Monday, August 23, 2010

Australia Plans to be Carbon-Neutral by 2020.

I have just been sent a remarkable document entitled “Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan.” As the title implies, within its pages is a proposal for how Australia might be run without the use of fossil fuels, including for transportation, by 2020. The ambitious plan, from a nonprofit called Beyond Zero Emissions and researchers at Melbourne University, hinges on developing enough concentrating solar thermal power (CST) capacity, using molten salt storage to provide a constant supply of energy, to the tune of 60% of the country’s power. The remaining 40% would come from wind farms, along with a smaller element of biomass and hydropower as a back-up. Some 20% of the solar installations would be built by 2014 under the plan and the rest by 2020 to a final generating capacity of 42 GWe.

In a sense, the scheme is similar to the Desertec project, which I posted about on this blog and on Forbes recently, which proposes to use CST based stations in north Africa to provide electricity for Europe. However, the Australian plan is far more inclusive in attempting to satisfy all the energy requirements of a nation of just over 20 million people.

A wholesale electrified transportation system is envisaged, with electric trains and electric vehicles, to offset the 15% of total Australian energy which is used for transport, in the form of oil. Indeed, an increased use of electricity is planned overall by 40%, to an annual 325 TW by 2020. The report insists that, in hand with a combination of energy efficiency and fuel-switching measures, this growth in electricity production would be enough to supplant all fossil fuel use (coal, gas and oil), including that for transport and space-heating. With the loss of inefficient internal combustion engines along with the use of heat-pumps and better insulation in the building sector etc., Australian energy demand is predicted to fall from 3834 Petajoules (1065 TWh) in 2007 to 1643 Petajoules (456 TWh) by 2020.

Transportation is a challenge in its own right. There are around 15 million vehicles on Australia’s roads, and it is practically inconceivable that a similar number of electric vehicles could be made in the remaining years before 2020. The introduction of electric light-railway systems might bear some of the transportation load, but these need to be built from scratch, and within the context of a completely new social infrastructure.

It is proposed that the project will require $35 billion to $40 billion a year over a 10-year period, and that overall this will be net-cost effective given the anticipated rise in oil prices, to the tune of $1.2 trillion. Nonetheless, these are merely indicative figures and there is no clear mandate or promise from either private or public sector as to where the money will come from. The engineering requirement overall for CST, wind-power, new power distribution, electric transportation etc. is phenomenal and unprecedented, and while I marvel at the audacity of the proposal, I doubt very much that it can be done in time, if at all.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Looking for Algal Oil... with Near Infrared Light.

A new method has been introduced for telling which strains of algae are likely to be any good for turning into biofuels based on Near Infrared (NIR) spectroscopy. The near infrared spectrum runs the range of wavelengths 800 - 2500 nm, and is therefore just below the region of visible light but above the usual mid-infrared, at 2,500 - 30,000 nm. The discovery of infrared radiation is attributed to the British/German Astronomer Herschel, who also wrote 24 symphonies. However, NIR only came to practical use in the 1950s as an analytical device. NIR is less sensitive than normal (mid) IR but can penetrate samples more easily meaning they need less analytical preparation and in the case of algae can be examined in their raw state.

Algae very considerably in their composition, and while some varieties contain around 50% of their weight of oil, others hold as little as 5%. Not only this, but the "oil" should contain a high level of fatty acids to be converted into biodiesel: triglycerides rather than phospholipids.

The NIR method is highly specific for the detection of different kinds of fatty acids and it is intended to develop a database of fingerprints for different fatty acid components in algal biomass, with which to analyse actual algae. The method offers the promise of a rapid and precise screening of algae directly rather than the existing time-consuming, cumbersome and error-prone means for analysing algae, and may prove pivotal in the development of a putative fuel industry based on algae.

Related reading.
"Striking algal oil," Chemistry World, By Anna Lewcock.
"Oil from algae; salvation from peak oil," C.J.Rhodes, Science progress, 2010, Vol. 92, 39-90.