Monthly Archives: December 2008

Global Warming

Last winter was the coldest winter on record in North America. Last night, the temperature plummeted to 13°F here in Shoreline Washington (13 miles north of downtown Seattle). For this area that’s not unheard of but it is extremely rare.

Global Warming portrayed in the popular media is a gross over simplification. There are natural causes of climate change and there are man-made contributions. The relationship between the two is extremely complex and poorly understood.

Popular media would have you believe two things about the relationship between natural changes and man-made changes that are completely wrong. First popular media would have you believe that man made changes are much larger than natural changes. Second, that our scientists and climatologists actually have a firm grasp on the subject.

In actuality neither is true. Climatologists have developed computer models that fit past data. On the basis of the past fit they claim that their model is correct and therefore will make correct predictions of future changes.

This is wrong, and here is why. There at least a dozen competing models that fit the past to present data but they all predict different future climates and they can’t all predict different things and be correct. In addition, past computer models haven’t predicted present conditions accurately. There is no reason to believe that magic happened and all of the sudden their computer model accuracy has tremendously improved.

With respect to the relationship between natural changes and man-made changes, there is a 22 year solar cycle in which the suns magnetic field goes from north at one pole to very little field to south at one pole to very little field and then back to north again. When the polar fields are strong sunspot activity is high, and during the reversal process, sunspot activity drops, usually.

There is about a .3°C difference in Earth’s temperature between a normal solar peak and solar low. But there is also a great deal of variability between the intensity of the individual cycles as well as some long term cycles and some unexplained solar vacations. The sun normally goes from peak to low to peak every 11 years, taking 22 years for the magnetic field to return to it’s original polarity but there is a peak and low every 11 years. By contrast, a steady warming relating to increased carbon dioxide levels appears to be only about .1°C per decade.

So during during the portion of the solar cycle where the activity is on the upswing, the planet seems to be warming really fast and people will say things like the oceans are going to rise 200 feet by next week and the pretty soon wood frame houses will burst into flames from the heat. Then we get into a cooling part and eventually people aren’t so convinced.

In truth though, man-made warming even though it’s a smaller scale than natural changes, is unidirectional whereas natural variation is in part cyclical and in part chaotic. I want people to understand that what I am saying here is that even though nature makes bigger chances, nature makes them in both directions so over the long haul it averages out, but man is affecting the climate in one direction only, so over a long enough period of time our contribution, if left unchecked, will indeed be catastrophic.

The sun and it’s vacations are of particular significance right now because we’re now in a 50 year low in terms of solar activity, and historically when it’s done this in the past it’s gone into a long term minimum pattern and temperatures across Europe have fallen as much as 8-13°F during these times. The growing seasons shorted, people starved, and it looks like that’s where we are headed now.

But now we’ve got an additional danger. If people are lulled into thinking, ah global warming is all bogus, and they easily could be since the complexities were never really explained and things were exaggerated significantly for political reasons, then they’ll start burning coal like there was no tomorrow. After a decade or two when we’ve got the CO2 levels up to 500ppm, and people are croaking of asthma and cancer at even faster rates; the sun will re-establish a more normal pattern and global temperatures will go through the roof overnight. Then we will have really big problems.

There are other factors. It was once believed that there were around 20,000 under water volcanoes. We now know there are more than two million. We do not understand the scale of the impact that these have on global climate and ocean temperatures and currents but I have reason to believe they are substantial.

Another source of heating that until recently was grossly underestimated is the effect of currents induced in the Earth’s crust by solar wind particles interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field. It used to believed that that energy was on the order of only a few tens of gigawatts, but we now know it is vastly larger and that the torque it imparts to the Earth’s crust is substantial and may be even enough to affect geological activity.

The fact of the matter is climate is naturally variable, change is the norm and occasional periods of unusual stability are the exception. We need to adjust to this reality and burning fossil fuels not only exacerbates the problem but also will never provide us with the amount of energy we need to survive extreme climate changes which will occur, with or without our input, nor will fossil fuel energy scale to the levels needed to alleviate global poverty, and that’s something I really want to see happen.

Nature has provided us with abundant energy resources that are much less environmentally damaging but generally a lot less convenient than fossil fuels, not just sun and wind, although those certainly exist and we should utilize them to our maximum advantage, but there is also geothermal, ocean wave, tide, thermal, and currents. There are forms of hydroelectric generation that can make energy from the natural flow rather than requiring the water be damned up.

There are advanced fission reactor designs that can not only provide more than 100x as much energy from natural uranium as conventional plants, but can do so without producing the long term actinide (transuranic) wastes of conventional one-pass boiling water or pressurized water reactors. These plants can also use the actinide wastes of conventional plants as fuel. This is a far better option than burying this waste at Yucca mountain because it converts it all to short-lived fission product wastes that will decay to a natural level (the same level of radioactivity as the ore from which it was mined) within 300 years rather than 50,000 years.

Of the fission products, there are only a couple of isotopes with significant half-lifes, and those can be destroyed using accelerator technology completely eliminating the long-term waste issue.

These advanced reactors also eliminate plutonium in the end product, and even as an intermediate product it is never in a state where it can be used for bombs, thus significantly reducing it’s potential for terrorism uses. Because it is present with other actinides and isotopes of plutonium with much shorter half-lives, it is too “hot” to be made into a bomb, any attempt would result in premature reactions that would fizzle, and any terrorist attempting to make a bomb out of the stuff would die of radiation poisoning in short order. This stuff would be processed in integral recycling facilities onsite and re-used as fuel rather than being shipped, stored, or buried.

Fusion is the real holy grail, and it is reachable today; we spend less on fusion research in a decade than we do in oil imports in a day. That is the only reason fusion isn’t online producing power for us today. In spite of oil company claims to the contrary; we’ve solved the big scientific problems. We know now how to adequately confine the plasma, we know how to make superconductive magnets that can achieve the necessary strength, and we have a pretty good handle on what materials will work for the diverter.

The US has withdrawn from ITER, I wish I could say that I disagree with this but I don’t, I think ITER is a waste of money. Originally, it has several goals, one was to develop the necessary superconductor technology but the Chinese couldn’t wait 12 years for ITER to be built so they built EAST with superconductive magnets, they worked. What EAST doesn’t accomplish is commercial power levels.

The British established the superiority of the spherical or short-aspect-ratio Tokamak over the convetional Russian Tokamak design. The spherical Tokamak achieves a confinement product approximately 3.5 times better then conventional designs, and this is another reason I believe ITER was a bad design, it was not a spherical Tokamak.

The British team the designed START and MAST went on to design a spherical Tokamak power reactor. It would produce approximately 600MW of power, and cost less to build than a fission reactor of similar size. Both START and MAST outperformed their design objectives so there is every reason to believe this power reactor would be equally successful.

ITER by contrast would have cost ten times more and even though it should achieve commercial power levels and be useful for material engineering tests, it is not an economically viable design for a commercial power reactor.

There are also even more promising newer designs that should be explored, the Bussard Polywell reactor, the levitated dipole, and some newer Z-pinch designs that can operate reiterively and do not destroy their electrodes with each firing.

We need to fund these projects fully and bring them online, but in the meantime, we need to pursue clean renewable alternatives, and in my opinion advanced fission reactors are also necessary to deal with the transuranic waste we’ve already accumulated from conventional reactors rather than burying it and creating a disaster for future generations to deal with.

We need to do these things now. Climate change and major Earth changes are already underway, we need to gear up our ability to adapt in real time to these changes. Instead of fighting nature; we need to find ways to work with nature and be what we are, a part of nature; not something set against nature.

Category: Future

Is It Our Responsibility to Finance Saudi Arabia?

I think everyone should take a moment to read this 60 minutes article posted by CBS News on their website.

Saudi Arabia talks about this new oil field that production costs will be under $2/barrel; yet, they need to sell oil at least at $55 to run the Saudi Government. And who is their largest customer? US, as in United States.

So now that the world economy is screwed, and the US economy in particular; they’re going to cut production 1.5 million barrels in order to drive prices back up.

Anyone who isn’t bright enough to realize that we can’t keep running on oil for environmental reasons, ought to realize that we can’t allow our country to be held hostage in this manner, regardless of environmental issues.

We’re financing people that don’t like us at all, and they’re putting their own country in jeopardy out of greed. This situation isn’t sustainable for us, and it’s not sustainable for the Saudi’s.

If the Saudi’s were smart, they’d be using their huge income to build sustainable energy sources for themselves and export sustainable energy instead of going to extreme ends to tap remaining deposits.

We can’t keep depending upon Canada or Mexico either. Sooner or later Canada is going to tire of bulldozing their forest to feed our SUV fleets and Mexico’s huge disparity of income as well as that in the US is going to create a great deal of civil unrest in both countries.

Our ability to pay for imported oil depends on our ability to produce something of value and export it; but weather pattern shifts threaten to our ability to produce food for export, while warmer climates up north promise to make Canada the new bread basket. When that happens there goes our one major export.

We need to achieve energy independence and we need to do so in a sustainable and growable manner. Being able to feed ourselves in the future, let alone grow enough food for export, is going to require tremendous amounts of fresh water, and that’s going to require even more energy. The longer we wait to address these issues the more difficult it is going to be, and at some point difficult will cross the threshold into impossible.

Right now we’ve got 12% of our population or more unemployed. Oh yes, I know official Republican figures put that at less than 7% but that’s because they changed the formula to exclude “discourages workers”, those who have been unemployed long enough that unemployment benefits have run out, back in the Reagan era.

So why not put those 12% to work building a sustainable energy infrastructure that will make it possible for agriculture to survive weather pattern shifts by supplying necessary water when nature does not, as well as one that provides energy cheaply enough that we can once again build and have a competitive manufacturing base?

Unless we all relish the idea of living in impoverished third-world conditions, this is something we need to do now.

And speaking of third world conditions, our planet today is no longer one that is large enough that we can isolate ourselves from the plight of human beings in other regions and pretend nothing is wrong in the world. Disease knows no national boundaries and today even oceans provide no real barrier. AIDS and West Nile virus are here, African killer bees are here, and if the weather warms up and what is now temperate climates in much of America become what was formerly tropical climates, we can expect to see Malaria and other such maladies follow.

When people in Africa or elsewhere aren’t allowed to reach their human potential, then all of humanity isn’t able to reach it’s potential, and if you look at the realities of our medical and education system, we are rapidly joining the ranks of these poorer nations.

Right now our planet is approaching a population of 7 billion human beings. One thing we know, populations increase in impoverished destitute regions, developed affluent nations have neutral or negative population growths excluding immigrants. So if we want to address the world population in a human way, rather than through starvation, disease, and war, we need to address poverty on a global level.

It takes energy to do create economic growth and eliminate poverty; and we can’t increase our energy production to the necessary levels without completely ruining our environment if we continue to depend upon burning hydrocarbons. In fact, even if we’re willing to completely ruin our environment, hydrocarbons give every indication of being incapable of being scaled to the required levels.

The only thing that we know of today that can provide the energies we need are atomic sources, nuclear fission or fusion. Either combining light atomic nuclei into heavier nuclei, or splitting very heavy nuclei into lighter nuclei, to release energy.

This can take the form of utilizing natural fusion and fission reactors (the Sun is a natural fusion reactor which fuses approximately 600 million tons of hydrogen into helium every second producing a power output of approximately 4×10^27 watts. In the Earth, radio active elements decay and produce heat, natural reactors have occurred in the Earth’s crust where concentrations of Uranium were sufficient, and there is some evidence that a natural reactor still exists at the core.

Nature provides us with these already in place operating reactors and for the most part handles the safety, waste disposal, and fuel production issues for us.

But nature also provides us with the fuels, and the laws of physics with the means, of building our own fission and fusion reactors, allowing us to scale energy production and the location of that production to our own needs, however, going this route we also have to deal with safety, waste disposal, and fuel production issues.

My own belief is that the best route is to exploit those reactors nature provided to the fullest, but because the density of the energy provided by nature is low and some applications, primarily transportation, require high density energy; we also need to develop our own reactors. Between fission and fusion, the latter is both more scalable.

Fusion produces approximately 7x as much energy per gram of fuel than fission assuming a deuterium-tritium fusion fuel and Uranium-235 fission fuel, 1-in-2000 atoms of hydrogen in seawater are deuterium and deuterium can be bred into tritium with a lithium blanket catching neutrons from a fusion reactor, and there are other (better and cleaner not involving neutron production) fuels for fusion as well. Where as Uranium-235 constitutes only .7% of naturally occurring Uranium which is far far more scarce. In addition fusion produces helium waste, an inert and commercially valuable gas, fission produces both highly radioactive fission products as well as long-lived transuranic radioactive elements so dealing with fission waste products is more difficult.

Putting too much fissionable fuel in one place yields a chain reaction, which makes safety an issue and also makes it an attractive terrorist target. Putting a lot of fusable material together makes oceans, which have demonstrated long term stability on the planet, so both the fuel and waste products of fusion are infinitely more manageable.

However, at this point fission technology is developed to the point of being already commercially applied, fusion is not; and fission for all it’s problems and safety issues still is much better than burning coal for energy.

There are new promissing fusion technologies, in my opinion the Bussard Polywell looks to be the most viable, but there are dozens of potential competing technologies and I feel all of these should be explored to the fullest and a crash program developed to bring fusion power production online in the very short term, not 25-50 years from now as the oil company lobbiests would like.

The bottom line is we can’t keep doing what we are, or perhaps we can but misery and suffering will be the inevitable consequences.

Category: Future

Hydrocarbon Fuels

Economic growth requires more than the free flow of capital. It requires energy.

The world economy hit the wall because the supply of energy available from conventional sources also hit the wall and nobody thought ahead enough to put the necessary infrastructure in place to assure access to the energy we need for sustained growth and economic well being.

The Fed, the worlds banks, the worlds governments all attempted to prop up failing economies by injecting more liquidity, more capital, more money, that which facilitates the flow of goods and services.

Because oil in particular was at the supply limit, all the injected capital simply drove up the cost of oil higher sucking all the money back out of the economies.

If we drill deep enough there is more oil. Oil is not made exclusively biologically. Much of it is made through an chemical process requiring only heat and pressure and the proper ingredients which are water, iron oxides, and calcium carbonate; all of which are available in large quantities where the ocean floor is subducted under continental crust.

This process has been replicated in the laboratory and works just fine without the aid of bacteria. It in fact works at a pressure of a hundred atmospheres and a temperature of around one thousand degrees Fahrenheit.

When you put iron oxide, calcium carbonate, and water under these pressures and temperatures, you get out a mix of hydrocarbons that is characteristic of light crude. If this mixture rises up from the mantle and encounters a non-porous cap of granite or basalt, or some other non-porous substance, then all of the hydrocarbons are trapped until tapped and represent a source of light sweet crude.

If no non-porous capstone exists; then the lighter distillates evaporate off and what you end up with is heavy crude and bitumen. It’s also possible for the oil to pick up sulfur and other impurities along the way or they may be present in the original mix. When the crude contains a lot of sulfur it is said to be sour.

The Russians know about this abiotic oil, the Chines know about it, and US oil companies know about it, but it is expensive to tap because it required drilling 20,000+ feet through granite or basaltic basement rock, or it involved drilling under miles of water through miles of seafloor.

US oil companies have only recently developed or acquired the necessary technology to tap these very deep deposits and presently there is a world-wide shortage of drilling rigs capable of tapping these deposits. Drilling to this depth requires tungsten or depleted uranium drill bits, both are expensive and the latter is hazardous to work with.

Between increased demand from China and India, and the lack of equipment necessary to tap these deep deposits; we ran up against the supply wall, and the worlds economy attempted to adjust; but governments kept injecting liquidity and that delayed adjustment until an absolute crises forced it and now we’re in the middle of it; the economy collapsed and oil demand fell back to levels supply could keep up with.

All things left to their own, eventually the world wide supply of these drilling rigs will catch up with demand and supply will increase.

The real problem we all face isn’t lack of oil, it’s lack of atmosphere. We can not keep turning all of our oxygen into carbon dioxide and survive. Doing so not only alters the climate, it alters the atmospheric chemistry.

People will say, healthy people can tolerate as much as 5000 ppm over an eight hour period, but what people don’t realize is that the human lungs become less able to rid the body of carbon dioxide and more sensitive to carbon dioxide partial pressures with age. While young people can withstand 5000ppm, 500ppm can be fatal to the elderly at sea-level, and tolerance decreases with altitude as well.

So in a way this whole global warming thing is somewhat self-limiting, because as levels approach 500ppm, we’re going to see the incidence of cardio-pulmonary issues and deaths related to same increase among the elderly. In other words; we’ll reduce global population by killing off the elderly and people with lung disease while many others who were formerly healthy will become less able to tolerate exercise.

This is particularly true of people at higher altitudes. Many conspiracy theorists have predicted that the capital will be moved from Washington DC to Denver. This might actually be a good thing because not only would it make the capital more centralized, but it will also place it at a high altitude, where our legislators will be particularly subjected to the effects of the increased carbon dioxide levels.

And then there is the “clean coal” idea, the idea that one can sequester carbon dioxide and thereby make it safe to burn coal to generate energy. I’m really not in favor of this idea, because to make the carbon dioxide that will be sequestered, you have to take oxygen out of the air; and instead of being recycled by natural means, plants turning it back into carbon compounds and releasing the oxygen, instead of that happening, that oxygen is gone for as long as the carbon dioxide is successfully sequestered. In case it hadn’t occurred to you yet, oxygen is what we breath and there is not an unlimited quantity of it.

Even this doesn’t result in clean coal because coal also contains mercury, radium, and a host of other substances you don’t want to be released free into the environment. These things are better left locked up in the mineral they were in and left in the mountain. Whether these things go up the stack or into a landfill, they’re still very problematic materials. Unless you can find uses for all of these materials coal is still anything but clean.

At best, switching from being heavily reliant on coal to being more heavily reliant on an even more carbon intensive hydrocarbon, coal, only delays the problem. The bottom line is that, over the long term, we do not have enough oxygen in our planets atmosphere to satisfy our growing energy needs by reacting it with carbon or other elements even if we have plenty of carbon to react it with and can find a safe method of disposing of the carbon dioxide.

So what we need to do is modernize our power grid, that alone will save the energy equivalent of all of the oil we import, just eliminating the majority of unnecessary losses in the power grid. Then with that modernized grid we need to add renewable sustainable energy sources, wind, solar, geo-thermal, ocean-thermal, wave power, tidal power, ocean current power, or controlled hydrogen fusion, which I believe can be done.

There are multiple technologies that can make controlled hydrogen fusion a reality, the conventional Tokamak, which is what ITER is, is perhaps the second worst choice because that technology can only work on a very large scale and is extremely expensive.

A huge improvement on conventional Tokamak designs is the spherical or short aspect ratio Tokamak. These improve the confinement by approximately 3.5x which makes a much smaller and less expensive machine possible. A machine that could be built at a cost similiar to a conventional fission reactor but one in which the fuel is essentially free and no long-term nuclear waste is produced. There are however short-term neutron activation products produced in a Tokamak because at persent we can’t obtain the necessary energy levels to fuse anuetronic fuels such as proton-boron.

However, there are at least three alternative fusion reactor designs that have the potential to reach the necessary energies, the most promising is the Bussard Polywell reactor, but the navy funded it and is now keeping it out of public view. While it will be good to have the dirty fission reactors on aircraft carriers and submaries replaced with much safer and cleaner fusion reactors, it still ultimately is for destructive purposes that don’t benefit mankind. I would very much like to see this technology wrestled from the navy and made available to the private sector for power production.

While too large to power cars and probably even trucks, the Bussard reactor is sufficiently compact that it could power trains, cargo ships, ocean liners, possibly even large aircraft, in addition to the military fleet.

There are also alternatives known as the Z-pinch reactor. Early models were a one-shot affair destroying their electrodes with each firing and thus not useful commercially, but new designs involving robust coaxially positioned electrodes that aren’t destroyed with each power shot, promise to make the reactor one that can be used for continuous power production.

There is also a new design called a levitated dipole, and it’s based on the fact that the Earth’s magnetic field very efficiently contains a very hot plasma, all three of these devices have the promise of producing energy without neutrons and thus without even signficant quantitues short-term radioactive wastes. Very minor quantitues are produced by unintended side reaction but these are minimized in the Bussard design by the fact that the colliding energies are finally tuned so that they are only efficient for the desired atoms to interact. The Z-pinch and levitated dipole are still thermal devices and so these devices will have more undesired side reactions than the Bussard machine.

We don’t know how long it will take for any of these to come online, but the sun shines and the wind blows today and the Earth has hot magma under the surface today, and the oceans have currents and tides and thermal gradients today. We should take advantage of all these things today; to eliminate the energy barrier and allow the global economy to prosper.

Category: Future