Tuesday, March 25, 2008

German "Combined Power".

A group of German scientists based at the University of Kassel has carried out a pilot-study which suggests that nuclear and fossil-fuel based energy can be phased-out and substituted by renewables, without interrupting the output from the national grid. As they point-out, renewable energy has certain limitations: e.g. cloudy or windless days are no good for solar or wind-energy. However, their innovative "combined power plant" draws its energy from 36 different kinds of plant, including solar, wind, biogas and hydroelectric designs, in an effort to prove that such a mix of renewable energy can yield a consistent and reliable output of power, under a range of prevailing weather conditions and according to non-constant demand for electricity as is the reality.

This has indeed been achieved on a relatively small scale so far, enough to power 12,000 homes, or enough for a small town/village. The village of Caversham, where I live, has a population of around 9,000 inhabitants (maybe 4,000 homes), if you include the effectively accommodative developments, i.e. with no shops or other amenities, and hence are pretty much dependent on car ownership. One significant aspect of the German design is that excess energy is used to pump water uphill into a large reservoir, which can be used during times of peak demand to drive hydroelectric turbines as an additional source of energy. The ability to thus store energy is a vital component of the overall scheme to provide a constant supply.

If this approach can be scaled-up, it is calculated that a total of 448 TWh/year might be produced in Germany, which breaks down to: 37.5% from 10,000 onshore wind turbines, 26.8% from 5,000 offshore wind turbines, 13.4% from photovoltaics (covering 20% of roof surfaces)and 22.3% from biogas, involving 17% of agricultural land. It is suggested that 40% of Germany's electricity needs could be thus met by renewables by 2020 and 100% by 2050. I append a link to the full technical report below.

A very interesting approach. Of course there is around another 40% of total energy to be found for space-heating etc. and another 40% for transportation in the form of oil, assuming that the German break-down of energy use is similar to that in the UK. However, a relocalisation of German society, as will be the case across the entire world as oil supplies begin to fail our demand for them, substantially eliminates the latter component and Germany has substantial reserves of coal, which can underpin heating etc., even if its use can be avoided in electricity generation. The scheme will doubtless require a massive investment of money, energy and other resources to expand it to the future levels of electricity provision that are proposed, but such an integrated mix of supply sources may well be the best way forward, even at a local level.

Ultimately, in order to survive, all societies will have to be sustainable in terms of energy, food and all else they consume.

Related Reading.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Britain goes for Sea-Power.

We British live on an island - or strictly a set of closely spaced islands - which colours our judgement about many things, for good and for bad. Nonetheless, in regard to using the surrounding seas to generate electricity, if this can be done, we could not be better placed in the world. The term "sea-power" covers various technologies, but can be roughly sub-categorised into tidal-stream turbines and surface-wave "rockers". Undersea rockers have been devised too but none of this technology has as yet been implemented on a serious scale. There are related hydro-schemes too: for example, it has been proposed that a barrage (dam) could be placed in the Severn Tidal Estuary - and in the Bristol Channel - (between England and Wales) whose geography constrains relatively large displacements in sea-levels from high to low tide and hence considerable amounts of energy could be extracted there, allowing that various kinds of water-borne traffic need to pass through the estuary too.

Such ideas have been around for some years now, but it looks that the U.K. is poised to begin the extraction of this potentially large source of power. A novel device described as looking like an "upside-down windmill", left from Belfast yesterday, and is expected to launch a revolution in sea-power, ultimately providing for one fifth of Britain's electricity demand. The device is due to be installed near the mouth of Strangford Laugh, in Northern Ireland, and appears to usher-in an alternative but truly renewable technology to the nuclear "new build" for which Gordon Brown and his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, have agreed the joint construction of a new generation of nuclear-reactors for "home-use" and as saleable technology for the rest of the world. We may well witness both kinds of energy production as part of the energy-mix that is expected to provide energy in the U.K. by 2050.

The new tidal device is named SeaGen and has a capacity of 1.2 MW, and though four times as powerful as its prototype, SeaFlow, is still small in its output, compared to a typical coal, gas or nuclear power station which is closer to 1,000 MW (1 GW), but it does represent the first commercial scale power system ever that is "fuelled" by the renewable forces of the sea-currents. Hydropower schemes use dams and are always criticised for their likely detrimental impact on local ecology, because they impede the natural flow of water, its fauna and its nutrients and associated flora. The proposed scheme in Northern Ireland has a radically different design from barrages and hence avoids these problems. In effect, SeaGen simply sits in the water and uses the ocean currents to turn its turbines, in contrast to a dam/barrage, which is a massive and permanent structure that takes years to build and is there for good. The SeaGen device will be installed at the mouth of the Strangford Lough, in the "narrows" with a width of just 500 metres, where the currents move at above 7 knots (nautical miles per hour), but it will be closely monitored to see whether the spinning turbine blades cause any injury to swimming mammals such as seals. However, it is thought that such creatures are too quick to suffer harm in this way.

A feasibility study of the Severn Barrage has been instigated by Mr Brown, which is expected to last until the year 2010, and if the full construction is made the project will cost £14 billion (costs always escalate on building projects, and so it might be considerably more expensive that that, especially as the full project is thought impossible to complete before 2020). It is said that the Severn Barrage could provide 5% of Britain's electricity.

In contrast it is thought that SeaGen could be constructed relatively easily and the turbines installed in the most suitable locations in a far more flexible way and at much smaller capital cost. Exploiting ocean currents is reckoned to hold the potential of supplying 5% of the nation's electricity (coincidentally the same as the Severn Barrage). The rest of that hoped-for "fifth" (20%) would presumably come from other kinds of sea-power, e.g. wave-power "rockers" etc.

A wave-energy power station off Cornwall is expected to begin feeding its output into the national grid, and the Severn Barrage has already begun a two-year feasibility study. It is thought hat around the coast of Scotland, with its strong currents (and rough seas, it must be said, especially the North Sea, among the roughest in the world and mechanically fretting to whatever is built there) could provide a number of energy-rich locations from which to extract sea-power based electricity. Britain has around half of Europe's tidal-stream potential and about 10 - 15% of that identified in the world as a whole, making it uniquely placed.

The capacity factor of a hydro-turbine is thought to be around 40%, and so each SeaGen would produce 1.2 MW x 0.4 = 0.5 MW. The average amount of electricity drawn in the UK amounts to about 40 GW, or 40,000 MW. Hence if the technology is to produce 5% of that, we need 0.05 x 40,000/0.5 = 4,000 of them. I wonder how quickly this amount of engineering can be fabricated and installed? Let's say, 1 a week; that's about 50 a year, and so it would take 80 years to put the lot in place. To make a serious impact we will need them (and that's just to produce 5% of our electricity, 95% coming from other sources) in say 25 years and so they need to be installed at a rate of 160 a year or 3 a week. It could be done, I'm sure, but what about the rest of it? If nuclear can be maintained to provide around 20%, we then have 25% and if they do build the Severn Barrage (another 5%), we have 30% from nuclear plus "water"-power and the rest from coal and gas. If other ways to extract the grand total of 20% of our electricity from sea-power is managed, on that same time-scale, we have matched about 45% of our present demand for electricity. My point is that it is going to take a long time before we are weaned-off fossil fuels and nuclear power, and even then, if all the engineering can be done (this is big-scale stuff) we might still only have 25% of the amount of electricity we enjoy currently (from combined sea-power plus the Barrage).

I try to remain optimistic about the survival of humans, but to my sight of the horizon, there still beckons a collection of localised societies that not only cannot travel very much, in consequence of depleting and hugely expensive oil supplies, but which have to get by with maybe a quarter of current electricity supply. It is also worth noting that electricity is not the same as energy, but about one fifth of the total. If 40% of our total energy is used in the form of transportation fuel and about 20% as electricity (both of which will be curbed significantly within this putative 25 years), that still leaves another 40% for heating buildings etc. to be found. There are many conclusions that can be drawn even from such approximate numbers as these.

Related Reading.
[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severn_Barrage
[2] "The rise of British sea power." http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/green-living/

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Shell Feels Rising Costs of Oil-Sand Exploitation.

Extracting bitumen from materials variously called tar-sands or oil-sands, is highly demanding in terms of energy costs, specifically natural gas and also in the amount of water that the process uses. In Shell's annual report published on Monday, it is noted that the operating costs of the Athabasca Oil Sands project in Alberta, Canada have risen by around 50% since 2005, and yet the actual production of bitumen has no more than levelled-off and may have fallen to some extent.

The profits fell sharply last year as a result of a fire which caused a temporary decline in the output of a degrader - an apparatus that turns the crude bitumen into synthetic crude oil. This led to a decrease in earnings from the project from $651 million to $582 million, and overall production was down from 95,000 barrels a day in 2005 to 81,000 barrels in 2007. The operational costs of the project have risen from $664 million in 2005 to $967 million in 2007.

Oil-sands represent 10% of Shells' total holding of 11.9 billion barrels. Shell is keeping quiet about the development costs of the oil-sands, which also include an enlargement of the operation to produce another 100,000 barrels a day from them. Shell's finance director, Peter Voser, has commented that there was an overall internal inflation of around 10% per year, imparting an operational cost of $20 - $25 a barrel of synthetic crude oil.

Shell has stated that it has managed to replace entirely its oil and gas production from 2007 with new reserves, which remain at 11.9 billion barrels according to its Chief Executive, Jeroem van der Veer. The company added 1.5 billion barrels to its holdings last year, which amounts to a reserve replacement of 124%, and is higher than the average for five other major oil players, which is 108%. A considerable amount of that increase is from gas-reserves, particularly in Qatar, a nation with huge reserves of natural gas, and which Britain aims to provide 20% of its gas-requirement from, in liquid form and transported to the giant gas-depot at Milford Haven in South West Wales.

Other sources are from the Australian North West Shelf and the Norwegian Ormen Lange field in the North Sea.

Related Reading.
"Shell counts rising cost of squeezing oil from sand in Canada," By Carl Mortishead, Timesonline. http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/natural_resources/article3572646.ece

Monday, March 17, 2008

Digging Diesel.

It has been said that there is more carbon in the form of coal under the state of Illinois than exists under Saudi Arabia in the form of oil. Given the massive hike in oil prices, which over the past week have oscillated slightly but did reach a maximum of $111 a barrel, economically it might appear an opportune time to convert some of this coal into diesel. The technology certainly exists, and indeed it was via such means that Germany manged to fabricate its own fuel for the military actions during WWII. It was thought initially by the Allies that their efforts in a fuel blockade would effectively starve its opposing nation into surrender, but German ingenuity prevailed, and mostly through the Bergius Process, and later the Fischer-Tropsch Process, abundant supplies of coal were converted into fuel to keep that sphere of history going.

Rudoph Diesel, of the same name as the engine he invented, had thought that coal-dust could be used as a fuel for the latter, but decided against this after a number of his engines thereby exploded - he thence decided to use oil from plants e.g. sunflower oil as a fuel. It is interesting that Henry Ford, the inventor of the Model T Ford, the first car to be produced on a production-line, believed that petroleum was in limited supply and developed his first cars to run on ethanol as a fuel. It is quite salutary that we are now considering similar alternatives to oil (biofuels), as the latter falls into declining provision. Ford was right that there is only so much oil in recoverable form, but only after a trillion or so barrels were discovered especially under the lands of Russia and the Middle East. Now this bounty will appear as a mere spike on the record of history, but for our own experience the consequences of its depletion will hit hard.

I have just read a novel by James Howard Kunstler, entitled "World Made By Hand." It is very well written and alarming in a disarming, down-played kind of way. He describes, through the medium of the novel form, a subsequent region of Albany, New York State, which has been reduced to practically medieval times as a result of oil being a rare commodity. There are gangs - one driven by religion and the other by brute force - who act in control of much that still exists there, although the "New Faith" group are tougher than the biker/gangsters, as the latter find to their detriment. What is instilled through the reading is a subtle sense of slowness, that literally the way of life is restored to pre-oil fashion, and emphasis is placed necessarily on food, salvage and repair, as will become the truth in the absence of alternative sources of energy.

I am "into" technology, don't get me wrong. I was a (Full) Professor in Physical Chemistry until I decided to set-up my own consulting business five years ago, and hence I am quite aware of what is involved, but in truth until I began this (blog) project a couple of years back, having attended as an "expert" on the UK government's programme to solve the problem of providing "UK Energy to 2050", at the Geological Society and witnessed its conclusions unveiled at The Royal Society, I didn't quite realise the enormous amount of energy the world uses, and matching that by other means than fossil fuels will not be readily accomplished, if at all. My fear and suspicion is that we have left it a bit too late. If we had began alternatives to petroleum thirty-five years ago when OPEC launched the first artificial oil-crises, we might be somewhere close to achieving alternative and renewable energy provision, but we are a long way off as things stand.

Kunstler has written a number of books including "The Long Emergency" which relates specifically to conditions in the US, where life depends almost inextricably on cheap oil, given the necessary large distances that need to be traversed in daily life around urbanized America. I remember during one of my lecture tours of the US, having to cross an eight-lane highway to get to the only shop in the area to buy a carton of milk. Being car-less in America is not easy! In Europe our likely problems are similar, but our nations are smaller and a relocalisation of society will be more easily accomplished, although it will not be a voluntary event.

So, back to the coal. As noted, the technology exists in proven form. Not only the Germans during WWII but also the Sasol company in South Africa, a nation that was also starved of oil, for various political reasons of sanction, have turned coal into fuel - the latter still do, and a friend of mine in SA tells me that it is thought there is 30 years worth of coal left there to do so. There are two essential methods for coal-to-liquids (CTL) technology, the direct, i.e. the Bergius Process which involves the hydrogenation of coal powder as dispersed in a high boiling fluid under pressure and the indirect, Fischer-Tropsch method which involves the conversion of solid coal into a gaseous mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide which is then reacted over a cobalt catalyst (iron works too) to form a mixture of hydrocarbons. High molecular weight "waxes" are a predominant component of the FT process, but these can be "cracked" into smaller molecules that find better use as a fuel for conventional transportation.

If this is going to take-off, in Illinois and elsewhere, including Yorkshire and the South-Wales of my boyhood, UK, where there are still some considerable reserves of coal, a huge capital investment will be required, and as with all putative "oil-dearth-era" technologies, construction needs to be started as soon as possible. Even the CEO of Shell reckons that world supplies of oil will not be able to keep up with demand for it by 2015, and I would guess that it will take considerably longer than that to match the oil-decline that will thence occur. There are necessarily issues of CO2 emissions, i.e. if the overall production of carbon is considered from well-to-wheel, the CTL strategy is heavier in CO2 emissions than conventional production from oil-wells, by about 50%. However, I think that CO2 emissions, while thought influential to climate change etc., are the least of our worries. As we begin to run-out of fossil fuels we will put less CO2 into the atmosphere per se, and it is really the challenge of energy provision that is the most confrontational issue for humankind to address and solve, if it can.

Related Reading.
"Mining for Diesel Fuel; The Search for New Oil Sources Leads to Processed Coal."By Matthew T. Wald. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/05/business/05coalfuel.html

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Old Soldier: Dedicated to Harry Patch, WWI Veteran, aged 109.

Old Soldier.

The old man could not

demonstrate the odd mechanisms

that drove his mind asunder.

His lips kept quiessitude among

the trenches of muddy secrets -

of the war and other great wars,

both then and now.

His hands, scarred as his memories,

of personal love and crucifixion;

among all ephemeral experiences.

Words, lacking volume in the

throat of an ageing voice,

collecting from bloody salad days,

vexacious in manner and thought,

and the sudden appeal of devout

truth, finds a frail resurrection,

admitting passion and appal,

in the face of the Almighty,

who's power did not intercede

as expected,

and that unlike those friends

whose dying hands he held...

for God knows what reason

he had alone survived beyond

one hundred,

and for this awkward fact had

never forgiven nor forgotten

any of it.

Christopher James Rhodes.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Save Peat to Curb CO2 Emissions.

The overall level of CO2 in the atmosphere depends both on its sources and its sinks, and of the latter category, peat is a major player. When peat is in a healthy condition it acts as a sink (store) for carbon, but when it begins to be degraded the carbon is released in the form of CO2 and methane and overall it ends up as a burden on the level of CO2 in the atmosphere (methane is oxidised in the troposphere to CO2). The UK contains around 15% of the world's peat, a material which holds twice the amount of carbon that forests do. However, particularly in the English part of the UK, the quality of peat has been detrimentally affected by drainage, and as a consequence has begun to dry-out in the peat-bogs that contain it.

A combination of overgrazing, burning and pollution from industry has been accused for this phenomenon, and the higher temperatures that have prevailed during the past decade are thought to have compounded the situation. It is estimated that the amount of carbon stored in peat-bogs in the UK is equivalent to 20 years of emissions from industry here, and that the impact of industrialisation over two centuries or so has damaged their natural state.

The National Trust has urged that landowners be rewarded for maintaining the health of their peatlands, since its experts believe that degradation of peat bogs is acting as an additional source of atmospheric carbon, although exactly how much is not clear. The situation is reminiscent of the impact of rainforest destruction, in that not only is a carbon sink being attenuated, but previously stored carbon is being released, both exacerbating the effects of fossil-fuel derived emissions of CO2: a real double-whammy.

There is evidence that the bogs in Scotland are still acting as net sinks for atmospheric CO2 while in England they are net sources of CO2 as a result of "poisoning" by centuries of sulphur and heavy-metal pollution. In the Peak District, specifically the High Peak estate (owned by the National Trust) , 1,350 hectares (3,500 acres) of bog were measured to release 37,000 tonnes of CO2 per year, which is equivalent to the output from 18,000 cars.

The National Trust advises landowners to raise water-levels in the bogs by blocking gullies and improving their general health by reducing grazing on them, preventing fires and controlling local tourism. It proposes that landowners should be entitled to earn carbon-credits for protecting the bogs such that emissions from them are reduced. There are many arguments that can be voiced both for and against carbon-credits, but if other "manufacturers" are due them, then why not producers of the bounty from the land? Such "credits" could then be marketed e.g. via the EU "European Emissions Trading Scheme".

Apparently, Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) is well aware of the problem, and large areas of peat-bogs are now being managed so as to maintain their "sink" role and capacity through agri-environment schemes, along with a reconsideration of other kinds of environmental stewardship to "combat the negative effects of climate change", i.e. to cut atmospheric CO2 levels. It is believed that it is not too late to preserve peatlands if "good practice" is carried out, otherwise there is a real danger of losing the greatest carbon-sink for the UK.

Whatever happens regarding emissions of CO2 from fossil fuels, which will be curbed inevitably as the latter begin to dwindle in supply irrespective of government efforts to cut these emissions through policy, it is of course important to retain the intrinsic carbon capture capacity of the planet otherwise the net benefit is doubtful. I suspect that the health of the world's "wildernesses" will return in the absence of human interference through pollution, emissions and other territorial impacts, but by then I wonder how many of us there will be left?

Related Reading.
"Preserve peat bogs for climate", By Richard Black. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6502239.stm

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Oil from Shale: "Nuclear Oil".

Almost no one is in much doubt that conventional oil reserves are finite and the time must come when we can no longer rely on them as a source of world hydrocarbons. I note that oil has hit almost $110 a barrel, up from $106 just a few days ago and more than five times its price five years ago. In the face of rising costs, an inevitable depletion in supply and a dependence on regions of the world the West would prefer not to be too dependent on, oil shale is being touted as a blanket solution to these problems. There are many predictions that even if existing markets are maintained, demand for oil will exceed its supply within 5 - 10 years, which really is just tomorrow in the sense of implementing alternative technologies that are not already underway.

Oil sands are underway, notably at Athabasca in Canada, and there are various estimates of how much "oil" can be extracted from them, but it will not be more than a few percent of the 30 billion barrel annual bill for oil worldwide, and rising inexorably. Oil shale is a far less well developed technology, even though it is said that there is a greater reserve of oil held within these rocks than lies under the sands of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East all-told. Oil sands are demanding in terms of the other resources, i.e. gas and water, that are needed to produce oil from them. "Tar-sands" is a more descriptive term since they contain not oil but bitumen, which must be recovered from a large excess of earth and rock "sands", which yield around a final barrel or two at most of oil per tonne. From an environmental perspective, not only is pressure placed on an ultimately limited recovery of these other resources but the procedure is dirty and leaves a considerable stain on the local regions. To get around the problem of using natural gas to heat water with which to drive bitumen from the material, it has been proposed to build two nuclear reactors at Athabasca, as an alternative heat source, which has pleased the environmentalists even less. I wrote about this in the posting "Nuclear Powered Oil Sands".

I accept that we can't have it both ways, i.e. to consume energy at our present rate and not place pressure on the environment. Our most pressing needs are to produce electricity and also liquid fuels for transportation, both of which place their own burden on the Earth. In my opinion, it is the latter that is most urgent since although electricity can be made from various sources, fossil fuel, nuclear, hydro and in principle other renewables too, if we can get the appropriate infrastructure working within a pressingly short timescale, keeping transportation running, at least in the short term, does need liquid fuels. The hydrogen is a long way off, even if all the problems attended to it can be solved - an M.I.T. study reckoned optimistically that even with assiduous research and development there will not be hydrogen cars before 2020 - and by then we will nave plunged into the Oil Dearth Era, as I have called it, in which transportation and hence many familiar and globalist aspects of our way of living have been severely curtailed. [Electric transport, tram systems and stand-alone electric/PHEV vehicles would take massive efforts and much time to implement, too]. Coincidentally, Biomass-to-Liquids (BTL) technology is not expected to be operating commercially before 2020 either, and then only on a relatively small scale in comparison with the quantity of petroleum-based fuels that will be needed to maintain transport momentum.

So, are oil-shales the answer? As with the tar/oil sands, shale does not contain oil but is a rock known as marl which contains primordial organic material, such as kerogen. When this is heated to around 450 degrees C in a process called "retorting" (because the material is heated in vessels called retorts), the result is a hydrocarbon material which can be refined in similar fashion to crude oil to generate transportation fuel. So, that's the good news. Indeed, a pilot-plant in Queensland Australia thus produced 700,000 barrels of oil during the period 2001 - 2003, so it does work.

Overall, however, the process is highly polluting because the "oil" is very dirty, laden with sulphur compounds and so on, with impacts on the air and groundwater. I note that the heavier conventional crude oil is also far less sweet to deal with than the light crude, production of which peaked a couple of years ago, and so refining this conventional resource will be more demanding certainly in terms of energy than has hitherto been the case.

Since oil-shale requires a lot of heat to generate from it a usable liquid fuel, the EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) is considerably lower than it is to recover fuel from conventional oil. The yield of synthetic crude from shale is lower than it is from oil sands, at around one barrel for each two tonnes of rock that is processed. Each barrel of oil from shale also needs three barrels of water to produce it, i.e. about the same as from tar-sands, which adds up to a lot of water. Notably, much water in the US used for agriculture, certainly in the south and the west, is actually fossil-water, i.e. pumped up from underground aquifers and not replaced by rainwater. Hence this resource along with gas might be considered finite, depending on its precise origin and point of use. Shell is developing an alternative technology of "in situ retorting" where the shale is heated in the ground without being dug-out, for 3 - 4 years at 400 degrees C, which they claim can produce oil at a mere $30 a barrel and in the present face of oil prices this does look attractive, at least economically.

If oil-shale is to be exploited on a serious scale, it will demand considerable engineering and that will take time to install, so much so that many analysts feel that the technology will not arrive fast enough to close the imminent 5-10 year window during which conventional supplies of oil will fall against world demand for it. Taken at face value, the amount of "oil" that might be recovered from oil-shale, oil/tar-sands, tar sludge (which sounds charming), heavy crude and coal is enormous, perhaps enough for 100 years or more, according to some estimates. The heat source for in situ retorting is provided from electric heaters, so that electricity has to be made somewhere. An alternative is "nuclear oil" which I think would require actual mining of the rock and retorting it using the heat generated from nuclear reactors, probably of the pebble-bed type, and such installations could be built in proximity to shale deposits, tar sands or sludge to coax oil from them.

It is argued that "nuclear oil" is clean, following that argument we often hear that nuclear is non-polluting in terms of CO2 emissions, ignoring issues of nuclear waste and indeed the "cleanliness" of processing materials of this kind per se. There is also the issue of limited uranium supplies which we will get through more rapidly if we expand nuclear power for whatever purposes. It is a very difficult matter. No one wants to run out of oil, in Europe and certainly in the US where covering huge urbanized distances routinely (as James Howard Kunstler has written about in "The Long Emergency") depend utterly on supplies of cheap fuel. All of us in the global village depend, even if not for personal travel, on goods that have been brought over considerable distances, of course possible only if cheap oil is available in the quantity we are now used to. It has also been suggested that nuclear explosives could be used to break-up oil-shale underground to aid its exhumation for retorting.

That such measures are being seriously considered is a clear demonstration of desperation. Oil supplies are going to fail and sooner not later. Given the limited timescale, I simply don't see how we can implement "nuclear" or other kinds of unconventional oil in sufficient amount to take up the slack from conventional production - even if this is deemed desirable - on that 30 billion barrel annual equivalent scale. O.K. we won't need to replace all of that in one go, but the ramping-up of unconventional production as the former declines will be no trivial effort, and again I can only foresee a rapid decline in that 700 million vehicles on the road as there are now; ignoring the rising demand for fuel by aviation, which in the UK consumes almost one quarter of all fuel used here. Globalism will fade while "localism", involving a way of life based around small communities beckons from the near horizon.

Related Reading.
[1] http://pebblebedreactor.blogspot.com/2007/03/nuclear-oil-is-antidote-to-peak-oil.html
[2] http://www.econbrowser.com/archives/2005/09/oil_shale_retor.html

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Price of Oil.

Oil has now hit $106 a barrel, and I think that is the trend we can expect from now on. There is an article in the Guardian newspaper by Derek Brower which criticised Jeremy Leggett for saying that the underlying reason for rising fuel prices is that oil is about to peak, and implied that rather it is all a simple matter of economics - that rising prices will force more of the resource onto the markets, as economists often maintain. However, since Leggett is a trained geologist I think he knows what he's talking about. The cost and production of oil is a geological problem and there is no sense in comparing the current situation with e.g. the oil-crises in the 1970's which were a political matter, and did not reflect oil recovery per se; now it does. Since we will need all the energy we can get, I find no objection to promoting solar, as Leggett does in his role as CEO of the company SolarCentury, or indeed any other kind of sustainable energy, albeit that I think we may have left it rather too late, and it will take decades to install solar-power on any comparable scale to the amount of electricity the world gets through presently.

If peak oil were a mere figment of anyone's imagination - and that of pretty sensible people, including geologists and other scientists, and even some economists - I doubt we would be reading headlines such as "Climate change may spark conflict with Russia, EU told". The latter is in effect a warning that Russia and the European nations may come into conflict over recovering the oil and other mineral resources that are believed to lie under the Arctic, noting the synonym that "climate change" = "CO2 emissions" = "global warming", which is actually quite an assumption. If the recovery of oil could be enhanced merely according to its price, we wouldn't be looking for it in such inhospitable places as the Arctic in the first place. A report illustrates the bone of contention that it is the wealthy, northern nations that cause global warming (i.e. produce most of the CO2 that humans emit into the atmosphere) while its impact, e.g. flooding, will be most devastating in the poor, southern countries. A real north-south divide.

Looking at this country, i.e. the United Kingdom, I do wonder how the oil-dearth era will all pan-out. I note another disturbing headline, "Teachers are surrogate parents now". This is in reference to the breakdown of the nuclear family. I remember meeting a girl on a train a couple of years back, who had just graduated in sociology but was training as a social worker. Her reason for doing this was job-security, as she put it: "With the divorce rate the way it is, there'll never be any shortage of fucked-up kids." Sad but probably true. However, one consequence of peak oil, if we get through it all intact, will most likely be a relocalisation of society, a return to village-life if you will and a need for people to stick together.

Thus the family and indeed the community will become important once more. They always were important, it's just that in the "me, me, me" post-early 1980's era, this seems to have been forgotten. When I was at school thirty odd years ago there was just one child there from a broken home, now this circumstance is commonplace, and for all our freedoms, to abandon families and drink and borrow ourselves stupid, my impression is that we are not happier than we ever were. Even when I went to university in the late 1970's, there was a girl who was talked about that she "came from a broken home"; it was still sufficiently unusual to be worthy of mention, at least by kids from the home counties. Another result of family-breakdown is a welfare bill which has soared since then, and in all probability the government will be unable to pay it as global trade is hammered by rising transportation costs and indeed actual fuel shortages. Including pensions, 49% of the British population now receives "benefits" of some kind, which surely is not sustainable, certainly not if the national economy finds itself in lean times.

True, when I was a kid nobody had much money, but we didn't starve either. I doubt all families were "The Waltons" exactly but there was a sense of belonging, continuity and purpose in life.
With freedom comes responsibility, and when the former is taken to and beyond the limits of good sense, the latter becomes inescapable. While I don't relish the undoubtedly difficult scenario facing us as a human society during the next decades, we may ultimately be better off; but only if we can hold together and act in a sense of community. We will not be able to survive alone.

Related Reading.
[1] "Teachers are surrogate parents now." By Graeme Paton and James Kirkup. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2008/03/10/nfamily110.xml
[2] "Climate change may spark conflict with Russia, EU told." By Ian Traynor. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/mar/10/eu.climatechange?
[3] "Scraping the Barrel". By Derek Brower http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/derek_brower/2008/03/

Friday, March 07, 2008

Oil not a Fossil-Fuel?

Two recent sources of evidence suggest there may be a non-biological origin for petroleum. One concerns this planet, Earth and the other the Saturnian moon, Titan. One study from the University of Washington has shown that hydrocarbons enriched in the isotope C-13 bubble-up from the ocean floor in the hypothermal "Lost City" field along the mid-Atlantic ridge in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and 2,100 feet below the ocean surface. An excess of C-13 is believed to signify an abiotic origin, while a decrease in C-13 (compared to a mean natural isotopic abundance of around 1% for C-13, and 99% C-12) is associated with a biotic (biological) source. On Titan, there is evidence for the presence of more hydrocarbons than exist on Earth, where it is thought too cold for biological life to exist, and which thus cannot be invoked to explain their presence.

There are two theories for the origin of petroleum, the biotic and abiotic. The former is held mainly by geologists in the West and the latter is also known as the Russian/Ukrainan theory of Petroleum, which is where belief in it preponderates. The biotic theory holds that petroleum is the result of cooking animal and plant remains in near-surface regions of the Earth over millennia, while the abiotic theory is that petroleum is produced by the natural forces of geology, as a result of chemical processes within the Earth. One of the main proponents of the abiotic theory was the great Russian chemist, Mendeleev who devised the Periodic table of the Chemical Elements, and thought that petroleum was formed by the reaction of water with metal, principally iron, carbides deep within the Earth. Indeed, the renowned French chemist, Bertholet produced a hydrocarbon oil artificially by the action of acids on steel - which contains iron carbides.

In previous times, the matter would have been a mere scientific curiosity, but as conventional supplies of oil are believed to be about to peak and then run into short supply - the "Oil Dearth Era" - the prospect that more oil will be continually produced by the Earth itself, is very exciting and possibly reassuring. Perhaps Nature might snatch us from the jaws of a hungry energy crunch. However, it is the rate of recovery of oil that will decide this, and for example, if oil cannot be recovered at a rate equivalent to 30 billion barrels a year, as humanity uses presently, even if the abiotic theory is true, the facts of it will not be able to save us from the encroaching gap between supply and demand for oil. Future generations might be "blessed" as we were with a cornucopia of oil, but our own salvation and that of more immediate generations will depend on finding alternative ways to live which use far less oil.

Hydrocarbons may be classified as "energy minima", meaning they are stable molecules which might result from different kinds of processes - both biotic and abiotic. Thomas Gold thought that bacteria present at depths of down to ca 8 km could feed on hydrocarbons emanating from greater depth. He also proposed that natural gas and indeed coal, were created continually within the earth by intrinsic geochemical processes. I have heard that the Russians are sufficiently confident about the abiotic theory that they are undertaking deep-drilling projects to access petroleum that is present at depths of more than 3 km, and it is said that they are thus able to recover substantial quantities of the material in this way. If an alternative source of petroleum can be recovered in this way, and rapidly enough, both the event of peak oil might be staved-off, and considerable power placed in the hands of whoever can access it.

Related Reading.
[1] "Discovery backs theory oil not 'fossil fuel'. http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=59991
[2] "Titan's Mysterious Methane Comes from Inside, Not the Surface." http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=18410
[3] "New tests could further undermine 'fossil fuels'. http://royaldutchshellplc.com/2008/02/04/
[4] "Results show fossil fuels are generated in ocean floor." http://appalachianforums.com/dcdb.pl?noframes;page=4;read=149000
[5] "New data: Maybe oil isn't from dead dinos." http://www.worldnetdaily.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=56480

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Long Gas-Chain.

The Russian state-owned energy firm Gazprom has cut its supplies of gas to Ukraine by a half. This has caused alarm in the European Union since much of its provision of gas from Russia is actually piped through Ukraine. The problem is an ongoing issue of $1.5 billion (£750 million) which Gazprom claim they are owed by Ukraine for gas supplies from last year. I don't understand this but it appears that Ukraine are adamant that they have paid-up and yet Gazprom believe they are still owed the sum.

What worries the EU is that the Ukranian state gas company, Naftogaz, has stated that it reserves its right to take appropriate action, and it might think it appropriate to disrupt supplies of gas into Europe, particularly if Gazprom accedes to its threat to cut supplies of gas to Ukraine by a further 25% (leaving them with just one quarter of normal supply). However, in consequence of current warm weather and enough reserves of gas, Naftogaz issued a statement that there is no intention to cut European gas supplies as yet.

A spokeman from Gazprom has reassured Europe that supplies of gas will continue as normal: "Export deliveries via Ukranian territory are carried out in full volume," said Sergei Kupriyanov. A spokeman from the UK's National Grid has confirmed that the UK does not rely on pipelines through Ukraine to provide its gas-supplies, since we do not get any of our gas directly from Russia. That's interesting to know. The spider's web of gas-pipelines is accessible via the link below, showing how gas comes from Russia via Ukraine into eastern Europe and then on into Germany and other EU countries. This is potentially a tremendously powerful hand to play.

Relations between Russia and Ukraine appear difficult and there was a previous cut of gas-supplies from the former to the latter in 2006, which did affect exports into Europe and strained relations between Moscow and Brussels. The relationship between Britain and Russia also appears a little fraught, partly over the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, who had written a number of defamatory articles regarding the Russian leadership, and in November 1998, he publically accused his superiors of ordering the killing of the Russian billionaire, Boris Berezovsky.

In a bizarre case, Litvinenko was poisoned in London with the radioisotope polonium-210. Britain issued an extradition request for its prime suspect, the businessman Andrei Lugovoi, in Moscow, but Russia refused to hand him over. Britain then expelled four Russian diplomats from London, leading Moscow to expel British diplomats and promise to review future visa requests for British officials. There is also an issue over an art exhibition due in the UK next month, but Russia has now decided not to bring it over to the Royal Academy of Arts, also in London.

On the positive side, there is apparently an early warning system whereby Europe is told beforehand when a fall in supply from Russia is expected. My feeling is that political muscles are being flexed, demonstrating the incontrovertible truth that whoever controls the gas or oil controls the world.

Related Reading.
[1] "Art row sours UK - Russian relations": http://edition.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/europe/12/19/uk.museum/
[2] "Russia deepens Ukraine gas cuts". http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/7276589.stm

Monday, March 03, 2008

Nanonickel - Hope for Hydrogen?

In the face of a recent prediction that the price of oil could reach $300 a barrel, in essence because the sweet light crude peaked its production a couple of years ago, and future production of declining supplies (of sour heavier oil) will be more complex, and hence more costly in terms of energy to produce, it is a mild balm to read that there may be an alternative technology coming "soon". The latter is a reference to "nanonickel"which it is proposed may replace platinum in electrolysers used to make hydrogen to underpin the putative hydrogen economy.

In the latter context, there are two sources of demand for platinum: (1) said electrolysers and (2) the fuel cells which will finally turn the hydrogen back into electrons to run what is really an electric car, but powered by chemically produced electricity. The company behind this is called QuantumSphere, who believe that nanonickel may have applications for both electrolytic hydrogen generation and fuel cells. I am initially encouraged by this idea. Creating the putative hydrogen economy from scratch is daunting to say the least. For a start, to avoid carbon emissions incurred by steam reforming natural gas (or worse, coal) into hydrogen (+CO), it is necessary to produce the gas by electrolysis of water using "green" electricity. This remains as a problem, and there seems to be some controversy over whether nuclear is "green" - i.e. renewable and non-polluting, or not.

Proponents of the nuclear industry claim that far less CO2 is emitted from nuclear power than is the case if electricity is generated using fossil fuels. Estimates of exactly how much CO2 is saved by using nuclear vary tremendously, but all estimates agree there is a significant saving in some degree. There is of course the thorny issue of what to do with the nuclear waste, and overall I doubt the validity of the sum, nuclear = green. Nonetheless as long as it can be maintained, there seems little doubt that nuclear power is here to stay. In the latter aspect, it is debatable how much uranium may be recovered: it is said there is enough for about 40 years from known holdings, although I am sure if poorer ores are mined more can be got, albeit that other fossil-fuel resources will need to be used up (in all likelihood, unless some of the nuclear electricity can be re-diverted for the purpose) to power the extraction processes and the ultimate fabrication of the nuclear fuel rods. As I say, how to provide the necessarily very large increase in electricity to produce hydrogen as a replacement of around 20 billion barrels of oil annually used for fuel (from 30 billion produced altogether) worldwide remains an unsolved problem, especially without surging through fossil fuel resources and ballooning the world's carbon footprint in terms of CO2.

Leaving that aside for a moment, my worry over using platinum to fabricate the fuel cells themselves is that it is a very rare metal, and processing one tonne of platinum ore yields about 3 grammes of pure Pt. There are only three mines in the world that produce it, two in SA and one in Russia, and consequently not more than 200 tonnes of "new" Pt is produced each year. The upshot is that even in 30 years less than 10% of the 700 million vehicles on the world's roads could in principle be accordingly provided with PEM fuel cells. I thought the whole idea was therefore dead in the water unless some other kind of fuel cell came along. Well, maybe there is such a beast on its way.

QuantumSphere (which sounds like the title of a Michael Crichton novel) have apparently inaugurated a production line to make nickel-cobalt alloy in the form of nanoparticles. Now, neither of these metals is in immediately short supply to the best of my knowledge (about 5 million tonnes of Ni are produced annually compared to 200 tonnes of Pt), and so this is beginning to look good. The company's president, Kevin Maloney said, "At the nanoscale, scientists have really created a new periodic table, if you will. These materials are much more energetic; you just don't get that performance at the micro scale." The essential difference is that when using particles of perhaps 10 nm (nanometers; hence "nano") in contrast to the micron ( = 1000 nm) scale, far more of the atoms that make up the particle are accessible to perform chemical reactions, in consequence of the vastly increased overall surface area and exposure of the atoms at the surface.

The proposed strategy is to coat electrodes with the nanodimensional Ni-Co alloy for use in efficient water-electrolysers (efficiencies of 85% are quoted, better than Pt), and to also use this or other nano-metallic materials to replace Pt in the final fuel cells. A very nice idea too, is to obviate large electrolytic installations, even on the level of "gas-stations" by in situ hydrogen production, actually in the vehicle itself from a tank of distilled water on-board (albeit the gas would need to be stored in some way?). The technology began with the development of a battery which has a cathode coated with metal nanoparticles, with 5 times the energy density of alkaline cells, and a power-boost of 320%. The company also claims to be able to make improved nickel-metal-hydride batteries so that they have a better performance than the more popular lithium-ion batteries.

Now this could have applications for PHEV's couldn't it? There is a contentious issue, which seems to have been kicked-off by Ulf Bossel, to the effect that electrons can be used about three times more efficiently by simply storing them in batteries, rather than going through the rigmarole of turning them into hydrogen and then back into electrons. I read about a hybrid car that can do 100 miles per gallon and surely this technology might be useful in vehicles of this kind too which need to carry a relatively large battery-pack.

It's exciting and I wish someone had been thinking this way 30 years ago, as we might by now have a completely different transportation system that depends far less on oil. Retrospect is easy, however, and the nano-world was largely unknown then, at least in its present context. Peak oil is due within 5 years or so, by when we will either need a technological replacement for conventional oil coming in at quite a rate of knots, or accept that society must be reformed to demand dramatically less travel and carriage of goods, necessarily relocalising into small communities that move themselves and their requirements around far less. How long will it take to get all this nano-technology ready on a commercial scale and to manufacture it on a massive scale? For example, capacity currently exists to produce a few tons of nanonickel a year and yet tens of thousands of tonnes would be needed for this to be a serious proposition; hence the scale of production must be expanded in similar proportion if nanonickel alloys are to be the answer. It took probably 50 years to build the majority of the oil-fuelled status quo, and even that would be just too long to install a new salvation technology.

Related Reading.
[1] "Oil could reach $300, says expert", By Claire Ferris-Lay. http://www.arabianbusiness.com/512436-oil-could-reach-us300-claims-expert
[2] "Nanoparticles could make hydrogen cheaper than gasoline". By R. Colin Johnson. http://peaknik.blogspot.com/2008/03/nanoparticles-could-make-hydrogen.html
[3] "A Nickel Catalyst for Fuel Cells." By Virgina Hefferman. http://www.qsinano.com/news_nickel_magazine_102005.html
[4] "Nanonickel to Replace Platinum as a Catalyst in Fuel Cells and in Other Applications." http://www.azonano.com/news.asp?newsID=815