Monday, March 17, 2008

Digging Diesel.

It has been said that there is more carbon in the form of coal under the state of Illinois than exists under Saudi Arabia in the form of oil. Given the massive hike in oil prices, which over the past week have oscillated slightly but did reach a maximum of $111 a barrel, economically it might appear an opportune time to convert some of this coal into diesel. The technology certainly exists, and indeed it was via such means that Germany manged to fabricate its own fuel for the military actions during WWII. It was thought initially by the Allies that their efforts in a fuel blockade would effectively starve its opposing nation into surrender, but German ingenuity prevailed, and mostly through the Bergius Process, and later the Fischer-Tropsch Process, abundant supplies of coal were converted into fuel to keep that sphere of history going.

Rudoph Diesel, of the same name as the engine he invented, had thought that coal-dust could be used as a fuel for the latter, but decided against this after a number of his engines thereby exploded - he thence decided to use oil from plants e.g. sunflower oil as a fuel. It is interesting that Henry Ford, the inventor of the Model T Ford, the first car to be produced on a production-line, believed that petroleum was in limited supply and developed his first cars to run on ethanol as a fuel. It is quite salutary that we are now considering similar alternatives to oil (biofuels), as the latter falls into declining provision. Ford was right that there is only so much oil in recoverable form, but only after a trillion or so barrels were discovered especially under the lands of Russia and the Middle East. Now this bounty will appear as a mere spike on the record of history, but for our own experience the consequences of its depletion will hit hard.

I have just read a novel by James Howard Kunstler, entitled "World Made By Hand." It is very well written and alarming in a disarming, down-played kind of way. He describes, through the medium of the novel form, a subsequent region of Albany, New York State, which has been reduced to practically medieval times as a result of oil being a rare commodity. There are gangs - one driven by religion and the other by brute force - who act in control of much that still exists there, although the "New Faith" group are tougher than the biker/gangsters, as the latter find to their detriment. What is instilled through the reading is a subtle sense of slowness, that literally the way of life is restored to pre-oil fashion, and emphasis is placed necessarily on food, salvage and repair, as will become the truth in the absence of alternative sources of energy.

I am "into" technology, don't get me wrong. I was a (Full) Professor in Physical Chemistry until I decided to set-up my own consulting business five years ago, and hence I am quite aware of what is involved, but in truth until I began this (blog) project a couple of years back, having attended as an "expert" on the UK government's programme to solve the problem of providing "UK Energy to 2050", at the Geological Society and witnessed its conclusions unveiled at The Royal Society, I didn't quite realise the enormous amount of energy the world uses, and matching that by other means than fossil fuels will not be readily accomplished, if at all. My fear and suspicion is that we have left it a bit too late. If we had began alternatives to petroleum thirty-five years ago when OPEC launched the first artificial oil-crises, we might be somewhere close to achieving alternative and renewable energy provision, but we are a long way off as things stand.

Kunstler has written a number of books including "The Long Emergency" which relates specifically to conditions in the US, where life depends almost inextricably on cheap oil, given the necessary large distances that need to be traversed in daily life around urbanized America. I remember during one of my lecture tours of the US, having to cross an eight-lane highway to get to the only shop in the area to buy a carton of milk. Being car-less in America is not easy! In Europe our likely problems are similar, but our nations are smaller and a relocalisation of society will be more easily accomplished, although it will not be a voluntary event.

So, back to the coal. As noted, the technology exists in proven form. Not only the Germans during WWII but also the Sasol company in South Africa, a nation that was also starved of oil, for various political reasons of sanction, have turned coal into fuel - the latter still do, and a friend of mine in SA tells me that it is thought there is 30 years worth of coal left there to do so. There are two essential methods for coal-to-liquids (CTL) technology, the direct, i.e. the Bergius Process which involves the hydrogenation of coal powder as dispersed in a high boiling fluid under pressure and the indirect, Fischer-Tropsch method which involves the conversion of solid coal into a gaseous mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide which is then reacted over a cobalt catalyst (iron works too) to form a mixture of hydrocarbons. High molecular weight "waxes" are a predominant component of the FT process, but these can be "cracked" into smaller molecules that find better use as a fuel for conventional transportation.

If this is going to take-off, in Illinois and elsewhere, including Yorkshire and the South-Wales of my boyhood, UK, where there are still some considerable reserves of coal, a huge capital investment will be required, and as with all putative "oil-dearth-era" technologies, construction needs to be started as soon as possible. Even the CEO of Shell reckons that world supplies of oil will not be able to keep up with demand for it by 2015, and I would guess that it will take considerably longer than that to match the oil-decline that will thence occur. There are necessarily issues of CO2 emissions, i.e. if the overall production of carbon is considered from well-to-wheel, the CTL strategy is heavier in CO2 emissions than conventional production from oil-wells, by about 50%. However, I think that CO2 emissions, while thought influential to climate change etc., are the least of our worries. As we begin to run-out of fossil fuels we will put less CO2 into the atmosphere per se, and it is really the challenge of energy provision that is the most confrontational issue for humankind to address and solve, if it can.

Related Reading.
"Mining for Diesel Fuel; The Search for New Oil Sources Leads to Processed Coal."By Matthew T. Wald.


Anonymous said...

Could it be that the world will eventually return to loving G K Chesterton's song?
"Our civilisation is built upon coal,
"Our civilisation is built upon coal,
"Let us chant in rotation,
"Our civilisation,
"That lump of damnation without any soul,
"Our civilisation is built upon coal".
Peter Melia

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Mmmm... pithy and ironic, Peter!

I am fond of Chesterton - and I suspect he might have had a point. The latest Hubbert Linearization suggests there is only about 500 million tonnes of coal in a readily recoverable form... scary!

There is also an Arab proverb (so they tell me) along the lines: "My grandfather rode a camel, my father drove a car, I ride a jetplane, my son will ride a camel..."

We may curse the event of oil...



Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Sorry, that should be 500 Billion, not Million!

It's not quite as scary as that!

However, the point is that fossil-reserves won't last forever and if we don't come up with serious options... well... civilization is going to suffer...


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alizybeth said...

its trajectory over time. Eventually, all the oil curves have to end to zero but, in the meantime, Enhanced Oil Recovery