Thursday, 30 September 2010

Super Strong, Super Hard Organic Material Produced

Taking a break from my usual vitriolic verbal tirades against doomers and their ilk (but still keeping in the spirit of "technology will save us from doom") here's yet another little gem:

Researchers in Tel-Aviv have created a bio-friendly, super-hard organic material which is lightweight, cheap and easy to produce.

Sounds like a *metal* substitute to me.


Since it's *strong* AND *light* that means we could get the weight down in vehicles.
And given that most of the energy used in an automobile is moving the weight of the vehicle around that makes today's batteries even more useful.

Take this very obvious back-of-the-envelope calculation as an example:

If we reduce the weight of today's Volt by half we go from 35 mile range to 70 mile range.

Likewise if we reduce the weight of today's Nissan Leaf electric vehicle by half we go from a 100 mile range to a 200 mile range.

The more important point in this calculation, however, isn't personal automobiles. It's large factor trucks.

Currently Smith Electric Vehicles has a medium duty truck that can go 100 miles on a full charge. That means effectively the same size truck would be able to go 200 miles on a charge. Now *that* is not too shabby.

Original story is here:

Friday, 24 September 2010

Yet more on rare earth substitutes

So we have Hitachi chipping away at the need for rare earths with it's improved ferric oxide magnets.

What else could there be coming down the line?

One key fact in the OMG we're so doomed because we ABSOLUTELY-FRICKEN-NEEEEEED rare earths for electric cars and wind turbines is this:

Currently the MAIN driver for demand of rare earths happens to be hard drives and not motors for electric cars or wind turbines.

So is there successful R&D on potential substitutes for hard drive magnets?

Yup. Something similar to the flash drives that are already eating away at hard drive sales. They're made out of graphene. So what you say?

Graphene is CARBON. One of the most abundant materials on Earth. Heck we produce so much of it that there are complaints it's all ending up in the atmosphere....

Some details here:

"MIT TEchnology Review reports that researchers at the National University of Singapore have made computer memory devices using graphene based on the well understood ferroelectric effect. This is the first step toward memory that could be much denser and faster than the magnetic memory used in today's hard drives. The researchers have made hundreds of prototype graphene memory devices, and they work reliably, according to Barbaros Özyilmaz, the physics professor who led the work presented at a recent American Physical Society meeting in Pittsburgh."

Doom by Chinese Rare Earth Embargo?

There has been much talk about our nascent green technology being stymied by the Chinese (who not unreasonably) need the supply of rare earths for themselves.
This is allegedly a concern because the Chinese has 90%+ of the world production and that without rare earths (specifically neodymium and dysprosium) you can't make high magnetic flux permanent magnets.

Which just happen to be the magnets that are an absolute REQUIREMENT for motors and gearboxes in wind turbines as well as motors in hybrid or electric cars.

So we're all so fricken DOOOOOOOOOMED right? (Hit's Savinar's call center on speed dial: Get me 365 days supply of MRE's, 10,000 rounds of ammo and some broad spectrum antibiotics in case of being bitten by zombies).

Well, in fact, nuh-uh.

Hitachi America beig a good corporate citizen doesn't like having it's balls squeezed by the Chinese so it has been conducting a research campaign for the last ten years because they PREDICTED THIS.

They have now successfully developed (with a lot of sweat and R&D effort)a high magnetic flux magnet composed of olde-fashioned ferric oxides. No rare metals there.

Hitachi's new ferrite oxide magnet has more or less the same level of performance as equivelant rare earth motors.
Right now they haven't (yet) been able to scale it to the size needed for motor vehicles but they're on the case.

That said, even if they can't scale it large enough, there are better gearboxes currently being developed which will allow the size of the motor to be smaller.

Sorry Doomers, still no cigar.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Solar Panel Grid Parity Pricing: Nearly there

The market price of solar panels dipped last year and this brought us to the brink of price parity - the point at which electricity derived from solar panels costs the same as that derived from fossil fuels.

Now grid parity is a little bit of a misnomer because electricity prices vary widely throughout the world, such as in many European countries, electricity costs upwards of 25c per KW/h whereas in North America it's typically 15c per KW/h and sometimes less. In that case we should expect to see grid parity reached in sunnier European jurisdictions (and e.g. South Africa) first.

In fact that is indeed the case.

"The European Photovoltaic Industry Association and a number of analysts say solar panels can already produce electricity at a cost competitive with conventional sources in parts of southern Italy, where the sun shines often and electricity tariffs are among the highest in the world."

Likewise we are within a hair's breadth of grid parity for South Africa.

"Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a renewable-energy database, sees the best solar panels producing electricity at a cost of US15¢ per kilowatt-hour by 2015, says Jenny Chase, lead solar analyst. That is less than the retail electricity price in most European countries and parts of the US."

Once that happens, the switch to electrical based transportation systems will be breathtaking.

Algal Oil Breaktrhoughs?

I noticed the following press release:
"Joule Unlimited, Inc., has been awarded a US patent covering its conversion of sunlight and waste carbon dioxide directly into liquid hydrocarbons that are fungible with conventional diesel fuel. Joule is the first to achieve and patent a direct, single-step, continuous process for the production of hydrocarbon fuels requiring no raw material feedstocks, enabling fossil fuel replacement at high efficiencies and costs as low as $30 per barrel equivalent."

So... good news, right?
Or is it?

Well anything that slows the decline rate of oil should be good news but I think a bit of careful analysis will show that there is a rusty nail in the silver lining.

Assuming this works then we are talking about a 10% efficiency rate for capture of the solar energy by these microorganisms. That's about 6X better than the best biofuel crops.

So what's the problem?
Well it's the same as the problem with regular oil: if we're going to find 2-4 new million barrels of oil energy equivalent every single year after peak oil it's going to be seriously difficult to do.


Simply because internal combustion vehicles are ridiculously inefficient because close to 90% of the energy from the raw crude oil product is wasted by the time it's processed into gasoline (or diesel), transported and then burned in the extremely inefficient (25%!) internal combustion engine.

So taking those numbers your microorganisms are really pumping out at a 2% efficiency rating.

Conversely, the worst efficiency solar panels are already operating at 10% efficiency and given that electric vehicles are closer to 90% efficient compared to 10-15% efficient for the internal combustion engine we are looking at 9% for the worst solar cells. The best on the market solar cells right now are 25% so that would mean we would get 22% of the energy back for electric cars.

Clearly for cars and trucks algal oil or biofuel is not the way to go.

But it's not a total downer, however, because there is one application that needs liquid fuels:
Jet travel.

Post-peak oil, there are substitutes for almost everything except jet travel.
You can move freight to electric trains instead of long distance big rigs (though we could convert long distance big rigs to nat gas). You could take trains for long distance passenger travel or else you could take your electric truck on a route which has project better place style battery swap stations along the way or else you could take a boat powered by nuke. But jet travel is difficult to do without liquid fuels.

In reality in the meantime we could create liquid fuels from coal or else natural gas and this has been done already but let's assume that our only option is biofuels. (And to be honest everything is welcome).

So let's look at what that might look like in some post peak world:

Right now (fall 2010) for my pathetic fuel mileage dodge durango (15 miles per gallon) if I want to take a trip, to say, disneyland it's about 2000 miles each way so a 4000 mile trip. That's 266 gallons. At $3 a gallon that's $798. Call it $800.

Now on the least expensive flight option (and let's say I get a FREE rental vehicle at the other end with gas include (bursts out laughing)) it's $400 per person. So for myself, my wife and two kids it'll run me $1600 to fly.

That's a decent difference, but people today will still pay for that to avoid the hassle of driving 4000 miles.

At an efficiency rating of 4X worse than electric means of transportation, you may expect to see flights cost 4x what it costs to drive, so my trip to disneyland would cost $3200 in today's money.

Expensive, but not out of reach for a two income family.

Friday, 10 September 2010

What's wrong with Hubbert Theory

Hubbert theory states that oil production from a field or a group of fields will rise gradually, reach a peak in production and subsequentely decline.
If you take that at face value it's correct.

Oil is a non-renewable resource and logic dictates that the volume of oil produced must lie under a production curve (of whatever shape) and that the amount of oil produced can never be greater than the volume under the curve.

What hubbert theory doesn't mention is that it's talking about the production curve taking ONLY current technology into account.

Let's repeat that so we get it. At any one point in time, the amount of technically recoverable oil is x% of the total oil in there. 100 years the total recoverable oil from a field was 10%. That means that 90% of the oil from those old fields is still down there and not recoverable with the technology they used 100 years ago.

The actual amount of oil sitting in the ground, however is much larger than that under a hubbert curve at any one point in time. Some Old fields, for example, as stated still have 90% of the oil still sitting in them.

If technology stood still then you could say that a hubbert curve with a steep production curve upwards, followed by a sharp drop was a definitively predictable model for future production.

In the REAL world, however, technology is ever changing and this leads to reserves being stated upwards as new technology allows us to grab an ever greater percentage share of oil in place thus pushing any putative peak off or else flattening out a peak from a bell curve into a grand piano curve instead.

The church of peak oil dogma, however, reckons that only a perfectly formed bell curve is possible and that the reason reserves have been continually stated upwards is in fact due to OPEC lying for political reasons rather than technology.

A recent example would be stating that Canada has 300 billion barrels of reserves whereas ten years ago it only had 80 billion barrels.

Actually here in Alberta we are sitting on over a trillion barrels of oil in the ground just waiting on technology to pull it out. The technology exists: nuclear reactors.

Move along here nothing to see folks...