thickness of around 3 cm, which seems reasonable.
How much water would be needed to fill the tanks? Let's assume they are one metre deep (with the algae floating on top of that). That's 3.2 x 10^9 m^2 x 1 m = 3.2 x 10^9 m^3. Since this amounts to 3.2 km^3 it is a significant volume of water, and if freshwater would account for about 2% of the UK's total. However, as I have indicated, seawater can be used instead, or the "ponds" could be fashioned from floating ("boon") structures off-shore. Closed ponds might be better, since that would permit a much closer control of nutrient supply, and if they were covered restrict the potential for invasion by algae with a lower oil yield.

I think that this might be the only way to provide significant amounts of "oil" post peak-oil (other than by coal-liquefaction), and large scale production should be attempted as soon as possible - well before the world's supply of naturally occurring petroleum begins to wane significantly, which gives us just a few years. The "crop" would take-up CO2 from the atmosphere, thus reducing the burden of greenhouse gas that many are worried about, and that amount of carbon would be re-emitted once the fuel was burned, but with a continual crop production working in symbiosis with the CO2 content of the atmosphere, taking it up through photosynthesis. There would be no additional CO2 emitted, other than in the production of an alcohol, methanol or maybe ethanol, which is needed to trans-esterify the initial oil into the final biofuel. This would be in a proportion of about 10% of the oil yield, and could be provided from agricultural waste, e.g. wheat grass, some minor compromise of food crops, say to grow sugar beet to ferment into ethanol, and ultimately by hydrolysis and fermentation of cellulosic material once that technology is underway, thought to be by 2015.
I have never hankered after a return to the "Stone Age", but my notion of living in localised communities remains the only means by which to survive in a fuel-poor world. If we are to produce "alternative" fuel on a large scale, doing so from algae appears to be the best bet, and from an environmental aspect it seems ideal, in that it produces fuel by absorbing a greenhouse gas without producing any more greenhouse gases during the process.
What about costs? If we assume a cost per hectare of $80,000, that would equate to $80,000 x 320,000 = $25.6 billion, or around £13 billion. Annual maintenance/operating costs have been estimated at $12,000 per hectare, which is about £2 billion. Assuming a price of $60 a barrel, that may be compared with an annual cost for 40 million tonnes of oil of $60 x 40 million x 7.3 (barrels/tonne) = $17.5 billion or about £9 billion. This would mean money that is not going out of the country to unstable regions of the world, and it would break completely our dependence on imported oil. It would also reduce the nation's CO2 emissions by probably 30%. We could even use biodiesel to substitute for coal in power stations and cut our dependence on coal imports too, while reducing CO2 emissions yet further.
Now, this approach seems to have everything to recommend it and surely it must be investigated on the large scale immediately.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Zeolite Refrigerants.

Claude Blaizat is a French inventor who has patented the use of zeolites in the transfer of heat using the evaporation and condensation of water in a closed vacuum-system. I have discussed zeolites previously in their application as ion-exchange materials for cleaning toxic metal cations from the environment. For example half a million tonnes of zeolites were used in the clean-up operation after the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, mainly to remove radioactive strontium and caesium from contaminated land and water supplies. Zeolites were fed to cows to keep the radioactive contamination out of their milk, and even baked into bread and cookies to remove similar contamination from the bodies of children. It is the presence of cations, which are strongly hydrated by water, that provides the basis of the zeolite-cooling system. In its simplest form, water is placed at one end of the apparatus the the dried zeolite at the other. The whole is pumped-out under vacuum which encourages the water to evaporate, so taking heat from its surroundings and providing cooling. The water vapour is adsorbed into the zeolite, which causes heating. Because the heat of hydration of the cations is greater than the heat of condensation of liquid water, around twice the amount of heat is generated by using the zeolite. Such systems can be combined with a solar collector, so that during the day, water is driven out of the zeolite by the heat from the Sun's rays, and at night heat is provided by evaporation and re-adsorption of water into the zeolite. The principle can be incorporated into a heating-system.
It is reported that the technology has been demonstrated in the food industry, for quick evaporative cooling of fresh and cooked products resulting in freezing with a minimum effect of the quality of the food, and also blanching, cooking and cooling fruits and vegetables without any production of wastewater and also for freeze-drying food. Large refrigerated containers have also been demonstrated of up to 10,000 gallons capacity that do not require energy to keep their cargo cool, just so long as there is water in the system to be evaporated and the zeolite is not saturated with water. A heat-pump that could draw its energy either from a renewable source like biomass or from the exhaust gas of an engine has also been demonstrated. In the latter example, cold water can be provided in an air-conditioning unit for truck or train cabs or even for drinking.
Writing in "Chemical and Engineering News" Jean-Paul Vignal commented: "That this technology has never been industrially developed puzzles me. Maybe the price of oil is still way too low and the greenhouse effect way too unproven? The Department of Energy and the Natural Resources Ecology lab. told me that the matter had been extensively investigated and that it would never work. I have seen it work well and maintain a 22-foot container between 0 and 3 deg. C for several days without wires or an onboard generator."
If true the latter does sound like an amazing device, but even as applied on the smaller scale of a solar-powered adsorption cooling tube, 4 kg of water can be heated to about 50 deg. C in daytime and to about 39 deg. C at night while also producing a refrigeration capacity of about 276 kJ. This amounts to a heating power of around 5 kW... and all for free in terms of energy input! Combined with the waste heat from the exhaust of an engine, water at 8 - 12 deg. C can be provided for the fan-coil in a locomotive operator cabin, and 10 kW might thus be achieved.

Friday, March 09, 2007

"The Great Global Warming Swindle".

This is the title of a documentary, broadcast by the U.K. television station, "Channel 4", last night, which is bound to put the cat among the pigeons... or be summarily dismissed and ignored as the insane ramblings of conspiracy theorists. The programme ran for 90 minutes, and if viewed with a sense of detachment rather than instilled dogmatic fury, was extremely interesting. I have previously commented on some of the issues that it raised, in these postings, but from memory here are some of the more salient points.
It is often said that "consensus of scientific opinion" is that global warming is real and is caused by the activities of humans on this planet, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, mainly through burning fossil fuels. Hence, in order to avert a climate catastrophe, all nations must cut their CO2 "greenhouse gas" emissions, even if that involves capturing and storing ("sequestering") CO2 by new technology before it can be released from power stations. Catching CO2 from cars etc. would be a far more difficult strategy. In addition to fears over what might happen should that CO2 not remain safely locked-away but be released at some later moment from an undersea pool, old gas-well or former saline aquifer, there is the sheer energy cost of carbon sequestration which some figures indicate would consume up to 50% of the energy produced by a typical power station, meaning that we would need to build an extra power station for each new one, just to cope with the CO2 emissions from it.
There is also a huge demand, especially in the U.S. to produce "corn ethanol" on a massive scale and President Bush wants 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels to be provided annually by 2017, much of this being bioethanol. It is debatable whether it might prove more advantageous to simply buy the stuff from Brazil where there is already a thriving ethanol industry, based on sugar cane which grows well in the Brazilian climate. Biodiesel and biohydrogen are also sometimes cited as desirable commodities, although providing them on the required scale is even less practical than bioethanol, which would in any case consume the majority of arable land in the UK and the US, and would severely restrict food production.
The programme pointed out that the issue of "cutting CO2 emissions" fits well with the agenda of anti-capitalism and anti-globalisation groups, since industrialisation depends totally on oil, and of course burning oil produces CO2. We have all heard of the Kyoto protocol, which only the US refused to sign-up to on the grounds that it would "destroy the national economy" - so said George Bush. It was in this same speech, as I recall, that he said there would be "no tit-for-tat with Tony Blair" (in an unforgettable accent) over standing shoulder to shoulder with him on the vexed issue of invading Iraq. Peak oil being a reality, more military conflict in the Middle East seems quite likely, and this will in any event hit the world's industries and the development of countries like China and India; cuts in CO2 then appear inevitable, especially from the transportation sector, as the culpable "oil" runs out and there is less of it to burn, irrespective of political agendas.
Now, there is a man called Piers Corbyn, who is not popular with the "consensus" of scientists. It is debatable that real science could ever be reduced to a consensus of opinion - it is either science or not, and a matter of analysing facts, surely, according to that tried and trusted "scientific method". However, there is so much research funding available (up by a factor of 30 from 10 years ago in the US) to "predict" climate change - by algorithms based on the effect of increasing CO2 levels, that an overnight re-emphasis of global warming in terms other than this would lose a lot of people their funding and probably many jobs too. However, these predictions (not facts) are taken with sufficient seriousness that the UK government's Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Sir David King, has said famously that "climate change is a greater threat to mankind than terrorism", and maybe he is right. It is just that not everybody believes in the man/CO2 inexorable heating theory to explain it. Here we come back to Piers Corbyn. He analyses and predicts weather in terms of the activity of the Sun. It is his opinion that solar activity influences climate and his record of weather prediction is sufficiently good that bookmakers will no longer accept his bets. There is a new book out too (mentioned in a previous posting) that provides "evidence" for a 1500 year cycle, caused by changes in the output of the Sun, and that the Earth is currently in the warming phase of this, to be followed by an inevitable cooling curve.
I had heard this one before, but it was stressed in the Channel 4 programme - namely that on closer examination of the geological record, the increase in CO2 that occurs every 100,000 years or so, actually follows a temperature rise (with a "lag" of about 800 years), rather than preceding it, in contradistinction to what would be expected on the basis of the greenhouse gas-induced warming theory. In the programme it was suggested that the temperature of the oceans (in which are dissolved enormous quantities of CO2, around 60 times as much as is in the atmosphere) is increased by (say) an increase in the level of solar radiation falling onto the planet, and then this causes some of the CO2 to be released over an appreciable time, as such huge volumes of water are highly efficient thermal buffers and take a long time to warm-up. There seems little doubt, however, that the current "excess" atmospheric CO2 correlates closely with the amount of fossil fuel burned since 1950, and this is overwhelming the capacity of natural planetary sinks to absorb it. Whether this is the "cause" of global warming in its entirety is another matter.
If we do indeed have only a "consensus" of opinion rather than absolute facts about the nature of the cause of climate change then what should we do about it? It is difficult to answer that since even the final outcome of global warming is not clear. Most models predict that the Earth will warm over the coming decades (although there is no clear "consensus" of by how much), most catastrophically in a "run-away greenhouse effect" scenario. If that is true, and there is also an additional warming influence not addressed in them, then my fear is that the full effect of the undoubtedly increasing CO2 content of the atmosphere may be yet to kick-in, and the world could get very hot indeed. One alternative theory is that if enough of the Arctic ice melts, the dilution of the saline waters drawn from the Equatorial regions will prevent them from sinking, as they normally do, thus shutting-off (or slowing down) the Atlantic Conveyor which keeps northern Europe warm. Given that the UK is on the same latitude as say Hamilton, Ontario, our climate could become very cold indeed and the next ice-age might be triggered.
A substantial proportion of choice in these matters is of course removed from our hands by the inevitable depletion of the world oil resource, and so our global CO2 emissions will be cut inevitably whether we decide that course for ourselves or not. Migration of populations in also an inevitable outcome, but in which direction? Do Europeans begin to move toward warmer climes, maybe as far south as Africa, to escape the relentless fingers of an ice age, or do African and southern European peoples begin to move north to seek refuge from inexorable searing heat and arable lands that are turned to desert? In both cases, resources of freshwater will become compromised, since either as locked-up in new ice or diverted from the rainfall of traditional lands, there must be less liquid water available. Already regions of Spain have not seen rain for periods of years and this has impacted on growing crops there. The one common outcome would seem to be a re-localisation of societies, on the basis of less resource-intensive means for living, and being careful where these new roots are to be planted, in a compromise of optimising both climate and resources in the oil-poor era that beckons sharply to us.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Biofuel puts Pressure on Water.

The World Bank has estimated that by 2050 demand for water in India will exceed all available supplies, which is bad news for everything including its putative bioethanol production. Up to 400 cities in China are facing water shortages, to the extent that grain production in this most populous nation is millions of tonnes less than it could be or needs to be. Indeed, it may well prove to be water that is the defining resource in determining the limit of China's unprecedented growth, rather than oil. Nonetheless, the projected dearth of oil has encouraged plans to produce biofuels as an alternative to meet China's anticipated rising fuel demand. However, as I have calculated for the U.K., and alluded to for the U.S., there arises a straightforward competition between growing e.g. corn for food or for ethanol production. And surely in countries like India and China where it is already difficult to provide enough food for everyone, how can it make sense to engender further compromise of the resource by fencing-off crops from its food-agriculture?
In the U.K. the main resource dearth is in arable land - we can irrigate what crops we grow, but even if we grew no food and produced entirely sugar-beet for bioethanol production, there is only sufficient land available to provide perhaps one fifth of current fuel usage. Draining water supplies to their limits is very bad from an environmental standpoint, even well before they are exhausted. In a slightly different but related context, when the Armenian nuclear power station was closed following the 1988 earthquake there, an enormous pressure was imposed on other means and resources to make up for that almost 50% of the nation's electricity that it provided. This included hydroelectric power made using water taken from the main freshwater lake, Sevan where the drop in the level of its waters impacted disastrously on the ecology of the region. When rivers are diverted or drained, wholesale desertification can occur as in the Aral Sea, much of which is now down to dry-bed.
Every resource consumes one or more other resources, and so e.g. producing bioethanol, cracking tar sands and forcing oil out of the ground by enhanced recovery methods all dictate demands on other forms of energy such as gas, and all are volume-intensive in terms of the amount of water they use. Sugarcane growers are projecting the advance of their industry, which consumes more water than any other in the world, and even though there is no official world-market for water as a commodity, it does not mean that a price will not need to be paid, in various ways. I have heard it said that future wars will be fought over water, and I can find no reason to disbelieve that. However, since within 15 years there will only be about half the world reserves of oil left, I am anticipating conflict at least at the level of national economies, even without out and out wars being waged. Some have argued that the military strife in the Middle East (Iraq and Afghanistan, so far, with possibly Iran coming under that umbrella of assault) has the securing of oil resources as an underlying cause.
Ethanol plants in Minnesota consume around 3.5 - 6 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol that they produce from corn. It is predicted that, for the U.S. as a whole, from 1998 to 2008, there will be recorded a 254% increase in the volume of water used for ethanol production, and while the U.S. (and Europe) has plenty of water, that cannot be said for the rest of the world. The true measure of the price of water may come when a barrel of ethanol is more expensive than a barrel of oil, once the resource has been squeezed to the point of uncompetitiveness. But to even contemplate pushing the industry toward this situation is ridiculous, because in reality only a very small proportion of the fuel for each nation can be supplied in the form of bioethanol or indeed other biofuels. The solution to the pressing and immediate problem of short oil-supplies must be found elsewhere.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Coal Fired Cars?

Mr Bush has called for the United States to produce 35 billion gallons of alternative fuel by 2017. Since one U.S. gallon = 3.875 litres and there are 159 litres to a barrel of oil, this amounts to 35 x 10^9 x 3.875/159 = 8.53 x 10^8, or 853 million barrels. The U.S. daily fuel bill is around 20 million barrels = 7.3 billion barrels per year, or around one quarter of the world's total. Therefore at best this would meet 8.53 x 10^8/7.3 x 10^9 = 12% of the amount of fuel used in the U.S. Now according to an article in this month's "Chemistry World", if the entire U.S. corn crop were converted into bioethanol, that would meet that 12% target; hence if any food is to be produced from corn at all, the amount of the U.S. fuel produced using biofuels would be far less than even this 12% figure. The same argument applies to the U.K. and to all nations. Pressure on imported fuels has never been greater, and now China and India are investing heavily in oil companies across the world including South America (e.g. Venezuela) and Norway. The alternative source of alternative fuel on the grand scale is coal, which can be converted to liquids by various methods. The best of these in terms of overall utilisation of thermal energy are the combined cycle plants, which produce both liquids (hydrocarbons) and electricity; however, simple coal-to-liquids plants are cheaper to build, and in principle could convert much of the enormous reserves of coal that are held in the U.S. into fuel, thus reducing the demand on imported fuel, especially from the Middle East.
This sounds promising, but it is not necessarily good for the planet. Indeed, it is estimated that altogether, fuel from coal will cause twice the amount of CO2 that would be produced by an equivalent quantity of gasoline etc. obtained by refining crude oil. It is suggested that this problem might be fixed by new technology but this seems to refer to sequestering CO2 rather than using the coal more efficiently in the first place, e.g. in combined cycle plants. However, it looks as though there could be a generation of coal-to-liquids plants built in the U.S., and nine of them are planned in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, to be inaugurated in 2009. If all nine of them are built, they could produce around 3 billion gallons of fuel per year, which is way short of the president's goal of 35 billion gallons (less than 1% of the total used in the U.S.). It is thought that if federal tax incentives and state subsidies are made to kick-start this new industry, by 2025, 40 billion barrels per year could be produced by coal liquefaction - which is about 10% of the annual fuel demand forecast. Simple arithmetic suggests that to produce this amount would require 40/3 x 9 = 120 new plants.
It is interesting the way economists think though isn't it? By that stage there will be probably just one third of the existing oil reserves left, and so where will the additional oil (90%) come from physically, never mind its market price? To maintain the U.S. (and the West in general) at its current lifestyle would need an awful lot of coal liquefaction, perhaps from 1,200 plants which have yet to be built in the U.S. alone. All practical analyses seem to arrive at the same conclusion, that whatever else we may implement (nuclear, as much renewable energy etc. as is possible), current amounts of fuel cannot be met in the future and alternatives of transportation-economy are the only solution to this great dilemma. I think we have much to learn from the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), that I discussed in the article immediately previous to this. We cannot solve our problems using balance-sheet economics (cost per barrel) and we need to review the amount of fuel that can be physically got, from whatever sources - and since that quantity, as deduced by all means I can find, falls well short of current levels (let alone predictions of growth), this will necessitate re-localising society.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), and Sustainable Living in a Small Community.

We have just returned from Aberystwyth (in west Wales), near to where is the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT). There is a web-site and a link to it on the left of this blog. The setting is an abandoned slate-quarry, which was bought-up about thirty years ago by a group of people with the vision to live sustainably. I am not suggesting that wider society will change overnight to a means for living at the laudably low-energy levels that the CAT pioneers have achieved, but they have provided a wonderful example and from which many important lessons can be learned. My comments here are purely my own opinions and reflect my immediate impressions following my visit there yesterday.
The main sense I am left with is one of both the necessity and possibility for energy efficiency. As I have laboured in these postings, the energy requirements of modern society are gargantuan and completely unsustainable. Running cars and planes takes almost 30% of the total energy used in the U.K., and heating buildings probably the same again. If we are to try and maintain these levels, we are going to need a lot of coal and nuclear power for all kinds of purposes including making synthetic fuel as the world's oil production inevitably falls. Sustainable energy provision, e.g. from renewables only makes sense if the demands that we place on such technologies, e.g. wind, wave and so on are reduced to a manageable extent. At CAT they have manged that, and for example their base-load electricity is provided by two hydroelectric turbines, which combined generate 7 kilowatts of energy. On top of this, they have arrays of solar-panels and wind turbines that produce much more power (when the sun shines and the wind blows), and they can export this onto the National Grid - or draw some of it back for necessary operations (e.g. arc-welding) if they need to. Thus, while they are self-sustaining to a large extent they are not totally free-standing, and it is unlikely and probably undesirable too, that we should ever become isolated communities with no common goals or bonds.
The water to run the hydroelectric power is supplied from a reservoir which is at height, and gravity then allows it to fall to drive the turbines. This same source even provides the means to run a water-powered cliff-railway consisting of two carriages, counter-weighted against one another. Water is run into a tank on the upper carriage until it is heavier than the lower one, and gravity does the rest! Water for washing and all purposes (I believe that around 15 people actually live full-time on the site) is also supplied from the reservoir (which collects rain water) after passing it though sand filters, and potable water after exposing it to light from a U.V. source (which causes small particles including bacteria to clump together so they can be more readily filtered out). Sanitation is taken care of using earth-toilets, some of which can help to generate compost for growing food, most of which is done on site, and there is a vegetarian restaurant which visitors can sample the delights of. The food is very good, and the important point is made, that most of agricultural land is used to grow food to feed to animals which are then killed to feed humans. If we lived on a completely vegetarian diet, we could cut the area of land we need to grow our food down to about one sixth, possibly allowing production of biofuels on some of the acreage that is thereby left clear. There is no doubt that we are going to have to live differently, and adopting a (more) vegetarian diet might afford far greater security of food production and indeed supply of fuel that is not dependent on imported oil. Don't get me wrong, we are still going to have to cut car and plane use, and I mean by considerable amounts, before too long.
There are many things to see - for instance, one gets a close-up of the hub (where the blades are attached) from a 72 meter rotor, wind turbine. There are displays of building using timber frames and with walls packed with straw and even sheep's wool as an insulating material. In one full-scale building "warm" air is drawn through underground pipes, thus reducing the amount of heat needed to keep its interior at a comfortable temperature for living in. There as also a theatre made from straw bales which fill-in the walls based around a timber frame.
There is a battery-store for essential stand-alone applications, e.g. running computers, where the power supply needs to be constant. The point is made that there is not enough nickel in the Earth to use in batteries to store electricity at the level we use it in the form of stand-alone power systems, though for isolated communities this would be ideal. Otherwise we can import and export electricity according to demand via a National storage-grid. Combined heating and power (CHP) is used to generate electricity too, from burning wood-chips, but most of the heat (two-thirds of it!), which is usually wasted from conventional power stations, is recovered and used to provide hot water for the restaurant.
There is so much here: based around energy efficiency, recycling of all kinds of waste, growing food on the local level, using the power of water and the Sun, and maximising the use of sustainable fuels (e.g. wood) and also the most efficient means for extracting the energy from whatever fuels are needed to be burned. I think it is fair to say that CAT have made a success out of a dream, and the world may turn to heed the message they have been espousing in a very practical and elegant way for over three decades.