Monthly Archives: April 2008

Fox News

Personally, I am of the opinion that Fox News is evil; anything but fair and balanced, but this interview is worth seeing.

I wish there were more people with the intelligence and fortitude to do what this preacher did in this interview.

Don’t Eliminate Gas Tax

Eliminating the gas tax will not benefit consumers. Supply and demand sets the pump price, the gasoline tax only determines what percentage of that pump price goes to the oil companies.

I think what we ought to be doing is slapping a serious import duty on imported oil and distillates to encourage domestic production, balance our trade deficit, strengthen the dollar, and provide funding for clean renewable domestic energy alternatives.

Priorities

We’ve got a food emergency on this planet right now and it revolves around energy. The US produces a quarter of the worlds food and our ability to produce that food has been crippled by high energy costs and low availability. High energy costs have also diverted a portion of food production into biofuel production.

The value of the dollar has taken a large dive because of the high cost of the war in Iraq, and because of the huge amount of oil that we import without sufficient exports to balance those imports.

Because until recently the dollar was also to a large degree the worlds currency, many nations around the world held many dollars, and as they see the value falling they’ve looked for other places to invest, and commodities have been the big winner. Unfortunately, those commodities include things like corn, wheat, and rice, and the result has been a increase in the price of food above and beyond the energy costs involved in foods production.

World demand for oil has exceeded current production capacity. The price of oil now exceeds $100 / barrel and it appears to be headed towards $200 in the not too distant future.

While the high prices of oil has resulted in increased discovery activity and increased discovery, and now we know to look for oil in places we wouldn’t have considered in the past; and that very much oil remains, there are real problems with tapping that oil.

Specifically, abiotic oil exists and in large quantities. The larger of the two Brazilian super-giant fields recently discovered gives all indications of not being biotic in nature, based upon carbon isotope ratios. To those of us who have been paying attention this is not surprising. Most of the oil we’ve tapped to date has been biological in nature because we’ve drilled where we expect to find it, in sedimentary deposits.

But now we know, drill through the granite or basalt basement rock in locations where that rock forms a cap, and we will find oil that has seeped up from the Earth’s mantle. Generally on land, the crust is too thick, most of this oil is out of our reach with current drilling technology, but the crust is thinner in the oceans and there we can drill through and find this oil, and hence the most recent super giant fields in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Brazil.

So that abiotic oil requires drilling in deep ocean, or very deep through land in a few locations where the crust is thin enough or where geological upheavals have allowed oil to get past that barrier and still be trapped by something above it, such as in over thrust zones.

There is a world-wide shortage of rigs capable of tapping these deposits and in the case of deep ocean deposits it will take 5-10 years from discovery to production.

Then we have heavy oil near the surface. Most of the oil near the surface is heavy crude because without non-porous material covering it, the lighter elements evaporate leaving only the heavier elements. We lack the refinery capacity to utilize this heavier oil. Getting at it is also often difficult because it’s high viscosity does not allow it to flow like lighter oils thus requiring technologies like steam injection or outright mining.

Ordinarily, if oil were to stay over $100 / barrel for any period of time, that would rapidly drive investments necessary to increase production. However, with the worlds eyes on global warming, investors are afraid that they will not be able to recoup their investments and thus we are not seeing the investments necessary to address this shortage.

Ideally, we’d all switch to renewable energy sources and be done with the whole oil and global warming issues, but this is not something that can happen immediately, infrastructure needs to be built and this takes time and capital investment.

Here in the United States, this is a big problem because with our economy already wrecked, the capital necessary to make this conversion, an estimated 200-400 trillion dollars, does not exist.

It is my belief that we need to do whatever we need to do to stop the outflow of capital from this country immediately. We have to stop importing oil and depend only upon our own resources, and we have large amounts of resources domestically.

T. Boone Pickens is investing up to 10 billion to build a 4000 megawatt wind farm in the Texas panhandle, not because he has gone green but because he expects to make money on it.

But we can only build wind farms and solar so fast and those will address much of our electricity needs, but until we have more electric vehicles, until we electrify our railways, and until we have some method of producing high-density liquid fuels from electricity or other energy sources, we will still need hydrocarbon fuels.

To that end, I think we should be depending upon our own resources instead of importing oil from Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. We have more coal than any other country in the world; at current usage enough for another 300-400 years. In my view, we should be building coal to liquids plants and using that rather than imported oil. The reason for this is that it removes the incentives for wars on foreign soil which are far more environmentally devastating than coal production and because it will keep the capital from flowing out of the country so that it will be available to invest in clean renewable technology.

I believe we should build wind and solar as absolutely fast as we can and we should put windmills and solar farms where they will produce the most energy first, and then as we displace the need for coal and natural gas fired plants, we should divert that coal and natural gas into liquid fuels for transportation.

I also believe we should be building at least a dozen or so forth generation helium cooled actinide burning fast flux nuclear fission plants with integral pyrolytic fuel reprocessing, and I believe we should put a complex of these plants in the area that is presently intended to be the Yucca mountain repository.

The reason is this; no civilization lasts the 50,000 to 100,000 years that is required for existing waste to decay. If we bury that stuff, we leave a huge burden for future human populations. We owe it to future generations not to do it. Further; in that existing waste, we’ve extracted less than 1% of natural uraniums energy capacity.

These 4th generation nuclear fission plants can burn those long lived actinides, extract 60x as much energy from them as the original nuclear reactors did producing them, and eliminate a 50,000 to 100,000 year storage problem, leaving waste that will only need to be stored for 300 years, which can reasonably be done at Yucca. By placing the reactors inside the repository, if any accident does happen, the radiation will be contained at least as good as the waste would have. And when the reactors have done their jobs and need to be decommissioned, they will already be in their final resting place.

Such a facility could contribute tens of gigawatts to the electrical grid and the electricity generated can pay for it’s operation rather than having waste disposal being a burden on tax payers. And with everything in that facility including integral reprocessing, the existing waste only needs to be shipped there and after that no waste will be transported providing no opportunities for terrorists. The pyrolytic recycling process does not separate the actinides from each other, so at no point is any material produced that would be useful for making bombs.

I think though right now, we need to pull all the stops out on domestic energy production and get completely free from any reliance on imported energy. A massive program to do this will create jobs and fix the economy. Discontinuing the importation of oil will do wonderful things for the value of the dollar. And ending our reliance upon middle eastern oil will eliminate our incentive for wars there.

Carbon Dioxide – The Real Carbon Danger

Most people believe that carbon dioxide is a serious threat to the future of the planet. I happen to share this belief, but for very different reasons than those which are predominate in the media.

I believe that carbon dioxide is not a direct thermal threat planet wide, the reason for this is that the predominate absorption line of carbon dioxide is at approximately 13-15 microns and the gas concentrations are already at the point where 99.99% of the radiation in this band is absorbed within ten meters at atmospheric pressure. Increases in carbon dioxide levels won’t change this appreciably but they will broaden the absorption line. The net result is that increased CO2 will warm the Earth but nowhere near at the rate suggested by many.

The Earth’s blackbody temperature is around 285°K but the absorption lines of carbon dioxide that are relevant peak between 193-220°K. The amount of radiation from Earth absorbed by carbon dioxide is thus going to be more significant in parts of the world that are very cold, and we do see significant warming in Alaska, but Antarctica is actually getting colder. But to the degree with carbon dioxide affects Earth’s temperature directly those are the places that are going to be affected directly.

I believe a larger concern are the chemical effects of carbon dioxide most notably on the worlds oceans. If you take a can of pop or beer, put it in the freezer, let it cool below freezing, and then pull it out and open it, initially it won’t be frozen but it will rapidly, in just seconds, freeze.

The reason for this is that carbon dioxide dissolved in water forms carbolic acid. This depresses the freezing point of water. That is, it allows water to be cooled below 32F and remain liquid. Now, just as it depresses the freezing point in soda or beer, it also depresses the freezing point of ocean water. That is, water will become liquid at a lower temperature. Presently, there is about 50 times as much carbon dioxide dissolved in the ocean as present in the air, so there is already significant carbon dioxide in the oceans.

At many locations on the ocean floor, particularly along continental shelves, there are methane hydride formations, this is basically methane molecules trapped in ice. The amount of these hydrides far exceeds the carbon that we’ve burned in our history. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, perhaps two hundred times as potent, both because the absorption lines of methane aren’t yet saturated, and because they lie nearer the peak of the blackbody radiation from the Earth. All of that methane being released into the atmosphere would be a very bad thing.

A second issue is that increased carbon dioxide levels reduce the amount of oxygen that can be dissolved in the water. Most of the oxygen that is dissolved into the oceans is dissolved at the poles, because oxygen can dissolve more easily in cold water than warm, and then moved via the ocean currents. Those currents depend upon a salinity imbalance between high latitude and low latitude ocean water and as more fresh water enters the ocean diluting the salinity, those ocean currents are slowing. This is reducing the oxygen levels in the ocean water.

There are many forms of sea life that have carbonate shells that dissolve readily in carbolic acid; the raising of the acid levels in the ocean has the potential to kill coral reefs as well as all sorts of shell fish. As those shell-fish die-off they consume oxygen and again deplete the oxygen from the oceans.

And then we have the effect of nutrients entering the ocean, fertilizer run-off, sewage, animal waste. These things cause algae blooms near the surface which then blocks light from getting to deeper levels depriving deeper levels of oxygen. Further, the dying organisms near the surface sink, and then consume any remaining oxygen below. This is creating vast dead-zones in the ocean.

So we’ve got four big things driving lower oxygen levels lower in the oceans, three of which are completely carbon dioxide related, one of which is indirectly related. As the world demand for oil exceeds supply, and biofuels have been one place people have turned to resolve this; the increased use of fertilizers to grow these biofuels is contributing to the problem.

Now, there are a couple of reasons that oxygen levels in the ocean are very important. First, the worlds oceans make up 71% of the surface area of the planet. They supply 70% of our protein needs. If the oceans die, so does 70% of our food supply. So if you like to eat; healthy oceans are essential.

Where there is sufficient oxygen, bacteria in the ocean predominantly make their living by breaking down organic substances and oxidizing those substances. But where there is insufficient oxygen, near ocean thermal vents for example, bacteria have adapted to use sulfur instead of oxygen. Where as normal bacteria produce water and carbon dioxide, these sulfur loving bacteria produce hydrogen sulfide, which is deadly to humans and most life forms in concentrations of about 200 parts per million.

The largest extinction in the Earth’s history, the Permian extinction, may well have been caused by a build-up of hydrogen sulfide when the worlds oceans went through a period of low circulation and oxygenation. During this same time frame there was also a large release of methane.

In my opinion, these issues are far more threatening than carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere.

Nuclear Fission Plant Efficiency

Nuclear fission plants are currently enormously inefficient. At present, they extract only about .7% of natural uraniums thermal energy potential, and of that .7%, they convert less than 40% into electrical power.

In other words, their overall efficiency is only about .28%, less than 3 parts in 1000 of natural uraniums energy potential is utilized. This is actually a major reason that nuclear fission power plants produce so much long lived radioactive waste, because so much of that energy potential is not utilized.

Of that .28% that is successfully extracted, about 17% will be lost in transmission line loss, and about 50% will go unused because it will at a time when there is less demand than there is electricity produced and nuclear fission reactors can not be rapidly throttled.

So by the time all of these losses are concerned, perhaps .1% or 1/1000th of natural uraniums energy potential is actually utilized and a much greater quantity of waste is produced than need be produced.

Almost all of these losses can be eliminated, many of them with economic benefits.

One of the places that I can see a fairly economical improvement in efficiency is the heat dissipated in the cooling towers. Although the water entering these towers is not hot enough to recover additional mechanical energy via the Carnot cycle, it still can be used for things like space heating or driving some low temperature industrial processes. In countries like Sweden this is already done, waste heat from nuclear plants is piped to cities to provide residential and commercial space heating. Another potential use is for agriculture as a source of heat to prevent freezing or to grow in colder climates than otherwise be possible. The heat is going to end up in the atmosphere anyway so why not use it to displace some other heat source that would be heating the atmosphere in addition?

Approximately 17% of the energy put into the electricity transmission system never makes it to the consumer. The bulk of that energy is radiative losses. That is, the energy is radiated away from the long distance AC power transmission lines. Not only is this energy wasted, but there are also negative health effects, most notably leukemia, associated with AC electromagnetic fields.

For lines longer than 300km, converting those lines from AC transmission to DC transmission is economical. It frees up some of the right away because clearance is no longer required because of radiation concerns. DC lines do not radiate energy. DC lines can cut that average 17% loss into the low single digit area. DC lines also substantially upgrade the power line’s capacity because of two factors. First, the line can be run at the highest voltage the insulators are rated for as opposed to AC transmission where on average the voltage is only .707 that of the peak voltage. Second, on long AC transmission lines, heat causes mechanical sagging of the lines. This lengthens the lines and causes a phase shift over the length of the line which causes losses and additional heating. DC lines eliminate the phase issue allowing higher currents to be transmitted through the conductors. The combination of both higher average voltage and higher currents leads to substantially improved capacity over the same conductors with the same insulators. Lastly DC transmission eliminates susceptibility to either cascading power failures or space weather induced damage. Upgrading our transmission capacity this way would be the equivalent of adding about 15% more generating capacity to the nations electrical grids with no increases in pollution, thermal emissions, and improvements in reliability and health. It would also make it possible for intermittent renewable resources to provide a larger share of our energy needs.

A substantial portion of the energy produced by nuclear reactors at night and during low load times goes up the cooling towers because nuclear power plants, at least those of todays designs, can not readily be throttled up and down in power levels. There is enough surplus power at night to totally provide for all our daily commuting needs if that energy could be efficiently captured and used for that purpose. Doing that would eliminate our dependence upon foreign oil almost entirely because the percentage of oil used for our daily commute almost equals the two thirds that we import.

There are technologies available that would allow this. One technology is the plug-in hybrid and also all electric vehicles. The plug-in hybrid is a more practical alternative for many people because they’re not restricted to the short range provided by a relatively low capacity battery pack. For long trips, they can fill up and slurp gas the traditional way. But the majority of commutes are less than 20 miles and so can be completed entirely on electricity.

There are some people out there trying to suggest that this may result in an increase in air pollution because 50% of the electricity we generate comes from coal, but this is misinformation, and the reason for it is, that coal fired plants, like nuclear plants, can not be rapidly throttled and thus they burn coal at night but the energy is just wasted. Plug-in hybrids will simply be using energy that otherwise would have been dissipated in a cooling tower and will generate no more heat at the power plant but eliminate pollution from burning gasoline within the electric range of the vehicle. The one exception to this would be the evening or night shift commuter that recharges during the day.

There are other ways this energy could be harnessed, some of which are being used with solar and wind farms today. There is a battery technology that uses liquid electrodes and relies on changes to the oxidation state of vanadium often called a vanadium redox battery, that can be used to store electricity on an industrial or utility scale. The vanadium redox batterys’ capacity is limited only by the size of tanks used to hold the liquid electrode material. Vanadium redox batteries can be left in discharged states for long periods of time and don’t degrade with charge cycles to any appreciable degree. The downside of these batteries is that their energy / volume ratio is too low to make them practical for anything but fixed installations.

Another technology where geology makes it practical is hydro-storage where during times of surplus electrical generation, water is pumped up hill to a higher reservoir, and then during times of surplus it is allowed to run downhill through a turbine to generate electricity.

Then there are a few emerging technologies that could be used to turn surplus electricity into fuel. There are two technologies that can convert electricity, carbon dioxide, and water, into butynol, a 4-carbon alcohol that can be used as a replacement for gasoline in gasoline powered vehicles but provides better fuel mileage, power, and about 97% reduction in emissions. Although it’s energy content is slightly lower than gasoline, other factors make it burn more efficiently resulting in better mileage and power.

One technology uses a reverse fuel-cell device that uses a catalyst to convert electricity, water, and carbon dioxide directly into butynol. Butynol can also be used as a jet engine fuel and is being considered as a renewable replacement by Virgin Airlines and this reverse fuel cell technology was developed to that end. An alternate method involves electrolyzing carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and oxygen. The carbon monoxide is then combined with steam to create a gas that can then be catalytically converted into any number of hydrocarbon products, including butynol.

These plants could be built close to coal plants and then the carbon dioxide from the coal plant turned into automotive fuel rather than being released into the atmosphere or geologically sequestered. If we actually got to the point where we were using all of the CO2 produced by coal and gas fired plants, we could sequester carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere.

Greater improvements require more substantial economic investments, but making those investments would both improve globally our standard of living and reduce the burden of managing radioactive wastes that we will otherwise be leaving to future generations.

Most promising is a type of nuclear reactor that uses fast neutrons to fission not only U-235, but also U-238, thorium, and the transuranic elements produced in conventional fission reactors as well as those produced in these reactors. They would be combined with an integral pyrolytic fuel reprocessing facility to reprocess spent fuel on-site. The pyrolytic process does not separate plutonium from other transuranics and therefore does not at any point produce bomb-grade material. In addition, since the material would never leave the reactor site, there would be no opportunity for terrorists to intercept it during transit.

This type of plant uses a liquid metal such as sodium or lead, a liquid salt, or helium as a coolant. Helium has some significant advantages. It’s already a gas so an over-power situation isn’t going to turn the coolant into something not effective as such. These types of reactors automatically limit their reaction rate based on something known as Doppler spectrum broadening. Basically, to be absorbed efficiently and initiate another fission, a neutron must possess a certain energy level. As objects heat up, an atom may be moving either towards an approaching neutron, increasing the energy, or away from it, decreasing the energy, and in both cases the likelihood of an induced fission is reduced. So these reactors carry a negative thermal coefficient.

Helium allows operation at a high temperature which results in high thermal conversion efficiencies. Metal and salt cooled reactors operate at temperatures exceeding those of boiling water or pressurized water reactors, but less than those of helium gas cooled reactors. Other coolants are somewhat reactive, lead in particular is very reactive, and thus corrode plumbing, but helium is chemically inert. Sodium spontaneously combusts in the presence of air; so there are certain safety issues associated with it’s use as a coolant.

These reactors, through their high efficiency, can reduce waste volumes to about 1% of that produced by a conventional once-through boiling or pressurized water reactor. In addition, by burning the actinides, the waste they produce consists only of fission products which only require storage for about 300 years (assuming no further treatment) rather than 50,000 required for the waste produced by existing reactors. Further, these generation IV burning reactors can use the waste from conventional reactors as fuel eliminating the need for long term storage.

There are additional technologies which can turn the longest lived fission produces into products that decay very rapidly reducing the storage requirements to around 20 years, however these technologies do require energy and thus reduce slightly the overall energy efficiency.

France and Japan are both pouring money into research and implementing these types of reactors, we should be as well. Properly implemented nuclear fission can provide for our energy needs for millions of years.

Because so much more energy is recovered from uranium this way; uranium from sources such as extraction from seawater become economical. This is what extends the fuel supply for so long. Because thorium can also be used as a fuel and it is 3x more plentiful in the Earth’s crust than is uranium, this also extends the fuel supply considerably.

We do not have to have an energy crisis, nor do we need to have ever increasing levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, and neither do we have to live in poverty and fight wars over oil. There is plenty of energy to go around if we produce, distribute, and utilize it wisely.

Baby Boomers

Without immigration, the population growth of the United States and every other industrialized nation of the world is negative. At the same time, people are living longer. People have this idea that they can still retire at 60, and then live on savings another 40 years.

If the social security fund hadn’t been robbed, and if people actually were saving at sufficient levels this still wouldn’t work! Why not you ask?

The reason is something that people just don’t get, MONEY IS NOT GOODS AND SERVICES. Money is ONLY a mechanism for facilitating the movement of goods and services. You can’t eat money, you can’t wear it, well not in practical terms, and you can’t use it for shelter. You can’t use it to cure your medical ailments. You can use it to trade for these things, but only to the degree these things actually exist!

If you’ve got fewer people producing and more people consuming, the amount of goods and services available to each person decreases. If social security was fully funded, if peoples savings were adequate; but people retire and people don’t enter the labor market to replace them, the amount of goods and services available will be less and as a result that money will simply become worth less, in other words, all you’d get is rampant inflation.

There are a number of potential solutions to this problem, allow more people to enter the labor market from foreign countries. This works as long as there are enough people who want to come here and we can successfully integrate them into our population. Or, become more efficient with our use of labor, produce more goods and services from less human effort. To do that, we need to rely to a greater degree on automation and reduce waste and inefficiency. For instance, eliminate the 3-1/2 trillion dollar war we’re waging in Iraq and wars that most likely will follow if we don’t make a severe course change. If we can’t do either of those the only other option is for people to delay retirement, even to bring some of the retired out of retirement back into the labor market.

People must start recognizing money for what it is; a means of exchanging goods and services, not a substitute or proxy for those goods or services. A shortage of money in the economy will prevent goods and services from moving and interfere with their production, but more money in the economy than necessary will not improve productivity, it only contributes to rampant inflation.

So we’re going to have to get smarter, automate to a greater degree, and that’s going to take more energy than combusting hydrocarbons, which isn’t sustainable even at present levels, can provide. We need to get solar, wind, geothermal, fast-flux integral pyrolytic reprocessing nuclear fission going, and fusion, fusion is really the ticket. But this won’t happen if we keep investing trillions in fighting over the easy to get at oil instead of developing these technologies.

We could have replaced the energy equivalent of all of Iraq’s oil production by spending the same amount of money we spent in the first year there on wind power, and we’d have that energy forever. All of Iraq’s oil represents only 5-6 years supply and we’ve squandered much of that in the war. What we are doing is so nonsensical in terms of what is good for the United States or the world.

Come on folks, let’s turn this ship around while there is still a smiggin’ of hope. Tell your congress critters we need to get out of Iraq, need to put a $20/barrel import duty on foreign hydrocarbons, and need to put the kind of money we put into the war instead on domestic renewable energy sources. If we’d done this instead of invading Iraq, we and the world would not have an energy crisis today; we’d have a substantially cleaner environment, and we’d have vastly better foreign relationships.

Electric Vehicles

Many of you are tired of being held hostage by oil companies. For those of you with commutes of twenty miles or less an electric vehicle might be an excellent alternative that will allow you to drive at a fraction of the cost and without emitting pollution. To be sure there are some vehicles with significantly longer range but these tend to be expensive. Also, the deeper batteries are discharged, the shorter their lifespan, so it is best to choose a vehicle that has significantly more range than you need.

I have added a new Electric Vehicles section to the side bar above the general sustainable living resources section. I have included only vehicles currently in production and available somewhere. Some may not yet be available in the United States. I have also included Plug-In hybrids since they can, within limited range, be operated exclusively on electricity.

Generally, electric vehicles come in three categories, NEV or Neighborhood Electric Vehicles, these feature limited range of around 20-40 miles, are generally very lightweight, and are limited to a top-speed of 25 MPH, and generally are very inexpensive. For someone who just needs to make the occasional 2 mile drive to the post office or grocery store and has no need for highway driving these may be ideal.

Then there is a category that is geared towards the daily commute. These generally offer greater range, anywhere from 40-150 miles, are capable of highway road speeds, are generally safer featuring roll cages and other safety features common to gasoline cars, and generally weigh about as much as a compact gasoline car. These tend to be more expensive than NEV’s owing to the higher speeds, range, and safety.

And then there are a handful of high performance electric sports cars which tend to have tremendous acceleration, top speeds, and even longer ranges, but they also tend to have price tags that put them out of reach of the average Joe. These have ranges from 130-220 miles.

The Neighborhood Electric Vehicles are by far the most common currently but probably also by far the least usable for most people. Their low price makes them attractive to those whose needs they do meet.

There are relatively few manufacturers of normal commuter electric cars today which are available in the United States. In the United States we have “safety” laws that tend to favor thirsty vehicles and prevent the import of many foreign electric vehicles and more efficient gasoline and diesel vehicles. People living in Japan, China, France, and other parts of the world have more choices when it comes to ultra efficient vehicles.

If you are aware of any currently available electric vehicles, I’m not talking concept cars like the GM Volt which probably will not be manufactured in this lifetime, but vehicles you can actually go buy and drive today, please let me know so that I can add them to the list.