Wednesday, January 31, 2007

U.S. may need to Import Corn.

Such is the expanding nature of the corn ethanol industry in the U.S., that the nation could switch from being the world's biggest exporter to corn to a net importer. In the meantime, however, U.S. farmers look set to make a killing on the world markets where corn has reached its highest price for a decade. If the U.S. did stop exporting corn, it would have a drastic impact on the global corn industry... and on world food supplies. This is a good example of how, in the global economy, no commodity can be considered in isolation. Why is there so much interest in corn-ethanol now, in a country which formerly could claim to be the world's greatest exporter of oil? The short answer is "foreign oil-imports". The U.S. is now absolutely dependent on imported oil, having passed its own national "Peak Oil" in the early 1970's. Conflict in the Middle East, and threats of further actions from either side mean that supplies of oil might become increasingly insecure. Additional pressure on what is often overlooked as a finite resource must increase from burgeoning demand from the Far East, and the West must come head-to-head in the near future with developing countries like China and India for this same resource. Indeed, it was announced this morning that the Anglo-Dutch company Corus (formerly British Steel) is accepting a £4.3 billion ($8.1 billion) takeover offer from its Indian rival Tata Steel. Hence, there is a growing desire to develop "home-based" energy sources, and corn-ethanol is popular in the U.S. as a potential "secure" fuel for the future, even though the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) remains the subject of considerable controversy. As I have pointed out before in these articles, ultimately growing fuel must come into direct conflict with growing food, and having reached the half-way point of "world "Peak Oil", we could see "Peak Food" if conventional agriculture were to become compromised by the commandeering of corn crops for ethanol production. Not that the two matters are disconnected, since most of the corn is grown using oil-fuelled farming methods including the chemical fertilisers used to force-up yields of corn and all other crops in the first place. It is all very complicated and I question whether in reality corn-ethanol will solve the problem of fuel supply, ultimately.
Most analysts do not see an immediate dramatic switch from exporter to importer, but among his other "green" proposals, President Bush has called for the U.S. to be using 35 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2017, and it is hard to see how such a massive target will be borne by the industry, without curtailing its exports. This amounts to a five-fold increase in ethanol use, and indeed even Bush admits that the constraint on the final production level is how much corn the American farmers can actually grow. Current law requires that 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuels (mostly ethanol) be used by 2012 (the end of the Mayan Calender?), which is somewhat above the 2006 production figure of around 5 billion gallons.
Producing 35 billion gallons of ethanol from corn alone would absorb the entire present U.S. corn crop at current production yields - about 11 billion bushels - which would appear to put the kibosh on the whole scheme. If ethanol is burned in suitably adapted engines, a par weight for weight (roughly) with its equivalent of oil-based fuel can be drawn. Hence, 35 billion gallons is equal to around one billion barrels of oil. Now the U.S. gets through about one quarter of the world's produced oil (30 billion barrels), or 7.5 billion barrels annually. So, even if it did use its entire crop of corn to fuel cars, trucks and planes rather than people, it could still only meet around 13% of demand. I concede that this figure could be increased by suitable hybrid engines, based on fuel cells but these have yet to be developed, and the real existing oil reserve is already running down by the second. Thus current demand cannot be met according to any sensible analysis of the facts. Even using also not fully developed technology which employs enzymes to break down the (woody) cullulosic material in plants e.g. from switch grass and corn husks into ethanol, and diverting a realistically possible proportion 20% of the corn crop, the U.S. might meet a total 5% of its current fuel demand from corn. The loss of 20% of America's corn crop would definitely hit the capacity of the world market and probably countries such as Argentina and Brazil would meet some of that resulting shortfall.
The conclusions are clear enough, however, that along with all other Western countries, transportation must be cut in the U.S. to meet the needs of a more locally based economy, which reduces total fuel demand probably by around 90%. In this way, a mix of electricity (supplied from all sources including nuclear from thorium) could sustain tram-systems for moderately-sized urban conurbations and electrically-based (fully or hybrid) vehicles for essential use. An increased exploitation of coal could also place more fuels on the shores of the U.S. (and within all countries) made by liquefaction processes, but that would need to be done paying due regard to its environmental impact. Nor is it realistic that China and India can attain a Western standard of living that even the West can no longer bear. Every one of these analyses points away from globalisation and its associated extensive transportation, especially in moving goods around the world. Local production avoids this entirely. Localisation must happen either through default or design, and default is the hard option I would prefer to avoid.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Peak Oil within 12 Months... but that's good, isn't it?!

A conference held in Cardiff with the title "One Planet Agriculture" is underpinned by the theme that global supplies of oil will begin to ebb within 12 months. I have sensed murmurs about "fuel rationing", and optimistic reassurances that when this happened during and post WWII it did not cause the collapse of society. However, that was an entirely different society from the one that is now hosted on these shores. Hopefully there remains sufficient integratedness and national identity to hold it together now. Indeed, some hardship may forge cooperation within the necessarily localised communities that will pocket themselves when casual free-range transportation is no longer an option. Transportation itself must be the first mechanism to be hit by a restricted availability of fuel. This however, does not only mean that we can probably forget about jetting-off on cheap foreign holidays, and commuting from say Cardiff to London to get to work, but also the carriage of all goods including food, within that mighty mechanism of Globalisation. We will need to produce locally, and perhaps as happened in Cuba when more recently than WWII the Russians cut-off the liberal supplies of fuel and fertilisers that were their reward for being that sensitive outpost of Communism, a new society will flourish in small regional pockets, supplied by local farms. It is a point worth stressing too, that the black-gold on which the modern world has become enplaced is not only used to be refined into fuel, but it is also a necessary chemical feedstock for industry, and everything now depends on imported oil either as a fuel or a raw-material for manufacture, or both of these things. I would not be typing these words, were it not for the petroleum-based plastics industry that has somewhere churned-out this, yet another of the millions of keyboards upon which billions of hands mark out their daily diary of a lifestyle that has become customary in that part of the world. Whatever happens, we must maintain the internet and the world communications network, rather than humanity disappearing into packets of isolated darkness hidden from one another's view. But nonetheless, humans themselves will largely stay put and act on a largely locally focused level.
The Cardiff conference was organised by the Soil Association, who think that while the agriculture of the 20th century was driven by government-run, centralised systems of farming and food distribution, in the 21st century (and probably for ever more) its basis will be localisation. So that means we are now in the last days of Globalisation. No one can say precisely when Peal Oil will hit, but all serious estimates are than it will happen sometime before 2010 - i.e. within about 3 years, and so that "within 12 months" projection doesn't look so wild. The world will not find itself without oil overnight, but its costs will soar as the sweeping tail of oil reserves is steadily extracted. It is estimated that by 2021, we will have just half of the current oil reserves left; however, that oil is as I have explained before, more difficult to extract and to refine - it is a heavier, dirtier oil that needs more intensive processing. But long before then we will have been forced to change how we live.
Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association put it thus: "in hindsight, the fossil fuel era will be described as a sort of extravaganza where we lived beyond our means, treating capital as income and squandered all this energy." Well said, and indeed the rapid growth (mathematically close to exponential) in the world population can be plotted on the same function as used to describe oil extraction. The global family has worn and eaten oil, since it is used to run modern agriculture, along with producing the forcing artificial chemical fertilisers that have resulted in the depletion of soil in most of the world, such that much of its organic (humic) component is gone and it is ever closer to being a mere lifeless solid support. Farming will have to become "organic" because there will be no choice. It is often portrayed that we are "bad people" for our profligacy, and lack of foresight that resources are finite and mutable. However, we are just the same as any species, even bacteria. When bacteria are placed in an environment of plenty, e.g. on a Petri Dish, to grow, their rate of growth follows an "S-shaped curve". There is an initial slow rise, until a critical population of bacteria exists, and then a very rapid population explosion, until finally the food runs out, the population levels off and then they start eating each other. It is not a nice comparison when placed into human terms, and yet we are beginning to see wars over that particular precious resource of oil. So, maybe we are not so different from bacteria, but we should be. Greed only came about on a mass scale when there was sufficient plenty for acquisitiveness to reach planetary proportions - and that, our present consumer society, is entirely based on oil.
We are poised on the fulcrum of Peak Oil - the balance point between plenty and dearth. Only by adopting a programmed transition to lower energy "localisation" can life become sustainable. It may even become more worthwhile, restoring the sense of connectedness that seems to have been lost in the soulless material void of "more". That is not wealth at all. Spiritual and human values might begin their own rise in a new phase of consciousness. However, the practicalities are that it will take perhaps 10 years to augment a fully alternative structure of localisation, and so we must begin today, while there is still sufficient oil left to make it happen. In five years it may be too late.

Friday, January 26, 2007

No Sense to a Hydrogen Economy.

This is the conclusion of Ulf Bossel in a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the IEEE (2006, Vol. 94, page 1826). Bossel is with the European Cell Forum, based in Switzerland, and has spoken out previously and convincingly on the topic of "hydrogen", pointing out the energy and economic deficiencies of the putative "hydrogen economy". As he stresses, the establishment of a sustainable energy future is one of the most pressing tasks for mankind. As fossil fuel resources begin to run-out, he predicts that the energy economy will change from a chemical to an electrical base. However, to make this transition is not simply an act of political will, but the underlying science to do so must be sound, and be based on proven technology and existing engineering experience - not pie in the sky proposals! The process (the ride down the rough side of the failing oil production Peak) will take many years and of course it must start as soon as possible, while we still have existing resources in reasonable plenty to utilise in the fabrication of new technology. A secure sustainable energy future cannot be based on hype and activism, but has to be built on solid established foundations of known science and engineering. Bossel (as usual) makes a quantitative analysis of what is involved and concludes that only 20%-25% of the source energy needed to synthesized hydrogen from natural compounds (e.g. methane from natural gas) can be ultimately recovered by efficient fuel cells. This is not good. In my posting on Monday "Hydrogen for Oil?", I settled for a figure of around 35%, which appears rather optimistic in the light of Bossel's analysis. It might appear then, that anywhere up to a doubling of the number of wind turbines and nuclear power stations that I reckoned (32,000 2 MW turbines or 21 Sizewell B type 1.2 GW nuclear power plants) would be needed to make enough hydrogen to supplant the amount of fuel currently used to run the nation's road transport fleet. As an energy carrier, hydrogen cannot compete with electricity (electrons). To quote Bossel: "As the fundamental laws of physics cannot be chanced by research, politics or investments, a hydrogen economy will never make sense."

Along with all the problems of storing hydrogen, which needs high pressures and cryogenic cooling, even if it is adsorbed in porous materials like zeolites (none of which have met the storage capacity criteria demanded for them; last posting here "Hydrogen Storage in Zeolites"), and the fact that it makes some metals brittle over time and hence leaky (NOT good for an explosive gas), it might be better to store the electrons in "batteries" to get a better overall efficiency of 50% than 20-25% for hydrogen, when we could get away with around 20,000 2 MW or 8,000 5 MW turbines. That same job could be done using another 13 nuclear power plants, to be built on top of the 30 or so that will already be needed by 2025, to replace the current generation of them.

If we were to localise our society and cut transport by 90% we would be down to just 10% of this, needing only 2000 2 MW or 800 5 MW turbines. There would be no planes though, and if we want to keep them flying some other means must be found to do so.

Using energy in the form of electrons means that the existing electricity distribution infrastructure could be adapted, rather than introducing a wholesale entirely new hydrogen storage and distribution network on a gargantuan scale.

Neither biofuels nor biohydrogen can meet the huge present demand for transportation fuels either, and would vastly exceed all available arable land for food production even to provide 10% of what is currently used to run cars and road transport in general. However, along with electricity, biofuels could satisfy much of the energy needs of localised economies.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Hydrogen Storage in Zeolites.

The following section is taken from an article I am writing for Annual Reports C: Physical Chemistry, and published by the Royal Society of Chemistry. I can give the actual references if anyone wants them. My conclusion is the future doesn't look good for the putative Hydrogen Economy", given the difficulties encountered in storing the gas. I don't see any realistic use of H2 on the large scale, as I explain.

In an effort to address the twin-problems of dependence of nations upon imported hydrocarbon fuel and forcing climate change through global warming induced by emissions of CO2 from burning fossil fuels, hydrogen is being investigated as a clean, carbon-free fuel that could be made on a national (or regional) basis.4 However, hydrogen is not actually a "fuel" but an energy transfer (storage) medium. That is to say that hydrogen is not available in an aboriginal form as are oil, coal or gas, (which are known as "primary fuels"), but rather it must be "made" by some artificial means. Most of the hydrogen currently used in the world (mainly for chemical purposes, such as the wholesale manufacture of ammonia for fertilisers) is produced from natural gas by a process known as "steam reforming" sometimes with the use of a zeolite as a catalyst or to separate24 the carbon monoxide formed when the carbon is "extracted" from methane by its reaction with steam: CH4 + H2O → CO + 3H2, or to separate carbon dioxide when that CO is used to squeeze-out another molecule of H2 by adaptations of the "water-gas shift reaction": CO + H2O → CO2 + H2. Zeolites are also used more generally to remove CO2 from natural gas.24 Ideally, hydrogen should be "green", i.e. made by electrolysis of water using electricity produced from renewable sources, e.g. wind power, but it is arguable that those electrons would be more effectively used in forms of battery technology for driving vehicles and other electrical appliances. Nonetheless, efforts toward the putative hydrogen economy continue, and of greatest concern is the development of materials in which hydrogen might be effectively stored, including zeolites.4 A major advance has been made, which it is proposed may help address the vexed problem of storing hydrogen on the enormous scale which will be required if it is to be used to power vehicles to any significant extent. Researchers in Spain25 have found that a zeolite-Y partially exchanged with magnesium cations (Mg2+) has an unprecedented high adsorption enthalpy of -17.5 kJ/mol, which is close to the value of -15 kJ/mol recently proposed as optimum26 for a material that will efficiently both bind and release H2 according to the demand of its supply: i.e. the gas should neither be too strongly adsorbed otherwise it will not be released in a "fuelling station" situation, nor too weakly adsorbed otherwise the material is ineffective for storing it in the first place. The effect is attributed to the high polarising power (e/r) of Mg2+ cations. The effect of polarisation (see discussion in previous section) both induces an I.R. active vibration from adsorbed H2 and reduces the fundamental H-H stretching frequency from 4163 cm-1 measured by Raman spectroscopy in the gas phase for unperturbed molecules, in this case to 4056 cm-1. The value of -17.5 kJ/mol is significantly greater than those previously reported for the adsorption of H2 in alkali-metal cation exchanged zeolites,22,23,27 and is around 20x higher than the liquefaction enthalpy of H2 of -0.9 kJ/mol (at 20.45 K). Nonetheless, there does remain the issue of exactly how much hydrogen can be imbibed by a zeolite for practical purposes. For commercial applications, an acceptable energy density for a hydrogen storage tank is deemed to be that it can efficiently hold an amount of hydrogen equal to 6.5 wt.% of the weight of the tank and 62 kg H2/m3 in terms of volume.27,28 However, although investigations of hydrogen storage methods have been carried out for over 30 years, there has been no single method devolved which fulfils these demanding criteria. Some approaches meet the weight target, but occupy unsatisfactorily large volumes (e.g. tanks of compressed hydrogen gas) yet others achieve the volume target but not the weight ratio (e.g. metal hydride absorbents). To approach the matter from a theoretical perspective, a molecular mechanics study has been made of the thermodynamic limits on hydrogen storage in sodalite framework materials, built up from TO4 (where T = Al, Si, Ge, P) terahedra.30 It is concluded that cation-free sodalite structures could accommodate eight hydrogen molecules per cage as an optimum loading, at which point the density of the hydrogen is almost equal to that in liquid hydrogen, and the calculated densities of 65 kg H2/m3 can theoretically at least be achieved for most structures based on sodalite. For pure liquid hydrogen the figure is 70.8 kg H2/m3 which is the normal density of the liquid at a temperature of 20.28 K. However, to liquefy hydrogen costs around 30% of the energy that might be recovered from the material as a fuel.31 There is however a considerable discrepancy between the loading of sodalite found experimentally32, 0.26 and 0.4 wt.% for all-Si ( Si96O192) and AlP (Al48P48O192), and the calculated30 capacities of 4.8 and 5.2 wt.% respectively. However, the theoretical maximum capacities are based solely on energetic considerations, and do not address effects such as ions, water or other impurities that might act to block access to part of the internal volume of the sodalite crystals. There is also no influence of entropy included in the calculations which are in effect performed at zero Kelvin. In an extension of the theoretical work, adsorption isotherms of H2 in various sodalite materials were calculated using a grand canonical Monte Carlo method.33 It is concluded that at loading capacities of technical interest, 573 K and 100 bar, a storage capacity of around 0.1 wt.% might be achieved for each type of sodalite structure. However, the really technologically desirable capacities of above 4% are likely to only be met under conditions of extremely low temperature and/or extremely high pressure.33 The results make an interesting comparison with theoretically estimated maximal storage capacities for hydrogen in zeolitic materials. In effect, the adsorption can be thought of as a facilitated liquefaction, where the solid-gas interaction causes condensation at conditions of temperature and pressure that are more convenient than those required to form the bulk liquid. One such study34 was made which used the force-field method and performed its calculations within the Discover module of the Materials Studio 2.2 package of Accelerys Inc.35 The progressive filling with H2 of twelve purely siliceous models of common zeolite frameworks was simulated in order to determine the effect of framework properties including flexibility on the maximum adsorption capacity for hydrogen. It was deduced that the flexible non-pentasil zeolites (RHO, FAU, KFI, LTA and CHA)5 show the highest maximal capacities, in the range 2.65-2.86 wt.% of H2. The predicted adsorption capacities were found to correlate well with experimental results obtained at low temperatures (77K), but these materials are well below the 6.5 wt.% target value set for hydrogen storage in a practical device. The zeolite chabazite (CHA) has received particular attention in its context as a potential material for storing H2 since it was rated as having the largest capacity of any zeolite in this regard.31,36 For a H-exchanged (protonic) chabazite, H-SSZ-13 (Si/Al = 11.8), an absorption capacity of 1.28 wt.% was determined at 77K, slightly above that for zeolite-A at 1.24 wt.% and for H-CHA itself (Si/Al ratio = 2.1) at 1.10 wt.%.31 The hydrogen is described as "liquid hydrogen" in the zeolite, and it is shown that the available volume of a chabazite (H-SSZ-13) cage can contain seven hydrogen molecules at the density of liquid hydrogen. Actually in the zeolite, the results indicate that at 77K, 57 K above the boiling point of liquid hydrogen, about five hydrogen molecules are confined to each cage. This implies that conditions close to liquefaction are achieved when hydrogen is adsorbed into H-SSZ-13 zeolite at 77K, a result of sufficient importance that the paper was published in JACS.31 The point was investigated further by similarly measuring the volumetric uptake of H2 at 77K and a transmission I.R. measurement of H2 absorption at 15 K, in H-SSZ-13, (the isostructural silico-aluminophosphate material with the same Bronsted site density) H-SAPO-34, and H-CHA itself. It was found there is an improvement in H2 uptake when the acid strength of the Bronsted sites is increased (moving from H-SAPO-34 to H-SSZ-13), while conversely, increasing the density of Bronsted sites (moving from H-SSZ-13 to H-CHA) impacts negatively on the adsorption process. The latter result is quite counter-intuitive but an explanation is offered that the additional Bronsted sites are in mutual interaction via H-bonds inside the small cages of the chabazite framework and for most of them the energetic cost of displacing the adjacent OH ligand is higher than the adsorption enthalpy gained in forming the OH---H2 complex.36 The record set by H-SSZ-13 for a hydrogen storage capacity in a zeolite of 1.28 wt.%36 at 77K and one atmosphere pressure of H2 gas has been broken using low silica type-X zeolites (LSX, Si/Al = 1) fully exchanged with alkali-metal cations (Li+, Na+, K+).37 Hydrogen adsorption isotherms were determined separately at 77K and a pressure of <>2 and the cations follow the order Li+ > Na+ > K+, in order of the increasing cation radii: 0.068, 0.097, 0.133 nm, respectively. Li-LSX had an adsorption capacity of 1.5 wt.% at 77K and 1 atmosphere pressure, and a capacity of 0.6 wt.% at 298K and 10 MPa pressure, which places it among the highest of known sorbents. The possibility of enhancing the uptake of H2 by bridged hydrogen spillover was also investigated, for which a simple and effective method was found to construct carbon bridges between the dissociation catalyst and the zeolite to facilitate spillover of hydrogen atoms. By this means, the hydrogen storage capacity was enlarged to 1.6 wt.% (i.e. by a factor of 2.6) at 298K and 10 MPa pressure of hydrogen gas. This is by far the greatest hydrogen storage capacity achieved using a zeolite material at ambient temperature.37 A theoretical study was made of the hydrogen adsorption isotherms for a range of clathrasil frameworks. A clathrasil is a framework with Si6O6 as its largest ring aperture. The properties were calculated for twelve known clathrasils and seven hypothetical energetically stable versions. Under all conditions of temperature and pressure, high adsorption energies were predicted for small volume cages (<400a3) in consequence of the larger contact area between the cage wall and H2. Nonetheless, the H2 loading into the material is quite low because of the large internal surface-to-volume ratio which leaves little void space for the H2 molecules to occupy. It is concluded that clathrasils are unlikely to become of any use in practical hydrogen storage applications.38 An experimental study has been reported of the physisorption of H2 into zeolite types A, X and ZSM-5 under moderately high pressures of 2-5 MPa. The highest storage capacity found was 2.55 wt.% for Na-Y zeolite at 77K and 4 MPa pressure. In CaA, NaX and ZSM-5 zeolites, the hydrogen uptake was found to be proportional to the specific surface area of the adsorbent, and which were associated with the available void volumes of the zeolites.39

In conclusion, the prospect of using zeolites for practical hydrogen storage appears limited. More promising appear to be certain zeolite-templated porous carbons, and for one example a hydrogen uptake of 4.5 wt.% and 45 g/L weight and volumetric densities, respectively, were reported at 77K and 20 atmospheres (2 MPa) pressure.40 Still greater capacities for H2 are reported for porous coordination-framework materials giving uptakes of up to 6 wt.%, at 78K and pressures less than 20 atm., which are therefore likely to receive further attention as potential candidates for practical hydrogen storage systems.41 I conclude this section by noting one paper42 entitled "Hydrogen Storage: The major technological barrier to the development of hydrogen fuel cell cars", which provides a useful survey of the whole contentious business. I would also recommend the wikipedia entry on hydrogen storage.43 However hydrogen might be used, either as a pure substance or as adsorbed into zeolites or other porous materials, the energy costs of cryogenic cooling and compression must be born and factored into the energy balance equation for the hydrogen economy All such efforts to find a substitute for hydrocarbon fuels have brought home exactly how ideal the latter are as fuels, both in terms of energy density and their handling properties, and finding a substitute for them will be a hard act if it can be done at all.4

Monday, January 22, 2007

Hydrogen for Oil?

I posted an article "A Hydrogen Economy - Is it Economic?" in January 2006, and concluded that we would need 180,000 2 MW wind turbines or 61 new Sizewell B capacity nuclear reactors to produce sufficient hydrogen to replace all the oil-based fuel used annually in the U.K. What I did not do was to factor in inefficiencies in the use of oil, and so I now revisit the concept bearing this in mind, and arrive at far more encouraging (though still daunting) numbers than these. It is a popular misconception that hydrogen is a fuel. It is not. It is an energy carrier. This means that hydrogen cannot simply be pulled out of the ground like gas, oil or coal, but it must be manufactured in some way. Most of the hydrogen produced in the world (used mainly for making chemical fertilisers for agriculture) is made by "steam reforming" natural gas, which is principally methane, according to the equation:

CH4 + H2O --> CO + 3H2. An "extra" portion of hydrogen can be squeezed-out of the system, by an adaptation of the water gas shift reaction: CO + H2O --> CO2 + H2, and so the overall process may be represented as:

CH4 + 2 H2O --> CO2 + 4H2.

The production of CO2 is naturally undesirable since it is a greenhouse gas, and so ideally a "green" source of hydrogen is wanted, e.g. electrolysing water using electricity generated using a renewable source like wind-power. Now, my question is, how feasible is this in terms of the generating capacity required to produce enough electricity to meet the scale necessary? Currently, we burn the equivalent of 57 million tonnes of oil each year to run the U.K. national fleet of vehicles, including planes (which consume around a quarter of that total, or 13 million tonnes). This leaves 44 million tonnes for road transport.
Fuel used in conventional internal combustion engines is burned very inefficiently, such that around just 16% of its total energy is recovered in tank-to wheel miles. Gas-Hybrid vehicles are far more efficient, and e.g. the Prius is reckoned at 37% tank to wheel. hence we could cut that total oil-bill down to (16%/37%) x 44 = 19 million tonnes of oil. Aviation is a separate issue, and the present calculation refers to road vehicles, because hydrogen-powered planes are very much a concept for the future, if ever).
Even if H2 could be provided on a large scale it can't be used with 100% efficiency either, and I shall assume an efficiency of 70% for the water electrolysis step, and 50% efficiency for an on-board fuel-cell, so that is the tank to wheel efficiency. This gives 70% x 50% = 35 % overall, in converting the electrons to road miles via hydrogen as the energy carrier. It is arguable that this is very inefficient to convert one form of energy carrier to another (electrons to hydrogen) and it is, but it is thought easier to store hydrogen than electrons, until better "battery technology" is developed. However that 35% is close enough to the 37% efficiency estimated for a gas-hybrid "Prius" vehicle that I shall compare oil with H2 on a one for one basis, using the 19 million tonne oil figure that would be required rather than the 44 million tonnes that we currently pour into our gas-guzzling internal combustion engines.

1 tonne of oil = 42 GJ of energy, and 1 kWh = 3.6 MJ. Therefore, 1 tonne of oil = 42 GJ/3.6 MJ = 11,667 kWh.
So, 19 million tonnes of oil = 19 x 10*6 x 11,667 = 2.22 x 10*11 kWh.
Now that's per year = 8760 hours, and hence the generating capacity = 2.22 x 10*11/8760 = 25,342 MW.

Let's look at two ways to generate this electricity: (1) nuclear and (2) wind power.

(1) Sizewell B has an electricity generating capacity of 1188 MW (the thermal capacity is nearer 3,600 MW, and so that inefficiency of converting heat to electrons has already been factored in). Hence we need 25,342 MW/1188 MW = 21 new reactors of this capacity to make the hydrogen to run our road fleet... and this is on top of the 30 or so new nuclear reactors that are needed by 2025 to replace the current nuclear generation which should be decommissioned... or mothballed by then.

(2) Wind turbines will need to be located offshore, in order to use the larger 2MW version with their 80 m long blade which is unpopular on land, for reasons of noise and spoiling the view. More practically, a greater capacity factor is obtained in offshore locations of around 0.4 as opposed to 0.2 for land based sites. i.e. each "2 MW" turbine would give an average of 0.4 x 2 = 0.8 MW. Hence we would need 25,342/0.8 = 31,678 of them, which is down considerably from my original estimate of 180,000, but is still a hell of a lot.
Now, the question remains of where would they go, precisely? I am making a very rough estimate, that the U.K. mainland can be approximated by an oblong 600 miles in length and 200 miles in breadth, giving a coastline of 600 + 200 + 600 + 200 = 1600 miles = 2560 km.
If we put them 0.5 km apart (which is the recommended separation) we could fit 2 x 2560 = 5120 in a single band. So, we need the actual band to be 31,678/5120 = 6(.19) turbines deep, and if they are 0.5 km apart, the band is around 3 km thick.

If the turbines were of 5 MW capacity not 2 MW (there are prototypes of this size) we'd need just 31,678/(5 MW/2 MW) = 12,671 of them /5120 = 2.5 deep, on average, and so the "band" would then need to be of 2-3 turbines on average and would present a thickness of about 1 km or so.

Along with all the problems of storing hydrogen, which needs high pressures and cryogenic cooling, even if it is adsorbed in porous materials like zeolites, and the fact that it make metal brittle and hence leaky (NOT good for an explosive gas), it might be better to store the electrons in "batteries" to get a better overall efficiency of 50% (70% of 70%) than 35% (70% of 50%) for hydrogen, when we could get away with around 20,000 2 MW or 8,000 5 MW turbines.

If we were to localise our society and cut transport by 90% we would be down to just 10% of this, needing only 2000 2 MW or 800 5 MW turbines. There would be no planes though, and if we want to keep them flying some other means must be found to do so.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Nuclear Waste - Less Forgettable than was Thought!

Consensus of opinion has been that high level nuclear waste can be encased in a suitable "inert" material and then buried underground for long enough that the radioactive elements decay to a harmless level - i.e hundreds to thousands of years. However, new measurements show that "inert" materials are changed by the radiation, potentially into forms that are less effective in locking-in radioactive elements such as plutonium over the long time periods required. Ian Farnan at the University of Cambridge has shown that one promising material - called zircon (zirconium silicate); also used for making synthetic gemstones - might be transformed from a hard, crystalline synthetic rock into a far less robust glass after just 1,400 years. Since many radioactive nuclei have half-lives much longer than this, and will persist in emitting radiation at dangerous levels for perhaps a quarter of a million years, this is not good news. Plutonium-239, for example, has a half life of 24,000 years (meaning that after 24,000 years, half the radioactivity will have decayed), and 10 half lives is the rule of thumb at which point the radioactivity has decayed to about 1/1000 th of its original intensity, i.e. 240,000 years (or near enough a quarter of a million years) so that the waste is fairly "harmless". I use that word advisedly, but meaning that by then the waste would be classified as "low-level" and less demanding in terms of the stringency that must be met to secure public protection from it.
Zircon, or any other material used to encapsulate nuclear waste, must hold the radioactive elements almost like a kind of scar-tissue, and prevent them from finding their way into the environment, e.g. into ground water. However, it is well known that radiation cases damage to most materials, modifying them chemically. Radioactive elements such as plutonium (also referred to as actinides, which are inescapable products of nuclear fission) emit alpha-particles when one of their atomic nuclei decays. Different kinds of radiation results in different types and levels of damage through a mechanism known as "linear energy transfer, LET": for example, a fast electron or a gamma-ray photon deposits its energy relatively slowly as it traverses a medium, and leaves a long radiation track behind it. I imagine such an entity as being something like a rifle bullet, whereas an alpha-particle is more like a cannon-ball and travels over a shorter distance but delivers most of its energy in one big punch, literally knocking hundreds of atoms out of its way. Further and worse damage is then caused by the fact that the nucleus that has "fired" the alpha-particle is knocked-backward, like the recoil of a cannon, and being much heavier travels a shorter distance but can knock thousands of atoms out of its way as it does so.
The effect is to destroy the initial stable crystalline arrangement of atoms in the tough zircon structure, and to turn them into an amorphous glassy material, which swells and becomes a less effective barrier with the environment. It is found that samples of zircon that have been damaged by radiation will dissolve in water hundreds of times faster than the original material, and so in the real situation of a nuclear waste depository, if the store should become wet the contamination could leak-out, with unforeseen but likely undesirable consequences.
Most previous evaluations of the effects of radiation on ceramics such as zircon, intended for use to encase nuclear waste, have been made mostly using calculations and computer models (rather like the vexed issue of climate change). These new conclusions arise from direct measurements made by Farnan at Cambridge using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), which are similar to MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans of the human body, to look for tumours and other conditions. The word "nuclear" was deliberately kept out of an acronym for the latter type of procedure as lay persons are understandably nervous about what that might mean in practical terms - perhaps thinking that it involves their being placed inside an atomic pile. Hence MRI is a euphemism for NMR. However, NMR is able to measure the relative proportions of crystalline and glassy regions in the zircon therefore allowing the influence of radiation in driving the phase transition to the glassy state to be seen directly. Other materials are known which may funnel-off the storms of radiation over long periods, but it is clear that not enough is known about the longer run durability of ceramic materials for storing high level nuclear waste (over the effectively geological periods necessary to run-down its radioactivity to safe levels), to conclude that the technology is in fact safe. Clearly, the issue of nuclear waste disposal is far from resolved, although the subject is often presented as if it no longer poses any real problem. At the dawn of the promised second nuclear age, apparently as part of the war against climate change, it remains a sobering matter for concern.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Doomsday Clock Hands Move Toward Holocaust.

The Doomsday Clock is a clock-face not a clock, and has measured the symbolic proximity of the world to nuclear holocaust for 60 years. Today, scientists will move its hands forward to show we are facing the gravest nuclear threat for at least 20 years. The original is displayed on a wall at the University of Chicago where it has been since 1947 when its hands were set to seven minutes to midnight - midnight being the witching hour when the world is plunged into the midst of a global atomic war. It was devised by the Chicago-based Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, at the dawn of the nuclear age. It is in Chicago that Enrico Fermi and his team discovered the process of controlled thermo-nuclear fission, the principle upon which nuclear power and nuclear weapons too are based. The hands of the clock have been moved to mark out various points of the nuclear age, and now are set to be moved to less than seven minutes to twelve, where they have stayed since 2002. This is not unprecedented, and for example during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, they stood at just a few minutes away from Armageddon. It seems consensus of thought by those who know is that the world is once again in danger from its own actions, and more precariously than at any point since the tricky moments of the cold war in the early 1980's.
This afternoon, at 2.30 p.m., simultaneous events will be made in London and in Washington from seven minutes to some unspecified number of minutes closer to midnight.
The time was advanced five years ago in 2002, as a consequence of the aftermath of 9/11 and dissipating global arms treaties which marked a worrying mark-up in world political friction and instability. Now, at the beginning of 2007, the world map is stained more deeply on both counts, but also, in actions to be taken under the banner of "Global Warming", we are at the dawn of a renewed phase of nuclear proliferation, nominally in a effort to derive "carbon-free" nuclear power. Exactly how carbon-free nuclear is really is subject of discussion and controversy but probably over its working lifetime a nuclear power station will produce a mere 20-40% of the CO2 that an e.g. gas or coal fired plant would. That aside, the undoubted sideline to nuclear will be more material available for nuclear weapons, and most dangerously in the hands of those without prior access to it. The putative WMD's which were never found in Iraq, to the great shame of the Western powers, could become a reality, and in hands not particularly sympathetic to the West. Since any new nuclear plan will be based upon uranium/plutonium as its fuel, there will be plenty around for fabrication into at least dirty-bombs if not outright nuclear bombs, capable of devastating the centre of a large city e.g. the size of London. This would be a good moment to consider Thorium as an alternative nuclear fuel, since it is less readily fabricated into WMD's although as with any radioactive material, the dirty bomb threat persists.
Iran appears set on enriching uranium for its own nuclear programme, to the annoyance of the U.S., who have issued threats of sanctions and more veiled but darker threats. In the first case, dependent as the West is on Iranian Oil, could it seriously implement trade-blockades that would result in a fall in precious oil supplies from Iran? Of course not, unless some more devious plan were to be introduced to keep that reserve on hold, as has happened apparently to the Iraqi oil. Iran is taking the prospect of military action against them sufficiently seriously to buy-in weaponry from Russia with which to shoot down planes intent on potential bombing raids there, and the Russians have said they will sell more ground to air missiles to the Iranians if they want them. Israel have alluded to missile attacks against Iran whom it sees as a threat to their own security, on a rivalled stage to the WWII Holocaust, should the latter secure nuclear power.
North Korea too, has tweaked the nose of the Bush administration, by its own nuclear missile test last year, although I do wonder if that one rocket was it - do they have another one left to fire at anybody? However, since North Korea are on that straight line axis of evil, famously phrased by George Bush, along with Iran, the entire matter has been stirred-up and the U.S. are flexing their muscles in that general direction. Since North Korea is close to Japan, and especially close to South Korea, these nations may well begin to seek "protection" from it by securing nuclear defenses of their own. Then there is the nuclear arsenal of politically unstable and Muslim Pakistan, where Islamic extremists have already made several attempts to eliminate its President Pervez Mucharraf. With the ongoing war and fragmentation of Iraq (which lies on that axis too), the whole Christian-Muslim world may fall into opposing ranks.
The greatest perceived threat is that al-Qa'ida or some similar organisation might manage to get hold of an existing nuclear device or make one of their own, and use it in a catastrophic 9/11 follow-up attack on New York. This is not impossible since there are large amounts of missing nuclear material originating from Russia, much of it dating from the Soviet era. There are also a large number of skilled Russian nuclear scientists who, unable to find a decent standard of living for themselves and their families in Russia, are prepared to sell their skills to a more generous employer. There is no longer the MAD security that once prevailed - Mutually Assured Destruction - the security that if either the Russians or the Americans launched a nuclear missile at the other, the response would be that both sides and most of the world would be rendered a nuclear fricassee!
On the reckoning of the Doomsday Clock, the planet stood closest to nuclear destruction in 1953 when the Russians and the U.S. tested Hydrogen Bombs within months of each other, and the hands were placed at just two minutes to midnight. Therefrom, its face has traced the ebb and flow of the nuclear age, reaching its safest moment in 1991, at 17 minutes to twelve, when the U.S. and disintegrating U.S.S.R. signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), and in that year it seemed as though the world's superpowers could act in concert under the auspices of the United Nations, to drive Saddam Hussain's armies from Kuwait. Global warming will be the great excuse to instigate and pursue the new golden age of nuclear power, from which the proliferation of nuclear materials will strain the fabric of world peace. Once there were 5 nuclear powers, now there are nine, making the whole scenario less controllable. It is no surprise that the hands are moving nearer midnight, but I wonder how close are we to come to it exactly? Are we still minutes off or now counting in seconds?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Poison-Gas Cloud hits U.K. - 30,000 People Killed!

O.K., it happened two hundred and twenty four years ago, but the point is it could happen again. A new piece of research has shown how a cloud of toxic gas emitted from the Laki volcano in Iceland killed 30,000 Britons 600 miles away, in 1783. According to Dr John Grattan from the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, "people died in such numbers because the volcanic cloud exacerbated their respiratory illnesses". The toxic cocktail appears to have been a combination of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and fine dust particles, and from problems of an associated hot climate. It is well known now that fine particles smaller than 2.5 microns (for comparison, the thickness of a human hair is about 70 microns) can trigger a spate of hospital admissions from heart attacks and lung complaints, caused by unexpectedly high levels of smog. These tiny particles are too small to be filtered-out in the higher respiratory tract and hence penetrate into the deep lung. Some of the smaller of them can cross the blood-tissue barrier, and through incompletely understood mechanisms cause the release of cytokines (molecules that instruct cells to communicate is particular ways, as part of their defense strategy) to combat them as foreign invaders. If airways are already inflamed the effect of SO2 is particularly deleterious, especially under hot humid conditions, as we saw in the record number of deaths across Europe in 2003, among the elderly and others suffering from respiratory and cardiovascular ailments.
Due to its location on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart), Iceland has the greatest number of fissure-volcanoes, which erupt when huge cracks, some up to 35 miles long, open up in the ground. Icelandic fissure volcanoes can erupt for long periods - up to five years at a stretch. The 1783 event was caused by the eruption of a 15 mile long fissure, and lasted for seven months. Unlike the kind of volcanoes that we are more familiar with, fissure volcanoes release their debris more slowly and so the gas and ash from them are not cast into the higher atmosphere, but instead tend to circulate lower down, resulting in severe air pollution over a wide region. According to historical records, the major fissure eruptions in Iceland occurred for half of the 930's decade and then in the years 960, 1227, 1340, 1341, 1477, 1724, 1783 and 1975. One is always tempted to look for a pattern in such data, perhaps falsely as the Earth and its geology are unpredictable to our short point of view, but it is not unthinkable that another similar event of comparable magnitude could happen any time. These islands are far more extensively and densely populated than was the case in the late eighteenth century and simple reckoning of population numbers might suggest that the death toll would be nearer 100,000 than 30,000, but the exact number would depend closely on the prevailing climatic conditions as to where the major plume was finally received.
The 1783 event was only the second largest, and the 10th-century eruption lasted from 934 - 939 A.D., but for which the human effects are largely unknown. However, the event of 1783 had a further impact on the lives of those then living through its effect to initially raise local temperatures and cause severe damage to vegetation including crops. However, after several months of continuous eruption, the levels of sulphur in the atmosphere had reacted chemically to produce high levels of particles "sulphate aerosol" (sulphuric acid and its compounds including ammonium sulphate) which screened solar radiation from reaching the surface, which cooled alarmingly by several degrees. Quite a double-whammy.
There will be a B.B.C. "Timewatch" broadcast about the incident this Friday, in which Dr Gratton estimates that in addition to the U.K. casualty figure of 30,000, another 200,000 died in France, in the low countries (Netherlands etc.) and in northern Italy, while Iceland itself lost around 25% of its population. Should another such eruption occur, there is very little we could do about it, since we could neither stem the event itself, nor put millions of those vulnerable on "oxygen" say. God forbid, but such events of Nature which to us appear catastrophic are mere flicks of her fingertip, reminders of the consummate power of the planet. We should never forget it is Earth who is in control not us: we simply live as one of many species on her surface, at her pleasure or displeasure, and humankind might eventually become extinct as have so many others.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Oil in Somalia.

The bombing of Somalia in the past few days has caused worldwide stir, outrage and theories of conspiracy as it emerges that the country has oil. It is no surprise, since Afghanistan and Iraq which are well-documented subjects of military action from the West are both holders of considerable oil reserves, that the thought arises: "here we go again" - namely, (go) "after the oil"? Are these battles fought in the broader war on terror, or part of a territorial onslaught for control of oil reserves; or is the link between these issues inextricable, so that neither can be considered in isolation of the other? I was unaware of the geological backdrop to this region until very recently, but it emerges that there have been a number of geological surveys carried out in the Somali Peninsula and more widely in the Horn of Africa, since the 1980's, which indicate that underlying there are substantial untapped reserves of oil. An estimated 15,000 Ethiopian soldiers invaded Mogadishu, the Somali capital, in late December last with the intention of securing a military defeat of the Islamic Courts Union I.C.U.), which had until then controlled major areas of southern Somalia. The U.S. government has made no secret of its support for the invasion under the banner of the "war against terrorism", dubbed by the Bush administration, and which began immediately following the 9/11 terror attacks. Both Afghanistan and Iraq were then invaded by means that are now widely accepted as being "illegal", and now the war appears to have pushed a phalanx into the Horn of Africa. These are areas of the world that collectively are home to millions of Muslims, and many will undoubtedly perceive these actions as a war against Islam, and efforts by the Christian West to subdue Islam both as a religion and as a resistance movement that dares to oppose the imperialist and colonial forces. Put plainly, there are enormously sensitive issues at stake here. Undoubtedly, it is those actually living there who will bear the brunt of various shows of power as this situation unfolds, and the potential impact of wholesale conflict in this region will be catastrophic for the peoples of Africa, including Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, who are now being drawn into the business of it. A United Nations resolution has been delivered-up by Britain and the U.S., who hold permanent positions on the Security Council, and is being used to justify sending a "peacekeeping force" to Somalia with the purpose of protecting the transitional government, supported by the U.S. (and the U.K. presumably?), from the I.C.U. forces.
It is, to put it mildly, an extremely tricky situation. Ethiopia and Somalia are two of the poorest nations of the world, and there have been a number of substantial shots of cash injected into them in the form of weapons and loans from The Pentagon, to the tune of $19 million in 2005, with another $10 million worth of weapons promised later this year. The region is one of considerable potential military significance, since ships from naval bases can control the flow of oil-tankers and other cargoes through the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden (where there was much conflict fought in the 1960's, involving the British). This is in addition to the fact that Africa is reckoned to hold around 95 billion barrels of crude oil, which is about 8% of the world's total. It is however salient to note that 95 billion barrels is just enough to run the world in terms of its oil consumption for about three years! Most of the profits from African oil, e.g. Nigeria do little to improve the lot of the indigenous populations, because the oil, wealth and profits are controlled externally by Western companies such as Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron Texaco.
It may be that the Horn of Africa will become an extension of oil production in the Middle East - a short hop across the Arabian Sea. Who, ultimately, will get their hands on that oil is another matter, and it is highly significant that China is making serious diplomatic efforts in Africa, much to the consternation of the U.S. It is inevitable that East and West will come head to head over oil, as the resource deepens in its scarcity, with a war-torn middle-ground of nations suffering instability and carnage, ruing the oil that has become their misfortune rather than a gift from God.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Oil of Progress - A Poem.

The Oil of Progress.

Barreling-on, fomenting the black rivers
that metered-in an age of gold,
the planet spins against a thousand suns,
drawn upon a fragile canopy of time and space.

Horses chew-on calmly in the pasture,
made redundant generations back.
These unemployed, reluctantly drawn out
for a wedding or village affair on the green.

We struck it rich! Upwellings in unheralded Texan fields
murmured in a European war... the first to come.
The new century rolled its eyes aloud
at Quantum Physics and tanks,
which generally broke down,
or sank in soiled mud around feet forever bound.

Depression came, blowing grains to swirl
dry and unsown in the dust bowls of wrath;
the razor-shards of oil plundered the land,
ploughing into the furrows of a second, greater war.

Reparations and expansion; populations grew.
Thirteen billion hands (working in pairs you understand)
of oil-fed fingers now abstract their attentions,
in blind faith, this cornucopia could never end,
each squeezing the Earth like a hollow stone.

Loosing the old ways and stuffy values...
now oil-fed bombs fall on the swollen lands
of its source; doodling about the jigsaw-map
and shading-in the missing pieces, state by state;
tweaking the beard of an older faith.

Buckling-up the belt of quirky geology around the Earth,
to secure the ring of fire into more democratic hands;
lacing Nature's midriff tighter and tighter,
until the final phantom sputters
a farewell flame and is blown-out,
like the last smoking candle on a birthday cake.

Give them a lump of sugar from your hand,
and a hearty slap on the flank - entice them, with whispers.
Call the horses back again, sooner, not later.
The oil-party clock struck twelve, while our backs were turned.

by Chris Rhodes.

Author's Comments:
"The world is running out of the cheap oil that has fuelled the modern age. Times are going to change. It's called "Peak Oil"."

Monday, January 08, 2007

Blood and the Spoils of Oil.

The recent execution of Saddam Hussain has placed a question mark over the whole matter of the Iraq war. Did the allies initiate the invasion in an attempt to topple a barbarous dictator, or to secure world peace by locating and confiscating the oft mentioned weapons of mass destruction, referred to so often that they are usually known by the nickname "WMD's"? Since Saddam is just one of a long list of Dictators, including Marcos, Ceaucescu and various African tyrants, in modern times, most who have been largely unmolested throughout their careers by the West, it has been suggested that the real reason for removing him from power is intimately connected with Iraq's considerable reserves of oil. No WMD's were ever found, and so the credibility of that particular reason evaporated some while ago, and indeed the claim subsequently that the whole military effort to find them was based on false intelligence would, in any civilian case, ensure grounds for compensation from the aggressors toward those whose lives had been taken or irreparably marred by their actions.
Not that it has been a one way street. Records appear scant as to the number of Iraqi's killed during the conflict since its inception four years ago, a situation that is obfuscated by the emergence of a near civil war, with a growing daily toll of dead irrespective of military action by the coalition armies of the West. The number of U.S. soldiers killed amounts past the 3,000 mark and George Bush now places his bets on swelling the force of troops in Iraq by another 30,000. It now appears that the newly elected Iraqi government is about to pass a law which confers to Western oil companies rights to develop and exploit the country's oil reserves, which are thought to be the third largest in the world. Not surprisingly, the U.S. government has been closely involved in phrasing the legal niceties, and the law as it appears in draft, would allow 30 year contracts to major oil companies such as B.P., Shell andExxonMobil to extract Iraqi crude oil and mean the first large-scale action by foreign interests in the country since its oil industry was nationalised in 1972. Not surprisingly, this outcome is tantamount to handing a banner to those who are further compelled in their conviction that it was "all about oil".
I make no comment here, but it is a fact that the major holdings of oil lie under the sands of the Middle East, and demand for oil worldwide is one of inexorable thirst. In 1999, the U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney, is quoted as saying that the world would need an additional 50 million barrels of oil a day by 2010. When asked where that oil was going to come from, Cheney answered: "The Middle East, with two thirds of the world's oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies." It is interesting that just four years later the "second" Iraq war found itself underway, with the smoking rubble from 9/11 still in the sight of memory. Oil industry experts and analysts say that the new law, which allows Western companies to take up to three-quarters of the profits of oil exploitation in the early years, is the only way to get Iraq's oil industry back up and running after so many years of loss of war(s), sanctions and an exodus of trained technicans and engineers from the region.
Whatever the intentions, it seems that war was the most convenient means to hold Iraq and its oil in reserve as a potential "swing-producer", ripe for harvesting when world market forces so dictated. Even if Cheney is right about world demand for oil, I don't understand the logic involved, since his 1999 prediction implies a world that uses 120 million barrels of oil a day in 2010. Since this amounts to nearly 44 billion barrels a year, taken from a (known) resource of one trillion (one thousand billion) barrels altogether, even assuming we could extract the whole lot leaves only 22 years worth. Hence, although it took 150 years to get through the first trillion barrels of crude oil, here we are now, some say at the peak of oil production, looking at a network of pipelines that will have dripped dry by 2029 - and then what?

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Carbon in the Sky.

The figures for carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuel and the corresponding atmospheric levels of CO2 suggest that the Earth is absorbing 40% of what is emitted, leaving the 60% remainder to accumulate in the atmosphere. It might be concluded therefore that a reduction in CO2 emissions worldwide to 40% of their current levels would result in a steady-state situation, at the current "concentration" of 381 parts per million (p.p.m.). I now show how I have arrived at this potentially reassuring conclusion, and begin by a recapitulation of a few essential points about the nature of the Earth's atmosphere. The air pressure is the atmospheric force per unit area, and assuming a purely spherical planet, may be written as:

P = M x g/4 x pi x r*2.

Here, p is the pressure in Pascals (Newtons per square metre; N/m*2), M is the atmospheric mass in kilograms, g is the acceleration due to gravity at the planet's surface, and r is the radius of the planet in metres. If we rearrange this formula, the atmospheric mass M may be obtained:

M = p x 4 x pi x r*2/g = 101325 N/m*2 x 4 x pi x (6378 x 1000)*2 m*2/9.78 m/s*2
= 5.296 x 10*18 kg.
(The units cancel if it is recalled that 1 Newton N = 1 kg x m/s*2; hence, dividing by g in m/s*2 leaves just kg).

A similar value may be obtained from noting that the atmospheric force is equal to the "weight" of a column of mercury (Hg, from the Latin word for mercury, hydrargyrum) 760 millimetres in height. Since the density of Hg is 13.6 grams/cubic centimetre, a 760 mm column of Hg, covering an area of one square metre would have a mass of:

76 cm x 100 x 100 x 13.6 = 10,336,000 g = 10,336 kg.
Thus, the mass of air pressing on each square metre of the Earth's surface is 10.3 tonnes! Multiplying by the Earth's surface gives an atmospheric mass of 10,336 x (6378 x 1000)*2
= 5.28 x 10*18 kg. The agreement with the above figure is exact for a column ("pressure") of 762 mm.

However, let's reasonably define the atmospheric mass as 5.3 x 10*18 kg.

Current levels of carbon dioxide stand at 381 ppm. This is erroneously referred to as a "concentration", when it is really a "mixing ratio", i.e. meaning that 381 molecules out of every million molecules of air are CO2. A mean mass for air molecules can be obtained assuming that 78% is nitrogen, 21% is oxygen and the rest (assumed a molecular mass of 40) is argon plus CO2. Hence, this is: (.78 x 28) + (.21 x 32) + (0.01 x 40) = 28.96. The molecular masses of N2, O2, Ar and CO2 are 28, 32, 40 and 44 respectively.

The 381 ppm is in terms of volume but on a mass basis, this becomes (44/28.96) x 381 = 579 ppm, meaning that 579/1,000,000 of the mass of air is from CO2.

Thus, the total mass of CO2 in the atmosphere is: 579 x 10*-6 x 5.3 x 10*18 = 3.07 x 10*15 kg
= 3.07 x 10*12 tonnes. (In terms of "carbon", this is (12/44) x 3.07 x 10*12 = 8.37 x 10*11 tonnes, or 1/3.7 the amount of CO2, about one quarter of it).

Hence, one p.p.m. (equivalent) of carbon = 8.37 x 10*11/381 = 2.20 x 10*9 tonnes. Figures from the Earth Policy Institute indicate that there were 224 x 10*9 tonnes of carbon emitted in the form of CO2 by burning fossil fuels between 1950 and 2001 (inclusive years), and so we might expect an increase in the atmospheric level of CO2 of 224 x 10*9/2.20 x 10*9 = 102 p.p.m.

However, the actual level increased by 60 p.p.m. from 311 p.p.m to 371 p.p.m. This shows that there are "removal mechanisms" operative, but that emissions are exceeding their capacity by around 150%. However, 40% of the emitted CO2 is being absorbed from the atmosphere, and so one might conclude that if we were to reduce world CO2 emissions to 40% of their present levels, the CO2 would remain static at the present 381 p.p.m.
The absorptive capability appears to be functioning at the same level since 2001 too. In the past 5 years, there has been an average of 7 billion tonnes of carbon emitted annually, making a total of 35 billion tonnes. Dividing by 2.20 billion tonnes gives an expected increase of 16 p.p.m.; however, the actual increase is by 10 p.p.m. from the 2001 level. Thus, 6 p.p.m. has been taken up, making 6/16 x 100 = 38% (40% near enough) as the absorptive capacity of the planet for CO2, which is the same as the mean level estimated from the 1950 to 2001 data.

The figures for carbon emissions (that's not CO2 in the atmosphere, which has risen inexorably, but the amount of fossil fuel burned reckoned in terms of its carbon) show two striking "blips" - falls to lower values - first at around the early 1980's, when there was a switch certainly in Europe and the U.K. (we didn't belong to the European EC/Union then) from coal to natural gas, and the latter produces less CO2 per unit of heat, and then in the early 1990's following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, with less manufacture and operative social infrastructure meaning less fuel being burned.

Since we are burning 7 billion tonnes of carbon per year, this amounts to 7/2.2 = 3.18 p.p.m. of carbon (as CO2) being added to the atmosphere annually. If 40% of that continues to be absorbed (presuming the world does not cut its CO2 emissions to the 40% level that my calculations indicate would keep the level constant at the present 381 p.p.m.), that leaves an increase of 1.91 p.p.m. per year. Thus, by 2050 (44 years), we might predict that the level would have climbed to 381 + 44 x 1.91 = 465 p.p.m., and by the end of the century (2100) it would be 561 p.p.m.

There are, however, a number of variables that might potentially be tuned during this period. For a start, peak oil and peak gas will probably kick-in and so the annual emissions of carbon (CO2) over the world will fall. Also, there may well be an urging of growth of plants, forests and ocean phytoplankton by increased CO2 in the atmosphere, which will increase the size of the 40% sink for CO2. The current clearing of rainforest mainly for slash-and-burn farming, will reduce the Earth's lung-capacity, but by how much it is hard to say. It is thought that the oceans' "lawns" of phytoplankton are responsible for around 50% of photosynthesis on the planet, leaving half of the remaining land-based photosynthesis being done by rainforests. Thus, we might conclude that a quarter of the Earth's CO2 "sink" capacity rests there, or 10% of the amount presently emitted is absorbed by forests. I doubt that all of them will ever be cleared, but we could add another 30 p.p.m. to the total if they were to be, which doesn't change the total much. If the phytoplankton were to be killed-off by higher sea temperatures, then we would really be in trouble, but since we need photosynthesis not just to absorb CO2 but to produce oxygen to breathe, it would be the least of our worries!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Peak Oil gets a Dress Rehearsal.

In the firm belief that Peak Oil is imminent, a group called Seattle Peak Oil Awareness are preparing for a world from which cheap oil has gone. The scenario is frightening, and in the worst case could mean a die-off in human populations, since many of the world's 6.5 billion people are fed from crops grown using fertilizers made from gas and oil, and oil derived fuel is used in most methods of modern agriculture, including organic farming. The group do not predict an instant Mad Max play-out of post-apocalyptic proportions, but something closer to a sequence of recessions falling one after another like being dealt several bad hands at cards. For example, one member has bought a house near the new light railway line, which he thinks will still operate, and has installed solar panels on the roof. So it is a low-energy future, sometimes called a "power-down", that is being envisaged, rather than the wholesale collapse of civilization.
There is, it must be agreed, some difference in opinion, generally between optimistic industry "experts" on one side, and the early-toppers, who think that the peak in oil production will happen any time now. For instance, the oil consulting firm Cambridge Energy Research Associates, who are based in Cambridge Massachusetts, conclude that it will be another 30 years before world oil production peaks, and that even when it does, the supply will follow an "undulating plateau" before declining. John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute, is quoted as saying: "The oil reserves continue to build up". But is that true? My understanding is that there are about one trillion (proven) barrels left in the ground. There may be more than that to be found and there is of course the possibility if making synthetic oil from coal, extracting it from bitumen (in tar sands or oilsands), but it is the light crude oil that is at issue, since this is readily processed into fuel and chemical feedstocks for manufacturing processes, while all the other types of oil require more in terms of fuel and other economic costs to convert them into the kind of hydrocarbon material which fuels the modern world.
If we can rely on that one trillion barrels, then it will last (at present consumption of just over 30 billion barrels per year worldwide) for about 33 years. Since we have already used an equal amount of one trillion barrels, we ought to be at the half-way point of "Peak Oil", now. Any projections of the date beyond the present tacitly implies there is more oil available to be extracted in order to meet a demand which is not static but growing, to the extent that in 20 years it is predicted that China will use as much oil as the United States, thus bringing these two powerful nations head-to-head in competition to get their share of it. Where is it going to come from though? It seems to me that unless some new resource and a working technology with a decent EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) is found to put it on-stream (and quickly), the peak-oil believers in Seattle and elsewhere in the world must be right, and world oil production will begin to decline soon and irrevocably.
Even if more oil can be got, it will inevitably cost more money to produce, meaning that everything that depends on oil (and that really is everything) will become inexorably more expensive. Hence, it will be economic means that drives cars off the roads and goods off the shelves in stores everywhere, including supplies of food. Cuba is a good example of a country that has managed to survive and thrive when its abundant supplies of fuel were cut-off by Russia around the time that the Soviet Union collapsed. To do so, the Cubans have adopted a more localised, partly agrarian economy, and this seems to be working in their favour. This in my view, is the kind of social change that will follow and will indeed need to follow the decline in cheap oil, as their is no other means to survive, unless very rapidly, an equal trench of alternative technology, e.g. renewables and nuclear power, can be brought on line to replace the energy currently supplied by oil (and gas too, since the peak in world gas production is expected to follow peak oil within a decade or so).
If we can do little about this whole unpleasant scenario altogether, as individuals, then what can we do to try to cushion the ride for ourselves and our families. Holing-up in a bunker somewhere with plenty of tinned food and live ammunition doesn't sound much fun to me, and it would only provide a very limited bubble of security, rather like the set of instructions supplied to survive a nuclear attack in a bomb-shelter built in your garden out of bricks and corrugated-iron sheeting. Also, it is unlikely that there will be an overnight crash of civilization. So, I would suggest the following: live as near as possible to your source of work/income, thus reducing dependence on oil-fuelled transport as far as possible; pay off any mortgages and debts, since in times of economic uncertainty, chips can be called in, for example if there were a collapse in the housing market, or the money-lenders (banks etc.) needed their money back quickly. In all probability, businesses based around the "service sector" might fail if people suddenly had less spare cash in their pockets - and that is a very big sector, certainly in the U.K., now we have lost much of our former manufacturing greatness. In all likelihood, a host of local jobs would appear, but in fairly basic "industries" such as farming, and in the provision of raw materials centred around renewable resources like wood and water.
However, the effective collapse of industrialised cities, for example London, with populations of millions (about 10 million live in London, depending on where you draw the borders) would pose a tremendous problem in terms of relocating so many people into smaller communities.
In any event, we should prepare for change, both as individuals and as nations, for the present scourge on the planet's energy resources is untenable and we should expect a process of power-down to occur during the next few decades as we settle-out on a less energy-voracious manner of living.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Nigeria Mourns Oil Victims.

Nigeria has suffered a spate of explosions at oil-pipelines, resulting in the deaths of more than 2000 people in separate incidents. In an explosion at a suburb in Lagos, the cause was determined to be that people had been scooping-up oil which poured from a puncture-hole made by thieves to get at the oil, rather the way people are known to tap-off gas supplies with hosepipes, often with similarly calamitous consequences. At the Lagos site, it took the emergency services many hours to extinguish the flames from burning oil, with the result that many of the victims' bodies were so severely burnt, they could not be identified. Despite its position as the main African oil and gas producer, Nigerian people frequently suffer shortages of fuel, a matter which is attributed to corruption, bad management and problems with the basic supply infrastructure.
The country's leader, President Obasanjo blamed this particular tragedy on vandals deliberately damaging the pipeline, and is reported as saying that he was sad that such acts of vandalism continued in spite of his warnings that it was not only illegal but a dangerous pursuit. United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, said the UN was prepared to provide immediate assistance, and also to help assess gaps in disaster response in Nigeria. He further called for "a review of the country's fuel supply management, as well as a thorough regional review of risks that could lead to environmental or technological disasters in West Africa". Arguably this is not entirely intended in the mode of altruism but to secure precious supplies of exportable fuel for the U.S.
The post-mortem to the Lagos incident concluded that thieves penetrated a pipeline passing through the Abule Egba area of Lagos intending to syphon-off substantial quantities of fuel - clearly with no foresight as to the consequences. Once word had got around, hundreds of people descended on the scene carrying jerry cans and plastic buckets, and then a massive explosion shook the neighbourhood. According to the Nigerian Red Cross, at least 260 were killed with dozens more injured in the blast. Some of those casualties are thought to have gone into hiding to avoid arrest, while others, lacking money for hospital treatment, have gone without medical attention too.
A Lagos journalist, Adeyinka Adewunmi, was present to witness the aftermath of the explosion. "The pipelines are in a popular neighbourhood, very close to the express road, which I normally use for my journey to work," he said. "I could see fire, state ambulances, Red Cross ambulances, firefighters and government officials. There were scores of dead bodies on the ground and injured people being carried into ambulances."

The list of pipeline disasters in Nigeria reads:
2006: 400 killed in Lagos.
2004: 80 killed in Lagos.
2003: 105 killed in Abia State.
2000: 350 killed in Warri and Abia State.
1998: at least 1000 killed in Jesse.

In is a case of desperate measures, as the gulf between those who have become wealthy from oil and gas resources widens from the rest, on the margins of that society; or of the broadening gap between those that have ample access to fuel and those that don't. I percieve it as a microcosm of the people of the World struggling for oil, and in this regard these events signify a desperation beyond comprehension from my Western viewpoint (as yet).