Sunday, August 27, 2006

How "Environmentalists" Could Achieve Respect

"Environmentalist" is a term often euphemistically substituted for "political activist." Someone with no practical skills and nothing to offer, in other words. Someone always looking for money to help promote a political agenda that has little chance, if any, of improving the world.

Environmentalists could change this general conception of their money-grubbing pencil-pushing polemics by actually creating something meaningful and good. Take the concept of a seascape, for example, and Seascape 1 in particular. This particular seascape is designed for self-sufficiency, sustainability, and extensive use of renewable energy technologies.

Wind turbines, hydro turbines and millions of square feet of solar cells will provide electrical energy for guests and businesses, onboard desalination stations will provide fresh water, and recycled wastewater will be used to irrigate landscaped areas and hydroponic crops for food production. Grassi expects that the fully sustainable environment he envisions will serve as a model for future generations of developers.

If only "environmentalists" could design something useful and practical, and perhaps even build it. That would really show the rest of us what they were made of. It would force us to respect them, rather than to view them with contempt.

It is unlikely for politically oriented "environmentalists" to ever do more than to attack their political enemies, and eternally work toward consolidating political power for the same corrupt reasons as all politicians. We can still always hope, however. At least on the rare occasion that we can spare to actually think about them.

Update: This article displays some of the unsavory tactics that "environmentalists" often use to demonize those with whom they disagree.

....``This is the criminalization of opposition to global warming," says Lindzen, who adds he has never communicated with the auto companies involved in the lawsuit. Of course Lindzen isn't a fake scientist, he's an inconvenient scientist. No wonder you're not supposed to listen to him.

Read more about the dirty laundry of partisan "environmentalists: at the source.

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Friday, August 04, 2006

Geothermal Energy--Enough for the Next 250,000 Years

There are 100 million exojoules (quads) of energy available from geothermal energy in the earth. The total human energy use per year is a mere 400 exojoules per year. At that rate, it would take 250,000 years for humans to use all the energy available from the earth's stored heat.

This Technology Review interview with MIT Chemical Engineer Jefferson Tester sheds a great deal of light on this vastly under-utilised energy technology:

Technology Review: How much geothermal energy could be harvested?

Jefferson Tester: The figure for the whole world is on the order of 100 million exojoules or quads [a quad is one quadrillion BTUs]. This is the part that would be useable. We now use worldwide just over 400 exojoules per year. So you do the math, and you know you've got a very big source of energy.

How much of that massive resource base could we usefully extract? Imagine that only a fraction of a percent comes out. It's still big. A tenth of a percent is 100,000 quads. You have access to a tremendous amount of stored energy. And assessment studies have shown that this is thousands of times in excess of the amount of energy we consume per-year in the country. The trick is to get it out of the ground economically and efficiently and to do it in an environmentally sustainable manner. That's what a lot of the field efforts have focused on.

TR: We do use some geothermal today, don't we?

JT: In some cases nature has provided a means for extracting stored thermal energy. We have many good examples. The Geysers field in California is the largest geothermal field in the world -- it's been in production for over 40 years and produces high-quality steam that can readily be converted into electric power, and it's one of the rarities nature-wise in terms of what we have worldwide. In the mineral vernacular they would be regarded as sort of high-grade gold mines.

....TR: How do you plan to harvest stored heat from more areas?

JT: What we're trying to do is emulate what nature has provided in these high-grade systems. When we go very deep, [rocks] are crystalline. They're very impermeable. They aren't heat exchangers like we really need. We'd like to create porosity and permeability. [The rock] actually is filled with small fractures, so what you're trying to do is find those weak zones and reopen them. We need to engineer good connectivity between an injection set of wells and a production set of wells, and sweep fluid, in this case, water, over that rock surface so that we extract the thermal energy and bring it up another well.

TR: What technology do you need to open up the rock and harvest the heat?

JT: All the technology that goes into drilling and completing oil and gas production systems, [such as] stimulation of wells, hydraulic fracturing, deep-well completion, and multiple horizontal laterals, could in principle be extended to deep heat mining. Hydraulic methods have been the ones that hold the most promise, where you go into the system and you pressurize the rock -- just water pressure. If you go higher than the confinement stress, you will reopen the small fractures. We're just talking about using a few thousand pounds per square inch pressure -- it's surprising how easy this is to do. This is a technique that's used almost every single day to stimulate oil and gas reservoirs.

....TR: You're working on new drilling technology. How does this fit in?

JT: We feel that as part of a long-term view of the possibility of universal heat mining, we should also be thinking about revolutionary methods for cutting through rock and completing wells. Most of the drilling that's done today is made by crushing and grinding our way using very, very hard materials to crush through and grind through minerals in the rock. And it's been very successful. It's evolved tremendously over the past century, and we can do it, certainly, routinely, to 10 kilometers. But it costs a lot. So we're looking for a fundamental way to change the technology that would change the cost-depth relationship, and allow us to drill deeper in a much more cost-effective manner. It would open up the accessibility tremendously.

TR: What are the advantages compared with other renewable sources of energy?

JT: Geothermal has a couple of distinct differences. One, it is very scalable in baseload. Our coal-fired plants produce electricity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The nuclear power plants are the same way. Geothermal can meet that, without any need for auxiliary storage or a backup system. Solar would require some sort of storage if you wanted to run it when the sun's not out. And wind can't provide it without any backup at 100 percent reliability, because the typical availability factor of a wind system is about 30 percent or so, whereas the typical availability factor of a geothermal system is about 90 percent or better.

....TR: How fast do you think artificial geothermal systems can be developed?

JT: With sufficient financing and a well-characterized field, you can go into existing areas right now and build a plant, getting it operational within a few years. But to get universal heat mining is going to take an investment which won't be quite that quick. It might take 10 or 15 years of investment to get to the point where you have confidence that you can do this in virtually any site that you can go to. Once it gets in place, though, it can be replicated. I think it's very reproducible and expandable. That's the great hope at least.

Between solar power and geothermal power, you would think there would be no need to burn oil, coal, or gas. Unfortunately, it takes time to develop alternative technologies. But knowing they are available, and on a scale that humans will never exhaust, should give forward thinking persons something to work on. Working productively is a good alternative to wetting your pants over ever-present fears of doom.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Oil from Manure

Agricultural researchers are determined to help solve the energy shortages the industrial world is experiencing. Previously I posted on University of Illinois Urb/Champ researchers who developed a process to produce crude oil from pig manure. Now researchers from Iowa State University are mixing corn stalks and cow manure to produce oil and charcoal.

The researchers are working to take wastes from Iowa farms -- manure and corn stalks -- and turn them into a bio-oil that could be used for boiler fuel and perhaps transportation fuel.

"The way I see manure, it's not waste anymore," Sadaka said. "It is bio-oil."

But it takes a few steps to make that transformation.

First, the manure needs to be dried so it can be burned. Sadaka's idea for low-cost and low-odor drying is to mix the manure with corn stalks, put the mix in a big drum, use a small blower to keep the air circulating and use an auger to turn the mixture once a day. Within about five days, bacteria and fungi working to decompose the mix have naturally raised the temperature to about 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Within another 20 days or so the moisture content is down from 60 percent to about 20 percent. Sadaka calls the process bio-drying.

That makes it possible to move to the next step: rapidly heating the mixture in a bubbling, fluidized bed reactor that has no oxygen. It's a process called fast pyrolysis. The process thermochemically breaks the molecular bonds in the mixture. It produces charcoal that can be used to enrich soil. And it produces vapors that are condensed to a thick, dark bio-oil.

Preliminary tests indicate every kilogram of dried mixture produces .2 to .5 kilograms of bio-oil depending on the operating conditions.

Sadaka said the energy content of dry manure is 12 to 18 gigajoules per ton. Canada's Office of Energy Efficiency says one gigajoule of electricity will keep a 60-watt bulb continuously burning for six months. Sadaka figures if half the animal manure in the country were processed into bio-oil, that would produce the equivalent of 45 million tons of oil.

Sadaka is experimenting with the process in 900-liter drums at the Iowa Energy Center's Biomass Energy Conversion Center in Nevada. So far, he has dried a mixture of cow manure and corn stalks. Next he'll test the process with poultry manure. And then he'll try pig manure.

This process is similar to other processes used to make oil from poultry process waste. Here is more information on the process from the US Government renewable energy program.

These processes are attempts to utilise more of the byproducts of agriculture in producing renewable energy. Growing animals for food is inherently wasteful when viewed in perspective, but there are ways of making it more efficient than it is. Here is a fine overview from Mechanical Engineering Magazine, discussing this family of technologies and their application to farm waste.

Besides thermolyis and thermal depolymerisation to produce oil, manure can produce methane to substitute for natural gas. Corn stubble and rice, wheat, barley etc. straw can be broken down to sugars and fermented to make ethanol or butanol, and the methane from manure used as fuel to distill the resulting "beer" to pure ethanol.

Researchers in agricultural sciences simply do not want to be left out of the action, when it comes to solving the renewable energy problem. There seems to be enough glory to go around, even for manure research.

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