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.

Elephant Painting an Elephant

This really sheds some insight into animal intelligence. This painting was done by an elephant. You can watch it in the process in the following video. I have no idea how much training into this but this animal clearly has an idea of what it looks like and a sense of aesthetics.

It’s funny, this showed up on Digg and people there tried to suggest it was painstakingly taught to draw each line on verbal command but the video has accompanying audio and you can hear that no such commands are given.

Gasoline Tax – Wrong / Oil Import Duty – Right

Our congress critters in Washington are talking about a 50ยข a gallon gasoline tax as an incentive for people to reduce consumption. All this will really do is further screw the little guy and tank whatever might be left of our economy. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t encourage the development of alternative energy sources.

Our dollar isn’t worth squat, and the reason for that is that we import a huge percentage of our energy needs, while no longer exporting a significant amount of manufactured goods. Being the worlds food supplier is what used to save our butts from total collapse, but the rest of the world has been learning how to grow their own food and so that’s no longer balancing our imports.

To add insult to injury, many major corporations have outsources services, things like customer support, to foreign countries where the labor is less expensive.

The sad thing about the energy situation is that we have no lack of raw materials right here at home. Really, we need to get off the oil teat, but that is hard to do with all of our capital going to foreign countries to purchase the stuff, so returning to domestic production is a first step since it will keep the capital at home, and if we do it correctly we can also encourage the switch to clean renewables at the same time.

If I were King, that is if I were in George Bush’s shoes, instead of spending three trillion on a war and killing and maiming a bunch of people, I’d slap a $20/barrel import duty on foreign oil. Instead of just reducing consumption, which to be sure is not a bad goal if it can be done without totally tanking the economy, but thanks to five years in Iraq, right now it can not, this approach would encourage the production of domestic sources and renewables by making them economically competitive. It would be good for the dollar because it would reduce imports. By encouraging domestic production, it would make jobs here at home which would be good for the economy. By encouraging alternative energy sources it would be good for the environment.

Let’s look at what we have here that could solve our energy woes, because we have a lot of alternatives. First off, we have oil! Yes, shock, I know. The thing is, it’s not as cheap to extract as oil in Saudi Arabia or Iraq if you don’t count the three billion in tax payer money used to steal it, but it’s here, lots of it.

There is another issue with domestic oil though, much of the close to the surface easy to get at stuff is heavy sour crude. US refineries are not equipped to deal with heavy sour crude. Venezuela has similar quality oil, yet, they meet their own energy needs and export a huge amount of refined goods. Citgo gasoline up here, that’s Venezuelan gasoline. They build the refineries needed to refine the stuff.

Now here’s a rub, we have approximately the same amount of the same quality oil as Venezuela in southern California alone! But we’re just letting it sit there, because we haven’t got the refinery capacity to deal with it. And our oil companies won’t build the capacity when they can extract oil from the ground for under $8/barrel from Saudi Arabia and Iraq and the US taxpayers foot the bill for the war required to steal it.

If we added another $20/barrel to import the stuff and took away the tax payer financed war to procure it, building refineries capable of dealing with heavy sour crude would all the sudden start to look real attractive. We’ve got several trillion barrels of oil locked up in tar sands and oil shale. The oil companies tell us this is too expensive to process. Yet, they’re doing it in Canada, extracting, decoking, and cracking to make lighter products, all for under $20 low value American dollars a barrel for existing installations, around $35/barrel when you include the capital costs of new capacity (which is rapidly growing). There are also some small firms that are extracting oil shale oil for around $14/barrel. There is no reason that can’t be scaled up.

What people don’t understand is that the diminishing production in the US has nothing to do with the Hubert curve, it has nothing to do with half the resources being exhausted. What it has to do with is oil fields in the middle east where you can poke a hole in the ground and the stuff squirts out under pressure. Those fields are diminishing and now pumping and steam injection and other techniques are often needed but there is more deeper and there is also much heavy crude that nobody wants because of the lack of refinery capacity to deal with it.

I mentioned that it is mostly heavy crude here; the easy to get at stuff. But there is some light sweet crude still available however it’s deep and generally drilling through bedrock is necessary to get at it. Several super giant fields of this nature have been discovered recently. They weren’t discovered until recently because until recently nobody drilled through bedrock or basement rock because oil of biological origin doesn’t exist there. Oil of biotic origin can only be found in sedimentary deposits.

But natural gas, oil, and solid hydrocarbons are all produced, in abundance, in the Earth’s mantle. Some of it seeps to the surface and can be extracted without drilling deep but most of it remains deep within the Earth requiring deep drilling to extract. The technology for drilling deep enough has only recently been available in the United States. It’s been available in Russia for a number of years and it’s what allowed them to become the worlds second largest oil producer and for a short time, before the Russian government confiscated a good portion of Yukos assets, the worlds largest. They’ve done it by drilling through granite bedrock to tap abiotic oil below.

Generally speaking, deep abiotic oil tends to be of the light sweet variety because the lighter components have been trapped and haven’t had a chance to evaporate off or disperse.

Here in the United States, this abiotic oil is just starting to be tapped; wild cat oil prospecting company Wolverine Oil drilled deep in parts of Utah that Chevron had declared barren and they found oil, lots of oil, and not just any oil, but the desirable light sweet crude. A super giant field containing light sweet crude has also recently been discovered in the Gulf of Mexico about 175 miles from New Orleans, and this involved first going through five miles of water, and then a number of miles through the ocean floor crust. Abiotic oil from the mantle is what’s being tapped and again it’s light sweet crude. Mexico has found a similar super giant field, and so has Brazil off of it’s coast. This stuff exists in great quantities all over, it just happens that the ocean crust is thinner and it’s easier to get at there, but still difficult and expensive.

The point is, we have plenty of oil domestically, the only reason we import oil, is that it is cheaper to obtain from foreign sources if all the real costs, the cost of the war, the impact on the value of the dollar that results from having a negative trade balance, aren’t considered. The oil companies don’t incur these costs so they don’t care. But if we slap a $20/barrel import duty on imported oil, they’ll start caring.

Now what else can we do? Well, let’s look at a huge amount of wasted energy in this country, night time electricity production. You see, nuclear plants can’t be throttled down at night because it takes too long to get the nuclear chain reaction back up to a higher level again and there is tremendous thermal mass involved as well. Thermal mass and boiler dynamics also make it difficult to throttle coal fired plants. Because nuclear and coal together provide 71% of the US electricity generation, we have a huge wasted capacity surplus at night.

There is enough surplus in fact to provide all of the energy we use in the daily commutes of the entire US. We could displace the majority of oil used for gasoline by converting to plug-in hybrids or all electric vehicles with enough range to handle our average commutes. In other words, we could eliminate the importation and burning of all that oil used to make all the gasoline we use for commuting, eliminate all of that carbon dioxide production, without generating a single gram of additional carbon dioxide or nuclear waste producing electricity because all of that carbon dioxide and nuclear waste is already being produced but the energy is simply being completely wasted. This is really nothing short of criminal.

Our politicians keep telling us, replace your incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents and save the planet but that will do nothing towards stopping these HUGE systematic energy wastes and that’s what we need to address. If we did this, we could eliminate oil imports, the cost of oil would plummet, and our economy would benefit and we would decrease carbon dioxide emissions in a huge really substantial way instead of kind of barely.

What else can we do that will save huge amounts of money? Well, about 17% of the energy put into the grid never comes out the other end, and this is largely because of the losses in long distance AC transmission lines. We could eliminate about 90% of those losses by converting those lines to DC transmission. At the same time we would increase the capacity of the grid, because converting to DC eliminates phasing issues that result from line sag caused by thermal loading. We’d eliminate electromagnetic radiation from those long distance transmission lines and the leukemias and other cancers that go with it. We’d eliminate the susceptibility of our grid to space weather and avalanche grid failures. For any line longer than 300km we’d save money in the process. The problem, thanks to deregulation, nobody wants to pay for grid improvements. If we eliminated 15% of the losses in the system, that would enable us to shut down more than half of our natural gas fired plants; that natural gas could be turned into liquid fuels via the Fischer-Troppe process displacing even imported oil.

We have enough wind sites in just three states to provide the power needs of the entire country, if we had a sufficiently robust grid to distribute the power and if the wind was consistent, but it’s not, and there in lies a problem with wind power.

But it’s a solvable problem, if we build 3x as much wind power as we need and distribute that geographically, then somewhere there will always be wind and enough capacity; however, having to overbuild by 3x ruins the economy of wind power, unless you can do something else useful with it, and you can!

There are two technologies at present that can take carbon dioxide, water, and electricity and turn it into butynol, an alcohol that unlike methanol and ethanol, can be burned in existing gasoline engines without modification and actually generally provide better power and mileage than gasoline. It also produces only about 3% of the emissions that gasoline produces in the same car. It is thus an ideal fuel for existing gasoline cars. It can also be mixed with diesel, although how much can be mixed depends upon the cetane requirements of the diesel engine because butynol has a cetane rating of only about 25 where most diesel engines require around 45. However, added to biodiesel, it can actually raise the cetane rating. Butynol also can be substituted for diesel in turbines such as jet aircraft engines, and many of the gas fired power plants could also burn butynol. Initially, these plants could be placed near coal fired plants and use the CO2 produced to produce liquid fuels instead of being released in the air. Yes, it would be released when the fuel is burnt, but if conventional fuels were burned, they would have produced CO2 in addition to that produced in the coal plant.

As wind power production increased coal plants could be taken off line. As the supply of CO2 from coal fired plants becomes scarce, we could sequester the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and start reducing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This could be done by a variety of methods, chemical means or fractional distillation of liquified air.

The Bussard Polywell fusion reactor is close to being a power producing reality; the last research reactor before a naval propulsion reactor is build, has been built and if it tests out, a 100 MW naval production reactor will be next. These cost about 1/1000th of what it costs to build a Tokamak fusion reactor or a nuclear fission power plant and produce only helium as a waste product. Further, there is enough fuel available to provide for our energy needs for around 15 billion years. There are no exotic materials required to build these, superconductive magnets aren’t required, no nuclear waste produced, no danger of an explosion or melt-down. These would be safe to build in cities, where any waste heat could be used for domestic or industrial heating.

They are small and light enough that they could find applications in large aircraft or space craft. They could make terraforming a practical reality in a short time frame by allowing huge amounts of energy to be applied to the problem.

In the Western US we have huge geothermal resources; enough to power the entire country if they were fully exploited. Mother Earth is always producing heat internally and gets kind of pent-up if it can’t find an escape route and we end up with Mt. St. Helens, so why not exploit this resource to the fullest and use all of that energy for useful things rather than allowing it to devastate hundreds of millions of acres.

The nuclear industry really needs a revamping, both because it could provide much cleaner and more abundant energy but also to get rid of the transuranic waste instead of trying to store it for 50,000 years which is just plain hocum. All we are doing is creating a disaster for future generations if we don’t deal with this problem now.

The beauty is we have the technology to do it. A type of reactor known as a fast-fission reactor, one that uses fast neutrons instead of thermal neutrons to induce fission, can burn all of the actinides, the long lived transuranic waste products. A conventional one-pass reactor only utilizes about .7% of the natural uraniums energy potential, this type of reactor with a closed recycling cycle, could use 96%, in other words, it would get 137 times more energy out of the same fuel while producing waste that is only hot for 300 years instead of 50,000 and while reducing the waste volume by a huge amount. There is even technology that could take the longest lived isotopes in fission products and reduce those to products that will decay in less than twenty years, and energy could be extracted in the process.

The type of reactor necessary to do this would use helium gas, liquid sodium, lead, or liquid salts as a coolant. This is necessary because water acts as a moderator and slows neutrons. Operating at a higher temperature this reactor would be more efficient thermally and produce less waste heat.

In many other countries, instead of cooling towers, the waste heat is piped to cities and used for residential or commercial heating. This is something we should be doing in this country instead of just dumping that waste heat into huge cooling reactors and heating rivers downstream from the plant.

Solar energy is also becoming cheaper, particularly some new thermal solar schemes using cheap plastic Freznel lenses for concentration of solar energy. Because there is a 90% correspondence between solar energy availability and electrical load, this type of power production can be very economic. The more power we produce from renewables, the more CO2 production we can offset.

One last thing we really should do is electrify our railroad system. North America is the only continent in the world that is still backwards in this respect. This makes us dependent upon diesel fuel for our railroads. Electrifying it would allow them to run from whichever energy source is the least expensive at the moment and would insure the ability to get food to our tables and move products about the country. We really need to get away from dependency on a single fuel for our very survival.

Take a moment to write your congress critters and help instill these ideas into their head. We can’t keep doing business as usual, it isn’t working.

Methane in Earth’s Mantle

Click on the title to see an article detailing an experiment showing that hydrocarbons are created abiotically in the Earth’s mantle.

Here is another study which determined that solid hydrocarbons in rocks that originated in the upper mantle were not organic in origin.

Here is another study in which isotopic evidence shows that hydrocarbons coming up from hydrothermal vents is not of biological origin.

Here is yet another study showing that the formation of hydrocarbons in the Earth’s mantle and the existence of huge quantities of hydrocarbons in the mantle is likely.

Industries in control of hydrocarbon extraction are doing a good job of throttling supply to drive the price up through the roof; there is not an actual shortage of the stuff.

We do have a limited supply of is oxygen, so even if we’ve got infinite hydrocarbon supplies; we do not have infinite oxygen supplies. The atmosphere can not sink an infinite amount of carbon dioxide. Burning hydrocarbons for energy is not sustainable and has very undesirable environmental effects.

But the current oil rape is just greed, and perhaps to a lesser demand, lack of foresight on the part of industry in terms of their failure to anticipate increasing demand from China and India.

Frustrated with Government

We are facing shortages of food, water, medical care, fuel, and human services. The human population of the world continues to climb in spite of having already reached the point where we are putting a severe strain on the worlds resources. There is only one possible outcome if we don’t take immediate and substantial action and that is a global population crash. In other words, the majority of us will die, those that remain will suffer greatly.

We face immediate food, water, and fuel shortage issues. All of these issues are interrelated. In the United States we depend heavily on irrigation to grow our food crops. We’ve depleted aquifers at a rate that substantially exceeds natures ability to replenish them. As a result, land which was formerly productive is now becoming non-productive due to the lack of water. The high cost of oil combined with ill conceived government regulations, primarily driven by special interests, has diverted a huge amount of corn from human and animal consumption to methanol production. This has resulted in a doubling of the cost of corn which has encouraged farmers to switch from other food crops to corn production. At the same time there is a fungus attacking wheat resulting in substantially lowered wheat yields.

To the degree that biomass can be a partial solution to our energy problems, methanol derived from corn is about the least efficient biofuel solution possible. Methanol from corn uses almost as much energy to grow, harvest, ferment, and distill the corn, as it yields in the energy content of the methanol itself.

First, current methanol production uses only sugar or starch as a feedstock. However, it is possible to use cellulose as a feedstock by fermentation with some bioengineered organisms, or by conversion using synthetic enzymes. This allows us to use agricultural wastes, forestry wastes, even lawn clippings to make liquid fuels. This means we can use the corn produced, as human or animal feed, and take the stalks, which would have been waste and convert them into liquid fuels. It allows the use of crops that can grow in marginal land or with less water that would not be suitable for most food crops, so that instead of diverting food crop land to energy production, land not suitable for food crops can be used for this purpose.

Second, ethanol is not the only alcohol that can be produced through fermentation, and for fuel purposes, it is not the best. A four carbon molecule called butynol or butyl alcohol is far better suited as a transportation fuel. Gasoline has an energy content of approximately 125,000 BTU/gallon, ethanol has only 85,000 BTU/gallon and methanol only about 64,500 BTU/gallon. Ethanol and Methanol are also corrosive, methanol much more so, and thus hard on metal and some plastic and rubber engine components. Ethanol and methanol require a much richer fuel to air ratio to burn properly and so can only be used in mixtures of about 10-15% in an unmodified gasoline engine. Methanol can not be mixed with diesel at all due to it’s highly polar nature. Ethanol can be mixed with diesel up to about 10% if it is very free of water content, however, it reduces the lubricating efficiency of diesel causing increased engine wear and it reduces the cetane rating of the fuel.

Butynol by contrast has an energy content of 115,000 BTU/gallon, a road octane of 94, and can be used in an unmodified gasoline engine up to 100%. Butynol has a cetane rating of about 25, ethanol has a cetane rating of 8, methanol has a cetane rating of 3, most diesel engines require a cetane in the mid-40’s though some engines can run on lower ratings and with turbines it’s not an issue at all. The higher cetane rating of butynol allows it to be mixed with diesel in much higher proportions than ethanol and mixed with biodiesel, it can actually raise the cetane rating of the fuel. Because butynol is not hydroscopic, it can be transported in the same pipelines used for petrochemical transports, ethanol and methanol can not be transported this way.

Butynol is a better fuel for gasoline engines than gasoline! The stoichiometric ratio for gasoline is approximately 14.7:1. That means 14.7 parts of air contains just enough oxygen to completely combine with the hydrogen and carbon contained in the gasoline. The most complete combustion of gasoline happens when the mixture is close to being stoichiometric. The stoichiometric ratio for butynol is 12:1. On the surface that would seem to be a disadvantage to have a stoichiometric ratio that is different from gasoline, however, it’s actually a good thing and here’s why.

Automotive gasoline engines are actually run with a mixture of close to 12:1 because a stoichiometric ratio burns too hot and causes pinging, high nitrous oxide emissions, and engine damage. This results in higher carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions from the engine, and those unburnt hydrocarbons only contribute to heat in the catalytic converter instead of engine power.

A stoichiometric ratio of butynol runs cooler because it is less volatile and has a higher octane rating, as a result butynol in a gasoline engine is ideal. Because it is at a stoichiometric ratio, hydrocarbon emissions are reduced to about 3% of what they are with gasoline and carbon monoxide is reduced to levels so low they can’t be measured by conventional exhaust sniffers. At the same time it produces more power and better fuel economy than gasoline even though it’s energy content per gallon is slightly less, because of that more complete combustion. It contains no sulfur and produces fewer sulfurous acids as a result. Because it burns cooler than gasoline, it also produces fewer nitrogen oxides and as a result fewer nitric acids. So this fuel is a big win for automotive applications, better mileage, greatly reduced emissions, and more power.

It used to be that there were only two ways to derive butynol, one was to derive it from oil, the other was to ferment it from plant sources similar to ethanol or methanol. Oil derived butynol defeats the purpose of finding a renewable alternative. Until recently, it was not efficient to ferment plants because the organism used would die at relatively low concentrations limiting yield. However, this has been overcome by a two step fermentation process and now it is possible to derive as much butynol from a bushel of corn as ethanol, but because the energy content of butynol is 135% that of ethanol, you get 35% more energy from that same bushel of corn (and preferably non-food feedstock) if you make butynol rather than ethanol. But there is an additional energy benefit, and that is that the 2nd stage of the two-stage fermentation process also yields hydrogen that can be used as process heat making the overall energy production even more efficient.

I did mention that there used to be only a couple of ways to make butynol, but there have been some recent developments that provide alternative means of producing butynol. Concentrated sunlight in combination with a catalyst is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Recently, it was found that concentrated sunlight and a catalyst can be used to split carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and oxygen. The carbon monoxide can then be combined with water vapor forming what is called process gas, and that process gas can then, by a variety of catalytic processes, be turned into a variety of liquid fuels including ethanol, butynol, high quality diesel, and various other substances. This can provide a market for carbon dioxide produced by existing power plants and in do doing displace carbon dioxide that would have been produced by burning oil derived transportation fuels, or it can use carbon dioxide sequestered directly from the atmosphere.

Another new method involves what has been described as a reverse fuel cell which takes water, carbon dioxide, and electricity as input, and produces butynol as a product. This is a way we can take electricity during times when a surplus exists and turn it directly into liquid fuels that can be used for transportation, including airplanes. I failed to mention earlier, butynol also works as a jet fuel and that actually was what lead to the development of this reverse fuel cell. My understanding is that Richard Branson had a desire to find a sustainable and environmentally friendly fuel for Virgin Atlantic Airlines, and butynol is one fuel being considered, presently biodiesel is also being used. He contracted with a company to develop this technology. Information is very hard to come buy so I have not been able to find out details with respect to the economics or viability of large scale production by this method.

But if it works, if the reverse fuel cell method works and is scalable and economical, it could do really good things because another means of generating electricity, wind turbines, has evolved into the least expensive method of generating electricity, less expensive even then coal, and much cleaner. But here is the rub, the wind blows when it wants to and that doesn’t always correspond with when you need power. As a result, if we wanted to provide all of our power needs via wind alone, it could be done but only by over building capacity by a factor of about four times and taking advantage of geographical diversity. If we have to overbuild capacity by four times it ruins the economics of wind power. But, if we can take that surplus capacity and use the electricity to make butynol with which we can meet our transportation energy needs, then the economics of wind power are improved considerably.

We need to not use food crops for energy production, and we need to not displace food production for energy production. But even if we avoid doing these things, water, climate change issues, and plant diseases such as this new wheat fungus, are still going to challenge our food production ability, and water is the biggest factor. We have no real shortage of water, what we have a shortage of is fresh water. We can desalinate water from the oceans, but that is an energy intensive process and we already have a shortage of energy. So clean renewable, sustainable, environmentally friendly energy production, is key to our future, and these shortages are here now and they will get worse, so this a problem that we need to address immediately, not forty years from now.

I write my congress critters, and I get back responses like, “I was a co-author of the … bill”, it contains incentives to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10% over the next 40 years, or some other such totally inadequate drivel. This isn’t what we need, what we need is to take immediate concrete rapid action to resolve our energy, food, water, and environmental issues now.

Energy is really at the center, with adequate inexpensive and environmentally friendly energy, we can have all the clean water we need. With adequate supplies of clean water, food production becomes a non-issue. And with adequate water, food, and energy, poverty can be eliminated. And if we eliminate poverty, we will eliminate population growth and reduce the pressure upon the Earth’s resources. And with all of those things addressed, we can make serious inroads into addressing disease and improving the human condition. With adequate energy, recycling virtually anything becomes possible, reducing the demand on the Earth’s resources while at the same time reducing the introduction of harmful substances into our environment.

Government should be passing legislation that puts the massive numbers of unemployed in our country to work building clean energy infrastructure. We should be investing in education to teach people what they need to know to build this infrastructure. We will need engineers, scientists, to design and improve new technologies.

But right now we need to invest heavily in clean technology we already have, wind power, geo-thermal, solar, tidal energy, ocean current energy, wave energy, ocean-thermal energy, sensible biofuels, etc. With solar we have many options beside photovoltiacs, we can build a device known as a solar chimney. A solar chimney is basically just a big brick chimney that gets heated by the sun, draws air up it and through a turbine generating electricity. One advantage of a solar chimney is thermal mass. Because the brick has substantial thermal mass, a solar chimney will continue to produce electricity during the night and for up to three days of overcast weather.

Another technology uses Fresnel lenses or mirrors to focus sunlight on an absorber, to boil water, and drive a conventional steam turbine. Although this tends to involve less solar mass than a solar chimney, there is almost a 90% correspondence between electricity demand and solar flux so even without energy storage, a very large percentage of our energy needs can be met this way.

Liquid fuels, gasoline and diesel, can be made from coal or natural gas by various processes. While I would like to see all of our energy needs met with completely sustainable and environmentally non-damaging energy resources, this can’t happen instantly, but one thing we can do is to displace electricity production by natural gas or coal with renewable resources, and then we can make transportation fuels from the displaced coal or natural gas. I envision this as an intermediary step intended to address serious short-term shortages. In the longer term we can replace petroleum, natural gas, or coal derived fuels used by the transportation sector with solar or surplus wind energy derived butynol, electrification, and if the Bussard polywell reactor works out, even hydrogen-boron fusion.

I am hopeful that the Bussard polywell reactor will be commercially successful and we can replace diesel with hydrogen-boron fusion in ships, trains, and large aircraft. The Navy is funding the Bussard reactor as a possible replacement for fission reactors used in ships and submarines. A bussard fusion reactor using hydrogen and boron as a fuel generates no radioactive waste and electricity can be generated directly through a reverse magnetoplasmadynamics process instead of having to use a thermal process resulting in almost double the efficiency and a smaller heat and acoustic signature. For now we must get started with technology we already have.

This shouldn’t come in the form of incentives designed to steer things over half a century, it should be a crash program that puts people back to work now, creating renewable energy infrastructure that we need now.

I included a link to a Wikipedia article on hydrogen-boron fusion only for the purpose of explaining the significance to those of you who may not be familiar with the concept of aneutronic fuels. However, the Wikipedia article is biased by the conventional idea of using a Tokamak reactor to achieve fusion through thermal acceleration of atomic nuclei. Such an approach is unlikely to be viable, but other methods, such as the Bussard reactor, which accelerates particles through an electrostatic potential well, have a much higher probability of succeeding. The author of the Wikipedia article appears to be unaware of alternative fusion approaches (as is the general public and our representatives that should be funding these alternative approaches strongly).

Global Warming – Is it natural or manmade? Yes.

There is still a debate with respect to what is causing global warming. Is it the result of man-made carbon dioxide being dumped into the atmosphere, or is it natural variations? The answer is yes. It is both.

Because it is both, the problem is far more pressing than if it were either one. Most of the publicity surrounding this issue takes one side or the other and then conveniently presents only evidence supporting their position. This only muddles the situation and leaves people with the feeling that real information isn’t available or that the problem is too complex to understand and therefore too complex to act on.

There are factors I am unaware of and some that I don’t fully understand, but I do understand more than what is generally being conveyed to the public, and I am completely convinced that there are both man-made and natural sources and that both are substantial.

On the natural side, people keep saying that the sun’s luminosity hasn’t changed significantly. This unfortunately is not accurate. If you look at only the light output in the visible spectrum, roughly 700nm red to 450 nm (violet), the output in this narrow spectral range is reasonably constant. However, if you look in the ultraviolet, the variably is considerable, and farther up the spectrum you look, the more significant is the variability.

During solar maximums, UV output is up considerably from times of solar minimums. This does impact our weather significantly. The sun has a 22 year magnetic cycle consisting of two cycles of build up of magnetic field, decline, reversal, buildup, and decline, so every 11 years there is a solar peak, and a solar minimum with the magnetic field being opposite of what it was previously.

But this cycle is itself irregular, there are longer term regular cycles upon which this cycle is superimposed that make some cycles more powerful than others, but there are also unexplained periods of exceptionally low and high activity.

During periods of high activity, Earth’s temperature increases, and during low activity, it decreases. Over the last 100 years, the overall trend has been an increase in solar activity temperature.

Contrary to popular belief and contrary to what we are told; solar flux and radio active decay within the Earth are not the only source of energy input. The Earth is also bathed in a constant bombardment of subatomic particles that we collectively refer to as cosmic rays. These rays consist of particles such as protons traveling at extremely high velocities, very close to the speed of light.

Distant cosmic events, matter being sucked into black holes, neutron stars colliding, ordinary stars being cannibalized by by a neutron star or black hole, these sorts of things generate cosmic rays. Cosmic rays affect our planets atmosphere in two ways, they can dump significant quantities of energy into our atmosphere and magnetosphere in short time frames, and they can affect cloud formation and precipitation which in turn affects the planets reflectivity as well as heat dissipation. We do not know why, but cosmic rays have been on the rise in recent years.

The heating of our planet by cosmic rays can be direct, as when particles collide with molecules in the atmosphere, and it can be indirect, increasing the natural flow of both ionospheric and telluric currents which then creates heat due to currents flowing through electrical resistance.

Most cosmic rays are intercepted by our planets magnetic field and then enter near the poles. However, our planets magnetic field has been declining over the past century (this is also part of a natural cycle) and as it declines, the point at which cosmic rays enter moves to lower latitudes. This affects the heat distribution as well as the weather. Where cosmic rays enter, those particles leaves ionized paths in their wake that serve as condensation points thus enhancing cloud formation at high altitudes.

Also on the rise is volcanic activity, particular under water volcanic activity. The volume of activity that exists is only recently being appreciated. The last global ocean survey counted more than 2 million undersea volcanoes. Granted, these aren’t all active, but it’s a number about 100x larger than what was previously believed to exist. The truth is that nobody really has an accurate assessment of just how much carbon dioxide volcanoes are contributing, but we know for sure it’s on the increase.

So, we’ve got solar activity that, although presently we’re in a solar minimum, is on the longer term on an increase. We have an unexplained increase in cosmic ray bombardment. We have a weakening of the Earth’s magnetic field. And we have an increase in volcanic activity. These all contribute to global warming and they are all completely out of our control.

Then we have the man-made side which is always oversimplified by the media as being solely a function of carbon dioxide production. Actually, it’s far more complex than that. Methane is several hundred times more potent than carbon dioxide gas, and until very recently it was on the rise. In the last few years, methane levels have leveled off and the thought is that methane has reached an equilibrium state where it is being broken down and oxidized into water and carbon dioxide in the upper atmosphere at a rate that matches the rate that it’s being generated. So that may suggest that greenhouse gases effect will not be rising as fast as it has been because methane is no longer rising. Water vapor is another potent greenhouse gas but it’s really a mixed bag, because while it prevents the escape of heat from the Earth, when it forms clouds, it also reflects heat and reduces heat input. Scientist do not have a firm understanding of whether the net effect is heating or cooling.

We also need to consider the effect that man has on the planets albedo, when we pave over a significant percentage of the planet with asphalt, build houses with dark roofs, we are affecting the planets reflectivity and causing more energy to be absorbed and less to be reflected back into space.

Then there is thermal pollution, we use nuclear plants as one means of making power, they’ve got those huge cooling towers dissipating waste heat. Typical thermal conversion efficiency is less than 40%, which means if you have a nuclear plant that is generating 800MW of electricity, it’s actually making 2 GW of thermal heat energy, of which 800MW is being turned into electricity and the remaining 1.2 GW is dissipated as heat. This is a non-trivial amount of heat, enough to heat a river used for cooling by several degrees. Collectively, all of these sources have some effect.

What can we do? The truth is that we can’t eliminate our warming of the planet entirely, we can only minimize it by the efficient production, use, and distribution of energy in the most environmentally friendly means possible.

We lose approximately 17 percent of the power we produce in transmission. If we converted all of the AC transmission lines that are 300km or longer to DC transmission, we’d be able to approximately double the transmission capacity, eliminate electromagnetic radiation from the power lines, reduce transmission losses to low single digits, eliminate cascading failures, eliminate sensitivity to space weather, and without changing the transmission lines or insulators, only changing the terminal equipment would give us these gains.

A new type of fusion reactor, known as a polywell or Bussard reactor after it’s inventor, may soon provide an alternative energy source that can generate electricity directly using a reverse magnetoplasmadynamics method of generation rather than a thermal cycle, and this may make efficiencies as high as 80% possible but we shouldn’t count our eggs before they’re hatched. While this technology is looking very promising, seven generations of reactors have been built and the last research reactor before a commercial power reactor, is currently being tested. But until it’s online producing power we can’t know that it will pan out so in the meantime we should continue to invest on renewable sources of energy such as thermal, solar, geothermal, etc, which add neither heat nor carbon dioxide to the environment.

Redesign

Hope I don’t offend anyone with the redesign but I’ve had about enough snow for the year so decided to make a change since I was in here removing old java script stuff that had been taken over by marketing pukes.

Redirect To Advertisement Site

We had a “Green Toolbox” on the sidebar which was a list of resources maintained by another site. It was a java script item and apparently that site is no longer and an advertising site took over the domain and setup an automatic redirect so anyone with that in their sidebar got redirected.

I apologize for this but had no way to know in advance that they’d do something flaky like that. It has been removed from the side bar.