Monday, 29 November 2010

Oooops! Yet another substitute: this time Plastics.

So according to the main reason we are about to dieoff is that global oil production is about to go into a precipitous and imminent decline and that since there are NO viable substitutes and every single product made out of oil is necessary to our very existence we are therefore doomed to a massive population crash.

I have diligently debunked this theory by means of pointing out that not only do we have substitutes but also that some of the products currently made by oil are not even necessary.

Here's yet another one:
Scientists at the University of Massachusetts have just come up with a zeolite catalyst that can be produced cost effectively leading to a process to create plastic feedstocks (such as bezene, toluene, xylene and olefins) from renewable biomass which is on par economically with current production methods using petroleum based feedstocks.

The new catalyst is an add-on drop-in piece of technology which can be used with no change in current infrastructure.

What's interesting about this is that it increases the net worth of existing cropland since currently low-value waste products can now be converted into high value chemical feedstock with an end-value higher even than fuel.

Given that we use about a million barrels a day in North America for chemical feedstocks this is great news.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Rare Earths: Toshiba to the rescue

Just a very quick post today.

Remember the rare earths fiasco?

Well it seems that not even counting the fact that we have the Chinese by the balls because we have all the coal, the Japanese company Toshiba has already sidestepped dependence on the Chinese rare earth strangehold entirely:

They have developed and are in production of a high magnetic field strengh Samarium-Cobalt magnet - both of whom are in good supply from that highly unstable and dangerous part of the world called Australia, thus completely avoiding dependence on dysprosium which currently is almost all produced in China.

Link is here:

Monday, 22 November 2010

IEA Global Energy Outlook 2010

The IEA has just released it's global energy outlook for 2010.
What's interesting (especially if you are a doomer) is that the "World oil production by type in the New Policies Scenario" graph visually shows that the IEA expects oil from conventional existing fields to start globally declining *now*.

I have a couple of points to raise:
1. It's unlikely that we will see a decline averaged across all of the global fields *without* first seeing a *longish* plateau of some sort. Why? Because the North Sea showed a plateau of ten years before showing a decline and the North Sea is a much smaller area. So I'd expect a plateau of *at least* ten years rather than the four to five years on the graph.

2. Even taking a very pessimistic approach (saying that *all* of the fields yet to be found *do not exist* and that the rest of the numbers are reasonable and accurate, then if we sum the fields yet to be developed (i.e. already found oil in the ground) PLUS the natural gas liquids PLUS unconventional oil and then subtract that from the projected decline we still are in surplus and even show a slight growth out till 2035 so we effectively have a slightly increasing plateau till 2035

3. Although they have accounted for substitutes in the form of EVs and PHEVs (pretty reasonable by my reckoning) there is no accounting for efficiency in regular vehicles - like increasing MPG of the North Amercian fleet from an average of 14MPG to 35MPG which should be easy. We also have *albeit expensive* substitutes in the form of nuclear powered shipping as well as demand destruction (like taking the bus or cycling or walking to work or moving closer to facilities or work).

So all in all, I'd say the IEA report is more optimistic even than I am. I personally expect to see a small decline rate starting around 2015 which we should be able to deal with by a combination of efficiency, substitution and *harmless* demand destruction.

The graphs in the report can be found here:

Friday, 19 November 2010

Coal vs Rare Earths

So I posted about how the Chinese have us by the balls over rare earths for the current time and how it would take us 10 years to bring our rare-earths production back on line.

An interesting tidbit:

The Chinese have 14% of the world's coal reserves and 47% of the world's demand.
We on the other hand have 30%, Australia has 10%, South Africa has 5% and Canada has 2%.

Interestingly, a report has now come out of Hong Kong that the Chinese government want to cap their coal production so their reserves last longer.


Looks like the Chinese don't have the bargaining position they thought they had.

I think the new argument is going to go like this:

China: "We got the rare earths suckers! Pay what we want or you get none."
Us: "Oh really? We got the coal suckers! Give us the rare earths at a *reasonable* price or your lights go out."

Some people think that may lead to saber-rattling. I on the other hand think that it will tend to stabilize things. If we have each *other* by the balls, then we're less likely to fight. MAD works.

Interesting times.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Why the GM Volt is a winner for EVERYONE

There are two types of critics of the GM Volt.

The first is the greenie doomer who doesn't want any energy use let alone fossil powered personal transport (albeit mainly electric). Nothing is good enough for these people and no matter how "green" no technological solution is every going to be adequate because their problem isn't with solving climate change or peak oil, their problem is with industrial civilization itself.
Anyways, those folk bore me so on to the next critic.

The second kind of critic is the person who doesn't believe in either climate change nor peak oil. Personally my take is the jury is out on climate change but peak oil is very real and requires technical solutions of the highest caliber.

Why, then, is the Volt such a big winner in my eyes?

Several reasons.

Firstly, obviously, it's going to substitute demand away from conventional oil supplies which are shortly going to be declining (probably in the region of 1-2% per year). Even if we are getting the electricity to supply the volt from coal it's *still* better than oil because of the much higher powerplant to wheel efficiency (60%) as compared to oil well to refinery to gas station to internal combustion efficiency of only 15%).

Secondly given the current cost of high energy density batteries the cost is kept down by using less batteries with a lower though still adequate range. Even though the hard science has already been done for better batteries, the process engineering is only just getting started - so currently *inexpensive* batteries to create a vehicle with a 500 mile range are non-existent.

Thirdly, the charging infrastructure to charge batteries at high voltage just doesn't exist yet. An alternative is better place's battery swapping stations which are currently on trial but not yet widely installed.

Fourthly if peak oil decline were to come next wednesday then we would need a solution that could displace gasoline usage but didn't require a huge and immediate investment in infrastructure AND allowed the current paradigm to continue without requiring a huge and immediate investment in mass transit.

Fifthly the price: While it's not cheap, the Volt is certainly within the range of most middle class incomes. Just looking round the cubicles in my office, probably 50% drive a vehicle that costs in excess of $25,000 so they could *probably* with a stretch meet the payments.

Sixth: It reduces dependence on foreign oil supplies coming from regions which are not friendly to us.

Lastly the hidden one: Why did GM kill the electric car before?
It's my take that it was uneconomical for them to keep it.
GM is a business. i.e. they build cars in order to make money.

Unfortunately, very few car companies make much money off of the manufacture of cars. The money is made in service and maintenance and supply of parts.
Given that all electric vehicles have parts that last a *lot* longer due to the lesser complexity, there wasn't really any way GM could make money off of all-electric cars. That's a problem for GM because of all the already invested and not-yet-amortized plant and equipment sitting on their books. Ultimately they could find another way to make money off of battery electrics, but with all the current old-paradigm dependencies I think they probably could have gone bust if forced to go all-electric, say by government mandate.

The volt, however, is a plug-in-hybrid. Although it ticks all the boxes for most people (and definitely for those who seek to escape potential liquid fuels shortages) it is also much more complex than just a battery electric vehicle with no gasoline engine. That means the existing paradigm can still continue, allowing GM to continue to service it's existing plant until it is replaced and a new business model can be worked up allowing them to make money off of battery electric only.


Go Volt Go!

Yet more substitutes: Natural Gas from Shale powered delivery vehicles

Continuing on the theme of viable substitutes:

Many in the doomer camp say "we're screwed because we can't possibly replace all of our current oil production before we peak".

First of all, we don't need to replace ALL of our current oil production.

We ONLY need to blunt the decline rate.

Given that we can do this by substituting away some of the demand for the likely 1-2% decline rate the challenge seems much less insurmountable and great strides have been made so that we no longer have a need to destroy demand by 1-2% a year as we may have needed to do if peak oil had come say, in 2000-2002 when many of the substitutes we now have were not technically available.

One such substitute that is effectively a snap-in is the huge reserves of shale gas which have been developed in the United States through the progressive development of increasingly sophisticated horizontal drilling methods combined with advanced fraccing technology. This has led to the lowest prices for natural gas in the US and Canada in more than a decade because there is frankly a glut of supply.

This couldn't have come at a better time. We now have an arbitrage opportunity (read money-making opporutinty) whereby natural gas joule per joule is cheaper than oil. All that's required is to shift some of the demand from oil to natural gas.

I've been saying for some time that some enterprising auto or truck manufacturers will likely start to shift production of their vehicles to natural gas which is a drop in to existing fueling infrastructure (many gas stations already have natural gas pumps).

Now one of the major automobile manufacturers has released a natural gas powered version of their delivery vans (Daimler-Chrysler with their newly released natural gas powered Sprinter).

I expect other van manufacturers to soon follow suit. What this means is that we now have a second leg of the logistics delivery infrastructure shored up both by natural gas and battery electric.

Like I said before, I'll be ordering pizza from dominoes delivered by unconventional fuel powered vehicles while the doomers cower in their MRE filled basements awaiting the zombie apolcalypse.

Peak Oil? Yawn.

Yet more large format energy storage solutions

I've written before about the energy storage solutions being developed by the many innovative companies working to solve our pressing energy challenges and here is yet another:

Corvus technologies has developed an advanced lithium ion battery with 20% higher energy density than the current best-of-breed batteries. The quality engineering has been increased to such a high degree that the battery has a working life of 20+ years as compared to 8 years for previous generation batteries.

In addition, the process engineering involved has reduced the cost to a level where it's inexpensive enough to enable energy storage to become competitive enough to enable storage for wind as the battery packs come in megawatt sizes, which is a breakthrough.

Those who say renewable energy is a non-starter because of intermittency are just dead wrong and given that up to 65% of available wind is currently dumped means we could more than double capacity usage of wind turbines, thus further increasing the cost competitiveness compared to fossil fuel powered plants.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Yet more substitutes: Asphalt and Cement

Korean scientists have developed a biotech method for producing cement and an asphalt substitute.

The method works by harnessing a specialized bacteria which secretes an enzyme which rapidly turns sand into sandstone, with properties which can be tweaked to match either pavement on highways or else cement for buildings.

For our purposes this is yet another die off killer (as we all know, dieoff rests on there being no viable substitutes to oil). In this case asphalt competes directly with petroleum derived from tar-sands. i.e. with this process we won't need to use valuable oil to pave our roads. Instead we can used this bio-engineered sandstone.

Additionally, cement is very energy intensive and with this process the energy requirements will come directly from the sun without any artificial energy requirement whatsoever.

By my reckoning we use about a million barrels a day between cement and asphalt in North America alone. So given that we use about a quarter of the worlds oil on a daily basis I reckon thats 4 million barrels a day potentially could be saved.

If we calculate a decline rate of 2% a year then this alone pushes peak oil back 2 years or cuts the decline rate in half for four years (which is *plenty* of time to assist with bringing online substitutes - remember the Hirsch report says we need a crash program lasting ten years to give us breathing room).