Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Economist Debate - Some More Comments.

Here are a few of the latest remarks on the above, which might be of interest:

Federal Farmer wrote:
August 28, 2008 08:52

Econoguy and Chris Rhodes I think have found common ground. Just looking around, I find numerous reasons for optimism about the ability of people to find creative ways to economize on transportation and home energy usages. What has been proven before, such as in the seventies, is that demand for petrol is not so inelastic as people once thought. Add to this some recent developments in how people are choosing to live and there is much to be hopeful about.

The history of the planning of cities offers tremendous lessons for all of us and I cannot recommend more highly the work of Jane Jacobs, especially her early book on city planning entitled, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The radical reform of American cities in the early twentieth century brought about the unfortunate segregation of housing and employment through a misguided perception of what constituted a more natural environment. Rather than allowing for people to select their own living arrangements, zoning became the rage of urban government planners. High transportation subsidies for interstates added to this condition. This is not to say that some of this would not have occurred anyway, but it was certainly accentuated to a very high degree by local and national authorities. To the extent that there is lock-in or path dependence in the way we do things, you can usually find a political root to it somewhere.

To address this situation today might not be so daunting if we consider that private development is once more finding ways to reintegrate residential and work environments. Combine this with pricing out of our roadways in a fashion such as Harold Demsetz and Sir Alan Walters put forward, requiring users to bear the costs of their usage, and you can do much that is both constructive of human community AND self-reliance, encouraging both personal freedom, AND responsibility. That would be a constructive use of government as opposed to a command and control approach that would run up against human nature itself.

willstewart wrote:

August 28, 2008 06:26

I am trying hard to support Romm, who seems fundamentally right, but he does not make it easy by overstating his case. For example

'The future in vehicles is good old fuel efficiency, hybrids, and batteries--all of which is quite old technology.' - no it's not - whereas Hydrogen fuel, the comparison, pretty much is. Batteries have improved considerably over time and the controls and so has the system integration needed to make a hybrid (or a modern diesel) work well. Breakthroughs are not seen easily without looking at the detail!

Having said that improvements in car/auto efficiency are big, too (also needing breakthroughs in materials and design) but the really effective move is just a smaller car. It is almost funny to watch the increasingly desperate efforts of manufacturers in the UK to sell huge SUVs - one is advertising 'the most efficient 4*4 7-seater in its class' - well yes, quite.

chrisrhodes wrote:

August 28, 2008 03:00

There is indeed some confusion over the concept of Peak Oil. What is meant is the peak in production of cheap conventional light crude oil and that does seem to be with us if not already, within a few years. It does not auger-in the running-out of oil, per se. We will be producing hydrocarbons for decades, but it is going to cost far more than we are used to. Transportation is the vulnerable aspect of energy provision, and providing enough biofuels, hydrogen (even if the chain of technical problems attendant to the hydrogen economy can be solved) and even electric cars, if sufficient battery technology could be installed, on a basis comparable to the world's 600 million or so road vehicles, is a staggering endeavour. All "solutions" fail when the question of "scale" is examined closely, and the timescale at which realistically "new" technologies might be implemented is daunting, compared to the short window of plentiful (relatively cheap) oil we have access to. The CEO of Shell has said that he expects a gap in demand and supply for oil to come "by 2015", which gives us only 6 -7 years at best for conventional oil. Hence my contention that personalised transport will be diminished, leading to a complete relocalisation of our activities into fashions that simply need less extensive transport. I think this is the key issue to be absorbed and anticipated. There could even be benefits, such as a restoration of communities, if civilization doesn't descent into anarchy first. This is where the "planning" (meant in a soft sense) comes in, to make that transitional journey to a lower-transport economy smoother than simple market forces would dictate. The seeds will be sown by simple economics, fuel costs etc., but real means to find stable localised economies are necessary. There may be great personal and social opportunities to be had, but we need to look for them rather than doing nothing, and hoping all will be well through some supernatural miracle.

econoguy wrote:

August 28, 2008 00:42

Maybe my confusion on which way to vote comes from the word need. I need a Porsche or Lamborghini. And a modest yacht, maybe about 36 to 40 feet. Sail, of course. We need solutions. Saying we need something dodges the issue of what we are willing to give up to get it. Yes, I am an economist of the Chicago tradition.

I suspect we can solve our energy problems with less government involvement, less intervention in markets, rather than more distorting subsidies. The signals out there are strong and clear. Look at the number of 'For Sale' signs on SUV's and pick-up trucks. And the rising sales of alternative fuel vehicles. There has been a lot of clamoring for subsidies for this and that in the realm of energy possibilities for a long time, at least since the OPEC price spikes of the 1970's. Some things certainly did change. Gas mileage went up moderatley but was that due to CAFE standards or changing demand? Housing insulation increased and building codes required more as well but which came first? People set thermostats a little lower. But bigger changes awaited the more drastic price increases of recent years. The price of petroleum went up rapidly to $100 and $140 per barrel from numbers only 1/10 of those only 8 years ago. The Peak Oil argument even helped by adding emphasis to the idea we are 'running out' of petroleum. Transportation consumers are examinining alternatives because the expense to them has risen. They are changing away from gas powered single occupant vehicles. Spending the money is where the signals are strong and clear. When the discussion concerns needs, clarity fades.

A closing comment on the Peak Oil discussion is that its greatest value lies in making more people aware of changes coming sooner or later. Much, even most, of that debate wastes our time, sounding very like Malthus and others who forecast doom for humanity. Maybe this time, the sky really is falling. I doubt it. Humanity innovates, we solve problems. If we don't we will not survive. I simply do not believe governments making choices for us and for markets is the best way to get wherever it is we will go. I trust the power of incentives to get us where we want to go far more than I trust governments to get us somewhere near there.

so_its_said wrote:

August 27, 2008 23:56

1) it is apparent that the term 'breakthrough innovations' means different things to different people.
2) there is no definitive 'proof' that innovations bring about solutions to problems that we need to address.
3) its doubtful that any innovation in solar energy; the conversion of electromagnetic radiation to electricity can approach the energy conversion efficiency of converting mass into energy; Einstein and co-workers demonstrated this more than 60-70 years ago. You would be contesting the very laws of nature (physics) if this (solar) were the case.
4) finally, again we need to CONSERVE ENERGY!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Metals Shortages.

(This was published in Chemistry and Industry, 25th August 2008, p21).

By Chris Rhodes.

We live on a planet with finite resources, and yet consume them with alacrity in the false assumption of limitless expansion. Demand for metals rises inexorably due in large part to roaring economic growth in China and India, at a level that production of them struggles to meet. In consequence, the price of copper and iron ore has doubled during the past two years. The price of rhenium, used for highly fuel-efficient aircraft engines, has jumped to a record $11,250 per kilogram, which is almost twelve-times its price in 2006. Indeed, it is now only half the price of gold, which is a major boon to the main countries that mine rhenium-ore: Chile and Kazakhstan. Reserves of indium, used for solar cells and LCD's along with those of hafnium, an essential component of computer-chips and also employed as a thermal-neutron absorber in nuclear control-rods, may literally run-out within 10 years.

Some salient points about potential metals shortages1 are apparent from the list of elements in Box 1, which gives the world total reserve of each, the expected time of exhaustion based on current rates of production and their principal uses. The figures therein are based on known reserves, noting that more might be found if they were explored for with sufficient assiduousness. However, emerging new technologies and a growing world population, mean that some key-metals are likely to be exhausted more quickly, as indicated in Box 2.

The reserve lifetime of a resource (also known as the R/P ratio) is defined as the known economically recoverable amount (R) divided by the current rate of use (P) of it, hence the values in Box 1 and Box 2. Economics predicts that as the lifetime of a reserve shortens so its price increases. Consequently, demand for that reserve decreases and other sources, once thought too expensive, enter the market. This tends to make the original reserve last longer, in addition to the volume of the new reserves. For example, there is enough bauxite reckoned to provide aluminium for 70 years, but the latter is an abundant element and there are many alternative known sources of it, thought to add-up to over 1000 years worth. In practice many other factors are involved, particularly geopolitical situations, but the basic geological fact remains: reserves are limited and hence their present patterns of consumption and growth are not sustainable over the longer term. While some elements are very plentiful compared to the total amount of them required, the rate at which they can be recovered sets a limit on how quickly a given reserve can be exploited. Recovering platinum to make fuel-cells is a good such example2.

The majority (88%) of the world's platinum is produced from just two mines in South Africa and most of the rest (8%) from one other mine in Russia. Since platinum is recovered at a rate of about 200 tonnes per year, even if all of it were used to make fuel-cells, this is only enough to equip 2 million fuel-cell powered cars, or just 5.7% of the world's current road-fleet of 700 million vehicles by 2028, by when conventional crude-oil production will be reduced to perhaps half its present level and the cost of a barrel of oil is anyone's guess. The previous sum assumes that humanity would be prepared to turn-over all its "new" platinum annually for making fuel cells, thus sacrificing the creation of any new jewelry or catalytic converters to clean emissions from existing oil-powered engines, each of which accounts for 40% of the current world platinum market. Hence the real number of fuel cells made would be far less. The process of separating pure platinum from its ore (at a yield of 3 grammes per tonne) is complex and exacting and it is unlikely that it can be recovered much faster than now.

Peak Oil - Peak Minerals.

According to the Hubbert theory3, all resources are finite and will ultimately be extracted only to the limit where it is feasible to do so, whereupon either financial costs or those of energy dictate that to proceed further only yields diminishing returns. The Hubbert theory was originally applied to oil, in which the production curve "peaks" at the point of maximum output (when half the original resource has been used), beyond which it falls remorselessly. Similar fits can also be made to gas and coal production data and a recent analysis was reported using the approach to a study4 of 57 different minerals by Ugo Burdi and Marco Pagini. These authors have fitted both logistic and Gaussian functions to mineral production data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and it is interesting that for mercury, lead, cadmium and selenium, there is good accord found between the "ultimate recoverable resources" URR determined from the curve-fitting to the data and those reported as remaining in the USGS tables (plus the amount of each already extracted). For tellurium, phosphorus, thallium, Zircon(ium) and rhenium, the agreement is quite close but tends to smaller values than are indicated from the figures for cumulative production plus the USGS reserves. For gallium, the figure obtained from the fitting analysis is significantly lower than the USGS estimate (by about a factor of seven).

Evidence of peaking is found for a number of minerals, e.g. mercury around 1962; lead in 1986; Zircon in 1990; selenium in 1994; gallium in 2000. The results for gallium are significant, both in that the peak occurred seven years ago and in the size of its total reserve, which when compared with the amount used worldwide by the electronics industry implies that we may run short of gallium any time soon. Tellurium and selenium are two other minerals that underpin the semiconductor industry and it appears that their fall in production may also impact negatively on future technologies that are entirely reliant upon them, since there are no obvious substitute materials with precisely equivalent properties.

For vanadium, although a production peak is indicated in 2005, the data in the "mineral commodities handbook" show a later and sudden surge in production, which is not fully explained but thought may potentially relate to uncertainties in reporting from countries like China. So, there may be a real and ongoing upsurge in production from e.g. the Chinese economy which is quoted as being "out of sync" with the rest of the world, such is its massive expansion, or it might be a red herring.

Interestingly, copper, zinc, tin, nickel and platinum show an almost exponential increase in production; however, as I have noted, the stocks of some metals may be insufficient to supply the technological demands of the modern developed world into the far (or even near) future. There is also the issue of how quickly a rare and difficultly extractable metal such as platinum might be produced in comparison with an overall demand for it. Copper production can be fitted with an exponential function up to 2006, while a logistic function provides about the same quality of fit, yet indicates a peak in about 2040. The latter agrees reasonably well with the USGS estimated copper reserves of 0.5 - 1.0 Gigatons, while the fit gives 2 Gigatons. Notably, the world price of copper has skyrocketed during the past few years, which is again attributed to demand in China, as was the cost and shortage of wood earlier in the year.

The above analyses rest upon the case that the determined "peaks" represent actual global production maxima. Indeed, more reserves of all minerals may yet be found if we look assiduously enough for them; but herein lies the issue of underpinning costs, both in terms of finance and energy. It is the latter that may determine the real peaking and decline of minerals, which extend beyond the simple facts, say, of mining and refining a metal from its crude ore. There is also the cost-contribution from the energy needed to garner energy-materials such as oil, gas, coal and uranium, and thence to turn them into power and machinery; and since fossil fuels are being relentlessly depleted, it takes an inexorable amount energy to produce them, resulting in a cumulative and rising energy demand overall.

The whole "extractive system" is interconnected through required underpinning supplies of fossil fuels, and it is perhaps this that explains why the production of so many minerals seems to be peaking during the period between the latter part of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, in a virtual mirror-image of the era when troubles in the production of fossil fuels were experienced across the globe. Hence, it may be the lack of fossil fuels which determines the real amount of all other minerals that can be brought onto the world markets4.

The Role of Recycling.

In the face of resource depletion, recycling looks increasingly attractive. In this stage of development of the throw-away society, now might be the time to begin "mining" its refuse. A recent analysis has shown part-per-million (p.p.m.) quantities of platinum in road-side dust1, which is similar to the 3 p.p.m. concentration in South African platinum ore. It is suggested that extracting platinum from this dust, which originates in catalytic converters, might prove lucrative and would expand the limited amount of platinum available, which even now does not meet demand for it. Discarded cell-phones too, might be a worthwhile source. For metals such as hafnium and Indium, recycling is the only way to extend the lifetime of critical sectors of the electronics industry. This is true also of gallium, tellurium and selenium, since all of them are past their production peak, which forewarns of imminent potential production shortages and escalating prices. While recycling of base-metals from scrap is a mature part of an industry worth $160 billion per year, current efforts to recover and recycle rare-metals are far less well advanced. However, in view of its present high-price, rhenium is now recovered from scrap bimetallic catalysts used in the oil refining industry. I expect to see an expansion of this top-end of the metals-market since rising demand for rare-metals will confer highly lucrative profits. It might be argued that we will never "run-out" of metals because their atoms remain intact, but the more dispersion that occurs in converting concentrated ores into final products, the more difficult and hence energy intensive it becomes to reclaim those metals in quantity. In a sense the problem is the same as deciding which quality of ore to mine in the first place: we now need to either find richer sources to recycle from or arrange how we use these materials in the first place to facilitate recycling. Ultimately, recycling needs to be deliberately designed into an integrated paradigm of extraction, use and reuse, rather than treating it as an unplanned consequence.


(1) D.Cohen, "Earth Audit", New Scientist, 26th May 2007, p. 35.

(2) C.J.Rhodes, "Energy Balance":

(3) M.K.Hubbert, “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels.” Presented before the Spring meeting of the Southern District, American Petroleum Institute, Plaza Hotel, San Antonio, Texas, March 7-9, 1956.

(4)"Peak Minerals", By U.Bardi and M.Pagani.

Box 1. Metals under threat: the world total reserve of each, and the expected time of exhaustion based on current rates of production and their principal uses.

Aluminium, 32,350 million tonnes, 1027 years (transport, electrical, consumer-durables)
Arsenic, 1 million tonnes, 20 years (semiconductors, solar-cells)
Antimony, 3.86 million tonnes, 30 years (some pharmaceuticals and catalysts)
Cadmium, 1.6 million tonnes, 70 years (Ni-Cd batteries)
Chromium, 779 million tonnes, 143 years (chrome plating)
Copper, 937 million tonnes, 61 years (wires, coins, plumbing)
Germanium, 500,000 tonnes (US reserve base), 5 years (semiconductors, solar-cells)
Gold, 89,700 tonnes, 45 years (jewelry, "gold-teeth")
Hafnium, 1124 tonnes, 20 years (computer-chips, nuclear control-rods)
Indium, 6000 tonnes, 13 years (solar-cells and LCD's)
Lead, 144 million tonnes, 42 years (pipes and lead-acid batteries)
Nickel, 143 million tonnes, 90 years (batteries, turbine-blades)
Phosphorus, 49,750 million tonnes, 345 years ( fertilizer, animal feed)
Platinum/Rhodium, 79,840 tonnes, 360 years for Pt (jewellery, industrial-catalysts, fuel-cells, catalytic-converters)
Selenium, 170,000 tonnes, 120 years (semiconductors, solar-cells)
Silver, 569,000 tonnes, 29 years (jewellery, industrial-catalysts)
Tantalum, 153,000 tonnes, 116 years, (cell-phones, camera-lenses)
Thallium, 650,000 tonnes, 65 years (High Temperature Superconductors, Organic Reagents)
Tin, 11.2 million tonnes, 40 years, (cans, solder)
Uranium, 3.3 million tonnes, 59 years (nuclear power-stations and weapons)
Zinc, 460 million tonnes, 46 years (galvanizing).

Box 2. It is predicted that the growth in world population, along with the emergence of new technologies will result in some key-metals being used up quite rapidly, e.g.

Antimony, 15 - 20 years.
Hafnium, 10 years.
Indium, 5 - 10 years.
Platinum, 15 years.
Silver, 15 - 20 years.
Tantalum, 20 - 30 years.
Uranium, 30 - 40 years.
Zinc, 20 - 30 years.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Economist Debate - Correspondence.

Hi Peter,

it's still "Chris", I just use the (hard-earned!) title when I think it might give a bit more gravity to what I'm saying, as on The Economist site!

I like your remarks here, and it does seem there is a general convergence away from "new technologies" in the sensible awareness that we need to find solutions NOW not in 20 or 50 years time. There may be all kinds of energy sources by then, but mankind has to get through a particularly troubling interstitial period, as cheap fossil fuels run scarce.

In my opinion, for what its worth, energy efficiency is the way to go and that seems to centre around the curbing of oil-fuelled personalised transport, focussing around more local economies and restricting much movement of freight and passengers to that which is necessary.

Someone on the Economist site passed a remark as to how would this be "enforced"? I think the simple answer is that no military or governmental-style enforcement is necessary and these changes will be accomplished by simple economics. If people can't afford to put fuel in cars, they will drive less, as is happening in the U.S.

Firms may find it more cost-effective for their employees to tele-work, using the vast network of telecommunications we have ready access to now.



Peter wrote:
Hello Professor Rhodes.
Thanks for your kind words on my recent post to your "Energy Balance" log. Your mention of the Economist site led me to it, and quite frankly, there are so many posts there one would need to dedicate 100% of ones time to read them all, so I didn't.
However I became intrigued by the proposition itself, its wording.
I drafted out a small note for your blog, but then on consideration thought that too many entries would smack of egoism, so I posted it, instead, on the Economist, which will let me get it off my chest and ensure that it is safely lost, and never read, in that huge site. (It was not easy to find your contribution there!).
Conscience dictates that I copy the post to you, as you started me off in the first place.
So here it is.
Sorry for taking up your time.

/ //The proposition is: “This house believes that we can solve our energy problems with existing technologies today without the need for breakthrough innovations”./

/ It appears as if we are offered a choice, either carry on as we are doing now, or invent something clever. /

/ In fact this is not the case, the proposition merely asks “..can we continue as we are now and by doing so, that is, do nothing new, solve our energy problems..?” /

/ Let us suppose that this means to maintain our present level of energy availability into the future, even including the current net increase of 180,000 people each day. That is what we are doing now, with our present rate of exploration, our improvements in machines, so the condition is fulfilled./

/ However, if our rate of discovery, our ingenuity, in the future falls behind the rate of increase of world population, we are in trouble. This will certainly be the case as our rate of population increase is remorselessly exponential, whereas our rate of discovery of new sources of energy is linear. Therefore resources will lag people and it will be necessary to find new sources of energy. This will likely require breakthrough innovations./

/ Even if our discovery rate could be made to match the birth-rate, we would still be in trouble, since we inhabit a finite planet and eventually resources will be exhausted (as Prof Rhodes has been saying all along). In this latter case, a mere breakthrough innovation will not be enough. There will not be any resources to make breakthroughs on. /

/ We will need something like beamed-down power from satellites. However beamed down power would create its own problems, in that energy (=heat) will be beamed down to the earth’s surface and the result will be true man-made global warming./

/ Or we will have to emigrate./


Peter Melia

The Economist Debate - Round-up.

Hi Chris –

Thanks for your post on The Economist’s Online Debate Series on solving the world’s energy crisis. Since the debate is ending this week, I thought you might want an update on the results to date in case you wanted to update your readers on the debate and/or rally them to vote.

Currently, 57 percent of Economist readers agree with the proposition, “This house believes that we can solve our energy problems with existing technologies today, without the need for breakthrough innovations.” Does this surprise you? With just three days left to vote and comment, it’s still possible to affect the outcome of the debate. Closing statements post tomorrow, August 27th, and a winner will be chosen by the community on Friday, August 29th.

We’ve included a sneak peek of moderator Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran’s closing statement which will post tomorrow. To use his words, “will you remain a MugWump, to invoke an old American folk saying, sitting on the fence with your mug on one side and your wump on the other? Or will one of our debaters persuade you to vote with the Pro or Con team? In real life, as in energy policy, we have to make hard choices. The time has come for you to make yours, by voting now.”

Best wishes and may intelligence prevail!


Sparkpr for The Economist

# # #

Moderator, Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran’s Closing Remarks:

All good things must come to an end, including our lively debate on energy technology. It remains a closely run match thus far, with a slight edge to the Pro team running up to today’s closing statements. Many readers have posted thoughtful, often technically detailed, comments suggesting the debaters have done their jobs well in provoking thought.

However, not all of you punters are perfectly pleased. Though some readers appreciate the civility and nuanced debating styles on offer from both teams, others are still lusting for blood. Taiglin finds “both sides of this argument to be in grey areas around the same viewpoint. I do not see a major contrast.” Other readers fault the organisers, not the debaters, for the boxers hugging so often in the centre of the debate ring. Kerry E. O’Neill offers a crisp version of this critique: “The premise of this debate is flawed, as others have noted. Why are we debating deploying existing technologies today vs. investing in breakthrough innovations to solve the energy crisis?” We need both, goes the argument.

It does seem the two teams are bending over backwards to be conciliatory rather than go for the jugular. That, of course, is the prerogative of the debaters. As for the question about the debate’s premise, the reason the debate proposition was posed as a clear choice between rapid deployment in today’s technologies and aggressive investment in tomorrow’s inventions is this: the first rule of economics (well, the first rule that matters) is that you cannot spend the same dollar twice.

When debating airy topics like energy policy, it is all too easy for armchair pundits to conjure up infinitely large pots of money that can be spent on all good things, on today’s needs and tomorrow’s wishes, on choice A and choice B. In real life, and especially in government, hard choices have to be made because resources are, in fact, finite. Sensible tools of economics like cost-benefit analysis as well as a willingness to make difficult choices is essential. Hence, The Economist’s decision to pose a provocative question that was certain to upset those who wish to have their cake and eat it too.

Turning to the closing arguments, it is clear that some of the conciliatory tone seen thus far remains. However, Joseph Romm does strike a direct blow, claiming that the side opposite is “in complete agreement with me.” His remarks expand on his line of argument that technologies that are ready or which recombine old, established technologies can solve the climate and energy problem. As an example of the latter, he trumpets the potential of concentrating solar thermal plants, which he calls “perhaps the most important renewable” because it can be used for baseload power on the power grid.

Peter Meisen closes the Con team’s case by issuing a warning: “If we continue building and funding the world’s energy needs as we did in the last century, we deserve the consequences.” In addition to the technology-boosting approaches discussed already in the debate, he emphasises one that he believes got short shrift: “government policies that provide the grease to accelerate this transition.” With adequate greasing, he is convinced that “investments in clean energy solutions will flourish and dominate the 21st Century.”

So will you remain a MugWump, to invoke an old American folk saying, sitting on the fence with your mug on one side and your wump on the other? Or will one of our debaters persuade you to vote with the Pro or Con team? In real life, as in energy policy, we have to make hard choices. The time has come for you to make yours, by voting now.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Doubts over Robustness of Nuclear Waste Containment.

According to a report by the Environment Agency, thousands of containers intended to hold radioactive waste are unfit for purpose. In effect it harpoons Britain's plans for long-term nuclear waste disposal, just as the government is set to proliferate the nuclear industry and is making deals with the French to develop new nuclear technology for electricity generation, which it is hoped the two nations will be able to sell around the world.

Computer simulations indicate that up to 40% of the containers could be dodgy, and the U.K.'s leading expert on nuclear waste has described the report as "devastating", which I suppose it is. If just one of the containers were to fail the consequences could "prove catastrophic", so says the opposition environment minster, Peter Ainsworth. The report goes on to say that there are "tens of thousands" of containers of immensely dangerous waste, bound in concrete, stored above ground, mainly at Sellafield, while the government and the nuclear industry make up their minds what to do with them. Yes, it's a nice picture isn't it?

According to existing plans, they are likely to stay there for up to 150 years before they are placed underground in a repository (concrete bunker). It will take 50 years to fill the bunker, which will then remain open for another 300 years (by when most of the more intensely radioactive isotopes will have decayed), before being sealed and buried.

On official estimates, the containers should survive for purpose for the 500 years these operations will take to complete (i.e. 50 + 150 + 300 = 500 years): to which the report comments upon "a lack of robust arguments which demonstrate that this target is achievable in practice". It indicates that the containers are not made from stainless steel, which is the best material to resist corrosion. An interesting point, because I heard a lecture on this topic at the Geological Society a couple of years ago, during which it was said they would be made from copper, which indeed might be expected to corrode more readily than stainless steel, but there must be some reason to use it, unless it is simply the cheaper option?

The report debates whether the types of container ail be able to withstand the prevailing conditions and are "fit for purpose over an extended time period". After 300 years, the more radioactive nuclides will have decayed (around 10 half-lives worth), and the waste would then have a comparable radioactivity to natural uranium ore. Before the bunker is sealed, there is always the option of recovering the "waste" for reprocessing into nuclear fuel, should demand and the absence of alternative sources dictate this as a viable option. There are, after all, many imponderables as to the fate and supply of the nuclear industry over the next few centuries, among all other quandaries.

Apparently the internal surfaces of the containers are not treated to remove "vulnerabilities to corrosion", and some "have seals that are not expected to be durable over periods of hundreds of years".

Well, maybe they are not really intended to be left down there for that long, but the material will be fished-out for reprocessing meanwhile?

Related Reading.
"Nuclear waste containers likely to fail, warns 'devastating report'. By Geoffrey Lean.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Economist Debate - Update.

This is a responding comment to the question here (mentioned in the immediately previous posting), posted by a reader on my blog "Energy Balance", which I think makes a worthy contribution.

As I noted in my earlier remarks, transportation is the most vulnerable aspect of our energy use, and probably personal transport in the form of cars will not be possible at its present level due to the lack of cheap liquid fuel. Local or nationwide freight/passenger transport is a different matter, however, and a more practical proposition. For local public transport, I also mention electrically-powered tram and light railway systems.

Prof. Chris Rhodes.

"The question being asked is, I think, something like “..can we handle our energy problems by optimising what we have, or must we sit around on our little tushes (1) and wait for the next magic potion to come along..?”
yorkshireminer has raised many interesting points about cube-law trains, so many in fact that a new thread could well be established to examine the question in more detail.(2)
Suffice to say that the train idea was an attempt to contribute to the question raised.
Consider ships, which are by far the largest segment of the global transport industry, so trains are by far the largest segment of inland transport industries.
The worldwide shipping industry is a shambles of thousands of owners, each competing with all others, and the common experience has been that, where the trade permits, large is best, and diesel engines are best.
The result is the China phenomenon, enormous quantities of stuff produced in China and sold at rock bottom prices throughout the globe.
On the other hand trains have scarcely changed in size since the beginning, but speeds have increased enormously. Fares are high, running costs are high, subsidies are out of sight.
These economic consequences, for both ships and trains, are a direct reflection of energy usage, and it is my contention that railways are in dire need of a serious rethink starting from scratch. It is my further contention that we should move away from high speed, narrow, long trains towards medium speed, fat, high, shorter trains. They would operate on the canal principle of slow but sure and energy efficient, rather than the present “gosh gee-whizz, ain’t that superfast train great” principle.
Peter Melia

(1) Noun1. tush - the fleshy part of the human body that you sit on
(2) Wasn’t it an eminent president of some British science organisation, who immortalised himself by declaring, on the day before the first Sputnik, that “…space flight is impossible…”

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

"The Economist" On-line Debate: "Solving the world's energy crisis."

We are invited to take part in the following, and so please would you let me have any thoughts, which I will moderate and pass-on. I am opening-the batting from here with a few bullet-points, posted below the copied message below.

"Hi Chris -

Starting tomorrow The Economist Online Debate Series is starting a two-week long online, Oxford-style debate on solving the world’s energy crisis. Since this topic is highly relevant to you and readers of Energy Balance, we wanted to give you and your readers an early invite to participate and be heard alongside notable experts and debaters in this intellectually stimulating, global conversation.

Would you be interested in supporting the discourse on this topic by posting about this debate and your response to our proposition on your blog? To help out, we’ve included a preview of tomorrow’s opening statement by moderator and Economist correspondent, Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran.

The proposition is: “This house believes that we can solve our energy problems with existing technologies today, without the need for breakthrough innovations.” What do you think? Will the reduction of global energy consumption be enough to sustain current fossil fuel reserves? Or should all efforts be directed toward discovering new technologies that broaden the world’s energy portfolio?

In his opening statement, Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran details both the Pro and Con arguments. Joseph Romm, Pro expert and Senior Fellow at the Centre for American Progress argues that “the world must deploy staggering amounts of low-carbon energy technology as rapidly as possible.” The Con argument made by Peter Meisen, President of Global Energy Network Institute argues that a “design science revolution is required.” Do you agree? Is it more important to support conservation or innovation? Given that both efforts are currently being explored in parallel, where should the center of gravity lie?"

Energy Balance responds:

There is no either/or answer to this question, since both energy-efficiency and potential new-technologies have a part to play. The issue of providing energy is rather akin to all other kinds or budget, personal or national: i.e. you earn more or spend less in order not to exceed it. Providing anywhere near the amount of energy currently generated from fossil resources, i.e. oil, gas and coal, by alternative means is a challenge of staggering proportions. The most pressing issue is replacing liquid-fuel based transportation by other means, and in relatively short order, which all signs indicate is not possible (or not on that same immense scale), and hence societies will need to relocalise into smaller communities that are far less reliant on extensive transport. The consequences of this, including the deconvolution of cities into smaller volumes, are likely to be profound.

All alternatives so far offered, e.g. biofuels or the putative "hydrogen economy", require massive resources, of land or other materials, such as platinum for fuel cells, beyond what can reasonably be provided. Growing crops for fuel ultimately competes with land for food, while even if the chain of problems of manufacturing, storing and distributing hydrogen could be overcome, there is only enough recoverable platinum per annum to provide around 10% of the world's car fleet within 20 years, all of which points toward the end of personal transport.

Electric vehicles might be a solution, but there are resource pressures there too, in order to make batteries on a vast scale, e.g. for lithium. For both platinum and lithium, while there is plenty in the ground, it is not the volume of the resource but the rate of recovery that is rate-limiting to the implementation of technologies based on them. I note there are around 700 million vehicles on the world's highways, now powered entirely by oil-based fuels. If the supply-demand gap is to be met within 7 years (according to the CEO of Shell, recently), compounded by the arrival of peak-oil, we almost certainly do not have time to find alternatives. Local transport using light-railway and tramways, powered by electricity which can be made from different sources, might prove a useful complement to whatever existing road and rail transport there remains by then.

On this topic, I am puzzled as to the necessity to build a third runway (and fifth and possibly sixth terminals) at Heathrow Airport, "to cope with a tripling of air transport by 2030" when there will by most analyses be a dearth in aviation fuel by then. So, even if there are more planes and more runways etc. to launch them from, what will be put in them by way of fuel?

In order to conserve fuel and ease the supply-demand gap that is predicted any time soon, fuel efficient engines would be very useful, as would all manner of more locally-focussed living schemes that burn less oil overall. Apart from transport, the other major use of energy is in heating buildings. In this case, better insulation is a must. There are very clever designs, e.g. 40% house, passivhaus, which can make huge energy savings, but in a relatively short time, it is debatable how many new dwellings could be built, and so insulating and implementing all kinds of energy efficiency into existing accommodation is a must, e.g. terrace houses in the U.K., which are in principle quite energy-efficient, with only two external walls on average for each.

Growing food more efficiently is important too. Modern agriculture depends on oil and chemical fertilizers, and depends heavily on oil and natural gas, which are in limited supply. Phosphate fertilizer production peaked worldwide in 1988 and so alternative sources must be found, probably by recycling human and animal waste, again via local farms, which will become the principal source of food, rather than large sale operations that require extensive transportation networks to move the food around to where it will be consumed. If the production is done locally much of this energy-drain is eliminated. The potential phosphate-shortage also impacts on growing crops for biofuels, to what amount this might be done.

In short, solving the world's future energy crisis is not a simple matter of either/or, of efficiency vs technology, but an entire replanning of how we all live, and bringing this to fruition rapidly.


Prof. Chris Rhodes.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Confusion over Media Report of M.I.T. "Solar Revolution" Claim?

It is claimed [1,2] that researchers from M.I.T. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have developed a new catalyst? for the electrochemical production of oxygen, which is part of a novel device to store solar-energy to use when the sun is not shining. Combined with a platinum catalyst? to generate hydrogen the two gases are produced using solar energy during daylight, and combined using a fuel-cell to produce electricity after dark.

The oxygen-producing catalyst is quoted as being made "of cobalt metal?, phosphate, and an electrode, placed in water". "When electricity - whether from a photovoltaic cell, a wind turbine or any other source - runs through the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on the electrode, and oxygen gas is produced."

I think in reality, for "catalyst" one should read "electrode". What they have actually done is to develop a new anode (positively charged electrode in an electrolytic cell) for the splitting of water by electrolysis. The solution contains Co2+ cations (not cobalt metal) and HPO4]2- anions [3]. The electrode material consists of indium tin oxide upon which becomes absorbed some "cobalt-phosphate" solid when current is passed through it.

It is said [1,2] that the process "can duplicate the water-splitting reaction that occurs during photosynthesis". Well, O.K., that is what photosynthesis does in essence, and then uses the "hydrogen" part, in the form of protons and electrons, to reduce CO2 to form the polysaccharide component of plants, but this is quite a different kind of catalyst, from the chlorophyll magnesium-porphyrin complex that occurs in nature. Chlorophyll does however release oxygen, accounting for the atmospheric burden of the gas, without which organic, surface life would be impossible.

It sounds very innovative and clever and the photosynthesis angle is a nice explanation to use in layman's terms. However, is it true that the discovery means that "solar energy can now be generated on a massive scale as well as rather cheaply"?

I note that platinum is still presumably involved in the process - for the cathode - which will doubtless prove a problem to recover sufficient quantity of per annum to really make a hole in our energy budget using solar-power. I don't have access to the hard scientific weights and measures involved, otherwise I would work the numbers out. I'll try and get hold of the original paper in "Science" which I can't seem to access from my e-journal system here. I have quoted the abstract of the paper below, which casts a little more light on the subject [3].

There is a useful article with many comments which I have just found via google [4].

I think this may be another "solution" where the availability of platinum is the final fence at which the "hydrogen-horse" will fall. Other metals might be used to make the cathode, but none commonly are as efficient as platinum. In fuel-cells too, platinum is the best. Hence, presumably, the final fuel-cell in which the hydrogen and oxygen are combined to make the nocturnal electricity also uses an electrode made of platinum, thus increasing the further burden of demand on this rare metal.

Meanwhile our energy-imperatives, based on fossil-fuels and nuclear, become more pressing.

Related Reading.
[1] "Boffins claim solar energy breakthrough." By Jesse Denzin-Weber.
[2] "'Major discovery' from MIT primed to unleash solar energy revolution." By Anne Trafton, MIT News Office.

ublished Online July 31, 2008
Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1162018

[3] Reports

Submitted on June 19, 2008
Accepted on July 18, 2008

In Situ Formation of an Oxygen-Evolving Catalyst in Neutral Water Containing Phosphate and Co2+

Matthew W. Kanan 1 and Daniel G. Nocera 1*

1 Department of Chemistry, 6-335, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139–4307, USA.

* To whom correspondence should be addressed.
Daniel G. Nocera , E-mail:

The utilization of solar energy on a large scale requires its storage. In natural photosynthesis, energy from sunlight is used to rearrange the bonds of water to O2 and H2-equivalents. The realization of artificial systems that perform similar "water splitting" requires catalysts that produce O2 from water without the need for excessive driving potentials. Here, we report such a catalyst that forms upon the oxidative polarization of an inert indium tin oxide electrode in phosphate-buffered water containing Co2+. A variety of analytical techniques indicates the presence of phosphate in an approximate 1:2 ratio with cobalt in this material. The pH dependence of the catalytic activity also implicates HPO42– as the proton acceptor in the O2-producing reaction. This catalyst not only forms in situ from earth-abundant materials but also operates in neutral water under ambient conditions.


Friday, August 15, 2008

Poorest Farmers Hit by Rising Fertilizer Prices.

Fertilizer prices have doubles and in some cases increased five-fold, on which is blamed rising oil-prices and the U.S. effort to grow biofuel-crops in an effort to meet home fuel-demand. Large commercial farms are relatively buffered against the effect of rising fertilizer prices but in developing nations such as Vietnam, Pakistan, India, Kenya, Egypt and Taiwan, there have been riots over fertilizers. In Hyerabad, India, a man was stampeded to death last week in a rush to obtain government handouts of fertilizers.

There was some hope that rising commodity prices of food might help to lift farmers in developing nations from poverty, but because farmers consume their own crops and have no access to global markets, they are unable to benefit from rising global prices. To maintain their own food-supplies, fertilizers have been bought-up in large quantities leading to shortages and high prices.

In sub-Saharan Africa there is a pressing need to replenish soils that are depleted of nutrients, but the cost is too high. Countries like India and China have bought enormous quantities of fertilizers to preserve their own food-situation. There are three principal kinds of fertilizer: diammonium phosphate, potash and nitrogen-containing kinds, to yield respectively P, K and N to soils. In the past 18 months, diammonium phosphate has risen in price from $250 to £1,230 a tonne, potash from $172 to in excess of $500 a tonne and nitrogen-containing fertilizers from $277 to above $450 a tonne.

First world farmers are blamed for using large quantities of fertilizers to improve crop-yields to cash-in of the high grain prices that currently exist. There is an underpinning question of capacity too, in that it may take 5-7 years to get a phosphate mine open, 10 years for a potash mine and around 3 years to build a nitrogen-fixation plant. Hence the situation is not expected to be relived for several years. There is also the matter that a peak in world phosphorus will occur - at least in the form of phosphate-rock well before the end of the century.

According to experts on agricultural development, there is no alternative to using fertilizers in order to increase world food-production. I am once again reminded of the analysis of world population growth that I have referred to before which predicts that the human population will peak at around 7.1 billion by 2024, and then decline toward the end of the century.

This stands in contrast to other estimates that it will carry on increasing to over 9 billion by 2050, which I am beginning to doubt.

Related Reading.
"Soaring fertilizer prices threaten world's poorest farmers." By John Vidal

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Cecil John Rhodes and Coal.

Now I don't exactly boast about this fact, in the interests of PC, but I am descended from Cecil John Rhodes - perhaps not directly as it is rumoured he was a homosexual, which I affirmatively am not, but a happily married man. I have a lady friend in South Africa (not that kind) but who recommended me for a prize in the interests of publishing some of my poetry, which along with my first novel to be published on 25th March 2009 is a nice and long-anticipated result!

Now, Vivienne reckoned there was 30 years worth of coal left in SA, but this is a moot conclusion, so it now appears. There have been numerous troubles involving the supply of electricity in SA this year alone, but their demand for coal is growing. I recall that SA makes most of its oil from coal-liquefaction - an adaptation of the Bergius Process, for which Herr Dr Professor Bergius won the Nobel Prize in 1933? - in reflection of the world having turned its back upon them in the interests of anti-apartheid.

The growth in coal-use in SA suggests a spotlight on the county's coal-reserves. A complex situation is inferred among all other political deferences.
Demand for coal has increased by 2.5% per year

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Grindelwald - Climate Change.

Back from holidays in Switzerland, where we attempted to see - and touch - the upper Grindelwald glacier (Oberer Gletscher, in German). A sad disappointment, since most of it appears to have melted and crumbled-away. 20 years ago, we mused, we actually sat on it - a risky proposition given its present precarious nature, even if you could actually get to it after climbing 890 wooden stairs up the side of the mountain! Global warming is blamed but a more precise term is climate change, meaning that the dynamics of the Earth heat-engine have been tuned such that different amounts of heat are supplied to particular regions of the Earth, rather than the contentious overall increase in heat to the globe per se.

The Unterer Gletscher (Lower Glacier; its glacial twin) is no more impressive, even after braving a good high-alpine hike to see what is left of it. Part of the problem here is rock-fall from the eastern flank of the Eiger mountain, which disgorged some few million tonnes of detritus a year ago, taking part of the glacier with it. Glacial-melt is however culpable for the intrusion of water into the rock, whose layers are prised apart by the expansion caused when it freezes. There are more cracks in this mountain symbol (and last resting place of 40 climbers) of Switzerland and hence speculations as to its integrity - rather like UBS!

Climate change appears indisputable, and there is certainly less snow in the high Alpine regions, meaning that to preserve the ski-tourism industry, "snow-cannons" are an implicit feature of the Piste and so forth, which fire water into the cold atmosphere, causing it to cool and freeze, and precipitate as synthetic snow, in the lack of its regular natural counterpart.

I also noted that the plane over to Zurich from London City Airport (one financial centre to another!) was loaded with 3,200 litres of fuel, to take around 60 of us passengers a distance of around 1,000 kilometers. The plane all-told weighed just over 40 tonnes (no longer owned by Swiss-Air but Lufthansa). In their laudable and canny style, the Swiss have instructed their pilots to conserve fuel by raising the wing-flaps earlier than they did, thus reducing air-resistance. They also pressurized the cabin less (so my ears told me) which also cuts back the amount of fuel used. The captain has to make this calculation at the start of the flight, in tallying his fuel requirement for the journey.

I'm not entirely sure of my carbon-footprint for the rest of the year, although there are putative trips to Slovakia and to Armenia, obviously in good causes, which I hope will be overall beneficial to the environment, in the final round. Good too to see that a barrel of oil is down to $115 but I still reckon $150 by the end of the year, especially as the winter augers-in more heating-oil to be used, particularly in the U.S., and in Italy who use as much oil to make electricity as we do in the U.K. from nuclear, as a proportion of national total.