Wednesday, December 09, 2009

"Chemistry, Energy and Climate Change, " Lecture by Dr Richard Pike, CEO of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

I attended a lecture by Dr Richard Pike, who is the CEO of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) yesterday evening in London, entitled: "Chemistry, Energy and Climate Change." I have previously applauded Dr Pike's pro-active stance on the importance of chemistry as a means to comprehend and address the challenges facing humanity, especially in terms of future energy provision and tackling pollution/climate change etc. He is also a very good speaker and presented a convincing case that there may be possibilities, in which chemical training will underpin the future.

The following is a summary dissected from my rapid scribblings during the lecture, and which in fact reinforces many of the ideas and conclusions that I have aired and espoused in my postings here, in my monthly column on and in various invited lectures:

In a nutshell there is no single solution, but "the" solution is to be sought as a mixture of many individual strategies. He has stated before that he doesn't think peak oil is an immediate problem and that with the implementation of unconventional sources of oil (he mentioned tar sands specifically) world oil production could rise to 130 million barrels per day, from 84 million bpd now. He referred also to gas-to-liquids processes and biofuels, but the latter with the caveat that using arable land to grow crops to meet the European Union target of 5.75% of our fuel coming from biofuel would require turning over 19% of the entire European Union nations' crop land to the purpose which clearly isn't going to happen. I have shown sums on this blog that demonstrate the absurdity of this policy which was probably dreamed-up by some Brussels bureaucrat rather than someone who can comprehend hard numbers. Pike emphasised the importance of using hard numbers, and in this thread we agree wholeheartedly.

In Pike's view, we should not look for our salvation in terms of resource limitation, i.e. that dwindling supplies of fossil fuels, especially oil, will result in a reduction in carbon emissions by default, but to address climate change as a strategy. I tend to disagree here, since the volume of world markets for oil depends on the rate of flow of oil from the ground (or unconventional oil from e.g. tar sands or gas-to-liquids, coal-to-liquids), rather than how much of a reserve there is, and simply oil will become harder to get and more expensive, and the EROEI will fall in reflection of this pushing up the energy costs to win it and thus the price of oil. Massive swathes of new engineering would be needed too to produce sufficient quantities of unconventional oil, and a number of such projects (and conventional extraction projects too) have been shelved during the recession.

That said, the action of using less oil (and other fossil fuels) certainly both reduces the rate at which we get through what is left and pumps less carbon into the atmosphere, thus mitigating climate change (on the human carbon to global warming to climate change, chain of events argument). There is an awful lot of speculation about this at the moment which has been rekindled by the recent claims that at the University of East Anglia data had been "doctored". I don't know what the latest is on this but I note that the Met Office is set to check its temperature records over the last 160 years for the veracity of global warming.

On British TV, currently is an advert that encourages us to drive 5 miles less per week. Now, does this really make a difference? Assuming an average 10,000 miles are driven per year, this actually amounts to 0.3% of carbon emissions saved. So, the answer is no, but it does at least engage the public with the issue and make them feel they are doing something to fix the problem, rather as railings were cut down and saucepans collected during World War II to be taken away for the "war effort". In truth it made little difference but it did forge a cohesion within society, during an otherwise potentially anarchic period.

Dr Pike touched on the issue of centralised and decentralised energy several times. Readers of this blog will note that my own conclusion is that the relocalisation of society is necessary is order to curb our reliance on transportation/oil, and that provision of heat and power at the local level must form part of the bedrock for such sustainable small communities as civilization must devolve to in order to reduce its energy demands. A mix of PV, geothermal etc. is likely to be implemented in a diverse, localised approach. Transportation is a particular problem since practically all of it relies on oil and there is no simple substitution from oil to other energy sources to keep it going on its present lavish scale.

Carbon capture and storage would entail huge new engineering on a scale to make any difference, if we do go down that route, since 100 million tonnes per DAY of CO2 would need to be so sequestered. There are essentially two methods to remove carbon from fuel: post-combustion and pre-combustion. Post-combustion, CO2 is removed from flue gas by passing it through a liquid amine which dissolves the CO2. Pre-combustion, the fuel (coal, gas, biomass) is processed into a mixture of CO2 + H2 and the CO2 is removed. Thus the actual fuel in hydrogen gas. It is worth noting that old-fashioned coal-gas contained around 51% H2 (along with CO, methane and other minor components). Either way, the CO2 must be put somewhere, for which strategies include pumping it into rocky formations (such as depleted oil and gas wells) at a pressure of 100 atmospheres, or even piping it in liquid form under pressure onto the sea-floor where it is cold enough and the pressure high enough that it is hoped the material will stay there, assisted by the formation of CO2-hydrate.

There is a problem of how to store electricity generated from renewable sources, e.g. solar, as in PV or concentrating power systems (CPS). If these solar methods of electricity generation were implemented and used to make H2, it would involve massive new infrastructure. That said, they are far more efficient (PV at 15% but 40% for triple-junction cells and CSP at above 20%) than generating biofuels (<1%), as worked out on the basis that the working amount of solar energy hitting the earth as an average across its surface amounts to 174 W/m^2. However, for solar/H2 the capital and infrastructural initial investment is massive whereas biofuels can be used with the existing liquid fuel distribution and combustion networks. The latter are unsustainable though, and so we need rather than to try and supplement existing means, to develop a completely new infrastructure/society. Huge challenges to the way we live.

Changes in land-use (clearing etc.) in order to grow crops for biofuels releases CO2. Thus it might be decades before any CO2 is saved overall! Synthetic photosynthesis could be used to fix CO2 and convert it into fuels, mainly alcohols. A massive reforestation programme would also help take carbon from the atmosphere. Genetic modification (GM) of plankton to more efficiently remove CO2 has been proposed as a strategy to cut carbon levels. Pike noted that the long term CCS strategy was something akin to the problem of looking after nuclear waste, over similarly long timescale of maybe millions of years.

Finally the point was made regarding skills. That training in science (numbers!) was needed starting at primary school, through to undergraduate and postgraduate studies in universities and employment of these graduates in industry. There are many business opportunities in all of the above, which should be seen less as a problem but a challenge. Saving energy is critical.

I hope I have done Dr Pike justice here, who sounds like a man after my own heart, even if he is an engineer rather than a chemist!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

"Coltan" - African Niobium and Tantalum Ore.

I first heard the word "coltan" on a recent television documentary about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Africa. Coltan is a black, metallic ore which is a source of "Columbium" (now called Niobium) and Tantalum, hence the name. Since tantalum is used to make high-performance capacitors as find application in mobile-phones, DVD players, video game players (playstations), laptop computers, electronic cameras, pacemakers, hearing-aids, airbags, GPS, ignition-systems and anti-lock braking systems in cars, it accordingly underpins a highly lucrative electronics industry. The thread of the TV documentary was that the extraction and sale of coltan onto Western markets provides funding for the war that is going on in the Congo, during which 5.4 million people have been killed in the past decade.

The Rwandan occupation of Eastern Congo was a principal reason that the Congo was prevented from exploiting its own bequest of coltan, much of which is mined illegally and smuggled across borders into Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. It is reputed that prisoners-of-war and children are forced to work in the coltan mines. In consequence of the problem of telling legitimate and bootleg mining operations apart, a number of electronics manufacturers have boycotted Africa entirely as a source of coltan, not wishing to aid any funding of the occupation of the Congo by militia groups.

Congo actually produces under 1% of the world's tantalum, which is also mined in Brazil, Australia, Canada, China, Ethiopia and Mozamboque. The metal is also a by-product of tin-production in Malaysia and Thailand. In view of its profitable nature, there are potential future production projects in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Greenland, China, Mozambique, Canada, Australia, the United States, Finland, Afghanistan and Brazil. I doubt the war in Afghanistan is entirely in the service of obtaining tantalum, but I do wonder what resources may lie there, as wars are always about resources (and power) in one form or another.

That there are deposits of tantalum in Greenland makes an interesting follow-up to my last article to the effect that the melting Greenland ice may expose and render viable the extraction of rare-earth metals and one begins to wonder what resources may become available, of materials and energy, as climate change re-sculpts the land and water-scape of the Earth.

Related Reading.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Greenland: Melting Ice; Rare Metals to be Unearthed?

The media has shown us in all its forms that the Greenland ice-sheet is melting, and along with the Antarctic peninsular, is one of the poster children for the reality of global warming. On the plus side is the possibility that under the ice of the Ilimaussaq Intrusion lies the world’s largest known reserve of rare earth metals, also known as lanthanides in the Periodic table of the Chemical Elements, which are used in mobile phones and all kinds of electronic devices, including hybrid cars. Currently China produces 95% of the world's supply of rare earth metals, and the Greenland find could urge a shift in world dominance.

Greenland, with a population of around 57,000 and a population density of a mere one person for each 15 square miles, is undergoing a political transformation in the lead-up to its imminent independence from Denmark, and as of January 2010, it will become the full owner of its natural resources. Accordingly, the rare earths alone could double Greenland's GPD since there are enough of them to sate one quarter of the world's hunger for them for the next 50 years.

As a further benefit of the site, the cost of extracting the rare earths will be partly covered by the lucrative extraction uranium there. This will shield against China undercutting the Greenland rare earth production by flooding the market with cheaper metals, which is how it has managed to establish dominance in the world market in terms of rare earth provision, to date.

The Ilimaussaq Intrusion is well-established as a source if uranium, but its novel exploitation as a source of rare earths is pivotal on the world geopolitical stage. To the chagrin of Japan, which intends to become a major player in electric car production, Chinese control of the amount of rare earth metals available to the marketplace has engendered a scramble by Toyota and major Japanese trading houses to ensure sufficient supplies of them from elsewhere. Indeed, the Japanese wish to establish a strategic national reserve of rare earths to meet demand from both "green" and military technologies, e.g. hybrid cars and weapons-guiding systems.

Through a massive increase in the global supply of rare earth metals within a regulated market with global price-controls, their use would naturally increase. Michael Hutchinson, a director of the London Metal Exchange and the non-executive chairman of Greenland Minerals said: "Rare earths could, therefore, undergo the same transformation as aluminium, with the same scene-changing effects. A century ago aluminium was so valuable a metal that Queen Victoria sported a ring made of it. When supply became cheaper and steadier, it fundamentally altered the way in which aircraft, cars and other technologies were built."

I wonder what other minerals including oil may be exhumed from the earth under melting Greenland, and for how much longer will the melting Antarctic remain sacrosanct?

Related Reading.

"Greenland challenge to Chinese over rare earth metals," By Leo Lewis.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Energy Saving Light Bulbs Get Dimmer with Use.

I had thought this might be the case from my own experience, but this is from the horse's mouth (an animal usually assumed to be standing the right way round, but isn't always). This particular horse is a report from E&T which is the leading trade magazine published by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, which one would assume is talking from its mouth and nowhere else. According to the report, energy saving light bulbs become appreciably dimmer during their lifetime, by 22%, in contrast to the more traditional incandescent filament bulbs which lose just a fraction of their original intensity.

The report also concludes that the efficiency of low energy light bulbs, or compact fluorescent bulbs as they are known technically is being overblown. Dickon Ross, the editor of E&T. said:"There is a big difference between what most bulbs' packaging promises and what the reality is. It's no wonder so many consumers are dissatisfied with the bulbs."

The German consumer organisation Warentest tested 18 energy-saving bulbs in 2008, and after 10,000 hours, three of the 18 bulbs had stopped working completely with an average reduction in brightness of 22% for the remaining 15 bulbs.

The US Department of Energy tested 124 bulbs for 2,400 hours (which it should be stressed is much less than the intended working lifetime of 10,000 hours), of which found that 28% no longer gave a decent light output. In contrast, normal filament light bulbs lose perhaps 7% of their brightness when the filament "goes", which is after about 2,000 hours.

The Energy Savings Trust purports that a 11-14W energy efficient bulb is equivalent to a 60W traditional bulb, which is put on the packet by most British lighting manufacturers. However, the European Commission has issued a warning that these claims are "not true". On a consumer website it claims that: "The light output of 15W compact fluorescent lamp is slightly more than the light output from a 60W incandescent."

As from September 2011, 60W clear incandescent bulbs will be banned and from last August it became illegal for retailers to import 100W, frosted or pearled incandescent light bulbs, or to sell them once their current stocks have run out, leaving low energy bulbs (low energy halogen or compact fluorescent lights CFLs) as the only option.

There are certainly saving in the amount of electricity required to run the different kinds of bulb, however. Dr Paula Owen at the government-backed Energy Saving Trust, is quoted as saying that good energy saving light bulbs would only be noticeably dimmer after six to ten years. She noted: "Typically, a low energy light bulb used in a living room, for example, will last 10 times longer than a traditional one. In this time, the householder will have saved about £65 on their energy bill.

Related Reading.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Carbon Particles a Factor in Climate Change?

The toxicity of carbon particles ("particulate") has been stressed in the designation of PM10 and PM2.5, which refers to particles of size of 10 and 2.5 microns (thousandths of a millimetre) or less. The smallest of these particles are breathed into the deep lung, and during conditions where the concentration of them is high, an enhanced incidence of heart attacks and breathing problems is found. It is thought that the presence of the particles triggers the release of cytokines, which control various cellular responses, and this is the cause of such health problems during smogs.

The origin of the particles is the incomplete combustion of diesel fuel and though more tank to wheel miles are got from diesel than petrol, the emission of particulate poses a danger to health. By fine-tuning a diesel engine the amount of particulate formed can be minimised but rarely entirely eliminated. Burning biomass is a further significant source of carbon black.

Such carbon particles may also influence the health of the planet, and carbon black and CO2 cause the Earth to warm-up by different mechanisms. In the case of CO2, there is a contribution to the greenhouse effect, while particles of carbon black absorb some of the heat from sunlight directly and act like an atmospheric blanket that is becoming thicker as levels of pollution increases. Carbon black particles have a life-time in the air of typically just a few weeks, before they are removed by precipitation and gravity. Thus, if the sources of these particles were removed, the air would become clean of them fairly quickly, unlike CO2 which may hang around for centuries.

This is particularly significant for India and other developing countries in Asia, where a prominent mix of particles from burning biomass and fuels in vehicles arises, and India produces around 6% of the world total atmospheric budget of black carbon. Asian countries stress that it is Western nations that emit most of the world's atmospheric carbon and so should set an example in terms of curbing carbon emissions. However, since it is developing nations that emit relatively more black carbon per capita, they may be called to account and encouraged to limit those processes that are the origin of it.

It is significant that if a glacier becomes literally coated with a layer of carbon black, the extra absorbed heat will cause the ice to melt faster. Thus there is a particular link between carbon black and potential sea level rise. Black carbon is easier to curb than CO2 in that by reducing deforestation in which tropical rainforests are burned, and fitting diesel filters to vehicles a significant proportion of the particulate can be eliminated. Domestic stoves that burn wood and other biomass could also be replaced by cleaner alternatives. In addition to the amelioration of effects on climate, considerable improvements to the health of large populations of the world should be expected.

Related Reading.
[1] "Black Carbon: An Overlooked Climate Factor." By Bryan Walsh:,8599,1938379,00.html
[2]"Toxicology of the Human Environment: the Critical Role of Free Radicals," Ed. Chris Rhodes.

0748409165; ISBN-13: 978-0748409167

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Conundrum Over Vast Oilfield Under Baghdad.

It is thought there nay be a "supergiant" oilfield underneath Baghdad, which may hold 8.1 billion barrels of oil, and is one of ten oilfields and one gasfield that seems about to come onto the market. To place this into perspective, the entire North Sea reserves are around 4 billion barrels, or half of that; while on the world stage of oil demand it is enough for about three months. Nonetheless, at a current $80 a barrel, the find would be worth around $648 billion, and more as the price of oil will inevitably rise in perpetuity.

Three days ago, BP and its Chinese partner, CNPC, signed the first formal big oil deal since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. BP has considerable experience of the geology of the region, dating back to its discovery of the Rumaila field in 1953, and between them the two partner companies could invest $15 billion.

Not surprisingly, there is strong interest from various companies, including Japan Petroleum Exploration Company (Japex), who have predicetd that it could produce a daily 400,000 barrels (10% of Japanese demand for oil) when fully exploited, and well above its current output of 17,000 bpd. However, other companies are very reluctant to invest there, so close to Baghdad, in view of the political instability that prevails in a city that has suffered greatly since the war began - for whatever reasons it did.

It is thought that if foreign investment can be garnered both here and for fields in the more stable north of the country, the output of Iraqi oil could be brought up from the present 2.5 million bpd to 7 million bpd within seven years, or encroaching on present output from Saudi Arabia of around 10 million bpd. It looks then that Iraq will become a key player in the future oil game and maybe that's what the war was really about rather than toppling a brutal dictator or intercepting the infamous weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), which were never found.

Related Reading.
"Baghdad's vast oilfield presents dilemma to would-be bidders," by Robin Pagnamenta.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Go Nuclear to Avert Climate Change.

This is the prognostication of Professor David MacKay, who is the U.K. government's chief scientific advisor (following Sir David King), who thinks that emphasis on nuclear power is the only way that Britain can keep pace with its inexorable demand for electricity but at the same time, holding rein on its carbon emissions. On his first day in this new role, Prof. MacKay delineated a plan for the nation could produce a three-fold increase in its electricity by a four-fold increase in nuclear power. I'm not entirely sure how the figures stack-up for this but this is what is written in the article cited below. At any rate, "nuclear" is our only hope.

I'm not immediately scared of nuclear power since for the most part nuclear power stations have run quite safely for years, there being only three really bad accidents that come to mind: Three Mile Island, Windscale and Chernobyl. Apart from the nuclear waste, it is a pretty clean technology too, especially in terms of carbon emissions, so I take his point. That said, we need to import uranium, which is enriched somewhere?, and there are issues over potential terrorism, so I am not convinced by the usual "security of supply" argument for nuclear.

It is reckoned too that there is around 40 years worth of uranium in known reserves and so if we are going to go for nuclear, we need to get hold of a lot more of the stuff. Obviously, if we all go four-fold in our adoption of fission-based reactors, that divides into 10 years worth and since it takes about 10 years to get a nuclear power plant up and running from scratch, we may have left it a bit too late.

I agree with Professor Mackay too that renewables are unlikely to provide more than a small fraction of our energy at least in the short term, and yet in the rounder and longer view they are all we have. At the risk of repetition, this reminds that we have to cut our energy use - transportation is an issue in its own right and will begin to decline in the wake of the most precious and vulnerable of fossil resources, namely oil - by a wholesale relocalisation of society. However, if this is not done in a structured way, and no government wants to point out the severity and proximity of the situation for fear of scaring the living daylights out of its electorate and augering-in anarchy, then it is exactly the latter that is likely to prevail upon us.

Related Reading.
"Professor David Mackay: Britain 'must go nuclear' to control climate." By Jonathan Leake:

Monday, October 26, 2009

Biofuel From Algae - Different Prognoses.

I have read two entirely differing articles about the imminence and feasibility of growing algae and converting it into biofuel to stave-off the paucity of oil in the "post peak oil era" as that final descent has been dubbed in some quarters. We have on the one hand the valourous trumpet "Algae biofuel propels a brave new world" in fanfare that the status quo of plentiful liquid fuels can be sustained even in the absence of crude oil, and on the other is a rather more Job's comforting title: "Commercial fuel from green algae still years away." Well, of course it is, but it is a better bet than other alternative schemes particularly hydrogen which has gone rather quiet of late... or is that just my imagination, or perhaps I read the wrong papers these days?

Why do I say "of course it is"? For the simple and sustained reason that appends all efforts to find alternative energy, that it must be got up from scratch. In all cases, there is no commercial scale output from them, beit hydrogen or fuel from algae. Liquid fuels are remarkable and without them the modern world would not have arisen in the form it has. For transportation alone we need to find something like 60% of 30 billion barrels worth of crude oil each and every year, and to ramp up that supplication year on year if we are to believe that the market forces will continue to dictate further demand - i.e. that capitalism is sustainable both as a practice and a philosophy.

I doubt the preservation of either and the energy and resources curve is connecting its ends into a finite loop, set at an elastic limit bent only now in contraction. I have dismissed the hydrogen economy in the immediate term, and since that is defined by plentiful energy which will not be available in the later term, (even beyond a few decades), it isn't going to happen, at least not on the scale of the crude oil economy and there rests the crux of the problem. Algae at least can be grown, with sufficient engineering, on a large scale that does not require prime crop land in competition with growing food crops (as rules out conventional biofuel strategies beyond grants from governments and the European Union), and there is no demand for freshwater since saline water does even better to promote the growth of certain highly oil-yielding strains.

Algae can be fed from waste-streams of CO2 from fossil-fuel power stations as a carbon elimination strategy and can also decontaminate groundwater, so there is a potential mix of environmental solutions in aid of a common goal of fuel beyond oil. That said, it is going to take years, and the sooner we get going the better. I have argued before that the best use of algal technology is to sustain smaller settlements of perhaps a few thousand grown in a "village pond" and processed for local use. There is still no means to maintaining global transportation and globalisation in the absence of cheap oil, and the time limit for this gargantuan and conceptual change is perhaps a decade.

Related Reading.
(1) "Algae fuel propels a brave new world,"By Dominic Rusche:
(2) "Commercial green fuel still years away," By Laura Isensee:

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Is There an Extra Half-Trillion Barrels of Oil?

It is claimed that there may be an extra half-trillion barrels of oil than was formerly reckoned, but even if there is, does it really matter? Dr Marcio Mello presented an analysis at the Denver ASPO conference that there may be 500 billion (half-trillion) barrels worth of oil in the sub-salt basins on the margins of the South Atlantic Ocean. The discovery of "diamondoid" structures in oil found at shallow depths in Brazil suggests that a mixing occurs of two types of petroleum, one of which had formed at great depths, below the salt layer that blankets the basin.

I recall, in writing previously about the Tupi field in the Brazilian Santos Basin, that one of the problems attendant to extracting oil from there was the need to drill through the salt, which was over a mile thick, and hot enough that it had semi-plastic properties, which meant that there was a tendency for the hole to close should the bit be withdrawn for any reason. It is also necessary to drill in substantial depths of water and through rock layers too, that act as the "bread" in a salt sandwich, both of considerable thickness too.

The Tupi field is enclosed in a reservoir of limestone at depths of around 6 km, and beneath a salt layer of around 2 km in thickness. It would not normally be expected for oil to exist there as at such depths it would be too hot, but due to a geological effect of deep water and the high thermal conductivity of salt, the temperature is lower than it would otherwise be.

Dr Mello reckoned that overall there may be another 500 billion barrels of oil down there, although there are questions of EROEI and cost of a barrel of oil. Most likely these fields will eventually be developed but the cost of a barrel of oil so derived will be very high, and so this "find" is not the cheap oil the world needs to maintain its energy status quo, but is the stuff of specialist applications for a world which is by then sorely short of oil, given that it is not expected that the Santos Basin will yield significant oil before 2020.

Related Reading.
"Half a trillion barrels more," By Euan Mearns.

Friday, October 16, 2009

"The Not-So Sweet Truth of Sugar Fuel."

The title is that of the headline in today's "getreading" local newspaper. The latter aptly refers not only to the assimilation of information by the process reading, but also to the town of Reading, across the River Thames from the village of Caversham where I live in south east England, where today one can read about Reading Council's efforts to run its local bus-fleet on biofuels. The article claims that council bosses are left with red faces because said buses were not, as proudly claimed, being run on bioethanol produced "from sugar beet from Norfolk", but rather from wood pulp imported from Sweden, which it must be admitted is rather further afield.

To compound the issue, the council has told the Reading Transport Board (who run Reading Buses) that the bioethanol fuelled buses will be switched to run on biodiesel in view of "the high price of the inefficient bio-ethanol fuel." The article continues to say that, "although bio-ethanol fuel is only 2.61% more expensive than bio-diesel, the bio-ethanol powered buses are a staggering 44.5% less fuel-efficient. This makes them twice as expensive to run than a bio-diesel bus."

"The bus fuel bill is expected to drop from £390,000 a year to £226,000 after the fuel conversion."

Transport spokesman and conservative councillor Richard Willis commented on his blog yesterday: "I suspect this won't exactly help Reading Transport's chances of winning an innovative award on 12 November for the introduction of bio-ethanol buses."

Which is a shame if they have simply been misinformed, "but by whom?", is the question being robustly asked by all political sides.

Related Reading.
"The not-so sweet truth of sugar fuel," By Linda Fort, Chief Reporter:

Thursday, October 15, 2009

UK "in with Europe" to Turn Waste into Energy.

The European Union has a major drive to turn all kinds of waste into energy, particularly from biogas. There are two main incentives for this, the first being the geological feature that natural gas is in finite supply and world production of it is expected to peak within the next few decades, and secondly that burning fossil carbon contributes to the atmospheric concentration of CO2, which some believe will cause global warming and climate change. To address either issue, finding a renewable (non-fossil) source of methane is encouraged.

The claims over how important biogas could be to help secure Britain's energy future are certainly extravagant, and Mark Fairbairn from the National Grid thinks that it could provide for half the country's gas by 2050 in substitution for natural gas [1]. Given that the UK gas consumption is around 103 billion cubic metres [2] of natural gas annually (i.e. around 3.6 trillion cubic feet, tcf) 50-odd billion m^3 (1.8 tcf) of biogas would need to be produced per year to meet this projection. This, roughly (assuming that 6,000 cubic feet of natural gas has an energy equivalence of one barrel of oil) amounts to an equivalent of 300 million barrels or 41 million tonnes of oil. That does sound rather a tall order - to put it mildly.

In Germany biogas is already being fed into into the national gas grid and in Sweden and Spain, vehicles including buses are run on biogas, but they still use an awful lot of oil overall and most of the small number of gas-powered vehicles are run on petroleum-gas. In Yerevan, Armenia, where I was last May, I noticed buses and lorries resplendent with rusty-looking cylinders of gas as their fuel supply, which is more cheaply obtained than liquid fuels, but I emphasise that it is petroleum gas (mainly propane and butane) that is used there and not biogas.

Also in Germany, there are aerobic digesters which are fed by maize (corn) rather than waste and so the same argument would arise over growing crops for fuel or for food as applies to biodiesel production and must ring an eventual death-knell for both biodiesel and biogas, if the latter is made from food too. It is ridiculous to compromise indigenous food-production in any nation, since all nations will find it increasingly untenable to import food on the vast scale most currently do, in the absence of cheap oil or gas.

It is true that a small amount of biogas is produced from landfill and sewage and used for energy in the U.K., but it is anticipated that "new incentives" (i.e. forms of financial encouragement; tax-breaks maybe?) will mean that this kind of conversion of waste into fuel would find more extensive applications, including the use of compressed biogas for transport. It sounds great but I question the usual scale-up and engineering required to inaugurate a huge infrastructure based on biogas. In my opinion, like solar energy, the greatest opportunity for the technology is in providing energy for small communities rather than as some attempt to preserve the energy status quo, which is simply unsustainable without fossil fuels, including gas.

Related Reading.
[1] "UK joins European drive to make energy from waste." By Gerard Wynn.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

U.K. Government Told: "Peak Oil in 10 Years".

The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) has issued a report in which it is stated that there is a "significant risk" that world oil production will reach its peak and then fall into terminal decline - i.e. "peak oil". The report further urges, quite logically, that the price of oil and hence fuel will rise and become more volatile and so one might expect will the world economy, given its inextricable underpinning by the price of oil.

The UKERC states that oil provides one third of the total energy used in the world - in fact it is nearer two fifths, at 38% - and that major discoveries such as those by BP in the Gulf of Mexico and by Petrobras in Brazil would only delay the peak by a matter of days of weeks. Well, that's what I've been on about for the past 3 years, and so have many others, but it's nuce to think that the government is being told the story and one can hope that it might act upon this information.

It is of course highly misleading to speak of oil and providing one third of total energy since it does this in a very specific and difficultly replacable fashion. Namely, that oil provides liquid fuels and thus powers practically all of the world's transportation. Without cheap oil, the global ecomony is doomed. Thus any practical action by the British or other governments must be that of inaugurating an infrastructure to feed and run nations as oil becomes a relentlessly rarer commodity.

Related Reading.
"Oil will peak in 10 years, Government warned." By Robin Pagnamenta.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

British-Norwegian Power Link.

An undersea power link is to be established between Britain and Norway at a cost of around £1 billion. Norway generates almost its entire electricity production using hydropower while the U.K. are planning more wind farms. Establishing a power cable between the two countries could help to smooth-out intermittencies that are an integral feature of producing electricity by renewable means such as wind-power, whereby Norway supplies electricity to Britain when necessary but gets it back again on windy days.

The state electricity company, Statkraft, said the cable would stretch 465 miles across the North Sea to Britain from southern Norway making it the longest undersea power cable in the world.

There is already a link with France from Britain and another currently under construction with the Netherlands. When river levels fell last year with the result that France closed 14 of its nuclear reactors, some of the consequent shortfall in French electricity was met by electricity from the U.K.

The British government is anticipating an increase of wind-energy to meet its target of making 15% of its electricity from renewables by 2020. That said, back-up systems are necessary to provide power when the wind is not so strong, mostly generated from fossil fuels and nuclear energy, but many of these power stations are due to be closed over the next few decades.

The exact details and timing of the project are a matter of negotiation but it does look like an extension of a European power grid concept which if large enough could absorb many of the hit-and-miss power output from renewable resources. There is a large installation called Desertec aimed at producing solar energy in north Africa and bringing that to southern Europe, which could provide it is thought up to 25% of Europe's electricity. Perhaps the future of continental electricity production will be made on a Europe-wide scale, but this still does not solve the problem of supplanting liquid fuels, to replace those currently derived from oil.

Related Reading.
"National Grid plans world's longest underwater power cable between Britain and Norway," By Rowena Mason.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

British Wheat Surplus Consumed to Make Bioethanol.

A bioethanol plant at Wilton (originally the home of the I.C.I. Advanced Materials Centre, and now a science park for a range of companies with similar interests) will consume one tenth of the U.K.'s home-grown wheat crop which is above the national surplus. 450 Million litres of bioethanol will be produced annually from 1.2 million tonnes of wheat. Since the U.K. wheat harvest ranges between 12 million and close to 14 million tonnes, the U.K.'s wheat surplus amounts to between half a million and three million tonnes, which goes for export. The demand by this Ensus plant and another refinery of similar size being built in Hull by B.P. means that our wheat exports will be nil.

Indeed it may be necessary to import wheat given that the combined demand from these plants will be around 2.3 million tonnes of it.

As the effect of peak oil becomes evident and fuel prices first rise in the face of imminent actual fuel shortages, surely it makes sense to grow as much of our food at home as proves possible, which amounts to only 60% at present, the rest being imported, rather than turning a food crop over to fuel production. And in regard to the latter, if the two plants produce say 900 million litres of ethanol per year, which is the energy equivalent of 630 million litres of hydrocarbon fuel, or 500,000 tonnes of it, this is less than 1% of the U.K.'s current fuel demand as is currently met from crude oil.

Related Reading.
"Hunger for biofuels will gobble up wheat surplus," By Robin Pagnamenta.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Water-Demand makes Renewables Unsustainable.

It takes resources to get resources, especially those of water, one that is often overlooked in the various strategies of obtaining renewable energy. It is reckoned to take 2,500 gallons of water to grow sufficient corn to make one gallon of ethanol, against which the often quoted, but still sizeable, four gallons of water required to produce a gallon of ethanol from corn (or other source of sugar) is a mere drop in the ocean. Indeed, the intention to produce 36 billion gallons of ethanol per year by 2022, would use enough water to keep Chicago supplied for over 100 years. In Illinois, fields are adequately watered by rainfall whereas in more westerly and dryer regions it is necessary for farmers to actively irrigate their fields.

California has given a target of producing 1 million gallons of ethanol annually, but to grow enough corn to do so would need the entire volume of water that is currently diverted from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Since this is the water that is used presently to irrigate 7 million acres of the Central Valley and provides water supplies for the cities of Southern California, it is debatable there is enough water to fulfil these purposes and that of wholesale ethanol production.

The problem of corn-ethanol, and its water demand, could be circumvented by making cellulosic ethanol instead but this technology is some years off from being one of large-scale production, and realistically, making ethanol in the quantities that are spoken of needs to get away from corn. In Brazil the sugar-cane ethanol industry is mature and is far less demanding in terms of water, since the crop is substantially supplied by rainwater.

I had not thought of there being a resource connection between solar-energy and water, but it seems there is. Photovoltaics are fairly independent of water, and generate clean (green) electricity with little demand once they are installed. The same is not true of solar power plants, for which a technology known as CST (Concentrating Solar Thermal) is more useful, in contrast to smaller, e.g. solar panels on the roof, type installations. CST employs an array of mirrors to focus sunlight onto a working fluid under pressure which is used to transfer heat to generate steam and then drive a steam-turbine to make electricity.

Solar thermal power plants (as do all power plants) produce waste heat, which is removed in cooling towers and released into the ambient atmosphere by the evaporation of water. In reality, beyond the initial stage that uses heat from the sun (and so is entirely renewable) the rest of the plant is that of any other kind of power plant and gets through huge quantities of water. Since it makes more sense to situate such CST installations is sunny spots (such as the desert Southwest), where there is year-round sunshine, there is an additional pressure therefore imposed on regions where securing adequate water supplies is already an issue, for example the Mojave Desert where it is planned to build 150 CST plants.

It is likely that heavy groundwater pumping would kill desert wildlife which depend on precious water from seeps and springs which would run dry. CST plants can be cooled by air but again the desert climate poses a problem, since higher outside temperatures decreases the efficiency of waste heat disposal, and wet-cooled plants are preferred because the heat-transfer is better, meaning they produce 5% more power and are 10% cheaper to build.

The problem is compounded by the effect of climate change which is blamed for a reduced flow in rivers out-west, and a consequent reduction in the amount of available hydroelectric power. The provision of water and energy are not independent agenda and need to be considered in a combined strategy.

Related Reading.
"When Renewable Is Not Sustainable," By Robert Glennon.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Night-Time Solar Energy.

Devices employing billions of heat collecting nanoantennas (“nantennas”) are under development, which may eventually provide a solar energy collector that is amenable to mass-production using flexible sheets, and will produce electricity at night. It is not presently possible to convert the energy collected to electricity but it is envisaged that once this hurdle is overcome, lightweight "skins" could be made to power all kinds of electrical devices from i-Pods to electric cars, at a higher efficiency than is possible with traditional PV cells. The nanoantennas also have the potential to cool buildings or electronics by collecting background infra-red (heat) energy which could be used to make electricity that could provide further cooling by powering air-conditioning units. Since they target mid-infrared rays, which the Earth continuously radiates as heat after absorbing energy from the sun during the day they could be used to produce electricity at night, in contrast with PV cells which are useless after dark. I.R.-driven PV cells are another route to providing night time solar electricity.

A nantenna is an electromagnetic collector designed to absorb specific wavelengths that are proportional to the size of the nantenna. Currently, Idaho National Laboratories has designed a nantenna to absorb wavelengths in the range of 3-15 μm. Since around 85% of the solar radiation spectrum contains light with shorter than infra-red wavelengths, in the range 0.4-1.6 μm it would be ideal to make nantennas of these dimensions to harvest more energy than is possible with PV. Nantennas work in practically the same way as rectifying antennas: namely that Incident light drags electrons in the antenna material back and forth at the same frequency as the incoming light, in consequence of the oscillating electric field component of the electromagnetic light wave. The refractive index of a material has a similar origin.

The oscillating electrons generate an alternating current (AC) in the antenna circuit, which must be rectified to convert it into DC power usually with a diode device of some kind, and the DC current can then be used to power an external load. Since the wavelengths in the solar spectrum lie in the approximate range 0.3-2.0 μm, a rectifying antenna needs to be on the order of hundreds of nm in size to provide an efficient energy collector. Since the oscillating (AC) frequency from the nantenna array is around 10 THz, converting it to the 50-60Hz power that the world uses poses a challenge in terms of using the technology to generate real usable power. The main problem with rectifying diodes is that they have a finite recovery time which limits their operating frequency. Commercially available ultrafast diodes presently have an upper limit of the order of several GHz, and so they need to be made to work faster. This seems to be the principal hurdle to the success of generating electricity using nantenna.

There have been many affirmations to the effect that the theoretical efficiency of nantennas is > 85%, which in comparison with the theoretical efficiency of single junction solar cells (30%) looks very impressive. There is some ambiguity over this, however, depending on exactly how the efficiencies are calculated for the two kinds of device.

The most obvious advantage of nantennas over semiconductor photovoltaics is that the nantenna arrays can be scaled to absorb any frequency of light. Since resonance frequency is in direct proportion to the size of the antenna, the array may be tuned by simply varying the size of the nantenna in the array to absorb specific light wavelengths. In the case of PV the frequency of absorbed light depends almost entirely on the band gap energy, and so the semiconductor material must be changed to vary the latter. Indeed, this aspect of dimensional engineering is in some ways reminiscent of nanotube and quantum dot devices. Although the latter work in quite different ways the point is made that it is not only the chemical composition of the material but the size of its assembly that provides a tuning to the absorption of light that is possible by a device.

Related Reading.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Algae Driven Batteries.

Taking the potential of algae into another dimension of energy production, research workers at Uppsala University have produced a novel lightweight battery by taking cellulose fibres from algae and coating them with a 50nm thin layer of polypyrrole.

The batteries have demonstrated charging capacities of between 25 and 33 mAh g−1 or 38−50 mAh g−1 per weight of the active material, can be charged with currents as high as 600 mA cm−2, and lose a mere six percent of their charging capacity after 100 charge/drain cycles. To quote from the link below, "In layman’s terms, these batteries are extremely light and can be charged in “11.3 seconds at 320 mA”.

The algae batteries have yet to be incorporated into a robust packaging which is another challenge for the team who have now made a battery that can take 1000 charges.

The batteries are of interest particularly because they should be cheap and amenable to mass production. However, as a consequence of their “low storage capabilities” they are unlikely to find application in e.g. MP3 players or laptops and certainly not in electric cars.

Prof. Maria Strømme said:

With the technique fully developed, I believe that we may see applications that we cannot really dream of today. Try to imagine what you can create when a battery can be integrated into wall papers, clothes, the packages of your medicines, etc.

At any rate it is interesting, as a cyborg device which does not require metals to make its essential working component, and even the polypyrrole conductor could be produced from biomass. That noted, I don't honestly see this as a saviour technology to obviate the energy crunch, but nor is it promised to be. Probably the most impacting use of algae in this respect is to make synthetic fuels, to replace increasingly scarce and costly oil and natural gas.

Related Reading.

"Green rechargable batteries are made from algae."

Monday, September 14, 2009

Russian Oil Production Peaks.

Since the year 2000, Russian oil production has increased by practically 50%, but this growth appears to have now peaked. The supply on Non-OPEC oil peaked early in this decade and it was only Russia, returning to force from the prior financial crisis that could offset the fall in the remaining parts of this sector. Non-OPEC accounts for about 60% of world oil production, but within the sector it is Russia alone that has maintained the plateau, providing almost one quarter of its output. Without Non-OPEC it will not be possible to raise world oil supply, and without Russia it would have already fallen. Russia alone could not maintain growth in Non-OPEC, and the peak in Russian supply means that it and world oil volumes must begin to decline.

The unavoidable fall in world oil production has excited the potential for exploration in extremely inhospitable regions of the world, particularly the Arctic. As a kind of dry-run for exploration above the Arctic circle, the Nordic Explorer vessel has "sailed" for Cape Farewell on the southern tip of Greenland. I cannot avoid thinking that the term "Farewell" is an ironic coincidence for the future of a world powered by oil, and the desperation to grab whatever of it is left to be grabbed; wherever that may be. According to the US Geological Survey, there could be as much as 50 billion barrels worth of oil under Greenland, which is around eighteen months worth for the word as a whole and can be compared with the 38 billion barrels produced in the North Sea since development of the region began in the 1960s.

Exploration of Greenland is not new, but so far the few wells that have been drilled there proved to be dry. However, with an inevitable long-term rising price of increasingly scarce oil and rising demand for it, further exploration projects there begin to look viable, on the basis that sooner or later someone will strike lucky. Global warming may prove an ally in this intention, since hitherto ice-blocked waterways will become open, thus rendering greater access to whatever oil and other mineral wealth may lie there. In the past two years, seven companies including Exxon Mobil, Chevron and the UK-based Cairn Energy have bought exploration blocks of southern and western Greenland.

In consequence of the long-term production of North Sea oil, the reserves there are notably depleted and it will require considerable investment and new technologies to get out what remains. The low price of a barrel of oil in consequence of last year's economic crash has discouraged many putative exploration projects, and now the US based Noble Energy has put its North Sea business on the market for $350 million. The firm thus joins an exodus of UK based oil-companies from the region in a move where long-established fields are sold-off in order to fund exploration in new regions, including deepwater projects and indeed the Arctic.

Related Reading.
[1] "Oil Supply: As Russian Production Tops Out, World Supply Will Continue to Slip," By Gregor Macdonald.
[2] "Oil giants zero in on untapped Greenland."
[3] "American oil group Noble Energy joins UK exodus from North Sea," By Danny Fortson.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Solar-Powered Oil.

This is a nifty idea: an oil field which employs solar energy to generate steam for enhanced extraction technologies. This particular innovation is due to Brightsource Energy who are using a 29 MW solar thermal power plant at a Chevron oil field based in Coalinga, California. The method of CTSP (Concentrated Thermal Solar Power), sometimes abbreviated further to CSP, uses an array of mirrors to focus sunlight onto a central boiler and so generates steam which can be employed to drive a steam turbine and generate electricity in the usual manner. This is a more efficient process currently than photovoltaic technology, but in the present example, rather than the steam being fed into a turbine, it is to be pumped down the oil-wells to help fluidise the oil.

The oil is thick and sticky at normal temperatures but when heated it flows more easily and can be pumped-out more readily. Oil companies often use steam for this purpose of so called enhanced extraction, but normally it is produced using fossil fuels such as gas, for example in the Fresno and Kern counties of California where the oil is particularly "heavy and gooey" to quote from the article cited below. Since this region also collects some of the most intense sunlight in the state, a happy marriage is to use some of it to get the oil out. Indeed, there are a number of other CSPs planned to be built in this region.

Brightsource has investments from Chevron, BP and the Norwegian Statoil Hydro (from a merger of Statoil and Norsk Hydro) and it has signed contracts to provide some 2,610 MW of electricity generating capacity from the CSPs. The solar-powered oil scheme is more important in view of the fact that a significant part of the costs of oil extraction relies on the cost of the natural gas. Presently, gas prices are around $3 per million Btus (British Thermal Units) and it is thought that once the price reaches $8.5 per Btu the solar steam system will prove competitive with the gas-fired units. Gas prices will rise as indeed will the price of oil and so in the longer run this could be a lucrative investment. I suppose there is less carbon emissions too, although since oil is being produced which will be burned overall it is not so environmentally friendly.

The rider is that the solar steam plants only work when the sun is shining and hence back-up units will be needed, which still use gas; the perennial problem of most renewable energy sources - that the power supply is not constant, be it solar, wind or wave.

Related Reading.

"A Solar-Powered Oil Field?" By Todd Woody. The New York Times, Green Inc. Energy, the Environment and the BottomLine.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Mexico Cantarell Oil Field Dead by End of 2010.

The giant Cantarell oil field, the world's eighth largest will be dead by the end of next year. Output peaked in 2004/2005 at around 2.2 million barrels a day (mbd) but will be well below the 0.5 mpd predicted by the end of 2009 - and extrapolating its apparently linear decline, it will be around zero by the end of 2010. Cantarell was a late field, since it was discovered in 1976, by which time there was a host of new technology available to make sure it kept pumping out oil, and by pressurizing the field, oil was pumped out at around 2 mbd for several years, when without this help a field would normally be expected to fall into decline.

However, a well only has so much oil to begin with and the faster this is recovered the quicker it becomes exhausted. It is likely therefore that the depletion side of Hubbert's peak will be a far steeper decline than the incline that rose to it, for many fields around the world, and it is debatable just how much recoverable oil there is all told. It has been suggested that the use of enhanced recovery techniques - i.e. pumping millions of barrels of seawater per day into e.g. the Ghawar field in Saudi Arabia has damaged the geological structure, meaning that less of its oil will ultimately be recovered.

Added to that it is debatable how much oil there was in Ghawar or in that region in general since the figures have been described as a "state secret". I have talked before [1] [2] on the subject of oil reserves and there may well be more than is typically accounted for. However, the limiting factor in avoiding an oil gap is how much can be recovered of a required quality (heavy or light; sour or sweet) in competition with the prevailing demand for it. The recession has put on hold many new oil recovery projects and the consequences of this will be brought forth as the world economy begins to smile once more. It will be a short-lived expression, however, as without enough oil there is no economic growth possible, but rathermore a terminal decline of all of the economy that is underpinned by oil, and that includes pretty much everything, even producing food.

The world's biggest, the Ghawar field is estimated [3] as having 66 - 100 billion barrels [Gb = Giga barrels] left which is around 2 - 3 years worth for the entire world. I doubt it will be evenly distributed though in the final analysis nor will any of the world's remaining oil for that matter, and even the putative 2250 Gb [3] world total is highly misleading since there is a tendency to simply divide it by 30 billion barrels a year or some projection of up to 40 billion barrels a year based on economic growth models and say, "we have decades worth of oil left so don't worry." We do have decades worth of oil left but we won't be able to pull it out fast enough to match such colossal demands and the oil peak is just that "a peak" beyond which decline in oil on the world markets is a matter of simple definition.

Even in its heyday of 2.2 mbd or 800 million barrels a year the Cantarell complex amounted to under 3% of present world oil consumption. Put thus it doesn't seem a big deal, except to the poor Mexican economy which depends considerably on its oil revenue from Cantarell. The Mexican people will undoubtedly suffer, as will we all since the decline of Cantarell is just what is happening elsewhere, and almost all of the giant fields which together account for 65% of the world's remaining oil have already encountered their production peak. In effect, world oil production has peaked or is so close to doing so that it is a matter of mere semantics to talk otherwise.

Meanwhile I am researching Forest Gardens and Permaculture, since without oil and such alternative means to grow food, especially in a country like Britain which imports 40% its food as carried-in by oil-based transport - and relies on oil to farm the rest of it, we are going to starve.

Related reading.

Friday, August 14, 2009

"World Challenge 09" Announces its 12 Finalists.

For the fifth year running, BBC World News and Newsweek magazine have joined Shell in a programme to support groups that provide benefit and support for local communities. "World Challenge 09" is a global competition which seeks to reward projects and businesses which bring economic, social and environmental benefits to local communities through grassroots solutions. The winner will get $20,000 and be announced at an awards ceremony in The Hague in December 2009, while the two runners-up will each get $10,000.

To quote E.F.Schumacher, "think global act local" which was the basis of his 1973 bestselling collection of essays, "Small is Beautiful - a study of economics as if people mattered." Indeed, this will become a paradigm for the entire world, not only developing nations, since industrialised societies will be forced to re-localise and rely on local production of food and energy as much as possible, as cheap resources of energy, especially oil, and other materials, notably metals begin to peak in their production, and the shelves of global "supermarket" begin to run empty.

The finalists are (listed alphabetically by country):

• Afghanistan: ‘Patterns of Change’ – Afghan Hands – assisting and educating women who have been widowed or are unable to provide for themselves as a result of conflict, economic desolation and erosion of serviceable infrastructure.

• Kenya: ‘Fuel Cell’ – Kenya Biogas – promoting an environmentally friendly way of tapping biogas as a clean source of energy.

• Haiti: ‘Love n’ Haiti’ – South-South Co-operation – a multi-dimensional effort to reduce violence and gang clashes in the Carrefour Feuilles district in Haiti, stimulating local economic activity and improving living conditions in the neighbourhood.

• India: ‘Solar Sisters’ – Barefoot Women Solar Engineers of Africa – improving the lives of people living in rural parts of Africa by training them to make clean, renewable and low cost sources of energy.

• Indonesia: ‘Nothing Wasted’ – Danamon Go Green, Danamon Peduli Foundation – converting traditional market waste into organic compost to be distributed amongst local farmers.

• Israel: ‘Off Grid Aid’ – Comet ME – providing basic energy services to off-grid communities in occupied Palestinian territories, in a way that is environmentally and socially sustainable.

• Namibia: ‘No Beating About The Bush’ – The Cheetah Conservation Fund Bush Project – harvesting thornbushes to restore farmlands, using environmentally and socially appropriate means and providing much-needed jobs to locals.

• Sri Lanka: ‘A Bright Idea’ – Safe Bottle Lamps – producing a simple, safe lamp that can be easily mass produced at low cost, using recycled glass. It is an effective, inexpensive and quick solution to serious burn problems encountered in many developing countries.

• Thailand: ‘Old School Thai’ – Andaman Discoveries – began as a tsunami relief effort and is now a leader in sustainable travel and development. It allows visitors and volunteers to directly support community education, village-led conservation, and cultural empowerment.

• UK: ‘Emission Control’ – Mootal – reducing methane emissions by up to 94% with the use of a simple garlic extract, while also improving the efficiency of livestock production.

• UK: ‘Jiko Rescue’ – Stoves for Survival – reducing reliance on local natural resources through the production and distribution of fuel-efficient ‚ ‘Jiko’ stoves, which reduce the consumption of firewood and charcoal by at least 55%.

• USA: ‘Fungi Town’ – BTTR Ventures – turning one of the largest waste streams in America and the vast quantities of coffee ground waste generated daily, into a high-demand, nutritious, and valuable food product for local consumers.

BBC World News will broadcast six 30-minute programmes profiling each of the World Challenge 09 finalists, showing how their projects and businesses are changing lives and local communities. In addition, Newsweek will detail the projects in six advertorials. The audience and readers are then invited to vote online - for their favourite project or business from 28 September.

For further information:
BBC World News Press Office
Tel: +44 208 433 2419

Jan Angilelia, Newsweek
Tel: + 1 212 445 5638

World Challenge 09 will be broadcast on BBC World News from October 3rd, 2009. Full schedule details can be found at:

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Soil-Bugs Provide Eco-Solution to Plastic Pollution.

Despite the ubiquitous uses of plastics, from an environmental perspective they are a menace. Rebecca Hosking's "plastic bag" campaign is well known, when driven by the horror of her first-hand experience as a wildlife photographer seeing birds and sea-creatures tangled-up in plastic that had crossed the world's oceans, she persuaded her home town of Modbury in Devon to ban plastic bags in the shops there. Most plastics are extremely resistant to biological degradation and are expected hang around for centuries, causing much environmental calamity. They are also a significant component of landfill. What then, if a simple, cheap and eco-friendly process could be devised with which to not only decompose plastic waste, but to turn it into useful products? There may indeed be such a solution according to the promise of preliminary results from labs around the world, in the form of pseudomonas putida - a bacterium found in soil, known for its ability to destroy naphthalene as a soil-contaminant.

A modified version of the pseudomonas bacterium has been shown able to decompose styrene, which is recovered by pyrolysis (thermal decomposition in the absence of oxygen) of styrofoam (polystyrene), and to convert it into polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), which are themselves useful plastics, e.g. in medical procedures including skin-grafts, but are biodegradable. Dr Kevin O'Connor at University College Dublin thinks that the bacteria can save the world from being suffocated by toxic plastic waste. The bacteria seem to show an affinity for aromatic molecules, and so feed on polystyrene, polyethyeneterephthalate (PET), which in low-grade form is used to make plastic drinks bottles. Thus, rather than all of this ending up in landfill, it can be used as a feedstock for production of PHA in digesters in which pseudomonas putida grow, using the waste plastic as an energy source.

Around 126 million pounds (sixty million tonnes or so) of styrene waste is released into the environment in the United States each year, contaminating ground, water and air. Styrene is itself carcinogenic (causes cancer). O'Connor believes that within five years, each pound of styrene will be convertible by pseudomonas into half a pound of useful PHA. To place this in context, 126 million pounds of styrene waste could yield 63 million pounds of PHA which is about the same amount that Americans buy each year in terms of plastic goods. When exposed in soil, air or water for several weeks, the plastic simply degrades like a banana-peel. It may be possible to genetically modify the bacteria so that it eats other kinds of toxic waste and converts that to different kinds of useful, biodegradable plastic.

The new, useful plastic can be recovered from the bacterial cells simply by treating the mixture with a mild detergent, which breaks down the cell walls and releases the PHA as tiny granules - nonetheless, separating the plastic from dead cell debris does pose a challenge. The pound to half a pound conversion figure, while being an optimistic projection in five years time, is quite a leap from the mere pound to a tenth of a pound that is obtained using the current technology. If the process can be made cheaper and the price of the PHA pound for pound reduced to a similar order as that for conventional oil-based plastics, then business is likely to be more interested, and that is likely key to the success of this technology. I am enthused by this, as a good example of working with nature to find a solution to an environmental problem, which does not add a greater burden, e.g. using detergents to break-up oil slicks, but that a living organism can be grown to do the job rather than placing a further reliance on oil-based chemicals, which have both caused the problem in the first place and are likely to soon run into short supply.

Related Reading.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dangerous Swiss Glacial Lake to be Drained.

A glacial lake has formed above the town of Grindelwald in the Swiss canton, Bern. Since the lake has no overground drainage, it poses a risk of bursting through the weakest point and flooding the valley below. The formation of the lake is attributed to global warming over the Alps and melting of the lower Grindelwald glacier (Unterer Grindelwaldgletscher, in German) leaving a huge basin filled with meltwater. I have noted before that I am convinced by the recession of this glacier, that I have witnessed personally over the past 25 years that there is a redistribution of heat over the earth, and the Alps are indeed warming, whether the planet as a whole is or not. In 1984, my wife and I actually sat on the edge of the glacier, so close was it to the alpine path; now it has receded tens of metres back.

I became aware of this glacial lake only last week, while visiting the Bernese Oberland, and finding the Glacial gorge (Gletscherschluct) was closed beyond the first 150 meters. The reason for this is that a serious engineering project is now underway to help the lake to drain. A tunnel is to be dug by drilling and blasting some 2 km diagonally in the flank of the Maettenberg mountain to the glacial lake, allowing a giant "plug-hole" through which the lakewaters can drain into the gorge. It is proposed that the working 700 metre "hole" will be ready by september (the lower 1.3 km being only to provide an access channel), and allowing that 3 metres of rock are advanced by each blast, this must amount to say three blasts per day (over 60 or so days), removing around 11,000 tonnes of rock altogether, in 15 tonne segments, the detritis from which will be cleared out by a large scooping-machine that can traverse the incipient tunnel, and dumped into the gorge. Interestingly, enormous quantities of rock are discharged into the gorge and Luetchine river system there naturally, and further downstream there is a cement factory, which uses this bestowal of rock (converted to a pulverised form) as a useful raw material, so nothing goes to waste. A good example of Swiss pragmatism.

The lake is 700 metres long, 300 metres wide and 35 metres deep and is estimated to hold currently 1.7 million cubic metres (tonnes) of water. It is feared that an avalanche or heavy rainfall could trigger severe flooding of the areas below, even as far as Interlaken. Since this is a central region for tourism in Switzerland, if it did flood it would be very bad for business.

It is planned that the drain will be in full operation by spring 2010.

Related Reading.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Can Mushrooms Save the World?

A mycelium (plural mycelia) is the vegetative part of a fungus and consists of a mass of branching, thread-like tendrils called hyphae [1]. Fungal colonies composed of mycelia are found in soil and on or in many other substrates. Usually, a single spore germinates into a monokaryotic mycelium which cannot reproduce sexually; however, when two compatible monokaryotic mycelia join and form a dikaryotic mycelium, that mycelium may form fruiting bodies such as mushrooms. A mycelium may be minute, forming a colony that is too small to see, or it may be extensive, as in the following quote:

Is this the largest organism in the world? This 2,400-acre (9.7 km2) site in eastern Oregon had a contiguous growth of mycelium before logging roads cut through it. Estimated at 1,665 football fields in size and 2,200 years old, this one fungus has killed the forest above it several times over, and in so doing has built deeper soil layers that allow the growth of ever-larger stands of trees. Mushroom-forming forest fungi are unique in that their mycelial mats can achieve such massive proportions.

Paul Stamets, Mycelium Running [2]

It is through the mycelium that a fungus can absorb nutrients from its environment, which it does via a two stage process. Firstly the hyphae secrete enzymes onto a food source, which break down polymers into monomer units, which are then absorbed into the mycelium by processes of active transport and facilitated diffusion. In both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, mycelium plays a vital role in the decay of plant matter, and it contributes to the organic component of soil releasing CO2 back into the atmosphere as it grows. The mycelium of mycorrhizal fungi acts in symbiosis with a plant whose roots it has colonised, and acts as a conduit for water and nutrients such a phosphorus to the plant, receiving in return sugars from the plant which it produces through photosynthesis [3]. Some resistance is conferred also against plant pathogens by mycelium, and which also provides a food-source for many soil invertebrates - beetles and worms, etc.

Since one of the primary roles of fungi in an ecosystem is to decompose organic compounds, it is proposed that fungi have the potential to clean-up pollutants such as petroleum (oil) and pesticides from the environment as part of a bioremediation strategy. Indeed, Paul Stamets has proposed that there are "6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World", in a recent lecture [4], from which I have summarised the following:

He proposes that the Earth has now entered the sixth major extinction cycle (6X) on the planet and it is debatable whether humans will survive or not. Mycelium infuses all landscapes, is extremely tenacious and can bind together 30,000 times its own mass of soil. They give rise to the humus soils across the continents of the earth. Amazingly there is a multi-directional transfer of nutrients between plants, mitigated by mycelium - thus the mycelium is the "mother" that gives nourishment from alder and birch trees to hemlocks, cedars and Douglas firs.

Humans are related closely to the mycelia, and we both inhale oxygen and exhale CO2. Indeed, we are closer to fungi than we are to any other kingdom of life. A group of 20 biologists researching into eukarotic microbes published a paper two years ago in which was proposed "opisthokonta": a super-kingdom that connects animalia and fungi. Indeed, humans and fungi share the same pathogens. Since fungi resist the action of bacteria through natural antibiotics, our best antibiotic drugs come from fungi. It is only having spored (sporulation) that fungi rot, and the sequence of microbes that grow on rotting mushrooms are vital for the overall health of the forest. The microbes give rise to the trees and create the debris fields that feed the mycelium, which spreads underground. In a single cubic inch of soil there can be more than eight miles of cells.

Fungi were the first organisms to come onto land some 1.3 billion years ago, followed by plants several hundred million years afterwards. The two realms are connected mechanistically: namely that the mycelium produces oxalic acid (two CO2 molecules joined together) and many other kinds of acid and enzymes. The acids produced react with rock and form calcium oxalate and other salts, which causes the rock to crumble and is the first step in the generation of soil. Hence fungi and mycelium sequester CO2 in the form of calcium oxalate.

Specifically, the six solutions are:

(1) To decompose diesel and other petroleum waste - e.g. as in an oil spill. Notably, the mushrooms grow happily and decompose even toxic polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). The ecosystem is restored too, since the fungi act as vanguard species that provide a way in for other biological communities.

(2) As biological filters called "bunker spawn" to remove E.coli or other biological undesirables, from downstream water from farms or factories. Mycelium can also be used to filter silt from runoff from logging roads.

(3) Mycelium and its metabolites are active against smallpox viruses and both flu A viruses - H1N1, H3N2 - and flu B viruses. In a blend combination, a selectivity index of greater than 1,000 was found against H5N1.

(4) Extracts of mycelium are powerful insecticides, and are active against carpenter ants, termites and fire ants, which has huge implications to prevent insects from eating wood-framed houses.

(5) Paul Stamets has invented the Life Box, which is a means for producing various seeds, fungi, crops, beans or corn, or even an old growth forest, in which is initially supplied shoes, say, but unlike the standard lifeless "cardboard box" which may simply be recycled as cardboard, the corrugated structure of the life box having been priorly seeded, it thus generates new plant life if simply put outside and watered.

(6) In the latter example, the mycelium converts cellulose into fungal sugars, and so offers the potential for ethanol production from the sugars. The "fuel" is called Econol. Growing mycelium in soils helps to regenerate the soil and acts as a carbon storage system.

There is much to be recommended here and I feel that mycelia could be a useful member of the biological arsenal with which to restore soil health and capture unwanted atmospheric carbon, along with other methods of regenerative agriculture, and also to produce useful chemicals without the need for oil as the raw feedstock.

Related Reading.





Thursday, July 16, 2009

We Need Good Polytechnics - not Bad Universities.

"University Shambles" is the title of my recent novel ( which is a black comedy but it does satire some of the worst developments in the vastly expanded and rejigged university system, as noted by a recent reviewer:

“A highly amusing insight into the university sector as it has recently expanded relentlessly under government edict. It presents a devastating picture of the extent to which the notion of scholarship has been betrayed by a culture of managerialism, where the mediocre is airbrushed into ‘excellence’, and achievement in research is subordinated to the spurious concept of‘ ‘academic leadership’ to engineer bogus professorships for the unworthy. One’s heart bleeds for the unfortunate hero lured by an unscrupulous vice-chancellor to throw in his lot with an institution where academic subjects are forced into an endless cycle of mergers with business-orientated units and his research belittled by envious superiors. One wishes only that we are given here a parody of life in some institutions – no such luck. A thoroughly good read, but best taken with a large scotch at hand to dull the pain as Charles’ life unravels.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself, and it’s all really rather sad. In principle, the idea of expanding access to higher education seems like a move of great social progress, but when thousands of graduates leave somewhere now called a university with a degree that does not fit them for the “world of work” (WoW), and having inherited a massive debt to boot, it is dubious that the opportunities of the young have been enhanced at all, and probably the reverse is the case. One vice chancellor is noted recently as saying that the university system is “no longer fit for purpose” and his university has now introduced a WoW course which teaches fledgling graduates among other things the importance of setting an alarm clock to get out of bed on time in the morning. Good for him in tackling the situation, but it does rather make an indictment of what the system has become.

Prior to 1992, there were polytechnics and universities and the two brands of institution had not been forged for a single purpose. The polys were excellent at their job and more practically based than the universities, and tended, having arisen from agglomerations of local colleges of technology, teacher training, agriculture and maybe business and the arts, to train their students to work in industry, and indeed had good connexions with local industry. The universities were autonomous institutions, with a strong commitment to academic freedom, but sadly in recent years more than one professor has been evicted by one means or another for voicing their opinion not only on what has happened to higher education but other matters too, which had been taken as a breach of confidence especially if the “university” they worked for had some vested interests in them.

The title “professor” is an issue in its own right, and indeed the right of entitlement to it. In the vastly expanded university system, there are professors with little or no credibly published work and yet they are supposed to be professor of a material subject such as “chemical education”, "evolutionary biology" or the like. This sounds good until someone looks into the credentials of such people and if an investigative journalist were to do that it would look highly embarrassing both for the individual and the university. However, many former polytechnics, in their attempt to become universities as they were urged to do in 1992, seem to have handed out the title and also the second in line to it - Reader - to members of staff for academic leadership (i.e. being head of department) or other more vague reasons, so that the accepted meaning of these titles is becoming devalued or lost entirely in some cases.

On inspection of the “criteria for promotion to reader and professor” at some universities, indeed research as measured by publications in internationally renowned journals is subordinated to perhaps fourth on the list below administration, academic leadership, course-design and so on. All are an essential part of a professor’s job but prior to 1992, without serious scholarship in evidence such an elevation would have been unthinkable; now it is commonplace. There are subjects too, such as Pharmacy Practice, where in order to attract someone from the profession - i.e. who has practised as a pharmacist - the only way that this kind of salary can be matched is to award them a professorship, even though they may have very weak scholastic accomplishments indeed. This sadly is the case even in some of the older and more established universities, not just ex-polys. The latter must appear particularly galling to members of staff in other subjects like physics and chemistry who despite excellent publication records and other internationally recognised measures of academic worth, are held-back on the reader scale for years and denied a professorship.

There has never been a time when Britain needs its higher education more than now. We are in the gravest economic peril, and probably the world is now at the end of capitalism with relentless growth no longer possible. As both oil and gas become rapidly more expensive and more scarce, revamping our farms to run on sustainable agriculture rather than oil-based fuels and fertilizers made from natural gas, providing as much energy as is possible from renewables, and most importantly developing the means for living which use far less energy are key to the survival of the nation. Bringing all of this about will take a great volume of such practical skills as were dispensed excellently by the polytechnics and their forerunner colleges, and we need a return to down to earth establishments like this, rather than “new universities” who are awarding degrees in media, psychology, football studies and so on, due to the government’s bums on seats funding policies.

The polytechnics should be fully reinstated with pride, and funded accordingly: we need good polys, not bad universities.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Human Population and the Earth’s Resources.

Part 5. of an essay on Global Warming with A. Koewius, put here for comments.

While accepting that the earth-system is a complex set of interacting mechanisms that transport heat from the equator and tropics toward the cooler polar regions, the influence of CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere is expected to cause an accompanying elevation in the Mean Global Temperature (MGT) as its concentration increases. At the outset of this project, one of us (CJR) had looked askance at the geological record of temperature over time and felt unconvinced by the argument that humans were entirely culpable for rising CO2 levels and that in any case, there were profound periodicities in the temperature and CO2 levels over time. In particular, that every 100,000 years, an interglacial maximum occurs, during which the earth warms by 10 or more degrees as a mean, and the level of CO2 and indeed methane increase in accord with this. After perhaps 10,000 - 20,000 years the interglacial period comes abruptly to an end and the next ice-age ensues. This and other cycles is evident from ice-core samples taken over the past 750,000 years, extending to depths of three or more kilometres.

On detailed inspection, an unexpected result emerges and which is counterintuitive to the commonly understood global-warming model in which increases in CO2 act as a forcing factor to a rise in the planetary temperature. Indeed, it is found that there is a lag in converse to this notion: that the earth first begins to warm out of the ice-age and the atmospheric gases then increase in concentration; not the reverse. Global warming “deniers” (as is not too strong a term to use to label them, given the white heat of emotion that has entered the subject, and the huge amounts of money involved both in terms of grants for climate modelling research and far more the costs of various carbon-elimination schemes) often cite this as evidence that the GW model is wrong and that the earth may well be heating-up but by some unspecified mechanism that is unconnected with the levels of Carbon in the atmosphere. However, it is clear that the elevation in CO2 levels during the past half-century correlates closely with the mass of fossil carbon, burned in the form of coal, oil and natural gas during this same period, of which natural carbon sinks absorb around 40%. That the excess carbon originates from fossil sources is further supported by a decreasing ratio of atmospheric 13C/12C carbon isotopes.

To be sure, there are many uncertainties in detail, and we will only know the truth about climate change when the experiment has been fully conducted in real time, i.e. only those living in the year 2100 will know what the climate is like then. All else is theory, as is true of the present effort as discoursed in this essay. Nonetheless, if the degree of global warming is likely to be as severe (up to 6 degrees Centigrade) as some models predict, with attendant catastrophic effects on global climate, we are left with a question almost like bookmakers’ odds, as to how much we are prepared to gamble on the race - the survival of the human race and its civilization.

The betting-odds as defined by a scientific “consensus” - if there can ever be such a thing in the methodology of real science - are that we must make drastic cuts in our emissions of carbon into the atmosphere, or face unparalleled perils for humanity. However, it is not a single horse we need to review the pedigree of, in making our bets, since the business of whether we curb our carbon emissions is not simply a matter of choice but it is inevitable that we must burn less carbon, for the underpinning reason that fossil resources such as oil, gas and coal are available in only limited amount; hence their supply will fail our relentless demand for them, in short order - a mere “spike” in terms of the longevity of human civilization.

There is an Arab proverb that goes something like: “My grandfather rode a camel; my father drove a car; I ride a jet-plane; my son will ride a camel.” In an amusingly quirky way this points to the essential consequences of what has been dubbed “peak oil”, but peaks are appearing for many other resources, of energy in the form of gas, coal and uranium, and of many other pivotal elements upon which a population of 6.7 billion has grown. Simply put, there are too many of us and thus we are using-up too much of the earth’s resources too fast. It has been estimated that if each member of this vast population of species lived at a U.S. level of consumption, it would take 5 “earths” to provide for them, and the figure is not so much lower - and far in excess of this single earth that we have in reality - for all other Western countries.

Yet, in the illusion of limitless growth, which is the fundamental tenet of capitalism, each of the vastly populous developing nations such as China, India and others in Asia and South America, aspires to this collective absurdity, which even the present “haves” in the industrialised West cannot maintain for much longer; let alone that the “have nots” draw similarly on the bestowal of the planet, laid down millennia past. If we accept that we must use less fossil fuels, an action that assists both purposes of curbing carbon emissions, in the interests of mitigating climate change, and of putting the brakes on getting through them too fast, we step into the quagmire of how we are to go about this in practical terms. In the midst of the present recession, all attention certainly at governmental level across the world, is beamed onto how we can “restart growth”. Perhaps we can’t. Maybe we are witnesses to the end of capitalism and we need to converge our efforts - with the remaining resources available to us - upon a truly sustainable plan, which the status quo of “growth” and any projections based on it is not.

It is chilling that if a logistic function is fitted to global population statistics - albeit that the rate of growth is in decline; but the population is still growing - similar to that which may be applied to resource depletion e.g. oil, a peak in population occurs in the year 2028 at 7.1 billion (not much more than there are of us now), and then the numbers fall dramatically to 2.5 billion by 2100. This flies in the face of the predicted “over 9 billion by 2050” given by the WHO in an effort to encourage us to breed less. Almost certainly, a peak scenario of this kind, if real, will be a mirror of a peak and decline of the resources that such a huge population is dependent on to exist. Thus, even controlling population, as must be done, is a choice out of our hands. Even feeding so many may prove impossible, let alone that all meet a Western standard of living.

The issue of food production applies to the industrialised developed nations in the West perhaps more than anywhere else, since we have grown to depend on an industrialised system of agriculture which relies entirely on oil for tractor fuel and natural gas to make artificial nitrogenous fertilizers, since the quality of soil has fallen to a level that it would be effectively “dead” without constant external inputs of fertilizers, and useless to grow anything on. Without oil, we have no working farms, and even rock phosphate which is the basis of phosphorus fertilizers peaked over 20 years ago - thus our methods of food production, the most fundamental essential for human survival is living on borrowed time. Clearly, we must break our dependence on fossil resources, of all kinds.

There are many who are persuaded that no fundamental changes in lifestyle, in the West at least, are necessary. In the U.S. the car is king, in part due to the large distances routinely traversed in getting to work and the need to escape from urban dormitories to find amenities like schools, shops etc. Europe is not so much different, and air-travel too is a normal feature of life both for business and pleasure. Those who might also be quite appropriately called “deniers” - to the resource dearth issue - comfort themselves that we will simply switch from and oil-based economy to a hydrogen economy, or a totally electrified system with personal transport preserved in either scenario. This is unlikely in the short term, or ever, since the provision of fossil fuels, most pressingly oil, is under imminent threat, and there is insufficient time remaining to inaugurate and install anything close to 600 million vehicles as currently grace the world’s highways. Hydrogen powered and electric planes are unlikely to ever be a serious contender and all in all, a relocalisation of society appears on the cards, from the increasingly global to one that uses far less transport. If the loss of oil and gas is forced upon us abruptly, the result will be anarchy, since we will suddenly be without mechanisms for food production and distribution and the means to earn money with which to buy what is available.

The issue of time is almost criminally negligent, since even ignoring M. King Hubbert’s “peak oil” warning of 1956, when he worked for the Shell Development Company, the later oil-shocks of the 1970s made clear the vulnerability of the West upon the price and availability of cheap oil. In 1973, the Arab OPEC nations decided to punish the West for its support of Israel during the Yom Kippur (also called the Ramadan) War, and by closing its valves by a mere 5%, the price of oil shot up by 400%. The Iran Iraq conflict in 1979 had a similar effect due to a reduction in the supply of cheap oil onto the world markets. Oil and economies are inextricably linked and it has been speculated that the hike in the price of a barrel of oil to nearly $150 triggered the stock market crash last summer (2008) and augered-in the present recession. The price of oil is now around $70 again per barrel, up from around $25 only a few months ago, and a further crash is on the cards if it rises once more toward its previous high. There were various projects begun in the 1970s to find substitutes for oil, including making oil from algae, which is enjoying a renaissance - but once cheap oil came back onto the markets, the incentive for such alternatives evaporated and many (such as the US Algal Oil project) were discontinued on grounds of cost. If the price of oil rises above $100 a barrel some of these schemes, including the environmentally filthy fabrication of synthetic “oil” from the tar sands, and getting “oil” by cracking primordial kerogen from “oil shale”, will become economically appealing .

None of these schemes will come on-stream quickly enough to compensate for the loss of conventional crude oil within a decade or so however and they will cost a fortune, given the unparalleled swathe of “new” engineering that would be necessitated. In the short order, it is the depletion of resources that is the greatest threat to humanity, with the effect of global warming perhaps as some future legacy to be reaped as a driver of climate change. On account of all the above, we need to move away from carbon based fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

The end sight is easy to envisage, on some ideal horizon of optimism. i.e. We give-up on the idea of the global supermarket and focus on local food production and economies, thus needing less in the way of fuel ab initio. Methods of regenerative agriculture (permaculture) are key in this respect, and it is estimated that 40% of human carbon emissions could be captured by soil if it were farmed using regenerative methods - e.g. deliberately moving around herds of grazing animals and growing cover crops. “Forest gardens”, which involve a symbiosis of species-diversity capture N and P nutrients naturally via a mixture of flora and fauna working in an interacting holistic ecology. Probably we cannot solve all our energy and resource problems nor support 7 billion people, but a planned way-down from our peak of excess is the only way to mitigate anarchy and the loss of the fruits of humanity, rather than the fearsome population crash that is sometimes called a “die-off”. It is this uneasy transition that poses the real challenge.