Wednesday, December 09, 2009

"Chemistry, Energy and Climate Change, " Lecture by Dr Richard Pike, CEO of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

I attended a lecture by Dr Richard Pike, who is the CEO of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) yesterday evening in London, entitled: "Chemistry, Energy and Climate Change." I have previously applauded Dr Pike's pro-active stance on the importance of chemistry as a means to comprehend and address the challenges facing humanity, especially in terms of future energy provision and tackling pollution/climate change etc. He is also a very good speaker and presented a convincing case that there may be possibilities, in which chemical training will underpin the future.

The following is a summary dissected from my rapid scribblings during the lecture, and which in fact reinforces many of the ideas and conclusions that I have aired and espoused in my postings here, in my monthly column on and in various invited lectures:

In a nutshell there is no single solution, but "the" solution is to be sought as a mixture of many individual strategies. He has stated before that he doesn't think peak oil is an immediate problem and that with the implementation of unconventional sources of oil (he mentioned tar sands specifically) world oil production could rise to 130 million barrels per day, from 84 million bpd now. He referred also to gas-to-liquids processes and biofuels, but the latter with the caveat that using arable land to grow crops to meet the European Union target of 5.75% of our fuel coming from biofuel would require turning over 19% of the entire European Union nations' crop land to the purpose which clearly isn't going to happen. I have shown sums on this blog that demonstrate the absurdity of this policy which was probably dreamed-up by some Brussels bureaucrat rather than someone who can comprehend hard numbers. Pike emphasised the importance of using hard numbers, and in this thread we agree wholeheartedly.

In Pike's view, we should not look for our salvation in terms of resource limitation, i.e. that dwindling supplies of fossil fuels, especially oil, will result in a reduction in carbon emissions by default, but to address climate change as a strategy. I tend to disagree here, since the volume of world markets for oil depends on the rate of flow of oil from the ground (or unconventional oil from e.g. tar sands or gas-to-liquids, coal-to-liquids), rather than how much of a reserve there is, and simply oil will become harder to get and more expensive, and the EROEI will fall in reflection of this pushing up the energy costs to win it and thus the price of oil. Massive swathes of new engineering would be needed too to produce sufficient quantities of unconventional oil, and a number of such projects (and conventional extraction projects too) have been shelved during the recession.

That said, the action of using less oil (and other fossil fuels) certainly both reduces the rate at which we get through what is left and pumps less carbon into the atmosphere, thus mitigating climate change (on the human carbon to global warming to climate change, chain of events argument). There is an awful lot of speculation about this at the moment which has been rekindled by the recent claims that at the University of East Anglia data had been "doctored". I don't know what the latest is on this but I note that the Met Office is set to check its temperature records over the last 160 years for the veracity of global warming.

On British TV, currently is an advert that encourages us to drive 5 miles less per week. Now, does this really make a difference? Assuming an average 10,000 miles are driven per year, this actually amounts to 0.3% of carbon emissions saved. So, the answer is no, but it does at least engage the public with the issue and make them feel they are doing something to fix the problem, rather as railings were cut down and saucepans collected during World War II to be taken away for the "war effort". In truth it made little difference but it did forge a cohesion within society, during an otherwise potentially anarchic period.

Dr Pike touched on the issue of centralised and decentralised energy several times. Readers of this blog will note that my own conclusion is that the relocalisation of society is necessary is order to curb our reliance on transportation/oil, and that provision of heat and power at the local level must form part of the bedrock for such sustainable small communities as civilization must devolve to in order to reduce its energy demands. A mix of PV, geothermal etc. is likely to be implemented in a diverse, localised approach. Transportation is a particular problem since practically all of it relies on oil and there is no simple substitution from oil to other energy sources to keep it going on its present lavish scale.

Carbon capture and storage would entail huge new engineering on a scale to make any difference, if we do go down that route, since 100 million tonnes per DAY of CO2 would need to be so sequestered. There are essentially two methods to remove carbon from fuel: post-combustion and pre-combustion. Post-combustion, CO2 is removed from flue gas by passing it through a liquid amine which dissolves the CO2. Pre-combustion, the fuel (coal, gas, biomass) is processed into a mixture of CO2 + H2 and the CO2 is removed. Thus the actual fuel in hydrogen gas. It is worth noting that old-fashioned coal-gas contained around 51% H2 (along with CO, methane and other minor components). Either way, the CO2 must be put somewhere, for which strategies include pumping it into rocky formations (such as depleted oil and gas wells) at a pressure of 100 atmospheres, or even piping it in liquid form under pressure onto the sea-floor where it is cold enough and the pressure high enough that it is hoped the material will stay there, assisted by the formation of CO2-hydrate.

There is a problem of how to store electricity generated from renewable sources, e.g. solar, as in PV or concentrating power systems (CPS). If these solar methods of electricity generation were implemented and used to make H2, it would involve massive new infrastructure. That said, they are far more efficient (PV at 15% but 40% for triple-junction cells and CSP at above 20%) than generating biofuels (<1%), as worked out on the basis that the working amount of solar energy hitting the earth as an average across its surface amounts to 174 W/m^2. However, for solar/H2 the capital and infrastructural initial investment is massive whereas biofuels can be used with the existing liquid fuel distribution and combustion networks. The latter are unsustainable though, and so we need rather than to try and supplement existing means, to develop a completely new infrastructure/society. Huge challenges to the way we live.

Changes in land-use (clearing etc.) in order to grow crops for biofuels releases CO2. Thus it might be decades before any CO2 is saved overall! Synthetic photosynthesis could be used to fix CO2 and convert it into fuels, mainly alcohols. A massive reforestation programme would also help take carbon from the atmosphere. Genetic modification (GM) of plankton to more efficiently remove CO2 has been proposed as a strategy to cut carbon levels. Pike noted that the long term CCS strategy was something akin to the problem of looking after nuclear waste, over similarly long timescale of maybe millions of years.

Finally the point was made regarding skills. That training in science (numbers!) was needed starting at primary school, through to undergraduate and postgraduate studies in universities and employment of these graduates in industry. There are many business opportunities in all of the above, which should be seen less as a problem but a challenge. Saving energy is critical.

I hope I have done Dr Pike justice here, who sounds like a man after my own heart, even if he is an engineer rather than a chemist!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

"Coltan" - African Niobium and Tantalum Ore.

I first heard the word "coltan" on a recent television documentary about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Africa. Coltan is a black, metallic ore which is a source of "Columbium" (now called Niobium) and Tantalum, hence the name. Since tantalum is used to make high-performance capacitors as find application in mobile-phones, DVD players, video game players (playstations), laptop computers, electronic cameras, pacemakers, hearing-aids, airbags, GPS, ignition-systems and anti-lock braking systems in cars, it accordingly underpins a highly lucrative electronics industry. The thread of the TV documentary was that the extraction and sale of coltan onto Western markets provides funding for the war that is going on in the Congo, during which 5.4 million people have been killed in the past decade.

The Rwandan occupation of Eastern Congo was a principal reason that the Congo was prevented from exploiting its own bequest of coltan, much of which is mined illegally and smuggled across borders into Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. It is reputed that prisoners-of-war and children are forced to work in the coltan mines. In consequence of the problem of telling legitimate and bootleg mining operations apart, a number of electronics manufacturers have boycotted Africa entirely as a source of coltan, not wishing to aid any funding of the occupation of the Congo by militia groups.

Congo actually produces under 1% of the world's tantalum, which is also mined in Brazil, Australia, Canada, China, Ethiopia and Mozamboque. The metal is also a by-product of tin-production in Malaysia and Thailand. In view of its profitable nature, there are potential future production projects in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Greenland, China, Mozambique, Canada, Australia, the United States, Finland, Afghanistan and Brazil. I doubt the war in Afghanistan is entirely in the service of obtaining tantalum, but I do wonder what resources may lie there, as wars are always about resources (and power) in one form or another.

That there are deposits of tantalum in Greenland makes an interesting follow-up to my last article to the effect that the melting Greenland ice may expose and render viable the extraction of rare-earth metals and one begins to wonder what resources may become available, of materials and energy, as climate change re-sculpts the land and water-scape of the Earth.

Related Reading.