Friday, November 28, 2008

Yucca Mountain: Natural Zeolite to Prevent Nuclear Leakage.

The long term security of the Yucca Mountain storage facility for nuclear waste will depend on a complex interplay between human engineering and natural geological factors, so concludes a report by scientists at Indiana University Bloomington (IUB) and Los Alamos National laboratory. The site is intended as a repository for 75,000 tonnes of high level radioactive waste, for which the surrounding geology is rich in zeolitic tuffs - rocks containing natural zeolites, such as clinoptilolite and mordenite. Indeed, the presence of these materials is considered a major plus in choosing the location of any such storage facility.

Zeolites are aluminosilicates, containing a honeycomb framework which carries an overall negative electrical charge. Much as nature is said to abhor a vacuum, she has a similar antipathy for loose unbalanced electrical charges, and consequently the negative charge on the framework is balanced by an according number of positively charged cations, rendering an overall electrical neutrality. The cations that are naturally present, e.g. Ca2+, Mg2+, K+, Na+, may be readily exchanged by radioactive cations such as Sr2+, Ba2+ and Cs+, which are products of nuclear fission, thus absorbing them from the immediate environment. Thus, any leakage or adventitious spillage can be intercepted, by the intrinsic property of cation-exchange by these natural zeolites.... a natural fail-safe barrier should the engineering not prove completely true.

Zeolites absorb appreciable quantities of water, in some cases up to half their own volume of it, and this may act to absorb and buffer the heat generated during the radioactive decay of cations such as Sr2+, Ba2+ and Cs+ when they are absorbed within its structure. [Zeolites are also known as microporous solids, since the honeycomb structure contains pores of molecular dimensions and so can act as molecular sponges].

Some fission products are formed as anions, with a negative charge, and are not readily absorbed by zeolites since there is no anion-exchange mechanism possible, in counterpart with the case for cations. Very large ions are also excluded by clinoptilolite and mordenite, and so are not absorbed either, thus the process is not perfect. Nonetheless, zeolites are used for both preemptive protection of the environment from radioactive ions, e.g. to filter the waters from nuclear power plants and reactors, and in direct emergency decontamination strategies, e.g. Chernobyl, where 500,000 tonnes of zeolites were employed to absorb fall-out from the radioactive cloud that emanated from the smouldering unit 4 reactor, on its way across western Europe. Zeolites were fed to cattle and even baked into biscuits for children to remove some of the radioactive ions from their bodies, thus mitigating radiation injury, both directly and via the food chain, e.g. drinking milk from contaminated cattle.

Over 2,000 samples taken from 17 cores drilled across Yucca mountain, at depths ranging from 20 metres to 1,800 metres below the surface. X-ray diffraction measurements showed that there are zeolites present extensively, and moreover at depths reckoned as optimum for the storage of nuclear waste, i.e. 300 metres below the surface of the mountain and 150 metres above the water table. The idea is to construct a containment space above the zeolitic safety-region.

David Bish, the report's principal author and Professor of Applied Clay Mineralogy at IUB stressed the need to understand more about how water flows through the repository horizon and how the incorporation of large amounts of high level radioactive material might modify the geology, mineralogy and hydrology (i.e. the structure and properties, chemical and mechanical), of the zone of rock in which it will be included. The intention is to construct a 3-D image of Yucca Mountain, of sufficient detail that it could be used in licensing considerations.

If all goes well, nuclear waste could be sent to Yucca Mountain by 2010. The site is 100 miles from Las Vegas and near to the DOE's Nevada test site where numerous A-bomb tests have been performed since its inauguration in 1948.

Related Reading.
"Yucca Mountain site must make use of geological safety net, say IU and Los Alamos scientists."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Congo - War Over Minerals.

Throughout history, wars are always fought over resources, be they land, slaves, oil or other mineral wealth. The connection between oil and conflict in Iraq appears close, and western companies now have 30 year exploitation rights over the Iraqi oil. Afghanistan is more complex, since it has little oil, although there is rumour that a pipeline is planned to carry oil from central Asia through Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Karachi and the southern Pakistani coast, thus obviating the far longer route through China. Whatever is the truth of this, I don't believe that such military actions as are currently ongoing there are simply in the interests of overthrowing a dictatorial rule and restoring freedom to the people. Resources must underpin the proceedings in some way.

Meanwhile unimaginable strife continues to prevail in the Congo. Three million people are reckoned to have died in consequence of the protracted civil war there, mostly from disease and starvation. Congo, formerly the Belgian Congo which gained its independence in 1960, is rich in mineral wealth, most renownedly its gold. Indeed, it is this bestowal of gold, copper, diamonds, tantalite (tantalum), cassiterite (tin) and over one third of the world's known reserve of cobalt that is responsible for much of the country's unstable history, since the rest of the world wants to get its hands on this bounty.

Since the war began in 1998, various different factions have been engaged in the plundering of Congo's mineral resources, which raises ethical issues for the companies, particularly in the electronics industry, who have taken receipt of materials like gold, copper, tantalum and tin which they use in growing amount. There is a need for such organisations and suppliers to investigate at source exactly where these materials come from, before they find their way onto the open market. Of course, profit margins will always be an issue.

Tantalum is an essential component of electronic capacitors, as are used in computers, cell phones, air-bag safety systems, pacemakers and GPS, and most of it is mined in Australia. Nonetheless, there are substantial deposits of tantalite in Africa, in the Congo and Rwanda and also in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. I find it ironic that both Congo and Rwanda should be in possession of considerable reserves of the same mineral, given their recent tribal antipathies, but I am reminded that many of Africa's troubles are due to divisions created artificially by the former colonial powers who drew chalk lines across a map of Africa, apportioning its lands and its wealth for themselves, unbeknown to the underlying geology of the continent which was laid down long before the rules of men.

Consequently, I doubt there will ever be peace in Africa, and it is always easier to grab resources of all kinds from regions that are unstable, poor and whose populations are rendered devoid of any sense of security, certainty, permanence and hope.

Related Reading.
"Battle for Congo's mineral assets." By Alka Marwaha. BBC World Service.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Oil Crunch will Bite on the Tail of the Credit Crunch.

In his book The Long Emergency, James Kustler describes a situation which is not exactly a crash, but an unravelling sequence of difficulties, in which the stock markets oscillate wildly in perpetuity and a generalised social upheaval occurs as cheap oil runs out. The best possible outcome is an albeit difficult relocalisation of global, urbanised America into smaller communities that are increasingly self-reliant, having been forced to curb their use of transport. The alternative of course, is mayhem and anarchy. Kunstler is an American and so his prognostications are focussed on the collapse of the urbanised system there, but they are innately applicable to all industrialised societies, including those in the U.K. and western Europe in general.

The global nature of modern trade and economics means that no man is an island, and where one stumbles the rest must take-up the strain. In reality, the gaping gaps in our banking system could not be more apparent and it is almost incredulous not to have been aware that a facade "underpinned" by credit - promissory notes in effect - betrays a house of cards. The governments of the world are trying to push more money into the economy, via tax-incentives and so on, but it is unlikely to make much difference as people are too frightened to spend, preferring instead to hang onto their cash when there is so much uncertainty, over jobs, etc. and even the viability of the banks themselves.

Sufficiently desperate is the impending recession that the British government is now threatening to use legal force to make the banks pass on their newly available currency, from the source of a government fund intended to help them out through this crisis of their own making, and to begin lending money again, both to other banks and to small businesses. Too late, the banks are now cautious about lending and if they had been so during the past two decades we would not be in the mess we are now. However, if all goes to plan, it is thought that the U.K. may be coming out of a recession by the end of 2009, so it is reckoned optimistically in Whitehall, although the CBI anticipates a longer run than this into the middle of 2010.

Now this is beginning to time-in with the expected arrival of peak oil, variously reckoned to arrive any time between 2006 (i.e. has happened already) and 2012-2013. The timing of the peak is in fact of lesser importance than the inevitable formation of a gap between rising demand and the supply of oil. The effect will be to force oil prices up again (as we saw last summer), and encourage economic downturn, i.e. the flow of money that the governments are trying to restore, will coagulate once more.

This does sound like a long emergency. That we will never arrive on calm shores after a storm such as we are in the midst of now, but having passed through one, yet another will rip into our sails, ultimately beaching the fleet of the global economy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Oil From Algae - How Big Do the Tanks Need to Be?

The comment reproduced below to my article "Wednesday, April 09, 2008; Oil from Algae: Photosynthetic Efficiencies?" prompted some very salient points regarding the size of the tanks or tubular reactor vessels that would be required to grow algae on a large scale, and the quantity of the materials needed to make them from. I have therefore done a few sums, which I hope are illustrative:

I agree completely with Nic's figures which are very close to those I have deduced here previously, and I shall use them now. First I want to consider tube-reactors, and I am assuming that the tube is about a foot (30 cm) in diameter.

(.3 m x pi =) .94 m (circumference of tube) x 3.3 x 10^12 m (length of tube) = 3.1 x 10^12 m^2
as the area of plastic needed to fabricate 3.3 billion km of it! If we assume that the wall thickness is 2 mm (0.002 m), we have a volume of plastic = 3.1 x 10^12 m^2 x 0.002 m = 6.2 x 10^9 m^3.

Taking the density of the material as 0.85 (t/m^3), that amounts to 0.85 x 6.2 x 10^9 = 5.3 x 10^9 tonnes. If there are 7.3 barrels of oil to a tonne, that is the equivalent of 38.7 x 10^9 barrels of oil to make the plastic (this is about 3% of all the oil left in the ground). The world uses 30 x 10^9 barrels in total annually, and so this is more oil than the world gets through in 16 months all told.

I agree with Nic that it probably wouldn't be possible to make more than few million km of pipe per year and so it would take centuries to make it. Well before then we won't be recovering significant crude oil anyway, given the total of 1.2 x 10^10 barrels there is thought to be recoverable. On this basis, I think making biodiesel from algae on a large scale in tube-reactors is unlikely.

So, what about the open (raceway) ponds? If we need 1 million km^2 of them, that's 1 x 10^12 m^2. I am going to assume they are each 1 hectare in area. That's 100 million of them. I shall also assume that they are 1 metre deep. The area of the walls is 100 m x 1 m x 4 walls = 400 m^2. But the floor area is 10,000 m^2 (i.e. 1 ha). hence I shall forget the 4% of the total pond area made up by the walls and concentrate on the larger, floor area of 10,000 m^2 for each one.

The ponds could be lined with either concrete or plastic. Let's consider the concrete option first. If the floor is four inches, 10 cm thick = 0.1 m. So we need 10,000 m^2 x 0.1 m = 1,000 m^3 of concrete for each pond. So 100 million of them needs, 100 x 10^6 x 1,000 m^3 = 1 x 10^11 m^3 and at a density of sat 2.3 t/m^3, that's 2.3 x 10^11 tonnes of concrete, or 230 billion tonnes. In 2007, the world produced 2.6 billion tonnes of concrete, and again the job would take centuries assuming that an equivalent amount of additional concrete could be made to current consumption, or some of it diverted from existing purposes. The global warming effect would be pretty severe since making concrete releases huge amounts of CO2.

What about plastic lining? Well, the area is the same, at 10^12 m^2 and I shall assume that a 2mm thickness is O.K. again, so the volume is 10^12 m^2 x 0.002 = 2 x 10^9 m^3 of plastic.
This equals around 12.4 billion barrels of oil, which is about 1% of the world's total recoverable of 1.2 trillion barrels, or 1/3 that for the tubes, and it might be easier to make plastic sheets than tubes, but even if we could make say, a few thousand square kilometers (a few billion m^2) of plastic sheeting annually, the job would once again take centuries. We are dealing with a classic rate of flow (rate of conversion, rate of recovery) problem, and while not hampered necessarily by the resources per se, the engineering can't be done in time to save us from running out of cheap crude oil.

On Nic's final pint about instead using electric vehicles. The best figure I have is that you need a bare minimum of 0.08 g of lithium/Wh of power. But for real Li systems, it is more like 0.15 - 0.32 gLi/Wh. I shall take the mid-range of 0.23. An average PHEV needs around 9kWh. So we need 9,000 x 0.23 g = 2070 g = 2 kg = 0.002 tonnes per vehicle. Now there are supposed to be around 700 million vehicles on the roads. There are something like 30 thousand tonnes of Li recovered per year and so we would need to double production capacity to get something reasonable, i.e. that amount again to make the electric cars etc. [There is plenty of lithium in the ground, 28 million tonnes, I think, but it's the rate of recovery that is the limiting factor].

700 x 10^6 x 0.002 t = 1.4 x 10^6 tonnes to make that equivalent car fleet from PHEV's. Well at 30,000 t/year it's going to take 46 years. So, in principle this is the best bet. However it would mean making 15 million cars a year. We'd need a lot of new mining, processing and engineering
though. In all likelihood the world will have far fewer vehicles in the future, and we can supplant urban transport with trams and light railways so long as we can make enough electricity to run them and so need less anyway.

In conclusion I take your point about cars Nic, but still since aviation consumes more fuel per year than we can tool-up for with algal biofuel within decades (centuries) plane-flight does seem doomed in its present form and scale.

But whatever we do it's got to be done against that backdrop of cheap oil running out - yes, I know its cheap now because the world financial system is melting down - but it wont be for much longer; also the economic turndown means that there is little fiscal incentive and little money to be borrowed from the banks in their nervous condition, to build new PHEV factories and mining and processing plants for Li. PHEV's are expensive to make too and that is also bad is the current state of credit-crunch. There are other resource issues to PHEV's too, since they use various other metals, cobalt etc. depending on the exact battery design

Thanks very much,


Hi Chris

I was checking some background info on Algae after reading an article “Algae on the Move: The 2008 Algae Biomass Summit Wrap-up” in Renewable Energy World < id="54033"> when I came across your site.

You’re right 14.7%+ is too high for PSE, its limited by the nature of PS process. I can’t remember the exact figures but the maximum practical yield, under ideal conditions, is between 5 and 10%. High concentrations do not improve the situation as only the algae near the surface will photosynthesise and if the light’s too strong they can’t use it all so high agitation is also required.

I attended the International Society for Applied Phycology (algae) conference this summer in Galway and picked up some interesting data on algae, the best algae brains in the world were there so I am fairly confident that their figure of just over 10% absolute maximum for photosynthetic efficiency is correct. If I recall correctly, figures for open (raceway) pond reactors of a few percent would be about right.

I was mulling over the figures for replacing all our oil with algae biomass rather than just diesel, thought you may find my workings of interest:

World oil consumption is ~= 85Mbboe/day @ 6.1GJ/bboe (bboe = barrels of oil?)
= 5.185e17J/day = 12.345Mtoe/day (@42GJ/t)
> Most of world’s oil energy is used for fuel.
> Use total algal biomass is for fuel manufacture e.g. via hydrothermal liquefaction (a form of pyrolysis).
> Crude oil to fuel (well to tank) losses ~10%
> Algal biomass to fuel (well to tank) losses ~25%

Realistic practical PSE for algae is about 5%, possibly slightly higher for enclosed reactors and probably about half for raceway ponds, assuming they run 24/7:
,’, @ 5KWh/day energy yield/capture by algae daily yield is
5,000 * 0.05 * 3600 = 900,000J/sq-m

Production space:
Therefore algal biomass energy content needs to be ~15% more than crude production then
Required algal biomass production per day = 1.15 * 5.185e17 / 900,000
= 662,528 sq-Km of bioreactor area
Add to this access roads, space between reactors and space for processing and storage then the total area required is of the order of 1 million square kilometres, or about 10% of the Sahara desert.

Production mass:
Micro algae energy density (HHV) depends very much on relative oil, protein and carbohydrate content but would typically be around 20MJ/Kg (~half of oil)

,’, total algal mass required = 1.15 * 5.185e17 / 20e9 ~= 30 Million tonnes/day

The burning questions are:
 How fast could we build this quantity of algae production and processing facilities?
 How much will it cost?, is it economically viable etc.
 Can we build this amount of infrastructure? Algae ponds will probably need to be concrete or plastic lined over an area of 1million sq-Km plus, closed reactors would probably require (using AlgaeLink system) about 3.3Billion kilometres!!! of bioreactor tubing (my guestimate is that at best we could produce a few million Km of tubing per year so we a talking of a multi century project).
 Is there a better solution?

The answer to last question is yes, change to electric technology for land transport, save biofuels for air transport. Electric vehicles far more efficient (~80% tank to wheel) than other technologies, best hybrid might ultimately achieve about 50% and renewable electricity easier to generate than biofuels, best PV nearly 40% conversion efficiency.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Abbot Christopher Jamison... the Spiritual Dimension.

A man who seems impossible not to like is Abbot Christopher Jamison, who warns us that "greed is replacing spirituality". I have read a couple of his books (just look him up on google) which have left me with a sense of peace, and that is what seems to shine from the man. There was a six-part series on television entitled "The Monastery", where six guys lived for 40 days with a group of monks and found a firm spiritual foundation in consequence of this experience. As I perceive society beginning to unravel - financially, the "benefits culture" and my expectation that we will all return to agricultural living, hopefully reaping something useful from what we have learned from science and technology (but give-up the hydrogen economy, please, in the short-term), Abbot Jamison's message that we should be less acquisitive - greedy in the material line - does appear salient.

We are kept in a state of fear and unhappiness, which is what sells. But people are holding-on to their cash now, and that might illumine the dawn of a less materialistic thought-process for living. I have a friend who tells me that the only way she can feed herself and her 5 kids in because a certain fast-food burger outlet offers a 99p "meal deal". So that's around six-quid as we say over here.

It may be nice to go-out for a meal, all of them, but she could feed the lot of them for a third of that... that's if she knew anything about nutrition. We seem to have lost a lot of knowledge... how to grow food, cook it, put up shelves, and some spiritual foundation. The "loss" of the family is a lot to do with that, and the benefits culture simply encourages and supports the mess that is reality when daddy buggers off.

In the ensuing age of "less", it will mean that less has to mean more, in the restitution of all the above that we have lost during the past 30 - 40 years. With freedom comes responsibility, and abandoning your kids is not the greatest achievement of a man. Most of the troubles of modern society are born from freedom and excess, and the lack of ability to handle both.

There never was a family like "The Waltons" probably, but we are going to need to stick together in future simply because we will need one another. This is a practical example of spiritual foundation - love, it is sometimes called. I would recommend the Abbot's wise words, in the licence of "Shoppers are selling their souls", as he is quoted below. I spoke to my mother recently who said that "when you were a baby, we were incredibly short of money. So I told the family... there won't be any Christmas presents this year..." This was in the Cardiff of 1959-1960.

It doesn't sound like it was happy affair, but they did get through it. So can we all, but with less material and more spiritual solidity.

Abbot Christopher Jamison warned that rampant consumer culture is taking over people's moral purpose as their material needs are now all met.

He urged people to enjoy the month of Advent rather than celebrating Christmas early. Not a bad idea. I think I will go out and buy an advent calender.

Related Reading.
"Shoppers are selling their souls", monk warns. By Martin Beckford:

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Where Poppies Would Not Grow.

(To Mark the 90th anniversary of the end of "The Great War").

At the cenotaph we stand

amid the chill; clocks ticking;

hands touching watches, then

thrust back into pockets.

Amid the blood-red symbols

we forget the meaning of.

Flowers that only bloom

in unrested ground; turned-

over, the shell-shocked furrows,

and craters filled with snow;

into a blaze of neglected

and sad glory that is forever lost.

Three old men, who have

passed their century of days -

not long now to shed more tears.

Comrades and even children gone,

such is their destiny to survive

until they are become dust, in still fields,

where poppies would not grow.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Nukes Buried in Your Backyard?

I have commented previously on the idea of "mobile" nuclear reactors, that could be fuelled by uranium or by thorium, and delivered on the back of a lorry to wherever they are needed. The reality of such power-plants, "smaller than a garden shed", has been endorsed by the Los Alamos government lab. which also developed the first atom-bomb. Each unit is expected to provide electricity for 20,000 homes, and they are safe! The small-scale reactors will be sealed at source, will not contain any weapons-grade uranium, have no moving parts and since they will be incarcerated in concrete and buried underground, impossible to steal.

The US government has issued a license to a company, Hyperion, based in New Mexico, which has already taken its initial orders and aims to begin mass-production within five years. Hyperion's intention is to produce electricity at a price of 10 cents per Watt "anywhere in the world". The cost is anticipated to be $25 million per unit, and for a community of 10,000 homes, that amounts to a competitive $2500 per household.

Hyperion, in Greek mythology, was one of the Titans - sons and daughters of Uranus (sky-god) and Gaia (Earth-goddess) - who lost the war with the Olympians ("The War of the Titans") and were subjugated by them. Their despair at this fate was the subject of a poem by John Keates:

"These crystalline pavilions, and pure fanes,
Of all my lucent empire? It is left
Deserted, void, nor any haunt of mine.
The blaze, the splendour, and the symmetry,
I cannot see – but darkness, death and darkness." ...cheery stuff, isn't it?

The first 100 definite orders are mostly from oil and electricity companies, but Hyperion is also focussing its marketing toward developing countries and isolated ("off-grid") communities. The company plans to build three factories which their business-plan holds will manufacture some 4,000 "mini-nukes" between 2013 and 2023. A Czech company, TES has "ordered six units and optioned a further twelve", of which the first would be sited in Romania. There are additional talks underway with the Caymen Islands, Panama and the Bahamas.

The mini-nukes are said to be "only a few metres in diameter", and will be delivered by lorry, needing to be refuelled every 7 - 10 years. There are no design-safety issues expected because the type of reactor has been used "by students" for 50 years without incident. An application to go ahead is expected to be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2010.

John Deal, the CEO of Hyperion, said:

"You could never have a Chernobyl-type event - there are no moving parts. You would need nation-state resources in order to enrich our uranium. Temperature-wise, it's too hot to handle. It would be like stealing a barbecue with you bare hands."

Toshiba has been exploring the utility of 200 kW reactors of dimension six metres by two metres, which are intended to power smaller numbers of homes over a more extended time-period, and it is thought they could power a single building for 40 years. Clearly, if this mini-nuke technology does go ahead it is potentially a competitive business.

Related Reading.
"Mini nuclear power plants to power 20,000 homes." By John Vidal.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Oil Gap Greater Threat than Terrorism.

Professor Sir David King said famously that global warming is a greater threat than terrorism. This was in the context of a perceived need to install new nuclear power, which many claim is "carbon free". It isn't quite, not when all the factors of uranium mining, concrete production etc. are costed-in, but overall, the technology does produce less CO2 than coal or gas-fired power stations. Presuming that it is true that rising levels of atmospheric of CO2 will cook the planet, it might be conceived that more lives will be lost to global warming than to actions by terrorists.

There is a more immediate and actually connected problem and that is the splitting seam between the demand for oil and the amount of it that can be recovered at a daily rate. It is thought there are some 1.2 trillion barrels of crude oil in the ground to be recovered, but it is the rate of recovery (sometimes called "conversion") that determines the viability of a resource, rather than its total unrecovered volume. The impact of a supply-demand gap will be felt more immediately than that of climate change. Indeed, some producers may decide to withhold oil from exports to satisfy their own needs, thus conferring an oil-famine on importing nations such as the US and UK. This would be good for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but at the same time destroy entire national or continental economies in the process. A price too high, one might think.

A looming energy crisis, when oil prices rise to and above the $150 barrel level of last summer (more than twelve times the price in 1999), is the more immediate threat to national security, with fuel prices soaring back above the £1.20 litre that has hit many industries, including haulage with a knock on influence on the costs of practically all goods. The UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security, which is an alliance of eight companies drawn from across the national economy, has warned of an end to cheap oil by 2013, in accord with the prognostications of most oil analysts. The peak will certainly be with us by then, biting hard on the tail of supply, thus widening further the gap with demand; that is, if the world economy has not fallen into major recession, or depression during the next five years, which it might.

Last week, OPEC announced its intention to cut production by 1.5 million barrels a day, having been persuaded by the West to up its output of oil because of the summer prices which the latter said it could not bear and keep its economies afloat. The latter relative surfeit of oil, combined with the credit crunch and economic downturn with a fall in demand for oil has forced an artificial plunge in the price of oil to around $60 a barrel with an according loss in revenue to the OPEC nations.

The geological factors of peak oil mean that this is a temporary halt in an inevitable and relentless overall upward trend in the price of crude oil and this will hit the world economy hard. As oil becomes more expensive, the rate of inflation will be forced-upward, as the costs of manufacturing and distributing all goods rises. Will Whitehorn, the Chairman of the Taskforce said:

"The first report of the Taskforce is a balanced look at the energy risks and opportunities we face. It is also a wake-up call to the urgent actions required by the UK and other major global economies to overcome the consequences of the end of the era of cheap oil.

"The current financial and economic crisis provides a real opportunity to the British Government to lead the world in renewable investment whilst the oil and other commodity prices remain suppressed in the short term by weaker demand."

Nice to see there is an "opportunity" rather than blind panic and imminent societal collapse. If only we had been thinking this way 30 years ago, but sadly I doubt there is enough time left to come up with much in the way of renewables - particularly not to substitute oil-based transport with - unless one accepts the longer paradigm of electric vehicles run on renewable electricity, but that will take much more time to implement. That last statement about "renewable investment" does sound like a sales-pitch, laudable though it may be, and a fall in demand for oil due to the cancellation of projects due to lack of funding from banks too nervous to lend money, is not encouraging that there is much time left for opportunity to be reaped. Even at best, we have 4 years (until 2013), and that is not long enough to do much, except to learn to use less energy, especially oil.

The most immediate threat to human civilization is the lack of cheap liquid fuel for transportation, for which there is no alternative to oil, certainly not on the scale of around 20 billion of the 30 billion barrels of oil the world's nations gets through every year to keep their populations mobile.

Once again, the dawn of a relocalised (less transport-intensive) global society is indicated... and soon, whether we like it or not.

Related Reading.
"Oil shortage 'bigger threat to UK than terrorism'". By David Millward.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Cheap Oil Will Not Last Long.

The recent slump in the price of a barrel of oil to less than half its peak of almost $150, last July, has caused those of a more cornucopian persuasion to crow, "so where have all the peak oil enthusiasts gone now?" This is a tragically mistaken point of view, which assumes, as economists often do, that the markets control everything and that low prices mean abundance of a particular resource. Hence following this line of thinking, everything is now hunky dory.

Of course it is far from that - by the way, congratulations to President Obama for his landslide victory, having secured about two thirds of the "college votes", although he will have an unenviable job on his hands to resolve the many issues facing the United States and indeed the world - since we are still shuddering in the nakedness of the Emperor's Clothes that the world financial system has been shown to be. Cold winds still blow and accordingly, the cheap oil has arisen from reduced demand in consequence of a fall in economic activity. Scared banks won't lend to each other or to businesses and the world is still relatively flush with oil as a result of OPEC producers having been persuaded to up their output to get oil prices down, otherwise the West particularly would face economic debilitation, and the producers too, once their western customers could no longer afford to buy oil from them.

Well, we have seen a crash, really it was a case of the proverbial straw breaking the financial desert animal's back - the massive oil prices of just a few months back, pushed up the load on a financial system that was already shaking at the knees of its burden, and clothed only in the fabric of credit. In short, if accounted for in terms of real solid collateral, there is more money on the world's books than actually exists, hence a levelling-down of the stockmarket probably to somewhere nearer reality. The global economy must restore faith that more institutions will not unexpectedly collapse, and get money back into its true role which is "currency" to oil the wheels of commerce.

Some independent analysts have predicted that oil will stay below $100 a barrel while the world continues to sort itself out amid the fallout of the credit crash. However, the amount of oil being produced still runs close to the demand for it, and hence we are at a proverbial tipping point, where the balance could weigh in either direction. Personally, I don't see any likelihood that it will tip towards cheaper and cheaper oil, because of the geological reasons of the nature of oil wells and that many are becoming increasingly exhausted (or will become so during the immediate time to come) , and it will be harder and more costly to recover oil from them.

The only phenomenon that could keep oil prices down for any significant period is a worldwide and protracted recession, so closing the gap of demand against supply. Eventually this must open-up again, as we get through more oil and to the tipping point of world maximum (peak oil) output. Both the Chinese and Indian economies are roaring ahead but I note that neither are immune from the credit crunch, and China has seen a downturn of around 9%. Simply, if the West can no longer (or is very cautious to) buy their cheap manufactured goods, there will be no incentive to make them. Hence a downturn in these economies seems inevitable.

I sometimes think that the machinations of globalisation are something like a group of mountaineers attached to a single rope, with all being similarly tied together, beit banks, business or the economies of entire countries or continents - if one slips, the team can take up the strain and all may still make it to the top, but if a few of them fall, they all do. By design or default the winding-down of the global machine is at hand, and I suspect it will be by default because who will be brave enough to call a halt to their own part in its march, unilaterally? That would simply be like cutting oneself free of the rope and jumping off the mountain, and no one is that altruistic... or foolhardy.

Related Reading.
"Oil executives, political leaders say decline in oil price will not last." By Adam Schreck,, (November 5th).,0,5975386.story

Monday, November 03, 2008

Small is (Still) Beautiful: A Tribute to E.F.Schumacher.

E.F.Schumacher looks to be proved right about oil after all. In his forward to the edition of Small is Beautiful (SIB), reprinted in 1993 and 20 years after the original, Jonathon Porritt discusses how E.F.Shumacher’s original thoughts and contemplations have unfolded in fact since then. He stresses particularly the essay on Buddhist Economics, and that the underlying principles are still true, i.e. the proverbial system endorsed by the subtitle of SIB, “...a study of economics as if people mattered.” This remains and will ever be applicable and must be the true aim of any sustainable economic system, not only from the moral perspective of equanimity and fairness, but for the simple reason that the capitalist ideology of limitless growth and expansion, as accounted by compound interest, is a nonsense. Agreed, it has worked certainly for the rich nations for over two hundred years, but that is only because the exhaustion of ultimately limited resources was a long way off.

This is no longer the case, and it is becoming relentlessly clear that many of the resources which we take for granted have by now been used-up in significant proportion; sufficiently so that even if their end is not in sight, the rule of economics is being felt by huge price-hikes, for example in metals, oil and gas. There is a knock-on from this too, which is that the price of food has soared during the past couple of years, both because the cost of producing oil, which underpins most of modern mechanised agriculture is increasing, and that the world population and its aspirations has elevated to such an extent that the resource of arable land now has its limits in our sights. Changes in land use too, for example its conversion of purpose from crop land to golf courses, have impacted on this scene as populations become more affluent, as is their habit of consuming more meat, which requires more land to produce than is the case for an equivalent calorific value of vegetables.

Living creatures obey the second law of thermodynamics, as do their inanimate counterparts, and energy losses are to be expected in the conversion of all forms of energy from one to another. Thus only one third of the energy in coal is recovered in terms of the energy of the electricity output when it is used to fire a power station, and the amount of energy recovered in meat from an animal that has grazed a given quantity from energy from grass, is far less than this.

Porritt states that Shumacher was wrong about one thing, and this is the aftershock of the “oil crises” that beset the industrialised nations in the 1970s. The causes of the oil shocks at that time were political . In 1973, the largely Arab OPEC nations decided to punish the U.S. for its support of Israel in the Yom Kuppur war. To Effect a suitable castigation, the supply of oil was reduced by 5%... this caused a price spike of 400%. In 1979, the war between Iran and Iraq resulted in a similar loss of oil to the world markets and its price soared in similar degree. As Porritt surmises in SIB:

“On some other issues, however, his views have not weathered quite so well. Like every other environmentalist writing in the early seventies, Schumacher was convinced of the imminence of serious oil shortages and deeply fearful of the economic and social dislocation that these would cause. Twenty years on [1993], the emphasis now is not on oil running out (current resources will almost certainly last at least until the middle of the next century), but rather on the environmental damage that will be done if they continue to be used up at current rates.”

Now this is most telling. Even fifteen years ago, neither peak oil nor global warming were on the public radar. It was global warming that first hit the headlines toward the end of the 1990s, and more recently peak oil, although the first warnings of it were made in the mid 1950s.

The two ills go hand in hand and the cure is the same for both, i.e. to burn less fossil carbon in the form of oil since this is the most vulnerable resource. The oil companies were certainly of the opinion that we had plenty of oil left and enough to last until the mid-00's. Now it seems clear that cheap oil will run-out long before then, albeit hydrocarbons will still be produced in quantity by various means in 2050, but at increasing cost and in a supply less than we need to maintain current western lifestyles. In the latter regard of an "oil crisis", Schumacher may be proved right after all. While the event was postponed by a few decades, the economic logic still applies.

Related Reading.

"Small is Beautiful," E.F.Schumacher, Vintage Books, London, 1993.