Thursday, December 20, 2007

Proposal to Dam Red Sea.

It is thought that 50 GW of power might be extracted from a dam built across the Red Sea, and which might alleviate tensions in the Middle East related to energy. Opponents to the idea think that the scheme could create environmental damage on a huge scale and even displace millions of people from their homes. The environmental costs must presumably be weighed against those from CO2 emissions which it is argued the project would save and easing demand on other resources which will run short within a few decades. The dam would need to be 18 miles across, to match the sweep of the Red Sea where it opens into the Gulf of Aden, it's narrowest point.

Hydropower is clean and entirely renewable, albeit there are arguments to the effect that the creation of dams, when areas of land are deliberately flooded, cause the release of methane, another gas thought responsible for global warming. Presumably there would also be some flooding of coastal regions in this project, which would be a stupendous feat of civil engineering. Regarding a timescale, one estimate of 25 years has been given, in comparison with that incurred in building other large dams.

The largest existing hydropower installation is powered by the Italpu Dam at the Paraguayan Brazilian border, which produces 12.6 GW of electricity, and the Three Gorges Dam in China is due for completion in 2009, and more than one million people were displaced during its construction: hence the fears among environmentalists that a similar outcome may befall coastal populations around the Red Sea. The Three Gorges dam generates 13.4 GW and when it is fully operational is expected to increase its output to 22.5 GW. By way of contrast, the Niagara Falls generates just 2.5 GW, taking 90% of the flow of water that flows over the falls themselves.

As ever there are many issues to be considered, but the world may need all the hydropower it can get, rather than using nonrenewable fuels to produce electricity such as gas, coal and uranium, supplies of which may be under quite some pressure in 25 years time, if not before then. However, it is clear that we can't have it both ways, i.e. preserve our energy-rich lifestyle and avoid environmental impacts whether they be on land, sea or the atmosphere, in their interconnected entirety.

Related Reading.
"Proposal: 50 Gigawatts if they dam the Red Sea." By Rick C. Hodgin,

Monday, December 17, 2007

U.K. Nuclear Power Stations to Soldier-on?

Plans have been announced by British Energy to keep the Hinkley B (in Somerset, England) and Hunterston B (in North Ayrshire, Scotland) nuclear power plants running for an additional five years. Both began producing power in 1976, and it is now intended to run them up to 2016, at least, with tests to be made in 2013 to determine if they can be operated safely beyond that initial target. All but one of the current U.K.'s reactors is due for decommissioning by 2024, which means that the nuclear industry has a lot of engineering-work on its hands, and especially so if plans to increase the overall nuclear capacity of the nation are followed.

It is thought that other nuclear power stations owned by the company might also have their operating lives extended, and for Hinkley B and Hunterston, the move will cost around £90 million over the funds for its current programme of investment. Both plants suffered from certain infrastructural difficulties in the past year, resulting in an operational load of 60%, which it is believed can be summarily increased to 70%, and would make the extra five years of useful life economically worthwhile.

Two more nuclear plants, at Hartlepool and Heysham 1, have suffered in their output after wire-corrosion in their boiler-closure units was identified in only the past few months. It is believed that the strategy will help to maintain the U.K.'s electricity output while alternatives are implemented, whatever they might prove to be. For example, Hinkley B and Hunterston provide enough power for over one million homes. British Energy holds around one sixth of the national generating capacity.

The government of Scotland is apparently not opposed to the scheme of running its power stations up to the end of their natural life, while Westminster has yet to make a formal announcement but it seems likely it will endorse such a scheme south of the border. I wonder which will give-out first: the world's nuclear power plants themselves or their supplies of nuclear fuel, as some aver?

Related Reading.
"Longer life for British Energy's nuclear power stations." Yorkshire Post, December 12th, 2007.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Shell to make Biofuel from Algae.

I have written on the subject of producing biodiesel from algae before, and it now looks that Royal Dutch Shell plc and HR Biopetroleum are to build a plant in Hawaii to grow algae and turn it into fuel. One very attractive feature of the strategy in general is the amount of diesel that might be "grown" per hectare compared with that derived from plants. According to the best estimates, somewhere over 100 tonnes of fuel might be synthesised per hectare from algae while 10 tonnes would be good going for the best crops, e.g. palm soya or jatropha, and probably just a tonne or so from rape.

Furthermore, since the algae need to absorb CO2 to grow their carbon weight, they offer a potential advantage of carbon sequestration, since although CO2 is released when the diesel is burned, the growth of the next crop of algae will take-up more of this important greenhouse gas. However, it is my understanding that the highest yields of algae involve using forced conditions of CO2 concentration which must be pumped into the reactors rather than simply leaving them open to the atmosphere to absorb ambient concentrations of the gas. It would be beneficial perhaps to locate algal production plants next to fossil-fuel powered electricity generating stations from which to catch CO2 and feed it to the algae.

However, the Hawaii facility intends to use open-air ponds to grow the algae in, which will be unmodified marine microalgae, indigenous to Hawaii, using patented methods. Presumably the latter have got around possible risks of contamination by other algal species with a lesser final yield of what is sometimes called "algoil." The technology has one more substantial benefit, and that is that unlike growing crops for fuel, which must eventually compete for a limited area of arable land with growing crops for food, the algal ponds can be placed on any land, including coastal areas which are no use for conventional agriculture.

The facility under question will be run by a Shell/HR Petroleum venture company, called Cellina, and will actually be located on the Kona coast of Hawaii Island, near to other facilities which also grow algae mostly for pharmaceuticals and food. The Cellina facility will use high pressure CO2 from cylinders to explore the potential of applying the gas from industrial e.g. power plants, as noted above. There is also a reduced demand on freshwater, which is likely to fail in supply worldwide and which some have predicted there will be wars over, since the algae can be grown in ponds filled with seawater.

I think this a very positive step, and it will be interesting to see how the project develops and if it is successful, just how easy it is to scale up the technology to match anywhere near the 30 billion barrels of oil from petroleum the world uses annually. In the latter respect, if technology based on algae is to provide part of our salvation in the Oil Dearth Era, it needs to be installed large and soon.

Related Reading.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

UK Wind Farms.

It is intended to provide up to half of the UK's electricity using wind-farms based in the North Sea, the Irish Sea and around the Scottish coast. It is envisaged to build turbines up to 850 feet high, which is 100 feet higher than Canary Wharf, each of which would be capable of powering 8,000 homes and altogether with a combined generating capacity of 33 GW. John Hutton, the energy secretary, is set to open-up the entire coast of these islands for wind-turbine installations, except for those regions deemed essential for shipping.

The plan is to have the scheme up and running by 2020, but there will still need to be fossil-fuel powered electricity generation to cope with demand on occasions when the wind does not blow, which would leave the nation vulnerable to power shortages. It is expected that the turbines will be visible from all locations in Britain, and is the subject of controversy. Presently, there is only around 0.5 GW of our electricity provided by wind-power, out of a total generating capacity of 75 GW.

According to Mr Hutton, "The UK is now the number one location for investment in offshore wind in the world and next year we will overtake Denmark as the country with the most offshore wind capacity. This could be a major contribution towards meeting the EU's target of 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020."

This should be compared with the fact that the UK is running out of renewable energy as a surge in demand by businesses has outstripped electricity provision by wind farms, hydropower and burning waste gas. Interest in cutting carbon emissions has greatly stretched new supplies of zero-carbon electricity, which is a pain for companies which have agreed to become carbon-neutral.

Clearly, we need to get the wind-farms up and running as soon as possible.

Related Reading.
(1) "Business runs out of green energy supply," By Juliette Jowlt, The Observer:
(2) "Giant offshore wind farms to supply half of UK powre," By Jonathon Leake, The Sunday Times. http://www,

Thursday, December 06, 2007

"Seeding the Ocean": a Discredited Strategy.

It has been proposed to "seed" the oceans with iron filings or other nutrients in an effort to stimulate the growth of phytoplankton (marine algae), and thus to remove CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. However, new research suggests this may not be an effective strategy, since less carbon is transported to the sea-floor during the summer months when algal growth is at a maximum than during the rest of the year.

The process is known as a "biological pump" because it incorporates CO2, in near-surface waters, into algae which then sinks into deeper waters and thus sequesters the carbon. As a corollary to this line of thought, the more algae there is in the surface regions the more CO2 is taken-up and the greater is the mass of carbon-rich detritus "pumped" to the bottom of the seas. The new findings, based on a novel mathematical analysis of the data, contravene this assumption, however.

The primary author of the paper, which is published in the Journal of Geological Research, Dr Michael Lutz, said: "The discovery is very surprising. If, during natural plankton blooms, less carbon actually sinks to deep water than during the rest of the year, then it suggests that the Biological Pump leaks. More material is recycled in shallow water and less sinks to depth, which makes sense if you consider how this ecosystem has evolved in a way to minimize loss. Ocean fertilization schemes, which resemble an artificial summer, may not remove as much CO2 from the atmosphere as has been suggested because they ignore natural processes revealed by this research."

Publication of the paper snaps close on the heels of a September Ocean Iron Fertilization symposium at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) at which were discussed matters related to environmental safety, economics and indeed just how effective the procedure might be in grabbing CO2, thus reducing its concentration in the atmosphere. Dr Hauke Kite-Powell, from the Marine Policy Centre at WHOI estimated a potential future ventures value of $100 billion for the technology on the international carbon trading market, and yet none of the major studies to date have demonstrated that it results in any significant degree of carbon sequestration. It is argued that these have been of too short duration and that vindication of the approach will need larger scale and more permanent experimental arrangements.

According to Professor Rosemary Rayfuse, an authority on international law and the law of the sea, based at the University of New South Wales, since such fertilization strategies are not approved under any carbon-credit schemes, the sale of "offsets" on the unregulated voluntary markets are "nothing short of fraudulent." She said: "There are too many scientific uncertainties relating both to the efficacy of ocean fertilization and its possible environmental side effects that need to be resolved before even larger experiments can be considered, let alone the process commercialized. Ocean fertilization is "dumping" which is essentially prohibited under the law of the sea. There is no pint trying to ameliorate the effects of climate change by destroying the oceans - the very cradle of life on earth. Simply doing more and bigger of that which has already been demonstrated to be ineffective and potentially more harmful than good is counter-intuitive at best."

Dr Lutz commented: "The limited duration of previous ocean fertilization experiments may not be why carbon sequestration wasn't found during those artificial blooms. Thuis apparent puzle could actually reflect how marine ecosystems naturally handle blooms and agrees with our findings. A bloom is like ringing the marine ecosystem dinner-bell. The microbial and food web dinner guests appear and consume most of the fresh algal food. Our study highlights the need to understand natural ecosystem processes, especially in a world where climate change is occurring so rapidly."

This is a fair point, and a timely reminder of the potential dangers of all strategies of "geoengineering". The earth is literally and mathematically a complex system, and it is a folly to try and compartmentalise its elements, "treating" aspects of them in isolation, when we don't really understand the nature of their interconnected whole. In "fixing" one "problem" we may trigger-off a whole host of sympathetic troubles by interfering in the natural balance of the planet-systems, and precipitating changes not predicted by any artificial algorithm of how the earth is supposed to behave, but may yet awaken us by rude reality.

Related Reading.
"New research discredits $100B global warming "fix"," By Virgina Key.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Cheap "Organic" Solar Power?

To use current silicon technology at the thickness (200 microns) that it is employed in the present generation of solar cells is not feasible on the grand scale. The main problem is how quickly high grade silicon wafers can be fabricated and I calculated previously that we would need around 100 times the present production capacity to be installed over 20 years to make a real dent in the anticipated shortfall of future world electricity production. Thin-film cells, which use perhaps 100 times less materials, and in more accessible amorphous forms rather than crystalline wafers, would represent a considerable advantage in terms of raw material requirements, but this technology needs further refinement.

In contrast to such devices based on "mineral", inorganic, semiconductor materials, there is the possibility of organic cells, which instead are made from carbon molecules. A conventional photovoltaic (PV) cell consists of a silicon wafer of thickness 200 microns (one fifth of a millimeter), to be compared with a human hair which is around 70 microns thick. This is treated with other materials to form a double-layer structure which is known in electronics as a p-n junction. Photons of light are absorbed by the silicon causing a flow of electrons and a hence a small electric current. In an organic cell, the double layer is made from two ultra-thin (100 nanometer or 0.1 micron) films of organic conducting polymers, embossed onto glass.

A prototype organic cell has been developed by Neil Cavendish at Cambridge University, and one about the size of your hand can produce enough electricity to run a pocket calculator. Most standard solar cells operate with a light-to-electricity conversion efficiency of around 10 - 15%, but organic cells have proved so far much less efficient, perhaps only 3 - 4%. However, they are much cheaper to produce. Indeed, Paul O'Brien at Manchester University thinks that solar cells need be no more expensive to make than high-performance self-cleaning glass. He said: "We're very interested in solar cells where we take an organic layer that's printable or sprayable containing an inorganic mineral like lead sulphide which will actually do the photon capture."

Indeed, lead sulphide can be fabricated into minute "nanorods", perhaps 100 nanometers in length and 20 nanometres in cross section, and can be dispersed in the semiconducting polymer, hence releasing electrons within the material, which can then conduct them carrying an electric current. All researchers in the field stress the need to move away from carbon-based fossil fuels in order to mitigate climate change, or in my view, more urgently to use less of the cheap oil and gas that we are running short of. In principle, cheap solar cells could be incorporated into the walls and roofs of buildings in the form of building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV), as a means to bear the burden of costs yet further. O'Brien reckons that the new solar cell technology might cost as little as one hundredth as much as silicon cells, and that will surely provide an incentive for further development.

Nonetheless, the clock is ticking away toward the Oil Dearth Era, and any such technologies need to be installed quickly, if we are to avoid a massive energy crunch, especially if electricity is implemented in various strategies to keep transportation running. There is also the issue of other materials such as platinum, which will be needed on a massive scale to underpin such innovations - another potential bottleneck in the shifting schemes of potential "solutions" to the impending and unavoidable energy crisis.

Related Reading.
"How solar power could become organic - and cheap," By Michael Pollitt, The Independent, 29-11-07.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

"Oil" from Wood Chips and Nuclear Power.

The two are not directly connected, and yet are set to be part of the energy mix deemed necessary to run the post-cheap oil world. Shell has collaborated with Choren Industries to build a pilot plant in Germany, near Freiberg, which uses wood chips to make synthetic fuel. In an adaptation of the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) technology in which coal is "fired" into synthesis gas ( a mixture of H2 and CO) and this is converted into hydrocarbons over a cobalt catalyst, wood chips are similarly gasified and turned into synthetic fuel. The FT process was invented at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut fur Kohlenforschung in 1923, and contributed to keeping Hitler's armies fueled during WWII, which would otherwise have ended years before it did as the Allies had blockaded Germany from conventional supplies of crude oil. It was thought that the Germans would be starved of fuel within months of the start of the war, but their scientific ingenuity proved otherwise.

The generalised methods of converting coal to liquid fuel are termed coal to liquids, CTL, and wood etc. (biomass) to liquids conversion is analogously known as BTL. The latter is strictly an experimental technology and there is much more to be done before it might be implemented on the grand scale. It is one of the second generation of biofuels, which is really the only way that anywhere near the amount of petroleum based fuel might be matched from renewable "bio" sources, without compromising food production when growing crops for fuel encroaches onto land for food crops. As an example, even if all of the UK's arable land were turned over to growing sugar for ethanol fuel, only about half its oil based equivalent could be matched. Hence even if we starved, we could only run half our current transportation fleet, overall. The essential basis of "second generation" biofuels is the conversion of lignocellulose into fuel, and hence increasing vastly the "yield" per hectare of fuel, by using a material that is normally discarded in crop production.

The pilot plant in Freiberg will make 15,000 tonnes of fuel each year but the construction of a far larger plant to produce "Sunfuel", as Choren has nicknamed the BTL product, at Schleswig-Holstein with a capacity of 200,000 tonnes annually, is due to begin next year. BTL is a component of Shell's XTL programme, which includes GTL, a form of diesel made from natural gas, hence the "G". The latter technology is being implemented in the form of the world's greatest civil engineering project, employing a workforce of 30,000, namely "Pearl", based in Qatar, with the intention of converting some of that country's huge reserves of natural gas into 140,000 barrels daily of synthetic fuel. This amounts to over 50 million tonnes per year of a diesel that is completely free from sulphur. I attended a meeting run by the Royal Society of Chemistry in Oxford recently at which it was concluded that second generation methods, either cracking lignocellulose into sugars to make ethanol, or via BTL/FT into diesel would not be operating commercially before 2020, i.e. well into the Oil Dearth Era.

Nuclear power is set to be an essential component of the energy mix. When I started writing these articles I thought that we could dispense with nuclear and run everything on renewables; I am no longer of that opinion, and we will need to replace the old generation of reactors in addition to building new ones. How feasible it will be to expand the nuclear industry remains to be seen both in terms of engineering and the availability of nuclear fuel. Depending on how uranium or for that matter thorium is "burned" in nuclear reactors, and how assiduously exploration for further sources of these fuels is done, we may have hundreds or thousands of years worth left to exploit, and hence the technology could be viewed as "renewable". Gordon Brown has, however, outlined four sites for new-build nuclear, and these are at Sizewell in Suffolk; Dungeness in Kent; Hinkley in Somerset and Bradwell in Essex. It is interesting that all these are in the south of England and none in Scotland where of course, Mr Brown hails from!

Related Reading.
(1) "Shell turns to wood chips and straw in search for the road fuel of the future," By Carl Mortsihead, International Business Editor, Timesonline, 2nd March, 2007.
(2) "Brown outlines four sites for nuclear power stations," By Colin Brown, The Independent, 29th November, 2007.