Wednesday, October 31, 2007

UK Winter Electricity Shortages?

We have heard before that there may be an energy crisis in coming winters, and last year the warning referred to gas-supplies; this year it is electricity. We came through last winter without incident and I hope the same will prove true again. The National Grid has given an alert to the effect that there may well be a shortfall in its generating capacity, which mirrors a hike-up of gas-prices, and we British pay about 40% more for that commodity than our other European neighbours. Part of the problem is that a huge gas-terminal at Milford Haven (South Wales) will not be completed as soon as originally thought, in consequence of industrial action by contract staff and other problems.

The Minister for Energy, Malcolm Wicks, last week conferred with providers of electricity over fears that the UK is once again headed for ramping prices (now this did happen last winter although the lights stayed on), and power cuts in some regions, as indeed happened two years ago. The National Grid has, however, reassured ministers that no actual power blackouts are expected. Nonetheless, on the Grid website was a "transmission system warning" calling for another 300 MW of power to cope with the high-demand period between four in the afternoon and half past seven in the evening when, of course, people are cooking their dinners, watching tv, and putting the kettle-on during the interval in their favourite soap-opera.

Indeed, the situation for electricity supply to the Grid is a little precarious because of troubles at the now aging nuclear reactors in this country. I think 40% of the nation's electricity is made using gas, and so the Milford Haven depot not being completed might impact on the availability of it for this purpose. Indeed, no firm date has been set for when it will open, but it is clear that there will be no imports of liquefied natural gas there from Qatar to meet the winter's predicted demand.

There is also some doubt as to exactly how much gas will be brought in from Norway's Ormen Lange gas-field in the North Sea, via the Langeled pipeline, to the Easington depot in North Yorkshire, which opened last year and has provided some gas, but it is uncertain when it will be operating at its full capacity. When it is, 20% of the UK's gas requirement will be met via it, and the Milford haven depot is expected to carry another 20% in the form of liquefied gas. Our joyous plenty from the North Sea has been had and Britain is increasingly dependent on imports of gas from elsewhere. Hopefully there will be enough to keep the Christmas tree lights on in the coming festive season.

Related Reading.
"Rising fear of energy crisis this winter," By Terry Macalister, Guardian.,,331116810-103690,00.html

Monday, October 29, 2007

Peak Oil - Peak Minerals.

The concept of peak oil is well known, according to the Hubbert theory which I discussed in "Hubbert Peak Oil" a couple of days ago, wherein the amount of oil extractable from the ground is finite and accordingly its production is expected to peak at a point where about half the resource of it has been used up. All resources are finite and will ultimately be extracted only to the limit where it is feasible to do so, whereupon either financial costs or those of energy dictate that to proceed further only yields diminishing returns. The Hubbert theory was originally applied to oil, but there are potential and similar fits to gas and coal reserves too and a recent analysis has been made using the approach to a study of 57 different minerals, as reported by Ugo Burdi and Marco Pagini in a guest posting in the blog "The Oil Drum", which covers many aspects of Peak Oil and related matters.

These authors have fitted both logistic and Gaussian functions to mineral production data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and it is interesting that for mercury, lead, cadmium and selenium, there is good accord found between the "ultimate recoverable resources" URR determined from the curve-fitting to the data and those reported in the USGS tables + the amount of each already extracted. For tellurium, phosphorus, thallium, Zircon(ium) and rhenium, the agreement is quite close but tends to smaller values than are indicated from the figures for cumulative production plus the USGS reserves. For gallium, the figure obtained from the fitting analysis is significantly lower than the USGS estimate (by about a factor of seven).

Evidence of peaking is found for a number of the minerals, e.g. mercury around 1962; lead in 1986; Zircon in 1990; selenium in 1994; gallium in 2000. The results for gallium are significant, both in that the peak occurred seven years ago and in the size of its total reserve, which when compared with the amount used worldwide by the electronics industry implies that we may run short of gallium any time soon. Tellurium and selenium are two other minerals that underpin the semiconductor industry and it appears that their fall in production may also impact negatively on future technologies that are entirely reliant upon them, since there are no obvious substitute materials with precisely equivalent properties.

For vanadium, although a production peak is indicated in 2005, the data in the "mineral commodities handbook" show a later and sudden surge in production, which is not fully explained but thought may potentially relate to uncertainties in reporting from countries like China. So, there may be a real and ongoing upsurge in production from e.g. the Chinese economy which is quoted as being "out of sync" with the rest of the world, such is its massive expansion, or it might be a red herring.

Interestingly, copper, zinc, tin, nickel and platinum show an almost exponential increase in production; however, as I have noted previously, the stocks of some metals may be insufficient to supply the technological demands of the modern developed world into the far (or even near) future. There is also the issue of how quickly a rare and difficultly extractable metal such as platinum might be produced in comparison with an overall demand for it. Copper production can be fitted with an exponential function up to 2006, while a logistic function provides about the same quality of fit, yet indicates a peak in about 2040. The latter agrees reasonably well with the USGS estimated copper reserves of 0.5 - 1.0 Gigatons, while the fit gives 2 Gigatons. Notably, the world price of copper has skyrocketed during the past few years, which is again attributed to demand in China, as was the cost and shortage of wood earlier in the year.

Burdi and Pagini note that all of the above analyses rest upon the notion that the determined "peaks" represent actual global production maxima. Indeed, more reserves of all minerals may yet be found if we look assiduously enough for them; but herein lies the issue of underpinning costs, both in terms of finance and energy. It is the latter that may determine the real peaking and decline of minerals, which extend beyond the simple facts, say, of mining and refining a metal from its crude ore. There is also the cost-contribution from the energy needed to garner energy-materials such as oil, gas, coal and uranium, and thence to turn them into power and machinery; and since fossil fuels are being relentlessly depleted, it takes an inexorable amount energy to produce them, resulting in a cumulative and rising energy demand overall.

Saliently, the authors point out that the whole "extractive system" is interconnected through required underpinning supplies of fossil fuels, and it is perhaps this that explains why the production of so many minerals seems to be peaking during the period between the latter part of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, in a virtual mirror-image of the era when troubles in the production of fossil fuels were experienced across the globe. Hence, it may be the lack of the latter which determines the real amount of all other minerals that can be brought onto the world markets.

Related Reading.
"Peak Minerals", By Ugo Bardi and Marco Pagani.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

World Platinum Price Soars.

The cost of platinum has risen over $1,450 an once following worries over the supply of this rare metal as two mines in South Africa were closed because of recent fatal accidents. It is thought that there will be a market deficit of 100,000 ounces of platinum this year. The biggest producer of platinum in the world is Anglo Platinum, which closed its Paardekraal shaft in Rustenburg after a worker died in an accident, and the South African Northern Platinum Ltd. also closed its mine when a worker was killed by a rockfall.

The world market for platinum closed in 2006 with a small surplus of around 10,000 ounces after being in deficit for seven years, outstripping the world demand of 6.775 million ounces, or about 192 tonnes of it. About 42% of that is used to make jewelry and is almost exactly the same as goes into making catalytic convertors; the rest is used to make scientific apparatus. I have commented previously, that the introduction of PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cells to run cars fuelled by hydrogen is likely to be hampered by the limited amount of platinum that could be produced for this purpose. Even if all the platinum which currently goes into cleaning the exhaust emissions from cars that burn oil-fuels internal combustion engines, could be skimmed-off for the PEM sector, it would be just enough for:

(0.4 x 192 tonnes/year x 1000 kg/tonne x 1000 g/kg)/50g platinum/car = 1,536,000 cars/year.

Compared with the numbers of road vehicles there are altogether, which I believe is 700 million, this is quite a small figure. I suppose it is possible that more platinum may be found and maybe the world could do without its jewelry in the interests of "saving the planet", but a hydrogen economy based around precious metals looks to me of limited likelihood.

Gold prices have also soared to around $750 per ounce, which is the highest since 1980, when it hit $850. Tensions in the Middle East are partly blamed, especially the decision by Turkey to send its troops into northern Iraq to hunt-down Kurdish rebels, although the country's allies in the West and in Baghdad have urged them to refrain from invading Iraq. There is an issue of how much of many metals and minerals might be supplied in the future, along with oil, gas, uranium and eventually coal, and the prices of all of them will reflect how much can be brought onto the world markets, and indeed how much there is available at any prices.

Related Reading.
"Supply concerns propel platinum to record highs", By Atul Prakash.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Hubbert Peak Oil.

In 1956 a paper was published which will be of greater significance to the future of humankind than those reporting on the structure of DNA or the Theory of Relativity. Its title was "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels", and it was written and presented by M. King Hubbert at an oil-industry conference in Houston, Texas, while he was in the employ of the Shell Development Company. At first Hubbert was not taken seriously in his conclusions that the peak in oil production would follow the peak in oil discovery by about forty years, and so the best year for US oil output would be around 1965 - 1970, roughly 40 years after the most successful year of oil finds, in 1930. He was right, and thenceforth US home oil production has fallen to the extent that the nation now imports two thirds of all the oil it uses, a colossal 20 million or so barrels a day, or one quarter of the world's requirement of oil.

In days before computers, Hubbert would have drawn the graph by hand (probably with the aid of a flexy-curve, or simply freehand as I used to find best, before PC's were available routinely, and mathematical analysis packages such as the Origin programme, which is installed on this machine). The Hubbert peak is based on a logistic function, which is a restricted exponential, and the first derivative of it corresponds to a peak. The derivative of this (i.e. the second derivative of the logistic function) gives an inflexion, where the point at which the curve crosses the baseline corresponds to the peak maximum. The logistic function includes the familiar S-shaped curves that relate to the growth of bacteria and to enzyme kinetics such as those of Michaelis and Menton.

The Hubbert curve (peak) may be defined as:

Q(t) = Q(max)/(1 + ae^bt),

where Q(max) is the total recoverable amount of crude oil in the ground to start off with, Q(t) is the cumulative production (i.e. how much oil has been pulled out of the ground to date) and a and b are constants. Accordingly, the year of maximum production (peak oil) is given by:

t(max) = (1/b)ln(1/a),

and for the world altogether, with a peak discovery year of 1965, this appears as 2005. There is much speculation and analysis that oil production has already peaked, and it is my suggestion that enhanced recovery methods alone have maintained the present output of oil, much of it from the giant fields in the Middle East. It is obvious that the resource is concentrated in only a few particular regions of the Earth, vide supra, and also Russia, South America and Indonesia. Countries such as Iraq and Iran may become swing-producers, i.e. that produce more oil than they use, and I have read opinions to the effect that the Iraq war if not started in the interests of obtaining oil for the West, might become a worthy swing-producer, thus averting economic starvation at least for a few years. Iraq has about 140 billion barrels of oil, and Iran about the same, and so at a level consumption of 30 billion barrels a year for the world in total, we might get almost 10 years worth of supply from there. It is significant that Western companies such as BP and ExxonMobil have been granted 30 year contracts to exploit the Iraqi oil.

Not everybody agrees with the Hubbert analysis and some argue that we will be able to access around four times as much oil as there is present under the Earth in the form of crude-oil, by which they mean the Canadian tar-sands, oil shale, oil made from coal or from gas, biomass and so on. However, this does Hubbert a considerable disservice because he was talking explicitly about cheap oil, and it is this that will inexorably run out, most likely during the next 5 - 10 years. Hence there is no consolation to be found in any putative 3.7 trillion barrels of oil figure, because bringing that into reality will be extremely expensive both financially (to take an economist's standpoint) and more precisely in terms of the energy and other resources such as water that are mandatory in those actions necessary to do so.

We are not about to run out of oil. We will be able to produce hydrocarbons (oil) for decades to come, but not at the cheap prices we are used to. I am working on a rough figure of assuming that everything (and I mean everything - food, clothes, and all else) will cost about twice what it does now in that 5 - 10 year period. That would correspond to a $200 barrel. This will be uncomfortable especially for those who already bear considerable debts, particularly in the UK, which is the most indebted nation in Europe. We also drink more than anyone else apparently, and have a greater incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, which makes me think that the era of the "stiff upper lip" has rather passed for the English. Many of these problems may well be "cured" by a huge hiking-up of general costs in terms of booze, travel and the overused "plastic friend" - the credit card which often proves less than amicable.

Another feature of Britain is that we have "lost" most of our manufacturing industry, and so we buy cheap imports from e.g. China and therefore fuel the economic enterprise of that nation. Without imports to the West of washing machines, TV's and so on, the Chinese economy will grind onto the hard shoulder, and our own economy, based as it is around the "service sector" will crash too meaning that less service-businesses will survive if people have less cash in their pockets to buy their services, and an according loss of jobs in that industry.

The mathematics of Hubbert's theory is very interesting but as I have pointed out before, there were only so many squares on that sheet of graph paper in reflection that there is only so much cheap oil that can be drawn up from the Earth, [i.e. Q(max) in the above equation], hence no matter what values we chose for the constants (a) and (b) or whether we use a Gaussian or Lorenzian distribution or some other mathematical device, the future of humanity will unfold, in ways that will be only evident to later history, upon a world devoid of cheap oil, and to kid ourselves otherwise is an act of addicted denial. We need to plan a society based on localised communities and less dependent on apparently limitless cheap transport, and cheap products made from oil.

(3) "The Hubbert Curve: Its strengths and weaknesses" By, J.H.Laherrere:,m
(4) "Hubbert's Peak - the mathematics behind it", By Luis de Sousa:

Monday, October 22, 2007

Oil Wars!

We can only plan the future of civilization in terms of energy resources other than cheap oil. The title of this article is is not a euphemism for the war in Iraq nor any potential strife elsewhere in the Middle East, in the cause of Western countries obtaining oil, but a reference to the concept that world oil production has already peaked and hence we cannot expect civilization to depend on it as a source of energy into the future. A new report by the German-based Energy Watch Group released its conclusions today that global oil production peaked in 2006. Furthermore, the group believes that global reserves of oil are only about two-thirds the 1,255 billion barrels the oil industry finds consensus on. This sounds to me that they do not believe the remarkable increase in estimates made of the reserves under Saudi, which houses the world's major oil wells.

There are many different figures as to precisely when "peak oil" will strike, but even if it is not already with us, it will come soon. My personal opinion is that production has been artificially maintained, meaning that rather than a smooth decline in the availability of oil, as is most simply indicated by the Hubbert Peak which roughly mirrors the rise in production over history, when present output can no longer be maintained, even by enhanced recovery methods, supply will plummet beyond our worst nightmares, if we dream about it at all.

I will write about the mathematics behind the Hubbert theory in subsequent postings here, but in essence Hubbert only had so many squares on the sheet of graph paper to count underneath his "curve" emphasising the simple fact that there is only so much "cheap" and relatively accessible oil in the ground. I do not dispute (and have explained its sources) that we will be able to conjure-up oil for decades to come, either by pulling it out of the ground, by cracking bitumen from Canadian or Venezuelan tar-sands or synthesising it from coal, gas or even algae, but the age of cheap oil is over. It would therefore be a criminal disservice to humanity to pretend otherwise. The fact of this matter is signified by a huge ramping-up of the price of oil: almost $90 compared with less than a quarter of than only 5 years ago, and the instability of the world financial markets which will now be up-and-down in perpetuity.

Yes, it is easy to blame the "sub-prime" markets and greedy and irresponsible lenders of cash to those who could never be expected to pay it back, but the real underpinning framework of financial instability is the availability and cost of that basic necessity upon which the modern industrialised world has been built - oil!

The days of cheap oil are over. The vampiric $100 dollar barrel in already in sight; and then we can expect $150, $200 or who knows how much? Since everything in our modern global village depends on oil, we can expect the price of everything to increase markedly. It is not only the cost of fuel, and of everything that is transported over colossal distances to supermarket shelves, hence increased costs to be borne by the consumer, but an increase in the basic costs of manufacture, from everything from food to plastics, since oil is the underpinning raw feedstock from which everything is made. It really is the proverbial double-whammy.

We can only therefore make realistic plans for the future in the absence of thoughts about cheap oil. I am speculative about what can really be provided in terms of renewable energy, or at least in time to head-off the dearth of oil that will hit us within a decade, and even nuclear power which the UK government has made a firm commitment to, will be hard pressed to substitute for fast depleting supplies of oil and gas. Jeremy Leggett (CEO of a major solar-energy company) and author of "The Carbon War" and "Half Gone" (a reference to the fact that according to Hubbert Peak theory, when the peak in oil production is reached half the oil there in the first place has been used-up) is of the opinion that both the UK government and the energy industry are in "institutionalised denial" and that action should have been taken sooner.

I have commented as much, and it is also my opinion that appropriate action should have been taken in the early 1970's when the OPEC artificially hiked-up the price of oil, leading to a political "oil crisis". Now the crisis is not a matter of politics but of geology and there is simply not enough of the stuff in the ground to be extracted at the low costs we have been used to. Furthermore, "half gone" is an optimistic delineation of the resource, the production of which is more likely to follow a skewed Hubbert curve, with a very rapid decline in supply beyond the putative peak, and a see-sawing ramp in its cost and thence of all goods.

Economic hardships and wars are the QED of this simple fact, as humanity in its various artificial nation states struggles to survive. But in accepting the reality of peak oil and all it implies, let's think ahead in the absence of "cheap" oil. Our lives will be less softened by cheap energy, and we need to be aware of this now, and not fool ourselves into false security of alternatives such as wind or wave power or the hydrogen or methanol economies. It is too late to introduce them anyway, and only the proverbial paradigm shift in thinking in terms of plentiful oil to those of oil dearth will preserve us from war and per se as a human civilization.

Related Reading.
"Steep decline in oil production brings risk of war and unrest, says study," By Ashley Seager, Guardian Monday October 22, 2007.,,331028371 - 110373.00.html

Thursday, October 18, 2007

British Claim to Antarctic Seabed.

The UK proposes to claim its sovereign rights over an area of more than 1 million square kilometres (386,000 square miles) of the seabed off Antarctica, in defiance of the Antarctic treaty, which it signed-up to in 1959. The Foreign Office told the Guardian newspaper that an evaluation is being made of information with the intention of submitting a claim to the United Nations (UN) which could extend Britain's rights to exploration for oil, gas and minerals by up to 350 miles offshore from Antarctica into the Southern Ocean (the ring of ocean that circles Antarctica). However, in consequence of its great depth (4 km in parts), the actual extraction of these resources is not as yet feasible, but the claim will undoubtedly anger neighbouring south American countries, notably Chile and Argentina, who feel redoubted in their own rights to them.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War, and I remember at the time in 1982, there was some proposition that part of the UK's reluctance to give-up the Falklands Islands to Argentina, who had invaded them, was indeed down to potential future "mineral rights" in the region. The Falklands War suited both sides at the time, since Argentina had huge levels of unemployment while in the UK, Margaret Thatcher was the most unpopular Prime Minister ever, mainly in consequence of the collapse of our manufacturing industries (as part of her war against the trade unions and aided by their economic uncompetitiveness against imports from other nations), in addition to the universally despised and loathed "poll tax". A hefty dose of nationalism that only a war could provide was just the thing to distract attention from such home troubles on both sides. In the end, the islands were liberated from Argentine rule through the self-sacrifice of many brave men. 25 years on, and with impending shortages of oil and gas, winning the Falklands Islands may have led to a beneficial legacy for the UK, in terms of new resources of these key energy components.

There are other UK claims to undersea resources too: in the Atlantic Ocean around South Georgia and the Falkland Islands; around Ascension Island; in the Hatton/Rockall basin (I mentioned the latter in "Undersea Oil Claims - Rockall", last month), and there is another claim being made for a large area of seabed under the Bay of Biscay by a consortium involving the UK, Spain, France and Ireland, which the UN is currently considering. The claims are based on article 76 of the UN convention of the law of the sea.

There are environmental concerns regarding the impact of such future exploration on the ecology of the region; however, relatively little is known about what exactly is down there. We know more about the surface of the Moon that we do about the seabed on Earth. British biologists recently made a dive down to depths of over two miles in a small submersible and identified krill, different kinds of shrimp, sea cucumbers and starfish-like creatures, all present in flourishing numbers. The British Antarctic Territory is a triangular wedge covering 660,000 square miles (almost 2 million square kilometres) with its apex at the south pole, and with two permanently manned research stations there. It was first claimed in 1908, making next year the centenary of its inauguration, when it is planned to issue its first ever legal tender coin, by way of celebration. A taste of things to come?

There is international intention to exploit certainly oil and gas reserves from undersea locations, despite the considerable technical difficulty in doing so, for example the recent claim by Russia to undersea land off northern Siberia where oil is believed to be present in quantity. If peak oil were a hoax, as a few still contest, the world would not even be considering going to lengths of this kind to secure further supplies of the stuff, and clearly it is expected that the reality of oil-supply will become desperate in the foreseeable future, (i.e. within a decade).

Related Reading.
"Britain to claim more than 1m square km of Antarctica", By Owen Boycott, The Guardian, Wednesday 17.10.07.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Underground Coal Gasification.

Coal gasification is the conversion of coal into gases that can be used directly as fuel or as feedstocks for the creation of liquid fuels (e.g. hydrocarbons) or for commercial processes such as the production of fertilizers and other chemicals, including pharmaceuticals. As oil stocks begin to run short and an inexorable demand is placed on natural gas to substitute for it, either to be burned per se or indeed turned into synthetic oil, we face an energy supply crisis which will hit civilization across the board, with soaring prices of all goods including food, and even food shortages, since modern agriculture is now entirely underpinned by oil and gas: e.g. oil to run farm machinery and gas to produce hydrogen which is combined with nitrogen to make ammonia, the mainstay raw material for synthetic fertilizers.

If this crisis will begin to bite within a decade following the arrival of Peak Oil, and then grip humankind more determinedly in subsequent decades, what is there that might be implemented to take the place of oil and gas? The only other carbon-based material in substantial abundance is coal, and so we need to dig more of it. There are estimated to be upward of six trillion tonnes of coal available for extraction on earth, and probably much more in locations that are hard to access. For example, some three trillion tonnes of coal have been identified under the sea off the coast of Norway, but this is not amenable to conventional mining and extraction. The UK has around 220 million tonnes of coal (to be compared with the 60 million tonnes or so we use each year, two thirds of which is imported) in known mines and it is thought that a total of 1.5 billion tonnes could be got by extending the existing mining infrastructure - i.e. just keep digging the seams that are already underway. Indeed, some mines that were closed in the 1980's in Yorkshire and in South Wales are now being re-opened, and so there are efforts ongoing in this respect.

It was however, estimated that there are some 190 billion tonnes of coal altogether underlying the UK, particularly if regions under the southern part of the North Sea are included in the tally, as I commented in a previous posting ("Coal May be Crowned King after all!", Monday December 4th, 2006). However, while this would amount apparently to nearly 700 years worth of supply, not all of that is readily accessible, and to dig it out by conventional means, covering an underground area of probably around one third that of the UK mainland, is not a realistic option unless some extremely efficient new technology were devised and implemented by the industry.

As an alternative strategy, the conversion of coal to gas in situ is being considered. The putative process is called Underground Coal Gasification (UCG). In UCG, two boreholes are drilled into a coal-seam underground, one to introduce oxygen and water (to provide steam), and the second to bring the gaseous products of the partial combustion/steam reforming of the coal to the surface. The gas will consist principally of hydrogen and carbon monoxide along with smaller amounts of methane and other flammable hydrocarbons that are formed by in situ pyrolysis of the coal itself in consequence of the high temperatures incurred.

There are many potential advantages to the UCG approach, namely that actual coal extraction is unnecessary, along with the usual detritus of coal mining, e.g. slag-heaps of rock and coal waste (such as engulfed a school at Aberfan, in South Wales, forty years ago, killing 129 children). Furthermore, the process would make available a clean fuel/chemical feedstock gas, and on our own shores. As noted, there is the considerable appeal too that it might be thus possible to utilise huge stocks of coal that would otherwise remain inaccessible. The essential premise of UCG has been shown to work in trials e.g. in Russia, but it is mandatory to evaluate the controllability of the process over sustained periods of operation (we are talking about hundreds of years), and any negative environmental impact on underground aquifers (i.e. groundwater pollution) and on any adjacent strata, such as subsidence. The latter is of particular concern since coal often intersperses rock layers and provides a supporting medium for them and so, if the coal is dug out, either literally, or by conversion from solid to gas, will not the overlying rock simply collapse into the "hole" that has been created?

The gasification of coal seams in situ was first done by the Russians in the 1930's and processes have been in operation since WWII. One, ongoing in Uzbekistan, is still in operation now, and experimental UCG technology is being undertaken in Australia, as advised by experts on the subject from Uzbekistan. In the 1950's, Britain established its own UCG trial in shallow mines in Derbyshire with success, but the National Coal Board later abandoned the project on economic grounds. In the US, technology from the oil and gas industries was adapted in the 1970's to make UCG a more readily controllable process, while in Europe UCG has been applied to work both shallow and deep seams; the latter in Spain during 1992 - 1999, and funded by the British DTI, the EU and Spanish and Belgian organisations.

Hence the overall vista for UCG appears optimistic, and a six-year project has been inaugurated in the UK at a cost of $15 - 20 million, with the following aims:

(1) To improve the accuracy of in-seam drilling.
(2) To examine the implications of burning UCG gas in electricity-generating turbines.
(3) To evaluate the real land-reserve capacity for UCG.
(4) To identify a semi-commercial site to undertake the process.
(5) To work-out the likely costs.
(6) To carry-out a feasibility study of offshore coal-exploitation by UCG methods.

It sounds great, so let's get started! What are our realistic alternatives? Nuclear, renewables on a gargantuan scale, or increasingly vulnerable imports of natural gas from unstable regions of the world. If it works, UCG answers some questions about security of supply, and with carbon-capture technology it could also cut our CO2 emissions. It still doesn't mean we can readily match our current requirements of imported fuel (although UCG gas could be converted into some synthetic fuel using Fisher-Tropsch technology) and so transportation remains almost certain to be curbed on a substantial scale, hence forging local communities/economies, if people need to stay put and it is less feasible to transport food/goods over significant distances.

Related Reading.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Ulf Bossel, Platinum and the Hydrogen Economy?

Ulf Bossel put the cat among the pigeons a while ago, by suggesting that the establishment of a Hydrogen Economy is a non-starter, compared with simply using the electrons directly that would be employed to split water into its constituent elements, oxygen and hydrogen. The European Cell Forum, which is committed to the creation of a future based on sustainable and safe sources of energy, has decided to carry on its promotion of fuel cells for sustainably produced fuels, but that it will no longer support the development of fuel cells that require "hypothetical" supplies of fuel such as hydrogen.

This may appear odd, since we hear about hydrogen all the time and to the degree that it is easy to think that when the oil "runs-out" hydrogen will simply be tapped into as a substitute for it. The problem is that hydrogen does not occur free in nature but must be freed from other elements, such as oxygen in water, with which it is naturally combined, and the separation of elements requires other forms of energy. Almost all the hydrogen used currently in the world - as a chemical feedstock e.g. for oil refining and making artificial fertilizers - is made by steam-reforming natural gas, and there is a CO2 budget that must be costed-in, hence hydrogen from this source is not clean but contributes to CO2 emissions. Furthermore, it consumes natural gas, and so there is a pressure placed on another resource in accord with the indisputable fact that it takes resources to extract resources. Ideally therefore, that hydrogen should be produced by e.g. water electrolysis using electricity made from renewable sources.

However, Bossel's argument is that the electrons produced from e.g. wind, hydro, wave or whatever sources could be used directly say to charge batteries or to make hydrocarbon fuels, even methanol, as George Olah is promulgating, at an efficiency of about three times that which would be obtained by converting them into hydrogen and processing and distributing the material to "burn" it in fuel cells. Bossel's argument goes along the lines that there are energy losses incurred at each step in the necessary chain of actions, in accord with the incontrovertible Second Law of Thermodynamics - basically, entropy.

He points-out that there are three principal loss-makers in the chain, namely production, storage and distribution. There is obviously a loss of 50 - 60% incurred when the material is burned in the fuel cell, but in its favour is the fact that an efficiency of even 40 - 50% is substantially above the Carnot-cycle limit (Thermodynamics again) of around 35% for a typical internal combustion engine. The losses may be summarised as follows: 90% efficiency for rectifying alternating current to DC to run the electrolyzer; 75% overall efficiency (ideal) for the electrolyzer itself; and then the storage of the bulky hydrogen gas either as a highly compressed gas, which takes about 20% of the energy content of the hydrogen to compress it (or as a cryogenic liquid, which takes 30 - 40% to produce); 10% for distribution and say 50% efficiency for the fuel cell itself, which amounts to about a 25% efficiency overall.

There are electrolyzer units that can produce high pressure hydrogen and if each gas-station were to make its own hydrogen by electrolysis, much of the distribution losses (probably 30%) might be recovered. A report has been published by a firm of independent analysts in Germany which is critical of some of Bossel's figures especially in regard to storage and transmission, particularly across large distances say from sunny north Africa (if the hydrogen were produced using PV technology which would be much more efficient there) by pipeline to Europe. However, an in-situ arrangement as I allude to would surely get around that, presuming we could make enough renewable electricity, or if there were a grid of electrons (rather than of hydrogen) including north African PV, European wind-power, North Sea wave energy and so on, such power might be supplied to run local electrolysis equipment, which would avoid actual hydrogen transmission. But if Bossel is right, why not use these electrons in a more direct manner?

On a tit-for tat basis, we can make the following calculation:

The heat of combustion of hydrogen is -285 kJ/mol, and so 1 kg of hydrogen = 1000 g/2 g/mol x -285 kJ= -142,500 kJ = 1.425 x 10^8 J.

We get through 82 million tonnes of oil altogether annually in the UK and we use 60 million tonnes of that for fuel. The energy content of oil is rated at 42 GJ/tonne and so that 60 million tonnes "contains" 60 x 10^6 x 42 x 10^9 Joules = 2.52 x 10^18 J of energy.

Hydrogen can be produced at a pressure of up to 10,000 psi by electrolysis at a rate of 60.5 kW/kg of H2. Hence the equivalent H2 to match that amount of oil is:

2.52 x 10^18 J/1.425 x 10^8 J/kg = 1.768 x 10^10 kg H2. Bossel has used the conversion factor of 1.5, i.e. that H2 can be used with 1.5 times the recoverable energy efficiency of gasoline. Since gasoline gives an approximately 14% well-to-wheel efficiency that would make about 21% overall for hydrogen, which seems a bit low and I would think that say 59% for the electrolysis system x 90% for rectification x 50% for the fuel cell = 26.6% is more like it.

However, let's consider the generating capacity the whole enterprise would need. To make 1.768 x 10^10 kg of H2 over a year, i.e. 8760 hours, would require:

1.768 x 10^10 kg x 60.5 x 10^3 (W/kg H2)/8760 = 122.1 GW. But this figure is mitigated according to the efficiency with which hydrogen may be used. If Bossel is right, this becomes 81.4 GW or let's call it a factor of two (which seems more reasonable), making it 61.0 GW.

Either way, we would need a colossal installation of renewables, e.g. 2 MW wind-turbines, with a rated capacity of 2 MW - but an actual output of say 30% if placed offshore, which amounts to 0.6 MW per unit. Hence we would need 61 GW/0.6 MW = 100,000 of them. Probably these could be accommodated in the North Sea in a square of turbines 316 x 316 and at an average spacing of 0.5 km we are talking about an area of 160 km^2, which doesn't sound too bad, albeit that the weather in the North Sea is some of the roughest in the world, and so maintenance might prove a problem.

As an alternative, around 60 new nuclear reactors could be installed to make the electricity for hydrogen, and on top of the new generation required to replace the decommissioned current 31 reactors, actually equal in output to about 14 1 GW reactors, and so it would be necessary to quadruple this capacity by which means to install a "Hydrogen Economy" in the UK. I have been told that hydrogen could be made more efficiently using the thermal power from a nuclear reactor to run the iodine-sulphur cycle, rather than by electrolyzing water (50% compared to 35%) , but the installation capacity needed remains huge. If Bossel is right and electrons can be used with three times the efficiency than will be recovered (hydrogen actually re-generates electrons in the fuel cell, to turn wheels, in a chemically-fuelled electric car) by turning them into hydrogen, the installation capacity immediately falls to 20 new nuclear power stations, or about 33,000 turbines, which is still enormous but appears more achievable.

I am not ruling out hydrogen altogether but simply making the point that when oil supplies begin to wane, it is not a simple matter of switching from oil to hydrogen, but a new and vast infrastructure must be implemented first, to both produce and use hydrogen. The question looms: is it worth it, or might there not be better ways to deal with our impending transportation problems, such as relocalising society to use less transport? Even those who are profound advocates of the "Hydrogen Economy" need to address the problem that the PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane) cell relies on an electrode consisting partly of platinum (about 50 - 100 g worth), which is a metal so rare than only 150 tonnes of new platinum are produced each year, and well below the current and growing demand for it.

Admittedly, the 40% of world platinum that is presently put into catalytic converters could be fabricated into PEM cells, were the putative conversion from oil-power to H2-power to be made, but this is only sufficient to put around:

150 tonnes x 1000 kg/tonne x 1000 g/kg x 0.4/50 g/cell = 1.2 million new "vehicles" on the road each year, out of a world total of about 700 million. Hence in 15 years we could replace just 3% of the current number. Thus, unless more platinum is recovered on a huge scale (from sources as yet unknown to geology), or some alternative fuel cell technology is brought to a commercial level of development on some similarly immediate timescale, the enterprise looks set to fall at the last fence, in this, the last race that humankind will ever have to place bets on.

Related Reading.
(2) NREL National Renewable Energy Technology Laboratory, "Technology Brief: Analysis of Current-Day Commercial Electrolyzers."
(3) Ulf Bossel, Proceedings of the IEEE, Vol. 94, 2006, 1826.
(4) W.Weindorf, U.Buenger and J.Schindler, LBST, "Comments on the paper by Eliasson and Bossel 'The Future of the Hydrogen economy: Bright or Bleak. July 2003.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Mass of the Earth.

I had a phone-call from a friend the other morning, who was driving her kids to school, aged 8 and 11. They wanted to know, "if you could weigh the Earth, how heavy would it be?" I recalled the mass to be about 6 x 10^21 tonnes, which when I checked is about right, and so I said, "it's 6 thousand, million, million, million tonnes... No, million, million, million; not million million," and then I said, "that's the trouble, once numbers get bigger than a few thousand, we can't imagine what they mean!" Then the 11 year old asked, "how do you know how heavy it is?" and I said, "you can measure it from its gravity," which seemed to suffice for that moment. It's a good question, though, and the answer provides a sense of perspective regarding the planet.

In the case of the Earth, we can estimate its mass because we know the acceleration due to gravity at some point near the Earth's surface, g = 9.8 m s^-2. This may be equated with the gravitational constant, G = 6.67 x 10^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2 and the (mean) radius of the Earth, r = 6.37 x 10^6 m. Thus:

GmM/r^2 = mg,

where M = Earth's mass and m = some smaller mass close to the Earth's surface. By cancelling the terms, m, and solving for M, we get:

M = gr^2/G

= 9.8 m s^-2 x (6.37 x 10^6)^2 m^2/6.67 x 10-^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2 = 5.96 x 10^24 kg (i.e. about 6 x 10^21 tonnes).

Another approach to the problem is to use the "satellite method", which in the present case refers to the Earth-Moon system, but is used by astronomers to determine the masses of the other planets, the Sun, distant stars in binary systems, the Milky Way galaxy and even entire clusters of galaxies. We can express (according Newton's Law):

F(gravity) = GMm/r^2,

where G is the gravitational constant, M is the Earth's mass and m is the mass of the satellite (Moon), with r being the distance between the centres of the two bodies. We can further express for a simple circular orbit, the centrifugal force (which acts in opposition to the gravitational force):

F(centrifugal) = mv^2/r,

where v is the angular velocity of the satellite. For a stable stationary orbit to exist, the two forces must be equal and opposite, and so we can write that F(gravity = F(centrifugal), and hence:

GMm/r^2 = mv^2/r. By, once more, cancelling the terms, m, and rearranging, we get:

M = v^2 r/G.

Assuming a circular orbit, the mean angular velocity, v is the circumference of the orbit divided by the time (t) taken for the satellite to make that orbit, i.e. v = 2 pi r/t, and so if we substitute for v, we find:

M = 4 pi^2 r^3/G t^2.

Since the mean distance between the Earth-Moon centres is 384,000 km and the orbital period is 27.32 days ( = 2.36 x 10^6 seconds),

M = 4 pi^2 (3.84 x 10^8 m)^3/6.67 x 10^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2 (2.36 x 10^6 s)^2 = 6.02 x 10^24 kg.

Thus the methods agree pretty well. In a posting "Carbon in the Sky" (January 6th 2007), I worked out that the mass of the Earth's atmosphere is about 5.3 x 10^18 kg, and so we can deduce that the relative mass of the atmosphere to the total mass of our blue planet Earth is 1/1,136,000 (i.e. less than one millionth of it), a value that might easily be thought insignificant...

but not from our point of view!

Related Reading.
(2) Nelkon and Parker, Advanced Level Physics, 4th Edition, Heinmann Educational Books, London, 1978.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Building-Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV).

Building-Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV) is is a version of photovoltaic technology which is being increasingly incorporated into the fabric of both commercial ind domestic buildings as a major or augmenting source of electricity. The essential idea of BIPV is that a cost-reduction is possible for a PV system which is effectively made by fabricating solar-cells within the structure of a building element, e.g. a roof-tile, roof-membrane or a facade-panel. The BIPV modules are thus made component parts of the roof or walls of a building using normal construction techniques, but with the need for additional electrical connections. In Japan the technology has been encouraged in the form of government incentives for PV generally, and this has allowed a significant number of new houses to be fitted with BIPV; however, elsewhere, the relatively high cost of BIPV modules or their limited availability has restricted their use.

In some countries, extra incentives are offered for BIPV over PV but only in France is that differential sufficient to be of significant service. France currently makes around 80% of its electricity from nuclear power, having very little in the way of natural resources, and so as part of a strategy of being as independent as is possible on gas, oil and coal, an investment in solar-power might be expected, and particularly BIPV if it is the most cost-effective version of the latter.

I was reminded of BIPV by a recent e.mail promoting investments in the technology, and which among all the lush information about financial growth expected in the sector, were given some cornucopian figures to the effect that the sunlight hitting the Earth amounts to 174 petawatts of energy per day. In fact that is the amount impinging onto the upper atmosphere, and which is filtered to some extent but in anybody's terms it is an awful lot of energy. This can be broken down into tasty chunks, e.g. 1 petawatt is enough to keep New York City running for 3,846 days. It is claimed that installation of BIPV systems on a mass scale could eventually produce in a single month more energy than Saudi Arabia will in the next 50 years.

It all sounds great, but like is not being compared with like. All resources of energy are not the same in how they are used to release that energy. Most of Saudi's "energy" is oil, and that is used mostly to fuel transportation. More oil is used in the US for space heating and electricity generation than is the case in Europe, but the vast bulk of world oil goes to run cars and planes etc. However, the direct production of electricity from PV (and BIPV since it is cheaper to install as a part of the overall costs of a building) is a special case, and it would be used to power the latter only in the form of a huge (electric) vehicle infrastructure which would need to be installed within probably a couple of decades to keep the cars on the road, even if it could still keep all the lights on.

My final concern is over the resources necessary to collect the sunlight and turn it into electricity by BIPV or indeed any form of solar technology. Conventional silicon solar-cells are presently used in BIPV and this is probably too resource-intensive for widescale exploitation, or at least so on the world-scale that is needed to offset the fall in other energy resources expected. However, "thin-film" technology uses perhaps just 1% of the resources of silicon or cadmium sulphide, gallium arsenide etc. semiconductor materials currently required to make solar-cells, and might provide the lynch-pin of success, although much of it remains to be rendered commercial. As is true of many technologies (including new generations of nuclear reactors) proposed to produce energy into the future, if we are serious about them, we should be going hell-for-leather to install them as soon as possible, otherwise there will be nothing in place to meet our energy needs in the next couple of decades when oil is running short, and demand on gas supplies is relentless.

The fundamental equation seems to include both the actual amounts of resources available and how quickly we can both recover these and fabricate them into practical devices; and also whether we have enough energy remaining from other sources to do all of this by the time such action begins. Either way, time is of the essence.

Related Reading.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Peak Oil 10-20 years away, according to WEC.

The debate continues and we will not know the answer to the question of when peak oil will arrive until it does exactly that. Nor will we know it at the time, but only by looking at production some years beyond it, which will show a fall in output from the maximum (peak). It is estimated by the World Energy Council (WEC) that proven recoverable reserves of oil stood at 1.215 trillion barrels (160 billion tonnes), at the end of 2005, which is somewhat higher by 117 billion barrels than were costed at the end of 2002 which amounts to an extra 4 years supply given that we get through 30 billion barrels a year and rising, worldwide.

Most of the world's oil lies under the Middle East to the tune of 61% of the total; 11% lies under Africa; South America and Europe - including the whole of the Former USSR - have 8% each; while North America holds less than 5% of the total. WEC concludes that oil will not run-out as such for many years but that we were likely to see peak oil within 10 - 20 years; a figure to be compared with the Norwegian Statoil's recent prediction that it will come somewhere between 2010 and 2015. To be fair, the peak is imminent. It is debatable just how much oil Saudi has amid concerns that the regime has revised upward its estimates of its oil holdings, and this is true across the Middle East in general.

Cheap oil will run-out first - world light crude production peaked at the end of 2005 - and following the peak the commodity itself, and everything that depends on it, which is everything, will rise inexorably in price. The price of a barrel of oil is now around $84, which is a short throw from the putative $100 barrel that seemed outlandish as a prospect only a few years ago, but now appears an inevitability, and then $150, $200 or who knows how much? Transportation will be hit hard and as I have predicted throughout these postings, I see no alternative but to curb the use of cars, trucks and planes on a massive scale, resulting in the localisation of communities based on local economies, not strawberries and all manner of consumer products flown thousands of miles to us. I sometimes speculate that the economic miracle in China and India may prove a flash in the pan, since it is largely those of us in the West who buy their goods from them, and if we cannot readily ship and fly them over, then where is the incentive to make them in the first place?

Reserves of natural gas are, in contrast, reasonably healthy. The volume of proven gas reserves have doubled since 1980, as a result of new technologies for exploration and more encouraging estimates of the reserves held in existing fields. It is thought there is sufficient gas to last another 56 years. However, it is the Middle East which holds the trump card, and for example, 44% of the world's gas is contained in about 20 mega and supergiant fields, and nearly half of that is the North Field/South Pars which lies under the waters of Qatar and Iran.

WEC acknowledge that gas exploration is a younger technology than oil exploration, and through its further developments, gas might be brought out from deeper and more complex geologies. For example, coal-bed methane is already a significant contribution to the amount of gas used worldwide, and non-conventional sources such as tight gas sands and methane-hydrates could be harvested in the future. Gas can of course be converted into synthetic crude oil, as I have described before, by steam-reforming it into syngas and catalytic transformation of the latter into liquid hydrocarbons using Fischer-Tropsh methods.

Related Reading.
"Peak Oil 10-20 years away, claims world energy council,"