Friday, December 30, 2011

A New Atlantis?

I am reading a fascinating book at the moment, "Forbidden History", which challenges certain prevailing scientific edicts and claims there are intellectual conspiracies at hand regarding such matters as the reality of ice-ages, the prospect of interplanetary cataclysms caused by massive electromagnetic discharges (lightning bolts striking one planet from another) and that ancient mythologies may provide accurate records of cosmic events in pre-history. It is also speculated that there may have been technically advanced civilizations on Earth prior to our own who were wiped-out along with most of any physical record of them by abrupt and cataclysmic events. It is claimed these people may have lived on the fabled island of Atlantis, but traversed the globe as evidenced e.g. by common linguistic roots and architectural constructs that are found across a range of geographically diverse human cultures. The source of such cataclysm it is suggested might be a "pole-shift", an event speculated upon by Charles Hapwood and by no less a figure than Albert Einstein.

Now, what is being proposed here is not a gentle shifting of the Earth's magnetic poles but something rather more dramatic. It involves a physical slippage of the Earth's crust over the substance of the planetary interior, like the skin of an orange skidding over the softer and deeper fruit, with the movement of entire continents abruptly from polar to warmer regions and vice versa. It is speculated that the absence of a steady fossil record showing the process of evolution in action is due to a past forged by catastrophic suddenness rather than by gradual change and adaptation. The work of Immanuel Velikovsky is given due mention, but also that it was eschewed and the man himself vilified by senior scientists. His books, however, won him public fame and became best-sellers, e.g. "Worlds in Collision", "Earth in Upheaval", "Ages in Chaos", which are of the highest erudition and scholarship and well worth reading, whether the ideas they propound may finally prove valid or not.

Atlantis itself and where it might have been is discussed in some detail. It is the stuff of legend that the island was destroyed by some unknown and possibly volcanic calamity. However, it is speculated that rather than disappearing to the bottom of some sea, it might have been what is now Antarctica. It is proposed that at the time of the Atlantean civilization and its advanced state of knowledge the island was located at a more temperate latitude, but the "skin-skid" which wiped-out the Atlanteans relocated it to the south pole and over the intervening 10,000 years or so Atlantis/Antarctica has become covered deeply with ice. All very interesting and I keep an open mind on such alternative and iconoclastic views to be both intrigued and entertained by them.

But how unstable is the Earth? I am reminded of the following which I wrote some time ago:

"An Unstable Earth?

I came across an interesting article, referenced below, which suggests that we may expect trouble from within the Earth itself, in addition to the surface effects of climate change involving mainly the atmosphere and the seas. According to the geologic record, the interglacial periods are separated by around 100,000 years, and are inter-spaced by the ice-ages. The exact causes of ice-ages remain a matter of considerable speculation but are generally thought to relate to changes in the Earth's orbit around the Sun, and hence to variances in the amount of solar radiation falling onto the Earth.

As an ice-age progresses, glaciers advance in varying degrees from the polar regions in the direction of the equator, resulting in substantial proportions of the continents becoming covered in sheets of ice with a thickness of more than one kilometer. Now that is an amazing thought! To achieve this phenomenon, water is drawn from the oceans and frozen into ice. Correspondingly, the sea levels globally were anywhere up to 130 metres lower than they are today. Given the relatively shallow basin of the English channel and that between Alaska and Russia, it was once possible to walk between the various continents.

At the end of an ice-age, the ice-sheets retreated and so the melt-water drained back into the ocean basins, causing the sea levels to rise at a rate of several metres per century. Significantly, research by Bill McGuire, who is director of the Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, shows that in the Mediterranean area, there exists a good correlation between the rate of rise and fall of sea levels during the last ice-age and the number of volcanic eruptions in Italy and Greece. The connection was clearest following the retreat of glaciers which occurred around 18,000 years ago, resulting in extensive flooding of the globe, and an increase in sea levels to where they are now, with a corresponding 300% increase in the number of volcanic explosions in the Mediterranean region.

Now correlation does not necessarily reveal cause, but the following explanation has been offered to account for these findings. The huge mass of melt-water pouring onto the continental margins and marine island chains (where over 60% of the world's active volcanoes are) squeezes and distorts the Earth's crust, forcing-out underlying magma into an actual eruption. There is considerable variation in results from mathematical models as to the extent of sea level rise that might occur in the future, but it seems quite possible that hair-trigger volcanoes (those close to blowing their top) might be set-off by relatively modest increases. Sea-level rise is in itself a dangerous thing, since a one metre rise would threaten to inundate about a third of all agricultural land in the world, two metres would overwhelm the Thames flood-barrier under surge-conditions, while four metres would swamp Miami, placing it 60 kilometres off the US coast.

The higher that sea levels rise, the greater is the chance that the world's volcanoes may be triggered, and in extreme cases, the activation of geological faults could occur, resulting in more earthquakes and undersea landslides. Hence there is a tsunami risk too, for example the Storegga Slide off Norway 8,000 years ago, which sent a 20 metre high wave across the Shetland Islands and onto the east coast of Scotland. The whole notion brings to mind that the Earth is not a collection of unrelated parts but an holistic entity (the "Earth system"), wherein change in one feature may have ramifications through the whole planet."

Related Reading.
"The Earth Fights Back," by Bill McGuire, Guardian Unlimited August 7, 2007.
"Forbidden History", Published by Bear and Co., Rochester, Vermont 2005, Ed. J. Douglas Kenyon)

Friday, December 23, 2011

"Energy" - not just "Electricity".

Implementing nuclear power on a grand scale will not secure an energy supply for the U.K., nor will it significantly reduce our CO2 greenhouse gas emissions. The reason is simple, but is seldom rendered explicitly, that only 18% of the total final energy consumption is provided by electricity. 78% (430% more) of the U.K.'s total energy is produced by burning coal, natural gas and oil directly, and this burden would not be influenced at all by any amount of nuclear development. The maximum change that might be made - at least in principle - is the substitution of all fossil fuel (mostly coal and gas) fired power stations by nuclear.

Exactly how monumental an undertaking this would be may be gauged from the fact that the current 17% of total electricity produced by nuclear is generated from 18 reactors, which are housed in 10 separate power stations. On this basis, to substitute for the 80% of electricity currently produced from coal and gas, using nuclear, would require building around 100 new reactors, and that is on top of the new ones that will be required in any case, to replace all but one of the existing reactors, which will come to the end of their working lifetimes by the year 2023. This clearly is a colossal undertaking which does not solve the major issues of "security of supply" or CO2 emissions in any significant degree. We will still need to import oil and gas from politically maverick regions, mainly Russia and the Middle east, and is the uranium fuel required for nuclear to be found on our doorstep? Hardly. Most of it comes over from Canada.

What about renewables? It is thought that in the longer run (say, by 2050) around 40% of the U.K.'s electricity might be provided using wind/wave/hydroelectric/ solar power. A significant proportion of this would be produced by "microgeneration" devices, rather than a large scale "grid", though any excess electricity generated beyond the local demands of each "micro" community, could be fed into the central network. This still only addresses "electricity" as a final fuel, and the question of providing the greater bulk of "energy" persists.

In simple economic terms, on the level of an individual or a country, the degree of security depends on the gap between income and expenditure. More can be earned or less spent. As far as the U.K.'s energy earnings are concerned, the limit is in sight. We cannot realistically "earn" more fuel, and we may well have to endure a pay-cut. It is thus a matter of economy, and of economising. That we spend the precious resources of oil and gas only where it is essential to do so. This will involve schemes of energy efficiency, for example the "40% House" being researched by Dr Brenda Boardman's group in the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University and the Passivhaus concept.

Such advances in building design could make huge savings in energy use for "space heating" across both the domestic and commercial sectors (each of which accounts for around 30% of the national total energy demand). Transport, which uses another 26%, mainly in the form of oil, is another area where savings could be made, both through more efficient combustion engines (or fuel cells, if the costs can ever be made realistic), and simply by eliminating all unnecessary use of cars (especially the military style "road wagons" - 4x4's, SUV's, depending on which side of the Atlantic you are - that have more to do with symbolising status than any practical transportation issue) .

To a reasonable mind it all seems straightforward, but I suspect there are too many people making too much money to allow any attention more than lip-service to be paid, until it is too late and there is no longer any choice.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Die-Off or Abundance?

The ownership of the largest deposits of oil, notably in the former U.S.S.R., e.g. Siberia and Kazakhstan and the Caspian region generally, in addition to the fields in the Middle East, will likely determine the future balance of world power. "The New World Order" as it is sometimes referred to. It is interesting that it is scientists from the former U.S.S.R. who throng among the ranks of "Hubbert detractors" - those who do not believe in an imminent "peak oil" scenario. There appears to be a conflict of opinion, and probably of interest too, between Western and Soviet oil experts, which revolves around different viewpoints as to the origin of petroleum. The western belief is, as we were all taught at school, that petroleum is a result of "cooking" plant and animal remains over millennia, and proof of its origin thus is taken to be the presence of the same type of organic molecules (porphyrins etc.) as are found in living plants and animals, i.e. the biotic theory.

Soviet thinking, which goes back at least as far as the great Russian chemist Medeleyev (who devised the Periodic Table of the chemical Elements), is that petroleum is formed in the deep earth by geochemical processes - Mendeleyev thought by the action of water on iron carbides. This is called the abiotic theory.

The explanation for the presence of porphyrins etc. is that they are simply dissolved from higher strata by petroleum moving upward from the depths, and acting as an organic solvent. The essential difference between these schools of thinking is that, if the Russians are right, oil can be considered a limitless resource, while the western view readily accords with an imminent peak oil; i.e. a finite supply of oil. The Russians, however, are sufficiently convinced after more than 50 years of intensive research that their theory is correct and they have made enormous investments in developing "deep drilling" techniques (8 km and more down) with which to reach the petroleum deposits formed deep underground. Of course, while there are differences of opinion about how much oil there is, even conventional oil depending on whether a 90% probability (P90) or 50% probability (P50) scenario is used, and there may well be large amounts of either biotically or abiotically derived oil beyond what has been estimated, if that oil cannot be recovered at a sufficient rate to meet demand for it, then a supply-demand gap for crude oil is inevitable. The event of Peak Oil will rapidly and substantively enlarge that gap.

Either the Russians will secure their position more strongly in the new world order, or affordable oil will run out - for everybody. This is particularly alarming in the context of world population. In 1900, there were less than 2 billion people on the planet (up from about 1 billion in 1800); now the figure has just passed 7 billion, and the exponential curve in population growth that these numbers can be plotted upon is an exact parallel with the curve for oil production. Without the vast quantities of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and fuels to run farm machinery, all of them being made from crude oil and natural gas, we could not grow enough food to feed the rising population, nor even the current number, nor far less than that. Some predict that a "die off" will follow peak oil production, and that the world population will fall from 7 billion to perhaps as few as 500 million (the death of almost 5 billion people, or about 92% of the number now alive).

An analogy can be drawn with the growth of bacteria, which, so long as there is sufficient food available, follows a "sigmoid curve". There is an initial growth in population which multiplies rapidly (the rising upper of the sigmoid), and then levels off abruptly when the food supply becomes restricted relative to the new, far larger population. Then they begin to eat each other instead, and the number of bacteria remaining alive plummets.

Placed in human terms, it is hardly a comforting comparison.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Peak Oil, the NHS and theTransition Nation: Cuba.

Almost all aspects of modern life are acutely dependent on oil, including the practice of contemporary medicine. What then will happen as easy oil becomes more scarce, its costs rise, and ultimately there is less of it? The growing instabilities in those regions of the world where most of the oil is, e.g. the Middle East, do not bode well for a secure supply of oil meanwhile, and once sovereign production peaks occur, the loss of income to these oil-producing nations will urge further unrest. In reality, the major oil-costs incurred by the NHS in the U.K., and most medical services worldwide, are from transportation. Thus, health, along with food, and virtually all else that we have come to accept without question as a given, is standing still, while the edge of a precipice advances toward it. Modern medical care requires transport of people to hospitals in emergency cases (gasoline to put into the fuel tanks of ambulances), and even air-ambulances (e.g. the "heli-pad" on top of the Royal London Hospital); moreover, it requires the movement of medical supplies: drugs, equipment for surgical procedures, hypodermics, blood, bottled oxygen, food, the disposal of medical-waste...the list goes on and on, and the doctors, nurses, administrative staff, porters, and even the Senior Managers and accountants - since most hospitals are now "cost centres" - all have to get to work!

If, as some think, the world is already at close to the half-way point of oil extraction and consumption, then this might be a good moment to ponder how to achieve a condition of healthfulness in the time that is at hand. Provision of energy affects everything, and complex equipment in hospitals as elsewhere can only run if there if sufficient electricity to allow it to do so. Otherwise it may just sit monumentally outside in the carparks of such institutions, that are no longer replete with either the means to operate the latest medical breakthrough or indeed cars. Most items, even surgical gloves, are manufactured fundamentally from oil. Hence oil (petroleum) should be cherished as a unique chemical feedstock, and so breaking our dependence on it for fuel, is mandatory, even ignoring all other reasons for doing so. This is an exercise in conservation, not obviously of flora or fauna, but of a precious resource and hence ultimately of the human species.

Food - whether we are healthy or ill, all of us need to eat to stay alive. The same goes for water provision. Modern means of food production and of water purification and the distribution of these commodities all require oil. Heat in winter, and increasingly air-conditioning in summer requires energy, and that is mostly provided from oil and gas. Will the edge come quickly or slowly? This is an important question, but it is hard to answer. It depends - on lots of things. It will depend on the unfolding of world politics, and who has their hands on the oil reserves in 5, 10, 20 or more years, and whether an individual nation counts itself among their friends or not. In effect it will depend on a world barter system: of goods, of money, of political (including military) support for given regimes, all manoeuvring for security of a self- supply of oil and gas.

It is interesting that Cuba, which is the single positive example known of a successful post peak-oil economy, in fact produces more doctors than are needed at home, and Cuban doctors are well known for their world aid work. It is striking that Cubans have a very similar life expectancy and infant mortality rate to the U.S., but use around only 12% (one eighth) of the energy, per capita. The example of Cuba should be taken as highly encouraging - that it is possible to achieve a great deal with a preventative, holistic approach to health overall, rather than just medicine. Were it not for the overwhelming drive to secure as much money as possible - mostly through oil - as facilitated by the global status quo, we might act more quickly to discover just how much could be "secured" by thinking and acting on a more local level. But this will not happen significantly until there is almost no slack left in the system - when there is really no choice left over oil.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Further Proposed Hydroelectric Power on River Thames.

The Berkshire village of Streatley is about 8 miles (13 km) from Reading and 16 miles (26 km) from Oxford. It is located in the Goring Gap on the River Thames and is directly across the river from the village of Goring on Thames, in Oxfordshire. The two villages are connected by the Goring and Streatley Bridge with its adjacent lock and weir. The Goring Gap was cut through the chalk at the end of the last ice age by the large amounts of melt water entering the Thames. The newly formed route flows through Berkshire and London before finally egressing into the North Sea.

It is proposed to generate hydroelectric power from the River Thames at Goring and Streatley by the installation of 3 reverse Archimedes screws with a combined generating capacity of 246 kW. Some five million tonnes of water flows through the Goring Gap daily. There is nothing in the river as yet, since it has taken six years so far for the completion of all necessary feasibility studies, and to get various permissions from the Environment Agency. It was originally intended that the Swan Hotel would receive electricity from the installation but now the plan is to connect to a much closer sub-station on the Goring side of the river.

It is expected that the average annual power output will be 1000 Megawatt-hours, which is sufficient for the electricity needs of 350 homes. On the basis of four estimates for the construction phase and a firm price from Spaans-Babcock for the three 3.6 m diameter 4-flight screws, it appears that the project will cost at least £2 million.

The projected income is £165,000/annum for electricity sold onto the grid, according to an average annual rain-fall, mindful that this can vary by a factor of two between a "dry" year (1996) and a "wet" year (2007). It is intended that the commissioning and operation will take place from Autumn 2012 and beyond, and that the installation should generate clean renewable electricity for at least 50 years.

Another hydropower scheme of similar power-output is being mooted, this time at Abingdon, 5.5 miles south of Oxford.

As noted in a previous posting (, there are two other hydropower installations already generating electricity on the Thames, one at Mapledurham and a smaller one at Sonning.

Related Reading. ...and thanks to Dave Holt for providing some updated details which I have used here.

Monday, November 14, 2011

"What Happens When The Oil Runs Out?"

This is a link to the Question and Answer session after a talk I gave with the above title to the Isle of Wight Cafe' Scientifique on September 26th:

The talk itself can be found at:

I am available to give talks and quite often asked to speak on this topic in general.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

100 kW Hydroelectric Turbine at Mapledurham.

The village of Mapledurham is adjacent to that of Caversham where I live, near Reading in the English south east, and is a pleasant 4 mile walk from here tracing the banks of the River Thames. Mapledurham House is a beautiful Grade 1 listed manor house, set on the Mapledurham Estate which holds the last commercial working water mill on the river. The estate has belonged to the Blount family since 1492. Later, the Blount sisters Teresa and Martha became friends of the poet Alexander Pope to whom he sent one of his most famous poems, "The Rape of the Lock".

There has been a turbine at Mapledurham since the 1920s which provided electricity to the manor house for many years but is no longer operational. This, however, has been replaced by a brand new turbine based on an Archimedes screw design and at full-power generates almost 100 kW. Of this, some 3 kW are drawn-off to run and control the installation. The output is not constant of course and the device is automatically turned-off when the lock is used and the water level falls, then it ramps back up to 85 - 95% of full capacity. Over a year it is thought that some 500,000 kWh of electricity will be produced at a value of £100,000 which will be sold-on to the energy company Npower.

I have been told that over a 20 year period, the project should generate around £1 million profit, which will be used to restore the listed mill buildings, and thus it appears as a sound business investment. The installation capital, provided by the Mapledurham estate is around £650,000, including interest. The electricity will be bought by the chain Marks and Spencer, who are keen to increase their use of green energy. The Mapledurham Estate is also investigating the use of cow manure to generate biogas, since they have a dairy herd, which also supplies Marks and Spencer.

The turbine itself weighs 24.7 tonnes and has a diameter of 3.5 metres. Its dimensions are such that an eight foot railway sleeper should be able to pass through it without causing damage, and obviously anything up to that size coming from further upstream. The length of the turbine has been truncated so that it fits within the limited space available to it at the mill, which has marginally reduced its maximum power output from around 120 kW.

From an ecological perspective, the choice of the design means that fish too will be able to swim through the turbine without coming to harm. Further down river on the weir at Caversham Lock is a fish-ladder to allow fish similar safe passage. The banks of the "pond" into which the water flows through the turbine will need to be reinforced, because of the phenomenon of resonance. When the turbine is operating at high capacity there is little problem, but when that drops below about 30%, and particularly down to around 10%, a wake is created that washes-away the banks of the pond. These are being reinforced with a steel barrier, and it is intended to place boulders into the pond partly for aesthetic reasons and I imagine that also the wake will be broken-up by flowing around them.

There are two turbines to be installed below Windsor Castle, when they are brought over from The Netherlands, and there is a smaller 18.5 kW hydroelectric generator which provides power for the Mill Theatre at Sonning, some four miles further down river from Caversham, with any excess electricity going onto the national grid.

It seems sensible to extract far more power from the rivers in this way, appearing as a "green" source. However, the installation of such turbines will in many locations necessitate considerable engineering and the adaptation, e.g. of weirs to place them. Effects on river-flow and local ecology must also be considered, but this is a good example of using a local advantage, e.g. a river to provide energy at the local level. In order for Transition Towns to emerge fully as resilient local communities that generate much of their own energy, such developments should be encouraged.

That noted, the turbine at Mapledurham is expected to run for 10 years before maintenance is required, but then the "black box" that is the generator needs to be serviced or replaced. The mechanical parts of the turbine, e.g. bearings, are expected to last for 20 years, but keeping the installation running will probably still depend on parts brought in from elsewhere and by some means of transportation, which currently would be powered by liquid fuel. It is debatable what forms of transport will be available to us in the decades to come and hence the viability of technology that cannot be produced and serviced by local hands.

A video of the turbine in operation may be viewed on Vimeo

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Transition Town Reading.

The Transition Town movement has spread across the United Kingdom and there is one based in Reading, in the south east of England. In the face of peak oil, global economic failure and climate change, TT aims to provide resilient local communities that can weather such assailing forces and provide ultimately a more satisfying and humanly balanced way of living, setting apart from the delusion that "happiness" can be found in the unbridled acquisition of consumer wealth.

I attended a meeting of "Transition Town Reading" last night. Reading is the town in which I live, or specifically it is the Borough which incorporates the village of Caversham, which is where I actually do live. I met a few members of TTR after a talk I gave to Cafe' Scientifique in Reading back in March, but this is the first actual meeting of the group I have attended.

We were asked to express our "personal vision" for TTR and when the guy chairing the meeting said that at the outset, my instinct was to make it for the door! However, there were some interesting ideas and emotions raised and I explained that my interest began with some research I was doing back in 2005, to try and understand the origins of petroleum. Then I read about Peak Oil, was both transfixed and horrified by the whole scenario, and began writing this blog, which lead to my being invited to write columns on and on Forbes, and some reviews that were published in the scientific literature. As the writing took-off more and a wider audience of people read what I had written, some of them invited me to give various talks on the subject, both to the general public and in universities, which I still do.

Following the TTR meeting, I am left with a sense that there is a body of people in this town, as undoubtedly in many others, with pretty much the same values and concerns: what to do about peak oil, climate change, the out-of-kilter Capitalist system based on unlimited growth that we are desperately and unhappily clinging to, trying not to drown in the global torrent, in the perceived absence of any other craft to keep us afloat.

Of course this one sinking rapidly and it would be better to start swimming to the shore as soon as possible!

Why was I attracted to the "Transition Town" movement rather than say to Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth? The answer is simple: that while I can obliquely envisage some future horizon where we are all living in smaller communities using less energy and not driving and generally travelling less, because it is the loss of cheap liquid fuels for transportation that will go first of all fossil energy resources, the "transition" from here to there is not obvious and if we don't plan it and get it right we will descend into anarchy tearing each other apart to grab what resources are left.

So that's why I am attracted to "Transition Towns" and that I am interested in my local region. I have volunteered to help devise an energy descent plan, i.e. how to put together a set of actions that steadily use less oil say by 5% per year until in 20 years we don't need it any more. Now this is naive mathematics, and actually doing it another story altogether.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The 10 Commandments... Guidelines for Humanity Post- Peak-Oil.

If they are not actually "commandments" they might as well be. The original set of 10 provided a simple set of rules for members of a small community to live in reasonable harmony with one another, and that is essentially the requirement for an oil-dependent society that has necessarily fragmented into smaller communities, once its supply of oil has been severely curtailed. At first sight this does seem like a prognosis of "doom and gloom", as indeed it will be if there is no sensible scale-down of oil-fuelled activities. Indeed, a "wall" of fuel dearth will suddenly appear, and we will drive straight into it; or really be abandoned by the wayside of the petrol-fuelled journey of globalisation. So, here are some suggestions (not rules or commandments, but logical consequences and prospects for the era that will follow down the oil-poor side of Hubbert's peak). Overall, it will be necessary to curb our use of oil in the same amount as its rate of declining supply, which it is thought will be around 2.5%/year. Clearly the depletion-rate will not be precisely linear, but certain courses of action are indicated.

(1) The real problem is that our society is based around the car. This is particularly so in the U.S., where it is (or has become) necessary to travel over significantly greater distances than in the U.K., and in Europe generally. Fuel is cheap in the U.S., and if it were not the economy would grind to a halt. I have toured extensively in the U.S., giving lectures on environmental subjects, and indeed when I was scheduled to cover 10 venues in 14 days (on one trip) I needed to fly between almost all of them (except in Houston where I had two engagements in the same city), and was amazed at how much competition exists between airlines with the consequence that I could cover about 1,000 miles for around £30.00 ($46.80). The standard price would be probably four times that in the U.K., say from London to Edinburgh, which is less than 1,000 miles, but you gather my drift. As I have stressed before, in no way are cars part of the solution to the problem of sustainable living in the oil-poor era, which I predict we will see begin to emerge within about a decade from now. I have "done the math", and it seems clear enough that the massive amounts of fuel that we currently use cannot be replaced gallon-for-gallon by biodiesel, biobutanol, bioethanol or indeed biohydrogen - there just isn't enough arable land to grow the crop to make any of this stuff on a sufficient scale, certainly not if we want to keep growing food. A rise in car-share schemes would be a useful first step.

(2) That brings me onto the next vital issue - food production. All farming will necessarily become organic. At the outset, let me say that I realise that growing food organically (fertilized by plant mulch and animal manure, and without using chemical pesticides) requires more land than modern forced agriculture does. However, since the means to force it - pesticides and chemical fertilizers - are made from oil and natural gas, once these begin to deplete, then there will be no alternative. Some say that if Cuba could do it, as they did when the former U.S.S.R. curtailed their supplies of oil, fertilizer and pesticides, then so can we. This is good thinking, however, Cuban society is of the necessarily localised kind based around community farms supplying local small populations. So that's where we are heading. Rock-phosphate fertilizer is another issue, since its production appears to have also peaked and thus there is a real incentive to recycle N and P from agricultural run-off and from human and animal waste, which would also address the problem of eutrophication and algal blooms. Methods of Regenerative Agriculture and Permaculture need also to be introduced as a means for reducing the inputs of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and freshwater into farming.

(3) Many urban conurbations can only support a small number of their very large populations. A city the size of London is a good example, with around 10 million people depending on where you draw the borders, which would pose a considerable exercise in relocating most of that number since London itself has insufficient arable land for the purpose of sustaining so many.

(4) Transportation is, of course, a major issue, beyond the availability of the "car". Virtually all goods on shop shelves are imported - many from other countries, sometimes across the world, and certainly over considerable distances within these shores. Most of that will have to go, and local production will become the norm. Hence there will be an inevitable rise in local economies.

(5) This is a thorny matter, because it means that the accepted mechanisms of retail trade will need overhauling. Massive chain-retail industries, say McDonalds and many others, will have to to work on the local scale if they are to survive. Hence if we had a McDonalds in the village of Caversham, the burgers it sold would be made from locally farmed beef, not imported from Argentina, say. Everything will hence become more expensive, as the monopoly advantage of bulk-buying on an unimaginable scale will be lost. All such mechanisms rely on cheap oil and it is precisely the loss of that which we are planning for.

(6) Certainly in the U.K., once the world leader in engineering, we now manufacture relatively little because we can buy it more cheaply e.g. from China. However, the cost of imports will necessarily soar, and so if we want particular items (even cars), they will have to be made certainly within the U.K. The same argument applies for the U.S., and maybe even more so. Indeed, there is a certain joy to be had in the death of faceless corporate industries who we believe don't really care too much about individuals. Smaller local businesses do, because their livelihood depends on it. The developing world may be hard-hit, however, if the West no longer wants to buy their goods, and that development may atrophy - but it must in any case, since all of it is underpinned by the declining source of world oil supplies.

(7) It may be that the age of "consumerism" per se, is drawing to a close. This will impact on everything, and hard. We will never re-experience the oil-extravaganza of the 20th Century. Hence that kind of manufacture and supply will make its swansong. How indeed we will make anything in the future is a good question since oil and gas have served as both a basic manufacturing material and a fuel for industry. It is certain, however, that an emphasis on more essential items (warm clothes and pots and pans, say) will matter much more than devising novel gadgets for mobile-phones beyond their inaugural purpose of just talking to somebody. The entertainment industry, tourism and the service sector generally will begin to wrap-up.

(8) Having seen a huge reorganisation of education in the U.K., we will see far more, and maybe a return to some of the original technical colleges that have now become universities, and this might end much of the current pretence that the nation is better educated than ever before. With the fall of the intrinsic manufacturing industry (which was based on first coal and then oil), and high levels of unemployment in the 1980's, a whole generation of new universities was established and a general re-jigging of the system to fit the bums-on-seats funding policy. Hence some universities will offer whatever courses can swell their entry numbers, and so we see a rise in pharmacy while the real science of chemistry has declined sharply. The title "professor" needs to be looked at too, when in some universities a professor (that's "Full Professor" in the U.S., not lecturer) may have no publications in the subject he is allegedly a professor of!

How indeed can such an individual profess? Real knowledge and real levels of literacy and numeracy should be instilled from school levels and this does not seem to be the case even though we have never had more "university graduates". Indeed some companies e.g. Zeneca, in exasperation, are now training their own staff, taking them at age 16, rather than training poorly educated graduates. This is indeed how industry used to gain its ultimately senior staff (they worked their way up), and it would avoid the mandatory "student debt" that has been enforced on the young by vastly expanding the numbers of university places but then removing the maintenance grant system, which now would be absurdly expensive for the government to fund. My novel "University Shambles" satirises some of the absurdities that have come about in the hastily expanded British university system

(9) The high-tech medical system will also be unable to survive. Most of modern medicine depends on oil and gas, at the simplest level to get hospital staff to work in the mornings. Even bandages and dressings, drugs and high-tech equipment such as heart monitors and devices to jolt an arrested heart back into life depend on oil as a manufacturing feedstock and electricity to run them. There will likely be less cosmetic surgery, and organ transplants too. The NHS in the U.K. was set-up primarily to fight infectious diseases, and this might be more effectively done working on a smaller community scale, than in confronting a highly mobile world population with the means to transport diseases too. That knowledge gained in the successful control of much infection should be prized and taught as part of the new physicianship.We may see the return of the "cottage hospital" which like a local farm, attends to the needs of a fairly small community, rather than massive city hospitals and health centres. Preventative medicine will come to the fore, since prevention is indeed much more effective (and less demanding of resources) than cure.

(10) This, the final item is a round-up of what has already been alluded to. Life will necessarily become more locally focussed. If people are unable to move around so freely, they will tend to stay where they are. A likely successful outcome for we humans in the imminent oil-poor era will be met through thinking and planning on the scale of small communities. Some regions will naturally have certain advantages over others and disadvantages too, e.g. whether there is access to transport/energy from a river or plenty of crop-land or woodland. That said, the internet should not be lost, otherwise we will become hidden from one another in small isolated community pockets, and that would be a seriously retrograde step. Optimistically, this may be a good time to think about setting up your own local business in wherever it is you choose to settle. Now that is an important choice to make, as you may find yourself stuck there if you don't like it!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

UK's First Public Hydrogen Filling Station Opens.

Britain's first public hydrogen filling-station has opened in Swindon. It will be run by BOC (British Oxygen Company) who are the nation's biggest supplier of compressed gases. It is said that the station is an important step in a national scheme to make hydrogen vehicles a viable alternative to petrol-driven cars.

Swindon Borough Council's regeneration body, Forward Swindon, was awarded a £250,000 grant from the South West England Regional Development Agency in order to build the fuel station at Honda in Swindon.

Although there are practically no hydrogen-powered cars on British roads there is the murmur that hydrogen cars are the future of practically zero-emission motoring.

It is hoped that the scheme will encourage the manufacture of hydrogen-cars in Britain, which currently are made mostly in Japan.

Sounds great but where will the hydrogen come from? Practically all the world's hydrogen - used in the petrochemical industry and to make artificial nitrogen fertilizers via combining it with nitrogen in the Haber-Bosch process, is made by steam-reforming natural gas. CO2 is a by-product, and will need to be "stored" if the overall process is to be truly as clean and green as is claimed. Electrolysing water on a vast scale as a source of hydrogen using green-electricity e.g. from wind-power is still on the drawing board and there is the problem that the rare earth elements used increasingly in the magnets of wind-turbines are becoming relentlessly scarce and expensive.

True that hydrogen cars do not pollute as do petrol and diesel fuelled vehicles, but at a cost of £9.5 million for one car, the price will need to be brought-down vastly if this is to be a serious contender for alternative transport. There is the further issue that there is insufficient available platinum to fabricate more than a tiny fraction of the number of fuel cells required to replace oil-fuelled transportation on any significant scale.

In respect of all these limitations, H-transport really is a flash in the pan.

Related Reading.

Monday, September 12, 2011

UK and US Join Forces on Laser-Fusion Energy.

The UK company AWE and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory have joined-forces with the US-based National Ignition Facility (NIF) to help provide energy using Inertial Confinement Fusion, in which a pellet of fuel is heated using powerful lasers. Since the late 1950s, UK scientists have been attempting to achieve the fusion of hydrogen nuclei (tritum and deuterium) using magnetic confinement (MCF). The Joint European Torus (JET) is located in Britain, which is the largest such facility in the world and may be regarded as a prototype for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) based in France.

So far, the "breakeven point" has not been reached, and the energy consumed by the plasma has yet to yield more energy than it takes to maintain it; moreover, there are problems of instability, meaning that plasmas tend to collapse within fractions of a second when they must be maintained over significant periods if, e.g. they are to be used to provide a constant output of energy as in a power-station of some kind.

An alternative is Inertial confinement fusion (ICF), in which fusion of nuclei is initiated by heating and compressing a fuel target, typically in the form of a pellet containing deuterium and tritium contained in a device called a hohlraum (hollow space or cavity) using an extremely powerful laser. Energy is delivered from the laser to the target, causing its outer layer to explode, which drives the inner substance of the target inwards, compressing it massively. Shock-waves are also produced that travel inward through the target.

If the shock-waves are intense enough, the fuel at the target centre is heated and compressed to the extent that nuclear fusion can occur. The energy released by the fusion reactions then heats the surrounding fuel, within which atomic nuclei may further begin to fuse. In comparison with "breakeven" in MCF, in ICF a state of "ignition" is sought, in which a self-sustaining chain-reaction is attained that consumes a significant portion of the fuel. The fuel pellets typically contain around 10 milligrams of fuel, and if all of that were consumed it would release the energy equivalent to that from burning a barrel of oil. In reality, only a small proportion of the fuel is "burned". That said, "ignition" would yield far more energy than the breakeven point.

At the NIF it is hoped to have ignition within a couple of years, or far sooner than the carrot-before-the donkey "50 years away" for MCF, although there is much to be done yet. A single shot from the world's most powerful laser at NIF is reported to have released "a million billion neutrons" and for a tiny fraction of a second produced more power than was being consumed in the entire world, although to achieve ignition this would need to be increased a thousand-fold.

A real breakthrough, no doubt. But as with MCF, how long before this technology can be fabricated into actual power stations? There are many nontrivial ancillary challenges too, especially the secondary procedure of actually getting the energy out of the reactor into a useful form, i.e. heat to drive steam-turbines as with all other kinds of thermal power stations, to generate electricity. This is very complex and untested technology compared, say, to coal- and gas-fired or nuclear power plants. Actual fusion power is still at best many decades away and the concept should not be thrown as a red-herring that the world's impending energy crisis has been abated.

Most immediately, what fusion in any of its manifestations does not address is the problem of providing liquid fuels as conventional supplies of oil and gas decline, and it is this which is the greatest and most pressing matter to be dealt with, against a backdrop of mere years not a luxury of decades.

Related Reading.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

EU Set to Stockpile Rare Earth Elements (REEs).

In the light of the Chinese hegemony for its own energy projects, it is feared that restrictions in the global supply of rare earth elements (REEs)will ensue. Until last year, China provided some 97% of the REEs available in the world, which are used increasingly to fabricate the magnets in wind-turbines and in electric vehicles. As China expands its own use of energy, including that from renewable sources, the nation intends to hold-back its exports of REEs for its own use, with potential impacts on the development of renewable energy such as from wind across the world. Last year's abrupt curtailment in exports from China has led to a gap in supply for REEs.

In response to this threat, the European Union (EU) is looking into building a stockpile of REEs, in the form of a mixed carbonate of these metals. This follows-on from the British government's recent "strategic metals plan", in which securing supplies of key metals including REEs is perceived as critical to the future economy and in meeting carbon-emissions targets. It is proposed that an annual 3,000 tonnes of REE mixed carbonate be garnered.

This amount is the stable output of the European Molycorp Silmet production of the material and is matched by that from the company's U.S.-based REE production, amounting to 10% of the world market following the imposition of quotas by China.

The growth of the mighty Chinese economy has taken its toll on the U.S.-based solar energy firm, Solyndra, which has filed for bankruptcy - indeed the third such company to fold against Chinese competition recently. Such growth must be underpinned by resources, of metals and other elements, and of energy. It is predicted that by 2020, Chinese demand for crude oil will match that of the U.S., and one can only wonder at what point supply of such critical commodities will fail.

Related Reading.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Dr Richard Pike (1950-2011) and Peak Oil.

Dr Richard Pike, the CEO of the Royal Society of Chemistry has died of cancer. He was a forceful ambassador for British Science and represented the subject of chemistry and its importance in providing a means for the fabrication of new materials and solving environmental problems, especially providing clean water across the globe. He and I disagreed about the nature of "Peak Oil": in his opinion, as a former oil-man working for B.P., the estimates of proven oil reserves were low by a factor of 2 according to whether a P90 or P50 analysis was used, while my contention is that no matter how much oil may lie under the Earth's surface, if it cannot be extracted fast enough to meet current (and relentlessly growing) use, there will be a gap in supply and demand for it, with catastrophic consequences for a global civilization based on crude oil to provide for transportation, chemical and pharmaceutical manufacture and food-production. An ultimate peak in oil production is an inevitable consequence of a finite resource, and the gap will be sharply enlarged when it transpires. Crude oil, or its substitutes, will be produced for decades, but at an increasingly expensive tariff, both in terms of cost and energy, as it is sourced in the form of a heavy, sour (high-sulphur) material, or in synthetic form from tar-sands, shale and coal. The term "peak oil" really means the precipice of cheap oil, and all that depends upon it.

Resquiecat in Pace.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Peak Gold and Peak Platinum?

On the BBC News programme this morning ( I noted mention that there is thought to be enough recoverable gold to fill "three Olympic sized swimming pools"(OSSP) and enough platinum to occupy one such volume "up to your ankles". According to FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation), the body recognised by the International Olympic Committee for administering international competition in the aquatic sports, an OSSP has at least a length of 50 m, a width of 25 m and a depth of 2 m, making a volume of 2,500 m^3.

Now, this does place a tangibly illustrative physical dimension on how much of these metals might be available.

In the case of gold, we may deduce that there are 3 x 2,500 m^3 x 19.3 t/m^3 = 144,750 tonnes recoverable.

In the case of platinum, the sum may run something like 2,500 m^3 x 21.45 t/m^3 x ("up to my ankles", say 4 inches, or 0.1 m/2 m) = 2681.25 tonnes recoverable.

The value for platinum shocks me, as I had heard there were maybe 36,000 tonnes recoverable, but I have found an interesting analysis ( which places the issues of resources and reserves into perspective. This report concludes there are "estimated proven and probable reserves of platinum at 203.3 million troy ounces, (6,323 tonnes)"... plus... " In addition to these reserves, inferred resources were estimated at 939 million troy ounces (29,206 tonnes) of platinum." So, taken together, this is about the amount I had understood existed.

However, the bulk of this is likely to be got at far reduced EROEI, and greater difficulty/cost, though a more valuable product will urge more assiduous efforts to produce it. If one does the sum in reverse, i.e. 2m x 6,363 t/(2,500 x 21.45) = 0.24 m, I deduce that the OSSP would be filled with platinum to about nine and a half inches up my leg, which is about half way up my calf, and well above my ankles.

But how much gold is there? According to the USGS ( there are 51,000 tonnes, which is more like one OSSP, rather than three. I have seen estimates that maybe up to half a million tonnes of gold might be recovered, but the quality of gold ore is falling. In 1960, one tonne of gold ore yielded 2.86 grams of gold, but by 2000 only 1.37 grams of gold were recovered per tonne. The most recent gold ore discoveries are yielding less than one gram per tonne. Thus, the situation is like oil, that most of the easily-had stuff has been had, and more energy and resources (reflected in the falling EROEI) must be expended to recover and process a poorer quality material.

In making Jewellery, the highly resistant nature of Gold and Platinum symbolises eternity, e.g. in wedding-rings. However, gold and the platinum group metals (PGM) have many important practical uses. Gold finds increasing application in the circuitry of computers, while platinum, rhodium, palladium and rhenium provide catalysts, e.g. in catalytic converters, fuel-cells, and the production of synthetic fertilizers. If the supply of these metals will fail demand for them, many central and projected technologies for communications, transport and food production must be re-thought.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Natural Limits to World Wind Energy?

The amount of energy available in the Earth system to be extracted by wind-turbines is limited, and if sufficient energy is removed the world climate will be affected. These striking conclusions follow from a recent analysis ( reported from the University of Jena in Germany. Humans use energy in total at a rate of 17 TW (terawatts), 87% of which is provided by fossil fuels. In the effort to mitigate carbon emissions and climate-change, sources of carbon-free renewable energy are sought, particularly wind-power. From a simple engineering perspective, the more wind-turbines are placed around the globe, the more energy can be extracted, with no particular effect on the overall energy of the atmospheric flow.

From the various simulations used it was inferred that between 18 - 68 TW of mechanical wind power can be extracted from the atmospheric boundary layer, taken over all non-glaciated land surfaces. While a single wind-turbine does not affect the global atmosphere, the installation of a large number of such devices will interfere with the atmospheric circulation and diminish the extraction efficiency on the large scale, since any extraction of momentum will act in competition with natural wind-power energy dissipation by turbulence in the boundary layer.

The amount of extractable energy evaluated using this "top-down" thermodynamic approach is significantly smaller than has been estimated using "bottom-up" engineering models based on wind turbine characteristics and wind velocity measurements which give values up to 1700 TW. If wind-energy were extracted on the scale of human demand for energy (17 TW), amounting to 50 -95% of the total energy available, significant climatic effects are predicted. These are a result of increased turbulence and entrainment of air at higher altitudes by the simulated turbines. At higher altitudes the air is potentially warmer and heats the air nearer to the surface by mixing with it. The warming effect is similar to that predicted from an elevation of the atmospheric CO2 concentration to 720 ppm.

While presently only 0.03 TW of energy was extracted from wind in 2008, and there is room for a considerable expansion of this technology with relatively insignificant effects on the climate, any future expansion on the global scale must take account that the potential for extraction of wind energy is finite according to the nature of the Earth system. It is thought too that as the atmospheric CO2 concentration increases, as it must with the continued burning of fossil fuels, the kinetic energy generation from the atmosphere will decrease thus further diminishing the amount of energy that may be sensibly extracted by wind-turbines on the very large scale.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

UK Government Report Calls for “Strategic Metals” Plan.

Not only are supplies of oil and natural gas under imminent threat of failing to meet demand for them, but so is a whole range of precious metals, along with indium, gallium and germanium and other vital elements such as phosphorus and helium. A report [1] from the Science and Technology Committee, advised by the Royal Society of Chemistry [2], warns that if the U.K. does not secure supplies of strategic metals, its economic growth will be severely jeopardized. Of particular concern are indium, used in touch screens and liquid crystal displays, and rare earth elements (REEs) particularly neodymium and dysprosium, used to fabricate highly efficient magnets for electric cars and wind turbines. Platinum group metals are an issue too, used in catalytic converters and fuel cells.

As is true of oil and gas, and indeed world population, such resources are not evenly distributed around the globe, and for example 80% of available new platinum is extracted from just two mines in South Africa. 92% of the niobium used in the world (for superconducting magnets and highly heat-resisting superalloys e.g. in jet-engines and rocket subassemblies) is exported from Brazil, and 97% of REEs are presently supplied from China. In developing a low-carbon transport infrastructure, it is proposed that biofuels should be used principally for aviation where there is no practical alternative to liquid fuels. Thus, it is ventured, electric cars will become increasingly important in providing personalised transport while avoiding the use of petroleum or natural-gas based fuels. The knock-on effect is that new sources of lithium must be found along with the means to mine and process the metal, plus the inauguration of recycling technology for lithium.

One can immediately take issue with the practicalities of both arms of this scheme, however. Roughly one fifth of all fuel in the UK is used for aircraft, or around 13 million tonnes. At a yield of 952 L/ha and a density of 0.88 g/cm3, to produce this much biodiesel would take 15.5 million hectares of arable land, of which the UK has only 6.5 million hectares. Thus if we were to stop growing food crops entirely and just rapeseed, we could still only fuel 42% of our aviation fleet. It is obvious that just a few percent at best of our current number of planes can be kept in the air by means of biofuels. Clearly, the days of cheap air-travel are numbered and this may be one reason why the coalition government has scrapped plans to build the controversial and vexed third runway at Heathrow Airport.

Given the 30 million cars on the roads here currently fuelled by oil, the case for a wide-scale implementation of electric-cars might appear compelling. However, the lead-in time to make a dent in that number of vehicles and the 60 million tonnes of crude oil used for fuel would be decades at best, even if the necessary supplies of REEs, lithium and overall manufacturing capacity for them could be achieved. The most practical use for electricity is to power mass transportation, e.g. tramways and railway networks rather than individual vehicles.


(2) Davis, E. (2011) "Critical Thinking.”

Friday, June 03, 2011

4 Die in Welsh Oil Refinery Explosion.

Four contractors have been killed in an explosion at a Chevron oil refinery on the Pembrokeshire coast in west Wales. A fifth was taken to hospital with severe burns where they are undergoing treatment. Maintenance was being done on a 730 cubic metre storage tank where the explosion and fire occurred, although the details have yet to be fully investigated.

The plant is one of the largest in western Europe and refines 220,000 barrels of petroleum per day, with the employment of 1,400 workers. It was inaugurated in 1964 and in 1982 a fluid catalytic cracking unit came on-stream. Other features are units for HF Alkylation, catalytic reforming and three for hydrotreatments. Acidic crude oils e.g. Captain and Doba crude can be handled at the Pembroke refinery.

The refinery was initially owned by the Regent Oil Company, which marketed crude oil from Trinidad, but in 1956 became owned by Texaco. The refinery passed into the hands of the Chevron Corporation when they took-over Texaco. Earlier this year it was confirmed that Valero Energy had agreed to buy the refinery for $730m (£458m) and another $1bn (£611m) for various assets including Chevron's UK and Ireland-based petrol stations.

Ten fire-engines were sent to the incident by the Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service who brought it under control within an hour and a half. Since the wind was blowing offshore, away from residential areas, any noxious material resulting from the blast and fire was carried out to sea.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

British "Fracking" Causes Earthquake... So What Now?

Hydraulic Fracturing, known as "frac'ing" in the industry, has made another unwelcome appearance in the media, in which the process is termed "fracking", where it is reported that the procedure may cause earthquakes ( Essentially, water containing a surfactant and various other chemicals is injected under high pressure into a source rock e.g. shale, causing the latter to fracture and release natural gas (principally methane). It is hoped that fracking will provide 45% of the U.S. gas by 2035, although the jury remains "out" on its safety aspects, awaiting the conclusions of studies by the University of Texas and by the Environmental Protection Agency.

In Europe, fracking is set to be adopted widely, particularly in Poland which has significant reserves of gas-shale, while in France, which is similarly well resourced, reservations over groundwater contamination by fracking are sufficiently strident that the country has vowed not to adopt the method. France indeed produces almost 80% of its electricity from nuclear power, while other EU nations rely far more on fossil fuels and for whom gas is a more important ingredient of their energy-mix, including the UK.

In the inauguration of a pilot study offshore near the famous holiday resort of Blackpool, renowned for its "sticks of rock" and big-dipper rides, in the North-West of the United Kingdom, an unexpected side-effect of fracking has been identified, namely an earthquake of magnitude 2.3 which has reinforced some disquiet as to the safety of the procedure. Commercial fracking is presently banned not only in France, but in New York and Pennsylvania states, from where there is footage available on YouTube of residents setting fire to their drinking water in consequence of the high levels of methane gas in it arising from neighbouring fracking operations.

Now it appears there may be another hazard associated with the process, which is reminiscent of the discovery made in Switzerland a couple of years back that pumping water deep into hot rocks to extract geothermal energy can also cause earthquakes. It is thought that the UK operation will be put on hold for several weeks while the British Geological Survey considers the situation, but given the potential importance of fracking as a substantial contribution to world future energy needs, it is almost certain that it will not be abandoned.