Tuesday 1 September 2015

This is a major, major breakthrough.

Just pencilling this in for now to remind myself to make a blog post. High efficiency artificial photosynthesis to methane at 10% efficiency from solar OR direct electrical to methane conversion at greater than 50% efficiency. The implications of this are staggering. Original paper is here: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.nanolett.5b01254

So why is this such a big deal? The answer to that is the efficiency of nature’s own photosynthesis pathway. Basically nature’s own photosynthesis pathway while it is efficient in the sense that it does the job, the percentage of sunlight hitting the Leafs of the plant or whatever green surface of the plant or algae or bacteria uses to convert the sunlight via photosynthesis into carbohydrates this percentage is really pretty small. We're talking about something on the order of less than 5%. So to have an artificial photosynthesis and a cheap one as well which has an efficiency of somewhere on the order of 50% is really quite impressive it’s 10 times better than nature.

Not only is it 10 times better than nature it is also better than the high-end solar cells that are currently available on the market. In the end result the photocells, the solar panels will in fact be more energy efficient overall because the produce electricity which is not subject to carnot efficiency because its use case is not heat engines.

But the particular use case where solar panels is really good is actually not a great use case for this which could be for example aeroplanes or heavy duty trucks. This artificial photosynthesis which creates some kind of precursor organic chemical to hydrocarbon fuels can be produced by intermittent energy sources like wind power or solar power and then stored for use when required by those particular use cases. This makes airlines semi renewable. What it also does is create yet another substitute pathway to swap out fossil fuels and thus eliminate any possible any rapid decline rate it when/if peak oil eventually gets here.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

The Doomers part 1

Meanwhile, down at the Gunchester....

To be continued...

Doom by low oil prices?

Oil prices continue their precipitous plunge into the abyss.

Unless, however, you believe economics is bogus (and most doomers do), you'd be inclined to think that this is a good thing.

I've heard various conspiracy theories that the collapse in prices is caused by various groups who want to stick it to various other groups.

One other possibility is this: Saudi et al, not only are not on the cusp of massive oil depletion at Ghawar etc but in fact see the writing on the wall. There is now a theoretical cap on oil prices. We can substitute transportation by fossil fuels to non-fossil fuels in a variety of use cases by a variety of methods. Everything from electric cars, trucks and trains to nuclear powered freighter ships. If we wanted to, we have the technical means to substitute away. So will we?

I happen to think that the situation we are in is this:
In a market based global economy (which more or less our little blue planet is, give or take a few definitions and basket-case states), generally the best priced items win. If oil prices remain high, the substitutes will chip away and chip away.

An electric car such as a volt (in which you do most of your driving using electricity) is basically a permanent stripping away (for at least the lifetime of the vehicle) of several barrels per unit of time of demand.

Now scale that up and imagine what it actually looks like for a large producer of oil: The oil price is set at the margin - the last few barrels of supply set the price for all the barrels. Right now demand is 96 some million barrels per day but supply is 98 million some barrels per day.

Now if we are to believe the more conservative economists, it isn't substitution that is causing this, it's a slowdown in China and Europe being in the doledrums that is causing a buyers market.

So why does Saudi not cut production?

Well you can believe the conspiracy theorists (e.g. they are trying to crush the Iranians/Venezuelans/Russians etc)


Maybe the Saudis see the long term writing on the wall and they are trying to slow down the long term fall in price? i.e. to spell it out: Is Saudi scared of Tesla????

Now an interesting corrollary is this: I happen to love the idea of electric cars. But I don't want to pay $40-80K for one. The Tesla market shouldn't be much affected because, being a luxury market, it's price insensitive.

BUT.... the cheap end of the market (e.g. the Nissan Leafs and the Chevy Volts) ought to be a little more price sensitive. Will it be, or will they throw in the towel and let the Chinese eat their lunch when oil prices go back up in the next business cycle? Who knows, but interesting times.

Monday 8 December 2014

Breakthrough grid storage tech?

Company to watch: Applied Exergy Inc. These guys are privately owned right now. What they appear to have, however, is what looks like a breakthrough grid storage technology. Basically they work with the concept of Exergy.

If I horribly bastardize the physics concept of Exergy what we're talking about is the amount of work potential available when a component of a thermodynamic system goes from one temperature to another.

How they appear to have harnessed this, is by taking energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar etc and attempting to store it in the form of slushy ice-water. So when power is abundant (i.e. when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining), much of that energy is stored.

Now the advantage of this system is basically comparative. If you look at the (massive) amount of stored energy just sitting there in fossil fuels, it's massive. The dirty (no pun intended) little secret of fossil fuels, however, is that though it's got somewhere on the order of 4x the energy density of our most prevalent technical storage solution (lithium-ion batteries), what we're missing is that by the time you get it out of the ground, process it, refine it, transport it and finally burn it inside of an internal combustion engine you only have about 18% of the stored energy actually available for useful work.
It's horribly inefficient.

Compare that, however, with batteries. Your electric motors are some 90% efficient and batteries return also on the order of 90% of their stored electricity out. So if you use an electric motor driven vehicle powered by batteries you get 90% of 90% of 90% which is 73%.
That's a whopping FOUR times more efficient than fossil fuel powered vehicles.
That also, by the way is the reason why fuel cells are a non-starter technology from an energy perspective. Splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis, collecting the hydrogen and then compressing it, then transporting it, then burning it in fuel cells takes you down to somewhere around 30% of the original energy.
Which is why I rag on fuel cells as not being competitive in almost all use-cases.
(Which is not to say there are no viable use cases for fuel cells, there *are* but mass transportation of personal vehicles is not one of them).

So.... that brings us to Applied Exergy's solution: The efficiency of their exergy based process is about 80% on returned energy. So 90% of 80% of 90% is 65%. Which is not too too far off what we get out of lithium ion batteries, if you were using it for electric transportation. Which is pretty decent in fact.

That said, obviously electric transportation itself is a horrible use-case because you'd have to transport the ice-water, store it etc etc so you would get nowhere near the energy efficiency back.

Where it shines, however, is in grid storage. We're talking about large format batteries than can stored megawatt hours (or greater at a time). Lithium Ion batteries can do this, but they cost a significant amount. Water on the other hand is pretty cheap. So these puppies make what I think is a very, very compelling case for a grid storage solution.

So... where are we on this one?

Well Applied Exergy is a private company and it looks like they might be a startup also. They're not listed on any stock market exchange and they may also never actually bring anything to market. But, and here's the but... If they *do* have what they say they have then this little company could be a game changer for renewable power. Definitely one to watch.

Thursday 30 January 2014

Tesla Model S drives across the US from NYC to LA in 6 days. Not too shabby.

A 62 year old Model S owner drove from New York city to Los Angeles in his model S by using Tesla's network of supercharger stations, thus bringing us closer to the day when range anxiety even of the extreme "I want to drive coast to coast" kind will be forever banished.

There are still huge areas of the country that don't have superchargers in them but this is a huge win for electric vehicles in general. A standing ovation to Tesla for making this possible. Exciting times!

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Mid Term Energy Independence?

So much as I'd prefer that we in North America switch over to electric driving it increasingly looks like that we don't need to do it in a hurry (the Europeans on the other hand need to do it last decade because they depend on the Russians and the Middle East for their Oil Supplies, neither of whom are their best buddies).

Occidental Petroleum and Pioneer Petroleum have trialed some test wells in the well known (but up till now considered unrecoverable reserves) massive permiam basin in West Texas called the wolfcamp.

What's interesting about the Wolfcamp is that it's similar to the bakken but is a strata ten times as deep. In fact there is so much oil in it recoverable using horizontal drilling technologies that it appears to be second in size to the world's biggest petroleum field (the Ghawar in Saudi Arabia).

Why that's interesting is that North America over the last decade has gone from declining production (and having to import more from potentially hostile regions (like it looks the the Europeans are going to have to do unless they switch aggressively to electric transportation) to increasing production. Given that in the last five years, petroleum demand in Nroth America in aggregate has declined and supply has gone up (and continues to do so) - currently at 16 million barrels per day compared to demand of 19 million barrels per day) - it's not outside the realm of possibility that North America is petroleum independent within the next five years.

No dieoff for us then.

Tuesday 30 July 2013

Dieoff by Famine doomers just received another slap upside the head

One of the tenets of dieoff by peak oil is that (allegedly) oil = fertilizer and there are no alternatives (allegedly).

So let's run with the false assertion that there were no non-oil based alternatives to fertilizer up till now. Why is that? What does that mean?

Well the reason is this (or would be if it were 100% true): Most crops cannot obtain nitrogen fertilizer from the air though some can (notably legumes like peas). Those that can do not need nitrogen fertilizer or only a very little amount.

What are the consequences of this?

Well this means that we have to put artificial nitrogen fertilizer on our fields which leads to over-use which leads to nitrogen runoff which leads to fertilizer reaching the ocean which creates algae blooms which depletes oxygen which leads to fish dieoff in the ocean yadda yadda.
So it's a bit of a catch-22.

You need to put fertilizer on your crops to feed all the people but if you do it you poison the oceans which means people get less fish and the ecosphere has issues etc yadda yadda

And when the oil runs out (assuming that we see a peak and rapid decline) fertilizer will become too expensive and crop yields will decline and we can't get anything back from the ocean because the ocean is already contaminated. So we're fucked right?

Not really.

We can clean up the ocean by using targeted amounts (and thus less) fertilizer and thus limiting runoff. We also don't need to worry about oil going to fertilizer drying up because oil *isn't* the only source of nitrogen fertilizer. It's only (currently) the cheapest. Prior to the discovery of massive amounts of cheap oil, in the early industrial age, nitrogen fertilizer was mostly produced in Norway from hydro-electricity through a process which cracks the nitrogen out of the air and makes it into ammonia. So if need be we could go down that route again.


The anti-apocaliptic horseman of science rides to the rescue once more.

Turns out that researchers at the University of Nottingham in the UK have discovered a way to make the bacteria which fix nitrogen from the air in legumes, useful for all sorts of crops.

One of the non-legume crops which has been colonized by nitrogen fixing bacteria is sugar cane in Brazil. After an extensive study of those bacteria species, the U of N researchers discovered one particular species which will readily colonize all sorts of crops.

The process is something like (I'm horribly paraphrasing here to come up with an analogy): make dried probiotic with the appropriate nitrogen fixing bacteria and coat the seeds of the corresponding crops with it. When the seeds sprout, the bacteria in the probiotic colonize the roots of the crops, thus enabling them to fix nitrogen from the air just like legumes can.

The upshot?

Doom from peak oil induced lack of nitrogen fertilizer has thus been postponed.