Tuesday, December 27, 2005

So, what is the Alternative?

I would love to think that we will shortly discover some form of limitless energy, and thereby get around all our problems of globe warming CO2 emissions, security of fuel supply - of cheap fuel at that, to preserve our economic advantage, and the whole caboodle. I would also like to think that "Peak Oil" is at best a myth, or at least that it is a long way off, as the Oil Industry would have us believe. I neither think nor believe any of these things, but even those that do might ponder for a moment the question "what would be the alternative" if we were suddenly to find ourselves in the U.K. without (cheap) oil and gas, purely as an intellectual exercise.
"Nuclear Power", I can imagine some of you saying. Well, yes, there is some argument for it, but as I have pointed out in previous articles, nuclear could only provide 18% of our total "energy", even if it were to provide 100% of our "electricity", and there are issues of availability and supply, ignoring all the nasty nuclear waste that nobody has any idea what to do with yet, and what a horrible mess it would be if any of the uranium fuel ended up in a "dirty bomb" etc. etc. "Coal", others will argue, and it's a fair point. We do have plenty of coal. It's a bit rough on The Environment, and some viewers' quality of life would be impacted upon by the vista of dirty collieries and slag heaps - although the latter can be greened-over, mindful of the Aberfan Disaster - but you can't have it both ways. If we want more coal, the landscape will inevitably be scarred by its extraction. Indeed, we could probably dig up enough coal to supply practically all of our electricity and to heat most of our premises both commercial and domestic, if we re-tooled our systems for that purpose. However, even allowing this potentially reassuring solution, clearly coal is not generally a mobile source, and the remaining issue is transportation. Agreed, we could re-introduce steam trains and transport a goodly amount on their backs, but what about road transport - cars, vans and lorries, which carry more freight, in terms of both human and commercial cargo, than anything else does. Even trains run on diesel now.
I guess we could, in principle at least, adapt all these vehicles to run on gas, but gas supply is potentially a problem as we are running out of North Sea gas, and the U.K. is now a net energy importer, and we will need to import our gas increasingly from more politically maverick regions of the world such as Russia, which contains by far the world's greatest deposits of natural gas, mainly in the gas fields of Western Siberia. As I posed at the outset, it is both gas and oil that we are seeking to find an alternative for. "Run them all on hydrogen", others will propose. But, as I have also shown in this series of articles, hydrogen is totally impractical, since it is actually made from natural gas, and we could not realistically generate the phenomenal quantities of it required to substitute for oil if the current numbers of vehicles are to be maintained, by electrolysis - and the car industry would like even more of them.
In reality, there is no means to substitute for all the oil currently consumed. I won't say "which 'we' consume" since I deliberately don't own a car - I walk if my journey is anywhere within three miles, otherwise I use public transport, or if it's raining, say. And that seems to be the key. We can simply get around most of our problems of fuel supply by reducing or eliminating where possible the demands we place upon it. If we base those demands upon the requirements of a local economy and community, 90% of any actual"shortage" can be immediately avoided. However, any move toward such localisation beyond seductive lip-service will be deftly resisted by the oil companies and their sisters in the car industry, who will bend the ear of government to serve their will.
The Dahli Lhama thinks that all the problems of the world could be resolved through peace and understanding between people. I suspect he's right, but then he's not out to make a buck!

1 comment:

Kirk Sorensen said...

I know this will sound simplistic, but I truly believe that thorium is the limitless power source that you don't think exists. It can be converted essentially completely to energy in a liquid-fluoride reactor. The liquid-fluoride reactor can then convert that heat energy to electricity at ~50% efficiency using a helium-gas-turbine, or to hydrogen at ~50% efficiency using thermochemical processes like the sulfur-iodine cycle. The electricity could then be used either directly (as we do today) or to recharge electric cars--displacing the petroleum we currently use for transportation energy. Furthermore, I am skeptical of hydrogen as its own energy carrier (due to the difficulties in storage) but it is quite straightforward to imagine the hydrogen being used to liquefy coal into synthetic hydrocarbons, further displacing petroleum.

The wastes from the liquid-fluoride reactor are easily divided into two stream--the fission products, which will decay to background levels of radiation in ~300 years, and the actinides, which remain in the core until they are fully consumed. Today's troubles about nuclear waste are driven primarily around the production of transuranic elements (a consequence of the poor performance of uranium fuel in a thermal-neutron spectrum) and the need to isolate these transuranics for tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years.

A liquid-fluoride reactor, operating only on a feed on thorium and achieving a conversion ratio of 1.0, produces no transuranics, and therefore its waste is very straightforward to dispose. For sake of reference, we have people living in buildings 300 years old! We can isolate waste that long safely.