Friday, June 29, 2007

Alaskan Heavy Oil may be Tapped?

BP and ConocoPhillips are trying to solve one of the most technologically difficult problems they have so far encountered, namely how to recover the heavy oil from the Ugnu formation. The Ugnu is a huge deposit of low-grade oil trapped in sandstone rocks that overlay the conventional oil-producing fields of the Alaskan North Slope. An incentive for their efforts is provided by estimates that there are billions of barrels worth of oil held within the Ugnu. The companies have already decided on a strategy for recovering the somewhat higher grade oil from the West Sak and Schrader Bluff deposits, which lie below the Ugnu, and themselves contain several billion barrels of heavy oil.

Only a fraction of the amount of oil can be economically extracted, but it is thought that if even some hundreds of millions of barrels can be pumped-out it still represents a good business venture. BP and ConocoPhillips are banking on viscous and heavy oil to come on-stream in order to help offset the anticipated fall in production from the large conventional oil-fields. Economics are central to the whole enterprise, and the extraction of these heavy oils depends to some extent on the production taxes levied by the State of Alaska.

The Ugnu oil is in relatively shallow deposits and fairly cold, meaning that it flows less easily than is the case from deeper deposits of North Slope conventional oil. West Sak is rather more deeply seated than Ugnu and hence warmer, but extracting its oil has nonetheless already proved very difficult. The latter oil is said to have a consistency that ranges between that of maple syrup and honey, while Ugnu oil is like peanut butter! In practical terms, West Sak oil does at least flow, but Ungu oil does not. "We burned out a big pump trying to get it to flow," said Blaine Campbell, who is ConocoPhillips' supervisor for heavy oil development.

It seems likely that the technique of "steam assisted gravity drainage" will be employed to try and get the Ugnu oil out. This involves drilling two wells, one to inject steam and the second to recover the oil from. The injector well is drilled into the reservoir above the producing well, and the steam warms the reservoir rock, thus loosening-up the thick oil to make it flow more easily. Then the force of gravity causes the oil to slip in the direction of the producing well, beneath the area that has been warmed. A variation of this is the intriguingly named "cyclic steam stimulation" method, in which steam is injected into the bottom of the well to soak and warm locally the reservoir, and to then recover the oil from the same well as it floats-up. One of the biggest challenges for these techniques at Ugnu is the necessity to inject steam down through permafrost to the oil-containing formation, since this can melt the permafrost and cause problems of subsidence near the injection wells. Heat will also be transferred from the steam en route - cooling it - thus rendering it less effective for loosening the oil when it gets there.

A more indirect approach might be to form the steam underground, hence obviating these troubles incurred in pumping it through the permafrost. Possibly, water in the underground reservoir itself might be exploited, since a layer of water has been found to lie underneath the oil and gas in many of the North Slope fields. The energy needed to convert liquid water into steam may also prove an issue and tip the economic balance of the process, if its requirements are substantial.

My feeling is that, beyond than the desire to get hold of whatever oil may be recoverable from Ugnu, once perfected some of the technologies that finally prove themselves effective there, may be employed across the world to extract heavy oil from its many declining wells, and to exploit deposits in polar regions. We will inexorably depend on heavy oil as the light crude oil becomes exhausted. Indeed world light crude production peaked in 2005, and its supply will decline accordingly. A corollary to this is that an increasing number of vehicles will run on diesel engines which can use heavier fuel-oil, and more efficiently too, than the spark-ignition engines that rely on petrol (gasoline).

Related Reading.
"Producers roll up sleeves to tackle heavy oil," by Tim Bradner. From The Alaska Journal of Commerce Online.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Vast Oil and Life in the Deep-Earth.

Two books speculate (convincingly in my opinion) on the presence of a realm of bacterial life in the Earth's crust down to a depth of about 10 kilometers, that feed on oil which is also down there in massive quantities. It is proposed that Peak Oil is a myth, based on conventional wisdom in the West that petroleum (crude oil) is the product of effectively "cooking" plant and animal remains over millennia, when really it is produced all the time by geochemical processes within the deep-earth and upwells continually, percolating through the pores present in rocks to collect in deposits closer to the surface. Natural gas too is proposed to originate in vast volumes from such inner-planetary processes, and for example the existence of methane-hydrates in large areas of sediments under the oceans and on land, under permafrost it is suggested is a consequence of "capping" the gas in and under ice-layers. I have written about this interesting material before in the posting "Methane Gas Hydrates - Vast Energy Resource or Ecological Disaster Awaiting?", posted December 4th, 2006.

The one book is "The Deep Hot Biosphere" by Thomas Gold (DHB) and the other is "Jagged Environment" by Chris James (JE). The two are quite different in character: DHB proposes very many convincing scientific arguments, supported by observations while JE expresses through its own conclusions an Earth-centred human philosophy. Where both are concurrent is in considering the origins of life. DHB takes the viewpoint of "panspermia", that the essential seeds for life came to Earth from elsewhere in the universe, perhaps in the form of fully compiled bacteria, and having arrived, life then took-hold either in the surface or deep-earth regions, in the latter case feeding off naturally produced petroleum. In contrast, JE speculates that an interaction occurs between water and silicon carbides within the earth itself, thereby producing petroleum and silica grains of the size normally found in bacteria. By coating the grains with "oil" a semipermeable membrane is formed and "life" per se originated as levels of complexity were added. One interesting notion is that the effect of background radiation was to oxidise the primitive "oil-membranes", ironically forming antioxidants which extended their lifetimes against oxidation. Thus the stress of oxygen and radiation are seen as being essential to early cellular evolution.

Both DHB and JE propose that the creation of oil and life are continual, ongoing events, which might if true appear reassuring as a notion, viewed against the backdrop of peak oil, in its suggestion that oil is not really running-out.

There is a contrast of opinion between geologists in the West and in Russia over the origins of petroleum. Essentially, the Russian/Ukranian view is that it is formed independently and deep in the earth by "abiotic" geochemical processes, in contrast to the idea of a "biotic" origin which reigns supreme in western thinking. Interestingly, the renowned British chemist, Sir Robert Robinson, was also of the opinion that petroleum could not have arisen from plant/animal material because it contained too much hydrogen as a ratio with carbon compared to these potential precursors (sugars and proteins).

The great Russian chemist Meldeleyev (who invented the Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements) was a pioneer in his opinion that petroleum was of "mineral origin", he thought by the action of water on iron carbides deep in the earth. It is fascinating that in DHB, Gold describes an experiment he undertook in which a borehole was drilled-out in central Sweden, through crystalline bedrock down to a depth of 5 kilometers. 80 barrels of oil were recovered, but also significant quantities of a material called magnetite. Now magnetite is a reduced form of iron oxide (Fe3O4) compared to Fe2O3, the normal mineral form. [Put another way, in Fe3O4, twelve Fe atoms would need sixteen oxygen atoms to balance them, whereas in Fe2O3, twelve Fe atoms need an eighteen O atom counterweight]. Gold advances the theory that bacteria present at depth (The Deep Biosphere) use Fe2O3 to oxidise petroleum as a process from which to extract their energy, thus producing CO2, H2 + Fe3O4. Ingenious!

Gold also speculates that natural gas (methane), petroleum and coal represent materials formed by an increasing loss of hydrogen, and so coal, along with gas and oil, should be an inexhaustible resource since it too is created continually. He also speculates that earthquakes might, in some case, be due to upwellings of gas and thus occur even in regions well away from tectonic plate boundaries. He further cites examples where "barren" oil wells have spontaneously "refilled", he believes from depth, although I have spoken to experts in the oil industry who thought that this was merely due to near-surface oil of biological origin percolating through strata and into the empty space.

I found these books fascinating and well worth reading. To my mind the idea that gas, oil and coal may be formed by some continual actions intrinsic to the earth's geochemistry is a paradigm shift. If it is proved true, the Russian geologists would probably find it less so, saying "we knew this all along, but you wouldn't listen to us!"

However, even if it is true, what does this mean in terms of peak oil (or peak gas or coal for that matter)? It might appear, as Gold says in DHB, that there is nothing to worry about and it is all a hoax. He even cites evidence that the great oil fields of Saudi may be refilling from elsewhere, he thinks from below. However, this only matters to the utterly pressing challenge of meeting our present and rising demand for oil if such wells refill (or more can be dug through deep boreholes, down below 5 kilometers, say), fast enough to draw-up oil at a matching rate. For the sake of argument, if the Saudi wells refill, but it takes 100 years to do so, this will not help us one iota in balancing the production shortfall in oil that is believed to begin within about 5 years. I also think that the deep-drilling projects might be hampered if the oil that is presently down there is matched in quantity by magnetite which will probably clog-up drills, pipes and so on.

I recommend both DHB and JE, out of pure scientific and philosophical interest but I remain unconvinced that we are out of the woods yet!

Related Reading.
(1) "The Deep Hot Biosphere", by Thomas Gold, ISBN: 0-387-95253-5, Copernicus Books, 2001. (Available from and
(2) "Jagged Environment", by Chris James, ISBN: 0-954-00940-1, JEpublications, 2001. (Available from but not How strange?). Or from

Monday, June 25, 2007

China to Make Oil from Coal on Massive Scale.

In 2008, China's first coal-liquefaction plant is set to begin its production of synthetic oil at an initial level of over one million tonnes (7.3 million barrels) each year. It is thought that this will rise to an annual output of 6 million tonnes by 2010, which is equal to almost 4% of the 163 million tonnes of oil imported into China in 2006, from a total of 346 million tonnes used altogether. This is a rise of 9.3% on the previous year, and assuming this upward increment might be maintained, demand for oil in China would match the current consumption of the United States by 2020; the combined thirst of these nations then consuming half the world's oil at current production rates. Since the production of conventional crude oil is thought to peak within 4 years, such massive increases in demand as are anticipated on economic grounds across the world can only be met through sources of unconventional oil; if at all.

The Shenhua Group Corporation Limited, which is a major coal producer in China, inaugurated the coal-liquefaction project in2004 in the city of Erdos in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The construction of three production lines are planned in its first phase at a cost of 24.5 billion yuan ($3.2 billion), of which the first will begin trial production at the end of 2007 and should be able to turn 3.45 million tons of coal into one million tons of oil. (I am quoting "tons" rather than "tonnes" from the supporting references). The production is anticipated to increase when the other two lines start-up in 2009, to 3.2 million tonnes of raw output ("oil-products"), rising to the 6 million ton grand total when the second phase is completed in 2010.

The Chinese plant employs direct-liquefaction, rather than indirect liquefaction. The difference between the two methods essentially is that the former reacts finely-powdered coal in a high-boiling solvent with hydrogen gas under pressure, while the second first reacts coal powder with a mixture of oxygen and steam to produce a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen ("synthesis gas") and then converts this catalytically to liquid hydrocarbons using the Fischer-Tropsch process. Direct liquefaction is based on the Bergius Process, which earned Friedrich Bergius the Nobel Prize in 1931 for his work on high-pressure chemistry, shared jointly with Carl Bosch who (along with Fritz Haber) developed the high-pressure synthesis of ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen. (I described the elements of both in "Coal Liquefaction" posted here on April 30th). Coal liquefaction methods kept Hitler's armies and air-force in fuel throughout WWII who otherwise would have been blockaded out of imported fuel long before 1945.

Before beginning the full-scale project in Erdos, Shenhua successfully operated a one-thousandth scale "model" in Shanghai. The technology demonstrates a commitment to the environment, by maximising overall efficiency, in that two neighbouring 100 MW electricity-generating plants have been built which run on "grease stain" (I am again quoting from the sources below, which I presume to mean "waxes", i.e. high molecular weight hydrocarbons which would be no good as gasoline or diesel fuels directly, although they can be broken-down catalytically to lighter "fuel" fractions). Out of the initial 1 million tonnes of oil-products synthesised in the first line of production at Erdos, 720,000 tonnes is diesel oil, which may be telling, in that diesel is the fuel of choice for heavy vehicles - trucks, buses, coal-mining machinery etc. - rather than cars which use the lighter, gasoline in spark-ignition engines. My feeling is that an emphasis is being placed on such kinds of essential "machines" as opposed to cars, even though the number of the latter is predicted to increase by around 20 million by 2020.

China has a lot of coal, which accounts for 84% of the nation's energy reserves, and many believe that coal-to-liquids production is the only way that China can achieve self-reliance in oil-supplies. This may prove true for many of the other world nations too. It is reckoned that 909 billion tonnes of coal are held in existing total reserves (155 years worth, but less if we start to turn significant quantities of it into oil), and probably 10 trillion tonnes in resources, albeit that much of it will prove hard to dig-out, for example the 3 trillion tonnes of coal recently discovered under the North Sea shelf off Norway. 30% of the world's coal lies in the US, there is plenty in South Africa and in Australia, and Europe also has a lot of coal, especially Germany and Poland. Many countries also have rich deposits of lignite ("brown coal") which is in fact far more amenable to liquefaction by direct methods, whereas anthracitic coal (as lies under South Africa, Australia, and the UK for that matter) works better with gasification/Fischer-Tropsch conversion to liquids and provides clean fuels with zero sulphur emissions.

All in all, I expect to see a huge installation of a variety of coal-liquefaction plants, amounting to hundreds of them placed around the world. There will be an enormous and frantic resistance to the inevitable loss of our present way of life that must follow peak oil, and this is the only truly demonstrated method for staving that off, in some amount. However, the inevitable environmental consequences of coal-to-liquids must be considered too, since about seven times the amount of CO2 results from making a barrel of synthetic fuel than is produced by refining conventional crude oil. Once the "carbon-costs" of burning the two kinds of fuel in engines is factored in, it turns out that CO2 emissions from coal-to-liquids fuels are about 50% higher overall.

Related Reading.
(1) By: Xinhua, "China to produce liquid fuel from coal in 2008."
(2) By: Xinhua, "World's first coal-to-oil mass converter due to start operation this year."

Friday, June 22, 2007

Pacific Iron-Filings Dump to take CO2 from Atmosphere.

This notion has been around for a while, but a geo-engineering company, called Planktos, Inc., is ready to dump iron-filings into the Pacific Ocean, off the Galapogos Islands, in a full-scale test to see if this can remove CO2 from the atmosphere. However, this has met with opposition from some conservationists who claim that dumping iron without a permit is illegal under the International London Dumping Convention and also under US law.

It is known that "seeding" ocean areas, where plankton does not grow in quantity, with iron-filings creates plankton blooms, which absorb thousands of tonnes of CO2 in their formation. However, those opposed to the scheme think that the full effects of the presence of iron on the Pacific ecosystems have not been fully researched, and there are good reasons to believe it will be harmful to them. According to Planktos' web-site, the company will, this month, begin depositing 100 tons of iron-filings in an area of 100 square kilometers from its ship, the Weatherbird II. Their view is that: "Planktos will begin plankton restoration by replenishing forest-sized areas of ocean with natural iron-rich dust, just as Mother Nature does. This will regenerate vast plankton blooms that will not only pull large quantities of CO2 from the air, but will also nourish collapsing fisheries, buffer ocean acidity [...from dissolved CO2 presumably?], and produce saleable carbon credits for emerging environmental markets."

The latter credits will be sold to individuals who want to offset their personal carbon credits. This sounds like a good way to fund the whole enterprise and make a good profit, so it is a convincing business plan.

The Weatherbird II is a US-flagged vessel which would be subject to the US Ocean-Dumping act, but there are apparently documents submitted by the US government to the London Dumping Convention that suggest it is "a non-US flagged vessel" that is intended to be used and which is not subject the the act. The Galapagos National Park authorities are concerned that the influence of large amounts of iron could damage marine food-chains. The US government have called for the company's activities to be "evaluated carefully." Jim Thomas of the Canadian environmental oragisation, ETC,which has been monitoring Planktos said: "It is rank hypocrisy that Planktos, which claims to be a "green" company is now planning to outsource their dumping to a foreign ship in order to evade US environmental oversight. The overwhelming scientific conclusion that iron seeding is risky and may only temporarily sequester CO2 ...leaving [it] below the surface just long enough for private geo-engineers to cash their cheques."

However, Russ George, chief executive of Planktos, said: "How could this be illegal? The letter of the law says that if concentrations do not reach 0.01 of the acute toxicity of a substance you are not required to seek a permit to dump." [...presumably they have calculated that the "regional" concentration of iron in that part of the Pacific will be less than this. Mixing rates and so forth?] He goes on, "The US EPA allows people to put vastly more than that into the ocean. We are putting rock-dust in the ocean." [...are they? I thought it was actually metallic iron powder, which is not the same thing at all?]. "Billions of tons of dust from the Gobi desert blow into the ocean every year. How could anybody say we are polluting the sea?" He emphasises Planktos' green mission and that he has steered the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior himself and that to portray them as "money grubbing capitalists" is a perversion of the truth.

Of course, the money to fund the project has to come from somewhere and if they are a company they need to make a profit to stay in business. It is debatable how much difference this approach will really make to atmospheric CO2 levels, how safe it is to the marine environment - especially if it is adopted on the huge scale necessary to offset the world's carbon emissions, and how well sequestered the CO2 might prove to be in the longer run. It is presumed that the dead phytoplankton (and dead sea-life that fed on them), will sink harmlessly to the ocean floor in carbon-rich "showers of marine snow".

The phytoplanktons of the oceans (and related species) are thought to absorb around half of the CO2 that is taken-up altogether from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Hence, in principle the method could be significant. It remains a matter of conjecture how safe it is to artificially promote the growth of algal blooms on a large scale. After all, that's why we banned phosphates from soap-powders, isn't it, and replaced them with zeolites? There is surely the risk that other algae might be also encouraged that are are toxic to plants and animals, depending on what other nutrients are present in the ocean.

I am concerned in general about the various schemes of "geo-engineering" that I read about, which each focus on a single aspect of systems that are so complex we don't really understand the interplay of all their components, and so might bring about undesired consequences, indirectly related to the matter it is wished to address.

Related Reading.
(1) "Mass Dump of iron filings 'to remove CO2', by Charles Clover.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

China-Russia Gas Deal... Off!

Back in March it looked as though Russia would provide natural gas to China as a stride toward creating a global gas market. However, that policy seems to have been rescinded. Alexander Ananenkov, the deputy chief executive of Gazprom, said that plans to deliver an annual eighty billion cubic metres of gas to China would leave Russia short. Accordingly, the Russian energy Giant has asked President Putin to cancel this earlier arrangement made between the two countries. Now, I am reading a greater point of issue here, of how much gas exactly does Russia have? The whole of Europe are relying on gas from Russia which was thought to be in proverbial supply. Maybe it isn't? The UK peaked in production of oil from the North Sea in 1999, and gas supplies are no longer sufficient to provide for our needs.

In the early 1970's my father worked as a salesman/fitter for the South Eastern Gas Board, when the "new" North Sea gas supplies were introduced to supplant the conventional "town-gas" made by heating coal in massive retorts. The burners on gas appliances had to be "converted"to ones with finer jets, otherwise the new gas (methane) burned like an inferno from the old town-gas units (a mixture principally of carbon monoxide, methane and hydrogen). The presence of carbon monoxide in town-gas made it possible to "do oneself in" in the gas-oven, a procedure that was impossible with natural gas.

The Russian gas was due to be exported from the Exxon Mobil Sakhalin-1 project on the Pacific coast of Russia. Mr Ananenkov said: "We consider it necessary for a directive to be issued on the Sakhalin-1 gas to be sold to Gazprom so we could supply gas to Russia's regions, and for the gas not to be exported as proposed by Exxon Mobil." These were his words on speaking at a meeting of a regional social and economic development council. He further stated that Russia's four far eastern regions alone require above fifteen billion cubic metres of gas each year. Now that is a lot of gas.

Should the Russian government accede to the proposal by Gazprom and intervene in the export of the commodity to China, the latter will be left bereft of any access to Russian gas at all, despite its overwhelming need for supplies of gas and it would appear all other forms of energy necessary to fuel its burgeoning and unprecedented phase of industrialisation. This putative action would also heighten concerns about the increasing control of the state-run concern, Gazprom, and the Kremlin's handle on its domestic gas industry. As noted above, gas supplied from Russia accounts for around 25% of all used in Europe. So, if China is going to go-without, when will it be the turn of the European nations, especially Germany?

According to some analysts, gas-shortages in Russia are more pressing than is being made explicit. The gas/oil giant, Shell, was made to sell its share in the Sakhalin-2 project to Gazprom in response to pressure from Russian regulators. Similarly, BP is awaiting a decision on whether its license for the Kovytka gas field in East Siberia will be cancelled. It is suggested that Gazprom might face a challenge in winning control of Sakhalin-1 from the rival, Rosneft, which is the state-controlled oil company and a shareholder in the project, along with Sadeco (Japanese) and Videsh (Indian).

My overall impression is that Russia needs its gas and oil for its own supply, and the rest of the world should not rely on its resources to fuel our own purposes. As I noted recently, Russia has only the same amount of estimated recoverable oil resources as Venezuela, and Peak Oil has already happened there, albeit that the "peak" in a Hubbert type analysis is rather obfuscated by the collapse of the Soviet Union; the force-down in what the rest of the world was prepared to pay for Russian oil did indeed contribute to that demise of the major Communist empire.

The Oil (and gas) Dearth era is at hand, and the future of the world will be underpinned by less of both. It would be an immediate conclusion, therefore, that the economic miracle in China (and India) is a flash in the pan. I would not wish this for either nation, nor for those expanding EU nations such as Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic, but I imagine all of us are headed back toward an agrarian economy based around localised communities.

Related Reading.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Power in the North East.

It was often said that trying to do something superfluous and futile was like "carrying coals to Newcastle", in honour of Newcastle-upon-Tyne as the premier city in a major coal producing region of the UK and its first coal exporting port. The other day I was interviewed on Radio Cleveland (not so far from Newcastle) about the prospects of wireless power, or WiElectricity which could potentially eliminate the need for wires, plugs and their associated paraphernalia. It sounds good, especially in the light of soaring costs of copper which wires are made from, but how practical is it? Nikola Tesla experimented with long-range wireless energy transfer more than a hundred years ago, and his most ambitious attempt, which involved a 29 metre high mast known as the Wardenclyffe Tower, in New York, was abandoned when he ran out of money for the project.

A group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have reported a relatively simple system that could in principle deliver electricity to electronic devices like laptop computers and MP3 players without the need for wires or to plug them in anywhere. Apparently the research group has yet to construct and demonstrate a working model, but computer models and calculations indicate that it should work. Indeed, it would be highly convenient if we didn't have to remember to plug-in our cell-phones, laptops etc. to recharge them. The basic phenomenon behind the idea is resonance. A good example of this is two matched tuning forks: when one is struck so that it vibrates at its characteristic frequency, energy is emitted and some of it can be picked-up by the second fork in the form of acoustic vibrations (sound waves). Most of the energy spreads-out into the room, however, and so this is not a particularly efficient means for energy transfer.

The MIT "device", rather than using acoustic generators, employs "non-radiative" objects with so termed "long-lived resonances". When energy is applied to these objects it remains bound to them, rather than escaping into space. "Tails" of energy thought to be as much as several metres in length, flicker over the surface. However, if a second similar object with the same resonant frequency is brought into proximity with the first one, the energy can tunnel from one to the other. Hence we seem to be looking at a quantum mechanical effect. The team believe that it should be possible to transfer energy over distances of three to five metres. As the researchers admit themselves: "the work is "clearly at an early stage" but "interesting for the future." However, in regard to energy provision and supply, the world has more pressing matters to deal with, such as providing transportation fuel as its reserves of cheap oil begin to dwindle, and keeping power stations running as natural gas supplies begin to wane, probably within a couple of decades following Peak Oil.

More pragmatically, in the North East, attention is being turned toward tidal power. Inventors such as former Swan Hunter naval architect Graham Mackie are bidding for a share of the £50 million ($100 million) fund from the UK government to generate electricity from the ebb and flow of the tide. A new facility has been opened by the New and Renewable Energy Centre (NaREC), based at Blyth in Northumberland, will test prototype models and assess their potential as a future commercial proposition. Mr Mackie will demonstrate his scale-model to an audience of over 70 experts from the energy industry, launched into the water at the Tees Barrage in Stockton, pointing out that 3,000 of his devices (called Evopods) would provide an equivalent amount of electricity as between three and five nuclear power stations, or enough for up to four million homes. 300 Evopods would occupy three square miles of sea space and have the same generating capacity as a typical gas-fired power station, but without consuming a fossil fuel resource or pumping CO2 into the atmosphere.

Enthusiasm reigns, since it is believed that extracting energy from the tides will engender a far greater contribution to the final energy-mix (planned to exist by 2050) than can be achieved from wind-power. However, there are problems in implementing "sea-power", which have discouraged its employment in favour of wind-turbines which are easier to install. Nonetheless, it is perhaps time to get to grips with the former technologies (tidal stream generators and rockers), as we are going to need all the renewable energy we can get, though I think it is debatable just what proportion of our current energy bill can be so met! Time, as ever, will tell.

Related Reading.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Peak Oil hits UK Headlines.

For the first time (to the best of my knowledge anyway) the facts of Peak Oil have made it onto the front page of a national UK newspaper, The Independent. It is stated that "supplies [of oil] will start to run out in four years time". Now this should alarm everybody, once they have taken-in what this implies, but it does not mean that there will be no oil beyond four years, merely that the peak in production will arrive then (in 2011), following which supplies of oil will fall by around 2 - 3% per year. Now a fall of 10 -15% in the amount of crude oil being recovered onto world markets will be significant and it will hit the world economy hard - we don't need to actually run-out of oil to see the impact of its dearth. Hence we are talking about 4 + 5 years, or by 2016, when the world will begin to shift to its new order of reduced oil availability/ dependency. The main impact will be on liquid fuels, although hydrocarbons derived from oil are used as a raw chemical feedstock for most industries, and altogether we depend on oil to provide practically everything, including food. The price of all goods can be expected to skyrocket, and their supplies to decline.

The "Indie" article gives figures for oil reserves in various countries, some of which are (in units of billions of barrels):

Canada, 17; US, 30; Mexico, 13; Venezuela, 80; UK, 4 (oh dear); Algeria, 12; Libya, 42; Brazil, 12; Nigeria, 36; Angola, 9; E. Guinea, 2; China, 16; Saudi, 264; Iraq, 115; Iran, 138; United Arab Emirates, 98; Kuwait, 102; Russia, 80. This makes a grand total of 1070 billion (1 trillion) barrels, of which 70% is in the Middle east. It is interesting that Venezuela has as much oil as Russia and while the US has 30 billion barrels, that is only enough to last it for about 4 years. Hence 2/3 of US oil is imported, mostly from Canada with only about half the US reserve. The UK North Sea oil peaked in 1999, and so we depend heavily on imports too.

In the UK we grow around 60% of our food while the rest is imported. Turning farm-land over to biofuel production will compromise food production and in any case it cannot provide more than a small fraction of the equivalent of petroleum based fuel. Other approaches, based on making biodiesel from algae and ethanol from waste cellulosic material are as yet undeveloped technologies, and it is guesswork as to how much consolation they will bring to us within the next crucial economic decade. The single proven technology for making artificial "oil" on the large scale is that of coal-liquefaction, but there are no such plants in the UK presently, so we must begin building them now. Agreed, gas can be converted into hydrocarbons by a similar route using Fischer-Tropsch methods, but gas is expected to peak not so long after oil and more quickly of course if another demand is placed on its resource, e.g. making oil from it.

BP have published their "Statistical Review of World Energy", in which there are figures that "show" the world has enough "proven" reserves to provide another 40 years worth of consumption at current rates. Now this amounts to 40 years x 30 billion barrels/year = 1200 billion barrels, or more than the world reserve. Moreover, as oil wells become depleted the oil becomes ever harder to extract from them and so unless there is another trillion barrels worth down there, i.e. the volume of the reserve is far greater than the 1 trillion barrels accounted for, it must be impossible to maintain production of oil at current rates, let alone to meet the inexorably rising demand for it. Perhaps BP are assuming that the dearth in crude oil supplies will be offset by unconventional oil, e.g. from coal-liquefaction, tar sand, shale etc., and yet this is far from certain. Resources take resources to extract them, and all these unconventional sources of oil are highly intensive in their use of natural gas and water to do so.

According to the article, there are 909 billion tonnes of proven coal reserves worldwide, which is a good deal less than the 10 trillion tonnes I thought there were, (190 billion tonnes of it under the UK.). Nonetheless, this is thought to be sufficient to keep the world going for 155 years. The natural gas fields in Siberia, Alaska and the Middle East should last for 20 years longer than the world oil reserves but I have written about the logistic problems of supplying Russian gas after 2009, and so it is not only the volume of the reserve per se that determines how much of it we can access. Hydrogen fuel-cells will not meet the shortfall either because making hydrogen is extremely energy inefficient (along with many other problems posed by hydrogen, including a complete lack of existing full-scale infrastructure to generate and handle it, which would have to be built from scratch) and there is not enough platinum available from the few sources of it in the world to make the number of fuel cells that would be required in the nearer term.

Even nuclear, which many think will provide a solution to the global energy crisis is limited by the amount of uranium there is available, although more of it could be collected if poorer ores were exploited and there is the possibility of using fast breeder reactors or a similar but probably safer equivalent technology based on thorium as a nuclear fuel. The former chief executive of Saudi Arabia's oil corporation, Sadad al Huseini gave his view on how much more oil the kingdom might produce, since it is here that rising oil demand will push for the biggest squeeze for more oil production, since it holds 26% of the world total. He said: "The problem is that you go from 79 million barrels [of oil] a day in 2002 to 84.5 million in 2004. You're leaping by two or three million [barrels a day] each year. That's like a whole new Saudi Arabia every couple of years. It can't be done indefinitely."

It seems clear that we will be pushed to replace crude oil by other sources of oil, meaning a massive decline in transportation. If people are unable to move around easily they will tend to stay where they are, which implies the creation by default of localised communities. I am certainly not proposing nor advocating a return to the stone-age but a planned gearing-down of energy use until a sustainable level is achieved appears the only way for civilization to retain its integrity beyond the next couple of decades.

Related Reading.
"A World Without Oil", The Independent, June 14, 2007.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

BLM allows Drilling on Roan Plateau.

The Roan Plateau sits above one of the largest untapped gas-fields in the lower 48 states, and contains sufficient gas to heat 4 million homes for the next 20 years. In opposition to the wishes of conservationists, anglers, hunters and local governments, the federal government has opened the floodgates for drilling to begin there as early as next year, such is the enthusiasm to tap this new source of fossil fuel. In making its decision, The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has cleared the way for access to around 70% of the 73,602 acres of the Roan, while the other 30% is being evaluated during a public comment phase, and a final decision will be made in the Autumn which is highly significant since it includes numerous areas of outstanding natural beauty and wildlife habitats.

The BLM decision was made last Friday and allows oil and gas corporations to drill on top of the plateau, so long as they employ state of the art directional drilling methods, in order to restrict surface damage and conserve fish and wildlife habitats. Only 350 acres are permitted to be "disturbed" at any given time, and when the job is done, companies are obligated to reclaim the plot (restore it to its former appearance) before they can drill elsewhere. It is probable that the BLM will begin auctioning specific plots next year, which are now being chosen by the various competing concerns.

Those in favour of the scheme argue that it can only be for the greater good of Colorado which could both benefit from its access to a significant gas supply during a period of hiked-up fuel prices and collect hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue from the oil and gas companies themselves. The general feeling among those opposed to the project is that it has been forced-through, with scant regard to the real environmental and ecological upheaval that it will engender, and Suzanne Jones of the Wilderness Society said: "We are extremely disappointed. We don't think BLM's decision reflects what Colorado and a majority of local governments have been asking for, which is to protect the top of the Roan Plateau. We are disappointed that the BLM didn't allow Governor Ritter's administration to review the plan before it was issued."

Related Reading.
"BLM opens gates for drilling on Roan Plateau," by Gargi Chakrabarty, Rocky Mountain News:,198...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Future Aircraft Fuel may come from Algae.

Aviation takes almost one quarter of the UK national fuel budget, which all told adds-up to an annual equivalent of 57 million tonnes of imported oil. As supplies of conventional crude oil decline, the problem will present itself of how to keep the entire transportation sector running, and probably air-travel will decline, as a luxury that can be cut-back upon without impacting significantly on the quality of human life: e.g. cheap foreign holidays might be deemed less important than essential road-transport - getting people to work and the carriage of vital goods such as food. As I have discussed in many of these postings, the horizon that appears to me is one of a relocalisation of society (and indeed civilization) into small communities that are provided for by local farms and local businesses, in consequence of a serious shortfall in fuel, which therefore would eliminate much of our demand for cars etc.

This is a longer-run view, and I think that getting exactly to this point might take two decades or so, meanwhile airline companies are discussing how indeed their planes might be fuelled as the standard petroleum-based fuel (kerosene) becomes shorter in supply and increasingly expensive. Ethanol is one possibility, but it has the unfortunate property of absorbing water and consequently corrodes parts of the engine and fuel-lines, while the other contender, biodiesel, becomes extremely viscous either in cold weather or at the low temperatures encountered in-flight, e.g. around minus 50 degrees C at typical cruising altitudes of around 36,000 feet (around 11 kilometers, and below the stratosphere over most parts of the Earth, other than above its polar regions). There is also the problem that even by severely compromising food production - growing fuel-crops not food-crops - an equal to the present quantity of fuel derived from oil could not be met, not even for road transport, let alone aircraft.

The airline-giant company Boeing has released an 8 page report in which are extolled the virtues of a biodiesel made from algae. As has been discussed in some previous postings on Energy Balance, the apparent advantage of making biodiesel from algae rather than from crops is that perhaps 100 times more of it could be produced per hectare, whereupon the proposition does begin to look like a possibility. However, the site oilgae (link to the top left here) discusses the various difficulties that must be circumvented before this could become a reality. It is hence, another untested technology on the grand scale, although I remain optimistic that it could contribute to the final energy mix we will employ in the future. There are also fears that since the type of algae necessary will be a very tough and competitive strain, it could "escape" and contaminate the wider world, resulting in toxic algal blooms that are not readily controlled by nature.

Boeing envisages three distinct timescales over which alternative fuels could be introduced: near, mid-range and long-term. In the near term, a "drop-in" fuel is required, with which to substitute for regular fuel as soon as possible. It is thought that this might be a blend of kerosene and synthetic diesel produced by the Fischer-Tropsch process - i.e. from coal-liquefaction, or from synthesis gas generated by steam-reforming natural gas (principally methane). However, since peak-gas will follow peak-oil in just a few years, it would be a poor decision to rely on it as a source of fuel for very long. It is also significant that net CO2 emissions are double that from burning conventional fuel, when such synthetic fuel is employed, summing-up the carbon released in its manufacture and its final combustion. In the mid-term, 10 -50 years, Boeing proposes that biofuels will contribute more as a final percentage of jet fuel in a mix with synthetic diesel (Jet-A, or standard jet fuel). This does beg the question, as noted above, of where precisely this would come from. Ultimately, in our localised "society, in its state of "Oil-Dearth", growing food will be a more pressing issue than growing the number of runways at Heathrow Airport, say.

In short, it looks like a black-hole of fuel in general, from which the long-term view appears the most promising vista. On this note, Boeing are highly encouraging:

"With the potential for algae of providing 10,000 gallons/acre per year [...that's about 100 tonnes per hectare], some 85 billion gallons of bio-jet could be produced on a land-mass equivalent to the size of the US state of Maryland. Moreover, if these bio-jet fuels were fully compatible with legacy [existing] aircraft, it would be sufficient to supply the present world's fleet with 100% of their fuel needs (fig. 13) as well into the future."

However, would we not still need to produce large quantities of a blending fuel i.e. from coal-liquefaction, in order to maintain a manageable viscosity at the low operating temperatures? Boeing do not mention this, however, and so while details are sparse, they may have a jet-fuel up their sleeve with appropriate properties to meet that 100% as they claim.

Certainly, this would be a major breakthrough, and perhaps more details will be forthcoming, which I await with interest. Of further note is that the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, has applied for worldwide patents to genetically-modify microbes with which to manufacture hydrogen and biofuels. The idea is that a very basic "stripped-down" microbe could be created by joining together blocks of about 50 letters, to make about 500 genes in half a million letters of DNA, and growing it in the "gut-bacteria" E coli. These many small pieces can be joined into a handful of bigger ones until finally two pieces can be assembled into the circular genome of a new life form. The synthetic DNA would then be added to a test-tube of bacteria from which, it is hoped, one out of one hundred billion would begin to move, metabolise and multiply.

Canadian ETC spokesman, Jim Thomas called on the world's patent offices to reject the applications, saying:

"These monopoly claims signal the start of a high-stakes commercial race to synthesise and privatise synthetic life-forms. Will Venter's company become the 'Microsoft' of synthetic biology?" One of his colleagues, Pat Mooney, remarked: "For the first time, God has competition. Venter and his colleagues have breached a societal boundary, and the public hasn't even had a chance to debate the far-reaching social, ethical and environmental implications of synthetic life."

Related Reading.
(1), by Clayton Bodie Cornell, article "Algae Biofuel may be future for aviation."
(2) "Man-made microbe 'to create endless biofuel'", by Roger Highfield:

Friday, June 08, 2007

China Water Supply lost as Tibetan Glaciers Melt.

The environmental group Greenpeace has warned that the melting of Tibet's glaciers could close-off water supplies to large parts of China. For example, Sichuan Province, in south-western China, relies on water from the Tibetan peninsular. The Qinghai-Tibet highland spans most of western China, and global-warming is driving the retreat of glaciers there, forcing the evaporation of glacial and snow run-off, and leaving rivers short of water and clogged with the silt that is usually dispersed under conditions of normal flow. At Kanding, which is several hundred kilometers from Jiuzhaigou, the evidence of climate change and rising temperatures is clear, in its effect on the glaciers. Research shows that the Tibetan plateau is melting at around 7% per year, an alarming statistic since its glaciers provide almost half (47%) of total glacial coverage in China, and its melt-waters feed the Yellow, Yangtze and many other rivers that supply water to hundreds of millions among its 1.4 billion total population.

These are rivers that are in some parts already under considerable environmental pressure from industrial pollution. "Cancer clusters" have been identified, that are thought to be related to the discharge of arsenic, mercury and other noxious materials into rivers without due care and regard to environmental laws. Water too, is an essential resource for coal-liquefaction technologies, which the Chinese intend to expand to meet the massive fuel needs of their expanding economy, with another 20 million cars expected on its roads by 2020.

A report by Greenpeace claims that: "Climate change is the major factor leading to the overall ecological degradation in the region while localised human activities such as industry and agriculture, have aggravated the situation." The Qinghai-Tibet plateau covers an area of 2.5 million kilometers (ten times the area of the UK mainland) - roughly a quarter of China's land surface; the latter being equivalent to the area covered by the arable land of North America - at an altitude of 4,000 m above sea-level. Greenpeace have cited one forecast (probably the worst) that Tibet and its environs could experience the disappearance of 80% its glacial coverage by 2035.

Conservationists working in the region point out that climate change can mean global warming but cooling in some areas too, and that each can influence rainfall and snowfall dramatically. The accumulation of waters from melting glaciers can build-up into huge "dams" that then "burst" so endangering the lives of those living down-stream. Researchers from Greenpeace who made a survey of the slopes of Mount Everest during the past two years noted that local herders were not seeing a greater abundance of water from the melting glaciers. Rather, the increased evaporation and accumulation of water in unstable glacial lakes appear to be making rivers less predictable and more dangerous.

According to a Tibetan monk who has lived on the lower slopes of Everest for many years: "Now winter is as hot as summer. The weather change is obvious."

Related Reading.
"China's water supply could be cut off as Tibet's glaciers melt," by Clifford Coonan, The Independent, 31 May 2007.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Shadow of Nuclear War Returns to Europe.

President Putin has warned the US that were it to go ahead in deploying a new anti-missile network across Europe, Russia would be urged to aim its own nuclear missiles at European cities. Presumably this is really a warning to Europe not to permit the US to install part of its strategic nuclear defenses in our nations, or be prepared to accept any consequences, if we do. Likely locations are Poland and the Czech Republic, on the grounds that they would be well placed there to shoot-down any missiles fired from Iran. One wonders at whom? Putin has expressed a sharp skepticism at this, arguing that there are no such missiles: "Iran does not have missiles with the range", he said - again, I wonder to strike where? Putin speculated that the real motive from the US is to provoke Russia into retaliatory action and drive a wedge between it and Europe.

I imagine it sticks in the Russian craw too, that until less than 20 years ago, both Poland and the Czech Republic were under the Communist banner, and having "relinquished" them to Europe, now it might appear that the US are annexing them, a term with the most sensitive and unfortunate connotations within the context of Russian/European history, i.e. the aftermath of WWII. British relations with Russia are rather strained too, in view of the request that Andrei Lugovoy be extradited to stand trial in the UK for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, reputedly a Russian-spy and bizarrely poisoned with plutonium-210 in a scenario that reads like a James Bond novel. I doubt Ian Fleming could have invented a more outrageous plot. Tony Blair wishes a conference with Mr Putin at the G8 summit, and it would appear they have much to discuss as, were Russia to accede to the UK's request, it would require an amendment to the Russian Constitution, which presently does not allow a Russian citizen to be extradited for trial in any other country.

Putin has not entirely eliminated that this might be done should the weight of evidence so demand it, but he is unconvinced that there is presently sufficient reason for such a dramatic move. Neither did he offer any compromise regarding the particular cases of British oil-giants Shell and B.P., both of whom have had the terms of their contracts for oil-investments in Russia rewritten in the light of alleged breaches in their licenses. One cannot help but feel that an example is being made of them. Mr Putin insists that he seeks "cooperation not confrontation", and lays blame squarely with the US for its intransigence. He called on "our American friends to rethink their decision (about putting nuclear missiles in Europe, that is), and warned that "we cannot be responsible for our reciprocal steps because it is not us who is initiating an arms race in Europe."

He added: "We will need to establish such systems which would be able to penetrate the [US] missile defense systems..." Mr Putin also implied that, in retaliation, Russia might veto agreements to curb conventional forces too: "What kind of means will be used to hit the targets that our military believe are potential threats - ballistic missiles, or cruise missiles, or some kind of new defense system? We see that Eastern Europe is being filled with new equipment, two positions in Bulgaria and Romania, as well as Radar in the Czech Republic, and missile systems in Poland. What is happening? Unilateral disarmament of Russia is happening."

It took a good forty years to attain the level of peace that now exists in Europe; from which a return to the days of the "cold war" is surely unthinkable, especially to those who actually live here.

Related Reading.
"Putin raises spectre of nuclear war in Europe," The Times, June 4th, 2007.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Water - the new Oil?

Cheap light crude oil production has already peaked and the resource will have all but gone within a decade. This raises the shadow of the intermediary era that spaces now from then - plenty from dearth - a highly uncertain transitional period within which either by design or default we must gear-down our use of transportation, since there is no alternative technology that could be brought on-stream in time (if ever) to match the gargantuan 30 billion barrels of oil that are used by the world each year to quench its thirst for liquid fuel and essential chemical raw materials for industry.

This might be thought bad enough, but water too is a resource that in the present profligate manner of its use will begin to run-short within foreseeable decades. I have just been sent a new book entitled "Mirage" and written by Cynthia Barnett, which focusses on water-use in the United States and in Florida particularly. The present article is my review of it, as requested by its publishers (The University of Michigan Press). Years ago I read "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck which draws-out in painful detail the tribulations of families trying to survive in the dust-bowls of the mid-west during the Great Depression era of the 1930's, struggling toward California in a search for jobs and land, but mostly land... on which crops would grow. It is well known that to the east of the longitudinal line along the 100th meridian rainfall is plentiful, while to the west of it the climate is relatively arid. Indeed it was once believed that farmers in the "east" would never have to worry about watering their crops, but in recent years demand for water has surged with calamitous environmental consequences.

Barnett is an experienced journalist and a reporter for Florida Trend Magazine, and her investigative and journalistic skills are aptly suited to handle this important topic. In the first part of the book, she outlines the history of water and development in the US reflecting back from an opening scene from 1981 where a house falls into a "sinkhole", which is a collapse in the limestone rock that underlies Florida as a consequence of its natural dissolution by underground water, but which can be opened-up as a result of human activities such as highway construction, excavation of "fill-dirt" (gravel), well -drilling and especially the excessive pumping of groundwater.

She discusses the complex politics involved in "development", and the overpopulation of that southern tip of the Florida peninsular particularly by retirees ("seniors"), thus requiring an infrastructure - including very green and hence heavily watered lawns and golf-courses etc. - of an extent that surpasses even what can be provided by the greatly abundant rainfall there. Meeting the shortfall necessitates the extraction of groundwater on a huge scale with environmental, economic, political and social consequences, including at least one death as she describes in the chapter "Water Wars". Indeed the history of water-supply in the United States is wryly inscribed in the quotation (attributed to Mark Twain), "whiskey's for drinkin' and water's for fightin'."

A central theme in the book is of water as a commodity. Often the real costs of water provision are borne by states or municipalities rather than by corporations, who cash-in on a cheap resource for which no regard is consequently engendered, nor for the environmental actions such as damming rivers as mighty as the Colorado for various "aquatic" projects. Bottled "spring" water is an immensely priced-up designer toy, costing around 10,000 times as much as tap water and often with much the same analytical composition. Not all spring-water does in fact come from a spring, and is to a large degree once again that good old pumped groundwater.

I am ashamed to say I had not heard of the Ogallala aquifer, despite the fact that it flows for 174,000 square miles under the great plains from South Dakota to the Texas panhandle, and it is the main source of water for the US collective national breadbasket, supplying as it does one third of all the groundwater used for irrigation in the entire country. However, Ogallala is not replenished as most aquifers are. Instead it contains "fossil water", set down from the melt of the last ice-age 10,000 years ago. Put another way, once it is gone it is gone, and the analogy with a vast oil-field could hardly be closer. Access to cheap electric pumps in the 1950's permitted farmers to draw this legacy upward at increasing rates and to the extent that the Ogallala has fallen by 100 feet in parts of New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma ("Grapes of Wrath" territory) and Texas. It is inevitable and a mere matter of time that all wells sunk into this huge aquifer will run dry. Not good I presume for the US corn-crop which is increasingly being grown to provide corn-ethanol in that desperate exercise we are all of us involved in, to resolve the issues of how we will survive in the "Oil Dearth" era, as world supplies of crude-oil run relentlessly short.

The Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) technology is given especial mention. The idea is that during wet-periods, when water is plentiful, water is pumped into gigantic underground aquifers set deep into Florida's limestone, and which can be pumped-up again during dry months. Some 36 million gallons a day are sucked from Peace River, which starts in Central Florida's Green Swamp and ends 105 miles further south in the Charlotte Harbour Estuary. There are almost 1,700 ASR wells in the US altogether, most of them in the states of California, Nevada, Texas and Florida, all particularly short of water. However, caution is urged, certainly that a decent hydrogeological survey is forked-out for, as the first well sunk at Peace River became seriously contaminated with arsenic, present naturally in the aquifer.

Desalination is another technology often invoked as a solution to water-shortages especially in near-coastal regions, even though it is very costly to set up a desalination plant in the first place, and it takes a lot of energy to run one; nor is the technology guaranteed. A $110 million plant at Tampa Bay suffered all kinds of difficulties and finally the high-tech membranes required to separate water from salt by reverse-osmosis clogged up. However, groundwater pumping was reduced by one third in the region anyway without using one drop of desalinated water, purely through more conventional means of reservoir and surface water treatment combined with aggressive water-conservation measures. Now this takes us on neatly to the final chapter entitled "redemption and the river of grass".

I found this chapter truly inspirational, since it refers to possible solutions to the problem which are based around taking a more respectful approach to our environment. Some wonderful human stories are mentioned, such as that of Clyde Butcher, who turned his son's tragic death into a positive campaign for the choking Everglades, through his photography, and began a change in attitude which may save the day. What Barnett writes about water and how we might preserve our world by giving it due respect applies as well to all the other resources we are now plundering into extinction.

As an active poet, I appreciated her choice of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" to quote from rather than "The rime of the ancient mariner" as it usually done when seeking some cultural reference to "water", since the context is much closer in its "A stately pleasure-dome decree" to the problem of inexorable human demand on nature in the fallacious assumption of limitless growth while draining resources that are only all too limited. In conclusion, this is a most informative and timely book and I am grateful to Mary Bisbee-Beck at The University of Michigan Press for giving me the opportunity to review it.

Professor Chris Rhodes, Independent Consultant on Energy and Environment Issues.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Digging-up the Family Silver (...Platinum etc).

We live on a planet with finite resources, and yet use them up with alacrity in the false assumption of limitless growth. I read a recent statistic that "if all the world's 500 million vehicles in use today were re-equipped with fuel cells, operating losses would mean that all the world's platinum would be exhausted within 15 years." In a previous posting, I estimated that there were probably around 35,500 tonnes of platinum available as a reserve on Earth, 90% of it in two mines in South Africa and most of the rest in Russia. Hence, each vehicle would account for 35,500 tonnes x 1000 kg/tonne x 1000 g/kg /500,000,000 = 71 grams of platinum. For 700 million of them, as I understood the figure to be, this amounts to 51 grammes each.

In my article "Platinum Barrier to Fuel Cells", I worked-out, assuming that pledged technology (here we go again!) would come to our rescue, that there is enough platinum at a putative 12 g per "highly improved" fuel cell to supply 3 billion cars, but the real problem is that only relatively limited quantities of platinum can be produced each year, and so other resources (principally oil) will have run-out long before we might replace our oil-fuelled fleet by fuel-cell driven cars. This ignores the likely prohibitive difficulty in inaugurating the infrastructure for the hydrogen to run them with. Either way platinum is a scarce and precious resource and cannot be counted upon to match current and continuing demands for it. Contemporary fuel-cells contain around 50 - 100 g of platinum each, which is close to the above estimates.

Currently, even in the absence of fuel-cells, around 40% of the world's platinum is used in catalytic-convertors (CC's) to keep levels of exhaust gases such as NOx down, which is coincidently the same amount as is used to make jewelry. It is fascinating that the "dust" and litter routinely swept off the streets may contain of the order of parts per million (ppm) of platinum, emitted into the air from the platinum-based catalysts that are the heart of CC's, similar to the 3 ppm typical of the ores in the South African platinum mines. It may therefore be feasible to "mine" the dust from road-sweeping machines to recover its platinum.

Platinum is only one of the elements likely to run-short in a few decades or so. Indium, used for solar cells and LCD's may run-out in 10 years, impending a further need to develop alternative photo-voltaic (PV) technology, beyond the difficulty in providing enough pure-silicon to fabricate silicon-based cells on the grand scale. Dye-cells (e.g. Gratzel-cells) begin to look particularly attractive, even if the "dyes" will be made from oil, emphasising the terrible waste of simply burning oil as a fuel, when we also need it as a chemical feedstock. In my opinion, it would be more to the point to preserve as much conventional crude oil as possible as a raw material for chemical manufacture, because what will our industries use otherwise once it has gone, or is absurdly too expensive to use?

Some salient points are made by the following list of elements, world total reserve of each, their time of exhaustion based on current rates of production and main uses for them:

Aluminium, 32,350 million tonnes, 1027 years (transport, electrical, consumer durables)
Arsenic, 1 million tonnes, 20 years (semiconductors, solar cells)
Antimony, 3.86 million tonnes, 30 years (some pharmaceuticals and catalysts)
Cadmium, 1.6 million tonnes, 70 years (Ni-Cd batteries)
Chromium, 779 million tonnes, 143 years (chrome plating)
Copper, 937 million tonnes, 61 years (wires, coins, plumbing)
Germanium, 500,000 tonnes (US reserve base), 5 years (semiconductors, solar cells)
Gold, 89,700 tonnes, 45 years (jewelry, "gold-teeth")
Hafnium, 1124 tonnes, 20 years? (computer chips, power stations)
Indium, 6000 tonnes, 13 years? (solar-cells and LCD's)
Lead, 144 million tonnes, 42 years (pipes and lead-acid batteries)
Nickel, 143 million tonnes, 90 years (batteries, turbine-blades)
Phosphorus, 49,750 million tonnes, 345 years ( fertilizer, animal feed)
Platinum/Rhodium, 79,840 tonnes, 360 years for Pt (jewellery, catalysts, fuel-cells, cat-convs.)
Selenium, 170,000 tonnes, 120 years (semiconductors, solar cells)
Silver, 569,000 tonnes, 29 years (jewellery, cat.-convs.)
Tantalum, 153,000 tonnes, 116 years, (cell-phones, camera-lenses)
Thallium, 650,000 tonnes, 65 years (High Temperature Superconductors, Organic Reagents)
Tin, 11.2 million tonnes, 40 years, (cans, solder)
Uranium, 3.3 million tonnes, 59 years (nuclear power stations and weapons)
Zinc, 460 million tonnes, 46 years (galvanizing).

These figures are based on known reserves and of course more might be found if it were explored for. However, new technologies are likely and the developing nations are aspiring to a "Western Lifestyle" so minerals are being exhausted at a relentlessly growing rate.

It is predicted that if new technologies do appear and with the growth in world population, some key resources will be used up quite rapidly, e.g.:

Antimony, 15 - 20 years.
Hafnium, 10 years.
Indium, 5 - 10 years.
Platinum, 15 years.
Silver, 15 - 20 years.
Tantalum, 20 - 30 years.
Uranium, 30 - 40 years.
Zinc, 20 - 30 years.

It is worth observing that the distribution of these minerals is of course uneven, as I noted above about platinum, and the US currently imports 90% of its "rare earth" metals from China. We know all too well also that most of the world's oil is in the Middle East. In concluding this posting I am left with a sense of living on borrowed-time.

Related Reading.
(1) David Cohen, "Earth Audit", New Scientist, 26th May 2007, p. 35.