Friday, September 28, 2007

Britain Now a Net Exporter of Oil.

There has been an increase of 2.8% in oil production by Britain during the second quarter of this year in comparison with that same quarter last year. The reason is the start-up of six new fields, which include the massive Buzzard field located in the North Sea. Overall, the UK output of crude oil and "natural gas to liquids", which I take to mean gas-liquefaction, i.e. conversion of methane to syn-gas and Fisher-Tropsch catalytic conversion of this to hydrocarbons, increased to almost 20 million tonnes once six new fields came on-stream at the start of the year.

Consequently, the UK is a net exporter of oil to the excess of 0.8 million tonnes more than it used domestically in terms of imported oil and oil-products. The UK used less energy to the extent of 4% overall, corresponding to a fall in production by 5.4% at an equivalent of 46.5 million tonnes of oil during the second quarter of this year. However, the total production of gas by the UK continues to fall, by almost 10% to an equivalent of 206.6 TWh (terrawatt hours = billion kWh) from the same quarter last year. Simply this is due to the inexorable drop in North Sea gas output, and a matter we should not be mislead into forgetting.

New facilities for importing gas, e.g. from Norway and from Qatar, has made us a net importer of gas, to a net quantity of 25 TWh equivalent, despite the fact that the UK was a net gas-exporter in the second quarter of 2006. These higher net imports permitted a 4.6% rise in total consumption of gas and significantly, UK electricity production used 26.5% more gas in that second quarter than in its equivalent in 2006. Lower gas prices and a shortfall in nuclear power as a result of two reactors being closed won for extended periods.

There was also a decrease in the total amount of electricity by 0.2% (that's 0.2 TWh) in this latter quarter due to a hike in gas prices and that loss of nuclear capacity. Coal production fell by 11% (4.4 million tons), in part from a 20% decline in deep mine output, and a fall by 2.4% in open-cast mining.

Renewable energy production was twice as large in Scotland as England last year but is still small as an overall fraction of the energy we use. I predict that we will see a shift in the use of all kinds of energy, which by 2050 is expected to come from a mix of all, nuclear, coal, gas and renewable sources, although the latter degree of development is a matter of speculation. Despite the recent increase in UK oil production making us a fractional net exporter of oil, our resources in the North Sea certainly, are in a steep decline and I await with interest what might be pumped from undersea fields, for example the stretch from Biscay to Rockall that I wrote about a couple of days ago.

Related reading.
UK Oil Output Up Six Oilfield Start-Ups," By Alex McDonald:

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sex , Food and Life.

Sexual reproduction being a physically binary process, it is not surprising that a Malthusian law follows. The demographic philosopher, Thomas Malthus, at the age of 23 (mmm... I had just got my first degree by then; Ph.D at 26! Higher Doctorate, D.Sc, at 43!) predicted that the human numbers would increase geometrically by a series of 2^n, i.e. 1, 2, 4, 8, 16 etc., whereas food supply can increase arithmetically, i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 etc. Put another way, we are more productive in reproducing ourselves than in feeding ourselves. Malthus predicted that crops would fail, that there would be a very poor harvest, the cost of food would soar and some would starve.

Indeed, in 1789, the cost of bread almost doubled as a consequence of the kind of awful British weather we saw in the last summer and nine years later Malthus published his "Essay on the Principle of Population", in which he came to the conclusion that "misery" (famines and epidemics of disease) and "vice" (contraception, abortion and alcohol abuse) would provide a check on the rise in population.

The population of the world is close to 6.5 billion now, or about 6 times what it was when Multhus was writing, and so there was not a huge die-off as he anticipated. Not only that but the number of daily calories we are all getting per capita were 2,700 in the 1990's, up from 1,848 during the French Revolution. The mean income per capita too has risen by a factor of eight, life expectancy has increased on a worldwide basis from 28 to 67, and while in the late 18th Century, the average British man was 5 feet 5 inches tall, now he stands at an average five feet nine inches. So abundant is our food supply now that a fifth of all Americans can be classified as obese, and with the European nations such as the UK following a close suit.

The usual reason given for the failure of Malthus' prediction of a calamitous collapse of food and population is the "Green Revolution" characterised by a succession of agricultural advances which led to greater and more efficient production, and now the current generation of GM crops. Despite the forces of "vice" which have as Malthus predicted kept population growth at a roughly arithmetic rather than a geometric rate, and at a level where food production could keep pace with its increase, the question remains of whether we will be able to feed the world by 2050, when it is thought there may be 9 billion of us on the planet. The term "peak oil" comes to mind, since modern agriculture is underpinned in large measure by resources of oil. As the oil becomes more expensive and there is less of it on the world markets, food production could be hit hard, with according food shortages.

There might be a shortage of grain especially, especially, as more of it is grown for the ethanol industry, and we are approaching a situation where the production of fuel crops is coming into direct competition with growing crops for food, since, certainly in Europe, the amount of arable land is limited. The UK produces only about two thirds of its own food and surely, as transportation is curbed by the lack of oil to run planes and ships, becoming as self-sufficient on food production for each nation within that nation, must be a priority. World food prices have soared of late, and it appears that capital cereal production has passed its peak (in the mid 1980's); it is noteworthy too that the International Monetary Fund has recorded a 23% hike in food prices during the last 18 months. In Britain food inflation now runs at 4.8%, while national inflation is 2.4%. It is worse than this for some kinds of food, and for example, the inflation rate for fish is nearer 11% and for potatoes it is about 10% - good that our national dish is no longer fish and chips but chicken tikka masalla!

We may well struggle to maintain the arithmetic growth in world population to 9 billion by 2050, as a combination of food shortages per se and the competition between food and fuel crops, the lack of oil to run farms and indeed gas from which chemical fertilisers are made to increase agricultural yields per hectare of land. Malthus may have been fundamentally correct in asking 200 years back, the question: "whether man shall henceforth start to shift with an accelerated velocity towards illimitable, and hitherto unconceived improvement, or be condemned to a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery."

I guess something has to give eventually, since resources of food, fuel and indeed water are not limitless.

Related Reading.
"Worry about bread, not oil," By Niall Ferguson:

Monday, September 24, 2007

Undersea Oil Claims - Rockall!

Several nations, including the UK, are set to expand their domains, in terms of "extended underwater territory", where claims are made under a new UN Law of the Sea Convention. The reason is of course, oil. It is thought that an area of 2.7 million square miles (about the size of Australia) is up for grabs, and includes the Arctic where Russia made a recent claim for land under the North Pole, and new islands off the coast of India which have apparently emerged from the sea. Now that is interesting. Is it due to changes in the sea-levels or to volcanism? Australia is claiming some Pacific islands too.

According to this new law, which is set to come into force within a few years, such tiny pieces of land as Ascension Island and the Falklands have become of great national interest. I recall 25 years ago, when the Falklands War kicked-off between the UK and Argentina, it was mentioned that the real reason we wanted to hold onto those islands was likely "mineral claims" on Antarctica in the future. Significantly, each piece of land carries with it a 350 mile zone in which hydrocarbons and minerals might be exploited by the owner. It is not surprising: we are approaching a period of desperation in terms of oil recovery, to be followed by gas shortages and indeed a scarcity of other minerals to fuel the electronics industry for example. If the world does contract, i.e. transform from the Global Village to a collective of localised economies, we will presumably want to hang into the internet and at least information and knowledge can thus be ferried around the world even if people no longer can be, on the currently accepted scale. Hence we will need as much germanium, gallium, indium, platinum and so on as we can get.

The matter signifies a shift in thinking. It seems odd to dig for diamonds off the South African coast, or for oil some miles off the coast of Australia, and yet, why not. Britain dug for oil off its coast under the North Sea, and indeed much of the deep-drilling technology used around the world for underwater oil exploration was developed by British/Dutch/Norwegian engineers through the North Sea bonanza which is now running dry for us. Hence we are looking pretty assiduously for any new sources of oil and gas, even of Rockall, which is the summit of an extinct volcano, but fortunately a part of British territory.

Rockall is around 25 metres wide at its base, rising to an elevation of around 22 metres at the summit: i.e. it is practically a single shaft of rock projection out of the North Atlantic ocean. Nobody lives there, apart from periwinkles and other molluscs, and it is frequently surged by storm waves. The first recorded landing on Rockall was in 1810 by an officer from the Royal navy called Basil Hall, who led a small landing party from the frigate HMS Endymion (which is also the title of a poem by John Keats).

Geologists are enthusiastic that there is a large area of seabed running from the Bay of Biscay and on past the west of Ireland into the Atlantic which might contain a massive and undiscovered oilfield. Iceland, Norway, Ireland and the UK all have claims to Rockall, which was described in 1957 as the last land-grab of the British Empire, when the Union Jack flag was raised there by British Marines. Now it is described by "greens" as the first stage of British eco-colonialism! In addition to possible oil resources, it is thought that there may be deposits of methane-hydrates which could be mined from the seabed to produced methane gas. That however is speculative. There have been large quantities of this material found at depths under the Gulf of Mexico and under the Caspian Sea. However, environmentalists are scared that digging into methane hydrates might trigger a runaway process, and add to the atmospheric burden of greenhouse gases, among which methane is a strong contender. The rapid release of methane from methane hydrate is also a hazard to undersea drilling, and is thought can trigger tsunamis too in extreme cases, as happened off the coast of Norway and which hit the UK around 8,000 years ago.

Altogether, 45 nations including South Africa, Australia, the UK, Russia, France, Brazil and Ireland are intent on expanding their territories too, in the new oil-rush that beckons.

Related Reading.
"Scramble for the seabed: or how Rockall could be the key to a British oil bonanza", by John Vidal and Owen Bowcott, The Guardian:

Friday, September 21, 2007

Toxic Waste Injection Risks Earthquakes.

There are plans afoot to inject some nine million cubic metres of toxic chemical waste into the ground near to the Wafra farms area of southern Kuwait. The chairman of Green Line Environmental Group, Khaled Al-Hajri, has accused the Kuwait Gulf Oil Company (KGOC) - which is a subsidiary of Kuwait Petroleum Company (KPC) - and the Saudi SAK Oil Company of "anti-environmental procedures" which have caused the creation of a lake of toxic liquid petroleum wastes with a volume of about 9 million cubic metres, near to crops growing at Al-Wafra. He said that: "The lake is 3 x 2 kilometres long and about 1.5 metres deep, [and is] the largest of its nature in the Arabian Gulf area."

Now Kuwait is an arid country and its groundwater levels have fallen significantly during recent years, hence there is pressure on providing water for farming there. It might appear then that pumping contaminated water into dry ground which will readily absorb it, as will any plants that grow there, is asking for trouble. Al-Hajry is of the opinion that the two companies are intent on this strategy simply to rid themselves of a problem they have created themselves. However, in addition to the toxic risk to vegetation (and to any humans and animals that eat it) there is the further prospect of tremors, since such a practice of suffusing rock-layers with fluid material will disrupt its structure, thus creating new fractures and deepening existing ones. He pointed out that the consequences would be earthquakes in the Al-Wafra region that could strike as far away as the Al-Khafgee area in Saudi Arabia where a significant population lives, and risking many lives.

Al-Hari explained: "I have attempted repeatedly to contact Acting Oil Minister, Mohamed Al-Olaim, who has not replied. I have resorted to foreign individuals to interfere since Kuwaiti nationals who have the power to stop this aren't cooperating. KGOC administrators claim that our information is exaggerated despite their knowledge that it is extracted from their own documents which they are trying to hide from the public.

Stressing the potentially calamitous consequences of the waste-injection procedure, Al-Hajri said it would lead to pollution of the soil with toxic materials and contamination of groundwaters that could extend to the Wafra farmlands poisoning their crops, in addition to the blockage (and contamination?) of water wells, causing "severe uncontrollable geological problems" (e.g. quakes). The technology was apparently used in Purdhoe Bay in Alaska in 1997, and resulted in "natural catastrophes" - which were presumably triggered from their "natural" course.

According to an anonymous source from the Public Authority for Agricultural Affairs and Fish Resources (PAAAFR), there has been no contamination of any kind in Al-Wafra, and the PAAAFR routinely performs analyses of samples from the region which have never provided any indication of pollution by petroleum chemical wastes. He did note, however that, "We have noticed an increase in groundwater levels in that region and will collaborate with the Ministry of Water and Electricity to tackle this issue."

I wonder what that really means?

The whole business seems to me to be another example of the dangers of "Geo-engineering", i.e. tinkering around with natural structures and processes, with unknown consequences, as was demonstrated by the Swiss Geothermal Project, recently, in which the injection of water into hot-rock at depths of 3 miles caused earthquakes as far as 10 miles distant, near the city of Basle.

Related Reading.
"Injection Risks Tremors, Pollution"; "Green" sounds toxic alarm; "Tests negative", By Dahlia Kholaif, Arab Times:

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Magnetic Reactor to Improve Ethanol Production.

There have been many interesting propositions regarding the effect of electromagnetic fields on living systems. Most notably, it has been suggested that living near overhead power-lines or communications masts can cause an increased incidence of cancers. The Royal Society carried out an investigation into the matter and concluded there was no firm evidence for a causative link between electromagnetic radiation and cancer, however. There is apocryphal evidence that magnetic fields can assist healing of bones, and that they may encourage growth in a more general sense, and I was alerted to a recent paper (referenced below) which shows that the application of a low-frequency "pulsating" magnetic field supplied by a solenoid can bring the fermentation of sugar cane molasses to a conclusion 17% (two hours) faster than in the control experiment.

The cellular suspension from a batch reactor was recycled externally through a stainless steel pipe inserted through two magnetic field generators, and the optimum conditions were found for a flow rate of 0.9 - 1.2 m/s and 20 mT (200 G, or about 300 times the Earth's magnetic field), plus the solenoid. The overall extent of fermentation was increased marginally to 86.7% from 83.5% in the control, but it is the rate of fermentation that is most markedly enhanced.

Now, the cause of the effect is mysterious. The changes in the initial-to-final pH during the fermentation were broadly similar for all fermented media; however, the difference between the initial and final electrical conductivity was greater in the suspension that had been exposed to magnetic fields, as suggests that the influence of the latter is via induced electric fields in the medium. It is thought that the associated currents can be induced in the culture medium in consequence of the magnetic field because the fermentation medium contains various electrolytes, e.g. Na+, K+, Mg2+, NH4+ and their associated anions, e.g. sulphate, phosphate and chlorate, along with yeast cells that contain various components including ionic solutions, proteins and lipids, which are susceptible to the influence of magnetic or induced electric fields.

Since a cell is essentially non-conducting, at low frequencies, in comparison to the surrounding electrolyte, and electrical interactions among the cells have little influence on the bulk conductivity of the suspension, it is most likely a localised effect on the ions etc. that is responsible, possibly acting on the transport properties of the membrane.

These findings are extremely interesting, but I doubt that it will be practical to modify the entire sugar-cane ethanol industry to forced production conditions employing magnetic field generators, and it would be easier to simply multiply conventional production by 17% to obtain an equivalent enhancement in output, while avoiding the enormous cost and pressure on raw materials such as copper (currently at a world high in price) and the associated engineering on a massive scale that would be incurred in attempting to adopt this technology. The simple approach would also enhance the total quantity of ethanol produced by about 15%.

Related Reading.
Biotechnol. Prog., ASAP Article 10.1021/bp070078k S8756-7938(07)00078-1 Web Release Date: July 31, 2007.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Oxburgh Warns of $150 Barrel.

The former chairman of Shell, the Lord Oxburgh, has warned that the price of oil could reach $150 a barrel, and that production could peak within 20 years. I doubt there is much argument that the price of oil will soar, having reached a record $80 in this last week, and while estimates of when "Peak Oil" will come vary considerably, it appears most likely that the event will occur within about 5 years. For example, the Norwegian energy provider Statoil have forecast it to arrive somewhere within the period 2010 - 2015, so it could be just a couple of years away.

Lord Oxburgh has accused the industry of having its "head in the sand" over the depletion of world oil supplies, and stated: "We may be sleepwalking into a problem which is actually going to be very serious and it may be too late to do anything about it by the time we are fully aware." Too true, and personally it is precisely this aspect of restricted timescale that bothers me, in the sense that any alternatives need to be not just "promising" or "at the research stage" but up and running within 10 years at the maximum and I wonder if that is possible. For example, if we were serious about implementing renewables, of all kinds, then we should have been doing so about 20 years ago, and even if these can yet be installed on the grand scale, and in the nick of time, they do not help us necessarily with the most pressing problem of oil depletion, which is how to keep transportation running.

Some think this might be done by switching over to vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells, but again, the vast and necessary infrastructure needs to be up and running within 10 years, and since there has been no such action on a serious scale, I presume that the governments of the world do not believe this is the answer. There is also the issue of platinum (essential for fuel-cells that "burn" hydrogen), which is such a rare metal that even if current world production of it were doubled, we could still not put more than 3 million fuel-cell "cars" on the road annually, meaning that in 15 years time we would have matched less than about 7% of the current world road fleet in the form of "hydrogen cars", by when it is anybody's guess how many "oil-powered" cars will be left. We are facing a transportation crunch.

As Lord Oxburgh points out correctly, "We can probably go on extracting oil from the ground for a very long time, but it is going to get very expensive indeed. And once you see oil prices in excess of $100 or $150 a barrel, the alternatives simply become more attractive on price grounds if on no others." I take some point of issue here, however, because while it is true that we can almost certainly continue to extract oil for decades to come, we cannot do so to match the current level of demand, which is why oil will inevitably become so expensive.

By the time economics have forced the price to say $150 a barrel, we will be deeply inside a resource crisis, and we need to implement "alternatives", if we can, well before it is simply a matter of price that forces our hand. My fear is we have left it too late to make a smooth transition, and even if such long-term projects as HiPER (laser fusion) etc. will be viable in three decades time, there remains an uncertain and rocky path from now to then, and even these "limitless" supplies of energy will be hard pushed to match the power drawn currently by transportation and all else, and at a time when energy has run desperately short to run the then existing world, let alone fulfill extra demands in building new infrastructures. Oil is also the world's major chemical raw material for all manufacturing processes, and so it is not just the lack of it to put into fuel tanks that will smite civilization.

We are sometimes called the "plastic" society, and indeed all synthetic materials including plastic are made ultimately from oil. At $150 a barrel or who knows how much, clearly the cost of everything we have learned to take for granted will soar inexorably, while accordingly their supplies will fall with an equal relentlessness. In short, global economic growth will find its days numbered and in the absence of such effortless and borrowed abundance, the global village will contract into localised economies. The destination is inevitable, and the best we can do is cushion the ride there, if indeed we can.

Related Reading.
"Oil industry 'sleepwalking into crisis'", By David Strahan and Andrew Murray-Watson, The Independent on Sunday:

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Arctic Ice Melting faster than Global Warming Models Predict.

During this summer of torrential rain in the UK, the Arctic ice has melted at a rate hitherto unknown, and the amounts of sea-ice in the Arctic ocean are at a record low, at least for the duration of accurate measurements of it, which began about 30 years ago. To lend a sense of scale to the process, it is reported that an area "almost twice as big as the UK" was lost in the past week alone.

Many lost their lives trying to navigate the putative course of the Northwest passage across the top of Canada, including the two-ship ("The Terror" and "The Erebus") expedition of Sir John Franklin in 1845. Traces of the expedition have been found, including notes that indicate that the ships became ice-locked in 1846 near King William island, about half way through the passage, and were unable to extricate themselves, with the loss of 129 lives. Franklin himself died in 1847 and the last of the party died in 1848. However, so much ice has been lost during this summer the passage is presently fully navigable, and observers believe that the Northeast passage along the Arctic coast of Russia could become so later this month.

The importance of the Northwest passage was to provide a sailing link between Europe and Asia, avoiding the necessity to sail around the horn of Africa. I muse slightly, that in an era of higher global temperatures but restricted fuel supplies, such a trade-route could come into its own to ferry manufactured goods from the Far East to Europe, and even to North America, if it becomes more efficient to bring cargo to the west coast via the passage rather to to the East coast across the Pacific Ocean, and then to transport goods across the continent. Perhaps both routes will be used, depending on the closeness to the coast of their final inland destination?

Will we use sailing ships once more too, depending on the power of the wind rather than fossil fuels, although the volume of cargo that could be so borne would be implicitly reduced, and to essentials only. It may be that inland transportation will become a greater problem than oceanic travel, in the absence of liquid fuels, meaning that the coastal regions will flourish, along the lines of the original port-cities like London and Liverpool, existing almost separate from an agrarian hinterland. But those "cities" will still need to be fed, and possibly beyond the capacity of local farms, perhaps imposing a restriction on their actual level of growth.

These thoughts aside, why is the Arctic ice retreating to fast? The Arctic has lost around one third of the ice it had when detailed satellite measurements began thirty years ago, and the rate of its depletion has accelerated abruptly since 2002. Dr Mark Serreze, at Colorado University (where the US National Snow and Ice Data Center is), said: "If you asked me a couple of years ago when the Arctic could lose all of its ice then I would have said 2100, or 2070 maybe. But now I think that 2030 is a reasonable estimate. It seems the Arctic is going to be a very different place within our lifetimes, and certainly within our children's lifetimes." It appears therefore, that climate models are not able to account for the phenomenon, and perhaps there is another factor involved which is not encoded into the various algorithms, whatever that might be.

The latest measurements show that the area of remaining sea-ice is 4.4 million square kilometres. The previous record low was 5.3 million km^2 in September 2005, as compared with an average of 7.7 million km^2 between 1979 and 2000. The sea-ice usually melts in the Arctic summer and freezes once more during the winter; however Dr Serreze thinks this year that will be difficult, noting that: "This summer we've got all this open water and added heat going into the ocean. That is going to make it much harder for the ice to grow back.

Changes in wind and ocean circulation patterns can help reduce the amount of sea-ice but Dr Serreze said the main culprit is man-made global warming, commenting: "The rules are starting to change and what's changing the rules is the input of greenhouse gases." So why don't the models predict what is happening, and might there not be an additional forcing factor, perhaps a flow of warmer water from somewhere, as might explain the unexpectedly rapid melting of the Larsen-B Shelf in Antarctica?

I leave these matters to the experts and their calculations, but await their results in a combination of concern and interest.

Related Reading.
(1) "Loss of Arctic ice leaves experts stunned," By David Adam, Guardian Unlimited:

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Shell Consider Nuclear-Powered Tar Sands.

The Canadian Athabasca tar sands (oil sands) contain the makings of an enormous reserve of oil, which the Alberta government estimates at 174 billion barrels that are economically recoverable (the second largest "oil reserves" after Saudi Arabia), or some 10% of the total of the 1,700 - 2,500 billion barrels worth there is thought to be in total. This is not in fact oil per se, but bitumen which needs to be recovered from the mineral solid ("sand"), and then refined into a material that is light enough to be used as a fuel. The actual sand is a mixture of sand or clay, water and bitumen, and the process requires an enormous amount of energy, usually provided in the form of natural gas, and water, the latter drawn from the Athabasca river.

The natural gas is used both to provide heat to form steam to extract the bitumen, and also as a hydrogen source to refine-up the product into oil suitable as a fuel. The wikipedia site on tar sands, ( reckons that it takes up to 1,200 cu feet of gas to produce one barrel of oil, which is the equivalent of 6,000 cu feet of gas in terms of it's energy. So a simple division would suggest an EROEI of 5. However, a figure of 1.5 is often quoted, due presumably to the need to take account of the energy used in the mining, processing and recovery, etc. Hence if you add-in the whole lot the figure might well fall to 1.5, which many think is not enough to make the process viable. However the EROEIs quoted (usually with no break-down of a calculation given to explain them), that I have seen, vary from about 5 down to 1.5, but I think it depends on exactly what is factored-in.

A supply of Canadian gas that is expected to dwindle (as it will elsewhere in the world), against a rising requirement for it, if the amount of tar sands oil production is expected to increase by five times over the next 20 years, might be offset if an alternative source of heat could be provided with which to generate the steam. I stress that since more gas is used to supply hydrogen with which to "reform" the bitumen into "oil" for fuel than is used for steam generation, the demand on natural gas is likely to remain enormous and to grow. One alternative being considered is to gasify the bitumen into syn-gas ( a mixture of H2 + CO), but this is an energy demanding process. Hence if an alternative energy source is available, both problems are in principle addressed.

To this end, Canadian companies AECL and Energy Alberta have proposed the construction of a nuclear reactor near the sites of the huge Athabasca tar sands development, controlled by Shell, and while it has not been stated explicitly that it is Shell who are the "large company" that will take 70% of the electricity that it generates, a spokeswoman from Shell has confirmed that the company is considering a range of alternatives, including nuclear. The reactor is estimated to cost C$6 billion (£2.8 billion).

Not everyone is an enthusiast of the proposal, however, including Walt Patterson, associate fellow at think-tank Chatham House who said: "Extracting oil from tar scares the pants off me. The whole idea is fundamentally perverse in the context of the present environmental situation. To then power it with nuclear, it seems the worst of all worlds."

Shell and its partner companies in Athabasca presently produce 155,000 barrels of oil per day from the tar sands there, and the proposed increase in output by five times over the next 20 years would require an additional 1,000 MW of generating capacity - i.e. about one nuclear reactor's worth!

It is necessary to dig about 4 tonnes of raw material out of the ground to make one barrel of oil, and something like 4 barrels of water is needed too. Hence because it takes resources to extract resources, it may well be that the depletion of natural gas and a water supply that is unable to meet demand, especially if the environmental clean-up factors are included as it is a rather dirty process overall, will hit the viability of the tar sands "oil fields" before the low EROEI does.

Related Reading.
(1)"Shell could take nuclear option to mine oil from Canadian tar sands," By Tim Webb:

Monday, September 10, 2007

Oil Peak by 2010?

The Norwegian energy provider Statoil has apparently named the time for the peak of oil production in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries as 2010 - 2015, which leaves the world increasingly reliant on the OPEC group and Russia to provide crude oil from petroleum. However, I thought that the peak for world oil production was also believed to arrive at around this date, although there is much debate over this issue. Statoil are now after a share of the Canadian oil sands and have paid $2.2 billion for the North American Oil Sands Corp., as part of its intention to develop its largest non-Norwegian oil-project. Statoil is based in Oslo and is expected to finalise a merger with Norsk Hydro on October the 1st; it is also among the 12 major oil companies and operates in 35 different countries.

Both the UK and Norway have a share of the North Sea fields of oil and gas, and which are maturing (i.e. running on the down-side of Hubbert's Peak with an inexorable fall in production in the coming years). Most oil-companies are hesitant to voice their views on when this might come but Statoil thinks that anywhere between 2010 and 2015 is the most likely scenario; so it could be within a couple of years or seven years at a maximum, neither limit allowing much time to adapt.

Other than obtaining more oil from the OPEC countries (mostly based in the Middle East), Russia, Venezuela and some production in the far East, the adoption of non-conventional sources of oil is seen as an important means for taking-up this slack in production... hence Statoil's interest in the Canadian tar sands. Using steam-assisted gravity methods, it is thought that the first oil will be produced in 2010, and that production will be ramped-up to 200,000 barrels a day by 2020.

Doubtless there will be more mergers to appear on the international face of oil supply, but I am reminded that depending on just how much oil the Middle East (especially Saudi), Russia and Venezuela can keep pumping out, and how much "alternative" oil can be made, the world faces a transportation crunch in short order, and a massive hiking-up of prices in general, since there is really nothing that does not depend on oil either as a fuel or as a raw chemical feedstock for manufacture, including this keyboard I am typing to you on.

Related Reading.
"Statoil sees OECD peak," Claudia Cattaneo,

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Laser Fusion Project gets Go-Ahead.

A British-led team of researchers intend to use mighty lasers to promote nuclear fusion, which some think will provide us with effectively limitless energy in the face of the looming world energy crisis. The project, known as HiPER, will be instigated in the UK, which aims to use such intense lasers to create the temperatures millions of degrees required for hydrogen (tritium and deuterium) nuclei to fuse, releasing more energy it is intended in the process than is required to power the lasers. This is currently a problem with fusion, but scientists believe that by using a laser of petawatt power (10,000 times the output of the UK national grid) in very short duration pulses, and if the laser can fire repeatedly on a fraction of a second timescale, it should be possible to create a sustainable source of energy that could be drawn-off to produce electricity.

The practicalities have been evaluated by a panel of European experts, who have approved the project. This is, in effect, a green-light for the seven year project which will cost around £500 million ($1 billion). Hiper is a development of work done in the US, and it is thought that it could provide the means for generating electricity within 20 years. When deuterium and tritium nuclei fuse a helium nucleus is formed and large amounts of energy are released. Deuterium can be extracted from seawater and tritium is produced within the reactor itself. To produce the high temperatures (above 40 million degrees) required to overcome the electrostatic repulsion between the positively charged nuclei so that they can fuse requires a lot of energy, and the balance of output to input must favour the former.

Magnetic confinement is required to hold the high temperature plasma together, since all materials known on Earth would simply be vapourised in contact with it. The strategy is that a pulsed laser with a power of one petawatt (one million billion watts) is fired at a fuel pellet just 2 millimetres in diameter. An enormous pressure is generated that squashes the pellet down to a width of just a few microns (thousands of a millimetre).

Speaking from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Professor Mike Dunne said, "To put that into perspective, the laser is 10,000 times the power of the entire UK national grid. And then you're going to focus that down onto a spot that's 10 to 100 times smaller than the width of a human hair. The pressure is equivalent to 10 Nimitz class aircraft carriers sitting on your thumb. Some pretty crazy things are going to happen, and that's what we're about."

I'm sure he's right, but is the technology really going to arrive in time to circumvent an energy crisis that will arrive within 10 - 20 years? I don't think we should place all our bets on it just yet, and the dearth of energy to power the world's transportation network is not obviously cured by HiPER, or the analogous ETIR fusion programme either, which is thought will not produce power commercially for another 60 years.

Related Reading.
"Green light for fusion project," By Mark Henderson, Timesonline, September 3, 2007: