Monday, January 28, 2008

Biofuels Prospects--Extremely Good

Biofuels do not need to drive up the price of food or cropland. In fact, bio-ethanol can be made from just about any organic material--including municipal waste.
A biofuel startup in Illinois can make ethanol from just about anything organic for less than $1 per gallon, and it wouldn't interfere with food supplies, company officials said....Coskata, which is backed by General Motors and other investors, uses bacteria to convert almost any organic material, from corn husks (but not the corn itself) to municipal trash, into ethanol.

"It's not five years away, it's not 10 years away. It's affordable, and it's now," said Wes Bolsen, the company's vice president of business development.

The discovery underscores the rapid innovation under way in the race to make cellulosic ethanol cheaply. With the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requiring an almost five-fold increase in ethanol production to 36 billion gallons annually by 2022, scientists are working quickly to reach that breakthrough.___Wired
Cellulosic ethanol can produce 5-10 units of energy for every unit consumed. It is an economical approach to biofuels. And even though ethanol is not as energy-dense as gasoline, there are ways to compensate for that deficit:
Ethanol turbocharging—Ethanol has less energy density than gasoline, lowering vehicle miles-per-gallon. However, MIT researchers are studying small turbocharged engines that run on gasoline but have a separate fuel injection system for ethanol. This approach can boost engine efficiency and enable fuel savings of up to 20–30%.____Source
Another approach to biofuels is algal biodiesel. Algae can grow on wastewater effluent. It also thrives on agricultural runoff.
Imagine if you could scoop algae out of your fish tank and put it in your gas tank. It’s not quite that easy, but it is possible to extract usable fuel from algae. Sommerfeld and Hu are working on a way to produce algae-based biodiesel for cars and trucks.

Biodiesel is a cleaner alternative to regular diesel fuel. Diesel is produced from nonrenewable petroleum. Biodiesel comes from renewable sources such as vegetable oils or animal fats. Biodiesel also burns cleaner than diesel, and it is biodegradable. Pure biodiesel can only be used in modified engines, but a diesel-biodiesel mixture can be used in existing diesel engines.

Scientists around the world are working to produce alternative fuels from a wide variety of plant materials. Ethanol derived from corn is already widely used. Unlike corn, however, algae aren’t food crops. And algae doesn’t have to be grown on arable soil—soil that could be used for growing food.____Physorg
China's ongoing energy crisis is forcing it to look into alternatives to coal. Given China's indifference to environmental quality, we can expect environmental devastation to follow wherever China's biofuel investments go:
Sinopec, China's top oil company, reportedly will cooperate with an Indonesian enterprise to set up biofuel plants and to grow energy crops in Indonesia, with a major investment of US$5 billion. Indonesia's national news agency Antara reported about the project, which would become Sinopec's second large overseas biofuel investment.

The plants and plantations are set to be located in Indonesia's Papua and East Kalimantan regions, and will be used for extracting biodiesel from crude palm oil and jatropha curcas oil.....In January 2007, another oil major, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Indonesian government under which it intends to invest $5.5 billion in the development of the biofuel sector in Indonesia, announcing the establishment of 3 biodiesel processing plants in Kalimantan (earlier post).

Besides Sinopec and CNOOC, several other Chinese state-owned and private enterprises have announced large biofuels investments in, amongst other countries, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Mozambique and Congo. Most of these investments have gone unnoticed because China is quite discreet about them.____Source

Given China's emphasis on profits above all else, we can expect to see the decline of the environment in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and various African countries--wherever China invests.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Peak Oil: Meet the Raytheon Oil Shale Microwave

US defense contractor and electronics company Raytheon has developed oil extraction technology that may send "Peak Oil" packing, for a decade or two. At least, giant oil and gas developer Schlumberger thinks so:
Much as a microwave oven heats food, Raytheon Co.‘s (NYSE:RTN) technology relies on microwaves to generate underground heat and melt a waxy substance in the shale called kerogen so it can be converted into oil...Carbon dioxide heated and pressurized into a liquid form is then used to extract the oil from the rock and carry it to a well.

Raytheon and oil companies began exploring ways to extract oil from shale decades ago, but many efforts were shelved in the 1980s as oil prices and supplies stabilized. Some projects _ including Raytheon‘s _ were revived in recent years because of spiking prices, technological improvements and hopes of decreasing U.S. dependency on foreign oil....Most of the attention is focused on oil shale reserves scattered across U.S. federal lands in Colorado, Utah and southwest Wyoming _ an area estimated to contain up to 1.8 trillion barrels of oil trapped in shale, or three times the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia.

This technology can also be used for extracting oil from tar sands in Canada, and for extracting heavy oils.
The RF/CF combination is more economical and environmentally responsible than older oil shale extraction techniques as it uses less power, does not severely disrupt the landscape or leave behind residue that can enter groundwater supplies....For tar sands and heavy oil, the Raytheon process could yield 10 to 15 barrels of oil equivalent per barrel consumed, due to the lower heating temperatures required. When applied in tar sands, the combined RF/CF technology performs a mild upgrading in-situ, yielding an attractive light sweet crude oil. The process is “tunable”, facilitating production of various product slates.

The use of RF technology in shale processing would enable the fuel to be extracted from the earth in only one to two months. In-ground heating methods that do not employ radio waves, by contrast, require three to four years to replicate the natural conversion process.
Green Car Congress

While efforts to produce sustainable biofuels are gearing up, the ability to economically and cleanly produce petroleum from regional deposits (oil shales and tar sands) should make the necessary transition to renewable energy easier.

Peak oil doom is looking more and more like an adolescent fantasy.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Algal Biodiesel and Other Sustainables

Era I: During periods of intense global warming--90 million and 150 million years ago--large quantities of algae were produced. As the planet went through geologic transformation, the large algae deposits were buried under massively heavy layers of rock, and transformed by time, heat, and pressure into petroleum.

Era II: During the 21st century CE, blessed by mild temperatures and relative wealth, humans learn to grow algae themselves. Humans then convert the algae to oil, using fairly simple chemical techniques.
...PetroSun BioFuels Refining has entered into a joint venture to construct and operate a biodiesel refinery near Coolidge, Arizona. The feedstock for the refinery will be algal oil produced by PetroSun BioFuels at company owned and operated algae farms to be located in Arizona....The refinery will have an annual production capacity of thirty million gallons and will produce 100% renewable biodiesel. PetroSun BioFuels will process the residual algae biomass into ethanol....Petrosun claims that Independent studies have demonstrated that algae is capable of producing in excess of 30 times more oil per acre than corn and soybean crops.

The biorefinery and algae farm complex will generate all of its own electrical and heat requirements, utilize non-potable or saltwater, consume no fossil fuels and will be carbon neutral. The joint venture anticipates that all permits will be approved and construction on the biorefinery should commence during the third quarter of 2008.

Since producing algal biodiesel is more efficient than maize (corn) biodiesel, it is anticipated that industrial production of biodiesel will shift away from food crops such as maize. Algae can be grown on sewer plant effluent, which does not deplete crops or cropland. Consequently, and with good conscience, industry is preparing for larger scale use of biodiesel.
Safeway announced today that it has converted its entire California and U.S. truck fleet to cleaner-burning biodiesel fuel.

The biodiesel initiative makes Safeway one of the first major retailers in the United States to convert its entire fleet of more than 1,000 trucks to cleaner-burning biodiesel fuel. The decision by Safeway will help reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 75 million pounds annually, the equivalent of taking nearly 7,500 passenger vehicles off the road each year.

As humans learn to do in a short time what took nature hundreds of millions of years, the problem of sustainable energy will be solved. Although near-term "Peak Oil" appears to be a fantasy, basic prudence suggests that a renewable energy approach is preferable to one that depends upon non-replenishable stocks.

Algae is capable of producing both biodiesel and bio-butanol or ethanol--making its cultivation and use more economical still. As better forms of oil producing and microbe-resistant algae are created, algae will become a year-round all-purpose energy crop that does not raise the cost of food or cropland.

Other ways of producing oil besides biodiesel, include pyrolytic conversion of garbage and organic waste, synthetic biology micro-organsims made to convert plant waste to hydrocarbons, methane to hydrocarbon chemistries, coal to liquid HC, etc.

Approaches to sustainable energy other than liquid biofuels which are very promising, include concentrated full-spectrum photovoltaics, and geothermal.
The organic Rankine cycle-based power system is an advanced binary cycle system that is driven by a simple evaporation process and is entirely enclosed, which means it produces no emissions. The only byproduct is electricity, and the system’s “fuel” -- geothermal hot water -- is a renewable resource.

PureCycle geothermal systems have been in operation since 2006 at Chena Hot Springs Resort in Alaska, as a U.S. Department of Energy Geothermal Technologies demonstration project. It is the first geothermal project in Alaska and the lowest temperature geothermal resource (165° F) ever used for commercial power generation.The PureCycle system makes it possible to tap into a significant new domestic renewable energy resource because it operates at previously unusable low temperatures -- from 165 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

Image credit to Energy Blog and Biodiesel America

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

The End of Landfills? Waste Pyrolysis to Energy

This is an exciting technology--one of many "waste to energy" technologies that are treating garbage as valuable feedstocks for the production of energy and other valuable products.

Anyone who remembers the great landfill avalanche of 2505 from the movie Idiocracy, will instantly understand the unlikelihood of such a huge landfill ever existing--at least in North America or the rest of the developed world. Garbage will be considered too valuable to just let it sit around and take up space.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

More on OTEC and Energy Island

Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) is at the center of the Energy Island concept. OTEC was invented by Frenchman Georges Claude in the 1920s. The idea is simple: use the approximately 20 degrees C difference in temperature between the deep ocean and tropical surface ocean to drive a heat engine. Besides producing megawatts of electric power, the byproducts of the process include clean freshwater for drinking and growing crops, and plenty of air conditioning.
There are two basic versions of the technology. The first operates in a "closed cycle", using warm surface water to heat ammonia, which boils at a low temperature. This expands into vapour, driving a turbine that produces electricity. Cold water from the depths is used to cool the ammonia, returning it to its liquid state so the process can start again.

The "open cycle" version offers the added benefit of producing drinking water as a by-product.

Warm seawater is introduced into a vacuum chamber, in which it will boil more easily, leaving behind salt and generating steam to turn a turbine. Once it has left the turbine, the steam enters a condensing chamber cooled by water from the depths, in which large quantities of desalinated water are produced - 1.2 million litres for every megawatt of energy.

A 250MW plant (a sixth of the capacity of the new coal-fired power station that has just won planning permission in Kent) could produce 300 million litres of drinking water a day, enough to fill a supertanker. Using electrolysis, it would also be possible to produce hydrogen fuel.
The map below displays the ocean area where the temperature difference between surface waters and the deep ocean is great enough to allow large scale economical OTEC . By placing a site close to an arid coastline, an OTEC energy island could make a huge difference in quality of life--by providing reliable electric power, plentiful fresh water for drinking and crop irrigation, and chiller-based air conditioning.
Energy island based seasteads could also provide a nucleus for burgeoning aquaculture--based upon the nutrient-rich deep ocean water routinely pumped into the OTEC generator.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Projects for Harvesting the Energy and Other Riches of the Ocean

Energy Islands are floating modular renewable energy platforms that incorporate photovoltaics, solar thermal towers, wave energy, ocean current energy turbines, wind turbines, and OTEC (ocean thermal energy conversion). Designed by architect Alex Michaelis, the concept is aimed at capturing a share of Richard Branson's Virgin Earth Prize.
Each island would be built on a floating platform and at its centre would be a plant that converts heat from the tropical sea into electricity and drinking water. Below deck would be marine turbines to harness energy from underwater currents and around the edge floating devices to provide wave power.

Vegetable farms and homes for workers will complete the colony and the power will be piped back to be used on the nearest populated land mass.

Michaelis, who is working together with his father Dominic, an engineer, estimates that each island complex could produce 250MW.

Combining enough Energy Island modules to form the outside of a protected lagoon, you would be on your way to renewable power, agriculture, and aquaculture for your floating city.
Aquarius is the sea-colony concept from Marshall Savage, writer of The Millenial Project. Self-sufficient Aquarius floating cities would be the first step to colonising the galaxy. The lessons learned from building sustainable and profitable colony-cities-on-the-ocean could be transferred to floating cities in outer space.

A different group has coalesced around the concept of "Seasteads". For the seastead movement, building a sustainable floating city is an end in itself.
In the past, pioneers and malcontents would head to the frontiers, of which few now exist. The oceans, which make up 71% of the earth's surface, have always been a place for those seeking new ways of life. They are the last great unclaimed region. Ships are not well suited for permanent living, but by creating new land on the oceans we can achieve both freedom and a reasonable degree of comfort.

Freedom of movement and self-sufficiency are both intimately connected with political freedom. Fixed locations such as seamounts, islands, and atolls are much more vulnerable to the whims of nearby governments [minerva link], but a mobile seastead can always move if the political climate becomes unsuitable. While a seastead is likely to import many goods, being able to supply its own basic necessities will also add greatly to its independence. This approach to nation founding reduces - but does not eliminate - the difficulty in finding sovereignty, by operating in international waters...If the seastead is parked in area that does not get regular rain storms an alternative method of fresh water replenishment is needed. Either sea water distillation or reverse osmosis will work. Both forms of sea water reclamation require pretty hefty amounts of power. Distillation can be done with solar evaporation trays and condensers; whereas reverse osmosis runs off of electricity....
Seastead Book
Seascape One, pictured above, is a combination tourist destination and high-end condominiums designed to float around the Mediterranean Sea. It incorporates multiple renewable energy features, including wind and solar power. The tall white structure projecting above the living section is a solid sail, for clean (but slow) propulsion. Lessons learned from operating such a design should be applicable to a more rough weather seastead.
Paolo Soleri designed floating arcologies which could also be classified as "seasteads." The "Nexus" floating city project is more than a little based on a Soleri design.
This is a floating city designed to accommodate 100,000 persons. 7 kilometers long and 4 kilometers wide with the capacity to be mobile, grow its own food, produce its own electricity and, owing to it existing beyond the 12 mile governmental jurisdiction boundaries, create its own government, income system and tax base. In essence, this mobile city becomes its own independent country....The city utilizes several different types of electrical power generation. Five Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion units are positioned at strategic zones of the city to supply electricity. Banks of freestanding windmills and photovoltaic solar cells produce additional electricity. The "head" of the floating city is a small mountain range with a specially designed frontal structure that cuts Tsunami tidal waves into smaller, manageable waves with little destructive effect. It is a tidal wave barrier that requires the city to head into the on-coming wave.

The video above is a graphic portrayal of some of the aspects of the "Energy Island" concept--the UK project that wants a piece of the Virgin Prize.

A safe, self-sufficient living structure in mid-ocean for thousands of residents would require considerable care in design and testing--long before it was ever built or floated. The ocean is a dangerous environment under the best of conditions. Any floating structure destined to remain in mid-ocean would eventually see the ocean in all of its moods. Hurricanes, deadly squalls, typhoons, giant rogue waves, perfect storms, etc. The seastead would have to be built to survive anything it could not avoid.

From Alfin2100

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

JTEC: Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Conversion

This heat engine, based on the "Ericsson cycle", has been discussed on multiple websites yesterday and today, including Brian Wang's.

It is based on the "Ericsson Cycle", and incorporates aspects of heat engines and fuel cells. It has no moving parts, it does not burn fuels or depend on chemical reactions (other than simple oxidation and reduction of H2 gas), and it is not at all obvious to me how it can be made to work efficiently. Anyway, here is the company's spiel:
The JTEC is an all solid-state engine that operates on the Ericsson cycle. Equivalent to Carnot, the Ericsson cycle offers the maximum theoretical efficiency available from an engine operating between two temperatures. The JTEC system utilizes the electro-chemical potential of hydrogen pressure applied across a proton conductive membrane (PCM). The membrane and a pair of electrodes form a Membrane Electrode Assembly (MEA) similar to those used in fuel cells. On the high-pressure side of the MEA, hydrogen gas is oxidized resulting in the creation of protons and electrons. The pressure differential forces protons through the membrane causing the electrodes to conduct electrons through an external load. On the low-pressure side, the protons are reduced with the electrons to reform hydrogen gas. This process can also operate in reverse. If current is passed through the MEA a low-pressure gas can be "pumped" to a higher pressure.

The JTEC uses two membrane electrode assembly (MEA) stacks. One stack is coupled to a high temperature heat source and the other to a low temperature heat sink. Hydrogen circulates within the engine between the two MEA stacks via a counter flow regenerative heat exchanger. The engine does not require oxygen or a continuous fuel supply, only heat. Like a gas turbine engine, the low temperature MEA stack is the compressor stage and the high temperature MEA is the power stage. The MEA stacks will be designed for sufficient heat transfer with the heat source and sink to allow near constant temperature expansion and compression processes. This feature coupled with the use of a regenerative counter flow heat exchanger will allow the engine to approximate the Ericsson cycle.

You can find an animation of the device in action at the link above. It is a bit of a puzzler for me at this point.

Lonnie Johnson, the inventor, was formerly an engineer at NASA's JPL, before he made millions from inventing a glorified water gun. Some of his other inventions are quite intriguing, so check out his websites.

To be honest, I am more excited about the nano-antenna and the nano-spray silicon particle PV windows, than I am about the JTEC. But if the inventor gets a working prototype with better than 1 or 2 % efficiencies, I may start to perk up.

Heat conversion is one of the best ways to utilise solar energy, and it is the only way to utilise geothermal energy. Solar and geothermal are the two most abundant sources of energy on this planet, so we had best learn to use them every way we can.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

Forget Peak Oil: The Problem is Peak Manpower

The most serious shortage facing the developed world is the shortage of skilled and talented workforce participants.
While Zay looks for executives and top-level managers, the entire energy industry – from welders, tank builders, and roughnecks to petroleum engineers, nuclear engineers, and technicians – is strapped for talent. And the problems are likely to get substantially worse before they get better. Nor is the labor shortage limited to the U.S. and the hydrocarbon sector. Rather, it is worldwide, and being felt in industries ranging from coal mining to nuclear power. The reasons for the labor crunch are many: an aging workforce, lagging student interest in engineering, a lack of interest in blue-collar jobs like welding, and perhaps most important, the strong commodity prices that have led to a boom in energy projects of all types.

...The dearth of skilled workers can be seen by looking at the Gulf Coast. “There is a shortage of several thousand skilled laborers for the offshore industry,” says Bill French, a three-decade veteran of the oil industry and an executive search director for the recruiting firm World Wide Worker. French says that the entire coast is feeling the pinch. All of the offshore industries need welders, not just those who cater to the energy sector. “Welders are making twice as much as they were five years ago,” says French. “It’s like a merry go-round, with workers going across the street for 50 more cents [an hour]…everybody needs welders.”

Michael Harter, chairman of the Tulsa Welding School, the nation’s largest, says demand for his students has never been greater. “I have three to ten job opportunities for every student that leaves us,” he said. Demand is so great that Harter has nearly doubled the size of his classes. Five years ago, the school, which begins a new class every three weeks, would have 60 students. Now, those classes may have 100. And Harter doesn’t see demand slowing down any time soon. “There are so many welders who are already between 55 and 65 and who are retiring. They are retiring as fast or faster than new welders are coming into the job pool.”

The situations for blue-collar workers is matched by that for white-collar professionals. For instance, engineers are in short supply in the North Sea, where Robert Rapier works for one of the supermajors. Rapier, who writes the R-Squared Energy Blog and requested anonymity for his company, says the demand for engineers is “insatiable,” and that he has “posted jobs that literally go unfilled. Supply and demand is out of balance, so the supply side – the manpower – can command high premiums. We have started recruiting a lot in Iran and India.”

Skilled manpower shortages are indeed worldwide, from Hong Kong, to India, to Canada, to large sections of the US.

We already have an active bidding war for top talent in the energy sector. This competition for skilled workers will grow more heated, as experienced workers leave the workforce through retirement.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Pluggable Hybrids: The Need for More Electric Power Plants: Stop the Denial

Electric vehicles are a great idea for shifting much of the energy burden of transportation from oil to electricity. But we need to make sure we can make enough electricity to re-charge the large fleet of EV's that are required to make a difference.
Based on the default assumptions on the spreadsheet - 15 million electric vehicle commuters, a 40 mile commute, and 4.0 miles per kilowatt-hour - it would take 150 gigawatt-hours of electricity to charge into such a fleet of battery-powered cars when they are plugged in every night.

Given these are off-peak hours, and given a 10 hour average recharge cycle, the electric power grid would have to deliver 15 gigawatts of additional power all night in order to recharge this quantity of cars. Input your own assumptions!

In California, for example, where during peak demand the power grid can deliver over 50 gigawatts, this is probably barely feasible. But where will the additional electricity come from? Even assuming massive grid-scale storage capacity, you only get about 1.5 gigawatt-hours per day from a one square mile solar thermal plant - you would need to build 100 of these. A nuclear power station can easily output 1.0 gigawatts, and since they run continuously, that would add 24 gigawatt-hours per day - you would need to build about six of them. But what if decentralized sources of electricity were used to power electric cars?

Ecoworld has been kind enough to provide two online interactive spreadsheets to allow any reader to experiment with the numbers:

Gigawatts per E-Commuters

Photovoltaics per Electric Car

Ecoworld promotes the "series hybrid" which uses a small clean diesel engine running at constant rpm to an electric generator, which charges the batteries that power the electric motor drive.

Diesel can become a renewable fuel within the foreseeable future. So until safe, clean nuclear energy capacity is built to support an EV transportation infrastructure, we are going to have to make do with hybrids.

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