Friday, May 26, 2006

Suffering Peak Oil Fatigue? Prepare for a New Oil Glut!

Just when you thought it was safe to invest in alternative energy, someone like Len LeShack comes along and turns the world of oil topsy turvy all over again.

"There are still hundreds of reservoirs of conventional oil to be found in Alberta, and thousands to be found in the United States, but they are unlikely to be found with conventional exploration methods," says LeSchack.

The president of the privately owned Hectori Inc. of Calgary observes from his experiences.

"The industry is still basically using exploration techniques I learned at university in the 1950s. We geologists worked a lot on intuition, and then used seismic to back it up. Seismic is fine, but seismic can only find what seismic can find."

And LeShack knows exactly how to find these new oil reservoirs. In fact, he wrote the book on the topic with Dietmar Schumacher. Articles discussing some of these new exploration techniques can be found here, here, and here.

This is not far-fetched speculation, like the ideas of Thomas Gold probably are. This is hard headed innovative thinking in oil exploration. This is the last sort of thing that peak oil belivers want to hear about right now.

Peakers can only hope that Al Gore is elected US President soon, because Mr. Gore would certainly squelch these hopeful ideas quickly and thoroughly. The illusion of peak oil can be maintained so long as the people in control put strict limits on oil exploration and development. In the US, that is done through environmental restrictions. In Russia and other third world countries, it is done out of laziness, decadence, and the lack of desire to do anything that may drive oil prices down and stimulate other countries to find oil within their own borders.

So, is it really peak oil time? Certainly, as long as you can keep the lid on.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

More on Cellulosic Ethanol and Switchgrass

Back in this posting, I discussed the scientific findings that cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass and other cellulose sources could produce as much as 8X the amount of energy utilised in their production. Since then, Carnegie Mellon University has studied the issue, and researchers there now say that switchgrass ethanol could substantially relax present energy bottlenecks.

"Our report indicates the time is right for America to begin a transition to ethanol derived from switchgrass," said Scott Matthews, an assistant professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. A 25 percent hike in gas prices at the pump since December adds to the researchers' call for more ethanol derived from switchgrass, a perennial tall grass used as forage for livestock. Gasoline prices in the U.S. are approaching an average of $3 a gallon. The Carnegie Mellon findings were published in the May 1 issue of the American Chemical Society's Journal "Environmental Science and Technology."

Matthews, along with W. Michael Griffin, executive director of the Green Design Institute at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business, and William R. Morrow, a researcher in the university's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said using switchgrass as a supplement to corn to make ethanol would help ensure the availability of large volumes of inexpensive ethanol to fuel distributors and consumers.

"We need to be thinking about how we can make and deliver ethanol once our corn and land resources are maxed out. Switchgrass can be that next step," Griffin said.

The Carnegie Mellon report also found that ethanol derived from the dry, brown switchgrass, a cellulosic ethanol, could be made in sufficient quantities to deliver 16 percent ethanol fuel to all consumers in the U.S. Researchers said this would likely lead to significant decreases and stability in the price of gasoline.

"It's a renewable resource," Griffin said. "Rather than taking a depletable resource from the ground, switchgrass can be grown again and again."

In a recent address, President George W. Bush made a plea for increased focus on renewable energy, mentioning switchgrass by name.

Scientists have long known how to use enzymes and microorganisms to mine the carbon from carbohydrates to make industrial products. But for decades the technology didn't go very far commercially because fossil fuel – hydrocarbon – was a far cheaper carbon source.

Now that oil prices have climbed roughly 35 percent over the past year, cellulosic fermentation technology is becoming economical.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization said last week that biofuels may supply 25 percent of the world's energy needs in 15 to 20 years.

"This shift from using hydrocarbons to carbohydrates could revolutionize many industries, including the nation's huge agricultural sector," Griffin said.
Story source.

Personally, I prefer butanol over ethanol as a renewable substitute for gasoline. Most engineers would agree that the burning qualities of butanol are far closer to gasoline than those of ethanol. Nevertheless, the energy industry is driven by economics of supply and demand, and until better ways of fermenting butanol from cellulose are devised, it looks like ethanol (and perhaps methanol) will be the short to medium term winners in the renewable liquid fuel markets. Biodiesel is the dark horse candidate that might yet break from the pack.

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Monday, May 08, 2006

Progress in Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Hydrogen gas combines well with oxygen gas inside hydrogen fuel cells for efficient electricity generation. Unfortunately, hydrogen gas is unwieldy to carry in an automobile, and not very energy dense. Liquid fuels are much better fuel for transportation applications, than hydrogen gas. Using methanol or ethanol might be ideal if the proper catalysts could be found.

Scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Idaho have developed a highly efficient catalyst of multi-walled carbon nanotubes decorated with tiny particles of a platinum and ruthenium composite. Preparation is a key factor in determining the activity of a catalyst.

The researchers selected a process using supercritical carbon dioxide, which has the properties of a gas and a liquid. The supercritical fluid technology may result in products and processes that are cleaner, less expensive and of higher quality than those produced using conventional solvents.

The technology also is easily manipulated to allow a fine degree of control and is easily separated from the catalyst. Moreover, it is nontoxic, which could improve worker safety and reduce environmental impacts.

PNNL scientist Yuehe Lin will discuss “Pt and Pt-Ru/Carbon Nanotube Nanocomposites Synthesized in Supercritical Fluid as Electrocatalysts for Low-Temperature Fuel Cells” at NSTI Nanotechnology Conference, May 7-11, Boston.

Very clever to decorate carbon nanotubes with nano-particles of platinum and ruthenium. An excellent way to maximise surface area, what?

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