November 22, 2005
Biofuels Regulations Destroying Rainforests

The New Scientist reports that government-engineered demand for biofuels is destroying rainforests.

THE drive for "green energy" in the developed world is having the perverse effect of encouraging the destruction of tropical rainforests. From the orang-utan reserves of Borneo to the Brazilian Amazon, virgin forest is being razed to grow palm oil and soybeans to fuel cars and power stations in Europe and North America. And surging prices are likely to accelerate the destruction.

The rush to make energy from vegetable oils is being driven in part by European Union laws requiring conventional fuels to be blended with biofuels, and by subsidies equivalent to 20 pence a litre. Last week, the British government announced a target for biofuels to make up 5 per cent of transport fuels by 2010. The aim is to help meet Kyoto protocol targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

Hey, I've repeatedly said that biomass crops are mostly a bad idea. Why increase the demand for crop land in the tropics? High efficiency photovoltaics will use less land area than biomass and most photovoltaics could be placed on existing human structures. Greenies who want immediate reductions in fossil fuels consumption ought to look at better insulation and building designs. For the medium and long term we should be accelerating nuclear and photovoltaics research and development. Better battery technology is the way to reduce the need for liquid fuels. With higher energy density and cheaper batteries we can get transportation energy from nuclear, wind, and photovoltaics.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 November 22 11:04 PM  Energy Policy


Comments
S. Cormack said at November 23, 2005 5:43 AM:

Agree totally. Problem is, biofuel industry concerns are well-connected politically and are guaranteed handouts in energy bills.

michael vassar said at November 23, 2005 6:45 AM:

Algae based biofuels might have potential.

Engineer-Poet said at November 23, 2005 7:39 AM:
Why increase the demand for crop land in the tropics? High efficiency photovoltaics will use less land area than biomass and most photovoltaics could be placed on existing human structures.
The cheapest PV I've ever seen is about $4/W(peak), they come from high-tech nations, and world production is what, a gigawatt per year?  Biofuel crops can be done with indigenous resources.
Greenies who want immediate reductions in fossil fuels consumption ought to look at better insulation and building designs.
Buildings use little petroleum; that would mostly save natural gas and coal.  The way to get radical improvements in petroleum consumption is to demand that all new vehicles be plug-in hybrids and power them with coal, wind and cogenerators running off the remaining heating fuel.
James Bowery said at November 23, 2005 10:59 AM:

This gets to a more fundamental problem with the way capital is distributed. So much damage has been done to the ability of technologists to reap the benefits of their work that capital is now ridiculously concentrated in the hands of people who have to be risk averse because they don't understand how to: 1) do engineering tradeoffs AND/OR 2) pick engineers who are good. So they can't pursue really obvious technological options like ocean desert aquaculture for the cultivation of oil-bearing algae. Oil bearing algae are many times more efficient than soya beans for biofuels production and the primary limit on their economic viability is keeping the cultivation pools sun-exposed and warm at night -- both problems being solved by moving biofuels cultivation off of tropical lands to tropical ocean deserts such as those used for IronEx II -- the iron fertilization experiment that demonstrated bountiful biomass production from virtually sterile ocean deserts (a gain of nearly 20,000 to 1 biomass to iron fertilizer within a couple of weeks).

I'm increasingly convinced that technological improvements around the edges will not get to these core carrying capacity problems without a political upheaval.

Don said at November 23, 2005 11:56 AM:

You can make bio-diesel from recovered cooking grease, so we could spare the rainforests, we would just need several thousand more Applebee's.

Invisible Scientist said at November 23, 2005 12:15 PM:

Maybe genetically engineered plants that can grow in deserts at a very fast rate, might be a good idea for biofuels. If this were possible, then a lot of vegetable oil can be burned cleanly in power plants. But in any case we are accelerating the global warming, which will be a serious problem soon.

rearadmir0l said at November 23, 2005 12:21 PM:

WE DIDN"T LISTEN!

mark said at November 23, 2005 12:25 PM:

Instant gratification seems to be the means of controlling the liberal masses...
No ability to plan or forsee, just pander.

Nick said at November 23, 2005 1:35 PM:

"Buildings use little petroleum; that would mostly save natural gas and coal. The way to get radical improvements in petroleum consumption is to demand that all new vehicles be plug-in hybrids".

Plug-in hybrids are certainly essential. It's important to keep in mind, however, that all energy markets are connected, and all forms of energy are interchangeable. That's why the price of coal has doubled in the last year.

Sometimes the links are unclear: they include manufacturers who have designed their systems to use either coal, gas or oil for process heat, depending on which is cheapest; and the interchangeability of bunker fuel and coal and gas, especially in Mexico, and many other countries.

M. Simon said at November 23, 2005 1:41 PM:

Ah yes. Better battery technology. A very good idea.

A question. Did you flunk chemistry?

Battery technology is limited by chemistry. There is not going to be a break through. The best we can do is fuel cells. Probably not hydrogen either. Methanol or ethanol fuel cells are the probable path for transportation. At the current time fuel cells cost about 100X per KW more than the cost of an internal combustion engine.

Photovoltaics are nice for niche applications. The electricity produced costs at least 10X that of a coal fired plant. It is coming down the learning curve and will in time cost about the same or less than a coal fired plant. However, that day is 30 to 50 years in the future at the current rate of improvement.

Wind, however, is coming down the learning curve much faster. Wind will cost the same as coal electricity in about 10 to 15 years. Its cost is already less than natural gas electricity so it does make economic sense to build up wind as a hedge against rising natural gas prices. In fact wind output is highest in winter when natural gas demand peaks. A good fit.

It chapps my ass that every one with a light switch is an energy expert. The problem is confusion. Not every thing that can be done in a laboratory is cost effective.

Did I mention the catalyst problem for fuel cells? There is not enough platinum in the world. There are other catalysts in the wings but none are well developed.

Nuke power? With wind declining in price to lower than nukes within 15 to 25 years it is hard to justify from an economic standpoint. Not to mention plutonium proliferation. I do like nukes though. For war ships. Well as a Naval RO in a former life (Tonkin Bay Yacht Club '66) I may be biased.

In any case none of this is going to fix our oil for transportation problem any time soon.

BTW the current biggest rainforest killer is cocaine. As we fight the drug war harder we drive production deeper into the Amazon. i.e. the Drug War is another subsidy for destruction of the rain forrest. Brilliant. All this to solve a problem (addiction) that is very likely a fantasy. People take drugs for the same reasons doctors prescribe them. To solve medical problems. Freud thought this was the key to drug use in 1898. Evidently as time passes we get stupider.


M. Simon said at November 23, 2005 1:52 PM:

James,

Capital is no problem for wind because it makes economic sense. Might the same not be true for the rest of the energy market?

The problem is not capital. It is profit. Alternatve energy projects that make economic sense get capital.

There is no magic bullet.

M. Simon said at November 23, 2005 2:01 PM:

BTW I have some interesting ideas in the energy storage area. Development time 1 to 2 years. No exotic technology. Markets identified.

Contact me if you are interested.

Mark Bahner said at November 23, 2005 4:38 PM:

"Algae based biofuels might have potential."

Algae-to-biodiesel looks incredibly promising to me:

Algae to biodiesel

Mark

simon said at November 23, 2005 5:06 PM:

Randall, you are correct in saying that Bio-fuels make no sense in the short and long-term. We need to be careful when experts proclaim that bio-fuels hold promise. The opportunity cost is easy to estimate and all the analysis that has been conducted has been clear in saying they are real and material.

Mike O said at November 23, 2005 5:06 PM:

Ahh, but wind power has it's own environmental impact. It slaughters migratory birds by the thousands yearly in California and wind DOES serve a significant number of environmental purposes. Not to mention the substantial mining required to provide the materials for the millions of wind turbines.

Solar has the same issue; the most efficient materials include rare earths that often are obtained from major mining operations. Some can be extracted from seawater, but that requires massive energy...

Get the point? ANY energy generation has its 'environmental cost'; true 'green' people would have us live in caves, using stone tools. :) :) :)

Smitty said at November 23, 2005 5:11 PM:

What's wrong with windmills on Antartica connected to electric hydrogen generators with liquid hydrogen compressors & storage tanks?

It's too cold for "protestors" too.

Randall Parker said at November 23, 2005 5:13 PM:

E-P,

Yes, buildings are mostly heated with coal and natural gas. But they release pollutants when burnt as well. Also, economic savings from reduced heating costs are just as real as economic savings from reduced transportation costs.

My point is that building insulation can be done now. The politicos are trying to find substitutes now and they are grabbing for a substitute that is not a net economic or ecological benefit.

As for indigenous tech and biofuel: Hey, indigenous people can hack down whole rain forests with axes. Or they can burn down the forests. Lots of ways to wreck things.

My point here is that we need to do research first before some problems can be solved and politically engineered solutions end up causing more harm than good.

M. Simon,

It chaps my ass that so many people think they can pose as experts simply by being condescending.

Donald Sadoway, an MIT prof who knows more about electrochemistry than all of us put together, says that we don't have to break the laws of physics to develop batteries that store an order of magnitude more energy per weight than lead acid batteries. It'll take a lot of R&D work but is doable. He says it can be done with lithium polymers.

Sadoway can't get enough research money to do the needed amount of battery research. But he's developing a cool coke-less way of forging steel. Stronger steel and reduced emissions in one fell swoop.

James Bowery said at November 23, 2005 6:08 PM:

Moreover, Mr. Simon, there is this little thing in business called the net present value calculation and it involves risk adjustement of the expected returns. When risk is reduces, as it has been with wind power, sure you have no problem finding capital. Riskless investments "make sense" to the risk averse minds who have grabbed the capital away from the technologists.

M. Simon said at November 23, 2005 6:20 PM:

Mike O,

You want to do something significant for birds - tear down all the tall buildings. Or better yet kill all the cats. Windmills of utility scale sizer are not a big bird killers.

Except for Tehachipi in Calif. windmills above 1 MW Peak capacity kill 1 to 2 birds a year. The Tehachipi problem is being worked on by installing larger machines and turning them off during bird migrations.

=======================

As to the odds I'm an expert:
1. Nuke power reactor operator in the USN. Includes training in grid interconnects.
2. Designer of aircraft electrical systems. Including back up batteries.
3. Student of all forms of power and its generation. Stems from my interest in physics and chemistry. I got my hands on my first solar cell around 1960. A Motorola B2M.

=====================

A knowledge of basic chemistry would eliminate the "better battery" hope. Any time you must carry your oxidizer with your fuel you are going to take a big hit. Add in low energy density of the fuel and the need for an electrolyte and there are big problems.

I believe an order of magnitude improvement in batteries is possible. Problem is liquid fuels are two orders of magnitude better than that and three orders of mangitude better than current batteries.

Energy density is critical for transportation power. Refueling speed is important too. And longevity (wear out mechanisms). In all those areas batteries suck. Sure you can recharge some of the latest batteries (in the lab) in 15 minutes. However, this has got to adversely affect battery life and charging efficiency. For long battery life you want slow charging and discharging. This also gets you better charging/discharging efficiency. However, it is not what you want for transportation where energy surges are very useful and quick refueling is desireable.

One of the reasons I like the liquid fuel cell is that the market is there even if the initial cost is very high. i.e. powering portable electronics. Even with huge demand for such a product its entry into the market has been promised for delivery within two years for the last four years. Obviosly it is not easy. In any case once it hits the market development should proceede much faster than the H2 fuel cell. The big advantage of the methanol/ethanol cell is the energy density of its fuel and its oxidizer is air (the oxygen component actually). Available almost everywhere at low cost. No significant weight penalty.

There is a very good reason why battery chemistry/design is not getting much more than incremental attention. The methanol/ethanol fuel cell has more potential.

Randall Parker said at November 23, 2005 6:33 PM:

Mike O,

Lots of different materials can be made into photovoltaics. The cheaper approaches will use cheaper and more plentiful materials.

Yes, all human behavior has some environmental impacts. But that is not an argument against reducing pollution. Nor is it an argument against developing better energy technologies.

Engineer-Poet said at November 23, 2005 6:37 PM:

M. Simon spews:

Battery technology is limited by chemistry. There is not going to be a break through.
You mean breakthroughs like 5-minute charge times and 10x lifespan (link to a123systems censored by content filter)?  5 kW/kg?

If you can't improve on that, you can still build an electric car that will leave everything but a Formula 1 racer in the dust and go 400 miles on a charge.  Who needs more?

Next on Futurepundit:  M. Simon declares that everything has been invented, calls for closure of US patent office.

M. Simon said at November 23, 2005 6:40 PM:

James,

The obvious answer is to lower the risk. Or raise the rewards. The rewards are limited by the current market so the best thing to do is to lower the risk.

The odds of making a profit improve with the lowering of costs. The risk re: wind at 12 cents a KWh vs biofuel at 50 cents a KWh is obvious. Barring special circumstances like powering laptops.

So the best way to lower the risk is lower the cost of production. i.e. more labratory work may have a bigger payoff than building a plant.

An alternatve energy method of producing electrical power at one cent per KWh would suck up all of America's capital for a number of years. The low cost would insure rapid build out. Capital is not the problem. Profit is the problem. In most cases alternative energy is not profitable. Some work is being done installing photovoltaics in demand metered buildings to shave air conditioning induced peak loads. So there are some places where solar cells make sense. They will make sense in more places as costs come down.

BTW I think capital ought to be somewhat risk adverse. Otherwise capital gets dissipated for no reward. Not a good idea.

Randall Parker said at November 23, 2005 6:45 PM:

M.Simon,

I'm not impressed with your credentials. Again, Sadoway knows far more than you do and he disagrees with you.

As for batteries versus liquid fuel: We've hashed this out here before. But apparently you missed it. So again:

Liquid fuel is only part of the weight of the power train of cars. Electric cars avoid the weight of the internal combustion engine, starter, etc, the transmission, and a lot of axle stuff. You have to consider that weight when comparing total vehicle weight. The lighter weight electric motors go on each wheel right where the power is needed. Batteries an order of magnitude better density than lead acid would be enough to make this scheme work. Again, Sadoway says this is possible. Google my site for Sadoway and you'll find relevant links.

Also, the analog and digital components for managing such a system have become amazingly cheaper and continue to plummet. I work with an electric engineer developing boxes which handle large currents which are used in automotive embedded systems development (I do real time and GUI s/w for this equipment) and we are continually amazed at the price drops even in the analog components. He has embedded designs on vehicles and knows the industry.

Peter Huber sees the same shift toward electrical. Hybrids are the transitional technology toward pure electrical.

M. Simon said at November 23, 2005 7:43 PM:

EP,

The critical problem for batteries is not W/Kg it is Wh/Kg and Wh/$. And to maintain efficiency of charge/discharge cell resistance must decline as the square of peak power. These batteries would be good for hybrids. I'm not sure they portend the all electric vehicle of the future. BTW imagine the charging station required to deliver 100KWh of energy in 5 minutes. To 5 or 10 vehicles. That is 1.2 Megawatts peak per charging car. Not including losses. At least 20X the peak power your average home is wired for. If charging losses are 10% you need to dissipate about 100KW during the charge. That is one hell of a heater. You would need a significant substation to deliver that kind of power with any efficiency. If you delivered it at 1200 volts you would need a 1,000 amp service for each vehicle. Not counting losses. Is this something you want to be doing in the rain?

You will note that at twice the energy density (Wh/Kg) of current cells it is still far below (100X or more) the energy density of common liquid fuels.

And then there is the question of cost. A lot of wonderful things can be done if cost is no object. For portable power tools, profesionals will pay more for longer run times or lighter weight. The hybrid folks would probably prefer to reduce the size of the battery pack.

Doesn't any one know how to run the numbers? Which is in fact the first sign of real engineering. Now admited the above calculations are ROM (rough order of magnitude). Still they give an idea of the problems involved in an all electric battery powered vehicle.

Also note that the batteries have yet to have a significant field test - although that is coming. We are probably 5 years away from significant production (enough to support even the hybrid market). This could be just another niche battery if there are significant problems (like the memory effect).

Power disipation ability goes up roughly as the square of battery size while losses go up as the cube for a given technology and and energy use rate (W/Kg). Which is why small battery packs for tools may be viable and large packs for all electric cars may not.

James Bowery said at November 23, 2005 7:51 PM:

What is risky for a non-expert in a field is not risky for an expert in a field, Mr. Simon. You say "More lab work is needed." yet you don't address my initial assertion which is that if the capital is in the wrong hands, the lab work won't get done because 1) those owning the capital don't know how to do it and/or 2) those owning the capital can't differentiate beween those who do know how to do it and those who claim to know how to do it. Their risk is higher and yes the immediate self-interested move for them is to wait for the risk to come down -- relative to their skills but it doesn't address their long-term problem which is idiots such as they control the structure of investments during a time when energy shortages could turn their corner offices into plasma -- despite all their boilerplate protections.

M. Simon said at November 23, 2005 8:02 PM:

So Sadoway disagrees. And he knows more about it than I do. I will grant you both points.

Show me the battery. I'll even be easier than that. Show me the materials that go into the battery. Sadoway admits he doesn't have them. Breakthroughs will be required.

So yeah. If Sadoway could get all the unobtanium he wants he could produce such a battery.

So you got a line on unobtanium vendors?

Liquid fuel cells are a better bet. Which is why they are getting the investment $$$. The effort may be just as great but the payoff is 10X larger. Where would you put your money given that the odds are similar?

M. Simon said at November 23, 2005 8:16 PM:

James,

I know how to fix the misallocation of capital problem. We kill the rich people and steal their money. Then we get the experts together and they can tell us how to reach nirvana - energy wise.

Heck if we could steal their money without killing them I'd go for that too.

Then the good people could do good things without having to sell their ideas or develop business plans. Or worrying about capital budgets.

BTW if this is such a good thing why aren't the French or Germans doing it? Or the Soviets? Didn't the Soviets have a system where the engineers were going to produce unlimited wealth by scientific methods unlimited by capital scarcity? What ever happened to them? You don't hear much about them any more.

And if this is such a good idea why haven't you developed a business plan? Why aren't you out there selling it? What is it going to cost? How much energy will be produced for the cost?

In any case our problem is not energy per se. It is transpotation fuels. We have more than enough coal to last through the wind/solar transition for electrical power.

AA2 said at November 23, 2005 8:44 PM:

All BS energy fuels are worse on the environment then the commercially viable ones. If we as a world allowed super dense cities, and didn't subsidize things like lumber, and biofuels, our footprint on the earth would not be very large. And it would shrink over time.

For example moving from a few people living in every valley as the greens want, to people moving towards a few massive cities. Or from using lumber as a heating source, to coal, to oil then to nuclear.

Its my opinion that the most commercially viable fuels will always be more environmentally friendly. Just the way the laws of physics work.

M. Simon said at November 23, 2005 8:44 PM:

James,

I'm an expert in the field. I have devoted my life and my work to power and control. I can run the numbers. I can do business and marketing plans.

There are no "magic" experts out there. Despite what you read in the papers.

In fact from my point of view things are moving along nicely in the right direction. You try to go too fast and you get excessive waste. Which waste either decreases living standards or lowers investment potential.

In any case if transportation fuels become a problem we have an answer. Modems.

AA2 said at November 23, 2005 8:45 PM:

Its amazing how the 'greens' ideas always end up doing by far the most damage to the environment.

M. Simon said at November 23, 2005 8:54 PM:

AA2,

There is another name for high density cities.

Targets.

In the case of biowarfare or disease transmission in general, lower density is better. The same from a pollution standpont. Nature is very good at remidiating low density pollution. Not so good with high density.

The American dream is the cottage, pickett fence, and an acre or two of land. Something on that order is probably the human ideal if it was economically viable.

Cities are important if transportation and communication costs are high. If such costs are low cities are less important.

Engineer-Poet said at November 23, 2005 9:13 PM:

M. Simon equivocates:

The critical problem for batteries is not W/Kg it is Wh/Kg and Wh/$.
But just a few hours ago you said it was chemistry.  I'm getting tired of your arrogant nonsense.  Make up whatever you use for a mind.

The problem with Li-ion cells has been materials cost and fab costs.  Moving away from lithium cobalt oxide to iron phosphate and titanium spinel will cut raw-materials costs dramatically while also eliminating the thermal runaway problem.  Greater production of nano-fine electrodes will bring their costs down as processing technology improves.  The end stage of every commodity is that it sells for a small multiple of its raw-materials cost; with the Li-ion tech on the shelf today, that means the days of the internal-combustion ground vehicle are numbered.

James Bowery said at November 24, 2005 12:11 AM:

After a adolescent fit setting up and knocking down paper tigers, Simon states: n any case our problem is not energy per se. It is transpotation fuels. We have more than enough coal to last through the wind/solar transition for electrical power.


Correct. That is why I focused my comments on ocean desert aquaculture of oil-bearing algae.


I'm an expert in the field. I have devoted my life and my work to power and control. I can run the numbers. I can do business and marketing plans.


An expert in the area you admit is not critical.

Paul Dietz said at November 24, 2005 6:06 AM:
What's wrong with windmills on Antartica connected to electric hydrogen generators with liquid hydrogen compressors & storage tanks?

It's very costly, and hence a non-starter, unless you think the whole world is going to join hands, sing Kumbaya, and repeal the laws of economics. Hydrogen is a terribly inconvenient and uncompetitive fuel.

What's going to be producing the majority of our energy for the rest of our lives is fossil fuels, with small contributions by nuclear and hydro, minor contributions by biomass, and very very minor contributions by wind, solar, and others.

Quilly Mammoth said at November 24, 2005 6:50 AM:

Sadly, if M. Simon wasn't such an arrogant poster interesting points he makes might be looked at. Yes, M. Simon, it chaps my ass too when "know it alls" tell everyone else they are wrong. You, sir, apparently have a light switch too.

Niche market Photovoltaics are an important aspect of energy development and usage. African nations are all looking at coal fired plants, South American nations at hydro and other sources. All of which change the environment. In these places getting Photovoltaics to the rural areas is actually cheaper and has an immediate, positive impact. Personally, I think getting UNDP out of the process would speed things up...but that's a different debate. Meanwhile, a lot of people who would never have hade electricity without Photovoltaics now have it and there is a growing market for all sorts of electronics. Clean, renewable energy for a not unsubstantial percentage of the global population.

The disdainful sniff of M. Simon against the improvements in battery technology masks a profound change in the last twenty years. In the late 80's the big news was the "gel cell"...it was slow to charge and quick to drain under demand. Today's rechargeable batteries are quick to charge and deliver more load for a longer time. This isn't M. Simon's lead-acid battery anymore. If "Chemistry" only allows a single order of magnitude change in battery technology then we are seeing batteries that can be recharged at "the pump" for not too much longer than what we spend there now. Recharging from a grid powered by nuke power, more efficient coal power and the host of alternative power sources.

And wind power? There's a nursery in Tulsa that erected a large tower with 12' arms. They don't use it much anymore because for most of the year there is too much air traffic. It breaks the owner's heart to find, on a fairly regular basis, the crushed bodies of the various species of birds that fly the Tulsa foothills. Then there is the rather annoying whapwhapwhapwhapwhap...

But it, like batteries and Photovoltaics, will improve over time with technology and market development. We used to call that appropriate technology applications.

The problem is, as always, a large scale, single prescription for what is really a wide variety of ailments. Snake Oil.

Randall Parker said at November 24, 2005 10:27 AM:

M. Simon,

Regards unobtanium: So then is technological progress grounding to a halt?

I pointedly referred to the medium and long term and the need for research and development for better technology. We will some day have much better batteries, cheaper photovoltaics, and cheaper nuclear.

I advocate a large increase in government research funding in photochemistry, electrochemistry, and nuclear precisely to make those future advances come sooner rather than later.

Do you argue that it will be physically impossible to lower the costs of photovoltaics by an order of magnitude? Do you argue that it will be physically possible to increase the Wh/kg by an order of magnitude over lead batteries?

Joseph said at November 24, 2005 12:55 PM:

A few points I noticed which should be corrected.

1. Proliferation due to using nuclear. Unless very special procedures are used with stringent controls you don't get weapons grade plutonium from a reactor. You get a nearly inseperable mixtures of several plutonium isotopes predominately PU240 which can spontaniously fission at any time and is deemed useless for weapons.

2. Windfarms in the arctic are extremely impractical as of this time. An institute in Colorado designed one that maxes at 500Kw and used a significant portion (28%? seems to stick in my mind) to keep the blades ice free. Now there's some newer vertical designs that have potential but that's the rub, they just have potential, nothing proven. Add to that sustainment costs (at a minimum triple your costs for wages, material, fuel etc. for any workforce kept on hand in an arctic enviroment) and no one is going to foot the bill for construction.

3. Catalysts for hydrogen. Some interesting work going on such as nickel nano spheres which should reduce the cost dramatically.

I agree that electrical would be ideal. I'll accept fuel cells though if technology is slow. At this time the biggest stumbling block is mostly "selection" of a hydrogen carrying system (compression, hydrides, ammonia, methanol the list goes on and on though the ammonia sequestered in a salt matrix seems to have a lot of potential).

But I digress I have 14 people to feed in a short while and a 27 lb turkey to finish. Happy Thanksgiving all

Acksiom said at November 24, 2005 1:05 PM:

M. Simon, the problem I have with your POV is that I have noticed an overall constant increase in scientific, technological, and practical engineering (as in, consumer-available) advances over the course of my life.

So now, whenever someone says, "We've reached the limits on X," I think to myself, 'Now, wait a minute there. Just the other day, I read this: http://www.popsci.com/popsci/science/0a03b5108e097010vgnvcm1000004eecbccdrcrd.html '

People's abilities to innovate, invent, and instantiate keep surprising us all. For another example, Moore's law is still continuing to hold true, despite all the times I've seen its death knell sounded over the past decade.

I honestly don't understand how one can look at the accelerating rate of modern invention and discovery and still believe that "We've reached the limits of X". So very many others who have said so have had their statements proven wrong by their tomorrows, and I'm not seeing a case here as to why yours are or will be any different.

Malcolm said at November 24, 2005 10:01 PM:

One more rebuttal to M.Simon? Here we go:
There seems to be a lack of imagination here. The electric car does not have to be an exact analog to the ICE car. You have shown how it is "impossible" to refuel batteries quickly enough due to high voltage and current. What about mechanically rechargeable batteries like Zinc Air? How about swapping batteries at the station and charging them slowly? Charging them overnight at home slowly?

Your orders of magnitude problems can be addressed: lighter cars, regenenerative breaking and lack of idling combined might just get you one 10X improvement. 10X on the battery and there's your 100X. (not to mention 10X reduction in recharging difficulty)

It also seems clear that the capital IS in the wrong hands. $100 Billion on war in Iraq? The entrenched oil interests own the government and its huge access to capital. This problem is compounded by their control on regulations, tax incentives and pork barrel handouts. Renewables receive token subsidies, while fossil fuels and ethanol (corn) farming get the lions share and hydrogen gets the big media hype. I don't pretend to have a solution to this one. Education to fight ignorance maybe?

People seem to concentrate (pun sorry) on PV. The largest, and seemingly profitable, solar installations, past and planned future are solar-thermal. That said, cheap PV may happen sooner than you think. At that point, all those long term investments in nuclear might look pretty stupid. Risk indeed. It is natural for those interests to discourage renewables and reduce their risk.

PacRim Jim said at November 24, 2005 10:31 PM:

I'm having a hard time imagining how demand can destroy anything. Humans, sure. But demand?

Engineer-Poet said at November 25, 2005 4:24 AM:

I can't see anyone regretting an investment in nuclear any time soon; none of the GHG-free alternatives can supply base load nearly as easily.

Paul Dietz said at November 25, 2005 7:54 AM:
Proliferation due to using nuclear. Unless very special procedures are used with stringent controls you don't get weapons grade plutonium from a reactor. You get a nearly inseperable mixtures of several plutonium isotopes predominately PU240 which can spontaniously fission at any time and is deemed useless for weapons.

It is not the case that reactor-grade Pu is useless for weapons. It has a much higher chance of preinitiation, but with boosting this does not cause unacceptable yield. Consider: nuclear weapons from the US and other major powers are supposed to work in a nuclear war environment, such as coming down onto an enemy missile field, where the neutron background will already be very high, so they have to be insensitive to preinitiation.

On the other hand, any econony based on hydrogen will have severe proliferation problems, since if you are making hydrogen by electrolysis, you can, at very low marginal cost, separate out the deuterium by the CECE process. This process involves counterflow of water and hydrogen through a catalytic exchange column that strips the deuterium from the gas stream back to the water stream. It can be retrofitted on any electrolysis system, and also (with a bit more complexity) onto thermal reforming hydrogen producers (with a scheme called CIRCE). Once one has heavy water, one can make a very small Pu production reactor using natural uranium.

Invisible Scientist said at November 25, 2005 8:08 AM:

In the latest issue of Scientific American, there is an article about the latest generation fast-neutron reactors:

http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa006&colID=1&articleID=000D5560-D9B2-137C-99B283414B7F0000

It turns out that the future reactors (if built) would burn not only the fissile uranium isotope which is less than 1 % of the mined uranium, but also the rest of the uranium because the nuclear waste that is produced in the reactor will also be useful as fuel in this kind of reactor. This means that the fuel efficiency will be boosted 100 times, and all the long term nuclear waste will be eliminated, leaving behind only low level nuclear waste with half life less than 300 years, so that the Yucca Mountain storage will not be needed.

Paul Dietz said at November 25, 2005 10:33 AM:
It turns out that the future reactors (if built) would burn not only the fissile uranium isotope which is less than 1 % of the mined uranium, but also the rest of the uranium because the nuclear waste that is produced in the reactor will also be useful as fuel in this kind of reactor.

It's been known for a long time that this is possible. However, it isn't close to working economically. Even reprocessing spent LWR fuel to recover plutonium for reuse doesn't make sense economically. Reprocessing has proven to be too expensive relative to the cost of making fresh fuel, even if you increase the cost of natural uranium by an order of magnitude. Breeding with U/Pu will also probably require fast reactors, which have had their own problems -- it's turned out to be a big problem that the coolant, a liquid metal, is opaque.

I'll add that the 'leaving behind only low level waste' isn't true, since the fission products are very radioactive initially, much more so than 'low level' waste. Moreover, unless essentially all of the actinides (> 99.9%) are recycled, they continue to dominate waste toxicity at long time periods, and remain troublesome.

What does appear to make sense is a much more efficient once-through fuel cycle, such as a U/Th cycle in CANDU reactors. This does not require expensive reprocessing, but can achieve much higher burnup.

AA2 said at November 25, 2005 11:01 AM:

I think we are hitting on an important point with regards to the nuclear waste. The waste will be there and it will be polluting. The question that matters is will it be less polluting then the alternatives.

People know that oil is polluting so they go for biofuels. But they wrongly assume there will be no environmental cost for the biofuels. The first thing I thought when I heard of the biofuels is do they have any concept how much land would be needed to yield the energy needed.

For example in 1900 20% of farmland was to feed horses. Considering the amount of energy involved in moving today's world I could see ethanol requiring way beyond a 20% global increase in farmland use. Perhaps more like 100%. Obviously all that new land has to be cleared and turned to farmland. Or at least old farmland that would have been returned to nature because of increasing crop yields, would stay in cultivation.

aa2 said at November 25, 2005 11:10 AM:

Invisible scientist, very interesting article. It is clear to me that the future of energy is nuclear power and there is huge improvements that are there to be made. In cost and in reducing waste, which imo go together.

In the future when breeders become cost effective I think we will also be able to burn up most of our nuclear waste from today.

aa2 said at November 25, 2005 11:16 AM:

Engineer-poet that is it, as batteries get better, they will grow in size in the hybrids, eventually going to plug-in hybrids. Then eventually in most cars the combustion engine will disappear altogether.

Electricity is much cheaper then gasoline in energy terms in every nation I have looked at.

Joseph said at November 25, 2005 11:45 AM:

Paul Dietz

No I have to disagree with you. PU240 is useless for weapons material. Please bare in mind that PU240 spontaneously fissions without imput. To my understanding both the Soviets, US and I think the British looked into this (if it could be done then production of weapons material would have been far cheaper) and gave it up as impractical. A lot of people keep expressing worry about proliferation. What? An armed organization is going to invade a major western nation, take over the reactor, dismantle it then fight it's way out to some secret location to build bombs? If people want to stop proliferation then they must somehow prevent any unreliable nation from having a nuclear program. Seriously Pakistan, North Korea etc. did not get their material by reprocessing normal spent fuel.

As far as pre-initiation I would recommend you look at it again. I have attended courses and done practical work in that field while in the military during the cold war at the tactical level (the level at which pre-initiation was a far greater concern). I have signed the required non-disclosure documents and since I cannot seperate public knowledge from personnal experience in my memory I will simply shut up on the subject.

Having cheaper heavy water would not decrease the difficulty in building a CANDU style reactor for the attempt at breading weapons material. Other materials would be easier to track.

To the main point

As to bio-diesel... people concerned that humans are driving climate change should be paying attention to this. Of whatever level humans have impacted climate change land usage and the inherent change in regional weather patterns would be the bulk of it. I can't see how millions of acres of soil being intensively worked to produce hydrocarbons for fuel is better than several facilities turning out hydrogen. As I mentioned earlier I agree with the apparent majority, batteries would be more elegant. If however fuel cells take precedent well the main tech is in place now. Choice of catalyst is not a major hinderance. Several methods for retail/wholesale distribution are viable. Hydrogen generation in the quantity needed is also viable. What apparently is lacking is a decision on which methods/systems to use.

If for some reason we were silly enough to go exclusively bio-fuel within a generation another opec would be created. The US could stand alone (which we could now even with hydrocarbons if we desired to use other resources) but what of the other poor, high population nations? Far better to find a method not requiring a select few producers. Batteries, fuelcells, whichever takes precedence is all to the good. I dislike hydrocarbon usage due to the political/economic baggage that comes with it now.

Engineer-Poet said at November 25, 2005 1:58 PM:

aa2 writes:

as batteries get better, they will grow in size in the hybrids, eventually going to plug-in hybrids.
Keep spreading that meme!  With people already tired of high fuel prices, it'll eventually lead to action.

Paul Dietz said at November 26, 2005 6:42 AM:

Joseph:

Pure 240Pu may be 'useless' for weapons, but plutonium containing appreciable quantities of this isotope is not only useful for nuclear weapons, it is actually used in nuclear weapons. See the nuclear materials section of Carey Sublette's Nuclear Weapons FAQ:

http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Nwfaq/Nfaq6.html

So-called weapons grade Pu in the US can contain up to 7% 240Pu (Pu from the soil at Rocky Flats was 5.9% 240Pu). This is much higher than the 240Pu content of the plutonium used in the first generation implosion bombs. Reactor grade Pu from LWR fuel starting with 3% 235U has a bit more than twice this concentration of 240Pu. According to the FAQ, for this material:

The high rate of neutron emission means that predetonation is inevitable, even with a very efficient implosion system. However, even the relatively primitive Fat Man design would have produced a 0.5 kt or so yield with this material. With optimal implosion design yields in the range of at least several kilotons are possible. If fusion boosting is used, then the adverse effects properties of reactor grade plutonium can be completely overcome, allowing its use in efficient high-yield designs although the material would be less convenient to use.

(the inconvenience coming from the higher thermal output and radiation background.) Boosting refers to the incorporation of a capsule of compressed deuterium-tritium gas in the core. This gas is heated to fusion temperature even in a 'fizzle', and produces copious quantities of energetic neutrons that drive fission in the expanding core even after it has become subcritical.

The reason for the 7% limit is apparently economic, not weapons physics related. The cost of Pu from a weapons reactor is minimized when the burnup reaches the point where the 240Pu content is around 7%.

You wrote:

Having cheaper heavy water would not decrease the difficulty in building a CANDU style reactor for the attempt at breading weapons material. Other materials would be easier to track.

What materials are those? Zirconium is not needed, and natural uranium is available essentially anywhere for a determined proliferator.

Joseph said at November 26, 2005 2:12 PM:

Paul Dietz

As I said "practical." The PU240 content varies depending upon the period of burnup. The majority of a fuel elements usefull span has higher ratios of PU240 which is very difficult to seperate. This doesn't even take into account the buildup of PU241, 242 etc. (with special note of PU241 joyfully turning into the heavy gamma emmitter Am241).

The FAQ statement that thin man could have produced at least a .5 kt yeild with high levels of pu240 is wildly optimistic. It's far more likely that such a device would slag the pits before it was fully assembled as a weapon. A level of ~1% pu240 content created such a degree of unreliability that the time and expense of seperating 60 kg's of highly enriched Uranium (>80% U235)was undertaken to build thin man. As far as current allowances of up to 7% PU240 content that is only possible in the later generations of implosion weapons with very advanced designs. As an example such weapons as deployed in MIRV systems. How many nation states can produce a MIRV? The Chinese for example are still trying (nothing that I've found even hints at a deployment). Boosting is a non issue. If a nation can produce a weapon allowing high tolerance of PU240 content then they're not some bunch of beginners trying to hide a half dozen weapons. So what if they can stick in a "tritium kicker" to boost effeciency 40%, they've already become a major player. Conversely sticking such a booster in a fully unreliable weapon has no impact since such a weapon has a good chance of not even reaching it's target in a functional condition let alone detonating effeciently enough to allow a booster to have any real impact.

As far as tracking the construction of a nuclear program from scratch involves to much to remain hidden. Current world events show that. Yes certain designs do not require certain materials but the effort itself is not easily hidden due to the resource requirements. I just don't see a hydrogen economy and any potential cheaper access to heavy water as being that great of an enabler to proliferation. I see would-be nuclear nations avoiding a CANDU style like the plague and going with a traditional LWR design (modified later) for purposes of initial deniability. The biggest enabler to proliferation so far (with the possible except of Iran's efforts) has been some pretty boneheaded bootstrapping of certain nations by the major powers in the way of powerplant construction and technical aid.

A good discourse though and since you're interested in the subject have you found any detailed references to the old South African program? I've been curiouse about that (they supposedly built 5-6 gun design weapons) but I've never found any good source.

Paul Dietz said at November 26, 2005 3:50 PM:

Joseph:

The FAQ statement that thin man could have produced at least a .5 kt yeild with high levels of pu240 is wildly optimistic.

First of all, that's not 'Thin Man' (a bomb that was never built). It was refering to Fat Man, the first generation implosion bomb. And why is it wildly optimistic? Sublette analyzes just this device here and gets the .5 kT figure, assuming a neutron is inserted when the core has just achieved criticality. Note that this corresponds to an energy release of about 1 million electron volts per Pu atom, so the temperature in the core will still be hot enough to ignite the DT booster.

'Little Boy', the uranium bomb, was built because they didn't know going into the effort if plutonium bombs could be made to work at all. The discovery of the high spontaneous fission rate of 240Pu occured well after the decision to make a 235U bomb had been made.

As far as current allowances of up to 7% PU240 content that is only possible in the later generations of implosion weapons with very advanced designs.

Yes, in designs using boosting which, as I wrote, mitigates the problem. Note that boosting has a larger effect on the yield of an otherwise inefficient device than it would if the device were efficient without boosting, if the yield in the inefficient device is high enough to ignite the DT. Your MIRV comments are, of course, irrelevant, since we're talking about nuclear devices, not reentry vehicles. Anyone who can make plutonium can make tritium and do boosting.

'Reactor grade' Pu only has a neutron background a factor of 2 or 3 higher than 'weapons grade' Pu. If the former makes weapons impossible, the latter would have weapons with a high chance of preinitiation.

Oh, and 241Am is not a 'heavy gamma emitter'. They use it in smoke detectors precisely because it's not.

Joseph said at November 30, 2005 2:43 PM:

Paul Dietz

First point my mistake I missread your post so I stand corrected on fatman. Note though that it becomes even more improbable due to the mass requirements. Modern plutonium based weapons can get by with a 7% Pu240 content due to the small material requirements for the pit.

'Little Boy', the uranium bomb, was built because they didn't know going into the effort if plutonium bombs could be
made to work at all. The discovery of the high spontaneous fission rate of 240Pu occured well after the decision to
make a 235U bomb had been made."

I have seen statements to the exact opposite. The "gun" design is by far the easiest to engineer if appropriate materials are at hand.

Your MIRV comments are, of course, irrelevant, since we're talking about nuclear devices, not reentry vehicles

The comment was to generically include a series of W-?? designated weapons which I will not name directly even if they have been mentioned in general publications for the reasons I gave origionally. I was referring to a class of weapons engineered to the small size and yeild requirements for such a delivery system.

'Reactor grade' Pu only has a neutron background a factor of 2 or 3 higher than 'weapons grade' Pu. If the former makes
weapons impossible, the latter would have weapons with a high chance of preinitiation.

As per Wikipedia Spontaneous fission rates:

U-235: 0.2 - 0.3 fissions/s-kg
U-238: 7 fissions/s-kg
Pu-239: 10 fission/s-kg
Pu-240: 415,000 fission/s-kg (ca. 1,000,000 neutrons/s-kg)

Note that while spontaneous fission is a form of nuclear decay it is not normally considered in half life determination. Say what you will I do not agree with you.

Oh, and 241Am is not a 'heavy gamma emitter'. They use it in smoke detectors precisely because it's not.

Okay at this point I call bullshit. Americium 241 is used in smoke detectors, in extremely minute amounts BECAUSE it releases ionizing radiation (hint, that means such things as gamma).

I will not state my opinion on who you actually are, I've compared language usage, writting patterns etc. for several months and I find "stalking horses" as odious though apparently very prevelent on this board therefore I'll leave the individual in question to himself so that he may talk to himself. Good day and good riddance.

Paul Dietz said at April 5, 2006 12:41 PM:
I have seen statements to the exact opposite. The "gun" design is by far the easiest to engineer if appropriate materials are at hand.

That's nice. The FACT (easily checked in the historical literature) is, however, that work on the uranium bomb started before the spontaneous fission rate of 240Pu was first measured. This is because you don't get significant 240Pu until you've operated a reactor for a while and extracted plutonium.

Now, you then present numbers for spontaneous fission of 239Pu vs. 240Pu. Yes, the spontaneous fission rate of 240Pu is five orders of magnitude higher than that of 239Pu. However, we were talking about the spontaneous fission rate of reactor grade Pu vs. weapons grade Pu. These both contain 240Pu; weapons grade Pu is not pure 239Pu! If you look at the spontaneous fission rate of the isotope mixes, reactor grade is only a factor of 2-3 higher than weapons grade.

Oh, and 241Am is not a 'heavy gamma emitter'. They use it in smoke detectors precisely because it's not.

Okay at this point I call bullshit. Americium 241 is used in smoke detectors, in extremely minute amounts BECAUSE it releases ionizing radiation (hint, that means such things as gamma).

Wow, what a non sequitur! Yes, 241Am emits ionizing radiation. No, it does not emit a lot of gamma radiation. It emits mostly alpha radiation. The fact that it emits most of its radiation as alphas, not gammas, is precisely why it's used in smoke detectors.

I will not state my opinion on who you actually are,

I use my real name here, as I have done on the net (from the early days of usenet) for decades. The implication I am somehow masquerading as someone else is insulting and puerile.

OTOH, I would not be surprised your opinion on this, like the other opinions you have expressed in this thread, diverges from reality. You and reality are clearly not on the best of terms.

Good day and good riddance.

Having failed in the debate, lacking both intelligence and a grasp of the facts, your escape. Don't come back, hear?

David said at December 11, 2006 10:01 PM:

Biotech Combany in India Supplying Jatrobha Curcas Feeds and Tissue culture Saplings of Orchids and Other Cut Flower Varietiess.

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