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.