Monday, October 30, 2006

Weakening Ocean Current - New Ice Age?

We are taught in school that the U.K. has the warm climate it does because of the Gulf Stream, a warm current that is part of the Atlantic circulatory system. Without it, it is argued, temperatures here would be similar say to Hamilton (Ontario) in Canada, which are by our standards pretty cold much of the time. Should the Atlantic Conveyor circulation fail, then we may be plunged into an ice-age, covering most of northern Europe. Indeed, there is evidence that part of the current, which is usually 60 times more powerful than the river Amazon came to a halt for 10 days during November 2004. In the film "The Day After Tomorrow" is portrayed a nightmare outcome in which the meridonal current which drives the gulf stream shuts-down, and Europe and North America are plunged into an ice-age overnight. While no scientist believes that such a dramatic change could occur so quickly, there is consensus that a failing of the current over even a few decades could have a profound impact. Warm water brought to European shores from the tropics keeps the temperature as much as 10 degrees C higher than would be the case without it, when the continent would be both much colder and drier.
Researchers are unsure of the cause of the 10 day hiatus, and Professor Harry Bryden of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton said "we didn't know it could happen". Last year, Prof. Bryden's group reported that the Atlantic circulation has dropped by around 6 million tonnes per second from 1957 to 1998. He predicted that, if the current did not strengthen, it would lead to a 1 degree C drop in the average U.K. temperature during the next decade, while a complete shut-down would cause a cooling of between 4 and 6 degrees over 20 years. The study prompted the (U.K.) Natural Environment Research Council to place a network of 16 underwater stations across the Atlantic, stretching from Florida to north Africa, to determine flow rates and "other variables" at different depths. From these measurements, they conclude that the quantity of warm water flowing northwards has fallen by 30%. Bryden also analysed previously collected data supplied by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and found a similar pattern, which suggests that the 2004 shut-down is not a one-off and that most of the slow-down occurred between 1992 and 1998.
Richard Wood, chief oceanographer at the U.K. Meteorological Office's Hadley Centre for climate change, based in Exeter, says that the Southampton findings leave much that is unexplained. He argues that the changes are so large that there should have been a fall in oceanic heating of Europe by one fifth, which should cool the U.K. and Scandinavia by between 1 and 2 degrees C, yet this has so far not been seen. Though unseasonably cold weather in October 2005 briefly covered parts of the U.K. in snow, average European temperatures have been rising. Measurements of surface temperatures in the North Atlantic indicate there was a strong warming trend during the 1990's, which has now halted. Bryden speculates that the warming may have been part of a global temperature increase from human caused greenhouse warming, which is now being offset by the fall in the northerly flow of warm water.
Once the water has warmed Europe, its flow ends at Greenland where it sinks to the ocean floor and then returns south. This is a consequence of the higher salinity of the water once it arrives at the northern regions, due to evaporation and the separation of pure water as ice, hence giving it a greater density so that it sinks. The picture is more complicated however, since Bryden's study indicates that while one area of water on the Canadian side of Greenland seems to be sinking normally, there is a second area on the European side which has partially shut-down so that only half the normal volume of water is sinking and returning south from there. While no one is certain why this has happened, possible causes are a dilution of Arctic waters by melting sea ice or an increased outflow from Siberian rivers hindering it from sinking and returning south. Both effects could be linked to global warming. Some models predict that there will be a shut-down later this century.
There are more uncertainties than there are answers, but the question inevitably arises: can we expect a much colder climate in the ensuing decades, and should we begin stockpiling fuel for that eventuality? Given there is already an acute and amply documented pressure placed on securing fuel supplies as things stand, the prospect of a colder climate hones these imperatives more acutely still. Even if a full "ice age" is still some distance off, we can reasonably expect that maintaining our current standard of life in colder lands will demand more energy, needing us to accrue more fuel just to maintain pace. I believe that the "peak" in material human "progress" may be in sight. Perhaps it is humans who will begin to move to warmer southern climes, even if the Atlantic currents no longer do.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Sellafield Fined £500,000 over Olympic Pool "Leak"!

I have mentioned in previous postings that the company BNG Sellafield Limited has been fined £500,000 plus legal costs of over £67,000 following their guilty plea of breaching health and safety regulations, following a radioactive leak from a pipe at its THORP facility (Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant). As noted before, the leak had occurred during a period of nine months, disgorging a total volume sufficient to fill an "olympic swimming pool". The discharge consisted of nitric acid in which was dissolved 20 tonnes of uranium and 160 kilos of plutonium. Although this material was highly radioactive, it remained contained in a sealed "cell" and so no radioactive material escaped into the environment. No one was hurt. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) brought the prosecution following the discovery of the leak in April 2005. It was alleged that Sellafield breached three conditions attached to the Sellafield license, to which the company pleaded guilty at a hearing before Whitehaven Magistrates Court on June the 8th 2006.
This latest fine is additional to the £2 million fine levied on BNG Sellafield in August by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority over the same incident. This fine was imposed in the form of deductions from money that the Authority pays Sellafield.

After the hearing at Carlisle Crown Court, Dr. Mike Weightman, the HSE's Director of Nuclear Safety and HM Chief Inspector of Nuclear Installations, commented:

"Our extensive investigation into the events in THORP has shown that British Nuclear Group Sellafield Limited fell significantly short of the required standards for a considerable period of time before the leak was discovered. Although we stress that there is no evidence of any harm to workers or the public, the leak being contained within a stainless steel lined, heavily shielded cell, there had been a significant prolonged reduction in attention to the high standards demanded, something we are not prepared to tolerate.

"THORP was Sellafield's flagship plant and built to high standards. It must also be operated, maintained and managed to the high standards we insist on, and the public have a right to expect from the nuclear industry.

"For the wider nuclear industry, our message is clear: high standards are demanded of the nuclear industry, this means continued vigilance and close attention to maintaining all the multiple physical and administrative barriers put in place to protect people and society from highly radioactive material.

"It is not acceptable to allow any of these barriers to degrade and weaken, relying on the existence of other barriers to secure continued protection. Industry must continue to embrace high standards of design, construction, operation and maintenance and vigorously strive to maintain them at all times."

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Train is the New Green.

As we grab our passports and Euros (since the U.K. has not yet adopted the European currency), I am imbued with a sense of virtue to note that we shall be heading for Nimes in the south of France by Eurostar - i.e. by train, not plane. Since we live in the South East of England, this is actually quite convenient; when I lived in Liverpool, in the North West of the country, it was less so, requiring around 4 hours to get to the terminal at Waterloo Station. From Reading, we should be able to make that first leg of our journey in about an hour. The reason for my sense of virtue is sight of a statistic that a traveller going to Paris and back on Eurostar is responsible for 10 times less CO2 than an equivalent journeyman making that distance by air. This is the result of study by Eurostar, and is a fair comment, and one that should be roundly expressed. It does place pressure on the airlines, though, who at present pay no tax on their fuel - unlike the railways which do. The latter is one reason why cheap air fares remain on offer, although there are "surcharges" being imposed on longer haul flights, and all in all, both on grounds of meeting the government's CO2 emission targets, and the expediency of cost, once the two forms of transport are matched level-to-level, the aircraft industry will begin to see a decline.
The same may become true of road haulage, and I note that Tesco is now moving 20% of its Anglo-Scottish traffic over to train transport, in freight containers proudly emboldened with the slogan "Less CO2". As university chemistry departments close down all over the country, it is to be hoped that most readers of the corrugated container sides know that CO2 is chemical shorthand for "carbon dioxide", and this is a greenhouse gas, thought responsible for climate change and global warming. I would reckon, however, that most drivers getting to work on the M1 motorway will be more concerned with more immediate matters, like not getting stopped by the police for using their hand-held mobile phones while driving, which is quite rightly now illegal in the U.K.
Undoubtedly, travel will become an increasingly pressing issue, and both on grounds of cutting CO2 emissions and reducing fuel consumption per se, as supplies become compromised post Peak Oil, there will be less journeys made, using all forms of transport. The drivers (so to speak) for this change will undoubtedly be of an economic kind, and within 10 years, the sheer cost of fuel will have forced a substantial number of planes to stay on the ground. However, it is doubtful that train journeys, including by Eurostar, will become correspondingly cheaper. Car use will fall too, especially of fuel-thirsty SUV "Hummer" type vehicles, and so life will become steadily of a more localised nature, walking, cycling or using trams, and we may perhaps discover some advantages in this.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Aberfan Disaster: 21 October 1966.

40 years ago today, when I was a small boy living in South Wales, a terrible disaster unfolded on that community in the mining village of Aberfan, and on the psyche of the south welsh nation itself. In the morning of the 21st of October, at 9.15, a "slag heap" consisting of colliery waste (unwanted rock and coal) from a local mine slipped and slid down Merthyr Mountain. On its way, it destroyed twenty houses and a farm, before engulfing Pentglas Junior School. The children had just been singing the hymn "All Things Bright and Beautiful" at school assembly when a great noise was heard outside. Had they been in their classrooms, as they would have been only a few minutes later, the loss of life would have been much reduced, but among the 144 people killed were 116 children between the ages of 7 and 10. It was said that a whole generation had been wiped-out, in that close-knit mining-village world of the Welsh valleys.
At the "Tribunal of Inquiry into the Aberfan Disaster", the National Coal Board (NCB) was found responsible for the disaster itself, due to "ignorance, ineptitude and a failure of communication". It was found that the collapse of the slag-heap had been caused by a build-up of water in the pile, and that when a slip happened, the fine material of the tip liquified (thixotropy in engineering terms) causing the whole to slide down the mountain. The primary cause of the "water" was an underground spring beneath the tip. The spring was well known to locals but the NCB denied all knowledge of it. Two days of very heavy rainfall had loosened the slag from the Merthyr Vale colliery causing half a million tonnes of coal waste to callapse in the direction of the school. Parents and miners, as well as the rescue services dug frantically, some with bare hands to try and locate survivors, of whom there were but a handful. A mass funeral was held on 25 October 1966, and the children were buried in separate marked graves on the hillside.
So horrifying was the disaster than everyone wanted to do something - anything - to help. Hundreds of people (including my own father) stopped what they were doing, threw a shovel in the car and drove to Aberfan to try to aid with the rescue. Their efforts were largely futile, and these well meaning but untrained hands simply got in the way of the trained rescue teams. Nobody was rescued alive beyond 11 AM on the day it happened, and it was almost a week before all the bodies were recovered.
The Mayor of Merthyr immediately launched a disaster fund to support the village and the bereaved. Donations poured in from all over the world. I suppose that in its time its influence on international psyche was something like that of the "2004 Tsunami" in Indonesia. The final fund amounted to £1,750,000 (probably £20 million in today's money). Some of the money was donated directly to bereaved families, a sum of £50 each, and it also paid for house repairs, a new community hall, and a memorial to the dead. Since the NCB refused to accept full financial responsibility for the disaster, the fund ended up contributing £150,000 toward the cost of removing remaining tips overlooking the village.
The tragic event of Aberfan led to the "Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act (1969)" and the 1971 regulations, which hold quarry owners responsible for securing the safety of solid and liquid waste tips and providing for design, supervision, inspection, notification, keeping records and making rules for tipping procedures.
Lord Robens of Woldingham, chairman of the NCB did not rush to the scene of the disaster, but instead went to accept his appointment as Chancellor of the University of Surrey. Subsequently, he misrepresented the case of the slide to the community (which had held him in their trust and respect) and falsely claimed that nothing could have been done to prevent it. He never apologised, and bad feeling remains in Aberfan to this day.

Friday, October 20, 2006

50 Year Old Meltdown Caused Cancer.

In 1959, a nuclear accident occurred at a research facility near Simi Valley, and according to a new study, the radioactive contamination from it was far worse than was revealed at the time, and may have resulted in hundreds of cancers in surrounding communities. The study also provided evidence for chemical contamination from testing rocket engines which threatens to pollute soil and groundwater in the surrounds of Rocketdyne's Santa Susana Field Laboratory. The nuclear meltdown was almost unknown to the public before 1979, but is thought to have caused anywhere between 260 and 1,800 cases of cancer during the intervening decades.
The five-year study was conducted by an independent team of scientists and health experts, for which the advisory panel said they could not offer more specific details about potential public exposure to carcinogens because the Department of Energy and Rocketdyne's owner, Boeing Co., did not provide key information. "This lack of candor … makes characterization of the potential health impacts of past accidents and releases extremely difficult," the panel concluded. Boeing officials strenuously disputed the findings, which they claimed were based on miscalculations and faulty information. The Boeing report contradicted findings from an earlier UCLA study that found elevated cancer deaths among workers exposed to high levels of radiation. "The pattern of secrecy and misrepresentation that began at the time of the accident continues to this day, where sloppy practices are done under a cover of darkness," said physicist Dan Hirsch, who is co-chairman of the advisory panel.
The lab was opened in 1948 on a craggy plateau on a 2,850 acre site, in Ventura County. It was originally operated by North American Rockwell, and conducted nuclear research for the federal government before ceasing those operations in the late 1980s. It has also been the site of more than 30,000 rocket engine tests. The advisory panel was created by local legislators in the early 1990s to oversee some of the studies. Its new report specifically focuses on how the lab's operations, which included decades of rocket engine testing, may have affected the health of local residents.

As reported by Amanda Covarruvius of the LA Times:

• As much as 30% of the most worrisome compounds associated with nuclear testing at the lab, iodine-131 and cesium-137, may have been released into the air. But Boeing's Rutherford said data from the site's own airborne monitoring system refutes that claim.

• Unable to obtain weather data from Boeing, scientists made calculations based on varying assumptions about wind speed and direction and estimated the number of potential cancers at 260, with the rare possibility that the number could be as high as 1,800, within 62 square miles surrounding the field lab.

"These cancers, if they occurred, would have been amidst a population of several million people and over a period of many decades," the report said. "The ability of epidemiological studies to identify these cancers, if they exist, in a population that large, is limited, given the uncertainty of where the exposures occurred."

• For years, in violation of restrictions prohibiting such activity, radioactive and chemically contaminated components were disposed of at an open-air sodium burn pit at the field lab, polluting soil and groundwater.

• Perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel, migrated off the lab site, toward populated areas, in surface water runoff. Other contaminants may have spread off site in this manner as well, the report said.

The report also revealed important information about lab operations: It was home to 10 nuclear reactors and numerous low-power reactors, plutonium and uranium carbide fabrication plants and a "hot lab" used for remotely cutting up irradiated nuclear fuel shipped in from other federal nuclear plants. Marjorie Weems, who lives on property adjoining the site, said her daughter, Priscilla, 34, had to have part of her thyroid removed 13 years ago and worries about a possible connection to the lab's operations.

"It's been such a coverup for so many years," said Weems, 62, whose husband, now retired, worked at the lab. "They lied and lied and lied and said there was no contamination. But now we know that's not true." At the time of the 1959 nuclear accident, little information appeared in the media. Lab officials released a statement saying "no release of radioactive materials to the plant or its environs occurred, and operating personnel were not exposed to harmful conditions."
The advisory panel overseeing the most recent study accused the lab's operators of maintaining a pattern of deception and secrecy ever since. For instance, it said researchers discovered that a meteorological station was atop the nuclear reactor on July 13, 1959, when fuel rods ruptured and partially melted, emitting radioactive gases into the plant and the atmosphere. When the researchers requested the station's weather data to try to determine how far radioactive gases may have traveled from the hilltop lab, Boeing officials refused, asserting that the information was "proprietary — a trade secret," the panelists said in the report.

"How can you possibly declare a trade secret which way the wind blew on a certain day?" Hirsch said.

I anticipate that the case will continue to provoke further future actions, probably with no ultimate resolution.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Biofuels - not only Fuel, but Everything.

I have written on the subject of providing biofuels to replace the current 54 million tonnes of oil (equivalent, since most of the crude is refined by fractional distillation and catalytic cracking) currently used in the U.K. for fuel. I conclude this is impossible, as noted in previous postings, as a status quo, but that by massive reductions in transportation requirements of the order of 90%, the remaining 10% does become potentially achievable in terms of bioethanol got from wheat grass, which is effectively an agricultural waste product, especially if a specifically adapted engine were used, to match ethanol for gasoline nearly weight for weight in terms of power output. However, providing fuel is not the only requirement for imported oil, since an additional 13 million tonnes are used annually for industry. Looking around this room, I am unable to see anything that does not depend at some stage in its creation on oil either as a chemical raw material or/and as a fuel to drive the processes of its manufacture.

In principle, 13 million tonnes of oil "rape seed", say could be extracted from 6.5 million hectares of arable land (at 2 tonnes/hectare), which is 65,000 square kilometers (km*2). And guess what? ... that is exactly the entire area of arable land available in the U.K.! So if we grew nothing else, grew no food at all, we might just about meet demand! There are higher oil-yielding crops e.g. to produce palm-oil, which come in at (ideally!) 8 tonnes per hectare, and so this would require turning over "only" around 16,000 km*2 for the purpose, but still usurping 25% of our food production.

So, it's not only fuel that we need to find a replacement for, to avoid a "siege" caused by a shortage of imported oil. Now this is a very tricky one. True, we could take half the 5 million tonnes of bioethanol that could be produced from wheat grass and crack it into ethylene (ethene), and convert that into hydrocarbons, but assuming a 50% overall yield, that leaves us with just 50% x 5/2 = 1.25 million tonnes of chemical hydrocarbon feedstock (or about 10% of what we presently use) thus signaling the loss of a huge proportion of our industry. We would be left, too, with just being able to fuel about 4.5% of our current transportation by the left-over ethanol, or around half of what is still running having cancelled most plane flights and reducing our fuel economy by living in localised "pod" communities of around 20,000.

Hence, it is not ONLY fuel that we will run short of and need to adapt substantially our lives around, but everything that is manufactured using oil, and that means EVERYTHING. I am less optimistic having written this.

I summarised some of these points in a Letter to the science magazine "Nature", which was not printed through pressure on space (a nice analogy to the human condition!), so I include the text below.

Dear Professor Rhodes,

Thank you for your Correspondence submission. An editorial decision will
be made shortly.

Kind regards

Jayne Hill

SIR - In his letter "Biochar and biofuels for a brighter future" (Nature 443, 144; 2006) M.H.B.Hayes gives a number of examples of biofuels and platform chemicals being produced from cellulose materials, which translate into an annual production of some hundreds of thousands of tonnes. This is encouraging, but we should not be misled from the colossal quantity of petroleum based fuels and chemical feedstocks that we currently use and need to substitute with their bio-equivalent. In the U.K. we consume 67 million tonnes of oil annually, 54 million tonnes of that for fuel (a quarter of this for aviation), and most of the remainder for industry. To produce sufficient bioethanol as a fuel with an equivalent energy output would require twice the area of arable land in the U.K. to grow enough sugar for fermentation. Hence, if we grew no food at all, we could still only meet 50% of our current fuel consumption. Biodiesel production is worse, and we would need about four times the amount of land there is available to meet the demand. Worst of all is biohydrogen, which can also be produced by fermenting sugar, but would require a sugar crop covering about ten times the total arable area of the U.K. to equal the thermal output from burning 54 million tonnes of oil. Furthermore, the fermentation vessels would occupy a volume of 125 cubic kilometers, which is close to the entire volume of freshwater available in the U.K. The details of these and other calculations on meeting future fuel and energy requirements by renewables, nuclear etc. are available at: which your readers might find interesting. I often think that the sheer scale of implementing renewables to make any significant substitution for fossil-based resources is not fully appreciated, and it must be if any sensible conclusions are to be drawn.

Prof. Chris Rhodes.

Monday, October 16, 2006

No option but to cut the use of cars.

My letter was published in "The Independent" newspaper today (October 16th), which reinforces the conclusions made in previous postings about the realities of biofuels. I estimated the quantities in terms of bioethanol, since the numbers suggest this form of fuel to be better than alternatives such as biodiesel or biohydrogen. I have copied the text below.

Sir: There is no choice but to cut car use by 90 per cent (Letters, 12 October). To replace even 5 per cent of the fuel consumed annually in the UK by bioethanol would require turning over about 6,300 square kilometres of arable land for the purpose, or 10 per cent of the total arable area of the UK, which would conflict with food production.

The Royal Society of Chemistry mentioned, in their recent policy bulletin, converting waste products from existing agriculture to ethanol, for example, wheat straw. This sounds a perfect solution but it would provide the equivalent of just 6.5 per cent of the total fuel presently used.

There is no way we can produce enough ethanol to match our present level of fuel use, either using biomass waste or without compromising food production. On the other hand, if we move to systems of energy efficiency, living in localised communities, which would cut fuel demand (that is, car use) by 90 per cent, then 6.5 per cent of that remaining 10 per cent begins to look significant.

Otherwise, we can neither break our dependency on imported fuels nor meet the government's targets to reduce CO2 emissions. Details of these and other calculations on biofuel energy provision and other renewable sources can be found at



I note also, that the Earth has just reached the point of ecological debt (that was on the 9th of this month actually), beyond which humankind begins to live beyond its ecological means. A green group, called the New Economics Foundation (NEF) has calculated that now we are "eating the planet" - overwhelming natural capacities to deal with pollution of the atmosphere and water, and to replenish food and fuel supplies. The impact of nearly 6.5 billion people is manifest in degradation of the sea ecosystems, deforestation, impeding shortages of fresh water, and overfarming the land to grow crops (in significant amount for grazing animals). The lungs of the Earth (the rainforests) are heavily depleted, but vital to exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide which is absorbed in the process as part of the natural regulation mechanism for CO2. Oil reserves (as we have noted) are in rapid decline, and at a draw-off rate of 84 million barrels a day (over 30 billion barrels each year) are likely to run-out inexorably from any time now, contributing CO2 in the process.
There are too many of us to continue living at present (and growing) levels of resource consumption. The nightmare of a "Die-Off" similar to the fate of bacteria populations which proliferate aplenty when food is in ample supply, but die-off as the sustaining resource becomes compromised. It is thought that the world population, which has grown fed by oil-derived fertilisers, could fall from over 6 billion to around 2 billion, which some estimate to be the true carrying capacity of the planet. It is not feasible that the developing nations such as China can ever live at a Western standard and level of consumption, and neither can the industrialised countries maintain their material status quo. We must in all nations seek a lower-energy way of living, probably based around relatively small communities with populations of 20,000 or less, which I have dubbed "pods", provided for mainly by sustainable local resources, or ultimately we will not survive.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Electric Vehicles and World Lithium Supply.

In an effort to break the West's dependency on oil, particularly that imported from the Middle East, electric vehicles might appear to offer a significant advantage. However, electricity (like hydrogen) is an energy carrier not a fuel, since it must be first manufactured using a primary fuel such as gas, oil, coal or uranium. There are various renewable resources - in the U.S. hydro power accounts for about 10%, far more than in the U.K. - but these are mostly untried technologies on the large scale, but which will inevitably become more important as oil and gas supplies begin to wane. The main problem with electricity is that it must be stored, most effectively using some form of battery technology, rather than mechanical devices e.g. flywheels. The traditional and conventional means is the "car battery", or some adaptation of it, based on the "lead accumulator" principle. This involves a reversible electrochemical reaction, which can produce electricity, but may be reversed by the absorption of electrons, and so like any other rechargeable battery it may be charged by plugging into the mains or using an on-board generator. Other (lighter weight) batteries based on lithium (lithium ion) are considered to be more suitable for electric vehicles on a number of counts. My immediate thought when an electric vehicle is mentioned is the "milk float" or "golf cart", but such locomotive devices have reached profound levels of sophistication, and to all intents and purposes easily match the speed and other qualities we expect from an internal combustion engine powered car. The half-way-house is the hybrid vehicle which uses a combination of an internal combustion engine run on gasoline and a parallel source of electric power, e.g the Prius. In his comment to my recent posting "Bioethanol - The Math" mcrab has included a link describing the virtues of the Plug in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV), which as he says can in principle cut back the transportation fuel demand by 80%, requiring a relatively modest increase in electricity production by 13%. I endorse this wholeheartedly, but note that the fundamental feature of this and all other electric vehicles is the central electron storage system. Lighter weight lead - sulphuric acid batteries than the conventional accumulator type are being developed and there is plenty of lead left in the world. For example, if we take the current number of cars at 500 million (I think the total number of road vehicles in the world is around 700 million - that's cars, lorries, buses, everything, but let's just stick to cars), we would need about 150 kg (per car) x 500 x 10*6 = .15 tonnes x 500 x 10*6 = 75 million tonnes of lead. I believe there is certainly 1.5 billion tonnes of lead in known deposits, so there is plenty to go round.
Lithium ion batteries (the current favourite) are costed in energy terms at 2 kg of lithium per kwh of battery (specific energy). The PHEV is rated at 9 kwh and so each car would need 18 kg of lithium. Hence, 500 million PHEV's would require:

18 kg x 500 x 10*6 = 9 x 10*9 kg = 9 million tonnes of lithium.

The entire world reserve of lithium ( accounted in the form of lithium oxide, Li2O) is 10.74 million tonnes, which contains (worked at an abundance of 92.5% lithium-7 and the rest lithium-6):

2 x [(7 x .925) + (6 x .075)] x 10.74 x 10*6/2 x [(7 x .925) + (6 x .075)] + 16 = 4.98 x 10*6 tonnes; call it 5 million tonnes of lithium.

Obviously there is not enough!

We could argue naively that there is sufficient to propel 278 million cars (i.e. around half the world's fleet) adapted into PHEV's, but this would conflict with the interests of nuclear fusion (if they ever get it off the ground) which could only run for about 300 years, and so it would be a question of lithium to make electricity or to store it inside cars to get any actual mileage from it! Since, as I have argued before, nuclear fusion will not come to our aid before oil and gas run out, we can forget about this point, but I make it to stress that the same (limited) resources are often impacted upon competitively by different kinds of technology and it is as well to be aware of the fact.

If we wanted fully electrically powered cars, with a power demand of 36 kwh (over the 9 kwh reckoned for a PHEV), then we would need to reduce that figure by a factor of four (36/9) leaving us with just under 70 million cars in the world. These figures are an absolute maximum, as of course, there are many other uses for lithium batteries, eg. heart pacemakers, pocket calculators, computers and cameras etc. etc.

Undoubtedly, advances in battery technology will improve the situation, and there is talk of "aluminium" batteries, but these are well at the research stage and may come to nothing in any practical sense. An alternative kind of battery is the nickel metal hydride (NiMH) type, which needs around 7 kg of nickel per kwh = 7 x 9 = 63 kg of nickel per 9 kwh PHEV. So, if we work the math again over 500 million cars, we get:

500 x 10*6 x 63 = 3.15 x 10*10 kg = 31.5 million tonnes of nickel. Since the world reserves of nickel are reckoned to be 62 million tonnes, that would be in principle O.K.

However, a bottleneck to implementing a new technology is the production rate of raw materials, and I note that 5 million tonnes of nickel is produced each year. If half that quantity were turned over to battery production for PHEV's, you could produce:

2.5 x 10*6 x 1000 kg/63 kg = 40 million vehicles per year, and thus the full fleet of 500 million PHEV adapted cars could be got up and running in 12.5 years! They are wonderful things, numbers and statistics, and behind them lie the practicalities of the matter at hand, which appear to point to a greatly reduced car fleet within the foreseeable future, whatever means we try to implement to keep them on the road... in some form or another, fuel powered, hybrid or fully electric, or some combination of different kinds of vehicle. If we were to reduce the number of cars by 90% (i.e to a world fleet of 50 million), as I have suggested previously, via living in localised communities "pods", we would have sufficient bioethanol and other renewable fuels, electrification and other means to survive the choppy slide down from peak oil production. It is the social paradigm that matters most, which must accommodate whatever technology becomes or remains accessible; our thinking must adapt because maintaining the status quo of energy use is impossible.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Ethanol from Wheat Straw Can only Work by Curbing Car Use.

The Royal Society of Chemistry has published its "Policy Bulletin" (Issue No. 4, Autumn 2006) which carries an article entitled "Growing Energy" and is about "Biofuels". They note that in January, President Bush pledged to make plant derived ethanol cost-competitive by 2012, and that in 2005 the U.K. Transport Secretary Alistair Darling announced the "Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation", which requires that 5% of all U.K. transport fuel will come from a renewable source by 2010 (just under three years!). If we used bioethanol (which I have calculated in previous postings - "Bioethanol: The Math" - to be the best bet, over biodiesel or biohydrogen), that would require turning-over around 6,300 square kilometers (km*2) of arable land for the purpose, or 10% of the total arable area of the U.K. Thus we would need to compromise a sizable quantity of our food production just to produce 5% of our fuel. How is that tiny amount going to make any difference either to breaking our dependency on imported fossil fuels or reducing our CO2 emissions? In short, it isn't.
The RSC article talks about converting waste products from existing agriculture to ethanol, for example wheat straw. This sounds like a perfect solution, but begs the question, could this work on any significant scale? Let's look at the math:

In the U.K., some 2 million hectares (20,000 km*2) of arable land is used to grow wheat, and another 1.1 million hectares (11,000 km*2) to grow barley. From a typical wheat crop is obtained 5,420 kg of grain per hectare plus 7,050 kg of wheat straw. Although the process is still under development, since various procedures are required to break down the complex cellulose (lignocelluloisic) materials into fermentable sugars, it is thought that 230 kg of ethanol might be produced per tonne of wheat straw.

Therefore, (assuming a best case scenario and combining the area of wheat and barley production) we have a potential production of:

3.1 x 10*6 hectares x 7.050 tonnes x 0.23 tonnes = 5,026,650 tonnes of ethanol. Now, we are trying to substitute for the current 54 million tonnes (oil equivalent) of imported fuel that we currently use for transportation (12 million tonnes of that, or nearly a quarter for aviation!). It is not a matter of a straight division, since I have worked out before, that ethanol only packs 71% of the energy punch of petrol (gasoline), and so this quantity is equivalent to:

0.71 x 5,020,650 = 3,548,627 tonnes of oil (equivalent, since the crude oil is refined into gasoline). Dividing out the millions, and rounding out, this would provide:

3.55/54 = 6.5% of current transportation fuel. Now, it takes energy to make energy, and while estimates vary, they are in the range that it takes 0.7 to 1.3 barrels of fossil fuel or natural gas equivalent to produce one barrel of ethanol. This is a U.S. based figure, which accounts for the fact that America's ethanol comes from corn and corn must be intensively fertilized (natural gas), irrigated (natural gas), transported by truck or rail to a processing plant, processed, then transported again to distant blending facilities all over the United States. However, all our agriculture also depends on artificial fertilizers and hence, on natural gas to make them.

I will, however, ignore this matter and take provision of the 6.5% of the U.K.'s transportation fuel from "scrap" - i.e. without growing a special crop to provide it - from ethanol at face value. At first sight, the figure seems rather feeble, and so it is. There is no way we can produce enough ethanol to match our current level of fuel use, either using biomass waste or without compromising our food production. On the other hand, if we move to systems of energy efficiency: living in localised communities, which would cut fuel demand by 90%, then 6.5% of that remaining 10% begins to look significant. I am, after all reassured that survival is possible for the U.K. in terms of intrinsic fuel supplies, but only given a paradigm shift (to use that hackneyed phrase, which in this context is true) in the way we live our lives. Otherwise we can neither break our dependency on imported fuels nor meet the government's targets to reduce CO2 emissions.

Africa - Toxic Waste Dump for The West?

"Cash for crops" is a familiar phrase, meaning that the developing ("southern") world grows cheap food for the developed nations in the north, in exchange for cash. The issue is complex but it attunes the already precarious position of the former, and may hamper any real development as such, in the sense of drawing developing communities away from their roots and making them dependent on the dollar or the euro, eroding the foundations of a sustainable society. Once the foreign money is gone, what is there left? "Toxic waste" for cash is seldom drawn as a parallel, but that crop too seems well entrenched, albeit in more disguised form. The bones of the situation were washed bare by the 2004 "boxing day" tsunami. It is amazing that anyone living on the coast of Africa, specifically that of Somalia, 4,000 miles distant from Sumatra - close to the epicentre of the earthquake that triggered the huge wave, which killed almost 300,000 people - could also be affected by it. However, 300 people were killed outright in Somalia too.
The force of the wave was sufficient to lift a baby (300 kg) hippopotamus out of a river, and place him at a nature reserve where he made friends with a 120 year old giant tortoise, thinking it was his mother. On a far less amusing note it has now transpired that a number of sealed drums were broken open by its strike, containing radioactive waste, and other poisons such as lead, cadmium, mercury, flame retardants (e.g. PCB's - "polychlorinated biphenyls" and PBB's - "polybrominated biophenyls", both of which are linked to birth defects in animals and humans), along with a cocktail of other detritus from European industries and miscellaneous hospital waste. The United Nations has admitted that an unknown number of people died from breathing in air contaminated by toxic dust and fumes. There have been cancer "clusters" observed too, which are in all probability connected with this particular christmas gift from us, supplied by the tsunami, not Santa Claus.
There have long been rumours that certain western countries, notably Switzerland and Italy, had used the chaos in Somalia as a smokescreen behind which to make deals with local warlords to let them dump toxic waste there. Almost certainly, some of this money (running to millions of pounds) will have been used to pay for the Somali war: a sure incentive to turn blind eyes to environmental enforcement laws, and a real double-whammy on an already wounded population, now living with both legacies of war and pollution. According to the French environmental group "Robin des Bois (I make that: "Robin of the woods"; a reference to "Robin Hood"?) while it costs anywhere up to 500 euros ($600?) to dispose of a cubic metre of hazardous waste in Europe, in Africa it is anywhere up to 15 times cheaper ($40, say) becuase there is usually no treatment prior to disposal and no long term "depository" arrangements: i.e. it is just dumped somewhere or at most, buried in some perfunctory fashion.
"Garbage Cowboys", a term coined for unscrupulous traders who gather their ships in the straits off Gibralter to transfer poisonous cargos from other vessels and "fly-tip" them in third world countries. Most notorious is the Probo Koala which dumped its cargo of toxic black sludge (530 tonnes of oil residues and caustic soda) in the Ivory Coast capital, Abidjan, having been turned away from Amsterdam and several other African ports. The sludge was slurried over waste ground and poured into the sea and freshwater lagoons where it caused at least eight deaths, and 80,000 people were forced to seek medical aid for breathing problems, nosebleeds, diarrhoea and eye-irritation - all well recognised symptoms of exposure to certain toxic chemicals.
The situation is becoming commonplace. Much of Europe's toxic waste, including that from computers and cell-phones, allegedly taken for "recycling" is simply dumped or burnt on landfill sites, mostly in Africa. Around 500 containers (that's the big ones that you see being loaded on and off ships) arrive in Nigeria each month via the port of Lagos. According to Andreas Bernstoff, a German toxicology expert and former international activist for Greenpeace, who has identified more than 80 African sites where European toxic waste is being dumped, this will create health timebombs, where first world disaeses such as cancer will occur as epidemics in third world countries. In effect, we are poisoning the poor for profit.
On a final note, the Dutch had a problem with dumping pig manure in view of its high copper content, arising from feed containing copper compounds which increase the water content and hence the weight of piggy-products such as bacon and pork chops, when packaged and sold in supermarkets. When environmentalists objected to the material being dumped in the country's marshland, the government immediately struck a deal with Saudi Arabia to bury it in the desert. However, when the Muslim Saudis realised that the waste was principally pig-droppings they cancelled the contract. What is done with it now I have no idea, but I'm sure it has found another home elsewhere in this well-tramelled world of globalisation.

Friday, October 06, 2006

"Dirty Bombs" around the Corner.

It is a particularly horrible scenario. The putative "Dirty Bomb". I have used the analogy before that a "couple of grams of plutonium and a hand grenade" - or some device close to this, and an entire city the size of London (which is not so far from where I am typing) would have to be evacuated. Although small nuclear devices - the "bomb in a suitcase" - do exist (at least I am told they do?), it is not necessary to get hold of the nominal 8 kilograms of plutonium ( or as little as 3 or 4 kilos with new technology) to achieve a wholesale nuclear detonation in order to wreak widescale terror on millions of people, and to set a smouldering signal for all the world to see. A dirty bomb - which releases radioactive contamination not a major blast - is more like a biological weapon. True, the latter may kill in huge numbers (e.g. anthrax), but it is its influence on the human psyche that is most pernicious. We fear radiation in the same way as we do "germs" - they are impervious to our immediate senses: we cannot see, smell or hear them, and we shrink from touching or tasting them, going to all lengths to avoid any such contact. Hence the generalised phobia about nuclear power that pertains.
It would be very difficult to get hold of several kilos of plutonium (to make a uranium bomb would require probably 50 kilos of enriched uranium), but getting hold of smaller (gram) quantities is a far simpler task. But to make a dirty bomb, pretty well any kind of radioactive material would do. For example, in the former U.S.S.R. cobalt-60 (artificially produced by irradiating "natural" cobalt-59 with neutrons in a nuclear reactor) was used on the large scale in "seed irradiators", to mutate the plant's DNA such that the seed so treated would yield a crop with some desired new features. There are thousands of these devices "around", and hence getting hold of the (dirty) bomb material would not be difficult. To make a detonator for it, there are all kinds of possibilities, with recipes in abundance on the internet to supply terrorism of all kinds.
According to official figures from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), seizures of radioactive material which could be fabricated into a dirty bomb have doubled in the past four years, with smugglers being caught 300 times trying to bring radioactive material into the U.K. since 2002. Clearly the game is being "upped". Indeed, it is known that al-Quaeda is redoubling its efforts to obtain a radioactive device of some kind, and I guess the market forces may be at work to supply the product that is demanded. It is believed that the nuclear traffickers are targeting hospital equipment, such as is used for cancer radiation therapy, and laboratory supplies. Indeed, I have worked in industry and in several universities, and there was always radioactive material around somewhere. In Europe and the U.S. there are stringently enforced regulations to control the use of radioactive material, but in the former Eastern-bloc countries this is I believe less the case. Even in the U.K., there are tales of "missing plutonium" at Sellafield, and I'm sure that radioactive substances in this country are not quite as hermetically contained as we would like, or be liked to believe.
In one university I worked at, a "box" arrived one day. It contained radioactive iodine (iodine-130) for use in tracer studies. The recipient was away for a few weeks abroad, and so it simply sat on a bench in the lab. Out of curiosity, I pointed a Geiger Counter at it - the meter screamed and went offscale! I put the box in the fume-hood, and went into the lab next door - amazingly, the Geiger counter still went nearly full scale, and that was even with the radiation being attenuated by passing through the thickness of a solid brick wall or so! Hence penetration of the human body was well within its scope. In the same university there was a cobalt-60 source, and also americium sources for neutron activation analysis. Behind a pile of lead bricks just inside the door, were all kinds of radioactive materials, thorium, uranium, and others, which anybody could have grabbed a bottle of. The sink in the room was also highly radioactive, presumably due to radioactive materials being thrown down it in some half-arsed attempt to dispose of them!
There are all kinds of horror stories about radioactive material, most of which were simply down to stupid accidents, in a combination of ignorance and negligence. Chernobyl is the best example of widespread contamination, extending over much of Western Europe, but by inadvertent means. Now we may expect something aimed quite deliberately our way, and with more serious fallout.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Air Trails.

Richard Branson (Virgin Airlines et al) has pledged $3 billion to be invested in technologies intended to alleviate the impact of climate change. Rumour has it that it is his own companies that will be the main beneficiaries of this, but in any event, it looks like a step in the right direction. He has named biofuels as a particular area of focus. I have done the sums in previous postings and from those numbers it may be deduced that to run the U.K.'s current fleet of aircraft would require (at a biodiesel yield of 2 tonnes/hectare) 6 million hectares = 60,000 km*2 square kilometers of arable land, which is about the total area of arable land we have in the U.K. So, if we grew no food at all we could just about meet demand. Biodiesel has various disadvantages for aviation, namely that at the tropospheric temperatures encountered by commercial aircraft particularly at higher altitude, as is used for transatlantic flights (e.g. 'Virgin Atlantic'), the fuel becomes very viscous and unfit for purpose. If we were to run them on bioethanol (which stays fluid down to much lower temperatures), we would still need to turn over half our available arable land to bioethanol production - ignoring all other forms of transportation, which need another three times as much again (i.e. a total of twice that arable land area). Agreed, planes could fly at lower altitudes, where it is warmer, but there they would encounter greater air-resistance and need to carry and to use more fuel for the trip.
Ethanol only packs about 70% of the energy punch of oil-based aviation fuel ('spirit' it is sometimes called, in view of its volatile nature and flammability) and so about half as much again would need to be taken on board for the flight. Hydrogen powered planes are another alternative, but even if the gas is stored in zeolites there are many problems attendent to the extreme cooling required (which would probably need liquid nitrogen), and all other kinds of hazard associated with this material. Also the plane would need to be a lot bigger, since hydrogen weight for weight is a poorer fuel than normal hydrocarbon based plane fuels.
There is no way around the problem of planes pumping out CO2 and water, which is itself a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 when emitted into the atmosphere at altitude (even hydrogen produces water when it burns, about 2.6 times as much as burning a fuel equivalent quantity of hydrocarbons), unless we reduce the number of flights in the first place. In short, neither in terms of fuel provision nor cutting greenhouse emissions from fuel exhaust gases, can technology provide a neat solution. Biodiesel can be mixed (up to about 10%) with other fuels like 'aviation spirit' and not be subjected detrimentally upon by low temperatures, but there is no reduction overall in the amount of CO2 each flight emits. There are calls to reduce our CO2 emissions by 87% by 2030 to prevent the globe warming by the magic 2 degrees C (which computer models tell us will be very bad news, and irrevocable). This is in every sector, including aviation, and yet the number of flights offered and taken increases year on year.
The fact is that cheap flights are on the way out, and so we can kiss goodbye to being whisked away on cheap foreign holidays, or overseas business conferences. Such activities will be done in virtual space using internet video-conferencing, and other personal journeys will be more planned-for events, making the most of the whole experience, of seeing distant family and friends, or exploring foreign parts, with the journey itself providing a large part of the experience. There is the saying that 'it is better to travel than to arrive'; a celebration of the mind-broadening adventure that travel can become, when the voyager has to make various encounters on his progress that are avoided by air-travel. If that seems like an inconvenience or even an intrusion into personal liberty, then we should consider ourselves fortunate to be so disadvantaged, since the majority of the world's population have more pressing annoyances to deal with.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Peak Oil: Preparation and Cooperation.

Arguably, the threat of imminent Peak Oil could have been prepared for, beginning thirty years ago, however it wasn't, and there is no point trying to close the door of this particular stable. The horse is running on well ahead of us. It is certain, obvious even, that energy, of all kinds as we use it, gas, fuel, electricity, and the goods in the shops that we depend upon, will become more expensive, scarce and of more uncertain supply. This includes not only 'consumer goods', i.e. luxury items, but food. Hence, the prognosis is potentially serious, but not necessarily fatal.
It seems unlikely that governments will do much more than pay lip-service to any alternative to the oil-rich economics that the world has expanded upon, and the wheels of 'progress' as we know and mostly believe it, will turn in the same direction we are used to until the machine begins to grind down. Therefore, the only recourse of individuals is to prepare at the local level of person, family and community.
John Michael Greer has written in Energy Bulletin that the U.S. wastes so much energy on non-essentials that a large fraction of the nation's energy use could be saved without significantly impacting on anyone's life. He paints a stereotypical picture of the typical suburbanite: a guy who mows his lawn with a gasoline powered lawn-mower and then hops into his SUV (my image) to drive down to the gym to get the exercise he missed out on in mowing the lawn. There is an entire range of things, from Christmas lights, DVD's, four-hour round trip commutes to work and vacations in the Caribbean (or yet more exotic destinations) that are only options because fossil fuel energy has been so cheap for long enough that we accept such things as a 'given'.
Environmentalists aim their "Tut-tut" decidedly toward the U.S., pointing out that the average American uses anywhere between twice and four times the amount of energy as the average European. On closer perusal, this does not, however, mean that 'Americans per se, are "bad people"'. Life in America is a more diffuse affair, and it is necessary to travel over greater distances just to do basic things - like shop or get to work. European countries have a better infrastructure (e.g. railway systems) that permit a more efficient use of energy, but these could surely be implemented in the U.S. following the blueprint, say of Scandinavia or Germany (or the U.K. or France). Lessons could certainly be taken from the former communist states in terms of efficient local city transportation. I have mentioned Prague before which has an extremely impressive tramway (street car) network, and this could be implemented more in the U.K. for example in all major cities and large towns.
It is difficult to envisage a 'local' economy, and what our place will be within it. It seems clear that many businesses will at some stage become surplus either to requirements or feasibility. This means that we should perhaps take stock of what we do in fact 'do for a living', and whether our current occupation will be any use to us in the more energy-stringent age to come. Transportation is the biggest area where energy savings could be found. My idea of community 'pods' of up to say 20,000 people is based on roughly the size of an area which could be navigated mainly on foot, and principally without making recourse to fuel-engines such as cars. The urban SUV goes immediately - there really is no excuse. Such vehicles have their place in the countryside but not in traffic-jams in residential areas. This, as I have emphasised before, could save 90% of fuel, and leave a mere 5.4 million tonnes to be accounted for not the 54 million tonnes used currently. Certainly, 13 million tonnes of that is used by the aviation industry, but it is surely tacitly clear that cheap flights will be consigned to history.
The 'pod' is not really a novel notion, really it is a mirror of old fashioned mixed-use neghbourhoods (U.S.), 'villages' or small 'towns' (U.K.), but it is the same difference, since the actions in both cases are set by their scale of area and population and comprise homes, small businesses that provide for immediate needs, farms and public facilities such as schools, cottage hospitals and community libraries, all operating in fairly close mutual proximity. It would be quite possible to connect the pods using tramways for various purposes - including 'having fun', e.g. to go out to theatres, sporting events and other forms of recreation that work best on a 'town' rather than a 'village' scale. The electricity for such links could be provided using a town-size grid system, and generated using various means that are most convenient for that location. For instance, settlements near the coast or to rivers have a potential energy source at their fingertips.
Living in a conurbation of this kind is a better bet than shutting yourself and your family off in a farmhouse somewhere remote, armed with weaponry and plenty of ammunition, unless you really think you can provide everything necessary for life: growing food, providing medical facilities, yes, everything. Local economies could operate on a kind of barter system - goods for labour or labour for goods, and that brings me back to the point about finding a 'sustainable' occupation. [As an extreme example, working as a physicist on an energy-guzzling particle accelerator, and which provides no practical return beyond dumping hot cooling water into the nearest river, does not meet this criterion].
Kennedy's adage about 'country' applies equally to the smaller scale: "ask not what your community can do for you, but ask what you can do for your community." We will all have to contribute something, and to cooperate with each other to attain the most effective outcome from our resources.