Oil / Hydrocarbons / The New Millenia

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The Future of Man

As we approached the year 2000 many people pronounced the end of the world was upon us because our modern technology depended upon computers using software did not have provisions for representing the date beyond the year 1999. Running Eskimo North, an Internet Service Provider, and being familiar with the internals of computer software I thought this highly unlikely. I did expect some glitches, but I didn’t expect the world would end.

I did hope that a new millennium would bring a new focus on the long term survival of the human race, which in turn would require a broader focus on the well being of our planet and all of the species that inhabit it. The year 2000 coming and going was probably a relief to many who feared our technological world would grind to a halt, but it was a disappointment to me. I wasn’t disappointed that the world didn’t end, but I had hoped for a paradigm shift that did not occur.

Evolution has given human beings two opposing prime directives, individual survival and propagation, and group survival and propagation. Imagine an individual who was completely selfless, no individual survival instinct, out on the African savanna, spots this hungry lion and thinks to himself, “I just can’t stand the sight of that poor suffering lion, I think I’ll just go feed myself to him so he can have a full belly.” That individual has just eliminated himself from the gene pool. The result today is that save for the occasional mutation, people today possess self-survival instincts.

Groups of people in the past that had group survival instincts and cooperated towards that end, had a higher likelihood of survival than those that did not. Hunting large game on the savanna was more likely to succeed as a cooperative group effort. By extension, members of those groups were more likely to survive and reproduce.

In psychological terms, this manifests itself as the “Id” and the “Superego”, and we are a balancing act between the two. Those are the two things which motivate us, no matter how much we bury and disguise them. Someone who leans heavily towards self-survival, they are labeled as selfish and greedy, someone who leans heavily towards group survival, they’re selfless, altruistic.

Two economic systems illustrate the extremes of these two prime directives, and because neither system does an adequate job of balancing these, both are inadequate. Capitalism, appeals to the self-survival, get as much resources as you can, compete. Socialism, group survival, do the best thing for the whole, cooperate.

In a capitalist economic system, there is no consideration of the needs of the group and large infrastructure projects are difficult to accommodate. Individuals compete for resources without any consideration of the group good. Individuals do things that profit them but harm the group. Externalized costs are not accounted for. For example, power companies burn coal to generate electricity, altering the atmosphere and dispersing mercury and other toxic and radioactive elements into the environment. They do not bare the costs of the health issues they impose on the surrounding community.

A capitalistic system, by failing to account for these externalized costs, not only fails to take into account the needs of our species, let alone other species with whom we share this planet, but it also is less efficient in producing goods and services as it could be if all of those costs were adequately accounted for. In a capitalistic system, when a small number of competing entities control an important resource, the markets can be artificially manipulated resulting in great harm to the group collectively.

Socialism fails because it seems to assume that people have only a group survival instinct and it attempts to train individual survival instincts out of people. People become unmotivated and non-productive. In a socialistic system, those in power can skew distribution such that they personally benefit at the expense of the group collectively.

We need an economic system that recognizes both the group and individual survival directives that are genetically hard-wired into our behavior patterns while at the same time recognizes both the needs of the individual which may be unique, and the needs of the group. We need a system that provides reasonable individual rewards commensurate with individual effort yet at the same time provides for large infrastructure and group collective needs. We need a system that takes care of those who for reasons beyond their own control, are unable to take care of themselves. We need a system that recognizes that other species are equally part of the world biosphere and balances their needs with our own.

The world seems to be experimenting with a mixture of socialism and capitalism. China has privatized many industries but places limits on foreign investment and retains partial ownership of key industries. This approach insures that the interest of the people as a whole remains represented in industry while allowing an individual to profit from his or her efforts.

Other countries allow total private ownership but use regulations and tax incentives to encourage socially responsible behavior on the part of corporate entities.

Energy, Greed, Reality, Options…

In the United States, group interest has been ignored. Enron manipulation of the electricity market and big oil manipulation of the petroleum sector cause artificial shortages, wars, environmental damage, resulting in great social harm.

Some individuals have reacted by going off grid and becoming self-sufficient. For those who can that’s great but their numbers aren’t large enough to affect the behavior of major corporate entities. If there is to be a future for our country, and indeed for the world, somehow we have to regain balance between the needs of individuals, the group that is the entire human race, and life on this planet as a whole.

In the 1970’s the Arab oil embargo resulted in real fuel shortages, long lines at the pump, ridiculous even-odd day rationing (ridiculous because it has absolutely no impact on consumption), and high fuel prices. In the 1970’s we didn’t have much in the way of technological alternatives. Today, there are many viable alternatives but they require some changes in the way we do things.

Today, there is no real energy shortage as such, there is however a shortage of liquid fuels used in the transportation industry and often for heating. Adequate hydrocarbons exist such that we could burn them for energy for a long time if availability were the only issue, but availability is not the only issue. Environmental costs exist and limit the amount of energy that we can obtain this way.

We ample renewable energy sources available to us, however, many of these options are intermittent or variable in nature. Solutions to this problem abound however. It is the lack of political will and artificial manipulation of the energy markets by existing powers that prevent their implementation. Most of these resources are not directly applicable to vehicular transportation. To be used for transportation they require some intermediary storage mechanism such as electrochemical batteries, ultra-capacitors, or by making hydrogen that can be used in a fuel cell. However, an intermediary step could be to displace fossil fuels used for fixed power generation with alternatives and then use those fuels for transportation while other technologies are perfected and deployed.

Liquid Transportation Fuels

Let us take a look at the future of oil and hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are made up of hydrogen and carbon. Hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe, carbon the 4th most abundant (after helium and oxygen), and both of these elements are present in abundance on Earth. Hydrogen and carbon both chemically combine with other elements so not all hydrogen and carbon has formed hydrocarbons. For example, lot of hydrogen is tied up in water, and a lot of carbon is tied up in carbonate minerals and carbon dioxide.

While we can argue about the origins of hydrocarbons on Earth, whether they are the result of abiotic or geological processes (I believe evidence supports the existence of both with some qualitative differences), what we can say for sure is that hydrocarbons present in the earth’s crust exhibit a great deal of variability in their chemical makeup. They vary in the ease at which they can be extracted and the environmental damage resulting from their extraction. They vary in their contaminate makeup, sulfur being one of the most common contaminates.

Carbon is very versatile chemically. It has four valence electrons available and can form single, double, or triple bonds with other carbon atoms as well as individual bonds with up to four hydrogen atoms. It can form long or short chains as well as rings. The combinations possible are essentially unlimited and this is what makes carbon an element that is the basis for life as we know it.

The smallest hydrocarbon molecule commonly found in nature is methane, a carbon atom with four hydrogens attached. This is the principal component of natural gas and probably the most abundant hydrocarbon in the Earth’s crust. Natural gas generally will contain some other light hydrocarbons that are gaseous at room temperature. Medium sized hydrocarbons are generally liquid at room temperature and even larger molecules solid. Hydrocarbons containing only hydrogen and carbon are “pure” hydrocarbons. However, molecules made up principally of hydrogen and carbon may also bind to other elements such as nitrogen or sulfur forming impure hydrocarbons.

Crude oil is a mixture of all of these different sized molecules dissolved in each other. Crude oil may also contain various impure hydrocarbons, most commonly compounds including sulfur. They are separated by boiling points using the process of fractional distillation at an oil refinery.

Gasoline generally consists of molecules consisting of 6-12 carbon atoms. This is the part of the crude oil fraction that boils between about 50°C and 200°C. Diesel oil consists of that fraction that boils from between 200°C and 350°C. Diesel and lighter distillates have the most commercial value. Heavier distillates like bunker oil and tars are less valuable. They have to be heated to a high temperature to lower the viscosity enough to flow. Still heavier fractions won’t even vaporize before decomposing into “coke” and really aren’t useful for anything.

A light crude oil might contain 15% distillates that are the right weight to become gasoline without cracking. A heavier crude may contain none. In the United States, about 45% of the petroleum market is gasoline. With a lighter crude, a substantial portion of the distillates will be lighter (smaller molecules) than desired, and a process called “reforming” combines lighter molecules to form heavier molecules. In this process hydrogen atoms are removed from the molecules (so the carbon has a free electron to bond to another carbon atom of another molecule forming a larger molecule). The process is endothermic so heat energy is supplied, but the hydrogen and some of the other gases given off by this process are used as fuel to provide this process heat.

Heavy crude contains no distillates that are the right weight to become gasoline initially and it contains no lighter distillates that can be reformed into appropriate weight molecules. Instead, larger molecules must be cracked. As with reforming, this involves the heating of distillates in the presence of a catalyst, and like reforming the reaction is endothermic. However, unlike reforming, hydrogen is needed to terminate the carbon chain of the new molecules formed when a larger molecule is cracked. Additionally, cracking requires higher temperatures than reforming. Cracking is a net consumer of hydrogen which requires energy from some other source to provide the necessary hydrogen. Higher temperatures also require more energy input.

Between starting with no natural gasoline weight distillates, and requiring more energy input to convert heavier molecules into the appropriate weight hydrocarbons, heavier crude produces less product per input barrel, and as a consequence refineries are not willing to pay as much for heavy crude.

Sulfur is a common crude oil contaminate as is nitrogen. Sulfur in particular must be removed for environmental reasons. In addition to environmental issues, sulfur and nitrogen poison the catalysts used for cracking and reforming and so they must be removed before these processes can be performed. The process of removing sulfur requires hydrogen, and that requires energy, so high sulfur crude is undesirable. Crude containing more than 2.5% sulfur is known as “sour crude”. Crude with less than 2.5% sulfur is known as sweet crude. As with light crude, refineries are willing to pay more for sweet crude because it requires less processing and energy input.

Given this the demand for light sweet crude is stronger than heavy sour crude, the oil fields which have been most heavily exploited have been those which contain sweet light crude. The majority of the oil remaining that is easily reached is heavy sour crude. Not all refineries are equipped to handle heavy sour crude.

In addition to being more difficult to refine, heavy sour crude is more difficult to extract. It’s increased viscosity means it does not flow as easily from the reservoirs. Techniques such as steam injection to heat it and reduce the viscosity or the injection of solvents must be used. Steam requires an energy source, so here again more energy must be expended to recover heavy crude. Some crude is so heavy it can not be made to flow, it must be mined. The Alberta tar sands are an example. In Alberta much of these tar sands are within a couple hundred feet of the surface and can be strip mined, but in other locations these deposits are located too deeply for strip mining and other methods of recovery are being explored.

Russian geologists have largely believed that oil is of geological origin. Western geologists largely believe that it is a fossil fuel. Personally, I believe it is both. The oil that we’ve tapped in the west has been largely of biological origin but oil of abiotic origin remains largely untapped. Russia has become the worlds second largest oil producer (and for very brief period before the government seized Yukos, the worlds largest).

Conventional oil is found in sedimentary deposits, which is where you would expect to find it if it is created from decaying organisms. However, oil can also be found underneath granite and basaltic capstone formations and deep within the Earth’s crust. Oil below the bedrock has been found in Russia, Viet Nam, India, and right here in the United States in Utah and the gulf of Mexico. Western geologists have come up with various alternate explanations. Preliminary tests suggest that the deep field found in the Gulf of Mexico is a super-giant field and the same is also true of the deep oil found in Utah. Both fields contain the desirable sweet light crude. However, drilling to that depth is expensive.

So what is the bottom line? The bottom line is that liquid fuels are going to get more expensive because either we have to drill deep for them (and in the case of the Gulf of Mexico field also we have to go through 5,000 feet of water before going down another 15,000 feet into the sea floor) or we have to utilize heavy sour crude which results in less finished product from initial crude stock and higher refining costs. Add to this a world-wide shortage of drilling rigs and increasing demand from India and China and prices can only go one way in the near term and that’s up.

What We Should and Should Not Do

Fighting over remaining easily accessible light sweet crude is what not to do. The Bush administrations policy of using military force to try to secure Iraq’s oil deposits has proven to be a dismal failure. In addition to inflicting a great deal of death and suffering, it’s resulted in a significant decrease in oil production in Iraq while at the same time increasing oil consumption.

The right thing to do is to adapt and we’ve got plenty of options. If we handled our energy crisis in an intelligent manner, we could even become a net exporter of energy. We could create millions of jobs in the process, balance our trade deficit and federal budget. We could create prosperity for our country and significantly improve the economic outlook for the rest of the world. Let’s look at some of our options, and there are many.

First we should look at reducing demand, this won’t eliminate depletion of natural resources but it will reduce the rate at which that depletion occurs and it will reduce the amount of renewable energy that we need to find to replace fossil fuels. Conservation is the most cost effective method of reducing fossil fuel demand. That is to say we have to spend less to conserve a given amount of energy than to replace it.

Plug-in hybrid vehicles can eliminate most of our oil import needs because there is enough surplus electrical generating capacity on the US grid to provide for almost all of our automotive transportation energy needs.

In the United States in 2005, 49.7%, almost half, of the electricity generated comes from coal fired plants, 19.3% comes from nuclear, 18.7% from natural gas, 6.5% from hydroelectric, 3% from petroleum, and 2.9% from other sources. I haven’t been able to find complete statistics that are more recent but the amount of petroleum generated electricity dropped between 2005 and 2006 and that of natural gas increased. The share that wind contributes also increased to about 1%.

Nuclear plants can’t be throttled dynamically to accommodate the daily shifts in demand. It takes several days to bring a nuclear reactor back up to normal power levels after being shut down. Coal fired plants also can not be throttled rapidly because of the thermal mass of the combustion bed and together these sources make up about 70% of our energy generation capacity. Hydro-electric, petroleum, and natural gas fired plants can adjust more rapidly but these make up less than 30% of our energy mix.

The electricity demand at night is about 30% less than it is during the day. Surplus capacity is presently wasted. That wasted energy could be powering plug-in hybrid vehicles.

If we were to displace more of the fossil fuel fired generators with other sources, then natural gas could be liquified via the Fischer-Tropsch process which produces a synthetic diesel fuel of zero sulfur content and very high quality and displace a significant portion of the imported oil used for transportation. Coal too can be turned into a liquid fuel. Although that process is more expensive, it is done routinely in other parts of the world such as South Africa where the majority of their automotive fuel is derived from coal.

The bulk of our automotive transportation energy could come from electricity but what of trucking? It is not practical to replace fossil fuels with batteries for trucking, the energy requirements are too great and long haul trucking wouldn’t tolerate the downtime required for charging.

Diverting fuel presently used for electricity generation would provide fuel for trucking. This is not sustainable, coal and natural gas deposits will eventually deplete, but can buy us some time while alternatives are being developed. We should rebuild and electrify our railways and move the bulk of goods and products by rail rather than by truck. This eliminates our dependence on foreign oil imports to move goods and services about our country as well as air pollution associated with burning diesel.

To replace natural gas, coal, and oil used for power generation we can use a mixture of wind, solar, ocean energy, geo-thermal, biomass, and nuclear. Each has unique advantages and limitations.

Wind is cheap, presently in the range of 4-6¢ per KWh with newer wind turbine installations tending to be less expensive near 4¢ per KWh because newer large turbines are more cost effective. The coal fired plant capacity being replaced runs around 4.6¢ per KWh without carbon sequestration and around 6¢ per KWh with carbon sequestration. Replacing coal with wind is actually an economically favorable change.

Because of the variability of wind, it is estimated that the current grid could only support about 20% of our energy mix coming from wind power. Denmark presently makes slightly more than 20% of their electricity from wind generation. The United States enjoying greater geographical diversification should be able to absorb a larger percentage of wind generated power.

A super-grid, a superconductive high voltage DC transmission system encompassing both the western and eastern United States, in which liquid hydrogen is both a cryogenic coolant and a fuel being distributed, would allow a higher percentage of wind power in the mix and surplus capacity could be used to create hydrogen fuel for vehicles and stationary fuel cells. Such as system would have additional advantages. There would be no copper losses (losses due to electrical resistance are referred to as copper losses even though the wires are largely made of aluminum). There would be no losses due to electromagnetic radiation. There would be no health concerns, no leukemia, caused by low frequency radiation from the power grid. DC transmission systems, unlike their AC counterparts, are immune to solar flare and space weather induced failures. Replacing our existing transmission infrastructure with such a grid system would be equivalent to gaining a 15-20% increase in generating capacity through elimination of transmission losses.

Solar can be a significant part of the mix. Electricity demand is about 30% greater in the daytime and in the south where sunshine is most abundant, demand peaks at the same time that solar power production peaks because much of the southern United States electricity consumption is related to air conditioning. There are also solar power generation schemes such as solar chimneys that use thermal mass to store heat and continue to generate electricity overnight and for several days without sunlight.

The Western United States has huge largely untapped geothermal resources. We need to tap these resources. Hydroelectric has become somewhat controversial because it is being blamed for interfering with fish spawning and the decline in fish stocks. Oddly, the collapse of most of these fish species didn’t happen until thirty years after the dams were built, you can draw your own conclusions but personally I think blowing up dams to restore fish runs is not a good plan. Installing fish ladders were none exist, now that makes good sense.

We should exploit these and other renewable energy sources to the maximum. We should have a nothing less than a national crash program to develop and bring nuclear fusion online commercially. The basic science is already done. People who say it is impossible are either not educated with respect to the current state of controlled nuclear fusion or they have vested interests in competing energy sources.

Most biomass crops take almost as much energy to grow and process as they ultimately yield. However, using a different method of converting biomass into fuel where hydrogen is supplied by an external source that utilizes solar energy for the electrolysis of water, the amount of land needed for biomass can be substantially reduced and net energy production substantially increased.

Fermenting sugars and starches into ethanol only uses a small portion of the plant and produces a fuel that can only be used as an additive to gasoline and the energy content is much lower than gasoline. However, there is a lesser known higher alcohol called butanol that can replace gasoline directly up to 100% in an unmodified gasoline engine. Butanol is less corrosive than ethanol and has a much higher energy content. While still slightly less than that of gasoline (105,000 btu/liter verses 115,000 btu/liter), in tests fuel mileage while running on butanol exceeded that of gasoline. There is much speculation as to the reasons for this. It may be that it’s uniform molecular size promotes more even and complete combustion. It may be that it’s higher octane (108 octane) causes modern cars to advance timing and operate more efficiently.

Until recently, fermenting biofuels to butanol was an inefficent process but recently but David Ramey and his company Environmental Energy Inc, have developed a two-step fermentation process that converts 46% of the feedstock into fuel.

I’ll continue this on another post, but suffice it to say that if we’d spent what we’ve spent on the Iraq War instead on energy independence and sustainability; we’d be free of foreign oil and have a thriving economy by now.

Category: Future

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