Friday, December 10, 2010

Hatfield "Clean Coal" Power Plant Goes into Administration.

The "Powerfuel" company that owns Hatfield Colliery in Yorkshire has entered administration due to lack of investment. The intention was to improve the mine and develop a "clean coal" power plant based on the integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) principle, with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. In IGCC, the coal is not burned directly as it is in normal coal-fired power plants, but is converted into synthesis gas. Impurities are removed from the gas before it is burned, which results in lower emissions of sulfur dioxide, particulates and mercury.

IGCC is more energy-efficient than simply burning pulverized coal, and the efficiency is further improved since heat from the primary combustion and generation is then passed to a steam-cycle, similar to a combined cycle gas-turbine. In the Hatfield situation, the final CO2 was intended to be removed by a CCS unit and pumped into "old" gas-wells under the North Sea.

This was an entirely innovative project, and Powerfuel is the only company with a license to put the technology to the test in the UK. The technology is not cheap and some £164 million worth of funding was secured from the European Union last year, to build the CCS plant. Even so, the rest of the £800 million needed to build the power station could not be secured, although the administrators, KPMG say they are hopeful to find a buyer, even in the present economic climate.

The project was to be at the forefront of the European Union's drive to provide low-carbon electricity, and this outcome is not optimistic that private industry can be relied upon to provide funding to meet governmental carbon emissions targets. There are still considerable reserves of coal in the world, although it was recently predicted that only about half the amount previously thought can be recovered economically. There is the further issue of the quality of coal, since the majority of the world reserve is of lower thermal quality than the top-grade anthracitic coal, and will yield less energy per tonne either burned directly or in the form of syngas in ICGC plants.

It is likely that more conventional (cheaper and proven technology) coal-fired plants will be built to keep the lights on around the world. While speculation still reigns in some quarters over the reality of a connection between carbon emissions and climate change, there is no doubt that running short of energy would be the most immediately catastrophic event for civilization.

Related Reading.
"Hatfield Colliery owner Powerfuel enters administration.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Shortage of Rare earth Metals made worse by Smuggling.

Rare earth (RE) metals find application in devices inlcuding wind turbines, hybrid and electric cars, LCDs, fuel cells, nuclear reactors and lasers. China controls some 97% of the world supply of REs, and in July announced a 72% reduction in exports of REs for the second half of 2010, compared with the previous year. It is predicted that in 2012, Chinese domestic consumption of REs will match domestic production, and this year will see a peak in availability and a demand-supply gap emerging on the world markets.

REs are not lacking in the earth's crust, and for example cerium ranks as the 25th most abundant element at 68 parts per million, in fact similar to copper. There are however few economically concentrated ores of the metals and their very similar chemical properties make the separation and isolation of individual REs in pure form difficult and expensive.

While China attempts to secure its dominance of the world markets for these metals, the scarcity of REs is compounded by smuggling. As much as 20,000 tonnes or one third of total exports of REs were smuggled out of China, which both reduces the price of the metals and ensures the more voracious depletion of the resource.

In my previous article, I wrote about the British focus on wind-power to meet its renewable energy targets for the European Union, by 2020. I commented that the rate of progress in building the required more than 4,000 new wind turbines had been rather slow to date, and now it appears debatable that there will be sufficient neodymium with which to fabricate the magnets for them, even if the manufacturing could be speeded-up.

China has been making strenuous actions to buy mines of RE ore around the world, to maintain its dominance of the global markets, and I wonder whether this will extend to Greenland, where the melting ice-sheet is likely to ease access to the rich veins of REs and other elements that the world needs to maintain its technologies and energy supplies.

Related Reading.
"Smuggling key factor in rare earths' scarcity," December 2010, Chemistry World, p6.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

British Power is all Wind.

Britain has decided to go all-out for wind-power. On Thursday, I flew over the massive off-shore Thanet wind-farm - one of the largest in the UK - in the English Channel off Foreness Point. The farm consists of 100 turbines, each over 300ft high, and is expected to power over 200,000 homes. It will increase the amount of energy generated from offshore wind in the UK by one third to 1,314MW. Opened in September, the Thanet wind-farm was built by the Swedish Vattenfall energy company, and increases the number of large scale off-shore British turbines to 436, to be compared with 2,640 based on land.

Not everyone is convinced that wind-power is the most reliant route to clean, renewable carbon-free energy, and it is concerning that Britain is relying on a power source that must be backed up by more constant technologies such as nuclear, coal, or gas, because the wind blows inconsistently, as is its nature. A mere 2% of Britain's electricity was produced from renewable sources in 2002, but it is hoped that this should rise to 10% by the end of the year in light of the new wind-power generating capacity.There are further cost issues in upgrading the national grid to cope with power-surges and the need to switch between different power sources.

It should be noted that electricity provides only around one third of the total energy used in the U.K, and the bulk of that is accounted for by heating and transportation, which is supplied by respectively coal/gas and oil based fuels. Hence the UK will have its work cut out if it is to meet a EU target to raise its overall energy provision from renewables from the present 5% to 15% by 2020.

The actualization of an overall wind-power strategy is not going smoothly, however, and the number of new wind-farms coming on-stream has fallen by 30%, in part as a consequence of the recession. There has also been a fall in the past 12 months by 50% in planning approvals for wind-farms in England, a situation that is also reflected in Scotland. There is also considerable opposition to wind-turbines which are perceived as unsightly and noisy, as is reflected by the 230-odd campaign groups that operate across the whole of the U.K.

Indeed, some of these groups advocate nuclear power as a better option than wind, a situation that would have been almost unthinkable ten years ago. It was estimated in 2008 that to meet the U.K. wind-power goal by 2020 would require building one new turbine every day for the next twelve years. Since progress so far has fallen far short of this rate of conversion, little confidence is lent that the nation will be able to keep its promise on renewables.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Algae to Fuels Under Pressure.

The conventional route to biodiesel consists of extracting oil from plants and converting it to the methyl esters of fatty acids that are present in the lipid-components, known as triglycerides. These esters as a mixture constitute biodiesel: a specific kind of biofuel. High oil-yielding strains of algae can be grown and dried and the oil extracted from the dry algal mass, before being similarly converted to biodiesel in a process called transesterification.

Removing the water from raw algae is a highly energy intensive process, and to minimise the overall energy costs of biofuel production from algae, a process called hydrothermal liquefaction may instead be employed in which the algae are not dried but heated under pressure such that the water they contain acts as a chemical reagent and solvent that breaks-down the algal cells and converts not only the oil (lipid) but the sugar and protein component into fuels such as liquid hydrocarbons, gaseous fuels like methane and a complex material called "bio-oil" with a similar energy content to crude oil.

Clearly, the design of engines will need to be adapted in order to use these alternative fuels directly, or they must be refined in a "biorefinery" along with those from other kinds of biomass. In both cases of new engines or biorefineries, there will be huge new engineering required and on a scale that can only be guessed at if really algae can be exploited to make a nation the size of the United States independent of cheap imported crude oil.

Nonetheless, there is a consortium (National Algae Association) in the U.S. that is actively seeking a future in which algae are grown on a large scale and converted to oil-alternative fuels. Certainly, it is likely that algae will become an essential component of the mix of means to keep transportation going by means other than crude oil.

The claims of the NAA are undoubtedly true, that ultimately the supply of petroleum must decline, oil prices will continue to be volatile with knife-edge consequences for the world economy, and a wholesale industry based on algae would provide precious and needed jobs and economic development in the U.S. The approach could be introduced on necessary levels for all nations and even a village "pressure cooker" to provide algal fuels for small communities.

Related Reading.
A. Demirbas, "Use of algae as biofuel sources," Energy Conversion and Management, 2010, 51, 2738-2749.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) - Yay or Nay?

A new paper (1) published in the prestigious American Chemical Society journal, Environmental Science and Technology, has put the cat among the pigeons over carbon capture and storage (CCS). It argues that the colossal amount of money that CCS would entail globally would be better spent on "virtual CCS", meaning per se that instead of actual CCS, the emission of carbon be avoided in the first place by a wholesale implementation of non-fossil energy sources, specifically wind and nuclear power. As a statistic to prove the point, it is estimated that one wedge (billion tonnes) of carbon in the form of CO2 sequestered by CCS would cost $5.1 trillion over 50 years, while the same amount of money used to build wind-turbines would save 1.91 "wedges" worth of CO2 over the lifetime of the windmills. A strong rebuttal to this case is presented in the September Chemistry World (2), which calls for a parallel development of CCS and non-fossil energy rather than the exclusion of the former.

Since 100 million tonnes per DAY of CO2 would need to be so sequestered by CCS the engineering required to bring it to fruition is phenomenal. 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. 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.

(1) C Tsouris, D S Aaron and K A Williams, 2010, Environ. Sci. Technol., 44, 4042

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

So, What Did Happen After the Chinese Oil-Spill?

On the 16th of July, China experienced its first major oil-spill. The Chinese incident was also caused by an explosion (this time during the transfer of oil from a tanker to a reserve owned by the China National Petroleum Corp), but is nothing like the size of the BP spillage in the Gulf of Mexico. The amount of public information released in any level of detail has so far been scant, but in this month's Chemistry World, the British Royal Society of Chemistry has published an article which provides some update of the state of play in the aftermath of the event.

Around 1,500 tonnes of crude-oil ended-up in the Dalian Bay, which is a popular resort for tourism and conferences, located in the far east of China. The initial clean-up was pretty much over in two weeks, but residual problems in safety management are highlighted. As usual, there are various estimates of the size of the resulting oil-slick, of between 150 - 450 square kilometers of ocean covered, but the main concern is that the oil might contain toxic organic contaminants that could invade the food-chain, threatening the health of humans, animals and that of the wider environment for decades to come.

It is argued that a lack of technical expertise and equipment in China made the clean-up process more complicated and protracted than it need have been. Many thousands of workers were garnered in Dalian and simply sent-out in fishing-boats to collect the oil in buckets, which was then poured into storage-tanks. Since they had little or no protective equipment or were untrained in how to use what they did have, the long-term effects of their exposure to a mixture of chemical substances remains to be seen. It appears that the Dalian municipal government had only enough capacity to cope with 200 tonnes of oil, and less than the 1,500 actually spilt.

While this is nothing compared to the 750,000 tonnes of oil that poured into the gulf of Mexico, for which BP are taking part of the blame along with their subcontractors, the point is made that China needs to advance its capability to provide long-term solutions to environmental problems of this kind. There is currently a great lack of environmental and geochemical research into oil-spills in China. The Dalian oil-spill is likely to be a microcosm of greater future catastrophes for a highly populous country that is expected to expand its oil-based personal transportation by a factor of ten to 200 million by 2020.

Related Reading.
"China tackles its first major oil spill," Chemistry World, September 2010, p10.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Australia Plans to be Carbon-Neutral by 2020.

I have just been sent a remarkable document entitled “Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan.” As the title implies, within its pages is a proposal for how Australia might be run without the use of fossil fuels, including for transportation, by 2020. The ambitious plan, from a nonprofit called Beyond Zero Emissions and researchers at Melbourne University, hinges on developing enough concentrating solar thermal power (CST) capacity, using molten salt storage to provide a constant supply of energy, to the tune of 60% of the country’s power. The remaining 40% would come from wind farms, along with a smaller element of biomass and hydropower as a back-up. Some 20% of the solar installations would be built by 2014 under the plan and the rest by 2020 to a final generating capacity of 42 GWe.

In a sense, the scheme is similar to the Desertec project, which I posted about on this blog and on Forbes recently, which proposes to use CST based stations in north Africa to provide electricity for Europe. However, the Australian plan is far more inclusive in attempting to satisfy all the energy requirements of a nation of just over 20 million people.

A wholesale electrified transportation system is envisaged, with electric trains and electric vehicles, to offset the 15% of total Australian energy which is used for transport, in the form of oil. Indeed, an increased use of electricity is planned overall by 40%, to an annual 325 TW by 2020. The report insists that, in hand with a combination of energy efficiency and fuel-switching measures, this growth in electricity production would be enough to supplant all fossil fuel use (coal, gas and oil), including that for transport and space-heating. With the loss of inefficient internal combustion engines along with the use of heat-pumps and better insulation in the building sector etc., Australian energy demand is predicted to fall from 3834 Petajoules (1065 TWh) in 2007 to 1643 Petajoules (456 TWh) by 2020.

Transportation is a challenge in its own right. There are around 15 million vehicles on Australia’s roads, and it is practically inconceivable that a similar number of electric vehicles could be made in the remaining years before 2020. The introduction of electric light-railway systems might bear some of the transportation load, but these need to be built from scratch, and within the context of a completely new social infrastructure.

It is proposed that the project will require $35 billion to $40 billion a year over a 10-year period, and that overall this will be net-cost effective given the anticipated rise in oil prices, to the tune of $1.2 trillion. Nonetheless, these are merely indicative figures and there is no clear mandate or promise from either private or public sector as to where the money will come from. The engineering requirement overall for CST, wind-power, new power distribution, electric transportation etc. is phenomenal and unprecedented, and while I marvel at the audacity of the proposal, I doubt very much that it can be done in time, if at all.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Looking for Algal Oil... with Near Infrared Light.

A new method has been introduced for telling which strains of algae are likely to be any good for turning into biofuels based on Near Infrared (NIR) spectroscopy. The near infrared spectrum runs the range of wavelengths 800 - 2500 nm, and is therefore just below the region of visible light but above the usual mid-infrared, at 2,500 - 30,000 nm. The discovery of infrared radiation is attributed to the British/German Astronomer Herschel, who also wrote 24 symphonies. However, NIR only came to practical use in the 1950s as an analytical device. NIR is less sensitive than normal (mid) IR but can penetrate samples more easily meaning they need less analytical preparation and in the case of algae can be examined in their raw state.

Algae very considerably in their composition, and while some varieties contain around 50% of their weight of oil, others hold as little as 5%. Not only this, but the "oil" should contain a high level of fatty acids to be converted into biodiesel: triglycerides rather than phospholipids.

The NIR method is highly specific for the detection of different kinds of fatty acids and it is intended to develop a database of fingerprints for different fatty acid components in algal biomass, with which to analyse actual algae. The method offers the promise of a rapid and precise screening of algae directly rather than the existing time-consuming, cumbersome and error-prone means for analysing algae, and may prove pivotal in the development of a putative fuel industry based on algae.

Related reading.
"Striking algal oil," Chemistry World, By Anna Lewcock.
"Oil from algae; salvation from peak oil," C.J.Rhodes, Science progress, 2010, Vol. 92, 39-90.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

First "Artificial Cell" May Provide Souce of Algal Fuel.

In the latest issue of "Chemistry World" is a report describing "the first synthetic cell". What has in fact been done is to insert a chemically synthesised genome into a bacterial cell. The M.mycoides genome contains over a million letters of genetic code and current DNA-technology can string-together perhaps a few thousand units in one go. The team led by Dan Gibson and Craig Venter have exploited the ability of yeast to join together small pieces of DNA using enzymes.

Grown in a Petri-dish the synthetic bacterium looks almost identical to the natural version and can similarly self-replicate. For the development of tailor-made life, it is necessary to understand what each gene codes for. The longer-run might be that genomes could be designed, but achieving that is some way off. It is more probable that a simple artificial genome could be created that has the essential properties of a living organism.

This could permit other gene-circuits being introduced for example to produce biofuels or fine-chemicals. Dr Venter's company, Synthetic Genomics, intends to use the cell synthesis technology to produce modified algae cells from which to make biofuel. The aim is to make a complete algal genome from which "superproductive organisms" could be derived.

It is possible that the designer method can overcome some of the drawbacks involved with making fuel from algae, namely robustness and competitiveness of particular strains over other organisms, enhanced growth rate and yields of algal oil. The method might be the key to the widescale production of fuel from algae, which is thought to be the better option over making it from land-based crops such as soya and corn, since the yields are much greater and there is no competition with food-crop production, and provide a real alternative to a globalised world that is utterly dependent on supplies of imported crude oil.

Algae also offer the potential of aiding in the curbing of CO2 emissions from power stations and cement factories, and in cleaning nitrates and phosphates from agricultural runoff water and effluent from sewage plants, while simultaneously furnishing useful fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol according to how the algae are processed.

Related Reading.
"The first synthetic cell,"By Hayley Birch, Chemistry World, July 2010, 29.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Nanomaterials are Prey to EU Ministers.

In his 2002 novel, "Prey", the late Michael Crichton advanced a fictional scenario in which nanoparticles escaped from a lab and formed swarms in the desert with the drive and ability to kill humans and other animals whom they could use as feeding-templates on which bacteria could grow to replicate more of their kind. While such a scenario does appear alarmist and unlikely in reality, there remains nonetheless a sense of disquiet over the safety of nanomaterials, and their potential toxicity should they be released into the environment.

In 2008, manufacturers of skin "care-products" decided to avoid them in their formulations and now EU ministers have decided that nanosilver particles (also used e.g. in washing machines and in shoes to get rid of nasty smells) and multiwalled carbon nanotubes should be banned in electronic and electrical products. Members of the EU Environment Committee made this call during their vote on possible amendments to the "Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive".

In addition, the Committee has recommended that all electrical and electronic products (including fast-computers and solar cells) that contained "nanomaterials of any nature" should be so labelled as containing them. Hence an onus would be on manufacturers to provide safety hazard information on any nanomaterials that their products may contain.

This appears quite tricky for example given the putative application where carbon nanotubes could be used as "synthetic nerves" in limb prosthetics, by acting as template around which neural tissue might grow. As introduced into the human body directly, any potential toxicity might prove rather difficult.

My awareness of the toxicity of carbon nanotubes is that the jury is out. I know of one study of them designed to search for the formation of free-radicals (toxic, short-lived molecules derived from oxygen) which seemed to indicate that the nanotubes actually soaked-up these species, leaving less of them than would be the case in their absence. That said, there are other studies that support a toxic role for carbon nanotubes. Since silver nanoparticles act in cleaning biological stains and smells by producing hydroxyl and other oxygen radicals, which are toxic in vivo, then if they were ingested the consequences could be dire.

The vote on the proposals is due in October, as reported in the July 2010 edition of Chemistry World, published by The Royal Society of Chemistry.

Friday, July 02, 2010

14% Efficiency for Thin-Film Solar Cells, but Where will the Indium Come From?.

One principal advantage of thin-film solar cells is that they use far less (maybe 1/100th the amount) of the semiconductor materials that are required to fabricate first-generation solar cells. The disadvantage is that compared with typical efficiencies of 15% for conventional solar cells, a practical efficiency of around 8% is more normal for thin-film cells.

Thin-film technologies offer the further prospect that the cells can be printed onto various flexible materials using a kind of ink-jet method, which offers numerous prospects for photo-voltaic devices in the future, beyond the simple scheme of roof-based solar panels. They are also more resistant to ionising radiation and should serve better in satellites which are in orbit above the Earth's atmosphere and hence more exposed to damage by cosmic radiation during their working lifetime of perhaps a few decades.

However, the solar-energy company MiaSolé recently reported that an efficiency of 13.8% had been achieved from thin-film panels of practical dimensions (1 m^2), rather than a much smaller lab-scale test (1). This unprecedented value has been corroborated by the DoE National Energy Laboratory (NREL).

At nearly 14%, the efficiency of the thin-film panels which are made from copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS), is close to that of silicon, albeit being much cheaper to produce.
The world player in thin-film solar technologies is First Solar which makes its panels from cadmium and tellurium (Cad-Tel). While there have been steady gains in the efficiency of these, there is a practical limit of not much more than 10%, though 11.2% was reported recently (1).

While improvements in the CIGS panel efficiencies can be expected, there is the matter of accessing the materials themselves, from which they are made, most immediately indium. There are no significant ores of indium which is principally a by-product of zinc production, although roughly it is three-times as abundant (0.25 ppm) in the Earth's crust as silver (0.075 ppm). Indium is leached from slag and dust of zinc production and the metal further purified by electrolysis.

It has been estimated on the basis of the amount of indium in zinc ore stocks, there is a world reserve base of 6,000 tonnes. Given current consumption of the metal, this is sufficient for only 13 years and less than that if CIGS technology takes-off. It has been concluded therefore that in the future less than 1% of solar pv will be in the form of CIGS thin-film cells.

This prognosis is challenged by the Indium Corporation, who are the world's greatest producer of Indium, and assert that though the adaptation of more efficient recovery methods and from other ores, including tin, copper and other polymetallic deposits in hand with an expansion of mining operations, the supply of indium will prove sustainable (2).

Recycling of indium along with other rare metals (3) will also prove pivotal. It is nonetheless to be expected that there may be a supply-demand gap for indium, with a substantial escalation in its price, at least over the immediate term which is likely to impact on the inauguration of the thin-film CIGS cell industry. A rise in the price of indium is forecast as emerging CIGS and more established and steady LED and LCD markets compete for it, leading to a plan to stockpile the metal in the expectation of realising greater profits from it in the future (4).

Related Reading.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

Desertec - Energy From the Sahara to Europe.

The European Energy commissioner has announced that the project Desertec will begin to provide electricity to Europe within 5 years, which is half the original estimate.The project is partly funded by the European Union and companies within Europe, to aid the EU in meeting its target of generating 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. The Desertec scheme has been described as being part of an overall intention to create "a new carbon-free network linking Europe, the Middle East and North Africa".

Desertec is a project officially launched on the 13th of July 2009 by twelve European companies. It operates under the auspices of the Club of Rome and the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation. The project intends to install a network of concentrating solar power systems over an area of 6,500 square miles (17,000 km2) in the Sahara Desert, to produce electricity that would be transmitted to European and African countries by a super grid of high-voltage direct current cables. At a total cost of €400 billion, the scheme would provide continental Europe with 15% of its electricity, although the precise course of action and final costings will be presented in 2012.

The location is logical, since the Saharan desert is virtually uninhabited and is close to Europe, and being close to the equator is well provided for by sunlight. It is voiced by its protagonists that the project will keep Europe "at the forefront of the fight against climate change and help North African and European economies to grow within greenhouse gas emission limits"; however this are notes of criticism too. As usual, some opponents to the scheme point out that centralized solar energy plants and transmission lines could become a target of terrorist attacks, while others are of the opinion that generating so much of electricity consumed in Europe in Africa would create a geopolitical dependency on North African countries.

There are further issues over the demand that will be imposed on local freshwater supplies, in terms of cleaning and cooling turbines, which may impact on drinking water supplies for local villagers. Undoubtedly, unprecedented cooperation will be required between nations of the EU and Northern Africa which may delay the project through red tape, especially over the expropriation of assets, the granting of licenses and so forth. There are environmental issues too, in that the Earth’s deserts act to cool the planet by reflecting heat energy, and if they are instead covered with heat-absorbing installations there may be a contribution to global warming.

Related Reading.
(2) C.J.Rhodes, "Solar Energy: Principles and Possibilities," Science Progress, 2010, Vol. 93, 37-112.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Concentrating Solar Power Generation.

Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) systems employ lenses or mirrors coupled with tracking systems to concentrate a large area of sunlight into a small beam, rather in analogy with the simple and familiar burning-lense. The concentrated energy may be used to heat a central “boiler” to run a power plant fitted with a conventional steam-turbine from which electricity is generated in the usual manner. A quite broad range of methods may be used to accomplish this, e.g. the parabolic trough, the solar (parabolic) dish and the solar power tower.

All such systems contain a working fluid which is heated by the concentrated sunlight, and then used to generate power or to store energy. In a parabolic trough there is a linear parabolic reflector which concentrates sunlight onto a receiver oriented along its focal line. By means of a tracking system, the reflector follows the Sun during the daylight hours along a single axis. Trough systems are the most efficient of any solar technology in regard to the land area occupied by the plant. The SEGS plants in California and the Acciona Nevada Solar One near Boulder City, Nevada are based on trough systems.

A parabolic (solar) dish system consists of a single parabolic reflector which concentrates light at the focal point of the reflector, which tracks the Sun along two axes. Of all the CSP technologies, parabolic dish systems are the most efficient. The 50 kW Big Dish in Canberra, Australia is an example of this technology. The Stirling solar dish combines a parabolic concentrating dish with a Stirling heat engine which drives an electric generator. The term “Stirling” refers to the fact that the device operates on a simple heat-engine principle. Stirling solar energy production is more efficient than photovoltaic cells and the technology has a longer lifetime.

A solar power tower consists of an array of dual-axis tracking reflectors (heliostats) that concentrate light on a central receiver at the top of a tower. The receiver contains a working fluid to absorb the heat, and can be seawater. The working fluid in the receiver is heated to 500-1000 °C and then used as a heat source to generate power or to store energy. Concentrating thermal power is the main technology proposed for a cooperation to produce electricity and desalinated water in the arid regions of North Africa and Southern Europe by the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation Desertec.

The potential and future of concentrated solar power was investigated and reported from a study by Greenpeace International, the European Solar Thermal Electricity Association, and the International Energy Agency's SolarPACES group. Remarkably, it was concluded that concentrated solar power could provide 25% of the world's energy needs by 2050. To achieve this, however, would require an increase in world investment would from 2 billion euros to 92.5 billion euros over that same time interval, although it further predicted that the price of electricity would drop from the present 0.15 - 0.23 euros currently per kilowatt, to 0.10 - 0.14 euros a kilowatt.

We always hear this, however, in the inauguration of all new technologies that the power production by their means will be cheaper, most notably (or notoriously) atomic power that was supposed to provide “electricity too cheap too meter”. Spain is the world leader in concentrated solar power technology, with more than 50 projects underway. The Desertec scheme has been described as being part of an overall intention to create "a new carbon-free network linking Europe, the Middle East and North Africa".

Related Reading.
C.J.Rhodes, "Solar Energy: Principles and Possibilities", Science Progress, 2010, Vol. 93, 37 - 112.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Slovakia: a Sustainable Country?

The Icelandic volcano which prevented my travelling to Slovakia as planned last April, appears to have fallen sufficiently silent to at least provide a window through which I could pass, on my cheap Ryan Air flight to Bratislava from London Stansted at a cost of about "fifty quid" ("around "eighty bucks", I believe). Thus I was able to deliver two lectures on the World Energy conundrum, one at the Slovak Technical University in Bratislava and the other at the "University of Constantine the Philosopher" in Nitra. Constantine is better known as Saint Cyril, who along with his brother Methodius, devised the Cyrillic script which I believe was the first successful effort to inscribe as a written and unified language the many spoken tongues of that gargantuan region that for many years in the West we knew simply as "Russia".

It is of course far more than that, as is "Europe", as an admixture of cultures, philosophies, pains, joys and endurances that forge the individual character of each and all nations, but unifies us all in the spirit of the Human Family, when we realise by our communications with one another from across the world that our fundamental qualities, both good and bad are much cut from the same block of collective DNA.

Slovakia, unlike its sister, the Czech Republic, from whom it was estranged in 1993 in the carving-up of what was Czechoslovakia, converted to the Euro within the last two years. They may regret this now, as such a conversion came at a large fiscal outlay, and the value of their cash-holdings is falling as the Euro descends. The British Pound seems to be rising against the Euro but the truth is that both are in free-fall, and the Euro has fallen more rapidly of late, with an uncertain landing for either.

Given the uncertain aspect of world finance, there is little I can speculate on with the authority needed. That said, even my financial adviser is somewhat at a loss as to where it is all going but agrees that the joker in the pack in likely to be the availability and price of oil. The major oil companies appear to have come out of denial about the reality of peak oil, and would not do so had not their business interests been threatened otherwise, so the whole concept can be taken seriously and as real, whatever the outcome of it will be.

In my lectures, I stressed much of the ideas aired in this blog, which has been a challenge and recasting of perspectives that I had when I began writing it about five years ago, and I have periodically changed my mind, finally believing that optimism over the energy problem is at best patchy, and cheerier views of it are no more than occasional light-relief from despair while one contemplates an entirely different way of living, in the effort to use less energy rather than making relentlesly more or even propping-up the status quo with renewables and so on.

Peak oil in a nutshell impacts on three things: (1) a globalised world run on oil, (2) the whole of manufactured goods, (3) industrialised farming. To cut through and integrate the attendancies of this it seems that a nation like the UK, which is heavily industrialised and dependent on imports for one third of its food, is in a more vulnerable condition than Slovakia which is practically self-sufficient although it strains to industrialise, and is urgently building infrastructure, especially new roads, to join the global club. Slovakia has its own renewable energy projects too, for example at the STU in Bratislava, but if, as I believe we will none of us be able to match our colossal fossil and nuclear energy bill by renewables, to be in a condition of "less advancement" and hence lower dependency on provision of essentials such as food (not the latest I-pod etc.) brought-in by oil-based transport and farming methods, might prove to be a considerable advantage.

I am beginning to think that the enlargement nations of the EU, i.e. Eastern Europe may have much to offer over their western counterparts. As a Slovak colleague commented on the struggle for the British government as it slashes the bills here and there to get the national debt down, "well, we have always been poor in Slovakia". In the UK, we will be poor too, but that downward transition will be tough to bear, tumbling down from the "progress" we have been given as read. In a sense, Eastern Europe is the future image of Western Europe. It is at least a sustainable picture.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

A Fuel Cell that Runs on Air and Water.

It seems too good to be true that water can be used as a fuel, but in a recent paper, a fuel-cell has been described which runs on water and air, in which you don't actually "burn" water but a concentration gradient of water is established between the two electrodes allowing entropy rather than enthalpy to drive the energy output from the cell. The power output is small, orders of magnitude lower than from hydrogen or methanol fuel cells, but the supply and handling of these flammable fuels is avoided. It is proposed that the cell might be used in applications which require relatively low power consumption, for example sensors of various kinds or emergency signalling units, and that the devices might be used best in desert or warm coastal regions where the water is readily evaporated from the cell, thus maintaining its concentration gradient.

On one side of the cell (anode), the reaction 2H2O ---> O2 + 4H+ + 4e- occurs;

while on the other (cathode), the reverse process occurs: O2 + 4H+ + 4e- ---> 2H2O.

The two electrodes, cathode and anode, are separated by a polymer electrolyte membrane which permits protons to cross to reach the cathode while the electrons are made to flow as part of a circuit to carry an electrical current.

The authors note that such a concentration cell avoids the logistic difficulties of using hydrogen gas; nonetheless for an application such as transportation the far greater power output of a hydrogen cell is necessary, and the provision of "green" hydrogen in quantity. All types of fuel cell also require platinum in quantity, the demand for which already exceeds world production of "new" platinum.

Thus the "prediction" by Jules Verne in his novel "Mysterious Island", published in 1874, as espoused by the fictional engineer, Cyrus Smith, "I believe that water will one day be used as a fuel, that the hydrogen and oxygen of which it is constituted will be used, simultaneously or in isolation, to furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, more powerful than coal can ever be. Water is the coal of the future.", remains some way off.

A very interesting piece of science, however.

Related Reading.
"A fuel cell that runs on air and water," A. M. Dreizler and E. Roduner, Energy and Environmental Science, 2010, 3, 761
DOI: 10.1039/c001381a

Monday, May 31, 2010

Blame Big Bad B.P. For Now, but Where Is the Next Oil to Come From?

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is thought to be pouring anywhere between 5,000 and 100,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico each day, according to different estimates. The blame is being laid squarely on the shoulders of B.P., under whose auspices the deep-sea drilling operation is being conducted. An oil-well blowout occurred on April 20th, resulting in a catastrophic explosion that wrecked the oil-rig, killing 11 men. 17 others were injured, while another 98 passed relatively unscathed, at least physically. It has been speculated that the explosion was triggered by inadvertent drilling into methane hydrate, although it is debatable that the temperature of the rock being drilled would be low enough for the material to exist there. Methane hydrate can, however, exist close to the seabed in the near-mile depths of water, a fact that scuppered an initial attempt to place a 120 tonne dome over the oil to collect the oil, since methane hydrate crystals blocked the steel canopy at the top of the dome.

B.P. made an unsuccessful attempt to stem the flow of oil from the well using a "top-kill" technique. A mixture of heavy drilling fluid ("mud"), and detritus including bits of rope, shredded tyres, metal pieces, golf balls and so on ("junk-shot"), was pumped under a pressure of 6,800 psi into the well in the hope that this would hold-back the oil long enough that the outflow could be sealed with cement, but the ensuing pressure of oil and gas from the well exceeded even this, and the oil is still pouring out. As usual, there are considerable environmental burdens which B.P. has promised to fully cover the costs of, which are estimated at $8 billion. They may indeed prove far higher and there is speculation from Russian analysts that the overall unfolding calamity might bankrupt the company.

While other attempts are planned to block the hole, it is probable that oil will continue to pour from it for another couple of months, until relief wells are drilled to intersect and reduce the pressure in the currently flowing well and cut-off the leakage of perhaps 50 million barrels of oil contained there by the injection of concrete deep into the sea-bed. The relief wells require drilling to depths of perhaps 2 -3 miles, hence the seemingly long schedule for their expected completion. What is clear is that much useful information is being gleaned about how to deal with a disaster of this kind, which can be expected to happen again, and other kinds of spills, as the prospect of deep-water drilling for oil is realised. While B.P. are taking a lot of flak for the incident, they are employing the best of the few engineers worldwide who have the knowledge to deal with it.

There are naive calls that there should be no more such exploration and that surely alternatives can be accessed, but this misses the underlying truth that much of the conventional easily-got onshore oil has already been pulled from the earth. If the oil-based civilization of humanity is to continue (accepting the natural limits imposed by peak oil) and not be brought to an abrupt and anarchic halt, bearing in mind that not only does oil account for 40% of the entire world energy budget but is the only serious liquid-fuel for all global transportation, and the raw feedstock for all manufacture including food production, it will be necessary to derive oil from a number of different and inhospitable sources including the deep-sea.

There are many sources of unconventional oil but which provide it much more slowly than do the conventional fields we are used to. In the case of heavy oils (e.g. from Venezuela) more intensive processing is required to refine them, thus reducing the production EROEI. The simple truth is that future provision of oil and natural gas will be an extraordinarily complicated and expensive business, which tests and inaugurates the limits of technology. There are still cheerful media pieces being written that blithely attempt to reassure us that there is plenty of oil left, but which ignore these aspects, and also the better than odds-on chance that there will be plenty more damage to vulnerable ecosystems as lie in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil, in the future.

So far, the environmental impact of this incident is far less than e.g. an oil-tanker running aground (the Exxon Valdez, say), since the spill is 50 miles offshore, and the oil is being largely dissipated in the water column before it reaches the surface. So far it ranks as the only 40th worst oil-spill disaster, but it might ascend the league-tables depending on how long it takes to truncate the flow.

Unquestionably, this is a tragedy, but if there is any defining message to be drawn from it, it is that the age of cheap, easy oil is over and we may now contemplate the dawn of hard oil.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Icelandic Volcano and Quiet Skies over London.

The Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland began erupting a few weeks ago, but a combination of factors is now wreaking havoc on European air-travel. The interaction of the molten lava with an ice-sheet 100m thick is sending a thick plume of "ash" high into the atmosphere, which is being driven to the south-east by unusual winds and has caused the grounding of all flights in the U.K. and most flights across Europe. Ryanair has suspended all flights until 13.00 on Monday, which concerns me as I am scheduled to fly to Bratislava by Ryanair on Wednesday for a small lecture tour in Slovakia and it is debatable whether all will be resolved by then.

It is what insurance companies used to call an "act of God" and we are held at the behest of the weather conditions. The volcano last erupted 200 years ago, but continued to do so for more than a year. Now in the jet-age, the risk of ash (in reality finely divided volcanic rock) being drawn into the engines of an aircraft pose the real threat of taking-out all four engines within minutes. The engine itself will be trashed by the glass produced by fusion and subsequent solidification of the ash, and the fuel-flame extinguished, thus risking aircraft literally falling from the sky should they fly through the ash-cloud.

Consequently, the inhabitants of villages and parts of London under the Heathrow flight-path can hear the birds singing on these beautiful spring days, not obscured by the cacophony of planes overhead, in a foretaste of life in the post jet-age era which will come when there is insufficient fuel to put into planes. It seems bizarre to talk of building a third runway and a sixth terminal at Heathrow and treble the number of flights by 2020, when the world is at the tipping-point of oil production, and rising demand, and all evidence is that perpetual growth is a fallacy and we are probably witnesses to the end of Capitalism.

Without cheap, plentiful oil the world will have trouble producing enough food to sustain its burgeoning population, and plane-travel will be the least of our concerns. I will probably get to Slovakia all right, but meanwhile it is worth contemplating how we might manage in the post-oil, post global-transport era.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Report Says, Algal Biofuels May Not Cut Carbon Emissions, but Read it More Closely.

A new study suggests that overall the CO2 emissions attendant to producing biofuel from algae may be worse than those from corn, canola (rape-seed) or switch grass. The main problem is the use of carbon dioxide brought from elsewhere in "gas-bottles" and inputs of fertilizer, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus. According to a Life-cycle analysis, the land-based crops all were found to sequester more carbon than that incurred in growing them, while the contrary was true for growing algae, meaning that replacing fossil fuels by algal fuels could cause an overall increase in carbon emissions.

Not surprisingly, the report just published in the prestigious American Chemical Society journal, Environmental Science and Technology, has put the cat among the pigeons, since there are many companies gearing-up to produce algal biofuels. The US Algal Biomass Organisation has claimed that the study contained "faulty assumptions" and was based on "grossly outdated data".

Now, I am a fan of growing algae not the least of which because to do so means that far more fuel might be produced per unit area than is the case from the above mentioned land-based crops, as algae have a better photosynthetic yield; there is no need to use freshwater since algae grow well (even better) on saline waters or wastewaters, thus preserving an already endangered resource; you can put the tanks on any land (even deserts), so there is no need to compromise food-production in a competition over the same arable land to grow food-crops or fuel-crops; they might be used to clean CO2 from the smokestacks of power-stations fired from e.g. gas or coal; they might be used to clean wastewaters of nitrogen and phosphorus.

On closer inspection, the report is in fact very positive about growing algae, particularly in the latter two respects. Read positively, the data are only in opposition to making fuel from algae if nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients are added in their mineral forms, and if the CO2 has to be injected into the system (transported as a compressed gas) as made mainly by the process of steam reforming methane, along with most of the world's available hydrogen:

(Overall) CH4 + 2H2O --> CO2 + 4H2.

That H2 is used to make nitrogen (ammonium sulphate and nitrate) fertilizer by reacting it with N2 via the Haber Bosch process to make ammonia (NH3), and so there is in a way a symbiosis between the production of CO2 and NH3. The phosphorus would likely come from mining "rock phosphate", which requires energy too.

However, the figures in this "cradle to farm gate" analysis (i.e. they do not include the energy costs of processing the algae or other biomass into fuel per se) show that if the production of algae is combined with a wastewater treatment strategy, so that N and P are removed from it by the algae (an otherwise energy intensive procedure), and fed with CO2 from smokestacks, most of the environmental burdens attendant to growing algae are offset (i.e. an algae production plant, a power station and a sewage-works should all be placed in mutual proximity). Of three possible municipal wastewater effluents evaluated as a source of N and P, the most effective was source-separated urine with a very high content of these elements, in which case growing algae became more environmentally beneficial than the land-based crops.

Even if there remains some dispute over the exact figures used, what the study does highlight is the importance of developing an integrated paradigm of production and recycling for algal fuel production as I stressed before in the context of rare metals such as are required to maintain the electronics and solar power industries.

Related Reading.
"Environmental Life Cycle Comparison of Algae to Other Bioenergy Feedstocks," By Andres F. Clarens, Eleazer P. Ressurreccion, Mark A. White and Lisa M. Colosi, Environ. Sci. Technol., 2010, 44, 1813.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Drilling Down Deep Over Offshore Oil.

The Economist has published an excellent article (link below) on the subject of deep-sea drilling. The first offshore oil well completely out of sight of land was drilled in 1947, 17 km off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico. The platform of the drilling rig was no larger than a tennis court and was supplemented by several refurbished naval barges remaining from WWII which provided both space for storage and for the crew to sleep. The seabed was a mere 15 feet below, but now far greater depths of water are being fathomed.

In 2008, Shell's 22,000 tonne Perdido spar was towed from Finland where it was constructed to a spot 320 km off the coast of Texas, where it was chained to the seabed 2,400 metres below. This is connected to subsea wells in yet deeper water at 2,900 metres. Such offshore drilling operations are attended with daunting physical challenges. Since a longer and heavier drill string is required in deeper water, the supporting platform must be more heavily engineered. The interlocking sections of pipe are heavy, at around 30 kg/metre.

Since conventional onshore oil is held in countries that are unstable in regard to their political amenability to the West, offshore drilling is forcing private companies to look for oil further afield, in more inhospitable locations, and increasingly in deep water. The pressure of water increases by one atmosphere for each 10 meters of depth, and at almost 3 km, is close to 300 times normal atmospheric pressure, or around 4,500 pounds (2 tonnes) per square inch. The consequent pressure on the seafloor makes it more difficult to pump the oil up to the surface.

Hitting the right spot is a feat in its own right, and Robin Walker, of the oil-services company WesternGeco, uses the following analogy. "Imagine a large offshore oil rig as a matchbox. Next, imagine the matchbox on top of a two-storey building, with the upper floor filled with water and the lower floor filled with rock, sand and, in some cases, salt. Striking an oil reservoir with a drill pipe is then like hitting a coin at the base of the building with a strand of human hair." If the hit is in the wrong place, the costs are enormous, and an industry rule of thumb is that drilling a deepwater "dry hole" - a well with no oil - is around $100 million. BP says it can be as much as $200 million.

To avoid any errors, complex geophysical measurements are necessary including multi-dimensional seismic imaging, where a rough 3-D image is created of the subsurface rocks. Despite the difficulties, a number off major deepwater finds have been identified recently: Tupi, off the coast of Rio de Janieiro is thought to hold 8 billion barrels of oil, but this lies underneath 2,000 metres of water, 3,000 metres of sand and rock and a 2,000 metre layer of salt. Other "ultra-deepwater" discoveries, defined as those under 1,500 metres or more of water, have been made off the coasts of Angola, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, along with several more in the Gulf of Mexico.

Obtaining images of commingled salt and rock poses difficulties because the waves emitted from seismic sources travel faster through salt than in rock. When there is a mixture of reflected and refracted waves present, constructing an image of the subsurface from a normal sonar survey is not readily accomplished. Thus, rather than collecting seismic data in two dimensions, using streamers and them using computational processing to get a 3-D image, an actual 3-D data acquisition was done, using hydrophones and multiple seismic sources from three of four vessels moving in parallel, called a "wide-azimuth" survey. The accuracy can be honed further by passing over the same region a number of times from different angles ("multi-azimuth" survey).

The greatest challenge, however, is processing the data. When the surveys indicate there is a high probability that oil is down there, an exploratory well is drilled. This involves pumping a liquid called "mud" through the drill string to remove borehole cuttings and to cool the drill-bit and maintain pressure at the base of the well. As the drill cuts through the rock and sand under the seabed, the pressure of the "mud" in the drill must be kept within defined limits: if it is too low, the pressure of underground fluids and gases ("pore pressure") on the well wall will drive it to collapse, but if it is too high, the mud can accentuate and expand existing fractures in the surrounding rock which causes a loss in circulation as the mud leaks out into the newly formed fissures.

This is a simple overview, but all in all, the discovery and successful production of oil from these reservoirs offshore will depend on continual advances in technology and computation.

Related Reading.
"Plumbing the Depths."

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Coffee-Powered Car Does What it Says on the Tin.

When I heard of a coffee-powered car I envisaged the tank being filled with the liquid beverage from a cafetiere. This is not what is meant, however, and the fuel is ground coffee combusted in a fluidised bed as a form of biomass. "Why choose coffee?" you might ask. However, a BBC presenter was left stranded on the M1 when Britain's first coffee-powered car broke down there. It was intended that the car would make a 210 mile journey from London to Manchester, but it ground to a halt outside Birmingham. The vehicle in fact broke down four times, which delayed the journey while the engine was cleaned.

The car was a modified 1988 Volkswagon Sirocco that had been intended to be scrapped, and it is said it ran on the equivalent of 10,000 espressos, rated that at 1 mile on 56 espressos giving it a maximum speed of 60 miles per hour. There is no need for criticism, however, since the aim of the project was to raise awareness about the use of energy as demonstrated by the car, which has been dubbed "car-puccino". Ouch!

The stunt is part of The Big Bang: Young Scientists and Engineers Fair, in Manchester. This is on through March 11th - 13th and there are over 15,000 students between the ages of 9 and 19 registered to attend it, so far. The BBC programme Bang Goes the Theory will present its roadshow at the fair, of which an episode is to be broadcast on May 3rd entitled "Car-puccino".

I applaud all means to raise awareness about the issues and practicalities of energy, especially to the up and coming generation, and to coin a modern expression the coffee-powered car has thus "done what it says on the tin".

Related Reading.
"Bang goes the theory! TV presenter stranded on M1 when coffee-powered car runs out of caffeine."

Friday, March 12, 2010

Mining for Gas may Set-Off Earthquakes.

It is concluded that a "plausible cause" of a series of small earthquakes in Texas during 2008 - 2009 is saltwater pumped deep into the earth to recover natural gas, though this explanation is not definitive. In a process known as "hydraulic fracturing", shale layers are cracked by injecting water mixed with sand under high pressure, in order to liberate trapped natural gas. According to the USGS (United States Geological Survey), there may be 200 trillion cubic feet of gas trapped in shale across America.

Seismologist, Brian Slump of the Southern Methodist University, analysed data from 11 earthquakes and by a process of triangulation managed to place the origin to around one tenth of a mile south of Dallas-Fort Worth airport, on top of a geological fault located about 15,000 feet below the surface. Slump commented that although this is an old fault, stresses upon it remain that could trigger earthquakes.

Since 2002, 13 fracture wells have been drilled in proximity to it, but the study led by Slump found that the epicentre is almost exactly on the point of a reinjection well into which 9,000 barrels of seawater/day were pumped at a depth of 10,000 - 14,000 feet. The saline "flowback" water was then pumped to the surface and disposed of by injecting it into deep rock formations, in order to avoid further treatment.

Caution has been advised by Shaopeng Huang, from Michigan University, who said that: "a causal link between a given earthquake with a particular borehole is debatable," considering the huge amount of energy implicit in even small quakes. Slump stresses that his team are saying merely that such a link is "plausible not definitive", while noting that since the cessation of saltwater injection following a third set of tremors in June, the quakes have stopped.

I am reminded of a Swiss Geothermal energy project, in which the injection of water into naturally hot rock to recover heat, also caused quakes. Evidently, one should proceed with some trepidation in mixing geology with water that is not naturally part of it.

Related Reading.
"Texas earthquakes may be linked to wells for gas mining," By Dan Vergano, USA Today.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Shell and PetroChina Bid for Australian Coal-Seam Gas Reserves.

Arrow Energy, the owner of the biggest reserves of gas trapped in seams of Australian coal, has been offered £2 billion by Royal Dutch Shell and PetroChina. The gas, principally methane, is a cleaner fuel than either coal or oil and has a much higher calorific output per unit mass at 57 GJ/tonne, compared with around 29 GJ/tonne for anthracitic coal and 42 GJ/tonne for oil. Shares for Arrow are up by around 50% on the Sydney Stock Exchange, promoted by the expectation of a higher bid from the two giants.

Arrow Energy also owns the Fisherman's Landing liquefied natural gas project in Queensland, one of ten of its type in Australia, and the Territorial government has predicted around 50 billion Australian Dollars in investment as a global competition ensues among companies keen to export the fuel to growing markets in Asia.

China has announced its intention to increase the use of gas as a fuel three-fold to provide around 10% of its total energy by 2020, as part of an aim to curb its use of coal. PetroChina is the greatest producer of oil and gas in China, and its CEO has said that it will make efforts to increase its holdings of liquid natural gas, including that derived from gas physically trapped in coal.

A Shanghai-based energy analyst, Shi Yan is quoted as saying: "It appears that this bid is in its early stages, but it's part of China's efforts to sure supply." And this is true of all sources of energy, in nations across the world.

Related Reading.
"Shell and PetroChina swoop on Arrow Energy for its gas reserves."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

North Sea Oil and Gas may Provide One Third of Britain's Energy by 2020.

Combined output of North Sea oil and gas has fallen considerably from its heyday at the end of the 1970s to 2.48 million barrels a day last year, a 6% fall from the previous year. It is convenient to account for both oil and gas in terms of the energy equivalent of a barrel of oil, although actual oil production has fallen from just above 3 million bpd in1979 to just over one million bpd now. It has been warned, however, that without further investment in exploration and development of further fields in the North Sea, production of oil and gas will decline to a mere 0.5 million barrels a day by the end of the decade, which amounts to just 11% of Britain's energy needs.

Ofgen chief executive, Alistair Buchanan has aid, "For the next two to three years, with gas supplies and power station availability we are in a powerful position. The problem is the speed at which it deteriorates." The lobby group, Oil and Gas UK thinks that a lack of investment during the past four years has been a main reason for falling gas and oil production levels. 2009 saw a decline in the number of wells drilled by 22% for development and 40% for exploration.

11 billion barrels of oil and gas has been "discovered" in both new and existing operations, which increases the total offshore reserves for the UK to around 25 billion barrels worth. That said, many of the newly identified deposits are located in the central North Sea or to the west of Scotland, and will require deep-water drilling which is expensive.

It is thought that with sufficient investment, UK offshore oil and gas fields could still be producing 1.5 million bpd by 2020, which would meet 35% of the country's total demand for energy. Otherwise, keeping the lights on may prove a challenge since 40% of our electricity is made in gas-fired power stations. Necessarily rising imports of oil for fuel remain a problem in their own right, however, and I predict a steep fall in the number of cars on Britain's roads by 2020 or well before then.

Related Reading.
"North Sea oil could last at least a decade," By Simon Bowers.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Oil Rises Above $80 a barrel.

On Monday, the price of a barrel of oil reached above $80 in New York. The cause was a combination of fears over supply as a strike hit the French oil industry and the vexed issue of uranium enrichment in Iran, which is alleged to be in the intention of making nuclear weapons. The United States affirms that the intention of Iran to build two new uranium enrichment plants is "further evidence" that it does not wish to "engage" with the international community. The issue of uranium enrichment by Iran has been simmering for some time and will not go away.

The Iranians deny that they aim to build nuclear weapons but only to enrich the uranium sufficiently to generate nuclear power. Naturally occurring uranium contains 0.7 % uranium-235 which must be increased (enriched) to around 3.5 % for use as a nuclear fuel. What is left is "depleted uranium" which finds application in making heavy armour-piercing shells and tanks. The enrichment is done using a centrifuge which separates the lighter 235-UF6 from the heavier 238-UF6 in uranium hexafluoride gas. To make a nuclear weapon, the enrichment must be carried on until the uranium-235 concentration reaches nearer 90 %, which is a far more exacting process.

In view of what has happened in Iraq, i.e. a war and 30 year contracts being awarded to western companies to exploit its oil, it may prove significant that Iran has large deposits of oil and natural gas. A newly discovered gas-field in Iran is thought to contain 12.4 trillion cubic feet of gas plus 249 million tonnes of condensate, together worth an estimated $85 billion. Iran also has a similar quantity of oil to Iraq as has been estimated at 138 billion barrels. As an energy target, Iran appears an attractive prospect.

Related Reading.
(1) "Oil rises above $80 a barrel on French strike, Iran tensions."
(2) "Iran discovers $85 billion oil and gas reserves."

Monday, February 22, 2010

London Taxis Powered by Hydrogen for 2012 Olympics.

Looking exactly like the familiar London black cabs, a fleet of taxis that run on hydrogen/fuel cell technology are proposed to be ready in time for the Olympic games, to be hosted in London in 2012. The top speed of these vehicles is 81 mph and they can be driven for 250 miles on a single filling of hydrogen. Hydrogen is of course not a fuel, but an energy carrier, and must be produced, ideally using renewable energy. Therein lies the snag. Iceland is already building a hydrogen grid, but is in an extremely fortunate position since it has ample supplies of geothermal energy. There are also only 300,000 Icelanders, and so the overall demand on the technology is accordingly less than in a country with 60 million, as is the population of the U.K.

In Britain, the renewable electricity would be provided, ideally at any rate, from wind-farms and solar energy plants, but until that is achieved on the grand scale, the hydrogen will be produced from natural gas rather than splitting water by "green" electrolysis. In a chicken and egg situation, the driver of a single hydrogen car would have a poor choice of filling stations to choose from, but as demand increased, more of them would appear, so goes the market-driven argument. Thus a fleet of London taxis would need some concomitant infrastructure in-place from the start.

Kit Malthouse, who is the deputy London mayor, made an announcement in 2009 that by 2012 there would be six hydrogen filling stations in the city, and that somewhere between 20 and 50 taxis should be on the roads by then, as part of the "Black Cabs Go Green" programme, along with an even more ambitious 150 hydrogen-powered buses.

The idea is to modify a standard black cab, and the initial few such taxis have been made at the Lotus headquarters in Norfolk, funded by the government's Technology Strategy Board. The consortium for the project is headed by Intelligent Energy, who make the fuel cells, while Lotus incorporates the cell into the body of the car, using a design in which a tank containing hydrogen under pressure occupies the space of a normal internal combustion engine. Electricity from the fuel cell is fed to a battery pack under the floor of the taxi, which is used to provide propulsion for the wheels.

So in effect this is an electric car. However, there are apparently considerable space-savings over a normal electric car, in which most of the volume of the rear is occupied by the battery-pack, i.e. where the passengers normally sit, and since the energy-source (I am avoiding the term "fuel") is carried on-board there is no need to charge the batteries during the day.

I have grave reservations about the practicalities of hydrogen cars, although in principle they might seem ideal. If the hydrogen can be made from water using green electricity, then we have a pollution-free transport system. However, the infrastructure required from scratch to produce the hydrogen in the first place would be huge, let alone issues of its distribution. I think that as far as 2012 is concerned, there may be a few flagship taxis on the streets of London, but we are so far from anywhere near the 33 million vehicles that are on the roads of Great Britain, and powered by oil, that the scheme is merely a political curiosity. Still, some will say that at least it is a start.

So it is, but if we are at the point of peak oil, and it is impossible to replace oil-powered vehicles by hydrogen/fuel cell alternatives before we experience severe shortages of oil-derived fuels, their impact will be nil. It is more important to face-up to the pressing and undeniable dearth of liquid petroleum fuels and to redesign as best we can, our society to one that is less dependent on transportation at the level we have come to take for granted.

Related reading.
"Hydrogen taxi cabs to serve London by 2012 Olympics," By Alok Jha:

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Warships On Standby Over Falklands Oil

The issue of British companies exploring for oil off the Falklands seems to be getting rather more fraught. A type 42-destroyer, the HMS York, was observed patrolling the neighbouring area, where Argentina has declared that drilling operations are illegal, and has introduced permits on ships that move from Argentine ports to the islands. The British prime minister, Gordon Brown, has warned Argentina that any disruption of links between the Falkland islands and the outside world would be met with force, including a survey vessel that is supported by a 1,000 strong land-based military detachment.

Mr Brown has emphasised that the security of the islands is maintained by Britain, including routine patrols and a deterrence force that "comprises a wide range of land, air and maritime assets." According to an MoD official, British interests in the South Atlantic are under the protection of warships, and if Argentina were to interrupt the free movement of shipping on the high seas, the action would be illegal and the decision would be made to employ the deterrence force.

The issue of sovereignty over the islands is sensitive, since Argentina claims them as its own and there is the matter of what oil and other mineral wealth might be garnered from within the 200 mile economic zone around the islands. According to the British, the Argentines are "posturing" in order to get hold of some of that wealth, in the form of future revenues, and the "recovery" of the islands which they term Las Malvinas is a major rallying theme of the nation's president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Clearly this matter will not immediately go quiet, and probably not for many years, but I still doubt there will be an all-out military conflict between Britain and Argentine as happened in 1982. Since Britain is already involved in two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, do we really need another one?

Related Reading.
"Royal Navy warships on standby over Falklands oil dispute," by Damien McElroy:

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Falklands War Shadow Over Oil Wealth.

1982 was an important year for me personally as it was when I sat my "finals", studying chemistry at Sussex University on the south coast of England; but for the nation and more globally it was the time of the Falklands War, which was waged in defence of British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. I recall at the time there was some mention of "mineral rights", but can recall nothing more explicit than this or even where that allusion came from.

Many brave men lost their lives on both sides, as in most wars, or were terribly injured, physically and psychologically. The face of Simon Weston, who was severely burned, is a symbol of courage. He is a remarkable man and an inspiration to all who listen to him. He does not seem bitter.

Now it appears that some of that mineral wealth may exist in the form of oil. An oil-rig is due to arrive in mid-February, in microcosm of the fleet of ships sent to carry soldiers and munitions to wage war against the Argentines almost three decades past, but in this case to explore 100 miles north of the archipelago, where a geological survey has indicated there may be 60 billion barrels of oil.

The rig has been hired to the British "Desire Petroleum" company who will drill in the North Falkland basin and then lease it on to two other British companies, Rockhopper and Falklands Oil and Gas, and to the Australian BHP Biliton. The various firms will use the rig in rotation throughout this year. Shell put on hold its drilling projects in 1998 when the price of a barrel of oil fell to $12. Now with rising prices and peak oil on the horizon, meaning high costs and eventual actual scarcities, exploration projects of this kind are now looking once again viable.

Not surprisingly, Argentina is not a happy bunny, since it still claims sovereignty over the Falkland Islands which it calls the Islas Malvinas, having lost the war in 1982 and accuses the British of "occupation". It seems unlikely that there will be a second military conflict between the two countries but words of protest and defiance can be expected as the islands are a matter of national pride for Argentina. Given the waning in the North Sea fields, it is to be expected that Britain will look elsewhere for oil, including the region around Rockall, where there are sovereign rights.

The Falklanders will benefit to the tune of 20% of all profits and 9% of the royalties per barrel. The four main players have further promised substantial onshore investment which includes an overhaul of the main port at Port Stanley and building 350 new houses. There are 2,900 islanders there whose per capita income can be expected to rise appreciably, if even any substantial oil is recovered there, let alone 60 billion barrels. That said, not all are impressed by the potential loss of a traditional lifestyle based on fishing.

I shall watch this space to see if indeed oil is found and what consequences this may have.

Related Reading.
"Falklands oil prospects stir Anglo-Argentinian tensions." By Rory Carrol.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Uranium Rush.

Last year Kazakhstan became the world's largest supplier of uranium, overtaking Australia and Canada, at 14,000 tonnes, or one fifth of world production. As supplies of oil are being sought in increasingly inhospitable regions of the globe to meet rising demand against finite supply, the hunt is on for uranium in the face of an emphasis to turn-away from fossil-fuel based power stations and toward nuclear. The statistic is often given that there is about 40 years worth of of uranium left, and this is the duration therefore of the provision of nuclear power.

In fact, there is much more uranium around than that, and the use of thorium and "waste" transuranics would see the industry continue well beyond the foreseeable future, including potential technology that actually destroys nuclear waste and turns it into useful energy. The EROEI of all the other energy sources that must be employed in the fabrication of nuclear fuel rods/pellets and the power plants themselves must be considered too in the necessary book-keeping exercise of viability. Ultimately, it is hoped, much of the energy for these tasks might be supplied in the form of nuclear electricity.

In Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, are plans to begin mining uranium, which is there in quantity. Niger too, is to receive 1 billion Euros worth of investment to open a uranium mine. The price of uranium is a strong driving force which rose from $10 a pound during the decades where "nuclear" was perceived as anathema, to $137 a pound two years ago. Given the current spot-price of unenriched uranium is $42 a pound, a majority of mining projects are now seen as viable.

Presently, America and Russia meet a fifth of world uranium demand in the form of decommissioned nuclear weapons, taken from the stockpile amassed during the nuclear arms race of the cold war. Without them, it is likely that the demand simply can't be met. Africa is also an easier place to operate in, as the regulations are rather less rigorously enforced. For example, radioactive shovels were found in sale in the local market in Arlit, a company town adjacent to the Areva uranium mine, in Niger. Indeed, Niger is the sixth largest uranium producer in the world and may well increase its ranking. Areva has implemented a plan to stop radioactive waste rock and scrap metal from getting into the local community, but the problem is clear.

Namibia and Malawi are also in the sights of new investors, and the situation has been aptly summarised: "Getting a mine going in Texas takes two bookshelves full of authorisations. In Africa you give a shovel to a guy on $2 a day and you've mining uranium."

Related Reading.
"The great uranium stampede," By Danny Fortson.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

German Solar Subsidies May be Cut.

Along with Japan, Germany has a thriving solar energy industry, assisted by generous government subsidies. However, the companies Q-Cells SE, Solarworld AG (SAG) face less cheerful prospects now if the German government goes ahead with cutting subsidies on the price of solar-generated power. There is also the knock-on effect to manufacturers of solar panels whose profits would be marginalised. Thus far the matter remains under discussion, and any actual reduction must first be debated in parliament but could come about in April.

10 billion euros ($14.1 billion) worth of investments in new manufacturing and research through 2013 are on the table, as part of a growth industry that employs around 50,000 people. It is likely that S.A.G. will cut its own investment in Germany when lower rates come into force this year, but expand in other markets, according to its chief executive. It is expected that Banks will insist upon capital being invested in solar plants, with a "massive" decline in ground-mounted systems compared with rooftop PV modules.

Subsidized rates for solar power for consumption in Germany, are guaranteed for 20 years, but the ruling coalition of the Christian Democratic Union, Christian Social Union and the Free Democrats are deliberating about by how much exactly the guaranteed prices for electricity generated using solar panels should be reduced. For pre-existing rooftop systems, about 39 euro cents (55 cents U.S.) per kilowatt hour will be earned from local utilities, in comparison with around 5 cents per kilowatt hour paid to generators using coal, natural gas or nuclear fuel for the provision of next year's base-load electricity.

The Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen is calling for a larger reduction in the price of electricity generated from solar plants installed on agricultural land than rooftop systems, which has enraged the chief executive officer of Conergy AG, Dieter Ammer, based in Hamburg. He says, "Both the size and timing of the cuts suggested by Roettgen are unacceptable. It took us 15 years to build up a solar industry here in Germany and this attractive industry is at risk."

The BSW industry lobby group has commented that the guaranteed prices for electricity from solar panels will fall by a quarter during a two year period, spanning 2011, and it is possible that the so-called feed-in tariffs could be reduced as early as April. This might result in a "boom" during the first quarter in an effort by providers to establish themselves with the guaranteed prices before they indeed fall.

Related Reading.

"Solar Spending in Germany May Suffer With Power Cuts (Update 2)", By Jeremy van Loon and Brian Parkin.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Venezuela May Yield Twice as Much Oil as was Thought.

The Orinoco Oil Belt is now reckoned to contain 513 billion “technically recoverable” barrels of oil, or more than double the previous estimate of 235 barrels. Although this has been compared with and is said to dwarf the 264 billion barrels under Saudi Arabia, like is not quite being compared with like. The Venezuelan oil is “heavy oil”, which is a highly viscous bitumen rather than the light oil from Saudi which is highly prized since it is much easier to refine into fuel, especially petrol for spark-ignition engines. Converting the Orinoco “oil” into fuel will need a swathe of new engineering investment to build and develop refineries in order to derive fuel from it.

Nonetheless the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his government have drawn-up plans to bring foreign investors including companies from China and India into the region, even though contract disputes reign with previous partners, based in the United States. The heavy oil is present in the form of oil-sands, similar to the tar-sands in Canada’s Athabasca region, and is highly intensive in terms of energy to provide heat to extract the bitumen and water too. Nonetheless Orinoco is the largest oil accumulation ever to be assessed by the United States Geological Survey, and the amount of recoverable oil is derived from estimates that 40 - 45% of it may be recovered, although there is some scepticism about this and one Venezuelan geologist, Gustavo Coronel, has put this down to 25%, noting that even then much of it would be too expensive to produce.

The latter does however depend on the prevailing price of a barrel of oil, which is now around $80 and rising. Sources of oil from Mexico (e.g. Cantarell) are in decline and American home-production of oil is falling even in the face of falling demand for it as driving-habits change. The Canadian tar sands are looking increasingly ripe, as supplies of conventional oil from the Middle East look to become more expensive and it is in no way certain that President Chavez will sell his oil to the U.S. anyway. In short, light crude oil will become an increasingly precious and scarce commodity, and heavy oil will be extracted instead.

As to the likely outcome of this, even if sufficient quantities can be recovered it is to the EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) that we should look to determine the viability of sources of “oil”. Middle East oil has various estimates of EROEI ranging from about 30 down to 8 (i.e. for each barrel of oil worth of energy, 30 to 8 barrels of oil may be recovered), while “oil” from tar sands is costed at anywhere from 3 down to 1.5. Clearly, whatever amount of hydrocarbon liquid fuels may be produced in the future, cheap, easily refined oil must soon peak, and along with it our global transportation network. It is the relocalization of civilization whose silhouette appears on the future horizon.

Related Reading.

“Venezuela oil ‘may double Saudis’.”

“Oil Estimates in Venezuela Doubled,” Jan Mouawad.

“Why the U.S. needs all the tar sands oil it can get,” By Jeff Rubin.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Norway says "Yes" to Arctic Drilling.

According to a recent survey, the majority of Norwegians are in favour of an exploration study in a region of pristine Arctic wilderness, and which moreover is home to the largest spawning ground for cod in the world. Norway is not quite in the same straits as Britain in terms of the depletion of its North Sea fields, and yet its mature holdings of oil and gas are in decline. If Norway is to maintain its position as a major exporter of hydrocarbons, it needs to strike new resources and the oil industry believes that the waters near the Lofoten and Vesteraalen islands in the Arctic must be drilled down through to offset the decline in its existing fields.

Environmental groups fear that any spillage of oil would cause ecological mayhem. Indeed, the region has a complex ecology, with cold water reefs, pods of whales, some of Europe's largest seabird colonies and the spawning grounds of the world's largest population of cod. It is not expected that the government will decide firmly until 2013 whether to open up the area or not, but if some estimates of the timing and impact of peak oil are correct, the emphasis will have shifted acute by then, and all areas where oil is believed to lie will be up for grabs.

85% of Norwegians are of the view that the oil and gas industry will be highly significant to the economy of northern Norway, which also has appreciable fishing and tourism industries. Norwegian friends of mine applaud the oil industry for providing enormous wealth to the country and a very good standard of living for its citizens. Norway is seen by some as an ideal target for immigration, in view of its generous welfare system, although it is probably not as lenient as ours in Britain which we can no longer afford to prop-up on loans from the EU and elsewhere.

Norway invests much of the revenues from its oil and gas profits in an offshore wealth fund, although along with most other investments this was hit hard by the financial crash at the end of 2008. Nonetheless it still stands at $450 billion. It is through this pot of cash that Norway intends to provide pensions and other state benefits, and so maintaining its oil and gas income is crucial to the social welfare of the country.

Norway produced 3.5 million barrels of oil a day about ten years ago, and output has fallen to around 2 million bpd now. Britain produced around 3 million bpd at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s and now that has fallen to 1 million bpd and is declining fast. I heard the other day that there are deposits of oil off the Falkland islands around 60 billion barrels worth which presumably Britain will be entitled to some share of. At the time of the Falkand war in 1982, I recall there was some talk of "mineral rights" including oil and maybe that's why Britain really went to so much effort to defend a couple of small islands against Argentine invasion.

It is clear enough that environmental concerns will not prove sufficiently robust defences against a need to compensate for a dearth of oil production from established fields and we can expect drilling to occur in many currently sacrosanct regions of the world, maybe including the region of Lake Baikal and even Antarctica. The writing is on the wall, nonetheless for a world that gets 40% of its entire energy from oil.

Related Reading.
"Most Norwegians want Arctic drilling study: survey." By Wojclech Moskwa.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Snow and Gas Supplies.

Gordon Brown has said that there is no reason to fear that Britain will run short of gas during this uncharacteristically severe spell of cold and snow, which has been impinging upon us since before Christmas. Apparently we have six days worth of gas in hand compared to the French reserve of 120 days. Now the two countries get their gas from different sources, and Britain can no longer rely on the output of the North Sea fields, which are in steep decline, but needs to import more from its co-owner of that geological bestowal, Norway. Part of the recent concern over gas-provision was indeed due to some technical troubles in the supply of gas from Norway. France, along with other countries in mainland Europe obtains much of its gas from Russia, but it surprises me that there is so much gas stored in reserve.

This may derive in part from the fact that France makes 80% of its electricity from nuclear power while Britain makes 40% of its power from natural gas, and so the demand for gas is less. In Britain, around 100 companies are on interruptable gas contracts, meaning that they pay less for their gas but in times of crisis, like now, they must defer their demand on the national grid so that there are sufficient gas supplies to keep homes warm.

Being an island, once lauded as being Britain's source of protection, inter alia from French invasion, e.g Trafalgar, and a secure vantage point for the reverse, when Britain attacked France, e.g. Agincourt, Crecy and Waterloo, now appears rather vulnerable since we rely relentlessly on imports of fuel and food, and presently salt to grit the roads, since our own mines in Cheshire are unable to keep pace with demand, even suspending normal exports of it to Germany. Some of the imported salt comes from as far away as Egypt, and reserves are falling so low that local authorities are having to ration its use, e.g. by only gritting main roads, leaving the minor B-roads treacherous. There is a babble of complaint about this, but frankly what else can they do. When they do grit and snow falls, the effect is blanketed; and when the temperature falls below about minus 8 degrees C, the salt no longer melts the ice, for good and well understood reasons of thermodynamics.

We have been reminded of late too, irrespective of the prevailing weather conditions, that we will need to produce more of our own food over the next 20 years, as part of the blanket excuse of global warming. Well maybe, but the most immediate reason is to use less fossil fuel, particularly oil which I note is around $83 a barrel once more. Britain imports around a third of its food and this just isn't going to be feasible within 20 years and probably far less that that. "Peak Oil", is a term muttered out of the corner of someone's mouth but Global Warming is the main rallying cry. It matters not in the most pressing term since the same actions of burning less carbon both mitigate and buy time to re-adapt society from the global to the local, and maybe avert some of the worst cataclysms of GW, although some mathematical models predict that it is already too late to stop the planet from heating into the foreseeable future.

When we do suffer from such sputterings in the normally well-greased engine of modern life, I am reminded of the inevitability of change. That within a decade or two, we must completely change the way we live, powering-down to a society that doesn't need to use so much energy and move both goods and people around in the extent of the status quo. The transition will not be easy and maybe to quote Chinua Achebe in the title of his novel, "Things Fall Apart".

Meanwhile, Happy New Year!