Thursday, January 29, 2009

Fuel Algae Growing a Success.

The University of Nevada have demonstrated that several hundred gallons of algal biomass can be grown in a 5,000 gallon open-air pond. To stress, the pond is not covered and is left open to the elements and at ambient temperatures down into the 20's of degrees C. The results indicate that algae can be grown around the year and a new spring crop is anticipated.

The research, led by Professor John Cushman, supports the ideal that with a correct choice of algal strain and the right technology, round-year growing is possible in the relatively arid prevailing conditions of Nevada. The strategy is one of seeding the pond with a starter culture (unspecified while patents are pending), which I believe PetroSun plans to use to grow algae on a large (30 million gallons/year) scale in Arizona. Shell is working on a similar approach in Hawaii, in which open ponds are inoculated with a predetermined algal culture to out-compete other potentially invasive strains. It is anticipated that the Nevada algae harvest will yield 30% of its mass of lipids and 5% starches (carbohydrate), and presumably the rest is protein and nucleic acids? This is the composition of dry algae that is being quoted.

Since open ponds can be used, the high initial capital costs incurred in using "closed" photobioreactors or covered ponds is avoided. The university is assessing other kinds of algae for their fitness in this application, with a longer term goal of producing algae that grow well on saline (salt) water and produce around 50% of their mass of oil. Algal oil is similar is chemical composition to vegetable oils and can similarly be transesterified to biodiesel; however, this does add both capital and energy costs to the process.

The ponds themselves were made in collaboration with Energis, LLC and Bebout and Associates, and unsurprisingly there is industrial backing and interest. Dr John Bebout who is the founder of Bebout and Associates, is quoted as saying:

"We believe that the methodologies and technologies being developed will result in high-quality biofuel that can compete in price per gallon with both current domestic biofuel production and imported fuels."

The truth is that algae are the only way to make biofuel on a significant scale and on marginal land, so as not to compromise crop production, and to anywhere nearly match the amount of fuel that is derived from crude oil. I think this is an optimistic development although bringing the technology to fruition on that kind of grand scale will take a significant lead-in time and probably not help us avoid the arrival of gap-oil as the effect of peak-oil begins to bite.

Related Reading.
"First crop of algae for biofuels a success."

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Russian Peak Oil.

Now this is scary. Russia, the second largest producer of oil, only to Saudi Arabia has peaked its production. It appears that Russian production of oil has fallen for the first time in a decade, so reports the newspaper, Vedomosti. The decrease in Russian oil may portend the decline of world peak oil but underpins the reality that different sources of oil will peak at different times, thus shifting economic and political power around the globe. If it is true that oil production has indeed peaked in Russia, that leaves only three main oil exporting nations, namely Saudi, Kuwait and Iraq. I believe that Iran has substantial reserves of oil, similar to those under the sands of Iraq, and this suggests a further political tension in the Middle East if the rest of the world, the West in particular, wants to get its hands on it. I think we can expect further allegations over uranium enrichment, supplies of weapons into Iraq and so on as a subterfuge to access Iran's oil.

Since there is a massive U.S. military force throughout the Arab world, it is unlikely that Saudi will play silly-buggers with the West, but in this unstable economic realm, the issue of Iran is a rather brittle one. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, oil-production has increased by 23% during the past thirty years, while consumption has risen by 30%. The U.S. consumes more oil than the next top five oil-using nations combined, i.e. China, India, Japan, Russia and Germany. Germany uses about one and a half times the amount of oil that Britain does, more or less in line with its larger population.

If Israel were to launch a military strike against Iran, in retaliation, the Iranians could block supplies of oil through that narrow geological gap of the Persian Gulf, and inaugurate a full-scale war from which the oil-markets would respond in debatable but unhealthy ways, taking the world stock markets along with them.

Most likely, the price of crude oil would rocket, and during the global recession, we would find that worst of all worlds, "stagflation", where the economy is weak with ramping job-loses, but the cost of oil and hence everything surmounts whatever persists, i.e. less money in your pocket but more notes to be handed over in payment of basics like food. This reminds me of the history of Nazi Germany, where an economic meltdown meant that people were taking wheelbarrows of banknotes to the bakers to buy a loaf of bread, money had devalued by maybe a half in a single day and it was cheaper to paper the walls of your home with banknotes than to buy wallpaper.

If oil production has peaked in the second greatest oil producing nation on earth, the focus of dependence will issue upon the Middle East, and the fulcrum of the stability of the world will once again turn toward the "cradle of civilization" and which hand it decides to deal. Either way, we can only take this as a warning of the inevitable and imminent eventuality of peak oil.

Related reading.
"Peak Oil production in Russia Suggests Worldwide Supplies on the Brink." By Reggie Abaca,

Friday, January 23, 2009

Is "Gap-Oil" Imminent?

Back in the summer of 2008, when the oil price reached almost $150 a barrel, Western leaders practically implored Saudi Arabia to increase its output of crude oil otherwise their economies would be crippled in efforts to afford the oil that underpins them. Saudi obliged, but there followed the credit crunch and the house of cards that the world banking system proved itself to be, collapsed, with a drop in the price of oil to around one quarter of its zenith.

The economic slowdown means that less oil is being used and in collusion with an upbeat supply, the price has nose-dived, along it must be said with the value of metals and other elements of a global economy whose hunger could barely be fed, only six months ago.

The low price of oil has hit the economies of the Middle East hard, especially Iran, and chaffed further friction there, and in conclusion OPEC has decided to reduce its production of crude oil in an effort to recover more income from it. This strategy was anticipated by all nations but it now looks that the global production of oil is falling at a faster rate than anyone had expected. The reason is that the OPEC cut now coincides with a steep decline in oil supplies from nations outside of that group.

The upshot is that a price increase can be expected, and oil tankers and their cargoes that have been impossible to sell even a month ago because of the glut in the "physical" (real) oil market, are now selling fairly fast, as refineries seek other sources of oil to replace supplies that are no longer coming from Saudi, Iran and Venezuela. Basically, the decline in supply is now falling into line with the reduction in demand, but it may be the case that supply will fall below demand, leading to an oil gap, which is what happened briefly last summer to drive the price of crude to the staggering levels we saw then.

The situation is more complex now, because we are in the midst of a recession and demand for oil has fallen accordingly and will do so further, leading potentially to a cat and mouse game of supply and demand, with violent oscillations in the price of oil, and presumably the stock markets too, since the two phenomena are inextricably linked and one may drive the other. The key factor seems to be whether the economy and its demand for oil will recover or not in the near future.

OPEC controls 40% of the world's supply of oil and this is expected to fall from last summer's 32.5 million barrels a day to 30 million barrels a day this month. Mexico the world's sixth largest producer had a 9% decrease in its production last year, and the financial services company Sanford Bernstein, have predicted that U.S. production could fall by 1.3 m bbl/day in 2009 and early 2010, which is around one third of the 4.2 m bbl/day that OPEC has said it will cut production by.

Related Reading.
"Oil production tumbles faster than expected." By Carole Hoyos and Javier Bias.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Growing Algae on Marginal Land.

There is an inevitable compromise to be met between growing crops to make biofuel from and crops for food. The Earth has around 15 million km^2 of arable land available, which if used in its entirety for the purpose, could provide around 1.5 billion tonnes of rape-seed oil which is equivalent to 11 billion barrels of crude oil, still far shy of the 30 billion barrels of conventional oil currently consumed annually, and we still need to feed a rising global population, predicted by the WHO to transcend 9 billion by 2050.

The problem is that crop production is highly limited in its ability to harvest sunlight through photosynthesis, and as an alternative we might consider growing algae as a source of oil. Many strains of algae are more photosynthetically efficient than many land-based plants, and studies have demonstrated that up to 100 times the quantity of oil can be produced per hectare from algae, e.g. chlorella, than from say rape-seed, i.e. closer to 100 tonnes (700 barrels) as compared with around one tonne (7 barrels).

Algae offer the further advantage that they do not require quality arable land and they can be grown on saline water (e.g. in deserts) on on wastewaters. Thus there is the potential to use them to clean wastewaters in the process as an additional benefit. Algae can be cultivated in open-pond systems or in tubular bioreactors, the latter for example may be similar to the Agri-Drip tubing used for irrigation, and so can be laid out across any land, including land-fill sites or any kind of marginal land, such as is often classified as brown field.

It is the yields of algae that are their most attractive feature and it is estimated that 3,200 km^2 of land area could provide enough algal-oil to fuel the United Kingdom, replacing the equivalent of some 40 million tonnes of crude oil. For comparison, the area of Cornwall is 3,500 km^2, or just 1.4% of the U.K. mainland area. In the latter calculation, it is assumed that transport is converted to more efficient diesel engines which derive 50% more in terms of tank to wheels energy than petrol engines do. It has also been proposed that algae production might be used as part of a carbon-capture strategy, since algae grow more efficiently in an atmosphere containing around 15% CO2, and this is readily provided from the effluent of coal and gas fired power stations.

Thus algae may also contribute to meeting our carbon emissions targets. The non-lipid (oil) component of algae, i.e. carbohydrate and protein, may find additional use as high-value products for food production, or the carbohydrate can be digested and fermented as a source of bioethanol and other fuels. Thermal cracking of the algae per se can form a source of biochar, for carbon sequestration and soil-improvement, and syn-gas which may be burned directly as a fuel or converted via Fischer-Tropsch catalysis to synthetic low-emission diesel fuels.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Victorian Values.

Cold, cold, I watched them build

the pigsty; looking like some scene

from “in the bleak midwinter.” Bleak

of all modern conveniences we

may have done better not to invent;

they had wood and coal, and oil

for lamps; no electric then, and gas

lamps only lit the cities, piped and

retorted from coal. The arrival of

crude oil may have saved the whale

in its millions from the lamps; powered

both the first and second leg of the

war of the worlds. Those clever

Germans made their fuel from coal -

ersatz, they called it, a substitute,

drawn into fraction in great plants in the

Ruhr; that flame of industry blown-up

and blown out by a million defecating

lancasters, or so the noise must have

seemed. Ever since, the third leg has

limped through good times and richer

ones, for the few who don’t really care.

We all blame the governments, who now

pick at the lining of their empty pockets

and beg each other to lend a few quid,

dollars, euros or gold pieces that should

be silver, and thirty in their number,

since that is the going rate for betrayal.

Christopher James Rhodes.

Monday, January 12, 2009


You heard it here first: GAP OIL. I am coining this term since I haven't seen it used before but it succinctly sums-up the prevailing situation regarding the provision and price of oil. We hear much about peak oil, and often this is misunderstood to mean that the world will imminently run out of oil. However, this is neither the case nor the definition of peak oil. As I have commented recently here, Dr Richard Pike, the CEO of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a former oil-man, has made convincing arguments that there is more oil - about twice as much - to be recovered than the 1.2 trillion barrels worth that is generally accepted. That may well be true, but it does not impact on the rate of recovery of oil per se, which is the crux of the issue.

The world gets through around 84 million barrels of oil on a daily basis, which adds-up to just over 30 billion barrels a year... a staggering quantity which has provided the foundations of the modern industrialised globe and its relentless population of 6.7 billion souls. Only time will tell, to what extent that number will ascend to, but if the WHO is to be believed is will be over 9 billion by 2050 and rising perhaps to 12 billion in the subsequent century, all fed by oil. I have noted on previous occasions a Hubbert analysis, similar to that made for oil, that predicts instead that world population will rather peak at 7.1 billion by 2024 and then fall to around 2.5 billion by 2100. As I say, only time will tell us which manner of estimate is correct.

Demand for oil appears equally inexorable, and there are estimates that say in two decades China will be using more oil than the U.S., and that the world in total will demand another 50% by then. It is obvious that no matter how much recoverable oil there is in the ground, if it cannot be recovered at a sufficient rate to match the prevailing demand for it, then a gap will ensue between demand and supply, as happened last summer with the effect of driving-up the price of oil to almost $150 a barrel. This state of "gap-oil" will maintain a similar consequence: namely that the price of oil will soar from its present low value and the impact on the world economy will be severe, with oscillations of unparalleled amplitude to the global markets. There will be actual shortages of oil too, with supplies going to the highest bidder, and a shift of economic and political power being placed in those hands that hold the oil.

This will happen irrespective of whether we are at the peak of world oil production. The concept of world peak oil is misleading in any case, since all oil wells are at different phases of their relative depletion and for example Russia will still be producing oil long after the North Sea, for example, and Saudi Arabia long after that. Hence some countries will be dependent on others. World peak oil can be thought of as the peaking of the largest fields, and for example once the giant Ghawar field peaks we can begin to kiss our lifestyles goodbye. This should auger-in a new age of energy efficiency and a growing reliance on sustainable economies, necessarily localised and so less dependent on the current level of transportation, based around the bioeconomy, i.e. on what can be grown.

Technological solutions, e.g. the hydrogen economy will not be with us for decades if at all, and at the very least we need some interstitial solutions, most viably based on photosynthesis. Once peak oil does strike it will enlarge the gap further by drawing-down the supply side, which will fall ever consummately against demand. It is gap-oil we need to fear, the state when supply fails demand and which is both inevitable and imminent.

Friday, January 09, 2009

U.K. to Store Gas Under Irish Sea.

A project costing £600 million has been approved by the U.K. government to store 1.5 billion cubic metres of natural gas in 19 salt caverns some 15 miles offshore to the south west of Barrow-in-Furness, once a renowned shipbuilding port. Britain is especially vulnerable to a shortage of gas-supplies and has only 15 days worth of reserve capacity. In comparison, France has 122 days worth and Germany 99 days spare. The undersea facility will be connected via a pipeline to an onshore gas-compression station in Morecambe, and it will serve much as a "gasometer", since gas will be pumped into into when demand is low and drawn-off to the national grid at times of peak demand. The scheme will allow us an additional 5 days worth of reserve gas.

Construction is set to begin next year, and the gas-store is predicted to be fully functional by 2014. The caverns are not natural but are to be created artificially in the layers of salt-strata that lie under the Irish sea. It is the first time that the strategy, which has proven safe in on-shore locations, has been used offshore. One advantage of having 19 separate caverns is that the facility is less vulnerable to acts of terrorism, although presumably the pipeline could be blown-up if someone had the wish and determination to do so.

In view of the current disruption of gas-supplies from Russia to Europe via Ukraine, securing greater storage capacity for Britain is seen as sensible, although the U.K. only gets around 3% of its gas from Russia, the rest coming from Norway, the North Sea (while it continues to produce), and in liquefied from from Qatar, which is stored in huge gas terminals in Kent and soon at a new facility at Milford Haven in west Wales.

All of this is as noted going to cost money and Sir John Harman, a former labour council leader and chairman of the Environment Agency for 8 years until last last summer, has produced a Fabian Society pamphlet "The Green Crunch" which accuses politicians of being "badly out-of-touch with reality", and in which he writes, "It is extremely unlikely that we will ever get back to the retail energy prices of the past 15 years or so. Yet I do not think this fact is being presented squarely to the electorate nor would it be an obvious vote-winner to do so. We need to acknowledge that there is, in a civilized society, a right to expect affordable access to warmth, light and the other benefits which energy delivers and that this can only be protected as prices rise by intervention, either in the energy markets or through the welfare system."

Sir John accuses politicians of failing to be honest with people about the costs of developing and delivering new forms of clean energy, as Britain bears the costs of converting to a low-carbon economy. He also calls for measures to combat fuel poverty, through price controls, subsidies or higher state benefits to prevent the creation of a new class of low-carbon poor.

Notwithstanding this fine socialist rhetoric, the impact of peak oil and more immediately "gap-oil" will act so ruinously on the economies of this country and the world that it is debatable what level of welfare funding will prevail in the next decade. The readjustment of life to a lower-energy economy may well force down the price of energy because we are using far less of it, but those accepted comforts of civilization will similarly be a thing of the past along with the cheap energy that has underpinned and driven such manners of progress since the end of the second world war.

Related Reading.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Ocean Iron to Catch CO2 - a Few Sums.

Following-on from yesterday's posting about adding iron to the Southern Ocean (SO) to capture CO2, I have done a few sums which I think give some quite insightful results.

(1) How much iron in total? 1800 tonnes of iron added to 400 square miles of ocean. So that's 1800/400 = 4.5 tonnes/sq. mile.

1 sq.mile = 2.59 km^2 and so, we need 4.5/2.59 = 1.74 t/km^2.

The SO has an area of 20 million sq. miles x 2.59 = 51.8 million km^2, x 1.74 = 90.1 million tonnes of iron added altogether.

(2) Algal growth. 3.5 Gt = 3.5 x 10^9 tonnes of CO2 captured to grow it. Multiplying by 12/44 gives 0.95 x 10^9 tonnes of carbon.

If, as an approximation, we base the organic component of the algae on sugar, C6H12O6, we get that 72/180 = 40% is carbon.

Therefore the dry-mass of the algae is 0.95 x 10^9/0.4 = 2.38 x 10^9 tonnes. If we assume that 50% of the living algae is water, then we can double that to give 4.75 x 10^9 tonnes (almost 5 Gt).

If we assume a density of 1 (1 t = 1m^3), the thickness of the algae if it lay on the surface (in reality it will be partly dispersed in the surface ocean layers) would be:

4.75 x 10^9 m^3/(51.8 x 10^6 km^2 x 10^6 m^2/km^2) = 9.17 x 10^-5 m = 92 microns. For comparison, a human hair has a thickness(on average) of 70 microns, so despite the vast mass of the algae at nearly 5 billion tonnes when spread over the huge oceanic area it is not so much.

(3) Turnover rate of iron. The iron acts as a catalyst and can promote maybe hundreds to thousands of carbon-fixing cycles.

However, 0.95 x 10^9 tonnes of C is fixed by adding 9.01 x 10^7 tonnes of iron. Thus each iron atom fixes (0.95 x 10^9/9.01 x 10^7) x 56/12 = 49.2 atoms of carbon; i.e. a relatively low turnover rate of about 50.

Probably this reflects precipitation of iron and its compounds without interacting with algal production, problems of transport into the algal cells, i.e. in the form of iron-porphyrin complexes and other losses, otherwise it would be higher. The amount of added iron chosen is probably determined experimentally and takes-account of these things.

As the iron tends not to stay around in the water for more than a few days, it would presumably need to be added continually and in considerable quantities.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Melting Ice-mass will Save the Planet.

The poster-child of global warming, apart from the hockey-stick graph is melting ice-mass, be it bergs, or sheets on Greenland (named so, because it once was a lush and verdant land) or the Antarctic peninsular. However, in a twist of irony has emerged a new discovery that when this ice melts, tiny particles of iron are released [1], leading Professor Rob Raiswellfrom Leeds University to comment, "The Earth seems to want to save us." Personally I doubt the Earth gives a toss about us, but the finding does emphasise the intricate and interconnected manner of nature, and that by tampering with one aspect, she may respond in an altogether unexpected way through another mechanism.

Schemes have been proposed before to deliberately dump vast quantities of iron filings into the ocean as a nutrient to promote the growth of phytoplankton, which through photosynthesis might sequester billions of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere as a carbon capture strategy, and if when these algae die they are harmlessly dumped onto the ocean floor (and stay there!) this might become a viable and extensive approach to carbon sequestration - i.e. locking up that carbon for centuries to millennia. There are many issues in the negative to be addressed, including the dubious influence of so much adventitious iron on natural ecosystems etc. For the algae to flourish, it is necessary that there be sufficient of other nutrients, mainly nitrogen and phosphorus, present to form the body of what is effectively plant material in a water-borne environment.There is also research that indicates that less carbon is transferred to the sea-bottoms during a period of luxuriant algal growth than during more fallow periods [2].

However, in the light of the discovery of a natural source of iron from melting ice, the decision has been taken to "mimic nature" by adding several tons of iron sulphate to the ocean off South Georgia (which remained British after the war with Argentina in 1982), taking the view that this is part of the natural CO2 regulation mechanism that has been functioning for millions of years within the waters of the Southern Ocean, which are relatively isolated from other sources of iron. I note as a small aside, the idea that desertification may actually act to force algal growth in the oceans, since the drying land turned to wind-blown dust, rich in iron, can act as a natural fertiliser for ocean phytoplankton, and so perhaps we have another feedback defence mechanism that is switched-on by global warming.

The aim of the experiment (to be begun next month) rests on some pretty spectacular figures. Since the Southern ocean covers 20 million square miles (about 50 million square kilometers) it is reckoned that if all of it could be treated with iron, the resulting algae (covering all of it???) would remove 3.5 billion tonnes of CO2, which is equivalent to one eighth of all the emissions that can be blamed on humans for inconsiderately burning fossil fuels of various kinds.

I shall watch this with interest, but I can imagine that the usual scale-up problems will prevail, even if it does look promising. I estimate that the full implementation would need around 90 million tonnes of iron to be dumped into the ocean. Presumably this would be an ongoing strategy, say dumping 9 million tonnes/year for 10 years. It is not clear what effect this might have on other forms of life there including fish and there is the matter of what to do with all that algae, which would severely attenuate the influx of light much beyond the surface.If the algae doesn't sink as hoped, because say of that "leaky biological pump" [1], it may well rot on the surface and produce methane rather than CO2, which has 100 times the global warming potential of CO2.

I am always uneasy over tampering with nature, especially on the large scale - as we may have already done with CO2 and various other unnatural additions to the environment. Indeed there may be some natural symbiosis between ice and CO2 which cycles over far longer timescales than those over human civilisation can be measured, and perhaps there are buffers to making rapid change e.g. to carbon levels that we are as yet unaware of. Whatever we do, I am sure that nature will "sort the planet out", but it may take thousands of years and not be too interested in whether there are still humans around to witness her wonders or not.