Monday, February 26, 2007

North Sea Oil and Gas Output Down by 10%.

It is anticipated that production of both oil and gas from the reserves under the North Sea will be down by about 10% from previous estimates according to a new survey of the U.K. energy industry. This means that the U.K.'s "security of supply" is further compromised, making us even more dependent on imported oil and gas, and this will hit the Chancellor of the Exchequer's budget, along I suppose with the cost of diverting military might from Iraq to Afghanistan. Someone will have to pay for it, and I imagine that will be the punter and the taxpayer - most of us being both. Indeed, I expect that the real indicator of peak oil (and peak gas too) will be rising prices, signifying the decline of resources. There is apparently a surge of interest (mostly from small companies) wishing to explore the North Sea, in consequence of the increasing cost of its bounty, but of course this merely means that more people will make a quick buck if they are successful, while depleting the resource even faster. There is only so much oil and gas down there: enhanced production only shortens the term of our reliance upon these fuels. As I noted in my immediately previous posting, the U.K. now produces half its electricity using coal, which has been substituted for gas now the price has gone up. It is ironic that in the early 1980's, Britain switched much of its coal-fired power stations over to gas, due to the cheaper nature of the latter; now it appears that coal will be the better buy and so we will use more of it once again. I read the other day that "U.K. Coal" is set to import considerable quantities of coal from Australia, which has enormous reserves. I remember too that the U.K. abandoned its production of "town gas" in the early 1970's, and all cookers and other such appliances were converted to "North Sea Gas", being principally methane with a higher calorific value, when this new supply was initially tapped. My father worked for the South Eastern Gas Board at the time, among the many, many different occupations he had during his interesting working life, and I used to go around with him while he did the necessary engineering. Since he had left home by this stage, this was how I spent a number of school holidays in my early teens, when I went to stay with him. I also recall reading of a number of failed suicide attempts when it was not understood that natural gas is effectively non-toxic, compared to the "old" town-gas which, being rich in carbon monoxide, provided the ideal means for "doing oneself in" by turning the gas on and sticking your head in the gas-oven. Should society return to making town-gas from coal, as it very probably will, this option will return too!
The North Sea fields are a microcosm of the world situation, since although there is a decline in production, there remains an estimated equivalent of 16 -25 billion barrels worth of oil and gas left to be extracted (around 1% of the world's total), and so there will be plenty of oil and gas for many years to come, it is simply that we cannot continue to draw it from the Earth at current rates. Old wells are running dry and new wells are fairly small in their capacity. Last year the production of oil and gas was 2.9 million barrels per day, which is sharply down from 4.5 million barrels as a daily output in 1999. By 2010, it is expected to be down to 2.6 million barrels a day. The main reason for the fall in supply is described as "poor reservoir performance". Now this appears an ominous euphemism. It may mean that there is less oil and gas than was originally estimated (I was going to use the word "gauged" but of course there is no direct measurement and all quoted figures for reserve capacity are only estimates), or that the geology is such that the well is less permeable than it was thought to be, meaning that less of its capacity can actually be extracted, whatever it may total. Either way, the cost will soar, and since everything demands on oil or gas both for manufacturing and transport, including food, that means the price of everything will be hiked-up.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Coal back in the U.K.

As oil and gas run-out, what is there left? Coal or nuclear... and renewables at some level as yet undecided it would appear. Fossil fuels and uranium are in effect concentrated sources of energy, while all renewable resources have a diffuse nature and are hence difficult to concentrate into the huge levels of energy that we actually consume. Of the fossil fuels, it appears that coal may be once again in the ascent. Due mainly to the industrial strife that surrounds the history of British coal-mining, and the "Custer's Last Stand" strike of Arthur Scargill in the mid-1980's, after which Margaret Thatcher's government had many of the mines "sealed" with concrete, as a mark of delineation to that era, it is easy to think that the show has long been over for coal. This is not true in fact, and of the 62 million tonnes of coal we still burn annually in the U.K., around 20 million tonnes is mined within the U.K. - around 50:50 from near-surface and deep locations.
When I was a child living in South wales, there were nearly one million men employed in the coal-mines there; then coal-mining stopped completely, the only working mine I am aware of being "Big Pit", which has been preserved as a mining museum. Now, the mine at Cwmgwrach (said as: "Kumrak") has been reopened and is said to be set to begin production some time this year. This is a landmark moment for the coal industry since it represents the first opening of a deep mine for 30 years. There are just seven deep-mines working in the U.K. Demand for coal has risen in the U.K., and indeed, 50% of the nation's electricity is currently produced in coal-fired power stations, which almost double the 30% figure recorded in 2005, in consequence of colder weather conditions during the past two winters and soaring gas prices. Those prices probably can be taken as an indicator of resource availability and both gas and oil supplies from the North Sea have fallen significantly during recent years. It is argued by some that the oil-revenue so abundant during the early 1980's was squandered to pay the numbers of unemployed who resulted from the collapse of most of the hard manufacturing industry - in an apocalyptic show-down between the Thatcher government and the trade unions. Industry was the sacrificial lamb to destroy the power of the unions which had brought Britain to chaos and economic uncompetitiveness throughout the 1970's. Some will remember the "three day week" that Edward Heath put the nation's workforce on, in order to cope with the power shortages caused by a succession of miners' strikes; Margaret Thatcher was swept to power on a wave of malcontent, called the Winter of Discontent in 1978/79, when most of the unions had called strikes and rubbish was piling-up in the streets. The nation had had enough of "Labour" which by then had little to do with "Socialism".
There are estimated to be around 89 million tonnes of coal remaining at Cwmgwrach, and that an annual production of 1 million tonnes per year will result from 2008 onwards. The mine was closed in 1999 on grounds that it was no longer profitable to run it. The availability of cheap natural gas from the North Sea (and the crushing of the Miners' Union) rendered gas the cheaper option, but a combination of less available and more expensive gas and more efficient mining methods for coal have cast this "black" industry into a "greener" light. I must look into exactly what these methods are and how they differ from their former counterparts, but there is apparently less waste than there used to be and the energy than can be produced from coal is "very clean" - I presume that means that much of the noxious gases are scrubbed from the flue emissions, now.
A revamping of the mining industry wholesale, if that will occur, means the creation of many new jobs and the resurrection of many of the former "pit-villages" whose communities were destroyed by the collapse of coal mining. The U.K. government's plans to approve a new generation of nuclear reactors (said erroneously to be carbon-free, when they are not if the construction and uranium milling and processing is taken account of) were dealt an awkward blow last week by the High Court in London, who declared that the decision to approve them was illegal because of flaws in public consultations. I'm sure this will be sorted-out, and there will be more nuclear power, at least to replace the old reactors that need to be decommissioned by 2025. However, until this issue is resolved, and in any case since the level of investment in renewables is risible, and we have to burn something, I expect to see a near miraculous resurrection of the coal industry - and perhaps the attendant new "pit-villages" will prove to be the first of the new localised communities that will be engendered, post peak-oil.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

"Unconventional Oil" will Damage Environment.

There are some estimates that the world has 4.6 trillion barrels of oil left, which equates to about 150 years worth at current demand. However, this is misleading since 3.6 trillion barrels of that are "locked-up" in unconventional sources such as oil sands and will prove hugely expensive in terms of the energy required to extract it and damaging to the environment. Hence the conventional (real) oil is probably enough for 30 years (1 trillion barrels) , and that is if all of it can be winkled-out from the geology that contains it. According to a new report from Wood Mackenzie, who are a consultancy based in Edinburgh, within 15 years, any extra oil supply will come from highly energy demanding and polluting sources such as the oil sands of Canada and the Orinoco tar belt in Venezuela. The oil sands of Alberta do not contain oil as such, but bitumen which must be cracked into oil, and the same goes for the Orinoco reserve. The United States has very large deposits of oil-shale etc. and of course coal, believed to contain more carbon than the whole of the Middle East oil fields, but processing it into oil will return a very poor EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) and so it might not be worthwhile beyond the production of oil for niche applications - certainly not for running today's enormously inefficient fleet of cars in their presently vast and growing numbers. In addition to the demand from extractive energy and pollution, very large quantities of clean water are required for these processes, hence imposing pressure on another resource. It is sometimes said that "it takes energy to extract energy" but more literally producing one kind of resource always consumes another one (or more than one, e.g. gas and water).
To date, the development of only 8% of the 3.6 trillion barrel "reserve" of unconventional oil has started, for the simple reason that the world has relied on those far more readily available conventional resources of oil and gas we are familiar with. A mere 15% of those putative 3.6 trillion barrels are actually oil at all, even being of the heavy and extra-heavy kind that is far more intensive in its processing than the light crude that surges through the veins of the modern world, being relatively easily processed into gasoline and similar fuels. Wood Mackenzie were sanguine that some big fields will still be increasing their production by 2020, but this will not offset the decline of many (most?) of the others, and accordingly these sources of unconventional oil are the only way to prevent the world from running out of it altogether. Natural gas products such as liquids and condensate are also predicted to become important growth commodities but there is a limit to how much gas can be extracted from the Earth, with some estimates predicting that "peak gas" will happen just a decade or so after "peak oil" and clearly sooner if more of it is turned into synthetic crude.
Major oil companies, Royal Dutch Shell, Total (of Europe), ExxonMobil and Chevron (in the U.S.) have begun to invest substantially in Canada and Venezuela, while others (including Chinese energy groups) are evaluating the possibility of extracting heavy oil from Madagascar. In regard to gas, Devon Energy spent $2.2 billion in 2006 on expanding its already substantial holding in the Texas Barnett shale by acquiring Chief Oil and Gas. It is anticipated that the development of shale deposits of this kind will allow the U.S. to obtain 40% of its gas from unconventional sources by 2020.
Matthew Simmons, an industry backer who shook the oil world by questioning how much oil Saudi really has it its holdings and whether it can realistically continue to expand production to meet rising global demand, has metaphorically poured water on the truth of the massive "unconventional" reserve saying that "the ability to extract heavy oil in significant volumes is still non-existent. Worse, it takes vast quantities of scarce and valuable potable water and natural gas to turn unusable oil into heavy low-quality oil."
He concluded: "In a sense, this exercise is like turning gold into lead."

Monday, February 19, 2007

Will melting Arctic Ice mean More Oil and Gas Exploration?

Almost one quarter of the World's remaining oil and gas reserves are in the Arctic. Getting to them, and carrying the booty away from their frigid locations has typically posed numerous problems; however, the nature of the Arctic is changing. Drilling in the far North involves coping with extremely low temperatures, unpredictable ice-floes, some of the roughest seas on Earth, and the logistical challenges of transporting oil and gas from far-flung locations, often offshore at that, hence compounding the scale of the task. As the Arctic continues to warm, there will be less ice, especially during the summer months, when shipping-routes once rendered impassable, might become clear for significant durations of the year. New drilling sites might also become accessible. Although there is much speculation and uncertainty, those nations with land above the Arctic Circle, are in a scrum to secure rights to the lands of the Arctic, and to the shipping lanes through it.
It is difficult to find a single figure for how much oil and gas there is remaining that can be extracted from the Earth, and indeed exactly how near we are to exhausting this supply. Probably it will never be exhausted entirely, but as its production grows ever tighter the economics of the World will become strained. Geologists and economists give different answers, and those employed by oil companies seem to tend towards more optimistic values. The issue is sometimes further obfuscated by lumping all sources of oil together as though they were a single resource, which is highly misleading, as not all oil is so easy to obtain as we are used to from conventional oil wells. A useful quotient is the EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested), and if that falls below about 3, then the source may not be worth extracting. The value is now around 8 for the fields in the Middle East, whereas it was nearer 100 in the early days of oil exploration - "the "Gushers" that we now only see on worn film-footage. Probably the tar-sands and oil-shales in various parts of the world will be very hard won in terms of the amount of oil they can yield, but desperation will drive actions to this end, as the Middle East oil supplies become compromised either through geology or politics, including war. Such enthusiasm over the prospect of drilling in the Arctic may also reflect desperation, and a firm denial that the oil-wealthy world we have accepted as a status quo will change entirely, and soon. In my analyses here, I have assumed the best consensus figure I can find of one trillion barrels, or one thousand billion barrels of oil, which is enough for about 30 years if it can all be extracted, and that is highly debatable. I estimate that supplies will become seriously comprimised within ten years.
It is of course ironic, if the effect of global warming (which consensus of scientists says is due to human activities and their emission of CO2) is to melt-away the Arctic ice, so permitting further oil and gas to be had, and consequently more CO2 to end up in the sky, causing yet more warming. However, if we do not get at that extra quarter, we may be down to at best a supply of just over 20 years from other sources. I suspect that nowhere will be sacred and drilling will be done in nature reserves, and everywhere and anywhere there is oil or gas, no matter what the human risk or environmental costs of doing so.
Drilling in the Arctic, if it happens, will be at best a short-term measure, and will actually mean that at most another 30 p.p.m. of CO2 is added to the atmospheric load - not a big deal - certainly not compared to the eventuality of running out of oil which it can at best stave-off for a bare few more years.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Electricity from Coal... and Oil too!

The prospect if making crude oil synthetically appears increasingly attractive as the natural reserves of it become depleted. Synthetic crude oil is not of the same chemical composition as the material that is extracted from oil-wells, but it is essentially hydrocarbon in nature and can be turned into fuel for cars, planes and other methods of transport. It can also be processed into a useful feedstock for industry e.g. in the manufacture of plastics and synthetic fibres to underpin the commerce of the world and clothe its societies. Hydrocarbons can be produced from syngas, which is a mixture of carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2) formed from some carbon-rich source such as natural gas or coal, by reacting it with steam at elevated temperatures usually aided by the presence of a catalyst. Since natural gas production is predicted to peak in only a decade or so after oil, any attempt to build a hydrocarbon economy based on gas is likely to prove of only short-term benefit, and the obvious carbon source is coal, since there is sufficient to be had for hundreds of years. The technology is tested and proven too, since the company Sasol satisfies most of South Africa's oil demand by coal-liquefaction, as it has for many years. The coal is converted to CO + H2 and this is converted to hydrocarbons using the Fischer-Tropsch process. As a matter of fact, it was this technology that kept Hitler's invasion and military programme going throughout WWII, in the face of initial scepticism that Germany's war-effort would be short-lived because the country had insufficient natural fuel resources to keep it going, and supplies from the Middle East were cut-off by the Allied navies. I have seen various estimates of how much oil can be produced per tonne of coal, ranging from 0.2 to 0.33 tonnes of it. Put another way, to make a tonne of synthetic crude takes anywhere between 3 and 5 tonnes of coal. In the form of a fine powder, coal is also used to fire power stations to produce electricity, and about 30% of that in the U.K. is made from coal, a figure that has increased since the North Sea gas reserves began to decline significantly. There is still plenty of gas in the North sea, but our nation's demand for it has now outstripped what can be supplied from there, hence we are now importing more gas from Norway and from other regions of the world.
There is a technology that combines the production of electricity with oil synthesis from coal, which is called Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC). The difference between an IGCC plant and a conventional one is that instead of burning the coal powder in a furnace as normal coal-fired power plants do, the coal is converted into syngas and it is this that is burned in a turbine - hence it is another form of-gas-fired plant. There are many potential advantages to IGCC plants: for a start they are at least 10% more efficient in terms of their thermal energy (heat) output than are conventional plants, they use 40% less water (an important point as pressure on water increases, especially in countries like China), produce around half as much ash and solid waste, and are almost as clean as natural gas-fired plants in terms of their environmental emissions. Some of the gas can also be drawn-off e.g. to make synthetic fertilisers or synthetic oil, which is my interest here.
Right, let's look at some figures. There has been a study made of a similar technology by the U.S. DOE, which concluded the following statistics (I am grateful to McCrab for alerting me to this work, some few months back, but I am looking at it with renewed interest since my calculations of biofuels indicate them to be severely lacking as a substitute for conventional oil). This is for a single plant:

Coal consumed per day: 9,266 tons
Liquid hydrocarbons: 12,377 barrels per day
Electric power: 676 MW
Thermal Efficiency: 52.6%

So, nearly 53% of the coal's energy is being turned into something useful as opposed to just 33% extracted into electricity by a conventional coal-fired power plant. The electric power produced in this case study comes from the excess syngas which is burnt in an IGCC turbine at high efficiency, and so the same amount of coal can produce both electricity and liquid hydrocarbons. I shall try to do the math on this, but first of all we have the inevitable matter of "units" to consider. the U.S. ton (short ton) is not the same as the British (long) or the metric ton (tonne). As a scientist not a nationalist, I shall use the (metric) tonne, which is 1,000 kilograms. The U.S. ton is based on there being 100 pounds to the hundredweight, rather than 112 pounds as we assume over here. Hence 1 tonne = 1.1023 U.S. ton. (and about 0.98 British tons).

In 2005, 409 TWh of electricity were generated in the U.K. from all sources. This implies an average annual generating capacity of: 409 x 10*12 Wh/8760 h = 4.67 x 10*10 W. Hence, at a capacity of 676 MW, this could be met by 4.67 x 10*10/676 x 10*6 = 69 plants.

The coal consumed is 9,266 tons (8,406 tonnes) per day = 3,068,212 tonnes per year. And to run 69 plants = 3,068,212 x 69 = 212 million tonnes of coal per year.

Each plant yields 12,377 barrels per day of liquids x 365 = 4,517,605 barrels per year x 69 plants = 311,714,745/7.3 barrels per tonne = 42,700,650 tonnes per year.

We can compare this with the 73 million tonnes of oil used for everything, 57 million tonnes used for all transport and 44 million tonnes for road transportation annually in the U.K.

O.K., so if we made all our electricity from coal to gas to liquid processing, we have also met 55%, 75% and 97% respectively of the demand cited. These are meant merely as figures for thought, and I do not think it is feasible to introduce 69 new plants of this technology in short order. The road transport requirement could be cut to one third by using hybrid "Prius" vehicles, and so a mere 23 plants could provide that, and if we opened 2-3 of them per year we would be at capacity within a decade. We would of course need to dig the coal infrastructure to fuel them. Personally, I think that it is more important to use this "gasification" technology to provide feedstocks for industry and to make some fertilisers for agriculture. We are still going to need to provide food in as self-sustained a fashion as is possible. So, if we made half our electricity from coal, we could simultaneously provide 21 million tonnes of synthetic oil per year. 50% of our road transportation fuel equals 7.5 million tonnes of oil (if burned in hybrids) leaving 13 million tonnes of oil (or its CO + H2 equivalent) for industry and agriculture. However, there are many issues concerning pollution and CO2 emissions to be addressed if we are to take this path. If we installed 3-4 such plants per year beginning now, we would be able to meet this capacity within a decade, by when I predict that world oil will be in significantly restricted supply, and whence placing us in a relatively secure position in terms of energy based on an annual requirement of just over 100 million tonnes of coal.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

33 Million cars - a Flash in the Pan!

The Independent yesterday carried a front page banner that there are 33 million cars on the U.K. roads, which includes a rise of 7 million of them in ten years. This is indeed a staggering statistic since this fleet of road traffic presently gets through fuel to the equivalent of around 44 million tonnes of oil each year. The article also points out that 20% of our CO2 emissions are from traffic. That must be just from cars, since around 30% of the nation's entire energy budget is accounted for by the end-use of fuel (planes included), much of the rest of that "energy" coming from gas and coal. Conventional car-engines use fuel very inefficiently, deriving only around 14% of the fuel's intrinsic energy worth in terms of road miles. Burning gas or coal in power stations is done at around 35% efficiency, which is still woefully low, but better than is manged by cars etc. More efficient cars have been devised, e.g. the generation of "hybrids" which produce electricity from revolutions on the road, and use that to power the vehicle at low speeds "in town", a combination which gets 42% of the fuel energy back in the form of tank-to-wheel efficiency. Hence the transport-induced CO2 emissions could be cut by means of vehicles based on this kind of technology. Likewise, combined-cycle coal fired power stations can run at much greater efficiencies than conventional plants, and can additionally produce synthetic oil too.
Now, this gets me onto the salient point of this issue. We seem to be bombarded with information about growth in the developing world (e.g. China and India), how many cars there will be by the year 2050 and so on, based on projected estimates of a linear escalation of trends and numbers. However, to use my analogy about the growth of bacteria, the steeply rising portion of the S-shaped curve that describes this process mathematically only continues to rise while there is sufficient fuel (food) to support such proliferation. In the human case, the fuel is oil (used to run transport and to grow food). We are on the one hand presented with all kinds of projections "to 2050" (i.e. about 43 years hence) and yet there are only sufficient oil reserves claimed with confidence (i.e. about one trillion, or one thousand billion, barrels left) to last for about another 30 years, and that is if we could extract the whole lot, when it is not certain than we can. Oil wells cannot simply be drained to bottom, as extracting oil becomes increasingly difficult, energy intensive and expensive as the well reserve falls. The quality of the oil that is pumped-up falls too, and the material becomes steadily heavier and contaminated with sulphur and other compounds that it needs to be cleaned from before it can be refined into a useful fuel. It is generally agreed that we are close to the point of maximum oil production (production has fallen in Norway now, I notice, pulling that country down into fifth place among the giants of oil exporting nations) and so supply of conventional crude oil will fall inexorably from here on in.
Some of that inevitable shortfall can be offset by building coal-fired combined cycle power plants (which make both electricity and oil), and yet none have been installed as yet, certainly not in the U.K. There are various predictions made about biofuels, which my calculations here show to be unsatisfactory as a means of replacing the current massive volumes of fuel that we rely on, and at best we might produce about 10% and probably a lot less than that, unless we are willing to stop growing food. Of course that would be madness, as in an oil poor world all nations will need to be largely food-sufficient within their own borders. The hydrogen economy looks set to be a damp squib, since the scale of infrastructure and problems in storing and distributing the gas mainly render it unsuitable as a serious contender for an energy carrier (which it is - not a fuel per se).
Hence, 33 million cars on the road in the U.K. is the least of our worries. Than number will fall unequivocally as the means to fuel them runs out. Even if we can extract one third of the remaining one trillion barrel oil reserve at near present output, that is just 10 years worth, with demand breathing harder all the time, and hence the level of car use will fall dramatically within a decade. There may be more fuel made available from "unconventional" sources, but it will become increasingly costly. It must do. Logically too, society will accordingly begin to localise, and it is this eventuality we should be focussing our efforts and plans to meeting. The massive world population of cars is just a flash in the pan; we must try to ensure that the human population will not fail too... and die-off like bacteria!

Monday, February 12, 2007

The 10 Commandments... Guidelines for Humanity Post- Peak-Oil.

If they are not actually "commandments" they might as well be. The original set of 10 provided a simple set of rules for members of a small community to live in reasonable harmony with one another, and that is essentially the requirement for an oil-dependent society that has necessarily fragmented into smaller communities, once its supply of oil has been severely curtailed. At first sight this does seem like a prognosis of "doom and gloom", as indeed it will be if there is no sensible scale-down of oil-fuelled activities. Indeed, a "wall" of fuel dearth will suddenly appear, and we will drive straight into it; or really be abandoned by the wayside of the petrol-fuelled journey of globalisation. So, here are some suggestions (not rules or commandments, but logical consequences and prospects for the era that will follow down the oil-poor side of Hubbert's peak).

(1) The real problem is that our society is based around the car. This is particularly so in the U.S., where it is (or has become) necessary to travel over significantly greater distances than in the U.K., and in Europe generally. Fuel is cheap in the U.S., and if it were not the economy would grind to a halt. I have toured extensively in the U.S., giving lectures on environmental subjects, and indeed when I was scheduled to cover 10 venues in 14 days (on one trip) I needed to fly between almost all of them (except in Houston where I had two engagements in the same city), and was amazed at how much competition exists between airlines with the consequence that I could cover about 1,000 miles for around £30.00 ($55.00). The standard price would be probably four times that in the U.K., say from London to Edinburgh, which is less than 1,000 miles, but you gather my drift. As I have stressed before, in no way are cars part of the solution to the problem of sustainable living in the oil-poor era, which I predict we will see begin to emerge within about a decade from now. I have "done the math" in many of these postings, and it seems clear enough that the massive amounts of fuel that we currently use cannot be replaced gallon-for-gallon by biodiesel, biohydrogen, biobutanol or indeed plain old bioethanol - there just isn't enough arable land to grow the crop to make any of this stuff on a sufficient scale, certainly not if we want to keep growing food.

(2) That brings me onto the next vital issue - food production. All farming will necessarily become organic. At the outset, let me say that I realise that growing food organically (fertilized by plant mulch and animal manure, and without using chemical pesticides) requires more land than modern forced agriculture does. However, since the means to force it - chemical fertilizers and pesticides - are made from oil and natural gas, once these begin to deplete, then there will be no alternative. Some say that if Cuba could do it, as they did when the former U.S.S.R. curtailed their supplies of oil, fertilizer and pesticides, then so can we. This is good thinking, however, Cuban society is of the necessarily localised kind based around community farms supplying local small populations. So that's where we are heading.

(3) Many urban conurbations can only support a small number of their very large populations. A city the size of London is a good example, with around 10 million people depending on where you draw the borders, which would pose a considerable exercise in relocating most of that number since London itself has insufficient arable land for the purpose of sustaining so many.

(4) Transportation is, of course, a major issue, beyond the availability of the "car". Virtually all goods on shop shelves are imported - many from other countries, sometimes across the world, and certainly over considerable distances within these shores. Most of that will have to go, and local production will become the norm. Hence there will be an inevitable rise in local economies.

(5) This is a thorny matter, because it means that the accepted mechanisms of retail trade will need overhauling. Massive chain-retail industries, say McDonalds and many others, will have to to work on the local scale if they are to survive. Hence if we had a McDonalds in the village of Caversham, the burgers it sold would be made from locally farmed beef, not imported from Argentina, say. Everything will hence become more expensive, as the monopoly advantage of bulk-buying on an unimaginable scale will be lost. All such mechanisms rely on cheap oil and it is precisely the loss of that which we are planning for.

(6) Certainly in the U.K., once the world leader in engineering, we now manufacture relatively little because we can buy it more cheaply e.g. from China. However, the cost of imports will necessarily soar, and so if we want particular items (even cars), they will have to be made certainly within the U.K. The same argument applies for the U.S., and maybe even more so. Indeed, there is a certain joy to be had in the death of faceless corporate industries who we believe don't really care too much about individuals. Smaller local businesses do, because their livelihood depends on it. The developing world may be hard-hit, however, if the West no longer wants to buy their goods, and that development may atrophy - but it must in any case, since all of it is underpinned by the declining source of world oil supplies.

(7) It may be that the age of "consumerism" per se, is drawing to a close. This will hit everything, and hard. We will never re-experience the oil-extravaganza of the 20th Century. Hence that kind of manufacture and supply will make its swansong. How indeed we will make anything in the future is a good question since oil and gas have served as both a basic manufacturing material and a fuel for industry. It is certain, however, that an emphasis on more essential items (warm clothes and pots and pans, say) will matter much more than devising novel gadgets for mobile-phones beyond their inaugural purpose of just talking to somebody. The entertainment industry, tourism and the service sector generally will begin to wrap-up.

(8) Having seen a huge reorganisation of education in the U.K., we will see far more, and maybe a return to some of the original technical colleges that have now become universities, and this might end much of the current pretence that the nation is better educated than ever before. With the fall of the intrinsic manufacturing industry (which was based on first coal and then oil), and high levels of unemployment in the 1980's, a whole generation of new universities was established and a general re-jigging of the system to fit the bums-on-seats funding policy. Hence some universities will offer whatever courses can swell their entry numbers, and so we see a rise in pharmacy while the real science of chemistry has declined sharply. The title "professor" needs to be looked at too, when in some universities a professor (that's "Full Professor" in the U.S., not lecturer) may have no publications in the subject he is allegedly a professor of! How indeed can such an individual profess? Real knowledge and real levels of literacy and numeracy should be instilled from school levels and this does not seem to be the case even though we have never had more "university graduates". Indeed some companies e.g. Zeneca, in exasperation, are now training their own staff, taking them at age 16, rather than training poorly educated graduates. This is indeed how industry used to gain its ultimately senior staff (they worked their way up), and it would avoid the mandatory "student debt" that has been enforced on the young by vastly expanding the numbers of university places but then removing the maintenance grant system, which now would be absurdly expensive for the government to fund.

(9) The high-tech medical system will also be unable to survive. Most of modern medicine depends on oil and gas, at the simplest level to get hospital staff to work in the mornings. Even bandages and dressings, drugs and high-tech equipment such as heart monitors and devices to jolt an arrested heart back into life depend on oil as a manufacturing feedstock and electricity to run them. There will likely be less cosmetic surgery, and organ transplants too. The NHS in the U.K. was set-up primarily to fight infectious diseases, and this might be more effectively done working on a smaller community scale, than in confronting a highly mobile world population with the means to transport diseases too. That knowledge gained in the successful control of much infection should be prized and taught as part of the new physicianship.We may see the return of the "cottage hospital" which like a local farm, attends to the needs of a fairly small community, rather than massive city hospitals and health centres. Preventative medicine will come to the fore, since prevention is indeed much more effective (and less demanding of resources) than cure.

(10) This, the final item is a round-up of what has already been alluded to. Life will necessarily become more locally focussed. If people are unable to move around so freely, they will tend to stay where they are. A likely successful outcome for we humans in the imminent oil-poor era will be met through thinking and planning on the scale of small communities. That said, the internet should not be lost, otherwise we will become hidden from one another in small isolated community pockets, and that would be a seriously retrograde step. Optimistically, this may be a good time to think about setting up your own local business in wherever it is you choose to settle. Now that is an important choice to make, as you may find yourself stuck there if you don't like it!

Friday, February 09, 2007

What Chance for Bio-Butanol?

Much discussion on biofuels circles around bioethanol, as I mentioned most recently in the posting "U.S. May Need to Import Corn", since this is provides a better crop-fuel yield than say, biodiesel and certainly biohydrogen. However, there is a new kid on the block and that is biobutanol. Converting sugars to butanol by fermentation is not new at all, and the ABE process dates back to 1916, when Chaim Weizmann, a student of Louis Pasteur, developed a means for thus making a mixture, of acetone, butanol and ethanol, from which the acetone was used to make cordite - an explosive used extensively in the First World War. However, for every pound of acetone, two pounds of butanol were produced, and it was not until the 1920's and 30's that butanol became widely used in the manufacture of paints for cars and of synthetic rubber to the extent that the acetone was a mere by-product. Weizmann was to become the first President of Israel, and the Weizmann Institute, internationally renowned for its scientific research, is named after him.
The essential science behind biobutanol production is that for producing biohydrogen, as I discussed some while ago, noting that it is a fantasy to suppose that sufficient H2 could be so produced to replace the current levels of fuel used in the U.K. to power its transportation infrastructure. However, the ideal reaction in this regard, namely producing a maximum yield of hydrogen, also produces butyric acid, in a first step, which may then be reduced to butanol, if an appropriate co-bacterium is present to do so. (When the intention is to maximise the yield of H2, a second competing reaction, which produces double the amount of H2 plus acetic acid as the organic counter-product is the most desirable of the two). A batch-process has now been developed which uses Clostridium tyrobutyricum to produce the butyric acid and then Clostridium acetobutylicum to turn this into butanol. Look up the trademarks "Butyl-Fuel" and "Freedom Fuel" and you will find various information about this patented process. I may be missing something, and perhaps the process is more complex that a simple conversion of sugar into butanol plus H2, but the 2.5 gallons per bushel yield claimed, seems to me to imply a yield of 117%, since I would reckon a maximum of 2.14 gallons from the 35 pounds of sugar contained in one bushel of corn. A second figure they give is that a yield of 42% of butanol is obtained based on glucose, which is about 100% yield on the reaction overall. As I say, I may be missing something (patents never disclose all the details do they?), but I am not aware of 100% yield ever being obtained from a fermentation process - e.g. for ethanol somewhere in the range 55% - 77% is typical.
It was intially further confusing to me in that the output is reckoned in U.S. gallons (Avoirdupois) e.g. 3.785 litres, as opposed to U.K. (Imperial) gallons which are equal to 4.56 litres.
Similarly, it is quoted that 2.5 gallons of ethanol can be obtained per bushel of corn (containing 35 pounds of sugar) can be obtained. Let's check that one...

C6H12O6 (mono-saccharide e.g. glucose)--> 2 CH3CH2OH (ethanol) + 2CO2.

(92/180) x (35 pounds/2.2 pounds/kg) = 8.13 kg of ethanol. The specific gravity of ethanol is 0.789 kg/litre and so we have 8.13/0.789 = 10.30 liters of it, for yield of 100%. Dividing by 3.785 litres/gallon (U.S.) we get 2.723 gallons, and so the yield is 2.5/2.723 x 100 = 92%, which seems very high!

If anyone can add anything here to clear up why the quoted yields of butanol or ethanol should be so large, or if I have made a mistake I should like to know what it is!

Anyway, let's accept that we can get 100% yield from glucose (or other sugars), and work the potential butanol production for the U.K. in terms of sugar crops (since we don't grow corn on a scale of proportion as the U.S. does - our traditional crop is wheat, but sugar beet grows well in the climate here). The processes of fermenting sugar to butanol can be represented:

C6H12O6 --> CH3CH2CH2COOH + 2CO2 + 2H2; then

CH3CH2CH2COOH (butyric acid) --> CH3CH2CH2CH2OH (butanol).

If both steps were to go to 100% completion then we expect a yield of (74/180) the ratio of the molecular weights of butanol and glucose, multiplied by the quantity of glucose used. 74/180 gives 41.1%, close to the 42% claimed. So let's (with an element of dubiousness) assume this is the yield than is to be expected.

One tonne of glucose would yield 0.411 tonnes (411 kg). Since it is reckoned that a crop of sugar beet can yield about 19 tonnes per hectare, each hectare would produce 19 x 0.411 = 7.81 tonnes of butanol. The density of butanol is 0.808 kg/litre and so this would occupy a volume of 7.81/0.808 = 9,666 litres/ha.

From the relative enthalpies of combustion of butanol and gasoline we may deduce that the energy punch of ethanol is 92% that of gasoline. However, as with ethanol, an engine can be tuned to burn the fuel at higher efficiency, and so to keep the business simple, lets assume we can compare the two fuels 1:1.

Hence we need to replace 57 million tonnes of oil equivalent in terms of current fuel by butanol. As I have pointed out before, standard internal combustion engines only get about 14% of the total energy that the fuel contains out as miles on the road, and hybrid e.g. Prius vehicles can achieve 42%, so we might deduce that that figure could be cut to a third, making a "mere" 19 million tonnes of butanol we would need to replace with biobutanol. So the crop to provide this would have to be grown on 19 x 10*6/7.81 = 2.433 x 10*6 hectares of land, which is 243,278 km*2, or about the same area as the total U.K. mainland. If we used all our arable land, which is just 65,000 km*2 we could supply 26.7% or about a quarter. (With standard gas-guzzling engines it would be about 9%, or less than one tenth). N.B. the latter figures only apply if we grow no food at all and convert all agriculture over to biobutanol production.

There is a butanol farm in Norfolk which will supply 70 million litres of butanol by 2010, which sounds a lot, and it is, but then we use an awful lot of fuel! Indeed, this would need to be grown on 70 x 10*6/9,666 = 7,242 hectares of land = 72.4 km*2 of arable land. So, how much would it produce as a proportional substitute for the current requirement? Well, the current requirement amounts to: 57 x 10*6 x 1000/0.808 = 70.5 billion litres. Hence 70 million/70.5 billion x 100 = 0.1%. If Prius hybrid engines were universally installed, that rises to a mere 0.3% of the total. Even if blended 5:95 in existing fuels, it amounts to 2% (or 6%) of the total, and a blend of this dilution would make so difference whatsoever to curbing CO2 emissions or ensuring security of fuel supplies. Forget it! Localise communities and cut vehicle use, and grow food instead. Other means must be found to provide for what remaining transport requirement we have following re-localisation, mainly in the form of synthetic oil from coal-liquefaction and electricity-driven transport systems operating over relatively small areas. The only biofuel worth bothering with is bioethanol, and only then on a small scale. If wheat-grass and other agricultural waste can be converted into ethanol, that is a bonus since it avoids any compromise of food production. If there are to be serious amounts of fuel available, post peak-oil, they will necessarily stem from coal, and for that to happen, "many" coal-liquefaction plants must be built from scratch!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Alarm Bells Ring for Global Energy Security.

Speaking at a recent press conference in Istanbul, International Energy Agency (IEA) Chief Economist Dr Fatih Birol said that "Alarm bells are ringing on the issue of security of global energy supplies." In his opinion, the threat to the world's supplies of oil and natural gas will reach serious proportions within the next ten years. How could it be otherwise? In ten years we will have got through about a third of the remaining world oil reserves, or more than that, since demand for it rises inexorably, when perhaps we will have nearer half left. It is not a straightforward comparison, and the word "well" is perhaps unfortunately misleading. An oil-well is not like a water-well, and how long one will continue to produce oil cannot be determined by how many times a bucket can be thrown into it, to extract its contents until it is empty. No oil-well can be tapped "to bottom", and some yield only 5% of their contents in practice, while enhanced oil-recovery methods can raise the output of some such intractable wells to 30%. The extent of extraction depends on the prevailing geology and there is some speculation that the Saudi fields have been damaged by such "forced" oil recovery, and will yield less that they would otherwise. Hence it is a matter of some guesswork exactly how much extractable oil there is, out of the one trillion barrels that are estimated to lie in the world's known oil-fields. The analogy with a water well departs further, when the quality of the oil that may be got is considered. So far, it is the "sweet" light crude oil that can be readily processed into fuel in the world's oil refineries that has been the underpinning building material for the modern globalised, and consumer-driven society that defines the West and which the developing nations aspire to. As it becomes necessary to go "further down" into the oil-wells, it is a heavier, dirtier kind of crude oil that is recovered, and which is more energy-intensive to turn into gasoline, diesel and chemical feedstocks for industry. We should bear in mind, in all discussions about oil for energy, that in reality this precious resource is not only used as a fuel, but all manufactured goods are made effectively from oil, by chemical transformations. As a comparative annual figure, in the U.K. 57 million tonnes of oil go to transportation and another 15 million tonnes as an industrial raw material. So, running out of oil is a real double whammy.
Dr Birol also stresses that security of natural gas supplies are also vulnerable, and I am sure he is right. There is more oil than gas in the known reserves worldwide, and it is thought that if the peak in oil production is around now, this will be followed by "Peak Gas" within a couple of decades, especially if gas is processed into synthetic crude oil using steam-reforming technology. It is also suggested that much of transport could be run on hydrogen. As I have stressed, hydrogen is not a fuel but an energy carrier. Since we don't have sufficient infrastructure from renewables (and may never have?) to produce enough hydrogen (by water electrolysis) to replace oil-powered transport, it would probably still be necessary to use large amounts of natural gas to make it, which still imposes pressure on the resource. Agreed, most vehicles are highly inefficient in how they burn oil (with only 14% of the energy being recovered, tank-to-wheel), and adopting "hybrid" technologies (e.g. the Prius) might reduce demand for oil to about a third of current usage: then one might argue would it not be more effective to use hybrid cars etc. and run them on natural gas directly?: therefore reducing the compounded inefficiency of turning gas to hydrogen and then hydrogen to wheel-miles in fuel cells, and also avoiding having to build the gargantuan and completely new infrastructure required to store and supply H2 on gas-station forecourts around the world. Hydrogen production actually generates CO2, and less might be emitted from burning gas directly as a transport fuel in this way than overall from using hydrogen.
In my view, coal-liquefaction in combined cycle plants which convert coal to syngas (CO + H2), then use Fischer-Tropsch technology to synthesise artificial crude oil from it and burn any excess to produce electricity, are a more attractive and realistic proposition. That way, we are neither dependent on gas nor oil. Our troubles are not over however, since there have been no such plants built anywhere in the U.K., and both oil and gas are a finite resource that the world wants and wants more of, but which will begin to run-out within a foreseeable time. Sure, the alarm bells are ringing but government seems to have its fingers stuck firmly in its ears!

Monday, February 05, 2007

Six Degrees to Hell.

"Six Degrees" is both the title of a new novel, and the upper limit (6.4 degrees actually) of temperature among the scenarios considered in a new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. Six degrees really would be Hell on Earth, in a cataclysm which extinguished most of all life. Warming seas would decompose methane-hydrates in sediments releasing methane fireballs to tear across the sky in spectacular almost cometary displays of portent - too late by then to warn us of anything; the damage would have been done! The planet would be swept by "hypercanes" too - giant hurricanes of unimaginable force and proportion, scouring the earth of its soil with flash-floods. Those few who might remain as witnesses to this lethal alternation of fire and rain would be living in caves in polar regions, since elsewhere the world would be too hot for survival.
The consensus is that a rise of 3 degrees by 2100 is more likely, but even that would mean that the rainforests would dry-out, ignite and burn uncontrolled turning their current deluging rain and oppressive humidity to desert. A huge allocation of carbon would be released too, thus adding to the atmospheric burden of CO2 and cooking the planet further still. It looks as though the coral reefs have had it anyway - even a rise of 2 degrees or so will render them almost extinct. Four degrees would melt the Arctic ice-caps, including its permafrost and so release yet more contributions to the greenhouse cocktail, in the form of methane, since methane hydrates are locked-into permafrosts as well as ocean sediments. The consequence of this would be wide-scale relocation of populations, from the drowned lands around the Nile Delta, Bangladesh and Shanghai, in numbers of perhaps 100 million. Even within Europe, deserts are appearing in southern Spain, Italy and Greece, and half of all species could be wiped-out if the planetary thermostat reached 4.4 degrees above present. Australia would become dependent on imported food since its own agriculture would literally dry-out.
There is no doubt in my mind that the world is warming - some parts of it are drying-up, while other regions see increased rain/snowfall. The Alpine regions are warmer and I have not seen so little glacial cover for twenty or so years in Switzerland. There is less precipitation too - a lethal combination for ski resorts. The average atmospheric concentration of water vapour is 4% higher than it was in 1970, in consequence of increased evaporation from warmer seas. Since water-vapour is a very potent greenhouse gas (far more so than either CO2 or methane) , a strong positive feedback can be expected on global temperatures. I have speculated previously that the growth of the East Antarctic ice sheet is due to increased condensation of water from the atmosphere into its cold regions. Meanwhile warmer ocean currents aid the melting of the Antarctic northern peninsular, which has been melting for several thousands of years, since after the last ice-age.
In a previous posting ("Carbon in the Sky") too, I worked out that at least since 1950, human emissions of CO2 seem to exceed the ability of the planet to soak them up by around 60%. The ratio of emission/absorption seems fairly constant; however, as the emissions increase, then so year-on-year does the rise in atmospheric CO2 levels. Hence while an increase of 1.4 parts per million per year on average might account for the rising atmospheric burden of CO2 until about 1995, since then the average annual rise is nearer 1.9 ppm. Indeed, we may be increasingly exceeding that 60% overload, and perhaps e.g. phytoplankton is dying-off, or the loss of forests, meaning that the CO2 levels are expected to get worse, and that essentially is the message from the ICPP report.
However, Peak Oil is with us, meaning that there will be an inevitable fall in our CO2 emissions because there will be less oil to burn as we run out of the light crude oil on which most of the modern globalised world is based. Since none of the putative new technologies, e.g. hydrogen or biofuels can anywhere near match the gargantuan quantities of fuel that we currently use for transportation it will see a massive decline, and we will increasingly live in localised conurbations. Hence, the real challenge facing humanity is not dealing with cutting CO2 emissions which will happen unavoidably whatever we do, but how to survive in the post-oil era that will arrive well before the year 2100.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Blair says Science will Save Air Travel.

Tony Blair has said that he will keep on flying - which rather flies in the face of comments from the Environment Minister that the cheap airline Ryanair is "the irresponsible face of capitalism" in its opposition to an E.U. carbon emissions scheme - adding that it is impossible to expect people to make personal sacrifices by taking holidays closer to home. There are so many issues attending the subject of air travel, that many key points become obfuscated by spaghetti policies. On one hand we should (as a nation) be cutting our CO2 emissions, and yet plans advance for the fifth runway at Heathrow Airport. So does this mean that planes are exempt from consideration in reducing CO2; and then are cars and other road vehicles exempt too, since there seems to be no credible action underway to provide an alternative (non-oil based) means for road transport? "Use the trains", we hear, and yet there are all kinds of troubles with the railway network, especially since it was sold off from what was British Rail years ago, and only now is necessary work being undertaken to shore-up much of the infrastructure. Mr Blair contends that "Science" will find solutions to airborne CO2 emissions, and there is some room for hope in that. It is feasible that better fuselage designs could cut fuel use (and hence CO2 emissions from planes) by 30%, but not for another 30 years, as the plans are still on the drawing board. No airline will adopt such an untested type of plane unless it is sure that it will recover its costs in doing so very quickly. There is a lot of competition between airlines in the U.K. and in Europe (as has been the case in the U.S. for decades), especially from budget companies like Ryanair, and a cynic might wonder if this is what the environment minister was really referring to - that they are being irresponsible in taking profits way from establishment capitalism (the larger and more expensive national airlines) , not necessarily as capitalism per se.
Biobutanol is a word you may or may not have come across, but it is being mentioned as a potential future aviation fuel. Bioethanol: everybody is talking about that, but (bio)butanol is a less "combusted" alcohol and will release more energy when it is burned weight for weight, closer to gasoline or aviation spirit (kerosene). Most biofuels such as biodiesel become very viscous (thick or syrupy) at the low temperatures typically encountered at normal flying altitudes, which have the advantage of saving fuel through reduced air resistance than encountered lower down in the atmosphere. Highly viscous fuels would pose a real problem since they cannot be pumped easily around a jet-engine. In contrast, bioethanol remains a low viscosity liquid down to these and still lower temperatures. There are safety issues over running planes on ethanol (although probably not to the extent of running planes on hydrogen) and so biobutanol might be thought likely to prove itself as the useful alternative fuel to kerosene. However, pure biobutanol is even more viscous than kerosene (similar to a high quality deisel fuel) and would need to be introduced as a mixture with kerosene, therefore not eliminating the need for the latter entirely. True, burning biobutanol will produce CO2, as is the case for all carbon containing fuels, but there is the potential benefit that it is produced from a crop which hence must absorb CO2 from the atmosphere by photosynthesis during the growing season before it is harvested. The crop will probably not absorb 100% of the amount of CO2 that will be generated by burning the biobutanol obtained from it, but there is still an improvement over burning oil-based kerosene alone, in proportion to the fraction of that final fuel which is actually butanol (e.g. a 5% butanol:95% kerosene mix would make no real difference, whereas 50:50 might). Also, if that biobutanol can be produced on our own shores, we are less dependent on imported oil to run our fleet of planes. However, I would guess that the amount that can be produced given the available area of arable land in the U.K. is highly limited and would compromise food production to make any significant quantity of it. In any event, since we cannot run the existing number of planes on pure biobutanol and still need kerosene, how, other than by means of imported oil and consequently raising CO2 emissions, are we to treble the number of flights by 2030, as the government has projected. By then the world will have got through well over half of its remaining one trillion barrel proven reserve of oil, and so planes will long have given way to other necessities that are underpinned by oil. It seems to me that projected demand and limited fuel supply are two forces pulling in opposite directions. The dearth of fuel must win out since it is a simple consequence of depleting a finite supply - and this must cause much of transport (all, road-borne, sea-borne and air-borne) to grind to a halt. Widescale coal liquefaction could in principle produce very great quantities of fuel and yet, with only 15 years left until we have used half the oil there is now remaining, not one single coal liquefaction plant has been built in the U.K. Science cannot save even the existing burden of air-travel, even if we were to implement new technologies immediately, and there appears no serious intent to do so. There will be more pressing needs for oil to support survival on the ground. It is a less mobile and consequently more localised society that awaits us, and widespread plane travel is a mere luxury against that stark backdrop. Capitalism must shoulder its responsibilities more pressingly at ground level, whatever face it chooses to show of the many we have seen so far.