The following is an update to a previous posting http://ergobalance.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/achilles-heel-of-algal-biofuels-peak.html If anything, the situation might be worse that I had concluded then, but the issue of phosphate rock reserves is more complex than I had deduced. So, this article is as written before, but with a few more numbers worked through, to account for “real” phosphate rock, rather than my initial model of it being pure fluorapatite [Ca5(PO4)3F (calcium fluorophosphate)]. The references are as appended to a full article on this subject that will appear in the next issue of the journal, Science Progress http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/0036-8504
The depletion of world rock phosphate reserves will restrict the amount of food that can be grown across the world, a situation that can only be compounded by the production of biofuels, including the potential large-scale generation of diesel from algae. The world population has risen to its present number of 7 billion in consequence of cheap fertilizers, pesticides and energy sources, particularly oil. Almost all modern farming has been engineered to depend on phosphate fertilizers, and those made from natural gas, e.g. ammonium nitrate, and on oil to run tractors etc. and to distribute the final produce2. If a peak in worldwide production of rock phosphate will occur within the next few decades, this will restrict the amount of food that the world will be able to produce in the future, against a rising number of mouths to feed. Additionally, there is a consensus of analytical opinion that we are also close to the peak in world oil production.
One proposed solution to the latter problem is to substitute oil-based fuels by biofuels, although this matter is not as straightforward as is often presented. In addition to the simple fact that growing fuel-crops must inevitably compete for limited arable land on which to grow food-crops, there are vital differences in the properties of biofuels, e.g. biodiesel and bioethanol, from conventional hydrocarbon fuels such as in petrol and diesel, which will necessitate the adaptation of engine-designs to use them – for example in regard to viscosity at low temperatures, e.g. in planes flying in the frigidity of the troposphere. Raw ethanol needs to be burned in a specially adapted (high compression ratio) engine to recover more of its energy in terms of tank to wheels miles, otherwise it could deliver only about 70% of the energy contained petrol, or diesel, weight for weight.
In order to obviate the competition between fuel and food crops, it has been proposed to grow algae from which to make biodiesel27. Some strains of algae28 can produce 50% of their weight of oil, which may be transesterified into biodiesel in the same way that plant oils are. Compared to, e.g. rapeseed, which might yield a tonne of biodiesel per hectare, or 8 tonnes from palm-oil, perhaps 40─90 tonnes per hectare29 is thought possible from algae, grown in ponds of equivalent area. Since the ponds can, in principle, be placed anywhere, there is no compromise over arable land, unlike fuel/food crops. Some algae grow well on salt-water too which avoids diverting increasingly precious freshwater from our normal uses for it, as opposed to the case for land-based crops which require enormous quantities of freshwater.
Diesel engines are more efficient27 by about 40%, in terms of tank to wheels miles, than petrol-fuelled spark-ignition engines, and so, in the spirit of energy efficiency, we shall assume that all vehicles are converted to run on diesel. This means that a total of around 40 million tonnes/year of diesel would need to be substituted for. To produce an equivalent amount of algal biodiesel, and assuming a yield of 40 tonnes/hectare (the lower end of the 40─90 t/ha range29), the algae ponds would require a total area of 10,000 km2. Ideally, the algae plants could be integrated with fossil fuelled power plants, to absorb CO2 from smokestacks by photosynthesis, driven only by the flux of natural sunlight. However, for the algae to grow, vital nutrients are also required, as a simple elemental analysis of dried algae will confirm. Phosphorus, though present in under 1% of that total mass, is one such vital ingredient, without which algal growth is negligible.
Two different methods are now used to estimate how much phosphate would be needed to grow this amount of algae: (1) to fuel the UK and (2) to fuel the world:(1) An analysis of dried Chlorella [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chlorella} is taken as illustrative, which contains 895 mg of elemental phosphorus per 100 g of algae.
UK Case: To make 40 million tonnes of diesel would require 80 million tonnes of algae (assuming that 50% of it is oil and this can be converted 100% to diesel). The amount of “phosphate” in the algae is 0.895 x (95/31) = 2.74 %. (The Formula Weight, FW of PO43- is 95, while that of P is 31).Hence this much algae would contain: 80 million x 0.0274 = 2.19 million tonnes of phosphate. By initially assuming the chemical composition of the rock to be that of fluorapatite, Ca5(PO4)3F, FW 504, we can conclude that this amount of PO43- is contained in 3.87 million tonnes of it. However, actual mined rock phosphate is a more impure material than this, and that normally used for fertilizer production is reckoned to contain 29─34% P2O5 (to be compared with 42.3% as may be deduced from the chemical formula of pure fluorapatite, above). Following the calculations so far for the quantity of PO43- involved, and by using the ratio of FW for 0.5 P2O5/PO43- (71/95), we may conclude that there are (71/95) x 2.19 million = 1.64 million tonnes of P2O5 contained in this amount of PO43-. Taking the range average of 31.5% for the mineral P concentration, reckoned as P2O5, this would accord with 5.20 million tonnes of actual “rock phosphate”, yielding a conversion factor of 1.34 up from the value reckoned for pure fluorapatite. We may use the latter in the remaining calculations.
World Case: The world produces and consumes 30 billion barrels of oil a year, of which 70% is used for transportation (assumed). Since 1 tonne of oil is contained in 7.3 barrels, this equals 30 x 109/7.3 = 4.1 x 109 tonnes and 70% of that = 2.88 x 109 tonnes of oil for transportation.
Assuming that 50% of it is water, we would require twice the deduced mass of algae = 5.76 x 109 tonnes of it, which contains: 5.76 x 109 x 0.0274 = 158 million tonnes of phosphate. As before, by taking the chemical composition of the material as fluorapatite, Ca5(PO4)3F, FW 504, this amount of “phosphate” is contained in 279 million tonnes. Applying the factor of 1.34 as arrived at above, to account for the typical degree of impurity in the mineral, we obtain a requirement of 374 million tonnes of actual mined rock phosphate.
(2) To provide an independent estimate of these figures, we may note that growth of this algae is efficient in a medium containing a concentration of 0.03─0.06% phosphorus. To avoid being alarmist, we may use the lower part of the range, i.e 0.03% P. “Ponds” for growing algae vary in depth from 0.3─1.5 m, but we now assume a depth of 0.3 m.
UK Case: assuming (vide supra) that producing 40 million tonnes of oil (assumed equal to the final amount of diesel, to simplify the illustration) would need a pond/tank area of 10,000 km2. 10,000 km2 = 1,000,000 ha and at a depth of 0.3 m, this amounts to a volume of: 1,000,000 x (1 x 104 m2/ha) x 0.3 m = 3 x 109 m3.
A concentration of 0.03 % P = 0.092% phosphate, and so each m3 (assuming a density of 1t/m3) of volume contains 0.092/100 = 9.2 x 10-4 tonnes (920 grams) of phosphate. Therefore, we need:
3 x 109 x 9.2 x 10-4 = 2.76 million tonnes of phosphate, which is in reasonable accord with the amount of PO43- taken-up by the algae (2.19 million tonnes), as deduced above. This corresponds to 4.87 million tonnes of Ca5(PO4)3F, and if the 1.34 “impurity factor” is applied, to 6.53 million tonnes of rock phosphate.
World Case: To meet the requirements of the entire world would demand the substitution by algae fuel of 2.88 x 109 tonnes of crude oil, and an installation to produce this amount would occupy an area of 2.88 x 109/40 t/ha = 7.20 x 107 ha of land.
7.2 x 107 ha x (104 m2/ha) = 7.2 x 1011 m2 and at a depth of 0.3 m the ponds would occupy a volume = 2.16 x 1011 m3. Assuming a density of 1 tonne = 1 m3, and a concentration of PO43- = 0.092%, we need:
2.16 x 1011 x 0.092/100 = 1.99 x 108 tonnes of PO43-, i.e. 199 million tonnes. This corresponds to 352 million tonnes of Ca5(PO4)3F, or (x1.34) 472 million tonnes of actual mined rock phosphate.
This is also in acceptable accord with the figure deduced from the mass of algae, accepting that not all of the P would be withdrawn from solution during the algal growth.
Rock phosphate production10 in 2011 amounted to 191 million tonnes, against which must be compared the 472 million tonnes we have estimated would be needed to grow sufficient algae to fuel the world with algal biodiesel. Since food production is already being thought compromised by rock phosphate resource depletion, finding such a significant additional quantity is probably impossible. Currently, the U.S. produces less than 30 million tonnes of rock phosphate annually, but would require 104 million tonnes of the material to produce 22% of the world’s total algal diesel, in accord with its current “share” of world petroleum-based fuel. Hence, for the U.S., security of fuel supply could not be met by algae-to-diesel production using even all its indigenous rock phosphate output, and significant imports would still be needed. This is in addition to the amount of the mineral necessary to maintain agriculture. In principle, phosphate could be recycled from one batch of algae to the next, but how exactly this might be done remains a matter of some deliberation, e.g. the algae could be dried and burned30, and the phosphate extracted from the resulting “ash”, or the algae could be converted to methane in a biodigester31,32, releasing phosphate and other nutrients in the process. Clearly there are engineering and energy costs attendant to any and all such schemes and none has been adopted as yet.
I remain optimistic over algal diesel, but clearly if it is to be implemented on a serious scale its phosphorus has to come from elsewhere than mineral rock phosphate. There are regions of the sea that are relatively high in phosphates and could in principle be concentrated to the desired amount to grow algae, especially as salinity is not necessarily a problem. Recycling phosphorus from manure and other kinds of plant and animal waste appears to be the only means to maintain agriculture at its present level beyond the peak for rock phosphate, and certainly if additionally, algae are to be produced in earnest. In principle too, the phosphorus content of the algal-waste left after the oil-extraction process could be recycled into growing the next batch of algae. These are all likely to be energy-intensive processes, however, requiring “fuel” of some kind, in their own right. A recent study33 concluded that growing algae could become cost-effective if it is combined with environmental clean-up strategies, namely sewage wastewater treatment and reducing CO2 emissions from smokestacks of fossil-fuelled power stations or cement factories. This combination appears very attractive, since the impacts of releasing nitrogen and phosphorus into the environment and also those of greenhouse gases might be mitigated, while conserving precious N-P nutrient and simultaneously producing a material that can replace crude oil as a fuel feedstock.
It is salutary that there remains a competition between growing crops for fuel, and those for food, even if not directly in terms of land, for the fertilizers that both depend upon. There is a dissonance in that apparently clean, renewable sources of biofuels, in reality depend on inputs of a mined and finite reserve, which not only is growing more scarce, but its recovery leaves radioactive waste as a legacy (phosphogypsum)18. In principle, at least, recycling phosphorus from one batch to the next, in algae production, might be done more readily than for land-based crops. Along with the higher relative areal yields that are possible with algae, this might alleviate the rising demand for phosphate rock.
The above, however, illustrates the complex and interconnected nature of, indeed Nature, which as any stressed chain, will ultimately converge its forces onto the weakest link in the “it takes energy to extract energy” sequence. It seems quite clear that with food production already stressed, the production of (algal) biofuels will never be accomplished on a scale anywhere close to matching current world petroleum fuel use (> 20 billion barrels/annum)27. Thus, the days of a society based around personalized transport powered by liquid hydrocarbon fuels are numbered. We must reconsider too our methods of farming2, to reduce inputs of fertilisers, pesticides and fuel. Freshwater supplies are also at issue2, in the complex transition to a more localised age that uses its resources much more efficiently.
(2) Rhodes, C.J. (2012), Sci. Prog. 95, 203.
(27) Rhodes, C.J. (2008) Sci. Prog., 91, 317.
(28) Rhodes, C.J. (2009) Sci. Prog., 92, 39.
(29) Rhodes, C.J. (2012) Making Fuel from Algae: Identifying Fact Amid Fiction, in Gordon, R. and Seckbach, J. Eds. The Science of Algal Fuels: Phycology, Geology, Biophotonics, Genomics and Nanotechnology. Dordrecht, Springer, p177.
(30) Knoshaug, E.P. and Darzins, A. (2011) Chem. Engin. Prog., March, 37.
(31) Sialve, B. et al. (2009) Biotech. Adv. 27, 409.
(32) Heaven, S. et. al. (2011) Biotech. Adv., 29, 164.
(33) Clarens, A.F. et al. (2010) Environ. Sci. Technol., 44, 1813.
The title is a condensate of the latest rendition from Nigel Lawson, who served Margaret Thatcher’s government, both as Secretary of State for Energy and Chancellor of the Exchequer. In a recent interview, published by the Daily Mail (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2244822/Thought-running-fossil-fuels-New-technology-means-Britain-U-S-tap-undreamed-reserves-gas-oil.html), Lord Lawson makes various assertions, each of which invite some consideration and question. At bold face, his conclusions confound the difference between a resource and a reserve. Furthermore, they ignore the fact that it is not the quantity available, but the rate at which it may be recovered – and this not only as a technical but economic reality (this is the “reserve”) – which is the determinant of whether and when oil or gas will “peak”.
As an example where the former but not the latter criterion holds, we might say that it is technically feasible to mine minerals from the moon, and bring them back to earth, but in economic terms, the prospect is unrealistic. However, it is the inclusion of all known, proved, probable and theoretical, that is reckoned-up as a resource, not only ignoring technical and economic factors, but the uncertainty of whether the material is there to be had in the first place. A useful analogy for the relationship between the amount in the reserve, and how quickly it may be recovered, is that it is not the size of the tank but the size of the tap that matters.
No sensible person that I am aware of, is saying that oil or gas is going to “run out” any time soon. I give a talk entitled “What happens when the oil runs out?”, but I begin by explaining that this is not going to happen, and we will be producing oil for decades to come. That noted, continuing to produce oil at the present rate of 30 billion barrels every year is unlikely to be possible for very much longer. At some point, reckoned to be around now, conventional crude oil production will reach a maximum, and then fall relentlessly. It must – this is the nature of a finite reserve. In principle, so long as that “hole” in the output of crude oil can be filled from alternative, unconventional sources, all is well, but once the loss of conventional production exceeds the provision of the latter, the overall sum will pass into the negative; in other words, global oil production will have peaked.
Lawson begins with mention of the extraction of gas and oil from shale by hydraulic fracturing (frac’ing, for the purists, but more commonly designated as fracking). He is entirely correct that it is new technologies – horizontal drilling combined with fracking – that have brought the cost down sufficiently that exhuming gas and oil from such inaccessible reservoirs is now both practically and economically viable. In principle, shale gas can be recovered all over the world, although until an actual well is drilled, there remains speculation as to how much gas there is and indeed its quality; for example, from several shale wells in Poland, came a gas that was so heavily contaminated with nitrogen that it wouldn’t burn. It also contained high levels of hydrogen sulphide, and removing both these other gases to leave pure methane would be extremely costly. That noted, because production from shale wells, of either gas or oil, tends to decline quite rapidly, down to perhaps only 20% of the initial rate within 2 years, more wells must be drilled year on year, to maintain the overall output of a field, and this rate must be elevated to raise gas production, as is sought. Ultimately, the scheme must run up against material limits to the levels of financial investment, infrastructure, equipment and trained personnel that can be brought to bear in the effort.
As to how much shale gas the United States has, claimed in the media as sufficient to last for 100 years, detailed inspection of the available figures reveals this to relate to a resource – i.e. the most optimistic set of accounts – while the reserve (proved plus probable) is more like 20 years worth. Given the known reserves of shale oil, and the expected production from it over the next few years, it is difficult to see how the U.S. will overtake Saudi Arabia, to don once more its crown as the world’s greatest oil-producing nation, which would mean an output of about 11 million barrels a day, up from just under 6 mbd currently, by 2017. In the tally of “oil” is included other “liquids”, including biofuels, natural gas plant liquids and refinery gains, which compromise the truth, since they have different properties from crude oil – in particular, a lower energy density.
Unsurprisingly, oil shale gets a mention, for which it is claimed there is three times as much “oil” under the U.S. as has been used in the past 100 years. Yes, it’s that resource thing again. It is probably worth stressing that oil shale is not the same thing as shale oil. Shale oil (tight oil) is actual crude oil that if recovered, e.g. through horizontal drilling and fracking, can be refined in the normal way. However, oil shale does not contain oil as such, but a solid organic material called kerogen. To produce a material resembling crude oil requires large amounts of energy to heat the kerogen to above 300 degrees centigrade, in order to crack it into liquid form; the process also uses large amounts of freshwater, and churns-out an equal volume of contaminated, wastewater which must be dealt with responsibly.
There is, as yet, no commercial scale production of oil from “oil shale”, and there may never be, since it takes almost as much energy to get oil from it as will be delivered by the oil itself, i.e. pointless. The returns are better on “oil sands”, maybe 3 to 1, in energy terms – once the material has been “upgraded” to provide a liquid fuel – but here too, vast quantities of water are needed, and sufficient energy is required to extract the bitumen in the first place, that installing nuclear reactors in such locations is being considered seriously as a source of heat, currently generated by burning natural gas.
Lawson concludes, “Today, oil, gas and coal represent 80 per cent of the global energy mix. They will continue to dominate the world’s energy markets for decades to come. And within that picture, natural gas is going to offer the cheapest way to produce electricity: cheaper than nuclear energy and massively cheaper than renewables…”. He’s obviously forgotten about climate change.
One hundred feet below the Essex countryside lies the Secret Nuclear Bunker at Kelvdon Hatch, intended to house up to 600 military and civilian personnel – which may have included the Prime Minister – for 3 months, to coordinate the surviving population of London and its environs in the aftermath of a nuclear war. The bunker, in its entirety, is encased by a 10 foot thick wall, created by pouring continually some 40,000 tonnes of concrete, over a period of 7 months in 1951/52, working through the winter, and keeping the material warm by burning fires around the installation while the concrete set. The entrance to the bunker is concealed behind a very ordinary looking bungalow, and leads to a corridor 120 yards long, running into a hill. The corridor is truncated by a left, right-angle bend, intended that in the event of a nuclear blast, much of its energy would be dissipated before it could enter the main body of the bunker, which is closed-off by a pair of two-inch thick armoured-doors, each a tonne and a half in weight. A universal Faraday cage was installed to protect any electronic devices within the bunker from being taken-out by the high-energy electromagnetic pulse that always accompanies a nuclear detonation.
To allow 600 people to survive for 3 months, a supply of 24,000 gallons of water was preserved in underground tanks, along with enough food to feed that number during this time. At a daily dietary intake of 2,400 “calories” (kilocalories), a human body produces around 117 Watts of heat, and so, at full capacity, 70 kW of heat would need to be dissipated, for which an extensive cooling system was emplaced. The air supply into the bunker was drawn from the outside through a primary and secondary filtration system, and traces of dust not thus intercepted, were removed by a fine spray of water to avoid introducing any radioactive contamination. A facility was also installed with sufficient power that, in case of fire or other source of toxic release, all the air from the bunker could be extracted within 10 minutes. Since the whole is, in effect, a rather voluminous three-storey building, I imagine that to have been in there during such an operation would have been quite an experience.
Once the blast doors had been closed, that was it for the next 3 months. Some of the personnel were armed, and so anyone getting cabin fever and trying to escape would have been immediately shot, so as not to breach the security of the rest. The sanitation arrangements were interesting, since once the tanks from the latrines were full, the pumps would come into play, automatically discharging their contents to the surface in a powerful jet, possibly adding to the discomfort of anyone still surviving and unfortunate enough to get in the way of it!
In the anticipation that medical attention would be needed among the 600 throng, there was a sickbay, including a basic operating theatre, on the second floor, and also a supply of cardboard coffins, which stack flat. After about 3 days, a corpse begins to balloon with the gases of its incipient decomposition, and so the dead would be returned to the outside fairly rapidly. Since the living need sleep, there were dormitories – with the “hot bed” system intended – so that as one person went on shift, another would take his place in the warm bed, although with no lights on, this would be a noisy procedure and probably very little rest would be had by anybody.
The bunker is no longer “secret”, and is quite well signposted. It was decommissioned in 1992, and is now privately owned as a tourist attraction. Though never used for its purpose, the bunker was inaugurated entirely during the “cold war” period – such was Western fear of an all-out nuclear attack from “The Russians” – and is not a relic from WWII. Altogether, there were 12 bunkers of this kind built across the country, and connected by telephone cables set deep into the ground, so that communication could be maintained, even while the civilian population was being reduced by radiation sickness, starvation and marauding gangs, beyond those already killed instantly by the nuclear explosions.
There are many parallels that might be drawn between the mentality of the bunker, in anticipation of a nuclear attack by a foreign power, and the survival of humanity in the face of peak oil and ultimately climate change. Will a select few try to hide behind barriers, while the rest tear each other apart, fighting for what resources are left? In reality, there would have been nothing left for those in the nuclear bunker to come out to. The crops of the first year would have been destroyed by extreme cold and in the second year, there would have been little growth beneath the dust-filled skies of this nuclear winter. Much of the population would have been dead, and the land and infrastructure inhospitable to start anew. In reality, those “protected” few would have been condemned along with the huddled masses they sheltered from, once their carefully squirrelled resources had run dry.
The only course for humankind is to create a stable set of conditions, which such catastrophes cannot be part of; where our immediate security is not vulnerable to disruptions in exogenous global supply chains or threats from external forces. We, all of us, stand or fall together in the unfolding future – a choice of implementing the structures of local resilience over those of global dependency.The threat to human civilization is no longer of an external kind, but lies in our actions and behaviour – we cannot hide from ourselves.
Get Involved Reading – Accessing Local Media,
Thursday 22 November, 10:00 am – 12:00 noon. 5 Queens Walk, Reading, RG1 7QF.
Today’s event was attended by Ornella, Chris B and myself, and was a great success. Alan Bunce, the Community Editor of the Reading Post and James Ashford, its Web Editor, were there as instructors and the event was organised by Rachel Miller (Reading Voluntary Action). The most important message was that the local media want input from us. This is termed “user generated content”. So, what do they want particularly?
Emphasis was placed on press releases/stories that lend themselves to a good accompanying picture. Community-based topics may be listed under the following headings:
Appeals for help
The best appreciated format for a press release is as follows:
(1) A short, to the point, introduction, and specific reference to the local area where the event occurs, e.g. “Charity football match in Woodley.”
(2) Include a direct quote from someone that contains the essence of the story.
(3) Include contact details, mobile phone number and email.
(4) Be available!
It is recommended that you locate the editor (list below) for each section of the newspaper, and approach them directly. It is further appreciated that rather than attaching a word-file, say, the text is simply put into the body of an email message.
James Ashford talked specifically about the kind of photographs that are best suited for publication in a newspaper. He said that they usually print at a resolution of 200 dpi (dots per inch) but that the quality of most electronic cameras including those on mobile phones would do the job fine and not to process or crop the image at all, but simply send the raw image as a separate attachment file (ideally RGB jpeg), including the text in the body of the email message, as before.
He suggested that a good picture should meet the following criteria:
(1) Tight – no wasted space
(2) Bright – Focus on the main character(s) or theme of the subject
(3) Upright – camera face-on, not leaning at an angle.
“People plus props”, so that objects are placed with principal characters that tell you who those persons are, e.g. a rugby player holding a rugby ball. Generally, landscape images are best as this fits in with the available space and format of the paper, but two images, landscape and portrait may be sent for them to choose from, if the latter allows better composition and focus on a key feature.
He pointed out that a photograph adds emotion to a story, beyond what can be imparted by “dry text”.
If there is a large group of people, then interest/focus needs to be introduced (e..g the principal characters can be brought to the foreground, plus props), and a caption added, running from left to right, giving the names to show who is who – up to 10 names. As an example of the former technique, he took a picture of the group of about 20 of us, huddled close but with the people at the front holding copies of the Reading Post, to signify what the event was about.
For a particular cause, he suggests finding a photographer – e.g. volunteers, enthusiasts, Everyone! – and if it’s just not possible to get hold of a photo, use a logo instead. The paper does have professional photographers, and if they are to be used, then don’t have them hanging around for an hour before the event, but tell them exactly when to come, as they have several jobs to do in a day!
Finally, if taking a photograph of an event itself is not feasible, then fake it! In other words, take a picture of e.g. someone retiring after 30 years, actually doing the job they loved, and use that rather than worrying about talking one of the retirement “do” itself.
A good photograph with a good “hook”, something that draws the reader in – people cheering, happy children etc. – is more likely to be published. A picture really can paint a thousand words.
Reading Post/Get Reading editorial contacts:
Sarah Hamilton – news editor
Email: email@example.com Tel: (0118) 918 3020
Linda Fort – political reporter
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: (0118) 918 3021
David Millward – business and transport reporter
Email: email@example.com Tel: (0118) 918 3009
Paul Cassell – education, environment reporter and The Diary.
Caversham, Emmer Green, Sonning Common, Sonning, Spencers Wood and Shinfield.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: (0118) 918 3063
Vacancy – crime reporter (temporarily send to Sarah Hamilton)
Oxford Road, West Reading, Goring, Pangbourne, Southcote, Newtown and Coley
Vacancy – health reporter and Petfinder (temporarily send to Sarah Hamilton)
Whitley, Woodley, Earley and Lower Earley
Andy Murrill – Editor
Email: email@example.com Tel: (0118) 918 3024
Hilary Scott – deputy editor
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: (0118) 918 3028
Alan Bunce – community editor
Reading, Bracknell and Wokingham
Email: email@example.com Tel: (0118) 918 3010
Caroline Cook – features editor/What’s on
Reading, Bracknell and Wokingham
Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: (0118) 918 3061
James Ashford – web editor
Email: email@example.com Tel: (0118) 918 3074
Sports desk (0118) 918 3016
Wokingham desk (0118) 918 3000
This is academic and a bit “heavy-duty” admittedly, but the most basic analysis from physics accords with the inevitability of the carbon/climate link. This is work by myself and a good friend and scientific collaborator, Alexander Koewius. Essentially, even without highly complex computational models, basic physics “proves” that connection. How – precisely – the Earth systems will respond remains to be seen, but humans are undoubtedly undertaking a geo-engineering experiment of unprecedented scale, by elevating atmospheric carbon levels artificially. Who knows how a complex system might respond – e.g. “the butterfly effect”?
Global Warming as Seen from the Standpoint of Fundamental Physics and Chemistry.
An ongoing project by A.Koewius and C.J.Rhodes (translating from the German language into English): http://www.koewius.de/Website/Climate_Change.html
This article will be published shortly in: “Australian Resources and Investment Magazine”.
Professor Christopher J. Rhodes, Director of Fresh-lands Environmental Actions, Reading UK. firstname.lastname@example.org
World rock phosphate production is set to peak by 2030. Since the material provides fertilizer for agriculture, the consequences are likely to be severe, and worsened by the increased production of biofuels, including those from algae.
The depletion of world rock phosphate reserves will restrict the amount of food that can be grown across the world, a situation that can only be compounded by the production of biofuels, including the potential large-scale generation of biodiesel from algae. The world population has risen to its present number of 7 billion in consequence of cheap fertilizers, pesticides and energy sources, particularly oil. Almost all modern farming has been engineered to depend on phosphate fertilizers, and those made from natural gas, e.g. ammonium nitrate, and on oil to run farm machinery and to distribute the final produce. A peak in worldwide production of rock phosphate is expected by 2030,1 which lends fears over how much food the world will be able to grow in the future, against a rising number of mouths to feed. Consensus of opinion is that we are close to the peak in world oil production too. Phosphorus is an essential element in all living things, along with nitrogen and potassium. These are known collectively as, P, N, K, to describe micronutrients that drive growth in all plants and animal species, including humans. Global demand for phosphate rock is predicted to rise at 2.3% per year, but this is likely to increase in order to produce crops for biofuel production. As a rider to this, if the transition is made to cellulosic ethanol production, more phosphorus will be required still since there is less of the plant (the “chaff”) available to return as plant rubble after the harvest, which is a traditional and natural provider of K and P to the soil.
World rock phosphate production amounts to around 140 million tonnes. In comparison, we would need 352 million tonnes of the mineral to grow sufficient algae to replace all the oil-derived fuels used in the world.2 The US produces less than 40 million tonnes of rock phosphate annually, but to become self-sufficient in algal diesel would require around 88 million tonnes of the mineral. Hence, for the US, security of fuel supply could not be met by algae-to-diesel production using even all its indigenous rock phosphate output, and significant further imports would be needed. This is in addition to the amount of the mineral necessary to maintain existing agriculture. In principle, phosphate could be recycled from one batch of algae to the next, but how exactly this might be done remains a matter of some deliberation. e.g. The algae could be dried and burned, and the phosphate extracted from the resulting “ash”, or the algae could be converted to methane in a biodigester, releasing phosphate in the process. Clearly there are engineering and energy costs attendant to any and all such schemes and none has been adopted as yet.
Cleaning-up the Environment.
There is the further issue of the demand on freshwater, of which agriculture already struggles to secure enough to meet its needs, and in a sustainable picture of the future, supplies of water appear uncertain against the countenance of climate change. It is in the light of these considerations that algae/algal fuels have begun to look very appealing3, especially given the claimed very high yields that can be obtained per hectare as compared say with rapeseed and biodiesel. Conventional algae production can be combined with water clean-up strategies3, to remove N and P from agricultural run-off water and sewage effluent, both to prevent eutrophication (nutrient build-up in water), which causes algal blooms, and to conserve the precious resource of phosphate. Algae might also be “fed” with CO2 from the smokestacks of power stations to reduce carbon emissions. The implementation of integrated strategies such as these, where the creation of a “carbon neutral” fuel is combined with pollution-reduction is thought to be the only way that the price of algal fuels can be brought down to a level comparable with conventional fuels refined from crude oil. As the price of oil rises inexorably, they are likely to become even more attractive. “Peak phosphate” is connected to “peak oil” since phosphate is mined using oil-powered machinery, and in the absence of sufficient phosphorus, we will be unable to feed the rising global human population, since modern industrialised farming depends on heavy inputs of phosphate, along with nitrogen fertilizers. Pesticides, too, derived chemically from crude oil, are essential, along with oil-refined fuels for farm machinery. It is, nonetheless, doubtful that the world’s liquid transportation fuel requirements can be met through standard methods of algae cultivation entirely,4 though fuel production on a smaller scale seems thus feasible. An analogy for the latter might be as growing algae in a “village pond” for use by a community of limited numbers.
No solution to “fuel crops versus food crops” problem.
It is salutary that there remains a competition between growing crops (algae) for fuel and those for food, even if not directly in terms of land, for the fertilizers that both depend upon. This illustrates for me the complex and interconnected nature of, indeed Nature, and which like any stressed chain, will ultimately converge its forces onto the weakest link in the “it takes energy to extract energy” sequence. It seems quite clear that with food production already stressed, the production of (algal) biofuels will never be accomplished on a scale anywhere close to matching current world petroleum fuel use (>20 billion barrels/annum). Thus, the days of a society based around personalized transport run on liquid fuels are numbered. We must reconsider too our methods of farming, to reduce inputs of fertilisers, pesticides and fuel. Freshwater supplies are also at issue, in the complex transition to a more localised age that uses its resources much more efficiently.
In contrast to fossil fuels, say, phosphorus can be recycled, but if phosphorus is wasted, there is no substitute for it. The evidence is that the world is using up its relatively limited supplies of phosphates in concentrated form. In Asia, agriculture has been enabled through returning animal and human manure to the soil, for example in the form of sewage sludge, and it is suggested that by the use of composting toilets, urine diversion, more efficient ways of using fertilizer and more efficient technology, the potential problem of phosphorus depletion might be circumvented. It all seems to add up to the same thing, that we will need to use less and more efficiently, whether that be fossil resources, or food products, including our own human waste. We are all taking a ride on spaceship earth, and depend mutually on her various provisions to us. Our number is now so great that we cannot maintain our current global profligacy. In the form of localised communities as the global village will devolve into by the inevitable reduction in transportation, such strategies would seem sensible to food (and some fuel) production at the local level. “Small is beautiful” as Schumacher wrote those many years ago, emphasising a system of “economics as if people mattered”.5
And if we try to continue with business as usual?
There is a Hubbert-type analysis of human population growth which indicates that rather than rising to the putative “9 billion by 2050″ scenario, it will instead peak around the year 2025 at 7.3 billion, and then fall. It is probably significant too that that population growth curve fits very closely both with that for world phosphate production and another for world oil production. It seems to me highly indicative that it is the decline in resources that will underpin our decline in numbers as is true of any species: from a colony of human beings growing on the Earth, to a colony of bacteria growing on agar nutrient in a Petri-dish.
(1) Rhodes, C.J. (2011) Science Progress 94, 323.
(2) Rhodes, C.J. http://ergobalance.blogspot.com/2012/02/achilles-heel-of-algal-biofuels-peak.html
(3) Rhodes, C.J. in Algal Fuels: Phycology, Geology, Biophotonics, Genomics and Nanotechnology, J.Seckbach (ed.), Springer, Dordrecht, in press.
(4) Rhodes, C.J. (2012) Science Progress 95, in press.
(5) Schumacher, E.F. (I 973) Small is beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered. Vintage, London.
Pouring, winding from the wound, riven
deep in the Earth’s good side; the black
blood pulses that twists the mainspring,
driving the human surface mechanics.
Oil is transformed into money – black gold
fabricates paper-transactions and promises.
The price of a barrel, sprung on a delicate
fulcrum, pitching joy into stultification and despair.
Riven side in the corpus of the new god,
and we expect many human sacrifices, 5 billion
or so when all the oil is gone.
Meanwhile eyes flinch in horror at intoxicated
beaches, wetlands, birds, livelihoods and dreams,
that do not yet see the half of what is to come.”
Christopher James Rhodes.
I did put some thoughts together prompted in part by a chat I had with Tony Pettit, who is a consultant for Reading Council, and whom I met at the above entitled event on January 12th (2012) at Reading University, “Transition Town Reading and London Commuting”, http://ergobalance.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/trasition-town-reading-and-london.html, in reference to the daily commute. In part the article is a simplification of the truth but it does stress the point that similar numbers of workers commute both from the town of Reading to jobs in other locations (mostly London) and into Reading from its environs (again that is mostly London).
As a follow-up, I have been asked to write something about the meeting per se, and as the title might suggest, its intention was to aim toward Reading becoming a low-carbon town (if not zero) by actions involving local businesses, the local authority, and other major local employers, not least its university. Indeed, the University of Reading has, as its new Vice Chancellor, Sir David Bell stressed, signed-up to cut its carbon emissions to the tune of 35% by 2015/2015. This reinforces a statement made by the previous VC, Professor Gordon Marshall: “As leaders in climate science research and mitigation and with responsibilities to show educational leadership, we want to be seen to be acting responsibly to mitigate our own environmental impact. The benefits of this programme will be felt not just in terms of global CO2 emissions impact but on reduced energy costs – a direct and significant benefit to the University.”
Peter Harper, from the Centre for Alternative Technology: spoke next under the title ‘Taking Decarbonisation Seriously: What Would it be Like?’ (summarised below); followed by Dennis Moynihan of the Institute for Sustainability: ‘Towards Low-Carbon Communities: Making the Magic Happen’. Sally Coble from the Environment Agency and Ben Burfoot from RBC both reported on the Reading Climate Change Partnership and the progress made by the Council to date, with the aim to reduce the Town’s carbon emissions by 50% by 2020. Quite a tall order, to be sure!
That said, significant progress has been made, e.g.almost 2000 homes have been insulated through the Heatseekers initiative, 24 businesses have committed to 10:10 (a carbon emission reduction scheme http://www.1010global.org/uk/business/learn), and there are 24% fewer car trips to the centre of town compared with 2006 (possibly rising fuel prices may have contributed to this). The Council’s current energy generation is over target, mainly from landfill gas, supplies of which will soon be exhausted. There is also a photovoltaic (PV) initiative to be implemented, with a budget of £5 million. The Town’s total carbon emissions were given at almost 1 million tonnes in 2005, but by 2009, this had fallen to just over 800,000 tonnes. This accords to a reduction by 22% which is the best for any unitary borough in the south east. It is often unclear whether such figures refer to elemental carbon or carbon dioxide, and if the latter, should be multiplied by a factor of almost 4.
For me, the set of workshops were the most useful. That said, I am amazed by the lack of awareness of peak oil and its implications. One man said that he couldn’t understand why there was such emphasis on installing trams. As he put it: “A tram is just a bus that only goes one way!” I disabused this line of thinking, informing him that the reason for favouring trams is that they are powered by electricity which can be generated from various different sources (e.g. coal, gas, nuclear, renewables) whereas a conventional bus needs liquid fuels derived from crude oil. There was some fiasco a while back over the claim that some of the Reading bus-fleet ran on ethanol fermented from sugar grown in the UK, whereas in fact it was derived from wood-pulp shipped over from Sweden, rather defeating the object!
The following is a fine distillation of Peter Harper’s talk, “Taking Decarbonisation Seriously”, sent to me from GREN news:
By international standards the UK is doing well and it is important to recognise that small entities, be that the UK or Reading, are significant as exemplars. However, it is deeply worrying that it is thought possible that with concerted international action we could keep warming below 2C which is estimated to give a 75% chance of avoiding the risk of ‘dangerous climate change’ – not very good odds. The UK is currently spending above its fair share of the affordable world carbon budget, especially when emissions elsewhere on our behalf are considered. The CAT emphasise that ‘physics trumps politics’ (‘the Cnut principle’). We must start with physics and adjust the politics and economics to fit. Given the UK’s history of emissions they need to be not just zero carbon but negative carbon to clear a fair space in the budget for developing countries. CAT have drawn up a scheme to achieve this involving alternative technologies but the necessary negative carbon cannot be achieved without lifestyle changes too eg although most people would still travel in cars there would be lower individual ownership. More drastically air miles would need to be cut by 60% – to the level of the 1970s. The large amount of biomass required would change the appearance of the countryside and require a reduction in grazing livestock with knock on effects for diet. The net result would be a shift in the livestock/crop protein ratio from 55:45 to 33:67. It would also mean a better and more secure diet (with fewer imports) and more people in land-based jobs.
Insisting on maintaing the status quo will eventually destroy it. Applying the necessary adjustments will keep as much as possible of the status quo.
The consequences of their scheme are:
Greater energy security as more is produced in the UK
Deal with Peak Oil/Gas
Decarbonising the economy sorts out most other environmental problems as well
A positive balance of payments
Greater food security (but fewer cows)
Better prospects for our children
This is our chance to make the inevitable transition from seeking ‘more’ to seeking ‘better’. Like our children, there comes a time when the economy has to stop growing bigger and get nicer!
In the conversation with Tony Pettit, it became clear that Reading depends both on its workforce travelling out of the town (principally to London) to their jobs and workers mainly from London travelling into Reading to do jobs here. The vast majority of these daily journeys are made by car, and so in the face of Peak Oil it does seem like a kind of madness to waste fuel both ways round, rather than reskilling the citizens of Reading to do the jobs here, and the same for London. This may be the principal change that will be made in the future, driven most likely by rising fuel prices, and the major means of reducing carbon emissions in Reading. I do wonder, however, once the provision of oil becomes compromised, whether these jobs – particularly of the high-tech variety, in Reading – will exist in ten or twenty years time, and the necessary reskilling should more effectively be made in terms of sustainable employment, such as empowers the building of a strong local economy for Reading.
In a nutshell, the answer to the question posed in the title of this article is, “No”. The full article can be found at http://ergobalance.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/can-solar-fuels-prevent-imminent.html It will also be published in the next issue of the journal Science Progress. I am merely putting the concluding section here, which refers to localisation and Transition Towns.
Overall summary and outlook.
In conclusion, we are faced with an overall serious energy problem, and most pressingly the challenge of how to fill the enlarging hole created by a declining production of conventional crude oil. It appears almost certain that there will be profound efforts made in obtaining “unconventional oil” from shale and in liberating gas from various geological formations by “fracking”; the production of “synthetic crude” from tar-sands will doubtless increase too. Noting that world light crude oil production peaked in 2005, it is increasingly the heavy oils, e.g. from the Orinoco Belt in Venezuela, that will need to be recovered and processed, requiring the building of a new swathe of oil refineries that can handle this kind of material. Thus, not only are supplies of conventional crude oil going to fall, but what is recovered will be increasingly difficult to process. How difficult it is to produce an energy resource is usually expressed by the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI). Thus in the halcyon days of the Texan “giant gushers”, 100 barrels of crude oil could be recovered using the energy equivalent to that contained in one barrel of crude oil, which gives an EROEI = 100. The figure has fallen since then, and presently EROEIs in the range 11 -18 are obtained for North Sea (Brent Crude) oil, and as low as 3 – 5 for heavy oil and tar sands “oil”.
Although shale-oil production and use is hardly environmentally “clean”, taking account of its carbon emissions (both in the retorting of shale and in burning the final fuel) and large water demand (3 – 10 barrels of water to produce each barrel of oil), it is trumpeted in some quarters that the US will become self-sufficient in “oil” by 2020. Current US production of shale-oil is around 0.5 mbd, and is predicted to rise to 3 mbd by 2020, but this must be gauged against a loss of conventional oil by 29 mbd across the world. Can solar fuels fill the gap? As we have seen, much of the solar fuel technology is very much at the research stage. Most of what is ongoing aims to produce H2, but even if half the “new” platinum recovered annually were used to fabricate fuel cells, only something like 1% of the billion road vehicles currently in existence could be so substituted by “hydrogen cars” over the next 10 years. Hence, a global transportation network based on hydrogen/fuel cells, let alone a full-scale solar hydrogen economy, is a pipe-dream. If hydrogen can be made renewably on the grand scale, as an energy carrier (it is not really a fuel, since it must be created from primary energy sources), it will probably need to be used by combustion.
The fabrication of electric cars runs into similar resource difficulties, especially in terms of rare earth metals, and so a strategy based on liquid fuels would seem most sensible. Liquid fuels are furthermore entirely compatible with the prevailing transportation infrastructure, in regard to the distribution of fuels and their deployment in internal combustion engines. The Fischer-Tropsch (FT) process is a well-established technology for converting syngas to liquid hydrocarbons, but the means to obtain H2 + CO on a large scale without using fossil fuels is not. Even when (or if) those clean technologies based on artificial photosynthesis are developed, a whole new generation and scale of FT plants will need to be installed, which at the level envisaged would take decades. Any such timescale must be judged against that for the depletion of conventional crude oil. Of those approaches considered here for the production of liquid fuels, the use of genetically engineered cyanobacteria looks the most promising, but even so, meeting the global demand for them seems to be a bridge too far. Producing millions of electric cars is just not a practical proposition, and the only realistic means to move people around in number using electrical power is with light railway and tram systems. The notion of personalised transport will be relegated to history by massive fuel prices, and an absence of any cheaper “car ownership” option. Our global civilization is underpinned almost entirely by crude oil – as refined into liquid fuels for transporting people and consumer goods around nations; for growing and distributing food; for mining coal, shale and all kinds of minerals, including metallic ores and rock phosphate for agriculture; and as a raw feedstock for the chemical industry, to make pharmaceuticals and to support healthcare. If our stalwart “black gold” is set to abandon us over the next few decades, and it is not possible on that same timescale to produce alternative liquid fuels – “the supply side” – we can only address the problem from the demand side.
This means a substantial curbing of transportation and a relocalisation of society, to become more locally sufficient, e.g. in food production, at the community level.
Such are the aims of the “Transition Town” movement. It is likely that energy production will become increasingly decentralized, and done at the smaller scale, to power such communities. Fuel too, e.g. for local agriculture, might be produced from algae at least on a regional scale, as integrated with water treatment schemes to conserve the resource of phosphate, and to avert algal blooms. Methods of regenerative agriculture, including permaculture, provide means to food production that demand far less in their input of fuels, fertilizers and pesticides, and actually rebuild the carbon content of soil. It is thought that 40% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions might be sequestered in soil using no-till practices. Solar energy may also be harvested usefully and directly in the form of heat (rather than converting it to a fuel), at greater efficiency than through PV, using concentrating solar thermal power plants, roof-based water heating systems, solar cookers, solar stills and water sterilization units, and homes especially designed to absorb and retain thermal energy. Though the foreseeable transition to a lower energy and more localised way of life is unequivocally daunting, there is hope.