Monday, December 29, 2008

How Many People Can the Earth Support... Really?

This is not simply a question of how many people can be crammed onto the dry surface of the planet. For example, it is easy to calculate (as I indicate below) that if the present number of 6.7 billion of us were each allowed an area of one square metre, we would collectively occupy just 6,700 square kilometres, or an area enclosed within a square about 50 miles by 50 miles, which would fit with spare room within a county the size of Yorkshire.

This is a comically naive piece of arithmetic, but not much more so than many sums I have seen done as to how many might exist on Earth given a daily diet of, say, 2,500 Calories, in which case a figure of around 12 billion can be deduced. So, whoopee, we may well pass that WHO estimate of 9 billion by 2050 and maybe get to 12 billion by the end of the century. Beyond simple issues of how much food we might need, and water for that matter, along with fertilizers and other material resources to build shelters and clothe ourselves, are more complex but equally fundamental questions centred around quality of life and human dignity.

So, what do we mean by living and what standards of it might be considered acceptable? Would we in the West want to “fall” materially to the standards, say, of western Africa? Or, is the economic dream more wishful, to raise the living standards of the majority world to those of the West? The answer is really the proverbial elephant in the room. If the whole existing number of people on earth lived at the standard of an average American (if there is really an average anybody), it is said we would need five planets worth of resources.

It’s about 3.5 planets for a typical European (an even less average scenario), and four earths for that many Australians. Simply put, the latter prospect is not viable, and in the longer run neither is it for Americans, Europeans or Australians, let alone the whole world. Modern, chemically fertilized, mechanised farming is very successful. We can also kill-off pests with synthetic pesticides, and so crop-yields on Western farms are the best on earth, but they are unlikely to be sustainable.

So, in the absence of plenty of cheap oil and natural gas, what is the upper limit of population, or conversely, the lower limit of material quality. Well, O.K., let’s say that we are all allowed that 2,500 calories every day.

6.7 x 10^9 people x 2500 Cals/day. 1 Cal = 1000 cals, so 1 cal = 4180 J (4.18 J/cal).
So they would all eat, 6.7 x 10^9 x 2500 x 4180 x 365 = 2.56 x 10^19 J/year.

So, what might be grown in total?
We have 15 x 10^6 km^2 of arable land for crops. If we assume that 2 tonnes of edible food can be grown (from maybe 5 tonnes of crops mass) per hectare/year, and that this is in the form of simple sugars, i.e. C6H12O6, with an energy content of 2800 kJ/mol, we get:

2 x 10^6 g/year/180g/mol x 2800 x 1000 J/mol = 3.11 x 10^10 J/ha/year. And converting 1 km^2 = 100 ha, that’s grown on 15 x 10^6 x 100 ha of land, so we have:
1.5 x 10^9 ha x 3.11 x 10^10 = 4.67 x 10^19 J/year.

Now this might be seen as good news in that we can produce around 80% more food energy than is consumed by the present 6.7 billion humans, leading to the conclusion that the earth can support around 12 billion of us, so as I said, maybe we can meet the WHO targets of billion by 2050 and 12 billion by 2100.

But, we would all be living on the proverbial “bowl of rice a day” [(2500 x 4180)/(2800 x 1000) = 3.7 mol = 672 grams].

(This ignores growing any food for animals, that you could get these crop yields without artificial fertilizers and pesticides and there would of course be no crops grown for biofuels).

I have mentioned before a Hubbert type analysis that can be applied to human population growth which is already slowing down. This predicts that in 2024 there will be a maximum at 7.1 billion people (not many more than the 6.7 billion now) after which there will be a decline to 2.5 billion by 2100. I would not be at all surprised because resources to support population are limited.

Now that 2.5 billion at the end of the century may all be living equally and equitably on one planet's worth of resources, or more likely there will be even more poverty all over the world but with a smaller differential between the developing and industrialized nations, if either category are that by then. The level of poverty can only fall so far, because the lower limit of destitution is death.

I think many in the West particularly would sooner die than return to the conditions of a pre-industrialized society, even it that could be relatively well-provided for by agriculture.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The End Times.

The end times (end of days) are most often worked into a message that God is set to bring Armageddon upon a sinful humanity, who must repent their sins, but even so, only “one hundred and forty and four thousand” of them will be spared into heaven, according to what is written in the Chapter of Revelations. The meaning of the complex, confusing and fearful scenes described in that closing chapter of the Bible is open to interpretation, and biblical scholars vary in their opinion and offer different readings of it, and yet without doubt, it seems to point to a chain of events that lead to an outcome in which the Earth is utterly and forever changed. If we believe that the description of these end times are a forewarning of human destruction, then it is easy to look at the many and interconnected troubles of a sick planet with sicker humans on it, and find a map in Revelations that our actions, of greed and disrespect for each other, ourselves and the Earth are simply predicted by divine will, and we should simply carry on as we are, contemptuously consuming ever more, laying waste to all resources and carving the way to majority dissolution and death, in the cause of the will of a creator who wrote the end times of humanity into His code for our destiny.

Other religious teachers read Revelations as being an historical record to us, in which the Whore of Babylon was the Roman Empire, not an agent of Satan, although to the persecuted of the time it may have seemed as though the Romans were themselves agents of the devil. The subject is fascinating and for example the psychic, Edgar Cayce saw the Book of Revelation as symbolic of the body and consequently each emblem, emotion and condition relate to the person. So, the elders of Revelation 4:4 relate to the 12 pairs (24) of cranial nerves, and the seven churches of Asia in Revelation Ch. 1 are symbolic of the 7 chakras, i.e. spiritual centres, and that the end times, if that is what they are, reflect changes within individuals, and that the second coming of Jesus Christ, rather than being part of an almighty cataclysm, was an event for each of us, singularly, and the end times of particular attitudes, beliefs and behaviours within each and every one of us, through which we enter a state on enlightenment. Whatever may be the truth of any of these interpretations, most of the cheap and readily available resources of materials and energy will not be so for much longer.

Thus, these are the end times of casual regard, e.g. for many metals, and fuels like oil, gas, uranium and even coal, if the end days last 50 years or more, and of an enlightenment to the reality that we must use them less and use them well. The alternative may be that we are living in the lead-up to an apocalypse, of war, famine, disease and death, and those four horsemen are on their way, at least if we do not begin to care for the earth, for one another and indeed for ourselves as individuals, by curbing greed and complacency - the principal sins of disregard. We are indeed, running low on cheap resources of metals and energy and the spiritual values of family and community have been plundered in the process that has lead to that which we call progress. It is beyond refute that there is much to be applauded in the advances of the past century and more, in healing sickness, and raising countless millions out of abject poverty, but there has been little symbiosis with the natural world, which we are largely isolated from in a vulnerable and fragile bubble , which could so easily be popped by any number of resource shortages, new strains of disease, or famine.

Even money, in the new economic miracle is proving to be a phantom, spirited away like a will-o-the-wisp on a financial system “built” on credit - i.e. on nothing. It is the issue of money as a false god that consumes resources and human inner resources, that I can read most closely in Revelations, but that is just an impression. If the end times are not to become the end of days, we need to address the problem, and readapt our attitudes, beliefs, behaviours and actions to avert this outcome. This will involve both a material and spiritual transformation, taking us into an enlightened new age. I have great faith and respect for the better qualities of humans, and a belief that we can find an earth-centred haven from the current white-noise of fear and despair. I am an optimist.

“Then he showed me the river of the water of life, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the city's street. On either side of the river, stood a tree of life, which yields twelve crops of fruit, one for each month of the year. The leaves of the tree serve for the healing of the nations, and every accursed thing shall disappear.”

Related Reading.
Revelation 21, 22: "The New English Bible; New Testament. Popular Edition. Oxford University press; Cambridge University Press, 1961.

Friday, December 19, 2008

"Peak oil: postponed"? Dr Richard Pike.

This is the title of the transcript of a recent interview with Dr Richard Pike, the CEO of the Royal Society of Chemistry, by Andrew Orlowski. For many years, the RSC (not the Royal Shakespeare Company) has been a fairly dormant animal, and I did used to wonder what its purpose was exactly, even though I am a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, as I became shortly after I was awarded a research professorship in chemistry. However, its role is to sound the voice of chemistry in the United Kingdom, especially during these tough and inclement times, in regard to funding, the relative unpopularity of hard subjects such as science which students are reluctant to enrol on degree courses in, and the health of the chemical industry. Hence I applaud Dr Pike for his proactive stance on important issues where chemistry and a sound chemical training really do matter, namely those concerning the many challenges posed by our energy and environmental demands, such as peak oil and global warming.

He has previously pointed out that growing crops to make biofuels is a non-starter, at least on a petroleum-significant scale, otherwise there is a conflict between growing crops to feed cars or humans. I couldn't agree with him more and have said as much on various occasions and in appropriate postings on here; also on my regular monthly column at Dr Pike is also of the opinion (as I noted in yesterday's posting) that there is most likely far more oil in the ground to be recovered than the 1.2 trillion barrels that is generally quoted. I don't disagree, but I stress that it is the rate of recovery that is the most pressing issue, not so much how big the reserve is in total, and we will experience a demand-supply gap within the next decade, for sure, as even the CEO of Shell concurs.

Dr Pike points out that the figures given by the oil companies tend toward the conservative side, and that if a probabilistic analysis is done, based on the P50 estimate (see yesterday's posting) which refers to "proven but possible" oil reserves, rather than the P90 (90% chance of oil being recovered) , the ultimately recoverable resource (URR in Hubbert terms), or size of the oil bounty, can be "two or three times" greater. Thus, we might expect to recover a grand total of 2.4 trillion barrels not 1.2 trillion, even if the P90 figures given by some nations are suspect.

As Pike says, "P90 is a lower bound, and companies have a duty to report what the lower bound is to statutory bodies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, and BERR in the UK. And that figure is conservative. Over time, "lower bound" has come to mean "proven reserves". But it's actually the extreme left hand side of the probability curves."

Dr Pike makes some good points about peak oil doomsayers ("eschatologists", i.e. those who believe in the end times usually attributed literally to the "events" described in the biblical Chapter of Revelations), who think that "the end of the world is nigh". In fact there is a great deal of misunderstanding about what peak oil means, and this is where Pike's point is particularly salient. Many think that peak oil = end of oil, but that is not what it means, and nobody versed in the Hubbert analysis has to the best of my knowledge claimed as much.

Peak oil = end of "cheap" oil (the title of my posting here on May 13th, 2008) and we will indeed be producing oil for many decades yet, and many more in accord with Dr Pike's analysis. The Hubbert curve (or its adaptation, the Hubbert Linearization) refers to the production of a particular field. To date, this has meant readily available cheap, oil. It is not strictly within this remit to refer to a global peak since to derive such a thing means averaging over the production of many different oil fields in the countries of the world that produce oil. All fields have different capacities, and are at different stages in their production (or depletion). One consequence of this is that different countries will run out of oil quicker than others and that will shift economic power and stir-up geopolitical tensions. Russia comes to mind. The New World Order will be compelled by who has the oil, and the power that is attendant to it, while those like the UK who are short on oil will be accordingly weakened.

However, even if the world is not about to run out of oil, producing oil against a rising demand for it will raise the price, and there will be economic fallout, probably a recession and then a Long Emergency scenario according to Kunstler. Eventually there will be an effective global "peak" when overall oil supplies do decline and this will either widen the supply-demand gap or create it if it has not already come about. Pike concedes that there will be a peak eventually but no one knows when exactly; however, he considers that the analysis done so far is "ill informed" and that it will not come about immediately. It is true that we will only know the date of peak oil retrospectively, but most analyses suggest it will be with us by 2012 if not before. Even if peak oil is "postponed" the gap will not be, though it will certainly widen after the peak.

Once a supply-demand gap manifests, the price of oil will increase relentlessly, or at least so far as the market can bear. Pike notes that "you can buy your way out of capacity constraints". This is also quite correct, but it is a dicey business. I agree with him that if you invest in overcoming "surface constraints", as in the number of wells, gas/oil separators, pipelines, storage tanks or jetties, the supply of oil is improved, but the cost of a barrel of oil inevitably and accordingly increases. He says, "The rough rule of thumb that applied three or four years ago was that to get 1 million barrels a day extra, you needed to spend in the order of $10 billion, very approximately."

He notes that the money is recovered very soon, and that at $140 a barrel, the payback is 100 days. Yes, but we have seen the economic consequences of such high oil prices, coupled with a distinctly dodgy global financial system, and while the output of oil might be increased, it will cost.

In terms of renewables and chemistry, Pike states that "no economies are yet geared-up for electricity as a direct heating source, or as automotive fuel, or for hydrogen storage." This is absolutely true. He thinks that solar-energy is the answer, but there is the scale-up problem I have commented on before. In other words, even if solar/PV can be done using thin-film cells and using organic conductors (otherwise the shortage of platinum metal will scupper the whole enterprise, along with fuel-cell technology), it will still take decades to install enough to run the world on. This will indeed need to be "putting things together on a grand scale which requires leadership, because we're in a position where some of these decisions are not made by individuals or individual companies. It's going to require a lot of collaboration." Yes, and collaboration between entire nations and continents, probably, which might prove a longer job.

Pike also stresses the issue of scientific ignorance among the public, and refers to the level of questions being set to 14 year olds on science courses. He comments, that while the course material is often comprehensive, the examinations barely skim it - and are almost fail proof. Without better education, the next generation of policy makers is as likely to be as scientifically illiterate as the present one. The cycle needs to be broken"

I agree, but it is quite ironic that in this age of huge university expansion most of the ex-polytechnics (which did a fine job teaching science to technicians from industry) now they are the new-universities don't teach chemistry. In my opinion these institutions should be restored to the technical colleges they were once, and well, because in the time to come, as the energy crunch bites, we will need people who know how to do useful things, not a rising army of pharmacists, psychologists or media studies graduates, taught by "new-professors" some with no published work in the subject they are supposed to be professor of. Ironically a professor of "Chemical Education" is one lamentable example that comes to mind.

Related reading.
"Peak oil: postponed". By Andrew Orlowski.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Oil Reserves.

The term "oil reserve" refers to quantities of crude oil that are claimed or estimated to be recoverable given a prevailing set of economic and operating conditions, i.e. mainly in regard to price. If the price of oil increases than more may be transferred from the resource to the reserve, as is true of all commodities.

The term "oil in place" is that amount of oil which is estimated to be held by a given oil reservoir, including that which will prove unrecoverable, in consequence of the particular geology and other properties (e.g. degree of fracture) of the reservoir. It is thus to be classified as the resource, while the fraction that can be produced is the reserve.

The term "recovery factor" is the ratio of producible oil reserves to total oil in place for a given field, and these vary from field to field. They may also change over time Recovery factors vary greatly from oil field to oil field. The recovery factor of any particular field may change over time, according to price and as new technologies for extracting oil, e.g. enhanced recovery methods, are introduced.

There are four criteria that must be fulfilled for the classification of a reserve, namely that it must be:

(1) discovered through one or more exploratory wells,

(2) recoverable using existing technology,

(3) commercially viable (given the contemporary economic climate),

(4) remaining in the ground.

All reserve estimates carry a degree of uncertainty, according to the available geological data and how these are interpreted. Accordingly, a further subdivision is introduced to indicate a relative degree to that uncertainty, using the classifications, proved and unproved, as defined below.

Proved Reserves.

These are reserves that are claimed to have a reasonable certainty (usually at a confidence of 90%) of being recoverable under existing economic and political conditions, and using existing technology. In the industry, this is known as P90 (i.e. with a 90% certainty of being produced). Proved reserves are also known in the industry as 1P.

Proved reserves are further sub-classified as Proved Developed (PD) and Proved Undeveloped (PUD). PD are reserves that can be produced from existing wells, or from additional reservoirs where any additional investment (operating expense) is minimal. PUD reserves require additional capital investment, e.g. drilling new wells and introducing gas-pressurisation in order to bring the oil and gas to the surface.

Companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges must substantiate their claims, however, there are governments and national oil companies which do not do this leading to some speculation that e.g. the Saudi fields may hold less oil than is claimed.

Unproved Reserves.

Probable reserves are based on median estimates, and claim a 50% confidence level of recovery, which is referred to in the industry as P50 (i.e. with a certainty of being produced of 50%). This case is referred to in the industry as 2P (i.e. proved plus probable).

Possible reserves have a lower probability of being recovered than probable reserves. The term P10 is often used for reserves with at least a 10% certainty of being produced. Reasons for classifying reserves as possible include varying interpretations of geology, reserves not producible at commercial rates, uncertainty due to reserve infill (seepage from adjacent areas), projected reserves based on future recovery methods. The term in the industry is 3P (proved plus probable plus possible).

Unproved reserves are used internally by oil companies and government agencies for future planning purposes, but do not normally feature among the numbers quoted in external publications, which tend to err on the side of caution. This is perhaps no surprise since in 2004 Shell got itself into a lot of trouble when it was found to have considerably overestimated the amount of oil in its holdings.

Dr Richard Pike, the CEO of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and an "oil-man" of some 24 years experience, has made the case that the normal procedure of simply adding together the individual oil holdings to make a grand world total of 1.2 trillion barrels, is inaccurate and that a probabilistic analysis (i.e. according to the amount that it is likely to be recovered according to the probability of recovery from different fields) is a better approach. The result is significantly different since it suggests that the amount of recoverable oil is most likely more than double the accepted estimate, i.e. in excess of 2.4 trillion barrels.

I have no dispute with what Dr Pike is saying, and there may well be more oil down there than is generally spoken of. However, if that oil cannot be recovered at a sufficient rate (given the prevailing economic situation) to match rising demand for it, a demand-supply gap will ensue. Economically this will push up the price of oil and encourage further development of even previously non-economic sources, but a rocketing oil price is likely to force an economic downturn overall, as we have seen in these last months of 2008. Indeed, a number of oil-development projects have been put on-hold because the contemporary oil-price is so low as to not make them worthwhile.

Peak oil will come, as it must, if it has not done so already, but it is the gap between demand and supply that is the real issue: the actual peak will simply make matters worse, by drawing down the supply side further and enlarging the chasm between the two. Then the price of oil will increase relentlessly.

Related Reading.

[2] "Peak Oil Postponed", By Andrew Orlowsi:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Water Vapour Heating Planet.

Just a quick note that I thought might be of interest to you. NASA have made the most detailed measurements yet of water vapour in the lowest ten miles of the atmosphere, using a satellite with specific sensors for this gas, which is strongly absorbent of radiated heat from the surface of the earth. It is thought that the heat-trapping ability of water vapour could increase the effect of global warming by carbon dioxide by as much as twice that it its absence.

Andrew Dessler from Texas A & M University has employed data gathered from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) on the NASA Aqua satellite, measured over the period 2003 - 2008. The devise is the first with the ability to differentiate between different amounts of water as are present at different altitudes.

Through a combination of the satellite data and global average surface temperature readings, information has been garnered to determine how exactly water vapour influences and changes with temperature. It appears that a warming of the planet by 1 degree C will cause an elevation in humidity, and trap heat with an additional 2 Watts per square metre, which is in line with the predictions of climate models. Thus, the feedback effect of water vapour on global warming is both large and positive.

Related Reading.
"Water Vapour Warming,"By Olive Hefferman.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

A Recent History of Oil Prices.

In January 1999 the price of a barrel of oil reached a low point of $16 when Iraq increased its oil production at the time of the Asian Financial Crisis when demand for oil fell. Prices then increased rapidly, reaching $35 in September 2000, and after a temporary fall reached $40-50 by September 2004. Crude oil prices surged to a record high above $60 in June 2005, and by early August 2005 hit $65 as consumer demand was maintained. In September 2007, the price of US crude oil broke the $80 barrier. In October 2007 a barrel of US light crude oil exceeded $90 for the first time, due to a combination of tensions in eastern Turkey and a fall in the value of the US dollar. The next psychological watershed of $100 was briefly breached in early 2008, but the price fell again until the end of February after which it remained and rose well above this new setting. Then a visible ramping effect became evident and so the price exceeded $110 on March 12, 2008; $125 on May 9, 2008; $130 on May 21, 2008, $140 on June 26, 2008 and $145 on July 3, 2008. The record was reached on July 11, 2008 at $147.27 as a consequence of geopolitical tensions over Iranian missile tests.

The above data stress the point that the price of oil is highly sensitive to the world political situation and to a general sense of confidence, including that in the stock markets. When the $147 barrel appeared, it did appear there would be no stopping the escalating price of oil, and that by December 2008 a barrel of oil might cost around $150 or more, amid speculation that by the end of 2009, it would be nearer $200. However, oil prices declined by more than $20 over the next two weeks in July 2008, and seemed to stabilise at near $125 a barrel on July 24, 2008. A forcing factor came into play, which was that the very high price of oil had changed people’s behaviour and they were now driving less with a reduced demand for oil. Oil prices then dipped further, reaching $112 a barrel, on August 11, 2008.

On September 15 the $100 psychological barrier was again broken, but in reverse, when the price fell below $100 for the first time in seven months. On October 11 there occurred a massive crash in the value of global equities, with a barrel of oil falling by 10% to $77.70. In consequence of further economic slowdown the price continued to slide and today (December 4, 2008) it is trading at around $45 a barrel. Rather than the $200 predicted last summer some analysts are now predicting a $20 barrel sometime during 2009. I must stress, however, that even if this does happen it will be a short-lived event, because the facts of geological limits to production, increased production costs to obtain more difficultly recovered oil and that demand is still rising (demand is simply rising less steeply during this economic recession, but it is still in the ascendant).

The upshot will be a gap between the demand for crude oil and the limits of how much of it can be produced, a quantity that must inevitably fall beyond the point of arrival of “peak oil”, which will force the price up again. Thus oil will become a commodity that is both increasingly scarce and relentlessly expensive. The price of oil (and that of all commodities), is subject to major variations over time, since they are inextricably linked into to the overall business cycle. When the demand-supply gap is reached, oil prices will soar, but the commitments and habits that determine the energy use of oil-users will take time to adjust. It is time-consuming and expensive to introduce more production capacity in the near term, but in the longer run, both businesses and individuals will act to cut back their oil use in response to the driver of high prices. An optimistic economist might argue that high prices promote new investment in production and so new sources of oil will emerge on the market, gradually restoring a supply-demand balance.

The remarkable hike in the price of oil in the summer of 2008 was driven partly by a period of brevity when global demand for oil outran its supply. The OPEC nations were encouraged to ramp-up their production to get the price down for western nations who would be unable to maintain their demand for oil if its price remained at such high (and relentlessly increasing) levels. My suspicion is that the summer-spike in oil prices, led to a fall in oil-use and a significant curb in demand for cars and other goods, which became notably more expensive, and precipitated the present economic downturn. Job losses and less disposable income then meant that many in the low-income bracket would be unable to pay-back their mortgages and a credit-crunch ensued, with a lack of confidence in and among banks who had lent money rather carelessly. The increased output of oil by OPEC along with a contraction and the threat of further slowdown in the business sector, hence less oil being used, has created a minor glut, thus forcing down the price of oil, and increasingly so along with the declining value of all equities. While a low oil price should help businesses to invest and expand, the credit crunch and fear by the banks to lend money has acted in the reverse of this, and prompted a recession.

On the basis of microeconomic theory, when supply exceeds demand, the price of a commodity should reduce to the nominal cost of production of the most expensive source. In the case of oil, as its price drops, the most expensive wells become uneconomical and are shut down, at least temporarily. A price equilibrium is met at a point near the production cost of the most expensive source required to meet global demand. The variation between what the market can bear in the first days of shortage to the marginal cost of the last well in times of surplus can be enormous. Indeed, the price of the majority of commodities including metals and food are subject to equivalent large swings over time. As global oil production begins to decline, following “peak oil”, oil prices are likely to become increasingly volatile than before the peak, because the range of production costs among all sources supplying the market will be much wider. Major oil fields exist where the cost of production is comfortably below US$10 per barrel, and for decades their output was sufficient to meet the whole of global demand for oil. Indeed, many such cheap wells still provide a substantial proportion of the world’s oil .

The shortages and high prices that are inevitable in the future will render viable the extraction of oil sources that cost $50, $70, or $100 or more, a barrel, including offshore/deep water fields, oil sands, oil shale, and enhanced/secondary recovery from depleted fields. As couched in the jargon of microeconomic theory, the supply curve will be much steeper than in past years. Shifts in demand, either up or down, will hence cause swings of relatively greater amplitude in the market price. Nonetheless, even the most expensive sources of oil will be unable to provide anywhere close to the 30 billion barrels of crude oil that the world currently depends on each year. It is the rate of supply (variously termed rate of flow, rate of conversion or rate of recovery) that is at issue. Put simply, it doesn’t matter how big the volume of the resource is, if oil cannot be recovered at a rate of 85 million barrels a day to meet present demand (and rising), we must learn to live by using less oil. This poses a challenge that is simple but not easy, since it must involve curbing our reliance on personalised transport, mainly cars, which most of the world’s crude oil is currently used to run. The corollary to this is the need to develop rapidly, more localised communities, that depend far less on cheap oil-based transportation, which will no longer exist.

Related Reading.

This is the final section to an article entitled: The Oil Question: Nature and Prognosis" which will be published in the popular science journal "Science Progress", probably before Christmas. I thought I would put it as a posting on here for any general interest and/or comments.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Climate Change Not Caused by CO2?

I have put a question mark at the end of the title, since that sentence, made as a statement is highly controversial. Indeed, the term "denier" has been accoladed to the still substantial faction, including some serious and respected scientists, who challenge the assertion, based on computer models of the earth's climate that the increase in atmospheric CO2 derived from fossil fuel carbon is causing the planet to warm-up, perhaps by an additional 5 - 6 degrees C by 2100.

Let me emphasise my own perspective here. I am not a climatologist, but I do see that the most immediate impact on human life on earth will be caused by the dearth of cheap oil, then gas, and finally coal. Unless fast-breeder reactors, including thorium-based systems (the simpler liquid fluoride reactors rather than the vastly complex accelerator driven systems) are introduced fast and on a large scale, or other deposits of uranium are found, nuclear too will overrun its energy supply within 40 - 50 years, or sooner if nuclear power is proliferated as most western governments aspire to do.

If the climate models are correct in their predictions, the impact of carbon emissions will be felt later than that, and it is debatable how much we can moderate this, simply by reduced carbon emissions strategies (see yesterday's posting). Once we begin to eliminate fossil fuels, either through new "clean" technologies or by simply running out of them, the anthropogenic burden of CO2 will begin to level off. However, if the oceans are becoming saturated with CO2 in the surface layers and are less able to dissolve more of the gas, the consequences of carbon emissions both past and future may haunt us for millennia.

Since various computer models give different answers, e.g. warming by as little as 1 degree or as much as 5 degrees by the end of the century, it would be handy to have some experimental data to make recourse to. Obviously, we can't know the future, and that will only unfold as time passes. However, there is the geological record which gives some clues as to past behaviour. In a nutshell, according to ice-core samples, rather than the CO2 increasing and then the earth heating up, what may be deduced is the reverse of this; i.e. the planet warms and then, with a lag of around 800 years, the CO2 levels increase in the atmosphere.

The observables are a little less direct than this, since the temperature at a particular time in history is deduced from the ratio of heavy (deuterium) to light (protium) hydrogen isotopes (and O-18/O-16) in water (ice-cores), i.e. the ratio of heavy water to (ordinary) light water. Since the heavy water tends to evaporate more when it is hot, an increase in the heavy/light water ratio is observed, and vice versa for cold periods. There has been some speculation as to the accuracy of such isotopic thermometers, and corrections are proposed that close the gap somewhat between the temperature and CO2 levels suggesting a closer correspondence between the two, but nonetheless the initial heating period cannot be explained as being caused by rising CO2 levels, even though it may well be that once the CO2 concentration increases, its heat-trapping effect does introduce a thermal feedback to the climate.

One might speculate what exactly is the mechanism for that initial warming process if it cannot be simply explained in terms of CO2. Possibly, Milankovich cycles (changes in the amount of solar energy received by the Earth according to changes in the periodicity of its orbit over time) may play some role. For example, the roughly 100,000 year period between ice-ages corresponds to an "orbital forcing factor", between the closest and most distant approach of the Earth to the Sun, following the slightly undulating ellipse of its solar-orbit.

Some recent papers provide evidence that the global climate is subject to variation even over the past few centuries, i.e. before humans began burning up to the present 7 billion tonnes of carbon fuels each year. Global temperatures declined abruptly by around 2 degrees C from the Medieval warm period (1200 AD to 1500 AD) to the little ice-age (1500 AD to 1850 AD), when skaters built fires to roast chestnuts on the frozen surface of the river Thames in London. More detrimentally, there were widespread and frequent crop failures during the latter cold period which led to perhaps a million deaths from famine and disease. After 1850, average temperatures rose by around 4 degrees C, and this was before humans began releasing huge amounts of CO2 into the air. This amount of global warming was about 7 times the temperature increase observed during the past century and cannot be attributed to CO2 emissions since the CO2 levels in the atmosphere were relatively low then.

Since 1977, both the Earth mean temperature and the atmospheric CO2 levels have increased, which is usually taken as causative of the former, and yet during the 30 years prior to then, the temperature actually fell despite the fact that CO2 levels were increasing monotonically year on year. Surely if CO2 levels determine the temperature, the latter should have risen between 1945 and 1977, rather than the converse.

Although some 80% of the total manmade CO2 has been emitted since 1945, more than half of the warming observed in the past century occurred between 1890 and 1945, which could not have been a result of CO2 emissions. Of course, we may have more warming to come from those later emissions of CO2. We don't know yet.

It may be concluded that CO2 does not cause planetary temperature rise, but there are other regulatory systems at work. Now, it is impossible to state that the present unprecedentedly high levels of CO2 will not cause the earth to warm to the extent that the climate models indicate, but there is no direct evidence that recent global warming is caused by rising CO2 levels.

It has been argued that if global warming is not caused by CO2, then mathematical predictions of global catastrophe are meaningless, and we enter the red-zone of an arrogant belief that we can re-engineer the earth systems by curbing our carbon emissions, and hey presto global warming will be switched-off. As noted, the inertia in the system may be far greater than these models indicate if the ocean sinks for CO2 are becoming saturated.

There are however two imperatives. Firstly, we have to use less oil, gas and ultimately coal because these are present only in finite reserves, and so energy efficiency and conservation in relocalised (less transport-intensive) societies appears a must. It becomes arguable just how much of our effort and resource should be spent on actual carbon-remediation schemes (e.g. biochar production and other carbon capture technologies) , if CO2 is not the problem, and the earth has its own agenda irrespective of what we do.

Moreover, if we cannot ameliorate global warming, surely it makes more sense to devise strategies for how to survive under the stresses that it will impose upon us, in terms of sea-level rise, keeping those in vulnerable health comfortable during especially hot periods, and providing enough water for all of us. We need to take realistic and practical action. The rest is theory, untested and probably untestable until nature's own plan is revealed to us in full.

Related Reading.
"CO2 might not be cause of climate change." By Dr Don J. Easterbrook. htt://

Monday, December 01, 2008

No Quick Fix to Greenhouse CO2 levels.

The surface layers of the oceans are becoming saturated with CO2, and less able to absorb more of it; hence, policies to curb carbon emissions will not have an immediate impact, and it may take hundreds of thousands of years for the natural (pre-industrial) balance of the gas to be restored. I have tried to keep an open mind about the facts of Anthropogenic global warming and climate change, whereby it is assumed that our profligate use of fossil fuels has contributed to an excess of CO2 in the atmosphere, which will cause the planet to heat-up, with concomitant climate change that will prove detrimental to life on Earth. The general consensus is that we should reduce our use of fossil-fuels, in the hope that the planet will recover its equilibrium, through natural absorption processes. Around 40% of the carbon burned from fossil fuels since 1950 has been absorbed, while the remainder has accumulated in the atmospheric burden of CO2.

More proactive measures are proposed too: for instance the growth of plants, to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, which are then pyrolysed in the absence of oxygen to form various gaseous and liquid products that might feed markets for fuel and organic chemicals, leaving a residue of carbon ("biochar") which could be dug into soil, both to improve its fertility and to bury some of that miscreant greenhouse carbon. The latter would pose a considerable undertaking, however, and to restore CO2 levels to those of the pre-industrial era would require pyrolysing most of the world's biomass for the next 40 years, and burying its thermal residue of biochar.

Lesser scale operations could pull-down enough CO2 from the atmosphere to restrain it from the putative 450 ppm tipping-point, beyond which the climate runs out of control. The level is around 390 ppm now. However, a new study offers little cheer that even such gargantuan feats of political cooperation and engineering might save us, even if they could really be done. The findings contradict prevailing views that CO2 will be cleaned-out of the atmosphere during the next century or so by natural forces, if we simply curb our emissions by around 80% by 2050, as Britain has pledged to do, by switching over to carbon-free sources of energy. Now this is a massive imperative in its own right, and I wonder as to the viability or veracity of such a policy.

Enter, Professor David Archer of the University of Chicago, who is quoted as saying: "the climatic effects of releasing fossil fuel carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will last longer than Stonehenge, longer than time capsules, far longer than the age of human civilization so far. Ultimate recovery takes place on timescales of hundreds of thousands of years, a geologic longevity typically associated with public perceptions of nuclear waste."

Most of the CO2 that is removed from the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans, but the process is becoming slower. The ocean waters to a depth of around 100 metres, which is where CO2 is principally and initially dissolved are becoming saturated with the gas, which increases their acidity, and discourages further uptake. In order to re-activate the solvent power of the surface layers of water, fresh seawater from lower depths needs to recycle upward, but this process takes "centuries or a millennium." If the surface waters are becoming warmer too, the process is slowed-down yet further.

In a forthcoming paper (to be published in Annual Reviews of Earth and Planetary Sciences) the additional posit is made that the recycling process per se is insufficient to absorb all the unwanted CO2 from the atmosphere, and the snail-pace weathering of rocks which locks-up CO2 as solid limestone will be required, taking thousands of years to be accomplished. Professor Ken Caldeira, a co-author of the report, raises his game still. He concludes that even after the "pollution" by CO2 stops, the mean temperature of the Earth will settle at a new higher level, rather than falling.

This makes sense, if the heating effect of CO2 is as severe as climate-models indicate, and the concentration of the gas remains steady and relatively high over long periods. James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies, concludes that the "long lifetime of CO2 emitted by fossil fuel burning" means that simply reducing emissions does not provide a solution, and that some of these fuels must "be left in the ground" forever, and that gas must actually be removed from the air. Now that latter point does sound potentially like the biochar strategy.

What Hansen in fact proposes is removing CO2 by growing trees (you'd need an awful lot of them!), and then burning them to produce electricity and capturing the CO2 before it is emitted. Interesting that BP have just pulled out of the carbon capture game. He also thinks that there should be no more coal-fired power plants built.

Growing trees, other biomass, algae etc. is probably the only way we can withdraw significant amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. The question is what do we do with that carbon-rich material once we have it? Pyrolyse it and bury the carbon biochar, or burn it and bury the carbon dioxide? Leaving more of the fossil fuels in the ground (i.e. not using them) makes a lot of sense, and seems to point to some combined strategy of energy efficiency and curbing inefficient oil-based transportation. We will need to do these things anyway, as fossil and other resources run expensive and eventually short, but if these scientists are right, it just won't do much to alleviate global warming and climate change.

If the predictions prove true, then we are stuck with the consequences of our actions and will need to weather climatic shocks and changes of various kinds. That noted, it is the instance of running-out of plentiful oil and then natural gas that will impact most immediately on human life and indeed all life, along with limiting supplies of clean water. Testing the theoretical models of scientists may be a luxury for future generations. Our practical actions now will contribute to how that future may unfold, and whether it contains civilisation as we have come to know it.

Related Reading.
"Greenhouse gases will heat up planet 'for ever'."

Friday, November 28, 2008

Yucca Mountain: Natural Zeolite to Prevent Nuclear Leakage.

The long term security of the Yucca Mountain storage facility for nuclear waste will depend on a complex interplay between human engineering and natural geological factors, so concludes a report by scientists at Indiana University Bloomington (IUB) and Los Alamos National laboratory. The site is intended as a repository for 75,000 tonnes of high level radioactive waste, for which the surrounding geology is rich in zeolitic tuffs - rocks containing natural zeolites, such as clinoptilolite and mordenite. Indeed, the presence of these materials is considered a major plus in choosing the location of any such storage facility.

Zeolites are aluminosilicates, containing a honeycomb framework which carries an overall negative electrical charge. Much as nature is said to abhor a vacuum, she has a similar antipathy for loose unbalanced electrical charges, and consequently the negative charge on the framework is balanced by an according number of positively charged cations, rendering an overall electrical neutrality. The cations that are naturally present, e.g. Ca2+, Mg2+, K+, Na+, may be readily exchanged by radioactive cations such as Sr2+, Ba2+ and Cs+, which are products of nuclear fission, thus absorbing them from the immediate environment. Thus, any leakage or adventitious spillage can be intercepted, by the intrinsic property of cation-exchange by these natural zeolites.... a natural fail-safe barrier should the engineering not prove completely true.

Zeolites absorb appreciable quantities of water, in some cases up to half their own volume of it, and this may act to absorb and buffer the heat generated during the radioactive decay of cations such as Sr2+, Ba2+ and Cs+ when they are absorbed within its structure. [Zeolites are also known as microporous solids, since the honeycomb structure contains pores of molecular dimensions and so can act as molecular sponges].

Some fission products are formed as anions, with a negative charge, and are not readily absorbed by zeolites since there is no anion-exchange mechanism possible, in counterpart with the case for cations. Very large ions are also excluded by clinoptilolite and mordenite, and so are not absorbed either, thus the process is not perfect. Nonetheless, zeolites are used for both preemptive protection of the environment from radioactive ions, e.g. to filter the waters from nuclear power plants and reactors, and in direct emergency decontamination strategies, e.g. Chernobyl, where 500,000 tonnes of zeolites were employed to absorb fall-out from the radioactive cloud that emanated from the smouldering unit 4 reactor, on its way across western Europe. Zeolites were fed to cattle and even baked into biscuits for children to remove some of the radioactive ions from their bodies, thus mitigating radiation injury, both directly and via the food chain, e.g. drinking milk from contaminated cattle.

Over 2,000 samples taken from 17 cores drilled across Yucca mountain, at depths ranging from 20 metres to 1,800 metres below the surface. X-ray diffraction measurements showed that there are zeolites present extensively, and moreover at depths reckoned as optimum for the storage of nuclear waste, i.e. 300 metres below the surface of the mountain and 150 metres above the water table. The idea is to construct a containment space above the zeolitic safety-region.

David Bish, the report's principal author and Professor of Applied Clay Mineralogy at IUB stressed the need to understand more about how water flows through the repository horizon and how the incorporation of large amounts of high level radioactive material might modify the geology, mineralogy and hydrology (i.e. the structure and properties, chemical and mechanical), of the zone of rock in which it will be included. The intention is to construct a 3-D image of Yucca Mountain, of sufficient detail that it could be used in licensing considerations.

If all goes well, nuclear waste could be sent to Yucca Mountain by 2010. The site is 100 miles from Las Vegas and near to the DOE's Nevada test site where numerous A-bomb tests have been performed since its inauguration in 1948.

Related Reading.
"Yucca Mountain site must make use of geological safety net, say IU and Los Alamos scientists."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Congo - War Over Minerals.

Throughout history, wars are always fought over resources, be they land, slaves, oil or other mineral wealth. The connection between oil and conflict in Iraq appears close, and western companies now have 30 year exploitation rights over the Iraqi oil. Afghanistan is more complex, since it has little oil, although there is rumour that a pipeline is planned to carry oil from central Asia through Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Karachi and the southern Pakistani coast, thus obviating the far longer route through China. Whatever is the truth of this, I don't believe that such military actions as are currently ongoing there are simply in the interests of overthrowing a dictatorial rule and restoring freedom to the people. Resources must underpin the proceedings in some way.

Meanwhile unimaginable strife continues to prevail in the Congo. Three million people are reckoned to have died in consequence of the protracted civil war there, mostly from disease and starvation. Congo, formerly the Belgian Congo which gained its independence in 1960, is rich in mineral wealth, most renownedly its gold. Indeed, it is this bestowal of gold, copper, diamonds, tantalite (tantalum), cassiterite (tin) and over one third of the world's known reserve of cobalt that is responsible for much of the country's unstable history, since the rest of the world wants to get its hands on this bounty.

Since the war began in 1998, various different factions have been engaged in the plundering of Congo's mineral resources, which raises ethical issues for the companies, particularly in the electronics industry, who have taken receipt of materials like gold, copper, tantalum and tin which they use in growing amount. There is a need for such organisations and suppliers to investigate at source exactly where these materials come from, before they find their way onto the open market. Of course, profit margins will always be an issue.

Tantalum is an essential component of electronic capacitors, as are used in computers, cell phones, air-bag safety systems, pacemakers and GPS, and most of it is mined in Australia. Nonetheless, there are substantial deposits of tantalite in Africa, in the Congo and Rwanda and also in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. I find it ironic that both Congo and Rwanda should be in possession of considerable reserves of the same mineral, given their recent tribal antipathies, but I am reminded that many of Africa's troubles are due to divisions created artificially by the former colonial powers who drew chalk lines across a map of Africa, apportioning its lands and its wealth for themselves, unbeknown to the underlying geology of the continent which was laid down long before the rules of men.

Consequently, I doubt there will ever be peace in Africa, and it is always easier to grab resources of all kinds from regions that are unstable, poor and whose populations are rendered devoid of any sense of security, certainty, permanence and hope.

Related Reading.
"Battle for Congo's mineral assets." By Alka Marwaha. BBC World Service.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Oil Crunch will Bite on the Tail of the Credit Crunch.

In his book The Long Emergency, James Kustler describes a situation which is not exactly a crash, but an unravelling sequence of difficulties, in which the stock markets oscillate wildly in perpetuity and a generalised social upheaval occurs as cheap oil runs out. The best possible outcome is an albeit difficult relocalisation of global, urbanised America into smaller communities that are increasingly self-reliant, having been forced to curb their use of transport. The alternative of course, is mayhem and anarchy. Kunstler is an American and so his prognostications are focussed on the collapse of the urbanised system there, but they are innately applicable to all industrialised societies, including those in the U.K. and western Europe in general.

The global nature of modern trade and economics means that no man is an island, and where one stumbles the rest must take-up the strain. In reality, the gaping gaps in our banking system could not be more apparent and it is almost incredulous not to have been aware that a facade "underpinned" by credit - promissory notes in effect - betrays a house of cards. The governments of the world are trying to push more money into the economy, via tax-incentives and so on, but it is unlikely to make much difference as people are too frightened to spend, preferring instead to hang onto their cash when there is so much uncertainty, over jobs, etc. and even the viability of the banks themselves.

Sufficiently desperate is the impending recession that the British government is now threatening to use legal force to make the banks pass on their newly available currency, from the source of a government fund intended to help them out through this crisis of their own making, and to begin lending money again, both to other banks and to small businesses. Too late, the banks are now cautious about lending and if they had been so during the past two decades we would not be in the mess we are now. However, if all goes to plan, it is thought that the U.K. may be coming out of a recession by the end of 2009, so it is reckoned optimistically in Whitehall, although the CBI anticipates a longer run than this into the middle of 2010.

Now this is beginning to time-in with the expected arrival of peak oil, variously reckoned to arrive any time between 2006 (i.e. has happened already) and 2012-2013. The timing of the peak is in fact of lesser importance than the inevitable formation of a gap between rising demand and the supply of oil. The effect will be to force oil prices up again (as we saw last summer), and encourage economic downturn, i.e. the flow of money that the governments are trying to restore, will coagulate once more.

This does sound like a long emergency. That we will never arrive on calm shores after a storm such as we are in the midst of now, but having passed through one, yet another will rip into our sails, ultimately beaching the fleet of the global economy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Oil From Algae - How Big Do the Tanks Need to Be?

The comment reproduced below to my article "Wednesday, April 09, 2008; Oil from Algae: Photosynthetic Efficiencies?" prompted some very salient points regarding the size of the tanks or tubular reactor vessels that would be required to grow algae on a large scale, and the quantity of the materials needed to make them from. I have therefore done a few sums, which I hope are illustrative:

I agree completely with Nic's figures which are very close to those I have deduced here previously, and I shall use them now. First I want to consider tube-reactors, and I am assuming that the tube is about a foot (30 cm) in diameter.

(.3 m x pi =) .94 m (circumference of tube) x 3.3 x 10^12 m (length of tube) = 3.1 x 10^12 m^2
as the area of plastic needed to fabricate 3.3 billion km of it! If we assume that the wall thickness is 2 mm (0.002 m), we have a volume of plastic = 3.1 x 10^12 m^2 x 0.002 m = 6.2 x 10^9 m^3.

Taking the density of the material as 0.85 (t/m^3), that amounts to 0.85 x 6.2 x 10^9 = 5.3 x 10^9 tonnes. If there are 7.3 barrels of oil to a tonne, that is the equivalent of 38.7 x 10^9 barrels of oil to make the plastic (this is about 3% of all the oil left in the ground). The world uses 30 x 10^9 barrels in total annually, and so this is more oil than the world gets through in 16 months all told.

I agree with Nic that it probably wouldn't be possible to make more than few million km of pipe per year and so it would take centuries to make it. Well before then we won't be recovering significant crude oil anyway, given the total of 1.2 x 10^10 barrels there is thought to be recoverable. On this basis, I think making biodiesel from algae on a large scale in tube-reactors is unlikely.

So, what about the open (raceway) ponds? If we need 1 million km^2 of them, that's 1 x 10^12 m^2. I am going to assume they are each 1 hectare in area. That's 100 million of them. I shall also assume that they are 1 metre deep. The area of the walls is 100 m x 1 m x 4 walls = 400 m^2. But the floor area is 10,000 m^2 (i.e. 1 ha). hence I shall forget the 4% of the total pond area made up by the walls and concentrate on the larger, floor area of 10,000 m^2 for each one.

The ponds could be lined with either concrete or plastic. Let's consider the concrete option first. If the floor is four inches, 10 cm thick = 0.1 m. So we need 10,000 m^2 x 0.1 m = 1,000 m^3 of concrete for each pond. So 100 million of them needs, 100 x 10^6 x 1,000 m^3 = 1 x 10^11 m^3 and at a density of sat 2.3 t/m^3, that's 2.3 x 10^11 tonnes of concrete, or 230 billion tonnes. In 2007, the world produced 2.6 billion tonnes of concrete, and again the job would take centuries assuming that an equivalent amount of additional concrete could be made to current consumption, or some of it diverted from existing purposes. The global warming effect would be pretty severe since making concrete releases huge amounts of CO2.

What about plastic lining? Well, the area is the same, at 10^12 m^2 and I shall assume that a 2mm thickness is O.K. again, so the volume is 10^12 m^2 x 0.002 = 2 x 10^9 m^3 of plastic.
This equals around 12.4 billion barrels of oil, which is about 1% of the world's total recoverable of 1.2 trillion barrels, or 1/3 that for the tubes, and it might be easier to make plastic sheets than tubes, but even if we could make say, a few thousand square kilometers (a few billion m^2) of plastic sheeting annually, the job would once again take centuries. We are dealing with a classic rate of flow (rate of conversion, rate of recovery) problem, and while not hampered necessarily by the resources per se, the engineering can't be done in time to save us from running out of cheap crude oil.

On Nic's final pint about instead using electric vehicles. The best figure I have is that you need a bare minimum of 0.08 g of lithium/Wh of power. But for real Li systems, it is more like 0.15 - 0.32 gLi/Wh. I shall take the mid-range of 0.23. An average PHEV needs around 9kWh. So we need 9,000 x 0.23 g = 2070 g = 2 kg = 0.002 tonnes per vehicle. Now there are supposed to be around 700 million vehicles on the roads. There are something like 30 thousand tonnes of Li recovered per year and so we would need to double production capacity to get something reasonable, i.e. that amount again to make the electric cars etc. [There is plenty of lithium in the ground, 28 million tonnes, I think, but it's the rate of recovery that is the limiting factor].

700 x 10^6 x 0.002 t = 1.4 x 10^6 tonnes to make that equivalent car fleet from PHEV's. Well at 30,000 t/year it's going to take 46 years. So, in principle this is the best bet. However it would mean making 15 million cars a year. We'd need a lot of new mining, processing and engineering
though. In all likelihood the world will have far fewer vehicles in the future, and we can supplant urban transport with trams and light railways so long as we can make enough electricity to run them and so need less anyway.

In conclusion I take your point about cars Nic, but still since aviation consumes more fuel per year than we can tool-up for with algal biofuel within decades (centuries) plane-flight does seem doomed in its present form and scale.

But whatever we do it's got to be done against that backdrop of cheap oil running out - yes, I know its cheap now because the world financial system is melting down - but it wont be for much longer; also the economic turndown means that there is little fiscal incentive and little money to be borrowed from the banks in their nervous condition, to build new PHEV factories and mining and processing plants for Li. PHEV's are expensive to make too and that is also bad is the current state of credit-crunch. There are other resource issues to PHEV's too, since they use various other metals, cobalt etc. depending on the exact battery design

Thanks very much,


Hi Chris

I was checking some background info on Algae after reading an article “Algae on the Move: The 2008 Algae Biomass Summit Wrap-up” in Renewable Energy World < id="54033"> when I came across your site.

You’re right 14.7%+ is too high for PSE, its limited by the nature of PS process. I can’t remember the exact figures but the maximum practical yield, under ideal conditions, is between 5 and 10%. High concentrations do not improve the situation as only the algae near the surface will photosynthesise and if the light’s too strong they can’t use it all so high agitation is also required.

I attended the International Society for Applied Phycology (algae) conference this summer in Galway and picked up some interesting data on algae, the best algae brains in the world were there so I am fairly confident that their figure of just over 10% absolute maximum for photosynthetic efficiency is correct. If I recall correctly, figures for open (raceway) pond reactors of a few percent would be about right.

I was mulling over the figures for replacing all our oil with algae biomass rather than just diesel, thought you may find my workings of interest:

World oil consumption is ~= 85Mbboe/day @ 6.1GJ/bboe (bboe = barrels of oil?)
= 5.185e17J/day = 12.345Mtoe/day (@42GJ/t)
> Most of world’s oil energy is used for fuel.
> Use total algal biomass is for fuel manufacture e.g. via hydrothermal liquefaction (a form of pyrolysis).
> Crude oil to fuel (well to tank) losses ~10%
> Algal biomass to fuel (well to tank) losses ~25%

Realistic practical PSE for algae is about 5%, possibly slightly higher for enclosed reactors and probably about half for raceway ponds, assuming they run 24/7:
,’, @ 5KWh/day energy yield/capture by algae daily yield is
5,000 * 0.05 * 3600 = 900,000J/sq-m

Production space:
Therefore algal biomass energy content needs to be ~15% more than crude production then
Required algal biomass production per day = 1.15 * 5.185e17 / 900,000
= 662,528 sq-Km of bioreactor area
Add to this access roads, space between reactors and space for processing and storage then the total area required is of the order of 1 million square kilometres, or about 10% of the Sahara desert.

Production mass:
Micro algae energy density (HHV) depends very much on relative oil, protein and carbohydrate content but would typically be around 20MJ/Kg (~half of oil)

,’, total algal mass required = 1.15 * 5.185e17 / 20e9 ~= 30 Million tonnes/day

The burning questions are:
 How fast could we build this quantity of algae production and processing facilities?
 How much will it cost?, is it economically viable etc.
 Can we build this amount of infrastructure? Algae ponds will probably need to be concrete or plastic lined over an area of 1million sq-Km plus, closed reactors would probably require (using AlgaeLink system) about 3.3Billion kilometres!!! of bioreactor tubing (my guestimate is that at best we could produce a few million Km of tubing per year so we a talking of a multi century project).
 Is there a better solution?

The answer to last question is yes, change to electric technology for land transport, save biofuels for air transport. Electric vehicles far more efficient (~80% tank to wheel) than other technologies, best hybrid might ultimately achieve about 50% and renewable electricity easier to generate than biofuels, best PV nearly 40% conversion efficiency.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Abbot Christopher Jamison... the Spiritual Dimension.

A man who seems impossible not to like is Abbot Christopher Jamison, who warns us that "greed is replacing spirituality". I have read a couple of his books (just look him up on google) which have left me with a sense of peace, and that is what seems to shine from the man. There was a six-part series on television entitled "The Monastery", where six guys lived for 40 days with a group of monks and found a firm spiritual foundation in consequence of this experience. As I perceive society beginning to unravel - financially, the "benefits culture" and my expectation that we will all return to agricultural living, hopefully reaping something useful from what we have learned from science and technology (but give-up the hydrogen economy, please, in the short-term), Abbot Jamison's message that we should be less acquisitive - greedy in the material line - does appear salient.

We are kept in a state of fear and unhappiness, which is what sells. But people are holding-on to their cash now, and that might illumine the dawn of a less materialistic thought-process for living. I have a friend who tells me that the only way she can feed herself and her 5 kids in because a certain fast-food burger outlet offers a 99p "meal deal". So that's around six-quid as we say over here.

It may be nice to go-out for a meal, all of them, but she could feed the lot of them for a third of that... that's if she knew anything about nutrition. We seem to have lost a lot of knowledge... how to grow food, cook it, put up shelves, and some spiritual foundation. The "loss" of the family is a lot to do with that, and the benefits culture simply encourages and supports the mess that is reality when daddy buggers off.

In the ensuing age of "less", it will mean that less has to mean more, in the restitution of all the above that we have lost during the past 30 - 40 years. With freedom comes responsibility, and abandoning your kids is not the greatest achievement of a man. Most of the troubles of modern society are born from freedom and excess, and the lack of ability to handle both.

There never was a family like "The Waltons" probably, but we are going to need to stick together in future simply because we will need one another. This is a practical example of spiritual foundation - love, it is sometimes called. I would recommend the Abbot's wise words, in the licence of "Shoppers are selling their souls", as he is quoted below. I spoke to my mother recently who said that "when you were a baby, we were incredibly short of money. So I told the family... there won't be any Christmas presents this year..." This was in the Cardiff of 1959-1960.

It doesn't sound like it was happy affair, but they did get through it. So can we all, but with less material and more spiritual solidity.

Abbot Christopher Jamison warned that rampant consumer culture is taking over people's moral purpose as their material needs are now all met.

He urged people to enjoy the month of Advent rather than celebrating Christmas early. Not a bad idea. I think I will go out and buy an advent calender.

Related Reading.
"Shoppers are selling their souls", monk warns. By Martin Beckford:

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Where Poppies Would Not Grow.

(To Mark the 90th anniversary of the end of "The Great War").

At the cenotaph we stand

amid the chill; clocks ticking;

hands touching watches, then

thrust back into pockets.

Amid the blood-red symbols

we forget the meaning of.

Flowers that only bloom

in unrested ground; turned-

over, the shell-shocked furrows,

and craters filled with snow;

into a blaze of neglected

and sad glory that is forever lost.

Three old men, who have

passed their century of days -

not long now to shed more tears.

Comrades and even children gone,

such is their destiny to survive

until they are become dust, in still fields,

where poppies would not grow.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Nukes Buried in Your Backyard?

I have commented previously on the idea of "mobile" nuclear reactors, that could be fuelled by uranium or by thorium, and delivered on the back of a lorry to wherever they are needed. The reality of such power-plants, "smaller than a garden shed", has been endorsed by the Los Alamos government lab. which also developed the first atom-bomb. Each unit is expected to provide electricity for 20,000 homes, and they are safe! The small-scale reactors will be sealed at source, will not contain any weapons-grade uranium, have no moving parts and since they will be incarcerated in concrete and buried underground, impossible to steal.

The US government has issued a license to a company, Hyperion, based in New Mexico, which has already taken its initial orders and aims to begin mass-production within five years. Hyperion's intention is to produce electricity at a price of 10 cents per Watt "anywhere in the world". The cost is anticipated to be $25 million per unit, and for a community of 10,000 homes, that amounts to a competitive $2500 per household.

Hyperion, in Greek mythology, was one of the Titans - sons and daughters of Uranus (sky-god) and Gaia (Earth-goddess) - who lost the war with the Olympians ("The War of the Titans") and were subjugated by them. Their despair at this fate was the subject of a poem by John Keates:

"These crystalline pavilions, and pure fanes,
Of all my lucent empire? It is left
Deserted, void, nor any haunt of mine.
The blaze, the splendour, and the symmetry,
I cannot see – but darkness, death and darkness." ...cheery stuff, isn't it?

The first 100 definite orders are mostly from oil and electricity companies, but Hyperion is also focussing its marketing toward developing countries and isolated ("off-grid") communities. The company plans to build three factories which their business-plan holds will manufacture some 4,000 "mini-nukes" between 2013 and 2023. A Czech company, TES has "ordered six units and optioned a further twelve", of which the first would be sited in Romania. There are additional talks underway with the Caymen Islands, Panama and the Bahamas.

The mini-nukes are said to be "only a few metres in diameter", and will be delivered by lorry, needing to be refuelled every 7 - 10 years. There are no design-safety issues expected because the type of reactor has been used "by students" for 50 years without incident. An application to go ahead is expected to be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2010.

John Deal, the CEO of Hyperion, said:

"You could never have a Chernobyl-type event - there are no moving parts. You would need nation-state resources in order to enrich our uranium. Temperature-wise, it's too hot to handle. It would be like stealing a barbecue with you bare hands."

Toshiba has been exploring the utility of 200 kW reactors of dimension six metres by two metres, which are intended to power smaller numbers of homes over a more extended time-period, and it is thought they could power a single building for 40 years. Clearly, if this mini-nuke technology does go ahead it is potentially a competitive business.

Related Reading.
"Mini nuclear power plants to power 20,000 homes." By John Vidal.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Oil Gap Greater Threat than Terrorism.

Professor Sir David King said famously that global warming is a greater threat than terrorism. This was in the context of a perceived need to install new nuclear power, which many claim is "carbon free". It isn't quite, not when all the factors of uranium mining, concrete production etc. are costed-in, but overall, the technology does produce less CO2 than coal or gas-fired power stations. Presuming that it is true that rising levels of atmospheric of CO2 will cook the planet, it might be conceived that more lives will be lost to global warming than to actions by terrorists.

There is a more immediate and actually connected problem and that is the splitting seam between the demand for oil and the amount of it that can be recovered at a daily rate. It is thought there are some 1.2 trillion barrels of crude oil in the ground to be recovered, but it is the rate of recovery (sometimes called "conversion") that determines the viability of a resource, rather than its total unrecovered volume. The impact of a supply-demand gap will be felt more immediately than that of climate change. Indeed, some producers may decide to withhold oil from exports to satisfy their own needs, thus conferring an oil-famine on importing nations such as the US and UK. This would be good for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but at the same time destroy entire national or continental economies in the process. A price too high, one might think.

A looming energy crisis, when oil prices rise to and above the $150 barrel level of last summer (more than twelve times the price in 1999), is the more immediate threat to national security, with fuel prices soaring back above the £1.20 litre that has hit many industries, including haulage with a knock on influence on the costs of practically all goods. The UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security, which is an alliance of eight companies drawn from across the national economy, has warned of an end to cheap oil by 2013, in accord with the prognostications of most oil analysts. The peak will certainly be with us by then, biting hard on the tail of supply, thus widening further the gap with demand; that is, if the world economy has not fallen into major recession, or depression during the next five years, which it might.

Last week, OPEC announced its intention to cut production by 1.5 million barrels a day, having been persuaded by the West to up its output of oil because of the summer prices which the latter said it could not bear and keep its economies afloat. The latter relative surfeit of oil, combined with the credit crunch and economic downturn with a fall in demand for oil has forced an artificial plunge in the price of oil to around $60 a barrel with an according loss in revenue to the OPEC nations.

The geological factors of peak oil mean that this is a temporary halt in an inevitable and relentless overall upward trend in the price of crude oil and this will hit the world economy hard. As oil becomes more expensive, the rate of inflation will be forced-upward, as the costs of manufacturing and distributing all goods rises. Will Whitehorn, the Chairman of the Taskforce said:

"The first report of the Taskforce is a balanced look at the energy risks and opportunities we face. It is also a wake-up call to the urgent actions required by the UK and other major global economies to overcome the consequences of the end of the era of cheap oil.

"The current financial and economic crisis provides a real opportunity to the British Government to lead the world in renewable investment whilst the oil and other commodity prices remain suppressed in the short term by weaker demand."

Nice to see there is an "opportunity" rather than blind panic and imminent societal collapse. If only we had been thinking this way 30 years ago, but sadly I doubt there is enough time left to come up with much in the way of renewables - particularly not to substitute oil-based transport with - unless one accepts the longer paradigm of electric vehicles run on renewable electricity, but that will take much more time to implement. That last statement about "renewable investment" does sound like a sales-pitch, laudable though it may be, and a fall in demand for oil due to the cancellation of projects due to lack of funding from banks too nervous to lend money, is not encouraging that there is much time left for opportunity to be reaped. Even at best, we have 4 years (until 2013), and that is not long enough to do much, except to learn to use less energy, especially oil.

The most immediate threat to human civilization is the lack of cheap liquid fuel for transportation, for which there is no alternative to oil, certainly not on the scale of around 20 billion of the 30 billion barrels of oil the world's nations gets through every year to keep their populations mobile.

Once again, the dawn of a relocalised (less transport-intensive) global society is indicated... and soon, whether we like it or not.

Related Reading.
"Oil shortage 'bigger threat to UK than terrorism'". By David Millward.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Cheap Oil Will Not Last Long.

The recent slump in the price of a barrel of oil to less than half its peak of almost $150, last July, has caused those of a more cornucopian persuasion to crow, "so where have all the peak oil enthusiasts gone now?" This is a tragically mistaken point of view, which assumes, as economists often do, that the markets control everything and that low prices mean abundance of a particular resource. Hence following this line of thinking, everything is now hunky dory.

Of course it is far from that - by the way, congratulations to President Obama for his landslide victory, having secured about two thirds of the "college votes", although he will have an unenviable job on his hands to resolve the many issues facing the United States and indeed the world - since we are still shuddering in the nakedness of the Emperor's Clothes that the world financial system has been shown to be. Cold winds still blow and accordingly, the cheap oil has arisen from reduced demand in consequence of a fall in economic activity. Scared banks won't lend to each other or to businesses and the world is still relatively flush with oil as a result of OPEC producers having been persuaded to up their output to get oil prices down, otherwise the West particularly would face economic debilitation, and the producers too, once their western customers could no longer afford to buy oil from them.

Well, we have seen a crash, really it was a case of the proverbial straw breaking the financial desert animal's back - the massive oil prices of just a few months back, pushed up the load on a financial system that was already shaking at the knees of its burden, and clothed only in the fabric of credit. In short, if accounted for in terms of real solid collateral, there is more money on the world's books than actually exists, hence a levelling-down of the stockmarket probably to somewhere nearer reality. The global economy must restore faith that more institutions will not unexpectedly collapse, and get money back into its true role which is "currency" to oil the wheels of commerce.

Some independent analysts have predicted that oil will stay below $100 a barrel while the world continues to sort itself out amid the fallout of the credit crash. However, the amount of oil being produced still runs close to the demand for it, and hence we are at a proverbial tipping point, where the balance could weigh in either direction. Personally, I don't see any likelihood that it will tip towards cheaper and cheaper oil, because of the geological reasons of the nature of oil wells and that many are becoming increasingly exhausted (or will become so during the immediate time to come) , and it will be harder and more costly to recover oil from them.

The only phenomenon that could keep oil prices down for any significant period is a worldwide and protracted recession, so closing the gap of demand against supply. Eventually this must open-up again, as we get through more oil and to the tipping point of world maximum (peak oil) output. Both the Chinese and Indian economies are roaring ahead but I note that neither are immune from the credit crunch, and China has seen a downturn of around 9%. Simply, if the West can no longer (or is very cautious to) buy their cheap manufactured goods, there will be no incentive to make them. Hence a downturn in these economies seems inevitable.

I sometimes think that the machinations of globalisation are something like a group of mountaineers attached to a single rope, with all being similarly tied together, beit banks, business or the economies of entire countries or continents - if one slips, the team can take up the strain and all may still make it to the top, but if a few of them fall, they all do. By design or default the winding-down of the global machine is at hand, and I suspect it will be by default because who will be brave enough to call a halt to their own part in its march, unilaterally? That would simply be like cutting oneself free of the rope and jumping off the mountain, and no one is that altruistic... or foolhardy.

Related Reading.
"Oil executives, political leaders say decline in oil price will not last." By Adam Schreck,, (November 5th).,0,5975386.story

Monday, November 03, 2008

Small is (Still) Beautiful: A Tribute to E.F.Schumacher.

E.F.Schumacher looks to be proved right about oil after all. In his forward to the edition of Small is Beautiful (SIB), reprinted in 1993 and 20 years after the original, Jonathon Porritt discusses how E.F.Shumacher’s original thoughts and contemplations have unfolded in fact since then. He stresses particularly the essay on Buddhist Economics, and that the underlying principles are still true, i.e. the proverbial system endorsed by the subtitle of SIB, “...a study of economics as if people mattered.” This remains and will ever be applicable and must be the true aim of any sustainable economic system, not only from the moral perspective of equanimity and fairness, but for the simple reason that the capitalist ideology of limitless growth and expansion, as accounted by compound interest, is a nonsense. Agreed, it has worked certainly for the rich nations for over two hundred years, but that is only because the exhaustion of ultimately limited resources was a long way off.

This is no longer the case, and it is becoming relentlessly clear that many of the resources which we take for granted have by now been used-up in significant proportion; sufficiently so that even if their end is not in sight, the rule of economics is being felt by huge price-hikes, for example in metals, oil and gas. There is a knock-on from this too, which is that the price of food has soared during the past couple of years, both because the cost of producing oil, which underpins most of modern mechanised agriculture is increasing, and that the world population and its aspirations has elevated to such an extent that the resource of arable land now has its limits in our sights. Changes in land use too, for example its conversion of purpose from crop land to golf courses, have impacted on this scene as populations become more affluent, as is their habit of consuming more meat, which requires more land to produce than is the case for an equivalent calorific value of vegetables.

Living creatures obey the second law of thermodynamics, as do their inanimate counterparts, and energy losses are to be expected in the conversion of all forms of energy from one to another. Thus only one third of the energy in coal is recovered in terms of the energy of the electricity output when it is used to fire a power station, and the amount of energy recovered in meat from an animal that has grazed a given quantity from energy from grass, is far less than this.

Porritt states that Shumacher was wrong about one thing, and this is the aftershock of the “oil crises” that beset the industrialised nations in the 1970s. The causes of the oil shocks at that time were political . In 1973, the largely Arab OPEC nations decided to punish the U.S. for its support of Israel in the Yom Kuppur war. To Effect a suitable castigation, the supply of oil was reduced by 5%... this caused a price spike of 400%. In 1979, the war between Iran and Iraq resulted in a similar loss of oil to the world markets and its price soared in similar degree. As Porritt surmises in SIB:

“On some other issues, however, his views have not weathered quite so well. Like every other environmentalist writing in the early seventies, Schumacher was convinced of the imminence of serious oil shortages and deeply fearful of the economic and social dislocation that these would cause. Twenty years on [1993], the emphasis now is not on oil running out (current resources will almost certainly last at least until the middle of the next century), but rather on the environmental damage that will be done if they continue to be used up at current rates.”

Now this is most telling. Even fifteen years ago, neither peak oil nor global warming were on the public radar. It was global warming that first hit the headlines toward the end of the 1990s, and more recently peak oil, although the first warnings of it were made in the mid 1950s.

The two ills go hand in hand and the cure is the same for both, i.e. to burn less fossil carbon in the form of oil since this is the most vulnerable resource. The oil companies were certainly of the opinion that we had plenty of oil left and enough to last until the mid-00's. Now it seems clear that cheap oil will run-out long before then, albeit hydrocarbons will still be produced in quantity by various means in 2050, but at increasing cost and in a supply less than we need to maintain current western lifestyles. In the latter regard of an "oil crisis", Schumacher may be proved right after all. While the event was postponed by a few decades, the economic logic still applies.

Related Reading.

"Small is Beautiful," E.F.Schumacher, Vintage Books, London, 1993.