Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Peak Oil: You Don't Know Jack!

"Jack" is a recently discovered undersea oil field in the Gulf of Mexico that may exceed 15 billion barrels of oil. Given that water covers 2/3 of Earth's surface, it is not unlikely that more oil reserves exist underwater than under dry land.
The mother lode of oil in the deepwater Gulf is so significant that Tahiti and other successful fields in this region are expected to soon produce enough crude to reverse the long-standing decline in US oil production of about 10 percent per year.

Even better, a recent discovery by Chevron has signaled that soon there may be vastly more oil gushing out of the ultradeep seabeds — more than even the optimists were predicting four years ago. In 2004, the company penetrated a 60 million-year-old geological stratum known as the "lower tertiary trend" containing a monster oil patch that holds between 3 billion and 15 billion barrels of crude. Dubbed Jack, the field lies beneath waters nearly twice as deep as those covering Tahiti, and many in the industry dismissed the discovery as too remote to exploit. But last September, Chevron used the Cajun Express to probe the Jack field, proving that petroleum could flow from the lower tertiary at hearty commercial rates — fast enough to bring billions of dollars of crude to market.

...Technological breakthroughs have, decade after decade, revived the perpetually doomed oil industry. "Predicting peak oil," Siegele tells me as we tour the drilling floor of the Cajun Express, "is almost like predicting peak technology" — an exercise, in other words, that to him seems inherently small-minded. Even absurd.
SourceBesides the "Jack" oilfield and other yet to be discovered Gulf fields, there are also many Arctic and Antarctic oil fields currently unexplored. And then, there is all of that oil shale and oil sands that Canada, the US, and other large countries are sitting on.
And don't get me started on all the coal reserves and uranium/thorium reserves spread out across the globe. And please--never! and I mean never!! get me started on all the resources in the solar system, should humans ever grow out of their prolonged, restless, and generally incompetent adolescence.

Peak Oil doesn't know Jack. Peak Oil will soon meet Jack and a lot of other energy resources that will be developed, sooner or later.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Peak Oil: Meet Microbial Petroleum Producers

Creating micro-organisms that can synthesise renewable hydrocarbons for fuels and feedstocks, is one aim of synthetic biology.
The process is the same as making cellulosic ethanol insofar as cellulosic feedstocks are converted into fermentable sugars, and those sugars are placed in a fermentation vat. The difference comes in the microbes doing the fermenting. With ethanol, it's generally some form of yeast. The researchers at LS9 have engineered their own microbes, lifting genes from other microbes and recombining them into an organism that does just what they want. In this way they can precisely tweak the characteristics of the resulting fuel.

Yeast fermentation produces ethanol, which mixes with water and subsequently has to be extracted via distillation. LS9's microbes produce -- via fatty acid metabolism, in a process I won't claim to understand -- hydrocarbons (the building blocks of petroleum). These hydrocarbons are immiscible, i.e., they don't mix with water. Instead, they float to the top of the vat, where they can essentially be skimmed off. That allows LS9 to skip the distillation process, which saves a whole boatload of energy. (That's where most of the claimed 65% energy savings comes from.)

David Berry, one of the brains behind LS9, has won the Young Innovator of the Year award from MIT's Tech Review.
Berry's goal was nothing less than "to develop a novel and far-reaching solution to the energy problem." In col­laboration with genomics researcher George Church of Harvard Medi­cal School and plant biologist Chris Somerville of Stanford University, Berry and his Flagship colleagues set out to do something that had never been attempted commercially: using the tools of synthetic biology to make microörganisms that produce something like petroleum. Berry assumed responsibility for proving that the infant company, dubbed LS9, could produce a biofuel that was renewable, better than corn-derived ethanol, and cost-­competitive with ­fossil-based fuels.

I understand that Chris Somerville -- a leading figure in the plant biology field -- is also at work on plants that are genetically engineered to produce biodegradable plastics. Now if they could just integrate that idea with these petroleum-producing microbes, we'd really have something to celebrate.

If synthetic biologists can create microbes that efficiently create "petroleum" in an industrial environment--out of renewable materials and skipping any energy-wasting distillation process--the economics of the future of energy might change a bit.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Oil Seeds: Jatropha

Jatropha is disease resistant, and grows on marginal soil. Cultivation of jatropha for biodiesel may have less impact on food costs than other oil seeds.
Almost overnight, the unloved Jatropha curcushas become an agricultural and economic celebrity, with the discovery that it may be the ideal biofuel crop, an alternative to fossil fuels for a world dangerously dependent on oil supplies and deeply alarmed by the effects of global warming.

The hardy jatropha, resilient to pests and resistant to drought, produces seeds with up to 40 per cent oil content. When the seeds are crushed, the resulting jatropha oil can be burnt in a standard diesel car, while the residue can also be processed into biomass to power electricity plants.

There is a substantial need for a renewable liquid fuel substitute for petro-diesel and gasoline. Using food oils for biodiesel would cause the cost of some foods to rise--much as the price of maize has risen due to corn ethanol for fuel.

Jatropha seems as good a crop for oil seed/biodiesel as any, for now. Eventually, genetic modification of plants may produce a much better oil seed crop.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Peak Oil: Meet Oil Seeds

Oil seeds are a renewable source of oils for industrial use, for chemical feedstocks, and for petroleum replacement in transportation fuels.
... an even greater potential for oilseed crops, according to John Dyer—who works at the agency's Southern Regional Research Center (SRRC) in New Orleans, La.—resides in their capacity to pump out unusual fatty acids that have valuable chemical, industrial and nutritional properties. Fish-oil-type fatty acids derived from plants, for instance, could benefit the heart, brain and eyes.

Dyer, a chemist, and Jay Shockey, a plant geneticist who also works at the SRRC, are getting inspiration from tung trees for how plants could be coaxed into churning out such impressive oils.

Tung trees, which used to be cultivated in great plantations along the U.S. Gulf Coast, produce eleostearic acid, an unusual fatty acid with applications ranging from furniture finish to computer chip production. The trees' major shortcomings? They're slow to grow and vulnerable to hurricanes.

Similar limitations apply to other currently grown oilseed crops. With traditional breeding alone, it's almost impossible to raise crops that will manufacture abundant amounts of unusual fatty acids.

That's why Dyer and Shockey are looking to engineer plants that will practically gush forth unique fatty acids, such as eleostearic acid. They recently discovered that a gene involved in the production of the important enzyme DGAT2—short for diacylglycerol acyltransferase type-2—may well be the "magic bullet" for boosting plants' oil-oozing abilities.

Genetic engineering research has focused mainly on medical applications. But modifying the genetic makeup of plants to create inexpensive substitutes for petroleum, and to create novel and unique products for human use, is inevitable.

The research described in the above article is rather tame and mundane, compared to what is possible for engineered plant life. But it's a start.

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