Saturday, June 28, 2008

New Wind-Turbine Every Day for 12 Years.

To fulfil the ambition of a six-fold expansion in electricity generated by onshore wind farms by 2020, it will be necessary to build another 4,000 wind-turbines which amounts to about one a day for the next 12 years. Including offshore turbines, a grand total of 11,000 will be needed by 2020, in order to hit European renewable energy targets. The U.K. currently has 2,000 onshore turbines and those opposed to them claim that rural areas will be "blighted" by their proliferation and that they are "less reliable" than those placed out at sea. In May the British government announced its intentions for another 7,000 offshore turbines, which is one of the most ambitious civil engineering projects for decades.

There is, as noted, and unsurprisingly, opposition to the whole enterprise, but changes in laws regarding planning are expected to facilitate the fruition of these proposals by developers. If these efforts are genuine, in the face of energy-shortages, then it might be a reasonable compromise to sacrifice some of the braking-power to building projects in the interests of bridging an energy-gap, albeit that lax laws will undoubtedly be abused by other kinds of "developer".

The EU target for renewable energy means that 15% of "energy" (I think that means "electricity" rather than "energy", which amounts to just under one fifth of the U.K.'s total "energy" bill, 40% of the rest coming in the form of transportation fuel) and will cost this nation £100 billion, coincidentally a little less than the country's annual welfare bill, which is completely unsustainable.

According to a new report on green energy to be published next week, an area the size of Essex will need to be planted with crops to supply fuel for power stations, while it is conceded that it may not be practical to meet the EU target due to a "chronic shortage of engineers able to build wind turbines". Perhaps our "new universities" will return to their roots as technical colleges and polytechnics who were very successful in teaching useful arts, rather than churning-out "graduates" in a diversity of impractical subjects that will prove a dubious luxury in the coming years, when innovation is required. The encroaching energy crunch will almost certainly forge an overdue reformation of the British higher education system which was reconfigured almost two decades ago in order to expand student numbers in the interests of inclusiveness and "education, education, education" as Mr Blair promised them all. "They" are all now massively in debt, to a tune of typically £15,000, as a consequence of top-up-fees and student loans.

The report proposes an increase in the use of biomass, e.g. wood, agricultural waste, straw and energy crops (the size of Essex?) to fire power plants. Here is a condensed version of a few interesting facts from it:

*Up to 4,000 more onshore and 7,000 offshore turbines by 2020.
*1,300 square miles (3,250 km^2) of the U.K. for growing crops to fire power stations (5% of total crop-land area)
*Grants and incentives for solar panels for 1/4 all homes.
*Grants for domestic wind turbines and ground-source heat pumps.
*Local authorities to collect waste food to generate methane for power stations.
*The renewable energy transition will result in 160,000 new jobs but it will cost £100 billion.

*Working at full-capacity (which they won't, see below) our present turbines could power 1.4 million homes.
*It takes 6-8 months to pay-back the energy outlay in building a wind-turbine.
*The turbines need wind-speeds of between 10 and 33 miles per hour (16 and 50 kmh) and are idle for up to one third of the time.
*38 new wind farms are currently under construction and another 124 have planning permission to go ahead.
*One line of criticism is that we should be concentrating on insulating homes to make them more energy-efficient and use less power. I agree that energy-efficiency is paramount but so is energy supply. We just shouldn't waste it.

Shaun Spiers, CEO of the Campaign to Protect Rural England said: "[Installing more onshore wind turbines] may be sacrificing our landscape just to allow people to fly and drive more." I don't understand the connection between electricity production by wind or other means and transportation, since the latter uses liquid fuels and we don't have electric vehicles, or versions that run on hydrogen made from electricity etc. As things stand, all the scheme in the report can do (if it can) is to result in using less fossil fuel to make electricity. All other problems, especially those pertaining to keeping transportation going appear to remain. Equally, I don't understand it when Mr Brown says that more nuclear and renewables will help to break our dependence on oil. How exactly? How can electricity substitute (and quickly too!) for oil?

Also, in regard to fabricating one new wind turbine installation per day, what exactly is the present capacity to build them? Far less than that almost certainly, and so how will this be expanded across the U.K. and indeed across Europe? It is the rate of building completely new manufacturing capacity that sets the clock for the expansion of renewables and all other technologies. Once again the lack of engineering capacity appears to provide a bottleneck to this scenario.

Related Reading.
"Ministers want a new wind turbine built every day for 12 years to meet new EU green targets." By David Derbyshire.

Monday, June 23, 2008

News Round-up.

Other than mention that today is the first day of Wimbledon, the B.B.C. news [1] this morning was filled with items about fuel - both oil and gas. Gordon Brown has visited Saudi, along with other energy leaders, to ask for an increase in production from this, the world's majority oil-producer. He also asked that Saudi and other major oil-producing nations invest in British renewable energy, which includes nuclear, that they may reap a harvest from in the coming oil-dearth era. Presumably this also defrays Britain's own outlay costs to build a future based on "renewable resources". It always puzzles me that nuclear power is counted among the cast of renewable resources since it depends on uranium as a fuel, which is surely in finite supply, and only through breeder-reactor technology using either uranium or thorium, or mining poorer streams of uranium "ore" can the world's nuclear fuel last for hundreds of years, rather than running-out in less than 50 years as the present known reserves of 3 million tonnes or so are anticipated to.

However, in the conference summary, there was no mention of such a commitment to U.K. renewables, nor to the post-oil era. According to Saudi "there is no production problem for the foreseeable future". Mr Brown is the only non-OPEC national leader in attendance, which I take as a demonstration of his commitment to the seriousness of the oil-price situation. Indeed he has stated that "oil prices are the greatest threat to the world." I agree: rising CO2 emissions may well be a longer-term threat, but running out of cheap fuel will have the more immediate impact on maintaining present lifestyles.

The aviation industry is feeling a very firm pinch from high fuel-prices and is levying all kinds of charges - for check-ins, airport taxes, and many other services. I read that one airline in the U.S. is going out of business every day, and these are the smaller outfits which, along with budget airlines across the world generally are finding their profit margins squeezed relentlessly against increasing operational costs. Saudi have said that the world cannot expect oil to become cheaper, while noting that an inexorable rise in the price of a barrel of oil is not in their interests either. Other main oil-producing nations, e.g. UAE, do not seem especially similarly concerned, and have not offered to ramp-up their own production. With the oil-prices as they are, UAE are making a surplus of around $100 a barrel over the amount they have budgeted for ($40 a barrel): adding up to a cool near $100 billion a year. What is done with such surpluses will impact significantly on the world political stage.

The new gas-terminal at Milford Haven in South Wales, also home to the U.K.'s largest oil-depot, looks set to begin work. It is thought that this facility may handle 30% of the U.K.'s gas, imported in liquid form by tanker from Qatar, a nation that owns vast volumes of gas; some of which it is turning into synthetic diesel through GTL technology, in the world's biggest civil engineering project employing almost 30,000 workers. Thus from the oil and gas exporting nation Britain was until a couple of years ago, we are now heavily dependent on imports of both from the Middle East. Thus surely any potential strife there could effect this country calamitously if supplies of gas and oil are interrupted - in terms of providing heating, electricity and transport. Our other friends for gas-imports are the Norwegians, who live in a perennially stable nation. It makes sense to plan for the longer-term future now, while so much of conventional fossil-resources are up for grabs, and the gas-deals should keep Britain fuelled for decades ahead. The oil problem comprises both its costs and ultimately limited supply, although setting a time-line for the latter is difficult and possibly not helpful since it is the cost of oil and its refined products, particularly fuel, that will drive consumption down over time.

This will have significant social impacts, and unless some other kind of fuel is found in similar amount and at reasonable cost, cheap transport will be a thing of the past. One can of course not know what will happen in the far-future, but in the more immediate term, the airlines, both budget and large enterprises such as B.A. who are prepared to cut the number of their flights to conserve fuel costs, provide an indication of an economically-motivated curbing in the level of transport.

There are severe limits in what might be provided in terms of biofuel, unless the algae-to-fuel technology [2] can be implemented on the large-scale, but this will require enormous amounts of phosphorus fertilizer, demand for which is already being pressed from conventional agriculture - i.e. to grow food. Food prices are escalating across the world and the latter problem will not help to alleviate matters. Indeed, a food-crop vs fuel -crop conflict over the same, restricted amount of available arable land will only make matters worse.

The issue of "growing things" is paramount on so many levels, and one underlying problem is the poor quality of soil especially in Africa and much of Asia. I discovered a new term (new to me anyway) of "biochar" [3] which is a kind of charcoal formed at low temperatures, which both ties-up unwanted carbon from the atmosphere in the soil over the longer-term (maybe hundreds of years) and increases the fertility of poor soil. It also seems to help the soil to retain nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus and may mean that less of them are required to provide a given crop, which would usefully ease pressure on the latter particularly.

This is another worthy "technology" to be investigated, and I am beginning to think that those strategies that are likely to come to the aid of the world are those which work in-hand with nature, rather than which preserve a bubble whose integrity can only be preserved by expending other finite "mineral" resources. It is significant that another item this morning mentioned [1] that "it will take 30-40 years to install the proposed nuclear power programme in the U.K." - this emphasises that the "nuclear solution" is not a quick fix and will depend on all kinds of other resources to bring it forth. However, it is not clear to me how renewables, even if we include nuclear and if we can get enough of them up and running, can address the issue of replacing liquid fuels, unless the majority of future transport is intended to run on electric-power, which has implications for other resources such as lithium.

[1] "Breakfast Time" B.B.C., news items, June 23rd, 2008.
[2] I am writing a chapter for a book on this subject which I will post when it is published.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Iran Nuclear Cauldron Heats Up.

In the face of the war in Iraq, it is alarming to sense a development in the possibility that Iran too might become embroiled in military actions with another power. I have read various reasons that this could happen, but the central issues appear to be that Iran (i) wishes to carry on enriching nuclear fuel and (ii) it is claimed, the country has been providing certain factions in Iraq with weapons. Since many other countries either enrich or handle uranium that has been enriched elsewhere, there is no reason per se that Iran should not do likewise, but the principal concern is over the degree to which uranium would be enriched in uranium-235, either to around 3.5% as a raw material for nuclear fuel in peaceful nuclear power generation or, as is alleged by Israel and the West (both the US and Europe) to nearer 90%, to provide weapons grade uranium. At one stage, Russia offered to enrich uranium for Iran to fuel grade concentrations, but Iran remains defiant that it should be allowed to maintain its own enrichment facilities.

In view of the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD's), which were never identified in Iraq but furnished one of the reasons to go to war with them, and that it was thought that some of these WMD's might be nuclear, the whole matter is very delicate. I have read a host of commentators' claims that the reason for the Iraq war (the second one at any rate) was "about oil", and there are similar anticipations that any military actions against Iran would in reality be similarly motivated. I am not a politician, but I am setting these matters on the table for discussion. Both Iraq and Iran are lands under which are reckoned enormous deposits of oil, perhaps up to 200 billion barrels worth apiece, and an amount of oil that might be counted to serve more than a decade's worth at present world use - or far longer than that for the needs of individual nations if they managed to get their hands on it - is a glittering prize indeed.

Back in 2006, it was reported [1] that Iran was threatening to deprive the West of oil if the latter went ahead with its sanctions against them over its attempts to acquire a nuclear enrichment facility. Iran insists that its sole purpose in developing the facility is for nuclear power generation, and it had by then 164 centrifuges and there were plans to get another 3,000 in that year. This can be measured against an "expert" view that it would take around 50,000 such centrifuges to produce weapons grade uranium, and so such a prospect appeared some years off, even if that were the intention.

The story has unfolded somewhat since then and there have been a number of potential standoffs between Iran and both Western nations and Israel. Last November (2007) it was reported [2] that the UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, had proposed a worldwide ban on companies involved in the development of Iran's oil and gas fields should it fail to curb its nuclear ambitions. He said that Iran had a choice: sanctions from the international community or dropping its nuclear plans and also stopping its support for terrorism and "having a transformed relationship with the world". Military action was not ruled-out by Mr Brown, who said that "hard-headed intervention" was occasionally necessary. He also said that the active providers as well as the potential users of nuclear materials should be held to account.

In the latest development, Israel has apparently carried out a rehearsal exercise for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities [3,4]. Over Israeli 100 fighter-planes were involved in an exercise over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece in the first week of this month. It would appear that this action was intended to warn Tehran that Israel has the military might to launch an attack on Iran, which it would do if it thought that Iran was "close to getting a nuclear weapon". This does sound familiar, although it is emphasised that there is no definite intention to attack Iran but a display of its capability to do so can be read as a statement of intention. The UN secretary approved a third round of sanctions against Iran back in March 2008 over the nuclear issue, which was unexpected since it was reported by US intelligence at the end of 2007 that Iran had "given up its nuclear weapons programme".

Now I am confused because I didn't think that Iran had ever said it had any plans toward "nuclear weapons", just the peaceful development of nuclear power. Maybe insertion of the word "weapons" is a typo but if so it is highly dangerous.

A spokesman for the Israeli military said that the air force "regularly trains for various missions in order to confront and meet the challenges posed by threats facing Israel". Experts have expressed doubt that Israel has the capacity to destroy Iran's extensive and heavily defended nuclear facilities without the assistance of the U.S. In 1981, the Israeli air-force destroyed Iraq's single nuclear reactor and last September it bombed a site in Syria which U.S. intelligence had identified as containing a nuclear reactor constructed with the aid of North Korean nuclear engineers.

Iran still denies vehemently that it intends to develop nuclear weapons but remains steadfast in its intentions and rights to develop a peaceful nuclear power facility. However, the International Atomic Energy Agency which is the UN's watchdog over matters nuclear, has demanded "full disclosure" from Tehran in connection with plans it has obtained covertly to design a nuclear weapon, which Iran has discounted as "baseless, forged or irrelevant".

This flame is under the pot.

[1] "Iran threatens to use 'oil weapon' in nuclear standoff." By Simon Tisdall.
[2] "Gordon Brown threatens Iran's oil interests unless it curbs nuclear ambition."
[3] "Israeli threat to attack Iran over nuclear weapons." By Ian Black.
[4] "Israelis 'rehearse Iran attack'."

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Heavy Oil Squeezed Harder.

"Energy Balance" seems to be entering a certain level of maturity, in the sense that what I was thinking and posting a couple of years ago (the blog only 2 1/2 years old) strikes some rather unsettling or deja vu backdrops against what has occurred since - and is threatened now, particularly. For a start, the price of a barrel of oil was around $70, or about half what it is now, and even that was more than three times its price a couple of years before then ($22). It was a mere $12 a barrel in 1999. Anyway, thinking about the recent Saudi pledge to pump more oil, and that if it does so, much of the increase could be in the form of high-sulphur "sour" heavy crude oil, rather than the "sweet" (low-sulphur) light oil that everybody wants, struck a chord with an article that I revisited inadvertently, having forgotten writing it, but which I have re-posted below as it seems relevant to current trends.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Heavy Oil Squeezed Harder.

Alternative oil sources are all up for grabs, as supplies of "light crude", the easiest form of petroleum to extract and process are set to decline, following the peak in production: "Peak Oil". We will most likely see further regions and examples of unsettledness in the world, but either way, the developed nations and their energy providers are strenuously seeking alternative sources of oil, including those whose exploitation made no economic sense during the times of plenty for light crude. Thus we see increasing mention of "oil sands", more accurately termed "tar sands", which contain bitumen, a material that can be "cracked" into oil, and hence processed into gasoline. The Alberta sands produced something like 1.1 million barrels of oil every day in 2005, and it is hoped to increase that production to the level of around 5 billion barrels daily by 2030.

We will need all of that, and much more, in 25 years, when we will have exhausted probably all the "cheap" light oil; by then, extraction costs will be considerable. Nonetheless, in terms of EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested), the return on tar-oil is not great, at 1.5 (3:2), and it is thought that 3 is the limit below which extraction of an energy resource is not worth the effort or expenditure of existing resources (See previous posting "You Need Energy to get Energy - Time is Running Out."). It is a crime that almost all of this precious material is simply being burnt in the mighty fuel tank of transportation, rather than being retained as a vital chemical feedstock - when cheap oil is gone, much of the world's industry and economy in consequence, will find itself without raw materials, let alone fuel to process them with.
Much of the U.S. is well provided for in terms of oil-shale.

This is essentially porous rock which contains hydrocarbons, and by heating (which is also highly energy intensive, in similar amount to the oil-sands problem) these are expelled for processing into...yeah, gasoline and aviation fuel. There seem to be no plans to hang on to the stuff for a rainy day, the whole enterprise is aimed just to produce as much as demand will accept, at whatever costs the markets will put up with...and then burn it. It is likely that any market-driven stoicism may skid a little, as the price of oil is now around $70 dollars a barrel, and up from about $22 a couple of years back. Consequently, airport taxes and other charges are being stepped-up, for no reasons of altruism, but because the main cost of flying - fuel - cannot be otherwise born. The knock-on effect will be to make the cost of cheap flights increasingly uncompetitive with the big-boys, and that may well reduce the number of passengers overall.

Mining oil-shale, especially when it is deposited deep underground is a problem, both in terms of accessibility and energy. I have read of one suggestion, which is to use underground nuclear explosions to "break-up" such deep seated shale deposits, in order to make their extraction easier. However, I envisage "radioactive oil" being even less popular than the standard offering: two emissions for the price of one: radiation and CO2. Mmm, I think that one is some way off yet!

More likely to succeed are the Saudi's proposals to unlock their reserves of "heavy oil". Heavy oil is much more difficult to handle, and can be of the consistency of treacle (molasses?). This makes it harder to pump to the surface than light oils. The U.S. giant Chevron is investigating a technique which uses steam to mobilise sludge-like reserves in Wafra, the neutral zone between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia - both countries have an equal share of oil from the neutral zone. Heavy oils are also more heavily contaminated with metals and sulphur, and because refineries need specialist facilities to remove the impurities, it is priced lower than light oil, reflecting its lesser appeal. However, there is a growing number of appropriately equipped refineries around the world which can turn heavy oil into gasoline, aviation fuel and heating oil, and Saudi Arabia has announced plans to build more of them to capitalise on its home stocks.

For decades now, Chevron has used steam injection successfully to boost oil production in California and in Indonesia, and it could add many billions of barrels to Saudi oil stocks, obtained from the porous rock formations that are common in the Middle East. Without steam, heavy oil fields sometimes yield as little as 5% of their oil by conventional pumping, as compared with up to 35% from a light oil deposit. To extract oil from the Canadian tar-sands, very high temperature steam is used to recover the bitumen, a substance so viscous it could not be pumped out at all otherwise.

Chevron's test in Saudi Arabia is centred around one steam-injection well, four producing wells and one observation well to colect data on the way that oil and steam interact. However, the company has committed itself to an expansion phase that will involve 16 injection wells and 25 producing wells, along with the installation of facilities for water-treatment and steam-production, at a total cost of a cool $300 million.

In Oman, Occidental Petroleum Corp. is preparing to spend $2 billion on a large-scale stem-injection project in the Mukhaizna field, which contains about one billion barrels worth of oil. After four years of negotiations, Occidental has managed to persuade the Omanis to let it manage the field, in part by promising them a ten-fold increase in production to 150,000 barrels a day. Kuwait is planning a pilot project to investigate exploiting its northern heavy-oil fields, as part of meeting its goal to raise output to round four million barrels a day by 2020, from a current production of 2.6 million barrels, daily.

The world is draining the tank to the bottom, as technology permits more oil to be squeezed from the bowels of Nature, but inevitably at rising costs.... until when? ... and then what?

[I didn't put my references with the articles initially, since I was trying to present them as "newspaper-style" journalism, but I have these if anybody wants them. At the request on one "reader" I began to add them as footnotes later on, which has saved me a lot of work since! I am grateful for all the input from many people both in agreement or disagreement of what are just my own opinions, but at least I try to back them up with numbers as necessary. Chris.].

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Soaring Cost of Plane Fuel Causes Run on Rare Metals.

The recent hike in the price of crude oil has resulted in soaring costs to airlines for fuel. As we mull these things over, some airlines are going out of business and even British Airways were quoted recently as planning to reduce their number of flights by one half over the next decade. It is odd, as I have remarked before, that there can consequently be any real justification for a fifth or even sixth terminal and a third runway at Heathrow Airport, since logic suggests there will be far fewer flights during the next decades than now, rather than the "three-fold expansion by 2030", that was flagged-up prior to the inauguration of Heathrow "terminal five". I don't see how conventional fuel can meet such demand in the face of unprecedented high costs, and worse to come according to many analysts, and an ultimate actual shortage of fuels, most likely during this same period.

I read the other day that it might be possible to make hydrocarbon "jet-fuel" from algae, of higher power-yield than ethanol or biodeisel, and which retains a satisfactorily low viscosity at the low temperatures encountered during routine flights in the altitudes of the troposphere. In contrast, iiodiesel becomes highly viscous (thick) when cooled and difficult or impossible to pump around an engine. However, this technology is still at an experimental stage and certainly is unlikely to solve the problem of how to keep aviation running in the face of an inevitable loss of cheap, plentiful plane-fuel. The same conundrum also applies to terrestrial vehicles, of course.

As in any potential shortfall between supply (earnings) and demand (expenditure) , the gap can be narrowed from either side: i.e. you can, in principle at least, earn more or you can economise, and spend less. So it is with plane-fuel. Knowing that there will never be cheap fuel again, the airlines are looking toward designing planes that use fuel far more efficiently. However, even if more fuel-efficient planes can be built, there remains the matter of what materials they will be made from. This brings on another resource issue, namely that of rare metals.

Metals such as rhenium, chromium, cobalt and titanium, which are already in demand to make industrial catalysts and other essential items for a variety of purposes, including fuel-production from crude-oil distillation fractions, are needed on a large scale to make new super-alloys for planes. The price of rhenium has jumped to a record $11,250 per kilogram, which is almost twelve-times its price in 2006. Indeed, it is now only half the price of gold, which is a big plus to those countries that mine rhenium-ore, e.g. Chile and Kazakhstan.

Rhenium and other rare metals are readily blended with other more common metals, to form alloys which are highly heat-resistant, and allow aircraft engines made from them to run at much higher temperatures than normal, so increasing the thermal-efficiency of the engine. The Carnot-cycle depends on the temperature differential between the coolest and the hottest working part of an engine and so if the latter can be increased, more miles are obtained per gallon of fuel.

Rhenium-alloys have been used in military planes for decades but the move on them by the commercial sector is new. During the cold-war both the US and the Russians stockpiled such materials specifically to keep their war-plane fleet provided for. The drive toward fuel-economy will force-up the price of rare metals as rival airlines battle it out in order to stay in business.

Chromium is mined and produced mostly in South Africa, which has seen its price rise from $4,000 a tonne in 2000 to $11,000 a tonne now. The price was just under $7,000 a tonne only last year. It is interesting but probably unrelated that this is close to the ratio of oil-prices between now and a year ago. Cobalt is produced mostly in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly the Belgian Congo), and now costs about $52.50 a pound, which is double its 2006 value.

Along with many resources, most metals are now being stretched into a supply-demand gap, as the world requires more and more of them, and we see this being reflected in their price. In many cases, it is not that there is insufficient of a particular material in the Earth but its rate of production is limited in the face of demand. For metals such as hafnium, vital both in the nuclear and electronics industries, there is a real shortage of known world-reserves, which only the discovery of new ore-deposits or the implementation of an efficient recycling strategy will serve to ease.

Related Reading.
"Rare metals soar on demand for efficient jets." By Javier Blas.

Monday, June 16, 2008

"More Oil" Promised from Saudi.

No-one can be unaware of the present high price of fuel and most will have heard of the recent record $139 barrel of oil. The price has fallen, for now at least, to around $135 a barrel, but most analysts predict hefty increases, and soon at that. There are a number of factors that can be invoked or held culpable for the huge increase in the price of crude oil which was around $20 a barrel just 5 or 6 years ago. The main issue however, is that demand in beginning to outstrip supply, in part from roaring eastern economies, notably China and India, supply troubles of various kinds including acts of terrorism and that the cheap light crude oil peaked its own production at the end of 2005. Accordingly, most of the roughly 1 trillion (or optimistically 1.2 trillion) barrels-worth there are left in the ground consists of "sour" heavy-oil which is more difficult and expensive to pump and to refine. The weakening US dollar is also blamed on the most extreme oil price hikes, in one case by $11 in a single day.

Many countries, including the US and the UK, are of the opinion that if more oil can be brought onto the markets, the pressing demand-supply gap will be eased and the price of oil will come down. To this end, the Saudi King Abdullah held talks with the UN secretary general, Mr Ban Ki-moon at the royal palace in Jeddah, during which he promised to pump an extra half-million barrels a day. Mr Ban was reassured that Saudi had increased its production by 300,000 barrels a day this month and will increase this by an additional 200,000 daily barrels next month. According to Mr Ban, "...there will be no shortage of oil."

The Saudi oil minister, Mr Ali al-Naimi said that the Kingdom was responding to requests to increase oil output from 30 different countries. It is a balance of forces however, rather than pure altruism, in that the Saudis need the West and the oil-revenue just as much as the West needs its oil. From the former side are fears that increasing oil prices will curb demand in the West for oil by quenching industrial growth, so damaging the Saudi economy.

I was a little surprised to hear this news since I have read a number of accounts to the effect that Saudi oil is close to its peak and that it has little additional reserve capacity to produce oil. There are other comments that the volume of the Saudi reserves and those in the Middle East generally have been overestimated. Perhaps not.

In any event, failing to act now, as we did in the 1970's when the OPEC nations cut production of oil and caused a fourfold increase in its price, will merely mean that we postpone very temporarily the geological crisis over oil that will come eventually and probably soon, as rising demand must clearly overshoot supply from a finite resource, as oil is. In any event the world will hit a "gap" in meeting demand, and surely now, if and while there remains some time in hand before an energy-crunch, would be an apposite moment to search and develop technologies and means for living that use less oil and less energy in general.

For most of the world, oil means transport, while in Italy, who swore-off nuclear power long-ago, preferring instead to use oil to generate electricity, recent rising oil-prices have resulted in a revision of this attitude. Italy is now planning to build nuclear power plants which it thinks will be cheaper to run while oil-prices continue their upward ascent. Coincidentally, Italy makes 18% of its electricity in oil-fired power stations, which is exactly the amount that the UK makes from nuclear.

The supply-demand gap exists currently because we are using oil too fast. Once peak oil hits, especially among the biggest producers, especially Saudi, the gap will widen, being drawn-down from the production side too. Only then can it be kept healed if our use of the resource similarly gears-down, to follow its depleting production curve.

Related Reading.
"Saudi King: 'We will pump more oil'". By Anne Penketh, Monday June 16.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Predicting Oil - The Hubbert Linearization.

The name of Marion King Hubbert is revered as that of a pioneer in the field of predicting likely future oil production. Hubbert first applied his analysis to the lower 48 states of the US (i.e. those excluding Hawaii and Alaska) in 1956 and predicted that oil production would reach a maximum (peak oil) either in 1965 or 1970, depending on his estimate of the total volume of the oil-reserve there, of either 150 or 200 billion barrels, respectively [1]. While the latter input yielded the timing of the peak for US oil with uncanny accuracy, the method was not per se predictive of the total volume of the resource; that required a prior estimate. One derivation of Hubbert's analysis that is predictive [2,3] has become known as the "Hubbert Linearization". The Hubbert Peak can be represented by the logistic differential equation (1):

dQ/dt = P = kQ(1 - Q/Qt) ......................(1).

Here, P is the production (number of barrels of oil) per year, Q is the cumulative production (i.e. the total amount of oil recovered from the source to date), Qt is the total amount of oil that will ever be recovered from it and k is the logistic growth rate (described by Kenneth Deffeyes [3] as a "sort of compound interest"). Equation (1) is a quadratic (and describes a parabola or bell-shaped curve, Figure 1) but may be re-written in linear form, by dividing through by Q to give equation (2):

P/Q = k - kQ/Qt ......................................(2).

Thus a plot of P/Q (i.e. the number of barrels of oil produced each year divided by the total amount of oil extracted to date) versus Q (the total amount of oil extracted to date) directly, gives a straight line (Figure 2) with a y-axis intercept equal to k and a slope -k/Qt. From k and Qt, values for P can be estimated using equation (1), for each unit value of Q, from which it is apparent that the ability to produce oil depends entirely on the "unproduced fraction", (1-Q/Qt), i.e. how much oil there is remaining in the well... and on nothing else. Qt is also given by the intercept on the x-axis, since it corresponds to the point at which the resource is exhausted and P/Q = 0.

To make a plot of P against time - i.e. a classic production curve - it is necessary to replace Q as the x-axis unit by time (e.g. by year). This can be done by noting that P = dQ/dt, as in equation (1).

Hence, 1/P = dt/dQ. By using equation (1), values of P can be predicted for each barrel of oil (billion barrels of oil are a more convenient unit), by increasing or decreasing Q by increments of one (billion barrel) unit from cumulative production at a specified year (to act as a "clock", e.g. Q = 169 billion barrels by 2002 for the US). By then dividing the P values into 1, we get the reciprocals (1/P) which are in units of years/billion barrels rather than of billion barrels per year (P). Then for each value of P, we calculate a year-fraction* (i.e. how long it took to produce each billion barrel unit) and make a production plot of P versus year-fraction, giving the curve in Figure 1, the area under which is equal to the total volume of the resource, Qt.

[*i.e. the division does not come out conveniently in round year units, but is usually fractional. For example, for the US production, for which we obtain k=0.061 and Qt=198.395 Gb. When Q=169 Gb, P=1.532, 1/P = 0.653, and we set the year at 2002, by when production data shows that 169 Gb had been produced. This is our "clock". We then calculate for Q=168, P=1.574, 1/P=0.635, and so the "year fraction" is 2002-0.653=2001.347. For Q=167, P=1.902, 1/P=0.526, and the year fraction is 2001.347-0.526=2000.821. The points can be extended above the "clock" year too, e.g. for Q=170, P=1.488, 1/P=0.672, and the "year"= 2002+0.672=2002.672. The procedure is continued for all values of Q to obtain a good data set for the plot of P/"year"].

For world oil reserves, the analysis predicts a value for Qt of around 2 trillion barrels, which would suggest we are close to (or past) the half-way point, i.e. we have used around half our original bestowal of oil.

The method has been extended to using second derivatives [4], e.g. in the form of equation (3):

(1/P)dP/dt = k(1 - 2 Q/Qt) ....................(3).

In equation 3, the term before the equals sign is often called the decline rate (of a resource). Use of this formula has been called the "Second Hubbert Linearization". A plot of delta-P/P versus 2Q gives a value of 2634 billion barrels for Qt and k = 4.6%. There are two potential matters of import here, if this analysis is correct: (1) we may have another 600 billion barrels of oil available to us, (2) the date of peak oil is shifted from around 2006 [as is obtained from equations (1) and (2)] to around 2013.

According to the summary of a recent oil conference, consensus on peak oil is that it will be with us by 2012 [5]. This is in accord with the prognosis made by the CEO of Shell who, earlier this year, stated that he expected to see a gap between demand and supply for oil at some time between 2010 - 2015.

That additional 600 billion barrels if real may not help us much though, because it is the rate of recovery that matters in closing the demand-supply gap for oil. If more oil cannot be pumped-out per day and refined fast enough to match demand, high prices will remain and there will be shortfalls in supply... somewhere or another, both in terms of fuel and chemical feedstocks for industry.

Related Reading.
[1 M.K.Hubbert, “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels.” Presented before the Spring meeting of the Southern District, American Petroleum Institute, Plaza Hotel, San Antonio, Texas, March 7-9, 1956.
[2] M.K.Hubbert, “Techniques of Production as Applied to Oil and Gas,” in S.I.Glass, ed., Oil and Gas Supply Modelling, Special Publication 631 (Washington D.C.: National Bureau of Standards, 1982), pp. 16-141.
[3] K.S.Deffeyes, “Beyond Oil”, Hill and Wang, New York, 2005.

[5] D.Low, “ASPO conference confirms a peak in global oil production by 2012.”
Figures are available at the following URL's:
Figure 1. Logistic (Hubbert) curve fitted to crude oil production from the lower-48 US states. From S.Foucher:
Figure 2. Hubbert linearization of lower-48 states data, according to equation 2, yielding fit-parameters k=6.1% and URR = Qt = 199.07 Gb (billion barrels), used to derive the logistic curve in Figure 1. From S.Foucher:

Saturday, June 14, 2008

"Oil Shortage a Myth."

I submitted the following letter to The Independent, in response to an article entitled as above. There is an essential difference between the total volume of reserves and the proportion of them that can be recovered as a rate per day: i.e. it doesn't matter how big the reserves are if they can't be tapped-into fast enough to match rising demand. This is true also of potential "abiotic oil" as is believed to be produced in the earth, according mainly to Russian/Ukranian geologists, in contrast to the prevailing view in the West. Even if the latter theory is true, the world still needs to reduce its demand for oil.

"Sir: Richard Pike [CEO of the Royal Society of Chemistry is quoted ("Oil Shortage a Myth", The Independent 9-6-08) as saying there is plenty of oil left, and he is right. We should indeed not underestimate proven oil reserves but this is not the problem; the issue is flow rather than the quantity of total reserves and the quality of the oil that will be recovered from them. There may be 1,200 billion barrels worth left, but if it cannot be recovered much faster than is being done now it will not help alleviate the pressing gap between rising demand and supply. Even if Saudi were to increase its output by one million barrels a day (and it is debatable that they could) the product would be a heavy oil for which there is presently insufficient refining capacity in the world.

Producing most of that remaining trillion or so barrels will be far more difficult and expensive than for the sweet, light crude oil, production of which peaked at the end of 2005. It will also be harder to turn it into fuel, requiring new refineries to be built, given its higher sulphur content and higher molecule mass hydrocarbon composition. I agree, we will be producing oil for decades and it is not running out per se, it is the cheap oil that is, and we will never see cheap fuel or chemical feedstocks again, with adverse effects for world transportation, industry and financial markets.

Yours sincerely,

Professor Chris Rhodes."

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Oil at $250 Barrel and US Grain Reserves Low.

Oil may reach $250 a barrel according to Alexey Miller, the CEO of the world's biggest energy company, Gazprom. He made his remarks in the aftermath of last Friday's huge rise in oil prices to above $139 a barrel - a massive hike of almost $11 in a single day, in consequence of the fall in value of the US dollar. Recently there have been unpromising predictions that oil could reach that sesqui-milestone of $150 by the beginning of July, up from $100 at the beginning of the year, and if Goldman Sachs are correct, on the way to the $200 barrel within 6 - 24 months. I was hedging my bets at $200 by the end of 2009, but I would not be entirely surprised if it came sooner than then in the wake of recent roaring price increases in oil per se, and the knock-on from that to escalating fuel and food costs.

Using the word "wake" is possibly a Freudian slip, as we are facing the death of the oil-plenty era - or certainly that of cheap oil. I have noticed that there is a rough numerical correlation between the $ price of a barrel of oil and the UK pence price for a litre of diesel, around $130 and 130 p. While there are mutterings that Mr Miller is overstating the gravity of the world oil situation, I would not be too surprised if he is not so far off the mark. I did see something about $300 a barrel by 2015, but predicting just how big the inevitable gap between demand and supply will be by then for oil and its resulting price, are probably good guesses at best.

Almost certainly, along the way there will be abandoned cars, businesses, homes, jobs and hopes. I recall a line from the film "The Day After Tomorrow", when one of the main characters says (something like): "I realise I have been planning for a future that no longer exists." I am left with that same unsweetened taste. Also during the inevitable phase of transition there will be winners too, and those with the major natural resources, particularly those of fuel, will hold the strongest hands to throw on the table in this gambling game we are playing with the future of the world. For example, the United Arab Emirates are budgeting at $40 a barrel while the price is almost $140. Thus they make $100 a barrel over and above their economic plan - i.e. a surplus of almost $100 billion a year.

Such surpluses and what is done with them will become key drivers in world affairs and power will fall into those hands that control the carbon compounds that literally drive the modern world. A world without which, or without a clearly and practically implemented alternative strategy to cheap oil, is doomed. Meanwhile food prices are also soaring for a range of reasons, but rising fuel costs are not helping to bring them down.

I read this morning that in consequence of food-aid and probably turning over potential food crops like wheat from food to biofuel production, the "US has nothing else left in [its] food pantry." The sale of 18.37 million bushels of wheat has just been announced from the USDA's Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC). There is apparently no cheese, butter or milk powder either leaving only 2.7 million bushels of wheat, or about sufficient to bake half a loaf of bread for each member of the 300 million population of America. The American Agriculture Movement (AAM) has raised its concerns about the impact of food politics on domestic food security.

The CCC is owned by the Federal government and is intended to stabilise, support and protect farmers' incomes and prices and also to keep in balance and sufficiency agricultural commodities and subsidies in an "orderly" distribution. As has been emphasised, having a Strategic Energy Grain Reserve has the same import as the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve: i.e. it acts as a buffer against impelling forces of various kinds, to keep the nation fed as well as fuelled. The American Agriculture Movement has pledged to continue the work of the Farmer Owner Reserve (FOR) which allows grain to be stored on farms, as a central component whereby grain supplies could be decentralised in the event of "some unforeseen calamity which might befall the large grain storage terminals. Presumably like a bomb going off at one!

I'm not sure what reserves of food we have in the UK but I recall seeing a figure of 11 days worth of fuel should some "unforeseen calamity" interrupt our imported supplies of it.

Related Reading.
[1] "An ominous warning that the rapid rise in oil prices has only just begun." By Danny Fortson.
[2] Tristate Observer.

Monday, June 09, 2008

$45 Trillion Energy Bill by 2050.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has estimated that the governments of the world will need to spend $45 trillion (i.e. $45,000 billion) by 2050 to develop a low-carbon economy. They are calling for an "energy revolution" in order to curb CO2 emissions, which it predicts will otherwise "more than double" if present energy practices are maintained. The IEA also stressed that demand for oil will rise by 70% during this period. However, demand can do as it will it is supply that will provide the limit to whatever actions might by then be sustained. As the old saying goes: "If wishes were horses, beggars might ride." I very much doubt that another 70% per year can be found, which would add-up to a total of just over 50 billion barrels a year from 30 billion barrels used annually now.

It is not just a simple matter of dividing the total reserve volume by current annual use, which would suggest 1,200/(50-30) = 24-40 years worth, since the output of oil from a well roughly follows the Hubbert curve and production reaches a maximum and thenceforth declines until it is no longer economic or possible to get more oil out. Hence the world oil production must begin to fall, and some think within a few years. Therefore, such future enhanced demand figures make no real sense. We won't be able to maintain the present output within a few years and it would make more sense to plan for that eventuality rather than promulgate some fantasy of unlimited growth.

The IEA proposals do in fact address this, albeit in a less explicit way. In addition to various schemes for carbon-capture and sequestration - which the UK government has not agreed to, and indeed granted a permit for a new coal-fired power station in Kent, recently, with no CCS equipment, on the grounds it was an untried and untested technology (true!) - the agency calls for new nuclear plants, and retrofitting 35 coal-fired and 20 gas-fired power plants with CCS technology at a cost of $11.5 billion per unit. It also recommends building 35 new nuclear power plants and 17,500 wind turbines every year until 2050 (i.e. for the next 40 years).

Other recommendations are a massive development of solar-energy and the implementation of so-called second-generation biodiesel (made by converting lignocellulose into a mixture of CO and H2 which is then turned into diesel via Fischer-Tropsch catalysis). The latter has the advantage that the whole plant is converted to fuel rather than just the sugar components. I wonder though, in an age when fossil fertilizers must become more scarce and expensive, that might be the time to return as much of the organic chaff from plants to the soil to maintain its fertility and health. It is already a problem now, that overproduction using synthetic fertilizers has in some regions all but removed the organic component of soil, leaving just a mineral (inorganic) matrix on which to grow anything.

I am doubtful that fractious and generally world-divided political will is likely to be brought to bear in a concerted, potentially altruistic fashion, but at least the IAE has emphasised the scale of the problem. $45 trillion accounts for around 1.1% of the world's GDP which is not much to spare humanity and the ecology of the planet, but it may prove a bridge too far, and once again even these draconian proposals do not solve the problem of scarce and relentlessly expensive liquid fuel without which air transport will all but disappear, destroying the global village, and the lack of cheap, road-fuel which will tend to restore us to more familiar actual villages.

Related Reading.
"IEA calls for $45 trillion global energy technology revolution." By Nick Clark. The Independent, Saturday, 7-6-08.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Letter to The Independent. (7-6-08).

The following letter was published in "The Independent" newspaper yesterday (Saturday, 7-6-08) which summarises my feelings on the matter.

Letters: The end of cheap oil

Tough times ahead as we adjust to the end of cheap oil

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Sir: It seems highly likely that the inexorable hike in oil-prices does indeed reflect proximity to the point, if not of "peak" production, that at which supply can no longer keep pace with demand. There were predictions as far back as 1956 that we would arrive at such a time, and around now, but no one took any notice.

When the Opec nations were persuaded to crank-back production by around 5 per cent in 1973 (and the Iran-Iraq war had a similar effect in 1980), the price of oil rocketed. Now it is a geological, not a political problem, and cannot be solved simply by policy or economics.

Then cheap oil came back on to the markets and everybody forgot about the various schemes to seek alternatives to the eventuality of no more cheap oil. This is a great tragedy. If the world had taken the consequences of Opec as a wake-up call and begun in earnest the search for alternatives that the world has no choice but to scramble for now, we would have got through far less oil, still have a comfortable period for R&D and possibly have a sustainable energy mix by now.

None of these things happened, and hence we are in for some very tough times now: trying to implement new, sustainable energy sources against the backdrop of conventional energies most likely being unable to hold fast against existing demand, let alone meet the flow of bringing new technologies on stream.

Transportation will be the first use of energy to go, with the happiest scenario being a relocalisation of society around local, sustainable economies; or complete social disintegration, at worst. I try to remain optimistic that the former outcome will prevail, but without clear government policy – from any government in the nations of the world – how can it?

Professor Chris Rhodes

Caversham, Berkshire.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Oil Price Breaches $139 Barrel.

I was interviewed by George Galloway (the M.P. for Bethnal Green and Bow, East London) on his radio show last night on "talkSport radio" on the subject of fuel prices and our addiction to fossil fuels. Until he mentioned it I hadn't realised that the price of crude oil had climbed back from what I suspected in my last posting to be a lull of $122 to a record high of over $139. Sorry to have been correctly suspicious about this, that it would go back up again, and I note that Morgan Stanley are predicting a rise to $150 by the beginning of July.

Part of the problem is the weak US dollar, but as I pointed out, the underpinning factor is that the world has got through most of the readily-extracted, cheap oil, and what is left will take far more effort to procure and refine, with an according cost increase. The age of cheap fuel is firmly bygone. My feeling is that the $150 barrel will arrive by the end of the year, and probably not before then, but I defer to a firm of experts such as Morgan Stanley. Goldman Sachs were predicting a $200 barrel within 24 months and I am still putting my money (figuratively at any rate) on a $200 barrel by the end of 2009. If it comes before then, I will take that as a sign either that the world oil supplies have peaked, or that relentless demand is forging an inexorable gap with supply more quickly than anticipated.

Once the production peak is reached, the gap is widened from the supply side and will become ever enlarged by the tug of war between want and yield, thus forcing the price of oil yet higher. I am comforted in a cynical way by the putative 30 billion extra barrels in the North Sea that are now reckoned, but I know full well they are going to cost - however many of them it will prove efficacious or even possible to extract, and so the inevitable knock-on effect on the price and viability of transport - especially personal transport - will tend toward curbing the extent of the latter.

Economists tend to think of resources in isolation. That each has its individual share of the market and that if the price goes up enough, the effect will be to bring more of the given resource onto the market. This is partly true, and the possibility of that extra 30 billion barrels arises because the likely returns as a consequence of rocketing oil-prices make reserves that were once uneconomic to recover - i.e. it would probably have cost money to get them out of the ground even a few years ago - now not only viable but highly profitable. It always takes resources to extract resources, however, and when I was interviewed on another radio station earlier in the week I was asked "so gas prices are rising but surely this has nothing to do with electricity, and so why are electricity prices rising too?"

I pointed out that we make increasing amounts of electricity from gas, which we need to import and at elevating prices, and so there is a simple knock-on effect in terms of costs. So it is too with fuel. If all the oil we can recover in the future depends on highly expensive engineering, at increased capital costs for rigs and platforms etc., and the need to drill in harsher climes and regions, along with political difficulties such as terrorists blowing-up oil and gas pipelines as routinely happens in some parts of the world, e.g. Nigeria and Georgia/Armenia, and higher costs of electricity, gas and fuel to run the necessary processes, there will be no more cheap fuel, with the inevitable relocalisation of civilization. I do at least hope that we manage to hold onto the latter, since it came about only at great human sacrifice.

Related Reading.
[1] "Oil prices shoot past record above $139 a barrel on weak dollar and prediction of price spike."

Friday, June 06, 2008

British Motoring - are its Days Numbered?

The raw cost of a barrel of crude-oil is now down from the record $136 to around $122, and yet fuel prices at the pump remain high. Not surprisingly, this is causing consternation among British motorists who have been calling for the government to cut its tax on fuel to restore the cost of a litre of petrol or diesel to more manageable levels. As an average, a vehicle that cost £50 to fill its tank in 2006 now costs around £85, or an increase of 70%. There is no way the government can cut fuel-taxes since it needs all the money it can get to pay for the welfare state, the NHS and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The fuel infrastructure has been compromised, it is blamed, for instance the strike at the Grangemouth refinery and the fire at another in Finland, which has hit fuel provision in Europe generally, and so refining capacity and distribution may impose a bottleneck to cheaper fuel, irrespective of the basic cost of a barrel of oil. Since oil prices are subject to the vagaries of exploration costs, pipelines being blown-up (e.g. in Nigeria) and an inexorable rise in production costs per se, in consequence of the need to draw oil from wells that was once considered not economically viable and also the price of capital equipment such as oil-rigs and platforms, we should not take too much comfort in the fall in oil prices, which remain six times that of 5 - 6 years ago.

The situation is not great for British motorists. Not only are fuel costs increasing to the level that will force many cars off the road, certainly if, as is inevitable, the ultimately rising oil price is borne by the cost of the fuel that is refined from it, but there is very little new infrastructure in terms of motorways, in comparison say with Spain, a country that has invested heavily in its transport infrastructure. In Britain, the roads went the same way as the railways (in the latter case due to privatisation) and their retrospective refurbishment will cost more than routine maintenance would have done, if it can indeed be done to the same level given present costs and that investors are reluctant to put their money into a system that is not guaranteed to provide good returns.

If cars will be forced off the roads by inexorable hikes in fuel costs why should anyone invest in more roads? The car is seen as a symbol of prosperity across the world. In the early 1960's certainly not everybody had a car. With one wage coming into a house, cars were expensive and higher-purchase arrangements not as convenient as they are in today's credit bubble. Now car-ownership is practically a given. Both in terms of their price and quality, cars are cheaper than they once were, in real terms. Little tin-boxes on wheels I often think of them as, rather than a Bentley or even a "Jag". In developing economies such as China one principal aspiration is to own a car, an untenable situation since there is insufficient cheap oil to keep even the existing number going, let alone double that by 2030, as I have read projected, if more Chinese, Indians and South Americans own cars in consequence of the growing success and prosperity of these nations.

I strongly suspect that oil-prices will increase again, and we are presently in a lull on what will prove to be a relentlessly rising curve. I note too that it is now thought there may be 30 billion barrels worth of recoverable oil in the North Sea. Now this is mostly not down to new finds but that oil formerly considered uneconomic to extract has now become so in consequence of the massive rise in oil prices. If, as I believe, the price of oil will increase to $150 by the end of this year and $200 or so by the end of $2009, there may be around $4-6 trillion to be earned from the extra North Sea bounty.

To put it into a different perspective, if the UK gets through 80 million tonnes of oil a year, call it 100 million to allow for some lucrative exports, that amounts to 730 million barrels annually, and so the "new" reserve would be enough to keep the UK in oil for 40 years. Personally, I agree with King Abdullah in Saudi, that we should keep it for ourselves and not waste is as we did the first tranche.

However, it is an unknown quantity just how much oil can be extracted and it is of course the rate of extraction rather than the quantity of the reserve that determines how useful this will be to us - hence providing yet another bottle neck, like fuel.

Related reading.
[1] "The end of the road for British motorists." By Neil Lyndon.
[2] "North Sea could see second oil boom due to huge unexplored reserves." By Andy Bloxham.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

"Cold Fusion" Proven?

I remember well the phenomenon of "cold fusion" as it was dubbed. This was back in 1989 when Professors Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischman claimed that they could extract 40% more energy in the form of heat than they had put in the form of electricity into an electrochemical cell containing deuterium oxide ("heavy water"). They proposed the deuterium nuclei had undergone a nuclear fusion. The potential implications of this were staggering: that rather that trying to mimic the massively high temperature conditions in a star such as the Sun, of some hundred million degrees or so as are necessary to overcome the strong Coulombic forces that tend to keep two positively charged nuclei apart, as in "hot" plasma-fusion, it was feasible to somehow overcome this barrier such that the process could occur at room temperature.

Pons and Fleischman became largely dismissed as charlatans when many other research groups around the world found themselves unable to reproduce their results and confirm their claims, which were accordingly dismissed as unfounded. However, note the comment below to the effect that the phenomenon has since been confirmed in many highly credible laboratories around the world. I remember there were some really quite bizarre effects found by other workers - for example, one young man was killed when a cold-fusion cell exploded while he was trying to demonstrate the phenomenon of "fusion in a test-tube" as the popular press described it. So, something real was happening, fusion or not. A senior scientist and champion of cold-fusion, Dr Eugene Mallove, was murdered during the furore, which incited a number of conspiracy theories at the time.

The matter never entirely went away and I recall reading an article either in The Guardian or New Scientist (or both) to the effect that a scientist in the US had claimed to have demonstrated fusion when he exposed hexadeuteroacetone (that's C3D6O as opposed to the more common C3H6O) to ultrasound. He was crucified by the scientific community, as I recall, who had decided that cold fusion did not exist, and when they do that, God help you, if you claim otherwise - you will be castigated as a heretic, with all the ardour of the Spanish Inquisition. The most fervent believers, both scientific and religious, tend to bang the drum of their dogmas with equivalent enthusiasm; trampling the opposition where they may find them.

However, a professor in Japan has apparently demonstrated that if deuterium gas is passed into a reactor containing composite palladium-zirconium oxide (Pd-ZrO2) nanoparticles, Helium-4 is produced (a sure sign of fusion?), the temperature of the reactor rises and its centre remains warm for 50 hours.

If this is true it is absolutely fascinating and perhaps the accepted laws of chemistry and physics will need to be substantially modified, as has been said. However, from a practical point of view, that of dealing with the energy crunch, is the result of any importance even if cold fusion is a reality? I don't think so, frankly. I have not seen any figures for how much Pd and deuterium gas are used to run this cell and how much excess heat is produced. However, I have yet to be convinced that the energy needed to produce deuterium gas (by the electrolysis of deuterium oxide - "heavy water") and to make enough heavy water in the first place to feed the electrolysis units, will be offset by the final thermal output of the "fusion" reactors.

Then there is the matter of availability of palladium metal, the energy for its fabrication into the composite nanoparticles and so on, and how would the heat energy be extracted usefully, say to heat buildings or drive electricity turbines? The problem of energy extraction is even worse for "hot" fusion, from a plasma that even if it can be sustained, would produce ultra-high energy neutrons that no known materials are yet able to withstand, from which to extract thermal energy.

Very interesting indeed if it's all correct, but so what? We need more pragmatic solutions than fusion, hot or cold, to preserve lifestyles as we know them as we begin to see the depletion of conventional fuels.

Related Reading.

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Bright Shadow of New Nuclear.

Reviled for three decades, nuclear power is set to become an essential component of that final energy mix proposed in the Royal Society report as a result of a meeting of "experts", including me hence my use of parentheses! I referred to this in the very first posting on this blog, following the initial meeting on the subject of [providing] "Energy to 2050" at the Geological Society in London, the conclusions from which were unveiled at the Royal Society a couple of months later.

I was working in the former USSR immediately after the explosion of the Unit 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986, an odd experience in that there was no information available in Russia so it seemed, and we learned most about what had happened from our colleagues in the West - in Sweden, particularly, which was where the first alarm sounded - literally, for a nuclear worker on his way into a Swedish power station who had become contaminated while hiking in the hills during the weekend, from the radioactive cloud that drifted from Kiev, across western Europe, and as far as the eastern coast of the US. It is claimed that this manifestation of naked secrecy contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union just three years later, although the details of latter event are in fact very complicated. Another explanation is that the US persuaded the Saudis to lower the price of their oil so that the Russian economy was finally toppled by the according undermining of its own oil revenue - a considerable blow to the GDP.

I recall this simply because this is the image of nuclear power that the industry has had to contend with and it seemed practically impossible that any more civilian nuclear reactors would ever be built. However, the world energy situation has changed, and in the face of an inevitable and imminent shortage of energy, nuclear has returned to make its contribution. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are often flagged-up by anti-nuclear objectors, and there were a number of pretty bad incidents in the early days of nuclear power, e.g. Windscale in 1958 (later renamed Sellafield, probably in the hope that people would forget it was the same place), but on the whole the nuclear industry can confidently state that it has caused far fewer deaths than coal-mining say, which claims 6,000 lives each year - and that's just in China.

The real worry is what to do with the nuclear waste, although there are proposed strategies to store it underground out of harm's way sealed in metal canisters deposited in concrete bunkers, until the more active radioactive elements have cooled-down, until after around 300 years (that's 10 half-lives each for Sr-90 and Cs-137) the material is about as radioactive as natural uranium. The long-term consequences of this are indeed unknown. It is a conundrum, in the inevitable evolution of cultures - such as will survive the oil dearth era - over time, accompanied by the changing of the spoken and written language in a region, to wonder, how will these nuclear-dumps be marked? If written signs are to be used, will they be written in English, Russian, Chinese or what other script or hieroglyphics?

In the 1950's, "atomic energy" was hailed as being a source of "electricity to cheap to meter"... yeah, right! The real purpose was to make plutonium for nuclear weapons, and the electricity angle, useful though the commodity has proved to be, was a bit of spin. Windscale was, in reality, largely built to make plutonium by irradiating natural uranium an an "atomic pile" (reactor). I missed Queen Elizabeth's switching-on of the world's first civilian reactor, at Calder Hall there in 1956, being born a few years after that, but my parents tell me that it did feel like the dawn of a new age, and so well was the story spun, atomic energy was believed by the public to be purely in their interests by providing them with cheap electricity.

Similarly, nuclear power is now being hailed as a saviour technology, the main spin being to avert climate change by curbing CO2 emissions, but the more immediate reason is to compensate for the fact we are running short of available fossil resources, notably natural gas. During the next decades we won't have them to burn, or not at a cheap price, and nuclear power will be needed to bridge the energy gorge to that utopian somewhere of renewables or the nowhere of cold, dark houses and the abandoned tarmac that will be left when liquid fuels begin to decline.

Related Reading.
"Dawn of a new nuclear age," By Terry Macalister.