Wednesday, February 29, 2012

An Early Start to the Keystone XL Pipeline, in Hopes of an Obama Defeat

Canadian company Transcanada Corp. has announced that it will begin early construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline -- the leg from Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico. This section of pipeline is the most critical leg in terms of global oil markets, since it will help to reduce the gap between the WTI oil price and the Brent price.
Image Credit: The Atlantic
Unlike the northern portion of the pipeline, the lower section won't require approval from the State Department, since it doesn't cross any international borders. So it doesn't appear there's much environmentalists can do to halt it.

Although Transcanada -- not to mention the Canadian government -- would surely love to see the entire, 1,600-mile Keystone XL pipeline built out eventually, constructing its southern link is by far the most pressing piece of business for oil companies. In the long term, Canada wants to make sure there's a reliable way to ship its crude oil as production in Alberta's tar sands ramps up. For now, it's oil companies would be happy if just a bit more of their product could make it to a refinery. During the past few years, the surge of both Canadian and U.S. oil production has overwhelmed the pipelines leading from Cushing to the Gulf, which has created a giant glut oil sitting in the heart of the country. As a result, prices have fallen well below oil drilled elsewhere in the world. That's been a boon for nearby refineries and motorists in state like Colorado. But it's an obviously frustrating situation for the drillers.

Creating a new pipeline from Canada to Oklahoma obviously won't alleviate that backup. But when the southern portion of Keystone XL is finished in 2013, it's expected to move about 700,000 barrels a day, which would go a long way towards a solution.... _Atlantic
Certainly the defeat of US president Obama in the ballot box in November would be a boost for energy producers across North America -- from oil to gas to nuclear to coal -- and a huge boost for the US private sector economy.

Another boost for world oil markets, would be the removal of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, and a return to a more rational control of Venezuelan oil. Oil production in Venezuela has fallen under the bulbous bombast, and the oil sector is by no means the limit to Chavez' incompetence. He is much like the US' Obama in that regard.
Since Chavez came to power in 1999, he has wasted oil revenue buying votes and supporting countries such as Syria and Cuba. His decision to take 300 private companies into public ownership - many without compensation - has scared investors away.

The oil industry has been hit hard by Chavez’s policies. Not only did he reverse plans to let the private sector have a greater role, he raised production taxes and fired a large number of oil workers for political reasons – starving the state oil company of talent.

The 'Chavez effect' on oil production is easy to demonstrate: in 1998, when the price of crude oil hit a low of under $11 a barrel, Venezuela produced 3,167,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Twelve years later, despite record prices, output was only 2,090,000 barrels a day – nearly a third lower. _Moneyweek
We can all hope for the removal of both Obama and Chavez in 2012, for the sake of the world economy and world energy supplies.

One of the most serious oversights of peak oil lifers, is their lack of awareness that several nations have the capacity to increase oil production by at least 1 million bpd over current production levels, if they are willing to divert funds from political cronies and social welfare programs for purposes of upgrading and maintaining oil production equipment. Venezuela is merely one of these countries. I will leave it as an exercise for you to name at least two others which fall in this category. It isn't hard to do.

Here is an Australian look at the death of peak oil

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Small Modular Reactors: Slugging it Out

Small modular nuclear fission reactors (SMRs) are being developed by a number of companies in the US and elsewhere. Several types of SMRs are being designed and developed, including light water reactors, high temperature gas-cooled reactors, LFTRs, and fast neutron reactors.
To help spur SMR development, DOE in January issued a draft funding opportunity for grants of $452 million over five years to provide licensing and engineering support for up to two SMR designs. Babcock & Wilcox, Nu-Scale and Westinghouse all have said they will apply for funding through the program. Westinghouse, which designed the AP1000 that will be used at Southern Co.'s Vogtle plant in Georgia, said it would apply with a consortium of utilities for funding for its small pressurized-water reactor that has a capacity of 200 MW. _Engineering News Record
They will be built in factories under strict quality-control conditions, and will come in sizes anywhere from 25 MW up to 250 MW, allowing versatile scaling of power plant facilities. Perhaps most importantly, they will allow "energy parks" to be developed in a scaled fashion, in accordance with demand and the economic situation.

Dan Yurman points out that all of this is just "pie in the sky" unless SMR manufacturers can prove that they can actually build the things. And building SMRs -- particularly the first ones -- is going to be very expensive.
This is where the Savannah River Site (SRS), a Department of Energy site, comes in. Tom Sanders, Associate Laboratory Director for SRS, told FCW he is developing the capability at SRS to host first-of-a-kind commercial development of SMRs of all types for power generation and process heat applications. He welcomes both LWR and fast reactor developers.

Sanders touts the advantages of SRS for SMRs and some of the firms working on them are listening. For instance, Sanders told FWW, SRS has access to many types of nuclear fuel include spent fuel. It has good infrastructure, potential customers for electric power and process heat, and most importantly, a supportive community. _Dan Yurman
The Savannah River DOE facility may well be of assistance in the development of SMRs. But things are likely to proceed much more slowly than most people would like.

In other SMR news, the involvement of construction & maintenance giant Fluor Corp. in the development of SMRs suggests the depth of concern within the US industrial sector over the future of reliable energy supplies for the nation's industry.

More, France and Russia are at the forefront of SMR development, and Argentina is also making an effort to develop a workable SMR design. It is also likely that China will turn to SMRs for both electrical generation and process heat, as the Middle Kingdom grows and improves its nuclear industry capability. The UK may also help in the early stages of SMR development, by assisting the development of early PRISM reactors.

Getting past the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission's design licensing hurdle will cost hundreds of millions of dollars for each entry in the SMR race. That will require deep pockets, and a huge staff to interface with NRC bureaucrats. Clearly the US government -- for all its lip service to the future of the US economy -- is not in a tremendous hurry to help develop this revolutionary technology.

It is going to be a long uphill battle.

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Cold Fusion LENR Update

While there has been no apparent earth-shaking movement on the LENR front, David Hambling offers a recent LENR update in Wired.co.uk:
Nasa
Nasa has started giving very mixed signals on cold fusion. After years of silence on the issue, a piece appeared on its website stating that LENR tests carried out at Nasa's Glenn Research Centre "consistently show evidence of anomalous heat," indicating that cold fusion was taking place. There is also a link to a paper given at an LENR Workshop held at Glenn in September 2011. However, when questioned, a Nasa spokesman stated out that there was no Nasa cold fusion project, and no budget for it. The work appears to be carried out on the side by interested Nasa scientists...

Cern
...Cern is holding a colloquium on LENR, scheduled for 22 March. This will be available live via webcast, and will be given by Francesco Celani from the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics...

MIT
MIT, which played a key role in discrediting the original cold fusion studies in 1989, might also be shifting its position a little. This January for the first time there was a short course called "Cold Fusion 101." This was taught by Peter Hagelstein, who has been working on LENR for many years. According to a report in Cold Fusion Times, the course included a working demonstration of LENR showing measurable excess of heat....

Darpa
Darpa, the Pentagon's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, has been quietly pursuing LENR for some years. Its budget plans for next year, released earlier this month, listed some significant achievements: "Continued quantification of material parameters that control degree of increase in excess heat generation and life expectancy of power cells in collaboration with the Italian Department of Energy. Established ability to extend active heat generation time from minutes to 2.5 days for pressure-activated power cells."

However, when contacted Darpa were unable to comment on this work....

Andrea Rossi
In the meantime, Andrea Rossi has been playing the tightrope walker, always appearing to be a whisker from tumbling into the abyss. The University of Bologna terminated an agreement to explore the E-Cat after he failed to make a progress payment; but a later statement indicated it was still keen to work with him....

Defkalion Green
While Rossi has declined to give any further public or scientific demonstrations, saying that he wants to leave it to the market, his rival Defkalion Green technologies has seemingly taken a much bolder approach. It has invited independent testers to carry out trials on its Hyperion LENR reactor.

We know that seven independent test groups will be involved, but there things get a bit murky. Non-disclosure agreements are in place, and it is not certain what information will be released or when: if the Very Big Oil Corporation finds the Hyperion works, it might prefer to talk to Defkalion itself rather than publicising it....

_Wired.co.uk
Meanwhile, a wide range of scientific evidence continues to demonstrate the apparent production of excess heat in a variety of LENR experimental labs around the globe.

The problem that LENR poses for mainstream science via ecatnews

More: Andrea Rossi was recently interviewed by EcatWorld:
Design and testing of the domestic E-Cat is now complete, and the focus is now on the robotized production line in the US factory. So far, Rossi said they have not come up against any obstacles, and work is on schedule. Rossi hopes to start selling products this winter (when it is cold in the Northern Hemisphere), but allows that it is possible that delays could push that back to 16-18 months from now. _Ecatworld_via_NBF
h/t Brian Wang

It is not clear that LENR heat plants will ever be commercially viable. One is not reassured by all the smoke that Mr. Rossi continues to blow, and yet Rossi is not the only one making claims for the future of the technology. Stay tuned.

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A "Nation-Sized Storage Battery" and the Wind Power Delusion

In "How Big a Battery Would it Take to Power the USA?" a recent Scientific American article asks whether the US is ready to be powered by wind and solar. Wind and solar are intermittent energy sources, inherently unreliable.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, when intermittent sources such as solar or wind reach about 20 percent of a region’s total energy production, balancing supply and demand becomes extremely challenging: rolling blackouts can sometimes become inevitable. The same problem exists elsewhere, notably in Germany, where a vast photovoltaic capacity has sprung up thanks to generous subsidies.

Burton Richter, a physics Nobel laureate who was on a recent panel that studied California's power supply situation, told The New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin that because of intermittency, utilities would need to keep fossil fuel–burning plants as a backup that can quickly ramp up generation as need be. This large-scale load following, as it is called, "can only be done with natural gas," Richter told Revkin. _SciAm
And what if the wind stops blowing for several days in a row? The author speculates on the possibilities of using a giant, nation-sized storage battery to power the entire US national grid. Unfortunately, he does not quantify the speculations, but he does help fuel the undying wind and solar fantasy, if the comments are any judge.

Fortunately, UCSD physicist Tom Murphy has looked at this question quantitatively in "A Nation-Sized Battery."
...solar and wind suffer a serious problem in that they are not always available. There are windless days, there are sunless nights, and worst of all, there are windless nights. Obviously, this calls for energy storage, allowing us to collect the energy when we can, and use it when we want.

... We’re not a nation tolerant of power outages. Those big refrigerators can spoil a lot of food when the electricity drops away. A rule of thumb for remote solar installations is that you should design your storage to last for a minimum of three days with no energy input. Even then, sometimes you will “go dark” in the worst storm of the winter.This does not mean literally three days of total deprivation, but could be four consecutive days at 25% average input, so that you only haul in one day’s worth over a four day period, leaving yourself short by three.

So let’s buy ourselves security and design a battery that can last a week without any new inputs (as before, could be 8 days at 12.5% average input, or 10 days at 30% input). This may be able to manage the worst-case “perfect” storm of persistent clouds in the desert Southwest plus weak wind in the Plains.

Let’s also plan ahead and have all of our country’s energy needs met by this system: transportation, heating, industry, etc. The rate at which we currently use energy in all forms in the U.S. is 3 TW. If we transition everything to electricity, we can get by with 2 TW, assuming no growth in demand.

...Running a 2 TW electrified country for 7 days requires 336 billion kWh of storage. We could also use nuclear power as a baseload to offset a significant portion of the need for storage—perhaps chopping the need in two. This post deals with the narrower topic of what it would take to implement a full-scale renewable-energy battery. Scale the result as you see fit.

...Large lead-acid batteries occupy a volume of 0.013 cubic meters (13 liters) per kWh of storage, weigh 25 kg/kWh (55 lb/kWh), and contain about 15 kg of lead per kWh of storage.

How do we put this into more familiar terms? A 12 V battery rated at 200 A-h (amp-hours) of charge capacity stores 2400 W-h (watt-hours: just multiply voltage and charge capacity), or 2.4 kWh. 200 A-h means that the battery could discharge a 10 amp current (120 watts) for 20 hours, or a one amp current (12 watts) for 200 hours—though in actual practice the capacity is lower at higher currents.

I can’t resist the temptation to ask: what is the minimum amount of lead that is theoretically needed to build the battery? The chemical reaction for a lead-acid battery is such that each interaction involving the transformation of one lead atom to PbSO4 liberates one electron at a 2.1-volt potential. This electron then is bestowed 2.1 electron-volts (eV) of energy, amounting to 3.4×10−19 J (see page on energy relations). One kilowatt-hour is 3.6 million Joules (1000 W times 3600 seconds), so that it takes 1025 lead atoms (where every one participates). If you remember that Avogadro’s number is 6×1023, we need about 20 moles of lead atoms. At 207 g/mol, this comes out to about 4 kg per kWh of energy, which is a factor of four less than the realized value above.

...Putting the pieces together, our national battery occupies a volume of 4.4 billion cubic meters, equivalent to a cube 1.6 km (one mile) on a side. The size in itself is not a problem: we’d naturally break up the battery and distribute it around the country. This battery would demand 5 trillion kg (5 billion tons) of lead.

...A USGS report from 2011 reports 80 million tons (Mt) of lead in known reserves worldwide, with 7 Mt in the U.S. A note in the report indicates that the recent demonstration of lead associated with zinc, silver, and copper deposits places the estimated (undiscovered) lead resources of the world at 1.5 billion tons. That’s still not enough to build the battery for the U.S. alone. _Tom Murphy
So we are confronted with "the limits to lead." Not only is such a battery unaffordable, but it is unobtainable. Trying to use any other technology in place of the old standby, lead acid, would make the impossibility of a national battery even worse.

Dreams are wonderful things. But they should not distract us from the things that need to be done. Lefty Luddite dieoff.orgy greens have taken over the governments of much of Europe, North America, and Oceania. Their delusions -- when put into law -- threaten to make it impossible for their societies to achieve an abundant future.

What the residents of those nations choose to do when their power cliques are operating with a destructive and delusional mindset, is up to them.

More: The German government's decision to precipitously close all nuclear power plants, and to rely upon unreliable big wind and big solar for industry-critical power, is creating an economic disaster. More on dealing with intermittency:
The industry is concerned that it isn't clear how the government intends to guarantee the power supply in the future. Pumped-storage hydroelectricity plants would have to be built to store energy for periods when there is little wind or solar energy. But hardly any new facilities are currently in the works. Billions would also have to be invested in reliable power grids so that wind-generated electricity can be transported from the coast to the industrial Ruhr region and to the southern states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg. But national and state politicians are still fighting over where the lines should be installed and whether it will be necessary to bury all cables underground. Finally, additional natural gas-fired power plants are urgently needed. Not surprising, however, very few companies are prepared to invest in facilities that may or may not be profitable, depending on which way the political winds happen to be blowing.

...The energy supply is now "the top risk for Germany as a location for business," says Hans Heinrich Driftmann, president of the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK). "One has to be concerned in Germany about the cost of electricity," warns European Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger. And Bernd Kalwa, a member of the general works council at ThyssenKrupp, says heatedly: "Some 5,000 jobs are in jeopardy within our company alone, because an irresponsible energy policy is being pursued in Düsseldorf and Berlin." _Spiegel

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A Word about Oil Prices

There is a great deal of discussion about why global oil markets are engaged in yet another price feeding frenzy. Some claim it is simply supply and demand. Others point out that both "supply" and "demand" can be manipulated in many ways. Others point to international tensions in the middle east, particularly Iran. Yet others point to Wall Street and blame the bankers. And not just a few in the US are pointing fingers at Barack Obama's broad agenda of energy starvation as being a significant factor in price increases. But where does the truth "lie?"
A speculator purchasing vast futures at higher than the current market price can cause oil producers to horde their commodity in the hopes they'll be able to sell it later on at the future price. This drives prices up in reality -- both future and present prices -- due to the decreased amount of oil currently available on the market.

Investment firms that can influence the oil futures market stand to make a lot; oil companies that both produce the commodity and drive prices up of their product up through oil futures derivatives stand to make even more. Investigations into the unregulated oil futures exchanges turned up major financial institutions like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. But it also revealed energy producers like Vitol, a Swiss company that owned 11 percent of the oil futures contracts on the New York Mercantile Exchange alone [source: Washington Post].

As a result of speculation among these and other major players, an estimated 60 percent of the price of oil per barrel was added; a $100 barrel of oil, in reality, should cost $40 [source: Engdahl]. And despite having an agency created to prevent just such speculative price inflation, by the time oil prices skyrocketed, the government had made a paper tiger out of it. _HSW: Oil Speculation and Oil Prices
Inflation Adjusted Crude Oil Prices

As you can see from recent history, oil price shocks are nothing new to global markets. In fact, as you can see from the chart above, oil prices are not yet back to last April's (2011) highs -- the most recent price scare.

What about oil futures and oil prices? Many people suggest that if oil futures speculators do not take delivery of oil contracts, that they cannot influence the real price of oil. But that is not necessarily the case:
A speculator betting on a single futures contract will have no effect on the market. A speculator with a sizable amount of capital to put to work however, can purchase a stake that is sizable enough to sway the market, and is considered the major factor in how oil futures raise prices.

As speculators purchase on rumor rather than fact, a speculator purchasing a large amount of futures at a price that is higher than the market value of oil currently can lead to the hoarding of the commodity by producers in the hopes that the commodity can be sold for a higher price in the future.

As the supply of oil is reduced by these actions on the part of the producer, this leads to a realized increase in the price of the commodity both in the present as well as the future. An investment firm as well as oil producers stand to make a huge profit, as an estimated 60% of oil’s per barrel price is the result of speculation on the part of investment firms and other major players. _HowtoTradeStocks
Large scale, coordinated oil speculation would appear to be one way in which "oil demand" can be manipulated so as to drive up prices. There are several other ways in which this can be done, and we will look at some of those in later postings.

Those who think that oil speculators do not actually take delivery of oil may be in for a bit of a shock to discover that speculators have periodically stockpiled oil -- then strategically released stockpiles -- for some time.
The oil-storage trade is a trading strategy where oil tank owners and companies that lease storage buy oil for immediate delivery and hold it in their storage tanks, then sell contracts for future delivery at a higher price. When delivery dates approach, they close out existing contracts and sell new ones for future delivery of the same oil. The oil never moves out of storage. Trading in this fashion is only successful if the forward market is in "contango", that is if the price of oil in the future also known as forward prices are higher than current prices or spot prices. Storing oil became big business in 2008 and 2009,[1] with many participants—including Wall Street giants, such as Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, or Citicorp—turning sizeable profits simply by sitting on tanks of oil.[2]

It has been estimated that one in twelve of the largest oil tankers are being used for the storage, rather than transportation of oil,[3] and that if lined up end to end, the tankers would stretch out for 26 miles. _Wikipedia
The actual proportion of tankers and oil depots used for speculative purposes is likely to fluctuate over time, according to prices and price-manipulating opportunities.

There is a great deal riding on oil prices. Hedge funds, pension funds, university endowments, foundations, big money NGOs, and more, are betting on oil prices going higher. The risk involved is significant, but with the deteriorating value of the dollar and the general stagnation in global economies, opportunities for significant returns on investment seem to be few and far between, the past few years.

While many analysts are scratching their heads as to how oil prices could increase in the absence of any clear increase in natural (as opposed to artificial) demand, Al Fin energy analysts believe that several concurrent factors are in play:

  1. Russia is far more than a bystander in the current price runup More here

    International tensions tend to create a "defensive demand," a type of artificial demand which involves stockpiling oil in anticipation of future reductions in supply. Russia is best situated of all nations to both ramp up international tensions -- either directly or via proxies -- then to profit in several ways from a runup in energy prices.
  2. OPEC has an interest in driving up the global price of oil as high as can be sustained by the markets.
  3. National oil companies in many oil-producing countries neglect their oil production equipment and their oil fields, leading to artificial reduction in production and supply due to Oblomovism.
  4. Official policies of "energy starvation" on the part of the US Obama administration and other western nations, leads to artificial reduction of supplies.
  5. The rapid buildup of the "infrastructure to nowhere" better known as the "Great China Bubble" has led to an artificial demand surge. The Chinese government appears to be engaged in "doubling down" on this policy, despite early warning signs of impending turbulence.
  6. The progressive decline in the value of the dollar creates an inexorably upward trend in oil pricing.
There are many more factors involved, of course. But it is enough to understand that the causes of the current oil price runup are many and varied.

What are the counter-vailing forces, seeking to drive oil prices downward again? The most significant force in the short-term is the desire of speculators to take profits. Once investors decide the house of cards is due for yet another inevitable collapse, the rats will get out while the getting is good.

In the intermediate term, demand destruction eventually sets in -- even in emerging nations, BRICs, and third world nations. But demand destruction in the advanced worlds of the North America and Europe never truly went away after the price runup of 2007-2008. And such demand destruction in North America and Europe is likely to add to the general economic doldrums both there and in exporting nations such as China.

In the longer term, high oil prices stimulate increased production of oil, increased exploration for new oil, better technologies for recovering more oil from existing fields, and better technologies for producing economical substitutes for crude oil. All of these price-stimulated supply increases put downward pressure on oil prices.

The entire dynamic is complex, with several opposing and reinforcing factors in play. It is best to expect to be surprised, and to be prepared, in case you are.

Cross-posted from Al Fin blog

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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Physcist Tom Murphy Reveals Malthusian Peak Oiler Proclivities

Tom Murphy is a UCSD physicist who has been featured here more than once, as an example of one of the more intelligent and rational peak oilers. At the end of yesterday's piece on the 93rd Nuclear Blogging Carnival, we took a quick look at Murphy's latest article and confession.
Tom Murphy

It is important to follow the thinking of persons such as Murphy, who are apparently open-minded, intelligent, and at the same time display Malthusian peak oiler tendencies. The table above was featured prominently in Murphy's most recent essay, in which he confesses to Malthusian fears of the end of civilisation, due to the exhaustion of ready energy sources. The curious thing about the table is its ranking of energy sources in terms of "superiority" or "inferiority." It goes without saying that Murphy's "threat matrix" obscures a large number of questionable assumptions and blindspots of various kinds. That would be true of all such constructs. But let's look further, in to "Pascal's Wager-esque" nature of Murphy's thoughts:
Which is worse? If I advocate a path of restraint and careful transition to a possibly lower-energy future and I am ultimately shown to be wrong about the limits we face, what’s the damage? In this scenario, we’ve stabilized our system into something approximating sustainability. If we learn later that we have more resources available, we can make the choice to spend them profligately, use them sparingly, or ignore them. But we do so from a position of stability. If, on the other hand, the critic convinces us that the future is up, up, up, and we don’t take resource limits seriously then their being wrong is disastrous because we charge into overshoot, overextension, hit resource limits hard, and run a serious risk of societal collapse. _Tom Murphy
Definitely a Pascal's wager approach, of a quasi-religious type. That is not meant as criticism, but rather as observation. More of Murphy's underlying feeling:
My hunch is that human nature, political realities, economics (including economic hardship) combined with technical shortcomings of alternatives will get in the way of our shiny future. I would like to be convinced that this isn’t the case so I can stop worrying and go full-force on my experimental physics career, but the arguments for why things will be alright often strike me as narrow or simplistic. “It’s obvious: we’ll go to space where resources are unlimited.” “You’re forgetting something very important: human ingenuity—an unlimited resource.” “More sun hits the Earth in an hour than we use in a year: it’s obvious we’ll solve this problem.” “We have enough fuel sitting in nuclear waste pools to power us for millennia.” “Peak oil will not be a problem because we have tons more hydrocarbons in the ground beyond conventional petroleum.” You get the picture: a key idea that will make everything work out. It has the same ring as “Home prices in San Diego can never go down because it is such a desirable place to live,” which I ignored in 2005 in favor of data and more complex analyses.

...What hit home for me personally is the notion that a worst-case collapse of civilization (not unknown to history, let us recall) would be damaging to the thing I hold dearest: our accumulated knowledge of how the world works—science. Science is a luxury of highly functional societies. It is no coincidence that scientific advance is most rapid in this day and age when surplus energy is at its peak. How many computer records, tapes, CDROMs, etc., risk destruction or degradation in a collapse—even if it lasts only a century. In the more dismal collapse scenarios, how many science journals are burned for warmth? (It’s fairly certain that volumes of the Astrophysical Journal will disappear from the library before Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is sacrificed: ApJ does not make for entertaining fireside reading.)

It was always implicit for me that work invested into science will stand for all time. But the notion that my contribution to science—however incremental—may be irrevocably lost has taken some of the appeal away, I must admit. It would seem prudent, then, for scientists to devote time and talent toward our impending energy challenges. The first step is to convince people that we must swing our attention hard-over toward understanding exactly how we wean ourselves off of the fossil fuel lifeblood of our society. Either we figure it out or Mother Nature will do it for us. I for one want to fight to keep humanity’s most impressive achievements intact and understood!

... I do not want to accept defeat. I have a similar urge when it comes to our future challenge: this predicament requires all-out commitment. The problem is, commitment on an individual scale does not amount to much. That’s why I started Do the Math: to convey my sense of just how challenging our future will be, so that we might increase the chances of some collective action that can make a difference. My path started with hope, but was largely supplanted by fear. I apologize for resorting to similar tactics for my audience, but fear sure made me change my behaviors and expectations, and it may turn out to be an effective tool for us all. _Tom Murphy
One can sympathise with these emotions and forebodings. But one should not be ruled by them. And while Murphy himself is not likely to remain in this quagmire of defeatism forever, it is clear by reading the comments after the piece, that many of his readers are quite prepared to wallow in the mire of doom for the duration.

We remarked in yesterday's AFE posting that Tom Murphy's crisis moment, or "moment of truth," is a good thing for Murphy himself -- since it presents him with the motivation to achieve an extraordinary transformation of thinking. Such "road to Damascus moments" are rare in a humdrum everyday life of routine duties and obligations.

One is always given the choice to give up. That is the easy choice. It is the way of the doomer, the way of the defeatist. Mediocre minds -- once having made the choice -- tend to remain in the state of defeatism. Better minds, such as one should presume Tom Murphy's to be, are just as likely or likelier to convert the defeatism into something far more powerful -- power solving skills, and a hardening of internal grit.

We know that big wind and big solar are not workable solutions to the needs of modern societies. For example:

Without government mandates and taxpayer subsidies, wind would be toast

Materials needs for a big wind and big solar infrastructure are enormous, and enormously underestimated

The countries that have already committed themselves to big wind and big solar are already having serious second thoughts

Allocating scarce resources to building a big wind and big solar infrastructure means neglecting the building of an infrastructure that could save modern civilisation

A rational look at renewables PDF

We will not rely on hydrocarbon fuels forever, but there are plenty of hydrocarbons left to serve as a bridge to longer-lasting power sources

Sure, Tom Murphy is worried about CO2 induced climate change, which biases the assumptions he uses for his matrix. But given the total misallocation of resources that big wind and big solar represent in terms of meeting practical power demands for modern civilisations, how in the world does Murphy use his fear of civilisational collapse to justify ranking wind and solar at or near the top of his hierarchy?

Only deep human emotion can explain the choices that Murphy made in designing such a "solutions matrix." There is nothing wrong with a physicist displaying deep human emotions. If not for emotions, human cognitive abilities would be much less capable of problem-solving.

But when planning the future of all mankind, one must be careful to balance reason with emotion. It is not enough to claim to "do the numbers" or to "exhaustively calculate all the possibilities." No one can exhaustively calculate all the possibilities -- it is delusional to believe that one has done so.

According to his words, Murphy is at a crisis point. He can either choose to go forward, or choose the easy path of defeat. He claims that he is using "fear" as a tool to influence his readers' behaviours -- presumably in the ballot box and in their daily lives. But that is the strategy of any street-corner soap-box doomsayer. We want Tom Murphy to be better than that.

We want Tom Murphy to meet his own crisis himself, and to come through on the other side a more honest, rational, and competent combatant in the war for the human future. One cannot hide behind consensus or crowds or readers' comments, when one confronts his own personal crisis moment.

Good luck, Tom.

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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Brian Wang Presents Carnival of "Nucular" Bloggers #93

Brian Wang presents the 93d edition of the Nuclear Blogging Carnival at his home blog, Next Big Future. Here is a short teaser excerpt:
1. Idaho Samizdat - Small modular reactor vendors seek investors and customers. First they have to prove they can build one. This report, the 2nd in a series, looks at opportunities to develop prototypes at the Department of Energy's Savannah River site.







2. Science and Technology at Newsok has an article about Uranium Enrichment.
When carrying out uranium enrichment, there are many safety aspects unique to the radiological process which are present in addition to the expected industrial hazards of a factory setting. This includes the radioactive decay emissions of the uranium and its decay products. When uranium atoms undergo radioactive decay, they emit both gamma and alpha particle radiation. In doing so, the uranium atom loses a couple of protons and becomes a different element (thorium). This thorium decay product is also radioactive as are its decay products and so on. Eventually this decay chain results in the creation of a final lead atom with the alpha particles all becoming (very quickly) neutral helium atoms. The gamma radiation given off in this decay process does not tend to be extremely large due to the very long half life of uranium (which is measured in billions of years) and so very little of the uranium undergoes radioactive decay at any given time.

The enrichment process will increase the U235 content in the uranium hexafluoride by up to as much as 5% for commercial nuclear reactors. This means that by weight, 5% of the enriched uranium would be U235 as opposed to the natural case where only 0.7% of any uranium is this isotope.

3. ANS Nuclear Cafe - The 11th Annual Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day was celebrated Thursday February 23. Dr. Jane LeClair of Excelsior College discusses aspects of her own career in nuclear high technology and the importance of encouraging and mentoring prospective young women of science and technology.

4. Yes Vermont Yankee has a guest post by Vermont State Senator Joe Benning, An Open Letter to Attorney General Sorrell. Benning is a lawyer as well as a legislator. He tells the Vermont AG why Vermont should NOT appeal the recent legal ruling in favor of Vermont Yankee. Benning shows that if the AG appeals, he will lose.

5. Yes Vermont Yankee has a second post that dissects and debunks parts of the biased CNN program about Vermont Yankee. (Debunking the whole program would take a very long post indeed!). CNN had Hatchet Job about Vermont Yankee. _NextBigFuture Nuke Carnie 93

Is the UK getting serious about taking an intelligent approach to nuclear power?
...the UK Nuclear Fission Technology Roadmap Preliminary Report has been prepared by the UK National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) on behalf of a project team consortium comprising government agencies, public bodies and industry representatives: the Energy Research Partnership (ERP); the NNL; the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA); the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC); and the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI).

The report starts with the premise that nuclear power will have to play a much greater role if the UK is to enjoy a secure, low-carbon energy mix by 2050. This requires a long-term strategic approach that focuses on a secure supply of fuel, management of additional waste arising and also maximising supply chain opportunities.

The report looks in depth at two possible but, it claims, realistic scenarios for UK nuclear deployment: a replacement scenario, envisaging the replacement of the UK's existing nuclear park with 16 GWe of new nuclear generation capacity by 2025, and an expansion scenario, seeing the same 16 GWe to 2025 and further expansion to reach 40 GWe by 2050. It then considers the facilities, infrastructure and skills that will be needed to maintain and develop the necessary expertise and capabilities from a technology standpoint.

Ensuring the availability of relevant skills, especially within the regulatory sector, will be vital, the report notes. To ensure the necessary skills are available to build and operate the required facilities, "the UK needs a skills pipeline starting now," it warns, adding that any delays or gaps in delivering a coordinated program will lead to unnecessary costs and delays to future new build programs. _WorldNuclearNews
Finally, physicist Tom Murphy outs himself as a Malthusian peak oiler -- albeit an MPO of the more rational and open-minded type, who is more likely than most to grow out of that phase.
When the descent stage of petroleum hits and production drops by several percent per year, the economic shocks and global reaction will be significant, and we will be scrambling to find our exits—only then to realize that nothing is as easy as it seemed during times of surplus, and that all new infrastructure efforts require the very energy that is in short supply (the Energy Trap). It’s true that shortage of one form of energy does not mean shortage of all types of energy. A liquid fuels shortage won’t directly translate into electricity shortage, for instance. But virtually every facet of our modern society requires our transportation capabilities to remain intact. Without that, virtually everything becomes hard.

...I firmly believe that Malthus will ultimately be proven right that growth collides with finite resources so that growth must stop. His timing was off because he did not see fossil fuels coming, and I could likewise be accused of not seeing the next big wave of energy that will wash over us and “kick the ladder” of fossil fuels out from under us—a compelling notion, to be sure.

...I only fell into this “limits” camp because practically every time I performed quantitative analyses on this, that, or the other alternative energy proposal, I came up disappointed. I really did want the pleasure of personal discovery that we have an obvious path forward. I am delighted by the abundance of solar energy input to the planet. I am reassured by the vastness of thermal energy in the oceans and crust. I am tentatively excited about the vast energy represented by uranium in the oceans and by thorium using functional molten salt reactors. I truly do see these as positive lights in the darkness.

Yet over and over, quantitative analysis knocks out many of the “exciting” ideas we hear about in the sensationalized media world. Already, this is a damaging blow to our collective perception that solutions abound.

...What hit home for me personally is the notion that a worst-case collapse of civilization (not unknown to history, let us recall) would be damaging to the thing I hold dearest: our accumulated knowledge of how the world works—science. Science is a luxury of highly functional societies.

...I do not want to accept defeat. I have a similar urge when it comes to our future challenge: this predicament requires all-out commitment. The problem is, commitment on an individual scale does not amount to much. That’s why I started Do the Math: to convey my sense of just how challenging our future will be, so that we might increase the chances of some collective action that can make a difference. My path started with hope, but was largely supplanted by fear. _Tom Murphy
While it may not seem logical to many readers, this "moment of truth" which Murphy is facing is actually a good thing -- for him. Being both intelligent and open-minded, Murphy has a good chance of making the transition which many of the rest of us have made, when confronted by the same dilemma. It is a moment-of-truth which Murphy should have faced a decade or two earlier, in a more rational society that possessed more competent methods of child-rearing and education. But better late than never. Good luck, Tom.

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Friday, February 24, 2012

Nuclear Developments in Argentina

Argentina's CAREM Reactor

When the tsunami in Japan generated the Fukushima nuclear crisis in 2011, Argentina not only confirmed its decision to increase the share of atomic energy from from 6% to 15% of its energy mix, but started building the prototype Central Argentina Modular Element (CAREM) reactor, the first Latin American reactor design, with the aim of becoming by 2020 one of the stars of the next generation of reactors.

...the design developed by the National Commission of Atomic Energy (CNEA) and the signed off by Applied Research (INVAP) is part of what the nuclear community calls G3+ (generation three plus): it substitutes external subsystems such as pressurizing and water pumps for cooling by natural systems that operate within the reactor vessel. Thus, the design decreases the amount of sensitive components and contact with the outside.

Furthermore, an innovative incorporated hydraulic safety system eliminates the dependency on external energy sources and works passively. For any imbalance in the reactor, graphite rods fall by gravity, thus absorbing excess neutrons and causing a safe shutdown (or SCRAM) in two seconds. For 36 hours the plant would not require external help. ”A tsunami would never have been a problem” ensures the CNEA with an eye to Fukushima.

...small G3+ reactors appear to be one of the futures of the nuclear industry. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that by 2030 there will be at least 43 of these plants in operation worldwide and 96 optimistically. A document from the US Department of Energy (DOE) prepared by the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago does not hesitate to recommend them as one possibility for the US to return to being competitive in reactor design. In the meantime, suppliers like Russia and France’s Areva have decided to join the race.

...In addition, they are best suited to serve markets with small power grids or isolated geographic areas, which is common in emerging markets where energy demand is growing immensely. _Opinno
In other Argentinian nuclear news, the SNC-Lavalin Group, new owner of the CANDU reactor technology, is looking at both refurbishment jobs and new nuclear builds in the South American nation.

Dan Yurman provides an update on the state of SMRs in the US. Contrary to the situation in Argentina, where the government is supporting nuclear innovation, the US under the Obama regime (and the NRC under Gregory Jaczko) is hindering new nuclear technology.

More on the movement to convert from uranium cycle to thorium cycle reactors. Thorium technologies still need to be proven on a commercial scale over an extended timescale, but the early signs are hopeful.

Argentina's government has not been particularly friendly toward private business enterprise -- a very bad sign in a government -- but some particular departments within the government may be promoting some rational policies. That is to be expected, since no government of any size at all is truly monolithic.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Is Cool Planet Energy Systems for Real? 4,000 Gal/Acre Bio-Gasoline Yield?

Cool Planet Energy Systems is a cellulose-to-gasoline advanced biofuels maker, which is backed by Google, BP, GE, Conoco Phillips, and NRG Energy. The company now claims to be able to produce 4,000 gallons of gasoline per acre, using its technology.
Cool Planet Energy Systems Home

CoolPlanet BioFuels, a start-up developing technology to convert low-grade biomass into high-grade fuels including gasoline, and carbon that can be sequestered (earlier post), claims it has achieved a conversion yield of 4,000 gallons gasoline/acre biomass in pilot testing using giant miscanthus, an advanced bioenergy crop.

On an energy basis, that yield is about 12 times greater than current corn ethanol production levels, the company noted.

These test results are based on nearly optimal crop growth conditions and demonstrate what is possible in a good growing season. Under more routine growing conditions, we estimate yields of about 3,000 gallons/acre should be achievable throughout the Midwest by selecting the proper energy crop for local conditions.

—Mike Cheiky, Cool Planet’s founder and CEO
The giant miscanthus was developed at the University of Mississippi and provided from a high yield plot by Repreve Renewables. Other advanced bio-energy crops, such as sorghum and switch grass, can provide similar annual yields using this new process. _GCC
The giant miscanthus can grow over 10 feet in height in a good growing season. It is likely that the company boosted the CO2 levels in the plants' growing environment as well. The company did not provide information on profitability for the complete process from field to fuel tank.
CoolPlanet Energy Systems is developing a revolutionary thermal/mechanical processor which directly inputs raw biomass such as woodchips, crop residue, algae, etc. and produces multiple distinct gas streams for catalytic upgrading to conventional fuel components.

In support of the above biomass fractionator , the company is also developing a range of simple one-step catalytic conversion processes which mate with the fractionator's output gas streams to produce useful products such as eBTX (high octane gasoline), synthetic diesel and proprietary ultra-high crop yield super fuels.

CoolPlanet Energy Systems plans to package its proprietary biomass fractionator together with an "open architecture" chemical processing section in standard modular shipping containers which can each produce up to 2 million gallons of fuel per year. These modular fuel processors can be equipped with CoolPlanet Energy Systems' catalytic conversion processes and/or your own selection of dryers, separators, catalytic processes, etc. _CoolPlanet
The company features "transportable plants" for conversion of biomasss to biofuels, on its site. These are most likely catalytic pyrolysis plants, which can be trucked to convenient sites near harvest zones, for large batch local and regional processing. Year round producers of biomass -- such as municipal waste facilities -- would likely either lease such a plant or invest in their own appropriately scaled plant using similar technology.

The company certainly has a large number of heavy-duty industrial financial backers. Apparently most of the backers are looking for a relatively low cost, "environmentally acceptable" fuel additive or partial substitute which can be blended into their main fuel product. In other words, they may be banking on future government mandates regarding carbon content in fuels. That gamble may come crashing down should science ever adopt a more objective attitude toward the dozens of significant drivers of global climate -- some of which are likely still to be discovered.

If any enterprise does develop an economical-in-its-own-right biomass to advanced fuels process which can be easily scaled and mass-produced for local and regional siting, it will need to select the optimal biomass source for the locality. Different sources of biomass are likely to be optimal for different locales. That will range from giant king grass, to duckweed, to miscanthus, to kelp, to micro-algae, to municipal waste, depending upon climate and pre-existing infrastructure.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Biofuels Prospect "Duckweed" Doubles Biomass in 48 hours


Duckweed produces a enormous amount of starch-rich biomass every 48 hours. Scientists are studying the plant to convert it into a bio-manufacturing platform, for the production of polymers, proteins, and high value small molecule chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

Other scientists -- biofuels specialists -- are attempting to transfer genes from algae to duckweed in an effort to teach the rapid-growing plant to produce oils for biofuels.
"We’re interested in using or optimizing duckweed for use as a biomass bio fuel based on its ability to grow on waste water and water in places which you would never imagine crops would grow," Martienssen tells Big Think.

In other words, Martienssen calls duckweed "an exciting prospect" because it can kill two birds with one stone. "It can convert high nitrogen and high phosphorus water into much cleaner water and at the same time massively increase in biomass," Martienssen says. Duckweed doubles in size every two [days __ ed.], generating a huge amount of biomass in a short amount of time, and is an amazing producer of starch.

Therefore, using pathways and genes from algae, Martienssen says he is looking to "persuade" duckweed "to make oil instead of starch."

...How exactly is Martienssen hoping to 'persuade' duckweed to produce oil? He is looking at the phenotype, or the properties of the plant over generations, to which Martienssen has applied his groundbreaking research on transposons or "jumping genes."

Transposons were discovered in plants about sixty years ago by Martienssen's Cold Spring Harbor Lab colleague Barbara McClintock who won the Nobel Prize for this discovery. According to Martienssen, "transposons are pieces of DNA that can move around the genome and cause genetic as well as epigenetic changes without having to go through a sexual cross and so many of the changes we see that happen in clones occur due to the activity of transposable elements." _BigThink
Most energy specialists underestimate biomass fuels, because their thinking is years or decades old. The potential for production of sheer biomass by duckweed and rapid-growing micro- and macro-algae has barely begun to be tapped.

Using the tools of genetic and epi-genetic modification, rapid-growing plants are likely to stand in for the mythical "nanotech assembler" for manufacturing a wide range of products -- at least for the next few decades until nanotech molecular assemblers can be perfected. Fuels and high value chemicals are likely to be two of the product categories which fast growing plants will be persuaded to make.

This is a biological planet. The biological plant life of this planet thrives on high CO2 levels -- up to 3X to 4X higher than at present.
CO2 is essential to photosynthesis and thus it must be present in the air at least in at least 300 ppm in order for plants to grow properly. When CO2 is deficient in the air plants simply do not grow, their growth is very slow and stunted. It is also actually possible to speed plant growth up by increasing CO2 levels in the air. The simple addition of CO2 to the air is as good as adding fertilizer to your plants. Most plants grow with a yield increase of ten to thirty percent when the CO2 levels are between 1,200 to 1,500 parts per million. _Source
If, on the other hand, atmospheric levels of CO2 were reduced by half, large numbers of species of plants would die, and the food chain would be severely disrupted. Billions of humans would be in danger of starving.

Clearly, humans will not replace hydrocarbon fuels with biofuels -- and there is no need to even try. But biomass can be grown virtually anywhere there is energy, nutrients, and CO2 -- and be converted to biofuels. That advantage of local and regional production virtually anywhere in the inner solar system, is something that no other fuel can match.

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US Air Force Targets Energy Technology Advances

A recent report released by the USAF, Energy Horizons: United States Air Force Energy S&T Vision 2011-2026 PDF, looks at a number of new energy technologies which might advance the USAF's mission in space -- including small modular reactors for space-based systems.
In terms of nuclear power in space, several satellite systems have been energized by Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTG). This source provides consistent power, and at a much higher energy and power density than current technologies.

Work on small modular nuclear reactors on Earth is highlighted in the Air Force report: "While the implementation of such a technology should be weighed heavily against potential catastrophic outcomes, many investments into small modular reactors can be leveraged for space-based systems. As these nuclear power plants decrease in size, their utility on board space-based assets increases."

The report explains that the Air Force space systems portfolio should consider piloting small modular nuclear systems, a view previously recommended by the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board. _Space
Space.com Orbital Concentrator Solar Array

In the sweeping report a number of desirable high-tech advances are mentioned.

For example, the Air Force is currently limited to 27 kilowatt (kW) arrays for satellite power. But more power is required for some future space missions, the report states, such as flights currently being eyed by the Air Force, national security organizations and NASA. "Employing larger and more efficient arrays will enable missions that require very high power, such as space-based radar or space-based laser missions," the report states.

In the long term, the report says, increased solar cell efficiencies and revolutionary materials foreshadow the potential of 500 kW on-orbit power generation technologies, "which would be transformational for performing missions from space-based systems."

Furthermore, there are other breakthrough space energy technologies that have the potential of achieving up to 70 percent efficiency, the report adds. Examples include quantum dots and dilute nitrides in solar cells. But there are also totally new technologies such as space tethers that could harvest energy from the Earth's geomagnetic field.

...The Air Force report also delves into the wireless transfer of power, a technology that continues to offer big promises despite the daunting challenges involved in making it a reality.

While there are many challenges in "space-to-earth" power beaming, "space-to-space power beaming" could be transformational, the report stresses.

An energy-beaming benefit for the military is powering sets of fractionated, distributed satellite systems, the report explains. Doing so would enable spacecraft to be smaller, more survivable, and more capable than current systems.

A power paradigm change

In orbit, many spacecraft systems — sensors, communications equipment and on-board processing — can require intense amounts of power.

Like all computing architectures, these systems are currently composed exclusively of silicon- based technology. However, decades of work has begun to change this paradigm, the report points out. Newer systems require less energy and offer a reduced thermal load in comparison to their silicon counterparts, the report adds.

Advances in satellite propulsion are also spotlighted in the newly issued report. Today, the ability of space-based systems to alter their orbits is based on blasts of on-board fuel. The possibility of on-orbit refueling for these systems is now being studied.

In the mid- and far-term, the report suggests, other propulsion technologies will provide exceptionally efficient propulsion. That will allow the fuel onboard orbiting systems to be utilized for longer periods of time. Hall and electric thrusters, for instance, promise extended utility of limited onboard propellants.

Whatever the technology, new methods of generating power in space hold great promise for the Air Force's plans for new satellites and other space missions. _Space.com

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Thorium Reactors and Fast Breeder Reactors in the News

The Washington Post is reporting on the recent push for thorium nuclear reactors in the US.
... a small group of scientists, entrepreneurs and advocates see the post-Fukushima era as the perfect opportunity to get the United States to consider a proposal they have made with no success for years. What about trying a new fuel, they say, and maybe a new kind of reactor?

The proposed fuel is thorium, an abundant silver-gray element named for the Norse god of thunder. It is less radioactive than the uranium that has always powered U.S. plants, and advocates say that not only does it produce less waste, it also is more difficult to turn into nuclear weapons.

They’re pushing the idea of adapting plants to use thorium as a fuel or replacing them with a completely new kind of reactor called a liquid-fluoride thorium reactor, or LFTR (pronounced “lifter”). The LFTR would use a mixture of molten chemical salts to cool the reactor and to transfer energy from the fission reaction to a turbine.

Proponents say such a system would be more efficient and safer than existing plants, which use pressurized water to cool uranium fuel rods and boiling water or steam to transfer the energy they create.

“A molten-salt reactor is not a pressurized reactor,” said John Kutsch, director of the Thorium Energy Alliance, a trade group based in Harvard, Ill. “It doesn’t use water for cooling, so you don’t have the possibility of a hydrogen explosion, as you did in Fukushima.”

Kutsch and others say that a thorium-fueled reactor burns hotter than uranium reactors, consuming more of the fuel. “Ninety-nine percent of the thorium is burned up,” he said. “Instead of 10,000 pounds of waste, you would have 300 pounds of waste.” _WaPo
Thorium is approximately three times as abundant as uranium in the earth’s crust, reflecting the fact that thorium has a longer half-life. In addition, thorium generally is present in higher concentrations (2-10%) by weight than uranium (0.1-1%) in their respective ores, making thorium retrieval much less expensive and less environmentally damaging per unit of energy extracted. Countries with significant thorium mineral deposits include: Australia, India, Brazil, USA, Canada, China, Russia, Norway, Turkey, Venezuela, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, South Africa, and Malaysia.

Naturally occurring thorium has one isotope- thorium-232. In the DBI reactor, the initial start up fuel mix is a combination of thorium and uranium-235. The uranium acts as the “seed” source of neutrons needed to achieve criticality for the first reactor. This combination of fuels decreases the time and capital required to start the thorium fuel breeding cycle. As the DBI reactor design begins producing electricity, Uranium-233, bred from the Thorium-232, increased core reactivity and power output. Over time, the original uranium-235 is burned up and subsequently the reactor is fuelled only with Thorium-232. Over the life of the DBI reactor design (approx. 60 years), about 3% of the original load mass (thorium only) will be added every 18 months. Depending upon operational choices available with the DBI designs, no or very little additional uranium will be needed. _DBI
As noted here recently, famed futurist Gerald Celente is proposing that Iran and other unstable third world dictatorships consider developing thorium cycle reactors rather than uranium cycle, should they insist upon developing a nuclear infrastructure.
The thorium cycle is far more efficient and simpler than the uranium cycle. So besides the fact that significantly more thorium reserves are present than uranium, it is possible to extract far more of the potential energy from the thorium -- with much less effort -- than from uranium.
Thorium is well distributed globally, providing an ample supply for industrial and emerging nations well into the future.

More information on the future of thorium energy:  Flibe

Besides thorium, other alternative approaches to nuclear reactors being developed include the fast breeder reactor. Brian Wang looks at fast breeder reactor development in India and other countries. More on the Indian FBR development:
India plans to commission the first-of-its-kind Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) early in 2013, kickstarting the second stage of its nuclear programme. The 500 MWe reactor, being developed by the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu, uses a unique mix of uranium and plutonium which significantly enhances the capability to generate electricity per tonne of fuel utilised.

The indigenously-developed PFBR is at an advanced stage of construction under the aegis of state-owned Bhartiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam (BHAVINI).

"The construction will be completed by September and fuel will be lowered by December. We expect commissioning by early 2013," IGCAR Director S C Chetal said here. _HindustanTimes
Future high-tech nuclear infrastructures in advanced countries will likely include LFTRs, advanced PWRs, integral fast reactors, gas cooled high temperature reactors, and a variety of small modular reactors meant to produce both electrical power and industrial process heat.

As noted here many times, nuclear power is well suited to assist in the production of a wide array of synthetic liquid hydrocarbon fuels as well as industrial chemicals, lubricants, and other high value materials such as polymers. In this manner, nuclear power will act to generate plentiful substitutes for crude oil, at a time when political turmoil and "the coming anarchy" is likely to lead to frequent artificially caused short supply of crude.

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Monday, February 20, 2012

Russian Mischief at Focus of Current Global Price Runup

Clearly, given their growing capability to produce and deliver oil wherever the market dictates, and the tie between the price of oil and price of gas in Russian supply contracts, it is in the clear interest of the Russians to push up the price of Brent crude. Therefore, could it be that the tumult around deliveries of Iranian oil is merely a smokescreen to escalate prices, and that some thing far more nefarious is taking place? _Learsy_HuffPost
Russia is having problems with its own ineptitude and corruption. It is also troubled by the threat of the coming global shale oil & gas boom. Other competitive pressures likely to arise in the near future include massive supplies of unconventional liquid fuels from GTL, CTL, BTL, bitumens, kerogens -- all eventually facilitated by high quality nuclear process heat.

It is clear that Russia had to take matters into its own hands in order to drive up oil prices -- one way or another.
As the NYTimes reported, "The Russian oil industry was already reaping the rewards of higher oil prices from Iranian tensions." The Russians have been cashing in brilliantly while rendering support to Iran by such acts as vetoing or emasculating any and all meaningful U.N. resolutions that would force Iran to comply with the terms of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency mandates. It is an open question whether this is being done in solidarity with Iran, or more malignly, to solidify Iranian intransigence on matters nuclear, in the hope that the European and other world consumers' boycott of Iranian oil has maximum impact, making Russian oil more sale-able at ever higher prices. _Learsy
Meanwhile, Russia is seeking the help of the international oil companies to upgrade its oil production and refining procedures and operations. Given how Russia has behaved toward international oilcos in the past after having received help and technology transfer, it is difficult to see how this turns out well for either western oil companies or western countries in general.

At the same time that Russia is ramping up international tensions over Iran in order to pull in greater oil profits, it is also looking for the world's sympathy by claiming that Russian oil fields are declining rapidly, to the point that Russia's oil production "has peaked" and in danger of rapid decline.

Yes, certainly we should all feel sorry for Russia, the nation that is enabling nuclear proliferation in Iran and driving the world to the brink of war -- all for oil profits that will go into the Swiss bank accounts of Russian oligarchs, insiders, and quasi-dictators. The nation that lets its oil fields go to crap out of neglct, asks western corporations for help, then abruptly nationalise any resources, technologies, and assets which the outsiders unwittingly leave within the kleptocratic reaches of the Russian government.

Russia's energy reserves remain vast, deep, and wide -- and largely unexplored and undiscovered. In the hands of competent organisations, Russia's hydrocarbon production would not peak for several more decades. But pay no attention to reality -- heed only what you are told by your masters.

Raymond J. Learsy thinks that Russia is manipulating global oil markets to the detriment of all of Europe:
So here we have Russia, a major supplier of oil and gas with an economy deeply dependent on the revenues received from the sale of those commodities. According to the NYTimes article, "And the taxes the Russian government has received from those sales have been a political windfall for Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin as he campaigns to return as Russia's president. The extra money has helped further subsidize domestic energy consumption, tamping down inflation." Combine this with a Russia that is in large measure governed by that unique version of our Wall Street "ole boys network," the alumni of Russia's highly touted secret service, the KGB. The KGB helped form Putin and many of his associates in government. Here was an organization that was the nonpareil masters of clandestine intrigue, knows how to keep secrets, and now in a sense, is running the country albeit with the trappings of democratic governance.

Fast forward-only this week, "a group of brokers and traders successfully managed to manipulate an interest rate that affects loans around the world" (Please see "Traders Manipulated Key Rate, Bank Says," Wall Street Journal). If this could happen to interest rates, so widely traded throughout the world, just think what a KGB oriented Russia could do, and not with $6,500 at their disposal, but billions upon billions. It should not be a stunning surprise to those, be they government agencies, the press, or energy focused think tanks, that the traded price of Brent crude is being gamed. _Learsy
That would be an interesting "one-two!" play by the Russians, if we believe that they are so clever and manipulative. First ramp up international tensions over Iran, then behind-the-scenes, use a bit of leverage to shift global markets to their advantage.

We know the Russian government needs every bit of hard currency it can get, to keep its people happy, and to keep powerful insiders well compensated. But the price being paid by the Iranian people is severe, and has no apparent end-point.

Needless to say, the strategy is not guaranteed to work to the satisfaction of top Russian players, indefinitely. A lot of things could go wrong....

Meanwhile, behind the scenes in Russia, a demographic, infrastructural, and public health disaster continues to play itself out, below the happy Potemkin facade. Putin has a grand strategy, but it is built on a foundation that is slowly crumbling.

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Nuclear Blog Carnival #92 + More on Nuclear Process Heat

NGNP Alliance
H/T to Brian Wang

The 92nd Nuclear Blog Carnival is hosted at ANS Nuclear Cafe. Here are a few excerpts:
Dan Yurman has an indepth report on the selection of Areva’s HTGR design by the NGNP Alliance for process heat applications.

Also, he reports on a major deal involving Areva reactors to be built in the U.K. by EDF as a result of a face-to-face meeting between U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Atomic Insights
Rod Adams writes that MIT’s studies on the future of various energy fuels are important guides for policy makers. The contrast between strong optimism over the future of natural gas compared to a far more pessimistic view of the future of nuclear energy is stark and difficult to ignore.

An explanation might be found in the amount of natural gas money and the number of natural gas salesmen on the Advisory Committee for the study on natural gas when compared to the more neutral funding source for the study on the future of nuclear energy. He asks if the MIT Energy Initiative has been captured by natural gas money?

Nuke Power Talk
Gail Marcus is pleased to be able to pass on information provided by a reader of her blog providing more details on the Japanese personnel practice called ‘amakudari,‘ the institutionalized system of moving Japanese government retirees into positions in the organizations they used to regulate.

Nuclear Diner
Cheryl Rofer has a unique report that Peter Alaric DeSimone tells how he makes music from the random disintegration of radioactive isotopes and provides MP3 files and videos of the process.

Also, she reports that the National Research Council released a report this week on nuclear technologies NASA needs, including nuclear rocket propulsion, nuclear reactors for power in space, and radioisotope power systems. Susan Voss presents the details.
_Nuke Carnival #92

Dan Yurman looks at the choice of the Areva gas cooled reactor by the NGNP Industry Alliance. As has been pointed out here several times, the high quality process heat from gas-cooled reactors is likely to facilitate an industrial revolution, once it becomes widely available. 4 page PDF report on gas cooled reactors and the next generation of nuclear power.

NGNP Alliance
H/T NBF

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Futurist Gerald Celente Proposes that Iran Use Thorium Fission

Russia has intentionally maneuvered Iran to the brink of war over its nuclear reactor program, in order to help raise global oil prices. With Russia's unflagging assistance, Iran is processing its uranium ore so as to produce highly enriched uranium. The most likely indications are that Iran will have enough enriched uranium to build fission bombs in the near future -- again, with Russia's assistance.

Russia is the main beneficiary of the run-up to war and oil market instability -- its oil profits are keeping its corrupt government afloat. China is a secondary beneficiary, able to buy Iranian oil at a significant markdown. The Iranian people are the big losers, sinking into poverty, drug addiction, and despair.

It is at this time that Gerald Celente -- celebrated futurist and forward thinker -- proposes that Iran turn away from the U235 cycle, to the Thorium cycle. The thorium cycle is much less prone to nuclear weapons concerns. As a bonus, if Iran perfected a modern-day thorium cycle reactor, it would be well positioned to market the technology to any number of other nations.

More from Celente:
The Celente Solution: If Iran is sincere that it seeks only peaceful uses for its nuclear energy, the crisis can easily be defused.

The problem isn’t that Iran seeks nuclear power. The problem is that, like the rest of the world, Iran has made a poor choice of nuclear fuel.

Uranium, the fuel that runs the world’s nuclear reactors, is lethal even when it’s not packed in a bomb. It’s absurdly complicated to handle, its behavior is touchy and unpredictable, and its waste is fatal to humans for millions of years after we’ve wrung the small amount of energy from it that our technology allows.

Instead, Iran can follow the lead of China, India, Brazil, and other nations and turn to thorium.

Thorium is an obscure, mildly radioactive metal produced as a waste product from the mining of rare earth minerals. This waste sits in piles on the ground in China, which produces most of the world’s rare earths; it’s locked away underground in most other countries, which have followed the US’s lead in banning the mining of rare earths because the process produces radioactive waste – in the form of thorium.

Yet when thorium was tested as a nuclear fuel in the 1950s, it was found to be both cleaner and safer than uranium. It can’t melt down or spontaneously explode when a “critical mass” of it is piled up; and it produces mainly alpha radiation, which is so weak that it can’t penetrate skin. Although thorium does produce a trace of radioactive waste that endures for billions of years, the amount is vastly smaller than uranium’s leavings.

Thorium also is more easily accessible around the world than uranium and more plentiful – it’s about three times as abundant as tin. In theory, a lump of thorium the size of a golf ball could supply the lifetime energy needs of a typical American – and more than that of an Iranian.

Even better, the technology to produce thorium is close at hand. International Thorium Energy & Molten Salt Technology, Inc., a private Japanese firm, intends to produce a 10-kilowatt thorium reactor within five years. China and India also are engineering thorium reactors. With some re-engineering, thorium even can be combined with uranium to make cleaner, longer-lived fuel rods for conventional nuclear reactors already in service.

In the years it would take Iran to build a conventional nuclear reactor, with its hundred-foot cooling towers and thousands of miles of plumbing, the nation could make a factory to turn out small thorium reactors. Iran has modest rare earth deposits and China, as Iran’s largest trading partner, could easily supply the reactors’ fuel. China and also India could share their growing technical expertise with Iran, not over international objections but with the approval of the rest of the world.

These small generators would present no regional or global threat and would serve Iran’s internal needs even more effectively than its current plan: the smaller thorium reactors can be made relatively quickly, with consistent quality, in a factory and then shipped and installed right where power is needed – at a factory, a mine, a military base, or as an incremental addition to a conventional generating plan. Iran could quickly achieve a strategic goal of western nations: the simultaneous expansion and decentralization of the electrical grid.

As is often the case, the current crisis is an opportunity. If Iran truly wants only peaceful nuclear power, it can choose thorium as its nuclear option … and the US, Israel, the EU and other nations can choose peace. _Gerald Celente
Celente's proposal is certainly an ambitious one, an idea that would change the world for the better if it were carried out.

Unfortunately, Russia will not permit such a rational smoothing of the Iranian crisis -- a crisis which Russia itself is propping up and enlarging. Russia's corrupt kleptocracy, and its massive ambitions for global power demand that global oil prices be driven ever higher.

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Putting Peak Oil to Rest

Humans are naturally attracted to doom and catastrophe stories. Predictions of doom and apocalypse come and fail routinely. But one perennially failed prediction of doom that never quite goes away, is Peak Oil DOOM! More from fool.com:
One of the problems with peak oil predictions is that they have so little imagination. They don't consider the impact of new drilling techniques that open new oil fields to massive amounts of production. A decade ago, shale drilling wasn't a well-known technique outside of the industry, much less a major contributor to our oil production. Today, Kodiak Oil & Gas (NYSE: KOG ) , Continental Resources, and Whiting Petroleum have turned the desolate North Dakota prairie into an energy bonanza by unlocking shale oil there.

Offshore drilling has also grown by leaps and bounds. Drillers like SeaDrill (NYSE: SDRL ) , Transocean (NYSE: RIG ) , and Noble are building ultra-deepwater rigs as fast as they can to unlock new fields off the coasts of Brazil, Angola, and other parts of the world that were once out of our reach.

Then there are Canadian oil sands, which hold the second-largest oil reserves in the world, behind Saudi Arabia. These developments alone unlocked enough oil to delay peak oil for a few more years at least.

Evidence that these innovations have turned peak oil on its head is undeniable. According to Bentek Energy, North American oil production will top a 40-year-old peak by 2016. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that by 2020, U.S. oil production alone will grow another 20% to 6.7 million barrels per day. Even OPEC's surplus oil production capacity is expected to increase from 2.55 million barrels per day in 2011 to 3.92 million barrels per day by the end of 2013.

It's hard to see how oil production could fall in the short term. And longer-term peak oil theorists have even more problems on their hands. _Fool.com
Total US recoverable natural gas resources (includes conventional, unconventional in lower 48, Alaska and offshore) totals 4.244 quadrillion cubic feet according to the Institute for Energy Research:

• Enough natural gas to meet US electricity demand for 575 years at current fuel demand for generation levels
• Enough natural gas to fuel homes heated by natural gas in the United States for 857 years
• More natural gas than Russia, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkmenistan combined.

The US has Three Times the Proven Reserves of Saudi Arabia in Shale Oil. Global oil shale resources exceed 10 trillion barrels. More than 1.8 trillion barrels of oil are trapped in shale in Federal lands in the western United States in the states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, of which 800 billion is considered recoverable–three times the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia. The INTEK assessment for EIA found 23.9 billion barrels of technically recoverable shale oil resources in the onshore Lower 48 States. The Southern California Monterey/Santos play is the largest shale oil formation estimated to hold 15.4 billion barrels or 64 percent of the total shale oil resources followed by Bakken and Eagle Ford with approximately 3.6 billion barrels and 3.4 billion barrels of oil, respectively.

New Jobs Creation is driven by Low Cost Energy. A report from PricewaterhouseCoopers for the National Association of Manufacturers says low cost domestic natural gas will save $11 billion per year in US manufacturing costs over the next ten years and create more than a million new jobs. This new low cost energy reality is expected to increase disposable income by $2,000 per year per household in the United States. The growth in domestic natural gas production from unconventional sources (shale gas) has decoupled domestic North American gas prices from world oil and LNG prices, reversed the once expected US dependence on imported LNG, and driven down prices to near record low levels from long term reliable domestic energy supply.

New Jobs Creation Leads to Growing Worries over Skills Shortages and Fierce Competition for Talent.Just as the shale growth phenomenon takes off, the market face a looming new reality that more than 10,000 baby boomers per day will begin retiring in the US alone. The same fate or worse affects other global markets. The good news is the demand for experience, skills and technology expertise among workers in the oil and gas industry means that many will be coaxed into working longer or auctioning off their expertise to refill their retirement accounts left shattered by the great global recession. The demand for replacement skills is expected to swell the ranks of engineering, technology developers, science, math and software training programs and universities to meet that need. But the bigger need will be welders, plumbers, electricians, skilled machinists and other crafts to install and operate the equipment and support the technology deployment around the world. _GWPF
So you see from the above that the real peak problem is peak manpower skills. The growing shortages of trained, skilled workers is the greatest limitation that an abundant future faces.

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