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

6 comments on “Hydrocarbon Fuels

  1. “the most promising is the Bussard Polywell reactor, but the navy funded it and is now keeping it out of public view… I would very much like to see this technology wrestled from the navy and made available to the private sector for power production.”

    While under contract with the Navy, EMC2 (the company researching this technology) it is true that they must submit all results through the Navy, and the Navy, while funding it, decides what is released publicly.

    Even so, the Navy is bound by the U.N. treaty regarding fusion research, so it will all have be made public after it’s been vetted.

    In the meantime, if you know someone with a spare 200 million or so, EMC2 has pretty much made available all details of research previous to the current round of Navy funding, and I believe they’ve even offered to sell replicas of the WB-6 testing device. So, anyone with funding and interest could pick it up and be just a year behind where EMC2 currently is in the Navy contract.

    Or, they could just wait and see what the results are from the WB-7 tests if the Navy doesn’t continue funding (which should automatically allow EMC2 to release information from their research).

    If the Navy does continue funding, then that’s as much an answer as a negative, and then there might very well be copy-cat research programs pop up elsewhere. A well-funded one could easily outpace what the Navy has put into it so far.

    I wouldn’t worry too much about the Navy being in control of the technology, though – if a net-gain working prototype really is developed, word would spread like wildfire no matter how “classified” it was. All the Navy would have is a slight advantage in time for practical implementation.

    Cheer’s to fusion!

  2. Theory is wonderful, and the navy has continued to fund but at a low level.

    At any rate; it looks like they’re not intent on releasing to the public at this point and that’s unfortunate as I would very much like to see someone run with it.

    Probably China will develop a version and we’ll be choking on coal smog.

  3. There is quite a lot of half-researched talk in this blog !
    No mention of laser-driven “fast-ignition” fusion, which is moving forward faster than all the other approaches ! By the end of 2010 it is likely that US reserach will have given “Proof of Principle” for something which is seriously likely to lead to power generation at industrial levels. Europe is already setting up the project to carry that work forward, withoutwaiting for politicians and bureaucrats to exact their “poubnd of flesh”. It won’t be done next week however, and we need to stop burning fossil fuel really soon, so et’s look at the alternatives. Renewables would be great … IF we could make them efficient enough, and we must try to do everything possible to achieve that… but the reality is that renewables won’t keep the world’s lights burning. Until fusion comes along, we have to have one more “generation” of fission reactors… as safe and as long-lasting as we can make them… to get us through to the time when fusion comes online and we can consign fission to history. We need to spend money right now on both Tokamak and Laser fusion, and we should fully explore the fusion/fission hybrid process too, since the world’s energy requirement needs all these approaches to work as soon as possible. The investment sounds big… until you compare it with the kind of money spent every day in “big oil” ! Telate that to the price of ignoring the environmental time bomb ticking away all around us ! For a proper briefing on where fusion research stands… look at this short film ! http://www.hiper-laser.org/hiper_dvd01.wmv

  4. Dear Anonymous,

    I notice that the most irresponsible abrasive and scathing comments are always posted anonymously.

    If you really believe what you say, have the guts to put your name to it.

    That said, I’ll comment on the specifics of your post.

    I haven’t commented on laser driven fusion not because I lack awareness of it, but because I believe it to be an extremely poor approach for a number of reasons.

    First, thermal approaches in general, and this includes laser driven, Tokamak, Stellarator, and Z-pinch all are less optimal than approaches that can provide a specific energy and direction to colliding nuclei. The reason for this is that it isn’t the case that the more energy the better when it comes to fusion, there is a specific energy where the highest incidence of fusion occurs and then beyond that efficiency decreases. A thermal approach can only provide you a bell shaped curve range of energies centered around the desired energy and so it is inherently less efficient than designs which accelerate particles to known controlled energy levels such as the Bussard Polywell design.

    Most thermal designs have zero chance of obtaining energies necessary to fuse terrestrially available aneutronic fuels such as hydrogen-boron. Thus these designs will be heavy neutron producers requiring heavy shielding and causing neutron activation and embriddlement of reactor components.

    Aneutronic fuels are desirable because they produce no neutrons when they fuse, only charged particles that can be directly converted to electricity rather than requiring thermal conversion and which do not cause neutron activation of components or require heavy shielding.

    Even with aneutronic fuels, there are some “side reactions” that will produce some neutrons, but again, thermal approaches are bad because the energies are not exact, they will have a much higher incidence of side reactions, than methods that accelerate particles to specific energies which can be tuned for the desired reaction avoiding high incidences of side reactions.

    Of the the thermal approaches, the laser driven approach is in my view the worst because lasers are very inefficient and at the power levels required they tend to destroy themselves in short order. The cost of the laser driven approach is even worse than conventional Tokamaks.

    It’s my view that laser driven fusion is largely of interest to the military which is primarily interested in neutron sources for breeding tritium for more bombs. We have enough bombs.

    Next to the military it’s mostly of interest to the oil companies that want to keep money away from economically viable approaches.

    I’ve also done enough research with respect to renewables to completely disagree with you regarding the ability to produce enough energy to displace fossil fuels. We certainly can, the resources are there.

    But what I don’t believe we can do with renewables is do so and provide additional economic growth which I believe is necessary in order to bring people living in poverty around the globe out of poverty, and I believe doing that is necessary to reaching zero population growth and sustainability.

    Beyond that I think there is much more human potential that really requires robust concentrated sources, and I think fusion is the only viable source to reach that potential. The ability to clean up the mess we’ve made on this planet and go on to do things like terraform mars, or mine the asteroids, or explore distant stars, these things require more energy than renewables will provide or in locations where they aren’t available.

    However, I think we’re at a crisis stage now where we need to bring everything to the table that we can, fission, fusion, and renewables, as well as modernizing the grid and reducing waste.

    The Polywell reactor, levitated dipole, and some other newer fusion approaches are more interesting to me than either laser driven or Tokamak reactors because they are smaller and vastly cheaper and capable of burning aneutronic fuels. They may find applications in things like ships and large aircraft and trains, whereas the laser driven and tokamak approaches, even if they get to the point of being commercially viable, would be VERY large and expensive machines, more so the laser driven approach than the Tokamak.

    Of the Tokamak’s ITER was a horrid design choice, I don’t know why they didn’t go with the short-aspect ratio otherwise known as spherical Tokamak’s as their confinement parameters are more than 3x superior to conventional Tokamak’s making a much smaller and less expensive machine possible.

  5. Anonymous,

    One other thing, that website you reference is full of inaccuracies.

    The one that bothers me the most is that it states that any fusion source will require a blanket. This is not true, only neutronic sources where it is desirable to breed tritium.

    Of coarse they may only be able to think in terms of DT reactions because they have no hope of reaching energy levels necessary for aneutronic fuels.

    Again, the folks behind laser driven fusion are more interested in building bombs than making electrical power.

  6. With the recent disaster courtesy of TVA on the Tennessee river shows that no matter how “clean” coal becomes (fantastic scrubbers and carbon sequestering) it’s always dirty and has a strong potential environmental impact.

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