Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Solar Fuels Cannot Avert an Imminent Petroluem Fuels Crisis.

Since the article (immediately previous posting) to which this refers is rather long, I am extracting its concluding section here, rather than leaving the reader to wade through all of it. It will also be published in full in the next issue of the journal Science Progress.

In a nutshell, since the expected rate of depletion of conventional crude oil (petroleum) is around 3.4%/year, another 2.9 million barrels a day will need to be "found" year on year. Thus, by 2020, we will be short on conventional crude by about 23 mbd or just over one quarter of current production. Filling this hole by solar fuels is practically impossible, and so another techno-fix appears to bite the dust. If we are unable to solve the problem from the supply side, we need to look to the demand side. Since the main and most immediate effect will be on transportation, all arrows point to a relocalisation of civilization and its societies. This means a complete rethink of how we live, and though the foreseeable transition to a lower energy and more localised way of life is unequivocally daunting, there are reasons for optimism.

Overall Summary and Outlook.

In conclusion, we are faced with an overall serious energy problem, and most pressingly the challenge of how to fill the enlarging hole created by a declining production of conventional crude oil. It appears almost certain that there will be profound efforts made in obtaining “unconventional oil” from shale and in liberating gas from various geological formations by “fracking”; the production of “synthetic crude” from tar-sands will doubtless increase too. Noting that world light crude oil production peaked in 2005, it is increasingly the heavy oils, e.g. from the Orinoco Belt in Venezuela, that will need to be recovered and processed, requiring the building of a new swathe of oil refineries that can handle this kind of material. Thus, not only are supplies of conventional crude oil going to fall, but what is recovered will be increasingly difficult to process. How difficult it is to produce an energy resource is usually expressed by the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI). Thus in the halcyon days of the Texan “giant gushers”, 100 barrels of crude oil could be recovered using the energy equivalent to that contained in one barrel of crude oil, which gives an EROEI = 100. The figure has fallen since then, and presently EROEIs in the range 11 -18 are obtained for North Sea (Brent Crude) oil, and as low as 3 – 5 for heavy oil and tar sands “oil”.

Although shale-oil production and use is hardly environmentally “clean”, taking account of its carbon emissions (both in the retorting of shale and in burning the final fuel) and large water demand (3 – 10 barrels of water to produce each barrel of oil), it is trumpeted in some quarters that the US will become self-sufficient in “oil” by 2020. Current US production of shale-oil is around 0.5 mbd, and is predicted to rise to 3 mbd by 2020, but this must be gauged against a loss of conventional oil by 23 mbd across the world. We will have lost 52 mbd by 2030, leaving us with merely 38% of current supply. Can solar fuels fill the gap? As we have seen, much of the solar fuel technology is very much at the research stage. Most of what is ongoing aims to produce H2, but even if half the “new” platinum recovered annually were used to fabricate fuel cells, only something like 1% of the billion road vehicles currently in existence could be so substituted by “hydrogen cars” over the next 10 years. Hence, a global transportation network based on hydrogen/fuel cells, let alone a full-scale solar hydrogen economy, is a pipe-dream. If hydrogen can be made renewably on the grand scale, as an energy carrier (it is not really a fuel, since it must be created from primary energy sources), it will probably need to be used by combustion.

The fabrication of electric cars runs into similar resource difficulties, especially in terms of rare earth metals, and so a strategy based on liquid fuels would seem most sensible. Liquid fuels are furthermore entirely compatible with the prevailing transportation infrastructure, in regard to the distribution of fuels and their deployment in internal combustion engines. The Fischer-Tropsch (FT) process is a well-established technology for converting syngas to liquid hydrocarbons, but the means to obtain H2 + CO on a large scale without using fossil fuels is not. Even when (or if) those clean technologies based on artificial photosynthesis are developed, a whole new generation and scale of FT plants will need to be installed, which at the level envisaged would take decades. Any such timescale must be judged against that for the depletion of conventional crude oil. Of those approaches considered here for the production of liquid fuels, the use of genetically engineered cyanobacteria looks the most promising, but even so, meeting the global demand for them seems to be a bridge too far. Producing millions of electric cars is just not a practical proposition, and the only realistic means to move people around in number using electrical power is with light railway and tram systems. The notion of personalised transport will be relegated to history by massive fuel prices, and an absence of any cheaper “car ownership” option. Our global civilization is underpinned almost entirely by crude oil – as refined into liquid fuels for transporting people and consumer goods around nations; for growing and distributing food; for mining coal, shale and all kinds of minerals, including metallic ores and rock phosphate for agriculture; and as a raw feedstock for the chemical industry, to make pharmaceuticals and to support healthcare. If our stalwart “black gold” is set to abandon us over the next few decades, and it is not possible on that same timescale to produce alternative liquid fuels – “the supply side” – we can only address the problem from the demand side.

This means a substantial curbing of transportation and a relocalisation of society, to become more locally sufficient, e.g. in food production, at the community level.
Such are the aims of the “Transition Town” movement. It is likely that energy production will become increasingly decentralized, and done at the smaller scale, to power such communities. Fuel too, e.g. for local agriculture, might be produced from algae at least on a regional scale, as integrated with water treatment schemes to conserve the resource of phosphate, and to avert algal blooms. Methods of regenerative agriculture, including permaculture, provide means to food production that demand far less in their input of fuels, fertilizers and pesticides, and actually rebuild the carbon content of soil. It is thought that 40% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions might be sequestered in soil using no-till practices. Solar energy may also be harvested usefully and directly in the form of heat (rather than converting it to a fuel), at greater efficiency than through PV, using concentrating solar thermal power plants, roof-based water heating systems, solar cookers, solar stills and water sterilization units, and homes especially designed to absorb and retain thermal energy. Though the foreseeable transition to a lower energy and more localised way of life is unequivocally daunting, we should maintain hope and embrace the inevitable change with enthusiasm rather than fall to fear and unrest.

“We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.” – Charles Kingsley (1819 – 1875)

14 comments:

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Alex P. said...

I don't know if this thread is still open...but have you ever looked at Fischer-Tropsch biomass to liquids with electricity, hydrogen and heat externally fed (from a clean source, say, thermal solar, geothermal or nuclear thorium breeder).
For example see this paper :
http://www.wcce8.org/doc/090803_CH_Technico_economy_of_ScBtL.pdf

With the highest efficient version in terms of biomass consumption (not necessarily the best/preferred),for example processes 18) and 19) yielding more than 700 liter of diesel fuel per tonn of dry biomass, we need about 10,8 electric kWh (mostly to externally produce hydrogen by electrolisys to avoid carbon biomass wasting WGS reactions) and 1,2 kWh of high temp heat (at a temp of > 500 °C to achieve reasonable conversion to syngas ? Any guess about that ?) per liter equivalent of gasoline/diesel fuel final product.

That means to produce about 80 milions bpd equivalent we need : 5,5-6 billions ton/year of dry biomass and 5500-6000 GWe and 600-650 GW thermal. It' s a very high but not impossible at all to achieve I think, particurally if we can easily foresee we 'd need only a tiny fraction of that

Unknown said...

Chris,

Something to think about is deep Earth hydrogen.

==================
The Kola borehole penetrated about a third of the way through the Baltic continental crust, estimated to be around 35 kilometres (22 mi) deep, reaching rocks of Archaean age (greater than 2.5 billion years old) at the bottom.[7] The project has been a site of extensive geophysical studies. The stated areas of study were the deep structure of the Baltic Shield; seismic discontinuities and the thermal regime in the Earth's crust; the physical and chemical composition of the deep crust and the transition from upper to lower crust; lithospheric geophysics; and to create and develop technologies for deep geophysical study.

To scientists, one of the more fascinating findings to emerge from this well is that the change in seismic velocities was not found at a boundary marking Harold Jeffreys's hypothetical transition from granite to basalt; it was at the bottom of a layer of metamorphic rock that extended from about 5 to 10 kilometers beneath the surface. The rock there had been thoroughly fractured and was saturated with water, which was surprising. This water, unlike surface water, must have come from deep-crust minerals and had been unable to reach the surface because of a layer of impermeable rock.[8]

Another unexpected discovery was the large quantity of hydrogen gas, with the mud flowing out of the hole described as "boiling" with hydrogen.[9]

Cheers,

Ken S/V Trim

Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Kev,

I am aware of the Kola borehole, which is about 12 km deep. I also know there is thought to be large amounts of water deep in the earth, and I once talked to a Russian geologist who said that water was formed by processes in the deep earth. This of course is similar to the Russian/Ukranian theory of the origins of petroleum, that it is formed by chemical reactions deep within the earth.

I also understand that prevailing theory is that those vast quantities of water are in association with minerals rather than being underground "lakes", i.e. free water.

The truth is that no one knows for sure exactly what is down there because there are no direct measurements - few boreholes at real depth, and even Kola just scrapes the skin of the earth - but I wonder where that hydrogen comes from?

One can only speculate, but I think your point is whether it might be used as an energy source? I think it would be very hard to "tap" it and so it;s a bit like the vast quantities of methane hydrate that some think could be a valuable source of fuel in the future. But, actually mining the stuff is not really feasible with prevailing technology.

I find the H2 aspect most fascinating in respect of the kind of processes that might be going on deep within the earth. Reactions of metal hydrides perhaps? Who knows?

Regards,

Chris

Chris Rhodes said...

Sorry, Ken - not Kev!

Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Alex,

certainly this looks like a very useful technology, and getting 700 l of fuel/tonne of biomass is a very high yield.

I agree wholeheartedly that if we can foresee a future where our liquid fuel requirements are much lower than they are presently, this kind of approach could contribute to the energy mix.

There is the usual question, of course, about how long it would take to install such plants on the grand scale against the predicted loss of conventional crude oil, reckoned at around 3-4%/year.

In response to those ?, making and compressing 1 kg of H2 takes around 60 kWh of electricity. 500 oC looks reasonable. How much power it would take to maintain that depends on the construction of the reactor.

I think your figures are about right overall, but we do come back to the engineering challenge, to build sufficient plants across the world in time to meet the amount you are suggesting, against that -4% loss of oil backdrop.

I'm thinking out loud here. What is needed is an Energy Descent Plan, where energy use and that particularly means oil, is deliberately reduced, but at the same time, alternative liquid fuel production methods - at a level to meet that reduced demand - are implemented.

All of this would take significant planning and will to change.

Regards,

Chris

Unknown said...

Chris,

Interestingly, it seems that drilling technology has come a long way in the last decade.

Since 2003, six of the world's 10 record-setting extended reach drilling wells have been drilled at the fields of the Sakhalin project, using the Yastreb rig. It has set multiple industry records for depth, rate of penetration and directional drilling.

On 28 January 2011, the world's longest borehole was drilled at the Odoptu field, with a measured total depth of 12,345 meters (40,502 ft) and a horizontal displacement of 11,475 meters (37,648 ft), in 60 days!

So, if vast amounts of hydrogen freed from water via some kind of steam shift dissociation under extreme pressure and temperature is taking place, it would certainly change the persective of future energy sources.

I spent most of my professional life working on fuel cells and hydrogen related energy storage/transportation technology and know that the solution is there if the hydrogen can be obtained in a cost affective way. Dozens of vehicles were built by GM, MB, Toyota and others which demonstrated the ability to safely store and use hydrogen onboard to achieve 400+ miles range on a single fill.

Even so, my money is on Ethanol from sugar cane when the oil runs out and we find we haven't done anything to improve the cost and reliability of fule cells and hydrogen storage.

However, seeing that new oil fields are being discovered at 12km depth, the argument for abiotic oil starts to look plausible.


Cheers,

Ken S/V Trim

Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Ken,

that is absolutely phenomenal. I know there are considerable challenges for ultra-deep drilling, as the temperature increases to the point where the drill-bit no longer works.

I think there may be various different sources of oil, and I wonder what quality of it is obtained at depth? i.e. is it light or heavy, probably quite low in sulphur too, if it has an abiotic origin.

That said, I have talked to Western geologists who are adamant that crude oil originates from cooking dead, not dinosaurs but plants and simple forms of life such as algae and zooplankton that had died in source rocks millions fo years ago, and which were maintained within the right window of temperature and pressure for petroleum to form.

Of course, even if there are vast amounts of oil down there, it is the rate at which it can be extracted that sets the limit to whether the decline in conventional petroleum might be offset by it.

There are problems with getting enough platinum to implement a generation of hydrogen cars at a significant rate to replace oil-fuelled cars. New technology might find a way round some of this, but we are left with an expected shortfall in production of oil against demand for it by 10 million barrels a day by 2015 (US Army report) and 64 mbd by 2030 (IEA), so we would need to get cracking with any alternatives.

My feeling is that we have probably left it too late, and so energy descent is going to be a key feature of the future world energy picture.

Regards,

Chris

Alex P. said...

Thanks Chris.

Yes, 500 °C heat and even that 60 kWh per kg of He doesn't seem too unfeasible at least for a worldwide fleet of nuclear MSR thorium breeders, if and when they will work - or other options like thermal solar if satisfactorily scaled up

By the way, don't you think that methanol (and if necessary DME for diesel, gas turbine and home cooking) rather than ethanol is a smarter way to produce liquids fuels from biomass ?
At least for 3 reason : it needs much less hydrogen (thus energy, indeed) to be produced; its production is much more selective (more than 99% is only MeOH vs a range of different liquids different from diesel fuel in FT synthesis); the yields are definitely higher, even more than 500-700 liters per tonn of biomass but without any external heat and hydrogen to fed (though methanol has half LHW that gasoline/diesel fuel); methanol can be used both in slightly modified infrastructures and gasoline engines with very high efficiency (even if FT liquids are simpler to use than that, pratically with no need of any change at all). Finally, in the next future, methanol is the easiest liquid fuel can be used in fuel cells

Unknown said...

Chris,

The more I research this subject, the more I feel that we (the human race) are going to get caught with our pants down. This is especially true after seeing how poorly the world dealt with the financial collapse of the banking system. Everyone knew what was happening, but nobody did anything till it was too late. I knew 3 years in advance that something was stupendously wrong when my girlfriend at the time was writing home loans for $1M or more to people making much less than myself. It seems humans are unable to react as a group to anything until the train has wrecked and the bodies are there for everyone to see.

Assuming things are as they appear to be, the world is in for a rude awakening. I read this on Countercurrents.org and at first thought it was an extreme view, but later realized the analogy reasonably logical when considering human history as a basis for the future.
___________________________________

“The problem of the loss of petroleum will, of course, be received in the same manner as most other large-scale disasters: widespread denial, followed by a rather catatonic apathy. The centuries will pass, and a day will come when, like the early Anglo-Saxons, people will look around at the scattered stones and regard them as “the work of giants.”

When thinking about survival in a world without oil, we must remember that the near future will differ from the distant future. To get an overview of the all the coming phases, we must consider that history in general (not only the history of oil) will form a sort of bell curve: the events after about the year 2000 will form a downward curve that somewhat reflects the curve of events leading up to that same year. That bell curve will not be perfectly symmetrical, of course: the decline in modern civilization is likely to be fairly swift.”

Cheers,

Ken

Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Ken,

I fear you may well be right. I give talks on the subject in general and find myself trying to out in some kine of "optimism", as it's beginning to depress me somewhat!

But the only "solution" I can come up with is "localisation", and what we might produce, food particularly, but also sustainable jobs, at the grass-roots level.

The first oil-shocks happened forty years ago, and if humanity had acted in a sustained and combined fashion to find a way without oil, we would be in a stringer position now.

Maybe we just don't have enough time and will need to implement emergency measures - e.g. marshal law - as the show begins to unravel.

Cheers,

Chris

Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Alex,

methanol isn't the nicest of materials because it's pretty toxic - causes blindness if anyone is silly enough to drink it, but that's a separate issue!

It has a lower energy density than ethanol or hydrocarbon fuels, but if burned in a suitable engine more tank-to wheels miles can be got than from standard petrol/spark ignition engines.

So, overall, as a liquid fuel, I think methanol may have much to recommend it. As you say, methanol can be used in fuel cells, although there is the issue of how quickly platinum can be recovered to make fuel cells (e.g. the PEM type) fast enough to begin replacing the more than one billion vehicles now on the world's roads.

Regards,

Chris

Anonymous said...

Re-localization and power-down (whether voluntary or not) are both temporary stop-gap measures amounting to a blip on historical (ntm geological or evolutionary) time scales. The only true 'solution' is for "misery monkeys" to learn and come into balance, harmony, synergy with the (remaining) and increasingly chaotic biosphere. This means (requires) massive reduction in both biped population and in per capita consumption of everything. Have a 'nice' Die-Off. Extinction beckons and is forever.

Chris Rhodes said...

I fear you may be right about the die-off. I have seen one analysis that indicates that the world population will peak at around 7.3 billion in 2024 and then decline to about a third of that by then end of this century!

Regards,

Chris