Monday, April 30, 2007

Coal Liquefaction.

Among the alternative means for replacing conventional oil as it begins to run-out are liquid fuels provided by the liquefaction of coal. Such coal-to-liquids processes fall essentially into two types: direct and indirect liquefaction. Both methods were exploited by Germany during WWII, with the former predominating. All direct liquefaction methods can be thought to be based around the Bergius process. Liquid transportation fuels are characterised as having a hydrogen content of between 12 and 15%, while coal typically contains around 5% hydrogen and rather more carbon. Friedrich Bergius received the Nobel Prize in 1931 for his work on high-pressure chemistry, shared jointly with Carl Bosch who worked in a similar field and whose work is most famously demonstrated by the "Haber-Bosch" process for making ammonia by combining nitrogen with hydrogen under a pressure of the order of 300 atmospheres in the presence of an iron catalyst at 500 degrees C.

Bergius also employed high pressure hydrogen in order to "add" it to coal partially dissolved in initially naphthalene at high temperatures, under pressure as a solvent, and then in the "heavy oil" fraction generated from the coal-liquefaction process itself. Bergius developed his process in 1913, at which time constructing the necessary apparatus to withstand high pressure hydrogen posed a considerable feat of engineering. The purpose of the high pressure was both to "contain" the hot solvent which would otherwise have volatilised (c.f. a pressure cooker) and to increase the concentration of hydrogen substantially, thus to accelerate the reaction to a usable rate. The remaining problem was the production of hydrogen in a state of near purity, which was solved serendipitously. Bergius discovered that at temperatures close to 400 degrees C, water would act on iron (initially from the pressure vessel itself) almost like an acid, thus liberating 99% pure hydrogen.

He adapted the chemistry employing finely divided iron (iron-filings), which reduced water to hydrogen, being itself converted to iron oxide, Fe3O4. Since it proved possible to reduce the oxide back to metallic iron using either hydrogen (which defeats the object some) or more usefully with carbon monoxide (CO), the iron could be recycled into the process. All of these things are described wonderfully and illuminatingly in his Nobel lecture, which I have referred to below.

The Germans employed, on the smaller scale, an indirect method based on the Fischer-Tropsch process. This technology goes back to 1923, and was developed by Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch, working at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute fur Kohlenforschung (coal research), which Fischer later became director of. [The Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes later became the Max Planck Institutes, and so it is now: the Max Planck Institute fur Kohlenforschung]. Essentially the coal is reacted with high-pressure steam (similar to "steam-reforming" of methane) to form a mixture of CO + H2, which when reacted over a catalyst of iron, cobalt or nickel (other metals will do too) is converted to a mixture of hydrocarbons. Direct liquefaction processes typically attain an energy efficiency of 65-70%, while indirect methods run close to 55%. During WWII Germany manufactured more than 4 million tonnes of liquid fuel annually through a combination of Bergius and Fischer-Tropsch technologies, which kept their war-effort running for five years, despite initial skepticism by the Allies that the war would be a flash-in-the-pan since the Germans had no indigenous supplies of fuel and would soon run out of it. The targeted bombing of the German coal-liquefaction facilities in 1945 contributed significantly to the end of the war.

South Africa is currently the only country that operates coal liquefaction plants (Sasol process), and produces close to 60% of its transportation fuel from coal based on the indirect Fischer-Tropsch approach. Trade embargoes imposed on them during three decades drove the very large-scale application of this technology. Large amounts of synthetic "oil" could undoubtedly be created from coal liquefaction (coal to liquids) processes, especially in the United States which owns around 30% of all known coal reserves and I expect to see a substantial installation of this technology within a country that by now relies on the rest of the world to provide it with nearly 3/4 of its entire oil budget of 22 million barrels a day. This will undoubtedly prove unpopular with environmentalists because converting coal to transportation fuels releases 7 - 10 times as much CO2 as processing crude oil does. This increase in CO2 emissions at the processing stage yields the overall result that CO2 emissions from transport will be raised by 50% over that currently supplied by oil. A new infrastructure of open-cast coal-mining is unlikely to please them either, and the technology is highly demanding in terms of the amount of water it uses, as is a problem in China who seek to expand the technology seemingly as much as possible, along with all other forms of energy supply. I imagine that water might be a problem in the US too, especially in the mid-West since I am told that supplying much of agricultural water rests on pumping it up from deep aquifers. Hence wide-scale coal-liquefaction would consume yet more of this precious resource.

However, coal-liquefaction is at the moment of writing the only proven technology that can make "oil" on the large scale required to match current petroleum use and while I remain optimistic about making biodiesel from algae, this technology has yet to be proven and developed on the massive scale necessary, if it is to make the difference between a world underpinned by oil or not. Probably direct coal-to-liquids methods will prove most useful, since under favourable circumstances, a 70% recovery of liquid hydrocarbons based on the weight of coal has been demonstrated.

Related Reading.
(2) "Coal Liquefaction", DTI Pub URN 99/1120.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Peak Gas Worryingly Close to Peak Oil.

There is a close connection between gas and oil and it is the case that between 15% - 20% of world oil is actually based in some way on gas. Due to the imminence of peak oil, there has been a shift away from conventional oil production toward such lighter hydrocarbon fuels described as NGL (natural gas liquids) and condensates, which are liquids that are condensed out from raw natural gas, while the gas-component is most often re-injected in order to maintain adequate pressure within the reservoir, or simply vented away or "flared-off". It is a familiar sight throughout the history of the oil-industry to have burning highly smoky gas flares that are actually contaminated with large amounts of liquid hydrocarbons (oil) and various minerals and metals too, most of them highly poisonous in nature. When the gas is simply vented it is invisible to the naked eye, but potentially nonetheless a threat in terms of climate change, dumping methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas, with around 100 times the "global warming" capacity of CO2. It is often quoted that methane is about 20x as bad as CO2 in this respect, but that refers only to the situation averaged over 100 years, during which course some of the methane is broken-down by being oxidised to CO2 in the troposphere. After 300 years, there will be practically none of the initial methane remaining. In reality, if equal volumes of methane and CO2 were released into the atmosphere, the heating effect, the "instantaneous radiative forcing factor" as it is known, is nearer 110 [I will supply the math(s) behind this conclusion if anybody asks me]. Worryingly, about 9% of world gas is pumped straight into the sky, in other words is wasted, without finding any use as a fuel.

Undoubtedly, peak oil comes before peak gas - and may have already done so, and there are numerous estimates for the times when either will arrive. It is not a simple stepwise advance of one over another though, due to their interrelated aspects, both physical (chemical) and economic. Increasingly, oil is made from gas as a raw material, from "hot greasy gas" as Andrew McKillop has described it, and which is formed at depths of 3 - 4 kilometers underground. In "extreme depth offshore" regions like Angola and the deep Gulf of Mexico, that "ground" may be seabed that is itself 3 - 4 km underwater. Using the classical wooden "derrick" of the oil-gusher days, for "conventional" production of oil, there would certainly have been some gas in the "oil-stream", but nothing to compare with present production of "unconventional" oil, which is reckoned at the equivalent of one oil barrel equivalent of gas produced and re-injected, vented or flared, for every 8 barrels of oil that are condensed out of "greasy gas", as a world average. As wells become "older" that ratio is much higher, and more determined strategies are employed to recover more oil from the "greasy" oil-gas stream, to the extent that in the US, "conventional" oil production amounts to just about one quarter of the total oil produced there, which is around 1.5 million barrels a day from near to 6 million barrels altogether. Since the US gets through around 22 million barrels daily in total, rough reckoning indicates that it must now import almost 3/4 of its oil. Now that figure is alarming, and we can draw our own conclusions as to what that will mean on the world stage.

It has been assumed that Russian gas is in practically unlimited supply, as was thought of the Saudi oil fields about two decades ago. We now know this is not true. Neither does it appear that the Russian Gazprom can supply Europe with sufficient of its gas requirements into the future. Despite claims of huge gas resources, it seems that in reality, falling supplies from the three critical ("biggest") west-Siberian gasfields are unlikely to be able to provide even in the short-term for Russia's own domestic, CIS and European customers. Part of the problem is the need for a massive investment programme, to extract more gas and to do it more efficiently, and in the absence of such a capital cash-injection it is only at a push that the period 2009-2015 will not witness significant gas-shortages across the whole of Europe and the former Soviet Union - a massive total region with somewhat over 1 billion people. Put bluntly, "Peak Gas" is likely to strike in 2009... in a couple of years from now.

Peak oil is grudgingly becoming acknowledged and accepted, although the apocalyptic consequences of simply sitting by and letting the consequences of it happen are not routinely broadcast. Possibly there is a plan to avert mass-panic. The price of gas and that of oil will become inextricably linked and probably economic drivers - high cost - will kick-in and act as a brake on how much of these commodities is used. There will be little comfort found in this, however, especially in the midst of a very cold winter.

Related Reading.
Andrew McKillop, "Peak Oil to Peak Gas is a short ride".

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Earth's Resources Can't Keep Pace with Us!

Many of the planet's resources are running increasingly and alarmingly scarce, especially petroleum ("oil"). Water, land and fish will also be unable to provide enough to match our growing human appetite for them. Gas and probably coal will begin to feel the pressure of our demands for them within foreseeable decades - coal is hard to predict since its true reserves are poorly known (see the posting "Peak Coal by 2025", which is the conclusion of one recent study), but peak gas is likely within 20 years or so after peak oil, and that may well be already with us. If everybody living on the Earth (around 6.5 billion of us) consumed resources at the rate of the world's richest nations (US, Europe and Australia), we would need to provide six times the present level of them, and should that population rise to 9 billion as it is predicted to by 2050, the demand would be ten times as great as it is now.

It all makes a nonsense of the unprecedented industrial expansion currently being forged in Countries like China, India and South America, all in the pursuit of a Western lifestyle, which even the West can no longer afford. Something will give, and soon, and most likely the weakest link in the resource supply chain is oil. The per capita area of productive land needed to provide one American with food, water, accommodation and energy is about 12 hectares; for an average Australian it is around 8 ha, close to that for a typical European. However, the mean per capita area of productive land held within the boundaries of the Earth is only about 1.3 ha for each of us. Thus, if the world shared all its resources equally, we would need to survive (and thrive?) on about one sixth to one tenth of our current "needs".

It is a consensus of opinion that the world is now in the grip of global warming and climate change, and that this is caused by human-induced CO2 emissions. There remain dissenters to the notion that it is "all our fault" but that there are underlying warming mechanisms related to the variable output of the Sun or well-established changes in the Earth-Sun orbital parameters which occur over cycles within a grand cycle of 100,000 years or so. This periodicity in global temperatures over geologic time is well established. Notwithstanding, something dramatic is happening to the Earth's climate now. As I wrote in "Australia in Drought", that nation's food production is seriously under threat from an epic shortage of water, with main rivers drying-up, and leaving little for irrigation. This is blamed squarely on global warming.

If we follow this reasoning and cut our CO2 emissions by 60%, and share the remaining fossil fuels equally among everybody in the world, we would suddenly find ourselves with just about 5% of current amounts. I have written before that it might be necessary to cut transportation by up to 90%, simply it terms of how much alternative fuel might be provided from renewable resources, and re-localise society into small, locally-provided for communities: these I have called "pods". I am highly skeptical that the "hydrogen economy" on the required grand scale of the "oil economy" can be implemented, certainly not within the timescale of oil supply depletion, and so all facts appear to point in the same direction: namely that on grounds of short petroleum supplies or driven by concerns over climate change, we have no choice but to cut back seriously on burning non-renewable oil-fuel - and that means cars left by the roadside.

The "global village" is on the way out, however you look at it. This means the end of consumer capitalism. Now that does require a paradigm shift, as indeed the appearance of plentiful oil did in the first place. It is not possible to reach the holy grail of "sustainability" (nor global social justice) unless we undertake a huge economic, moral and philosophical transition to what some have referred to as "The Simpler Way". This means the inauguration of a society that is based on a high degree of self-sufficiency (at least within small communities, if not as individuals per se, since the "pod" will share-out its various needs and contributions) and localised economies (farms and local businesses that do not depend on raw materials driven or flown over massive distances). In this "new world" our motivation will have to change.

Now we are driven by profit, but in a sustainable economy of necessarily low or zero economic growth our intentions would need to be amended. That prospect is frightening in comparison with the status quo. However, it might prove ultimately a more satisfying way to live - communities working together to provide what that community needs collectively. The word "Utopia" comes into my mind too, and I suspect the real barrier and hindrance is a lack of belief it could even be possible to make the transition. But whether we like it or not there will be radical transformation of the present society which is simply unsustainable. But to avoid descending into anarchy en route, some clear plans need to be drawn up rather than an unseeing, iron-fist grabbing at the resources such as oil that remain. They will run-out, and we are driving that outcome harder and more certainly each day. When they do, what then? What way is really left to us but "The Simpler Way?". Why not begin to take that step now, while we still have some resources in hand to make the transition easier?

Related Reading.
(1) Ted Trainer,
(2) (Here it is suggested than 3 billion or around half the world's current population might perish in consequence of the looming and catastrophic fall in world petroleum supply).

Monday, April 23, 2007

Australia in Drought.

Australia is in the grip of the most severe drought on record. The nation are warned that unless heavy rains come soon to break the unprecedented dry-spell, it might prove necessary to cut water supplies for food production. The Murray-Darling basin in south-eastern Australia produces 40% of the continent's agriculture and is supplied by two rivers, which are now so low that soon there will only be enough water available for drinking, not for irrigation. It is thought that the reason for the drought is climate-change, and the government are blamed for not acting sooner. John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister, has said that unless there is a significant rainfall during the next six to eight weeks, irrigation will be prevented in the main farming area, with the consequence that crops such as rice, cotton and grapes (for wine) will fail, while citrus, olive and almond trees will die, as will livestock.

In 2002 - 2003, drought halved wheat production in Australia. Mr Howard said: "It's a grim situation, and there is no point pretending to Australia otherwise. We must all hope and pray there is rain." The causes of the present drought are believed to be complex, but few scientists doubt that climate change is part of the problem, which is making Australia hotter and drier. With pastures reduced to dust, some farmers have resorted to selling-off their livestock at rock-bottom prices, or they try to keep them going on feed that is now massively expensive. The suicide rate among rural communities has soared, as indeed it did in the UK, when our farming industry was hit by BSE and then foot-and-mouth disease.

Australians enjoy one of the best standards of living, and have the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Average temperatures in Australia have increased by 0.7 degrees C over the past 100 years, and most of that during the last 50 years. 80% of the population live on the eastern seaboard or the coastal perimeters of the continent. 50% of all Australia's CO2 emissions arise from burning coal, which as noted in an earlier posting, is very abundant there. The Great Barrier Reef is suffering from rising sea-temperatures, and 60% of it was bleached in 2002. At 2,575 and 2,739 kilometers in length, respectively, the river Murray and its tributary, the Darling, provide 84% of all water used for irrigating farmland; however, there will soon be just enough for essential supplies. Australia is also beset by forest-fires which consume large areas of land. The south-eastern region is especially prone to them and the hot, arid climate there will be worsened by the current drought.

The death toll of wildlife is significant when the fires strike, particularly in the eucalyptus forests, where the flammable vapours from them fuel intense firestorms, and wombats, koalas and many of Australia's other unique indigenous creatures are greatly at risk from this kind of fire. Environmentalists refer to the rising number of El Nino events which bring drought, and blame them on global warming. Until only recently, Mr Howard and his minsters remained skeptical about the issue of global warming and climate change, and he refused to meet Al Gore during a recent visit he made there to promote his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. He was also less than sanguine about "The Stern Report", published in the UK by the economist Sir Nicholas Stern, which contains the warning that large arable areas of Australia would be rendered barren if global temperatures increased by an average of four degrees C.

George Bush has said that "the jury is out" on the link between human-produced CO2 emissions and global warming, despite the consensus of world scientists that there is no doubt they are connected. Mr Howard has responded to the view of his citizens' opinion, and recently announced the intention to ban inefficient light bulbs, with the view to cut Australia's CO2 emissions. It is a serious business and I wonder whether there will be a massive re-immigration of Australians who are originally of British and European stock back to these countries. Almost certainly, populations will follow climate change, moving to warmer, cooler or wetter lands in order to survive.

Related Reading.
Kathy Marks, "The Epic Drought", writing in The Independent, April 20th, p.2-3.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Carbon-Trading, the Ozone Layer and Frying Fish.

While the developed nations have all but banned manufacture of CFC's (chlorofluorocarbons) and related compounds, in the interests of trying to preserve the ozone layer, they are paying billions to countries like India and China to produce them. The problem is a loophole in the Kyoto Protocol which allows industrialised nations to meet their own greenhouse gas emissions by paying for cheaper emission reducing projects in developing nations. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) means that for every tonne of carbon saved (or its equivalent, denoted CO2e), one "carbon credit" is earned. Nearly half of all CDM credits have been issued for destroying HFC-23 (trifluoromethane), which is 11,700 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, and is produced during the manufacture of HCFC-22 (chlorodifluoromethane), which is widely employed as a refrigerant. The situation is very opportune for China and India, since they hold most of the developing world's facilities for manufacturing refrigerants, and foreign investors are prepared to pay up to 15 Euro for each CO2e credit - a lot less than it would cost to reduce emissions in Europe or the US!

In a recent paper published in Nature, it was estimated by Michael Wara, who is both a lawyer and an authority on CDM, the total cost of destroying HFC-23 via carbon credits is 4.7 billion Euro, whereas the actual cost to do it is more like 100 million Euro. He points out that this isn't merely an expensive loophole, it also discourages more desirable CDM projects based around biomass or wind-power, and might engender an incentive for companies in the developing nations to expand production of refrigerants for the simple purpose of destroying by-products from HFC-23 production.

So, how is the "ozone hole" these days? You may recall that the whole business of ceasing to manufacture CFC's and indeed of destroying existing stockpiles was to do with the fact that these volatile compounds survive transport through the troposphere, to reach the stratosphere where the ozone is, and there they are photolysed in a series of chemical reactions that result in decomposition of the ozone layer. This is also sometimes called the ozone-shield, in emphasis that ozone absorbs harmful UV radiation (UV-A and UV-B), and helps to protect life on earth from its harmful effects, e.g. causing skin-cancer. A well-documented "hole" has appeared in the ozone layer, most dramatically over Antarctica and worryingly over Europe too.

Earth systems are complex, and it is probably misleading to consider any aspect in isolation from the highly interconnected whole. There is no better example of a holistic system at work than the Earth and its climate. (A philosophical overview of this has been espoused in the novel Jagged Environment, by Chris James). Indeed, it is now thought that marine and freshwater systems might be placed at risk by the increasing levels of UV now reaching the Earth' surface. Aquatic ecosystems constitute more than half the biomass of the planet and are hence an essential component of the biosphere. According to a report by the United Nations, marine organisms may be killed-off by the UV, especially in the polar regions above where the ozone layer is thinnest, and such a diminution in marine organisms, e.g. phytoplankton, may reduce the capacity of the oceans to soak-up CO2 from the atmosphere.

I have noted previously, "Carbon in the Sky" (6-1-07), that since 1950 the amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere from burning fossil-fuels appears to have exceeded the planet's ability to absorb it by an average of 40%, or around 2 ppm per year. That excess seems to be increasing, probably in consequence of steadily increasing levels of emissions but also destruction of the world's forests and the phytoplankton - "green lawns" - of the oceans. Phytoplankton is thought to absorb more than half the CO2 that is taken-up from the atmosphere by the plant kingdom altogether through photosynthesis, and hence is responsible for over 50% of the atmosphere's oxygen. The fear is, of course, that an increase in atmospheric CO2 might lead to more dramatic global warming.

It is interesting that although there appears to be no direct link between "global warming" and the "ozone layer", there are indirect connections. Here, through the interactive ozone-hole/UV/phytoplankton/CO2 system, and that while rising CO2 levels cause the troposphere to warm, they cause the stratosphere to cool, leading to more cloud formation upon the surfaces of which more ozone is decomposed, we have a perfect (deadly!) "feedback mechanism". The interconnected processes of the Earth "systems" indeed constitute an intricate and delicate mechanism, and we tamper with it at our peril.

Related Reading.

Jagged Environment, by Chris James. This is described as: "A discussion on the origins of life and the relative impact of humankind on the environment". Personally, I found it interesting from a philosophical point of view, whether I agree with the "science" or not! "

Chemistry World, April 2007, Vol. 4, No. 4, p.8/p.32.
D.P.Hader et al., Photochem. Photobiol. Sci., 2007, 6, p.267.
M.Wara, Nature, 2007, 445, p.595.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

All About Oil.

Specifically, supplies of the cheap "sweet" light crude oil, on which the economy of the modern world is based, are set to decline. Exactly when this will occur is the matter of debate, but my own prediction is that within 10 years fuel will begin to run short. A society that is unable to travel easily will inevitably fragment into small communities, and that might work out fine - it is the transitional powering down to a lower energy economy which worries me, since it might amount to serious civil disorder and strife. At worst anarchy! If we look around, we see plastics, synthetic fibres, and all of them made from oil, in addition to its vital importance as a fuel. It is ironic that when petroleum was first encountered in quantity, particularly in the United States, the material was regarded as rather a nuisance.

In Pennsylvania, wells were sunk to extract brine (salt-water) which was allowed to evaporate in salt-pans, for salt production. Often, however, the brine was found to be contaminated with petroleum. Generally the oil was skimmed-off and thrown away, usually onto fields, but so the story goes, in one area where there was rather a lot of petroleum coming-up with the brine, the "salt-miners" began to throw it into a canal. One day, a boy threw a lighted branch into the canal, whereupon the entire waterway erupted into flame, so the locals got the idea that petroleum might be useful after all. It was marketed as a replacement for whale-oil used in lamps, and also as a medicine. In the latter aspect, "rock-oil" as it became known was applied externally to burns and internally for conditions ranging from tuberculosis to its application as a laxative.

The first commercial oil-well was sunk in Pennsylvania in 1859, and yielded an initial 25 barrels a day, but this had fallen to just 15 barrels a day within a year, making the point that oil-wells have a finite supply - i.e. they run-out eventually. Henry Ford, of the "Model-T Ford", the first car to be produced on an assembly-line, thought the world supplies of petroleum were actually highly limited and so the "Model-T" was originally designed to run on ethanol. Interestingly, Rudolph Diesel, in his original patent for the "Diesel Engine" intended the device to run on coal dust or vegetable oils. A couple of his prototype engines did explode when fired with coal-dust, however.

The car industry expanded hugely and more petroleum was discovered all the time, so it became the fuel of choice. World War I resulted in a massive growth in the number of vehicles run on oil-based fuels, worldwide, and all powers began to realise that securing adequate supplies of oil was key to ensuring their economic prosperity. Lawrence of Arabia (T.E.Lawrence, who wrote the novel, "Seven Pillars of Wisdom", describing his experience) led the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire, in the Eastern flank of WWI. We are familiar with the fighting in France particularly during WWI, but there was also a war being fought in the east, some historians say to secure oil supplies for the Europeans. Sadly, some of the soldiers who survived Galipoli were sent off to fight in the Somme. This led to an effective partitioning of what was "Arabia" and the creation of Iraq, Saudi and the other Arab states. I wonder what future historians will conclude about the true purpose of current military action by The West in Iraq and Afghanistan (and God forbid, Iran).

More oil-wells continued to be sunk (especially in the US) and the peak in the number of oil deposits found - "Peak Discovery" - occurred in 1930. A man called M. King Hubbert (the "M" stood for "Marion", so perhaps that's why he chose "King" as his first name), a very famous geophysicist, predicted mathematically that the peak in oil production - "Peak Oil" - would come 40 years after peak discovery. This proved to be spot-on for US oil production, which peaked around 1970, and now the US needs to import 2/3 of the oil it consumes, much of it from the Middle East, but mostly from Canada. Altogether, the US uses one quarter of the entire world's output of oil, and demand rises inexorably there and increasingly so in other countries like China and India, to fuel their unprecedented economic expansion. It is predicted that by 2020, China will match the US in terms of its thirst for oil, but by then half the remaining oil will have gone, and it is almost certain that production of natural petroleum will be well down by then. Hence, if this "target" is to be met, much of it will need to derive from synthetic oil, e.g. as produced from tar sands or from coal-liquefaction.

World oil production is around 84 million barrels a day, or just over 30 billion barrels per year. However, the amount of oil in the ground is finite, and believed to amount to around one trillion (one thousand billion) barrels. Hence, if we could extract all of it at 30 billion barrels a year, there is enough for about 30 years or so. If demand grows we simply get through the stuff faster. There are also suspicions that e.g. Saudi may have revised its reserves optimistically upward, and so there may be less oil in the ground that was thought. Indeed, it is debatable just how much oil can be extracted from an oil-well. An oil-well is not like a water-well: that is to say that you can't simply drain it to bottom with a bucket. Some wells yield only 5% of the oil they contain, though 30% is more usual, especially with enhanced recovery methods.

The amount of oil recovered depends on the precise geology of the well, i.e. if the rock is highly fractured then its permeability may be impaired. Hence, the rate and volume of oil that can flow out of it is reduced. It is speculated that the enhanced recovery methods used in Saudi to meet world demand may have damaged the rock and so less oil will ultimately be recovered from its oil-fields. Only one well out of every hundred sunk produces a major source of oil, and consequently oil exploration is very expensive and laborious. World oil discovery peaked in 1965 and no "elephant" (giant) field has been discovered since 1980. If Hubbert is right about the 40 year "lag" between peak discovery and peak production, we can expect oil production to peak around now.

Mathematically, according to the Hubbert analysis, the point at which Peak Oil is reached corresponds to when half the oil has been used-up. It is estimated that the world has got through a little over about 1 trillion barrels since 1859, and so if there are one trillion barrels left, that would fit with Peak Oil being with us now. The upshot is that the cheap light crude oil , which is most easily refined, is running out. The remainder is a dirtier, heavier oil that takes more energy to purify and process. The EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) is about 8 for light crude (it was 100 in the days of the original "gushers"!) but can be as low as 3 for heavy oil and that extracted from cracking bitumen in shales and oil-sands.

Burning oil also contributes CO2 to the atmosphere, which many believe is causing global warming and climate-change, so finding a substitute for oil is imperative on grounds both of its looming short supply and curbing CO2 emissions. Obviously, as oil runs-out, we will be emitting less CO2 - it's just that we may not have much of a civilization left without finding an alternative source of fuel to run it! Since hydrogen is a complete non-starter (as I describe in the immediately previous article) and biofuels are unlikely be produced in a quantity to match 30 billion barrels of petroleum per year, that alternative "fuel" will be mostly a re-localisation of society - "The Global Village" will be a matter for future historians to discuss. We can expect a return of local farms and horses and carts! Fuel will be too precious to waste on personal cars, but reserved for tractors and lorries.

Related Reading.

Monday, April 16, 2007

"Does a Hydrogen Economy Add-up?"

Last week I gave a lecture at a "Cafe' Scientifique" meeting in the charming city of Salisbury - famous for its cathedral - with the title "Does a Hydrogen Economy Add-up?". This is indeed a good question, especially considering the enormous investment of funds sunk into creating a putative "Hydrogen Economy", within which the world is supposed to run most of its transportation on hydrogen "fuel". I have placed the word "fuel" in inverted commas because hydrogen is not in fact a fuel at all, but an energy carrier. This means that hydrogen cannot be simply dug out of the ground, like oil, gas and coal, but it must be artificially synthesised, in general using gas, oil or coal either as a chemical feedstock or a fuel or both. Since the second law of Thermodynamics amounts to the fact that processes whereby one form of energy is transformed into another are never 100% efficient, turning natural gas into hydrogen by "steam-reforming" is less cost effective in terns of energy than simply burning the gas (principally methane) itself, and leads overall to more CO2 being emitted, which rather flies in the face of hydrogen as the ultimate "green fuel".

On paper and said quickly, hydrogen sounds like the perfect solution to all our fossil-fuel related environmental problems. You simply mix it with oxygen (air) in a fuel cell, and this generates electricity to power a "green car". The only product is pure water, which simply drips out of the exhaust-pipe. However, as just noted, if the hydrogen has to be made from natural gas the overall process is anything but "green". It can also be made by steam-reforming coal, but as the following equations show, twice as much CO2 is emitted in the latter case per unit of hydrogen produced:

CH4 + 2H2O ---> CO2 + 4H2

C (coal) + 2H2O ---> CO2 + 2H2.

An alternative means to producing hydrogen is by water electrolysis, but this immediately begs the question of how to make the necessary electricity to do this? A recent analysis by Ulf Bossel has indicated that it would take around one 1 GW power station to produce enough hydrogen to run 20 - 30 filling stations, assuming that the hydrogen will be made in situ, in order to obviate the considerable problems that would be incurred in providing an extensive transportation network of pipelines or a fleet of tankers to move huge amounts of either compressed or liquefied hydrogen around the country from central generating facilities. In the UK there are around 3,000 filling stations ("garages" as we tend to call them over here), which implies that around 100 - 150 new 1 GW power stations would need to be built. If these were coal or gas-fired, that would add considerably to our national CO2 emissions. Indeed, the nation's average amount of electricity generated is around 40 GW (out of a maximum generating capacity of close to 69 GW), around 80% of which is created by burning gas or coal (50% of it comes from coal now). So, as a rough estimate we would increase our CO2 emissions by a factor of three or four from the electricity industry - or about a 50% increase in terms of overall energy, since electricity only accounts for about one quarter of the UK's total "energy".

One alternative is to use nuclear power, an option that is being considered seriously. However, this would mean installing 100 or so new nuclear power stations, and that is on top of replacing the 30 existing ones when they come to the end of their working life in 2024. We need to remember too, that time is fast running out for oil, which is close to the peak of production beyond which world supplies of crude oil will inexorably fall. It appears likely that any new technology will need to be on-stream within 10 - 15 years, in order to take up the slack in oil based fuel. Hence, it appears salient to ask just how quickly could these new nuclear power stations be brought on-line? For the sake of argument, would 5 per year be a reasonable estimate? If so, it would take 20 -30 years to install the lot, by which time oil (and especially the "sweet", light crude) will be long gone.

It is also probably worth noting that there is only one factory in the world (in France) that can produce the necessary new generation of reactors, and it makes 2 per year - in total! So, that would need to be stepped-up considerably. Another important question is how much nuclear fuel does the world have? Current reserves of uranium amount to about 3 million tonnes, and we get through about 75,000 tonnes of it per year (that's the whole world). Ignoring the fact that about 10,000 tonnes of it currently come from recycled nuclear warheads - although all the US, the UK and Russia are revamping their nuclear arsenals, so that supply might well fall - a simple sum suggests that there are 3,000,000/75,000 = 40 years worth. If we install more nuclear generating capacity, we simply get through the stuff faster than we would otherwise, and probably in just a few years if all the world switched-over to hydrogen. I have noted before that there is probably plenty of uranium to be had if people went looking for it hard enough, and especially in low grade deposits. For example, soil contains on average 2.7 parts per million of uranium, and there are extensive deposits of rocks with 10 - 20 ppm of uranium which could be mined with an estimated EROEI of 15 - 30. However, it takes gas and oil to mine, mill and process uranium ores and so these resources might fail first, irrespective of any theoretically comforting EROEI values.

The only feasible means to producing the electricity for hydrogen generation is from renewables, e.g. wind-power. Now, let's assume the best estimate - the lower end of the scale - of 100 GW worth of generating power; that's 100,000 MW. If we used 2 MW turbines, which we need to multiply by a suitable capacity factor, say 0.2, then that means each one delivers an average of 0.4 MW, and we would need 250,000 of them. They would probably need to be placed off-shore, around the coast of the UK mainland. Assuming that the coastal perimeter is 2,560 km, that means if the turbines were placed at the recommended separation of 0.5 km (any closer and each turbine interferes with the wind flow to the next and reduces its efficiency) , a single band around the main island would be occupied by 5,120 turbines. Hence the full band would need to be 250,000/5,120 = 49 turbines deep, stretching to a width of about 25 km. If the French did the same thing, there would be considerable overlap between the English and French wind farms especially in the English Channel, and surely a considerable obstruction to shipping! Agreed, many of them could be placed further up in the North Sea, but they would suffer considerable buffeting there from the elements, which is a great potential problem for off-shore wind farms since it imposes limitations on their durability and indeed "sustainability". The North Sea in particular is notoriously rough.

Another question is how quickly might the turbines be installed? 10 a week, say? 500 a year? Then that would take 500 years to install the lot. 100 a week? 50 years - and oil will be long-gone by then!

The other problem rests with the use of hydrogen itself. It is intended that it will be "burned" in fuel-cells, which use 50 - 100 grammes of platinum in each as the working electrode. Platinum is a very rare metal, and currently 150 tonnes of new platinum are produced each year, 40% of which is used in catalytic converters, and coincidentally is almost exactly the amount used to make jewelry. Since current demand for platinum already outstrips its supply, we would need to produce more "new" platinum. For the sake of argument, let's suppose another 150 tonnes could be made per year (and there is no reason to be sure it could) - double the present quantity. Therefore, 150 tonnes x 1000 kg x 1000 g/50 g = 3 million.

So, 3 million new fuel-cell powered vehicles might be brought on-stream per year, a figure which can be compared with around 700 million vehicles worldwide. Hence, 45 million could be available in 15 years (about 6% of the current total) when at least half of all the remaining oil will be used up. 90 million might have been produced (about 13%) in 30 years by when the conventional oil will certainly have all gone - to all intents and purposes at any rate - and we will be making it from tar sands and coal-liquefaction instead!

How would you store the hydrogen in vehicles? One way is as a compressed gas in a steel tank at 5,000 psi (pounds per square inch pressure) - that's just over 300 atmospheres - but the tank would weigh-in at 65x the weight of the hydrogen it contained. For a car containing 20 kilograms of hydrogen (which is the energy equivalent of 20 US gallons of gasoline), the tank would weigh about 1.3 tonnes, which is about twice the weight of the car itself. The tank would need to be fabricated in the form of a sphere about 5 feet in diameter - not so conveniently located in a car, unlike a normal "gas-tank" which can be made to fit unused space. This baby would be pretty evident! Tanks could be made lighter and wrapped with carbon fibre, which would get the weight down to about 200 kg, but they offer poor crash-resistance (particularly the connections, even if the tank itself survives), and so the car would become a mobile bomb.

In any case, compressing the hydrogen takes about 20% of the energy that might be recovered from it. Another possibility is to store it as liquid hydrogen; however, hydrogen is extremely difficult to liquefy, since it boils at -253 degrees C (20 degrees above absolute zero), and the process takes 40% of the energy that the hydrogen actually contains! Hydrogen could be piped around from central generating stations, but these pipes would need to be very big since hydrogen contains only around one third the energy of an equal volume of natural gas, and a lot of energy would be required to move the gas down the pipeline.

Hydrogen is a marvelous "escape artist" too. It can get through the minutest of cracks and can even diffuse through solid steel. It also makes metals brittle over time and so cracks would keep appearing in the pipes etc. requiring constant maintenance, and very likely leading to fires and explosions. If on the other hand the hydrogen were employed in liquid form, because of the risk of explosion (very cold liquid suddenly becoming a gas at room temperature leading to a huge pressure increase) the system would need to be open, so that the gas could be vented. Consequently, there would be multi-story car-parks full of cars potentially venting hydrogen into the air. Since hydrogen has the greatest explosive range of any gas (any mixture containing between about 14% and 75% of hydrogen in air will explode) regular catastrophes could be expected.

Another problem is that the oxygen is drawn into the fuel-cell in terms of air, which contains nitrogen oxides and sulphur compounds etc. which are well known to poison (inactivate) catalysts and so the fuel-cell would probably not work for too long (a few months maybe) before needing to be replaced. I could go on at far greater length about why the "hydrogen economy" in its present generation of design will never work, but probably I have made my point by now. I am not saying there will never be any use for hydrogen, for example in stand-alone applications, for "storing" energy in remote locations generated from solar-power say, hydrogen could be just the job. But on the scale required to replace petroleum based transportation at an equivalent of 20 billion barrels of oil per year (from a toal of 30 billion recovered in total) the whole idea is a complete non-starter.

Ulf Bossel also points out that three times the efficiency could be gained in storing electricity as electrons rather than as hydrogen, which would require a considerable installation in effective "battery" technology to run electric cars. This would mean that only one third of the new generating capacity is needed! [It's crazy really, the "hydrogen option" means taking electricity from a power station, using it to make hydrogen and then recombining the hydrogen with oxygen from air to make electricity again!]. There is still a pressure on resources in this option too, and probably there is not enough lithium in known reserves (or even resources) to implement the full transformation to 700 million vehicles using lithium or lithium ion batteries. You would need an awful lot of batteries. If half the world's nickel production were turned over to making nickel-cadmium batteries instead (5 million tonnes annually) we could bring around 10 million vehicles onto the roads per year, arriving at 20% of current numbers in 15 years. Either way, transportation will be curbed considerably, forcing us to live in small communities...

Related Reading.
Ulf Bossel, Proceedings of the IEEE, Vol. 94, No. 10, 2006, pages 1826 - 1837.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Peak Coal by 2025?

For the first time I heard on the news this morning mention of "a shortage of crude oil". This was in a soundbite about how UK petrol (gasoline) prices may well hit one pound (about 2 US dollars) a litre. By US standards that probably sounds pretty expensive, at about 7 or 8 dollars a gallon! We hear much about climate change and the need to curb our CO2 emissions, but the nub of the matter is probably the limited amount of oil there is in the ground, and how securely that might be supplied in the future. If indeed, crude oil supplies are set to fall shortly - they will at some stage in any case - we can manufacture synthetic oil from coal, using the Fischer Tropsch process, where the coal is first converted into a gas ( a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen CO + H2) and this passed over a heated metal (iron or nickel) catalyst, which turns it into a mixture of hydrocarbons.

It was indeed this technology that kept Hitler's armies operating throughout World war II, to the consternation of the Allied forces who believed that Germany would run out of fuel within months, once their navies had cut-off supplies of oil from the US and the Middle East. By example, coal might come to our aid in the peaceful context of augmenting dwindling supplies of crude oil as we slide down the declining side of Hubbert's Peak following the advent of Peak Oil. However, some researchers have concluded that "Peak Coal" will hit the world by the year 2025.

Clearly if we begin using coal on the large scale to make oil, we will run out of the resource sooner than otherwise; coincidentally, "Peak Gas" is thought to arrive around 2025 (give or take half a decade), and hence if the Peak Coal prediction proves true (and much of the crude oil long gone by then), we will be in quite a pickle, unless we manage to abate our inexorable thirst for energy!

I was my understanding that world reserves of hard (anthracitic) coal amounted to 10 trillion tonnes, although I have seen some downwardly revised estimates of four trillion tonnes or so. The reality is that accurate data for coal reserves are scant and poor, and so a precise final figure is somewhat nebulous. However, it appears that the reserves and resources of coal have been overestimated on the global scale, and both quantities have been downsized during the past two decades from their previous values. According to the logic of classifying reserves (which are defined as being proven and recoverable) and resources (which is an umbrella term for all proven, inferred, assumed and even speculative amounts), over time advances in production and exploration methods allow some of the resources to be reclassified into reserves. 85% of coal reserves are concentrated in six countries, which are, in order of decreasing quantity of their reserves: US, Russia, India, China, Australia and South Africa.

The US holds a massive 30% of the world reserves and is the second largest global producer. China, albeit with far less coal than the US is way ahead as the world's number one producer, since it pays around 80% of its colossal and burgeoning energy bill from coal. Indeed, just 15% of Chinese coal is exported while the remaining 85% is burned at home. However, the US have passed their peak in producing high quality (anthracitic, i.e. 90% carbon) coal which hit in 1990. This potential shortfall has more than been compensated in terms of volume by production of sub-bituminous coal from Wyoming, and according to the stated reserves there, this can be maintained for another 10 - 15 years. It should be noted that sub-bituminous coal has a lower energy yield than hard coal, and so in terms of energy, US coal production in fact peaked 5 years ago.

It is thought that coal production may yet increase over the next 10 to 15 years by around 30%, mainly from Australia, China, South Africa and the former Soviet Union countries, in particular, Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. World coal production will then reach a plateau (of unknown duration) and then eventually decline. The best estimate for world "Peak Coal" is around 2025, assuming production rates of 30% above current. Potential reductions in coal use for reasons of trying to avert climate change caused by anthropogenic CO2 emissions and global warming might push the peak further into the future - but probably not much further (10 years maximum, say?). It is the actual quantities of coal that will prove available for extraction that are the key issue, however, as indeed is true of all reserves of fossil fuels - including oil and gas.

Related Reading.
"Coal Reserves and Future Production" (PDF) - link available in above article.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Hatfield Coal Back on-Stream!

Coal mining, the treatment of coal miners by mine-owners and by various governments, and their attendant social strife feature among the saddest and most shameful periods of British industrial history. The "Custer's Last Stand" made by Arthur Scargill, leader of the Miners' Union, in 1984, in opposition to the government's plans to close many mines on grounds of uncompetitiveness, seemed to seal the death knell of much of the coal industry and the power of the trade unions. Scargill's main problem was that most of the country's miners did not support the strike, and as a consequence a siege situation resulted, with the Yorkshire miners firmly entrenched since the country did not depend on the output of coal from there.

Led by Margaret Thatcher, her government were determined that the miners would not bring them down, as had happened to a previous Conservative leader, Edward Heath, and his government in the previous decade, which was fraught with industrial action, the most infamous being the "wildcat strikes", where a union would pull all its members from their jobs "in sympathy" with another completely unrelated trade union. Heath was forced to put the country on a "three day week" by the miners, since the provision of energy, based on coal, was insufficient to keep the factories etc. running over the full week, which then was about 40 working hours for most workers.

The whole sorry business came to a head in the so called "winter of discontent" when dead bodies went unburied and rubbish was piling-up in the streets. Having lost all faith in the "Labour Party", the electorate swept the Conservative Thatcher government to power in the 1979 election, which went on to smash the trade unions, devolving them of their power by destroying much of the UK's manufacturing industry, of which there is merely a vestige remaining. By the late '70's UK manufacturing had become very uncompetitive with the cost of imports from the Far East, with far high productivity and staggeringly cheaper labour costs.

In the public imagination, the British coal industry has been consigned to the realm of history, especially as much was made of the sealing-up of formerly working mines, which were closed anyway, despite Mr Scargill's efforts, with concrete, in an act sounding of spite as much as an iron hand closing the dark side of trade union history. Don't get me wrong, without the trade unions and their members and founders who put their own security - and that of their families - on the line (e.g. the Tolpuddle Martyrs" who were transported for life to Australia), our contemporary comfortable lifestyles in this country would not have come about. The 1910 Tonypandy marchers in South Wales (where I am from originally) are also significant in their struggle for fair conditions and pay from the mine-owners, as is the fact that during the general strike in 1926, Winston Churchill sent the army in against the miners, many of whom had fought for their country during "The Great War", in addition to digging out her coal for her! It is just that the cause was hijacked somewhere along the way, culminating in the absurd 1970's situation, almost it seems as a device to destroy the nation's economy.

Against this backdrop, however, the UK still produces around 20 million tonnes of coal annually. As of the last 18 months, the proportion of electricity generated using coal has risen from one third to one half of the total. We also import another 40 million tonnes of coal, mostly from Germany. The industry is experiencing something of a renaissance, and I wrote recently about the re-opening of the mine at Cwmgwrach (pronounced, "Coom-rack"... close, anyway!) which is thought will yield about one million tonnes of coal. True, this is a drop in the bucket, but the UK is thought to be sitting on 1.5 billion tonnes of coal, which are accessible within existing holdings (i.e. you could just keep digging to get at it), and around 190 billion tonnes altogether, but most of that would need a completely new network of mines dug to get at it; a considerable undertaking. Assuming an average seam depth of 2 metres, that amount of coal would lie under around one third of the entire UK land area. Quite a lot of it is actually under the North Sea, but the comparison lends some element of scale to the enterprise.

Coal production at the Hatfield Colliery (in Yorkshire) formally ceased in 1994 (ten years after the "Last" miners' strike, from which many miners and their families are still in debt); however, after 13 years it is one again producing coal. An investment of £100 million ($190 million US) has been made in the colliery and there are plans to build a "clean" coal-fired power plant at a cost of £1 billion (about typical for a new power plant, which are reckoned at about $1,500 per kilowatt of generating capacity, and are typically of 1 Gigawatt output). Much of the investment has been secured by the colliery owner, Sir Richard Budge (I hadn't realised that he had been awarded a knighthood, but that sometimes happens for captains of British Industry - if the government are particularly appreciative of their efforts - so congratulations to him!), from Russian investors into his company, which is called "Powerfuel". There are Russian investors in football clubs over here now, so why not in a colliery?

Locating the new coal has been difficult, and there were many doubters even among the miners at the coal-face themselves, who had to tunnel through yards of stone before striking coal. There are bad memories in Hatfield about the 1984 strike, and it is said that "police" were waving their pay-packets (there was plenty of overtime to be had during the darkest days of the strike) at the striking miners who they knew were very short of money. Hatfield was the only mine that was left open (not sealed with concrete), presumably in the insurance that we might need coal again one day, once gas prices had risen again. The perceived "uncompetitiveness" of coal was not only against the cost of cheap coal that could be imported from other countries but also against the cost of using cheap natural gas to fire power stations. This is also why the UK's CO2 emission figures look good around the first part of the 1980's, because less CO2 is produced per unit of energy from burning methane than coal. However, with rising gas prices, and the fall in the output from our own North Sea fields, coal is once more a viable option.

I have no doubt that we will see a rapid upsurge in the getting and use of coal during the next decade and beyond, as the impending shortfall in other fossil fuels, oil and gas hits. I suspect the latter forms will be manufactured to some extent from coal, which is a well tested technology although to do it on any significant scale will also need a brave new generation of power and coal gasification/liquefaction plants to be created.

Related Reading. Story: "Black Gold", by Lucy Thornton.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Welsh Town Prepares for Peak-Oil.

I wrote an article entitled "Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), and Sustainable Living in a Small Community," which I posted on 2-3-07, following a very pleasant trip to the beautiful coastal town of Aberstywyth, in west Wales, last month, set on a bay surrounded by hills. On looking down from a hill, over the town and the bay, I felt reminded of Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas, and his description of the Welsh (of whom I am one!) indeed living in a small community. (The population of "Aber" is about 20,000, half of whom are students and staff from the university). The essence of CAT (which is located fairly nearby) is sustainable living, and progress made by pioneers - it is fair to call them that, in the spirit of a salute) -during the past three decades has resulted in a community that uses probably less than one tenth the energy that we normally do, and achieved through a combination of energy-efficiency, conservation and generating electricity from entirely renewable resources; albeit with a trade-system involving the national grid. Please take a look at that article for further details and my immediate impressions. However, the inspiration for the present posting is my reading that the Welsh town of Lampeter has begun its own transition to a life without oil.

There are no two ways about it. The age of cheap oil is coming to its own natural conclusion. We have used just over one trillion barrels of oil, since the first commercial oil-well was sunk in Pennsylvania in 1859, and we have just under one trillion barrels of oil left in known reserves. According to the famous analysis made in 1956 by M.King Hubbert, that point of "half-empty" (and we are very likely a little less than that) coincides with the peak of oil-production. It is probably only enhanced methods of oil recovery that have obscured this fact, and their consequence is that we have been able to continue draining the wells at a more rapid rate than without them. The upshot is that the remaining oil will be mostly not of the "sweet" (low sulphur) "light" (low viscosity) kind, but "heavy oil" and will be consequently harder to purify and refine. Indeed, it will be more effectively burned in Diesel engines, rather than spark-ignition engines which have been developed to use gasoline rather than fuel-oil.

In Lampeter was held the largest public meeting that anybody could recall, at an attendance over 450 from a total population of 4,500. The motivation for the meeting was to turn Lampeter into a Transition Town, one of a growing network of towns that have decided to prepare for the post-oil era before government intervention happens. Rob Hopkins, the coordinator of the Transition Town movement, describes himself as an "early topper", meaning that he thinks that peak oil will happen within the next five years. I am probably a "very early topper", believing that it has already happened really, but our technology has disguised the fact. Once the point of maximum production is reached, then oil supplies worldwide will plummet, over a period of 10 years say, but by then civilization will have collapsed, unless we decide and act now to maintain societal integrity. At the very least, a community of moderate size (Lampeter?) must be able to feed and fuel itself. I have suggested before that society might be best served by forming small "pods" which are supplied by local farms and other means that do not depend on long-distance transport. Complete isolation would be a very bad and retrograde consequence, and instead I envisage that such pods can cooperate through a national grid of communication and electric power provision - rather according to the CAT model. I am not suggesting for a moment that we can power ourselves down to their laudable level, but that might not be necessary. The main avoidable consumer of energy is transportation, which uses 33% of the UK's total energy, and all of that from oil. It is clear this will be cut inevitably, and perhaps by 80% in 10 - 15 years.

Hopkins said that he tended to believe those with no vested interest in believing that peak oil would not come for 20 - 30 years, as some "the late toppers" do, mostly in or working for the oil industry. I agree. To believe them means doing nothing, and that would be a disaster. Even if they are right, we will simply preserve our precious reserve of oil for longer by taking action now, and what is wrong with that? It would be by far the better option than assuming business as usual and suddenly running out of oil, with nothing else in its place. Mad Max! Anarchy!

As I have detailed here, none of the other "solutions" work out when you do the math. The Hydrogen Economy is a ridiculous idea on the scale required to meet current demand for oil. Running all the nations cars on hydrogen would need maybe 67 Sizewell B nuclear power stations or a wind farm covering south west England. Biofuels are a "no-no" too, since it would take many times more arable land than there is in the whole of the UK mainland to produce enough of any of them; meaning that even if we were to stop growing food altogether and turn the land over to biofuel crop production we are still well short of current demand. The UK farming system has evolved into a mechanism that "turns oil into food." It is reliant on the highly energy-demanding manufacture of artificial fertilizers, the use of plastics and other materials that owe their genesis to oil, and extensive transportation networks that carry food over long distances to supply supermarkets etc. I acknowledge there is a growth in "farmers markets" even in urban areas, but their scale remains small, and it is local farming that we will need finally, once the means to fuel an extensive food-distribution network has gone.

As I wrote recently, the one glimmer of hope regarding alternative oil-provision lies in making it from algae, but although optimistic, the technology has not been tested on the very large scale, and not over a long enough timescale to give confidence that we could rely on it in the future. If it proves we can, then that should be seen as a considerable bonus, but we still need to change how we use energy and how much of it we do use - that is, use less! I think there should be a national experiment run to produce one million tonnes of biodiesel from algae, to see if and how easily it can be done. This would require fabricating ponds to grow the algae in, covering an area of only about 10,000 hectares (100 square kilometers), and is far less than that required to grow crops (e.g. soya) for the same purpose, which would require around one million hectares (10,000 km^2). The further advantage of algae is that the ponds could be placed anywhere, not competing with food-crops for arable land.

George Monbiot (journalist and Guardian columnist) lives near Lampeter and also attended the meeting. He thinks that the end of oil is not nigh but "nigh-ish", and that we may have another 10 - 30 years. If we continue to extract our remaining trillion barrels of oil at current rates (and we won't be able to), it will all be used in 30 years, so I think the upper end of that range is rather too optimistic. Even if it is 10 years, we are still in trouble if we don't get a new act running and sharply at that. Mr Monbiot is more concerned about CO2 emissions and global warming, but I think that depletion of resources will get us before climate change does.

In part, the agency for change in Lampeter has been driven by a group of local farmers, and both Patrick Holden (Director of the Soil Association) and Peter Segger, who first supplied the mass demand for organic foods through supermarkets, farm neighbouring land and have decided that the future rests in selling more of that produce locally rather than hauling it over long distances. Indeed, it doesn't look good for supermarkets, unless they too can be provided for by local farms. In a further step toward local sustainability, Holden has invested in sinking around a kilometer of pipes under a field to draw heat for his house. This is one technology I saw demonstrated at CAT.

I am reminded once more of the experience of Cuba, who's population were forced practically overnight to undergo a transition from an oil-based economy to a localised sustainable economy. This was a consequence of the collapse of communism and the USSR, which resulted in the sudden loss of regular "presents" of Russian oil, fertilizers etc. which they had received in return for being a particular communist sentinel, guarding its regime against the US. Cuba uses far less energy per person than the US, and much of its economy works at the "local" level. It's ailing leader, Fidel Castro, has been outspoken in his criticism of the US drive toward biofuels particularly corn-ethanol, which he does not perceive as being "sustainable". There are many who accord with his sentiments.

The run-down to the lower oil economy should be undertaken with care and deliberation. It should also be done with a sense of optimism; that a brave new world will be found at the end of the journey. Otherwise, there will be more wars and strife to garner what resources of oil there remain, and even after all that, we will simply be in the same position we would have been in anyway, but having wasted much energy and precious resource on the way. Planning, peace and cooperation are the only way forward, but I suspect that old conundrum "Human Nature" will provide its regular obstruction to the true path!

Related Reading.,,329771279-110373,00.html
Article: "Pioneering Welsh town begins the transition to a life without oil," by Felicity Lawrence.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Global Warming not Real - According to Martians.

There are some who remain skeptical about global warming. As I reported in a recent posting, "The Great Global warming Swindle", which was the title and subject of a documentary run on the British television station Channel 4, there are those who are of the opinion that climate change is not "all our fault", and that the warming of the globe is driven by other forces than the greenhouse effect, enhanced by rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. One theory is that the power output of the Sun varies over time, and has been offered in some quarters as an explanation for the geologic record, that temperatures and CO2 concentrations rise in spikes during the interglacial periods, with a time interval of around 100,000 years, before the Earth runs-into the next ice-age. It seems clear enough that the current "concentration" of 390 parts per million (which should strictly be defined as a mixing ratio rather than a concentration) is unprecedented, certainly for some millions of years, although there is credible debate about the Medieval Warm Period, and why that should have happened during a time when there was comparatively little CO2 being pumped into the air by humans and their activities.

The Channel 4 documentary has come under severe attack - not surprisingly, given that its message is practically heresy! - but it now transpires, and the makers of the programme have acknowledged, that some of the graphs shown were out of date, and that there had been an element of selectivity in what data were shown. Nonetheless, it is not absolutely certain that the sole underlying cause of global warming is human-induced (anthropogenic) greenhouse gas (mainly CO2) emissions, and there is clearly an underlying cycle of warming and cooling, which our actions may exacerbate.

My own fear is that the full influence of the rising CO2, which is exceeding the capacity of the planet to absorb it by about 2 - 3 ppm per year, is yet to kick-in, and the Earth might in subsequent decades become very hot indeed, resulting either in a runaway greenhouse effect, or by melting the arctic ice and diluting the dense, saline waters from the tropics switch-off the Atlantic conveyor (which includes the Gulf Stream), resulting in a North European ice-age. If the geologic record holds true in the future, we must be due another ice-age at some relatively near point, as the "width" of the present warm interglacial period is about as wide as interglacial periods have been in the past, before the climate plunges into the next 100,000 year cold-snap! My own feeling is that running out of oil and gas will hit us before global warming does, and then our CO2 emissions will inevitably be cut, once we have far less of these carbon fuels available to burn. While that might sound good to some ears, it also raises the disquieting possibility that civilization will collapse, once there is insufficient energy to maintain its integrity.

Interestingly, another piece of evidence has been gleaned which will rally the anti-global warming camp. I should really call them the "it's all our fault" skeptics. This is the news that the planet Mars is warming-up too! The evidence is from research done by planetary scientists in the US, who believe that the Red Planet has warmed by around 0.65 degrees C during the past three decades (1970's to the 1990's), and is in similar amount to the Earth's temperature rise of 0.6 degrees C during this same period. In a recent paper published in Nature, describing the research, it is suggested that the warming of the Earth could be down to natural climate variability. This view has been opposed however by Neville Nicholls, a climate scientist at Monash University in Melbourne, who said: "The paper is interesting, but it hasn't got anything to do with the question of human impact on global warming on Earth. It is not an excuse to argue that humans are not causing global warming on Earth."

The research itself was carried out by a group led by Lori Fenton of the NASA Ames Research Centre in California. They used a computer model, similar to those devised to simulate global warming on Earth, into which were added particular Martian features such as a cold "airless" (significant - no atmosphere!) surface and a southward-moving polar ice-cap, but with the contribution from the Earth's atmosphere and its oceans removed. The study also "found" (it is a simulation) that annual variation in the amount of the Sun's radiation reflected from the Martian surface contributed to the temperature rise of the planet by increasing the amount of dust blowing in the atmosphere. Apparently, over the past 30 years the dust scourged large areas of the planet's surface making it less reflective (lower albedo) , and hence more warming occurred. The outcome of this was a positive feedback loop between dust, wind, albedo and temperature. At the University of New South Wales, climate scientist Andy Pitman commented, "It's a nice piece of work, but there are no implications for Earth."

The paper in Nature is published on the eve of the second report from the fourth IPCC review, due to be released tonight. It is also noted that computer models include the effects of changes in albedo, but might there be another explanation - for example, a change in the output of the Sun, which is not included in the models? In general, computer simulations, if they do not include a particular dominant parameter in the model, will "absorb" an effect (like rising temperature) into other parameters that are included. If there is a variation in solar output, that might result in false weightings of the importance of other effects, like wind and dust? The comparable warming of Earth and Mars may be a complete coincidence, especially given the completely different characters of their atmospheres; however, the possibility that it is not is fascinating and may point to an external cause - like the Sun.

Related Reading.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Australian Coal: Harbouring Resources.

It is easy to make predictions as to the likely lifetime of resources, e.g. oil, gas, coal and uranium. However, looking at the situation in the round, obscures the fact that the World's energy resources are unequally distributed. This much is obvious really: we are well aware that the Middle East is amply provided for by oil, while Russia has most of the natural gas reserves. The UK is in a far less abundant position that it was, and a few years ago it became a net energy importer, having got through much of the cornucopia of North Sea oil and gas. There is still a lot of oil and gas under the North Sea, but we can no longer produce their resources in sufficient amount to match our current energy demand, and hence we are and will forever be dependent on securing and maintaining good trade relations with those countries that can provide them to us, increasingly from politically unstable regions of the world.

Among the non-renewable resources is coal, and whereas oil and gas will be in very short supply within the coming few decades, there is thought to be enough coal to last for hundreds of years. The UK reached its peak of coal production in 1913, and while it is estimated that there are 1.5 billion tonnes remaining and accessible within current mining infrastructure, far more is thought to exist under these islands, and under the North Sea, possibly to the tune of 190 billion tonnes, albeit that a highly extensive and completely new infrastructure of mines would need to be dug in order to access it.

Meanwhile, the UK imports most of its coal, getting through somewhere over 60 million tonnes per year - 40 million tonnes imported, mostly from Germany - and 10 million tonnes each from near-surface and deep mines in the UK. There are some alarm-bells sounding that the world may have less of the hard, anthracitic (>90% carbon) coal that is cleaner to burn in terms of SO2 pollution etc., and which can most readily be converted into synthetic "oil" by coal-liquefaction methods, than was once estimated at 10 trillion tonnes, but it is still thought that 4 trillion tonnes or so are available which is enough to go round for a while yet, albeit acknowledging that the resource is not evenly distributed.

Australia has lots of coal, and is the world's leading coal exporter; however, only 4% of the world's total of coal in fact passes through Australian ports, for the simple reason that a relatively minor proportion of coal is traded - most coal is used practically at source; China being a very good example, which produces 80% of its total energy from coal, most of that mined on Chinese territory. However, in the interests of averting climate change, Australia is being urged to end coal exports. It is of interest to know what proportion of global CO2 emission can in fact be blamed on coal exported from Australia: the answer is a frugal 1.3%! Other countries import Australian coal either because they have little domestic reserves, or because their own supplies are brown-coal which is unsuitable for steel-making. Indeed, over half of exported Australian coal is used for making steel rather than firing power stations.

Japan, Korea and Taiwan are the biggest consumers of Australian coal, and the industry generates $24 billion in export income annually, which is more than the nation's wool, wheat, copper, dairy, beef, wine, and gold exports altogether. The industry employs 130,000 people, who's livelihoods would be compromised if it were to be curtailed. It is true too, that other countries, notably South Africa, Indonesia and Russia would certainly provide the resource of coal that Australia had denied them, so it would make very little difference to overall world CO2 emissions.

There are possibilities, not only for Australia, for CO2 capture technologies, but these are estimated to consume anywhere up to half the power-output of a conventional power station, meaning that an extra power station would need to be built for every new one installed, to cope with the CO2 emissions of both. There are cleaner combined cycle plants, which can produce synthetic oil as well as electricity, and recover almost 60% of the thermal energy from the coal, rather than around 35% - and hence, throwing two-thirds of it away - as conventional coal-fired power plants do.

To my mind, the whole matter of curbing exports of energy resources raises a frightening scenario. If those countries that are rich in their resources, especially oil and gas, decide to hold onto them for their own use, or to flex political muscles against other countries whose resources are limited, then the latter will be in an extremely disadvantaged situation - industrial powers held under siege and starved of the energy to run their societies. Since supplies of oil and gas are highly limited, with conventional oil expected to begin to run-out as from any time now, and gas within a couple of decades of that (or less, if it used to extract oil from tar-sands, or liquefied in gas-to-liquids processes for that same purpose of supplanting failing oil supplies), the seats of world power can be expected to shift significantly over the coming 10 - 20 years. I would predict that Russia will become very powerful on the world stage, weighing-in against the giant mass of its resources, while the US which now has to import two-thirds of its oil (mostly from Canada, but also from the Middle East) will turn to make its own provisions from the massive reserves of coal that lie under its extensive land area - thought to amount to more carbon than the total oil reserves of the Middle East.

The resources of European countries are varied and it is to be hoped that all nations will be provided for in a "common market" of resources, but an ever increasing amount of gas and all the uranium for nuclear power actually comes from Russia/Kazakhstan. In any event, consolidation of energy resources will prove to be the fulcrum of changing world-order, even if more wars will be fought to that end.

Related Reading.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Nuclear Powered Oil-Sands!

The subject of EROEI has raised its head in various of these postings - Energy Returned On Energy Invested. I have also referred to the oil-sands (tar-sands) of Alberta in Canada, which contain bitumen as is cracked into oil on a massive scale. I have referred too to the fact that it takes resources to extract resources, and that the production of oil from the "oil-sands" consumes enormous quantities of gas and water. It might be debated as to when "Peak gas" may arrive, an event which is projected to come within a decade or so after "Peak Oil", which is most likely already upon us. In consequence, another source of heat will be required if Canada is to continue producing oil from its massive reserves of oil sands, albeit at an EROEI of around just 3. For comparison, when the EROEI reaches 1, it takes as much energy to extract a resource as can be recovered in burning it. The EROEI for oil production from petroleum-wells stands currently at around 8 - a far cry from the EROEI of 100 that pertained in the early days of oil-exploration, when the famous "gushers" were struck in the US fields of "black gold".

To this end, it has been proposed to install nuclear reactors in Alberta, for the purpose of generating energy to produce oil from the tar-sands that are in abundance there and cover an area about the size of Florida. Canada produces 3.1 million barrels of oil a day, mostly from conventional sources, but over 1 million barrels worth come from the tar-sands - a figure which is set to triple within ten years. Canada is the world's seventh greatest oil producer and is the number one supplier to the United States. Not surprisingly, when the word "nuclear" is mentioned, hackles rise in some quarters, and the proposal has met with controversy from environmentalists. However, extracting oil from tar-sands is an extremely dirty process, and as noted, uses up large amounts of water and gas. Hence, the "nuclear option" is being promoted as the most environmentally friendly one.

Enhancing the status quo method of production means that demand for natural gas will increase by 1.1% a year through until the year 2030, by which time world gas supplies will probably have begun to wane. If Canada's oil-sands are costed among the oil reserves of the world, the nation would surpass Saudi in terms of the total amount of oil there. Venezuela also has enormous deposits of tar-sands, which might prove to be a major source of oil in the future. Canada is particularly fortunate in that it also has large reserves of uranium, and so a fertile collaboration between the nuclear and oil industries might be possible. It is true that generating nuclear power produces far less CO2 (probably around 20%) over the operational lifetime of the plant as compared with a coal or gas-fired power station, including the contributions from constructing the plant itself, mining, milling and processing its nuclear fuel and finally decommissioning the plant at the end of its life (as we will need to do in the UK with the current generation of 31 nuclear power stations by 2025).

The World Nuclear Association estimates that providing natural gas amounts to 60% of the operating costs for an oil-sands facility. However, the price of gas has jumped 6% in only the past week, and it seems almost certain that the cost of gas will increase over time, as its sources become more scarce. One major obstacle to the nuclear option is that the province of Alberta has never had any nuclear power, and to so install the technology would require the overall approval of the community there. The Canadian House of Commons' Committee on Natural Resources has issued a report entitled: "The Oil Sands: Toward Sustainable Development", which has put the project on hold, "until the repercussions of the process are fully known and understood". The report also expresses concerns about nuclear waste and whether "nuclear" can provide the necessary steam for the processing operations. The committee was also dissatisfied over the lack of information regarding exactly how many nuclear reactors would be needed - i.e. one or many large reactors, or perhaps a greater number of smaller installations.

There are two main processes involved in extracting oil from tar-sands. Firstly, the more shallow deposits are strip-mined, where earth is scraped back and giant shovels and trucks remove the desired material. This is then subjected to super-heated steam which loosens-up the tar-like bitumen, which is described as being like "molasses". Deep extraction methods have also been developed: Cyclic Steam Stimulation pipes high-pressure steam down to the heavy bitumen which is thus brought up to the surface. Another method which is becoming more popular is Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage, in which two parallel pipes are enplaced vertically and then project at an angle of 90 degrees. The top pipe is used to inject steam and the bottom one collects the bitumen and draws it to the surface. Both surface and deep extraction methods produce bitumen that requires subsequent intensive processing ("cracking") to recover oil from it. About half a barrel of oil is produced per tonne of tar-sands.

Several nuclear companies, led by Energy Alberta, are planning to bring two new nuclear reactors into operation to power the tar-sands operations by 2017.

Related reading.