R-Squared Energy Blog

Pure Energy

Answering Reader Questions 2009: Part 1

Before I took a recent trip to Canada, I opened up the floor for questions. Getting them answered has taken longer than I intended. Fortunately, other readers answered a lot of them in the comments of that thread. So I have sifted through the list, trying to find questions that were still open, or those I wanted to make an additional comment on. Thanks to those who submitted questions, as well as to those who answered them. A special thanks to Kit P., who wrote some extensive answers to some of the questions around electricity and saved me a good deal of work.

This is going to take at least three installments. But I have put this off long enough, so here are my answers to the first five questions. This installment covers plasma gasification, natural gas projections, free energy, promising alternative energy technologies, and GTL.

I have a total of about 25 to answer, and I will get to them in the coming week.

The Questions

Russ wrote: I read about plasma gasification of garbage. Naturally the people promoting it say how great it is. Your comments please. Answer

Bob S. asked: What will natural gas production in the US be 5, 10 and 15 years from now? Should I convert my 310 delivery trucks (I operate in an east coast city) from diesel to natural gas? Answer

bc asked: The inline ad for this article claims “Never pay for electricity again”, something called Magniwork. I recommend NOT clicking the click, as it does dodgy things with your browser. Does Magniwork really work? Is there such a thing as “free energy”? How do I stop these scammers’ ads appearing on my screen? Answer

C asked: Which alternative energy technologies do think will have the greatest impact in the US? Answer

Benny wrote: A friend of a friend of mine is working on a process to convert natural gas to gasoline, through some sort of heat and pressure. My friend did consulting on pressure and flow inside of a tube. That is all I know. Is there any hope for such a scheme? Any hope of commercial viability (obviously, we have abundant NG in North America)? Answer

The Answers

Answer

Gasification technologies in general have a lot of idiosyncrasies that can make them difficult to get right. I have seen this first hand in a gasifier that failed to perform. The issue in that particular case was the refractory which protects the metal from the very high temperatures of the gasifier. If the refractory has a problem, you can get hot spots on the shell of the gasifier and weaken the metal.

That’s just an example of one of the things you have to get right. Plasma gasification is a special case within gasification technologies. It uses electricity and very high temperatures (thousands of degrees) to gasify the feed. Because of the electricity demands, the external energy inputs into plasma gasification can be high relative to other gasification technologies. Further, if you are using the synthesis gas produced to further produce a liquid fuel, there are a couple of other considerations. Plasma gasification occurs at low pressures. Many of those downstream reactions (like Fischer Tropsch) are carried out at high pressure, requiring a further energy intensive compression step. This means that plasma gasification has been looked at very little for the production of liquid fuels. Coskata is looking at it for their system, but this was one of the criticisms I had of them. The technology at scale and in that application is an unknown. That puts increased risk on Coskata’s technology.

If the purpose is merely to destroy the garbage and produce a bit of syngas in the process, then that might be a more workable option. I think it just depends on how the costs compare to digestion or to producing power from incinerating the waste. But if the intent is to turn that garbage into liquid fuels, plasma gasification may not be the best choice.

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Answer

Bob, the projections from the EIA (admittedly taken with a grain of salt) are that natural gas production will be relatively flat because prices are expected to be relatively flat. Because of all of the shale gas that starts to become economical in the $6-$8/MMBTU range, I think it is going to be hard for natural gas prices to break through those levels for a good while. Therefore, if I was planning for fleet purposes, I might take the upper end as a worst case and see what that would do to my business. Then, I think whether to convert depends entirely on how many miles per year your fleet travels and the availability of fueling stations in your area.

I believe that if the savings would pay back the conversion costs in 3 years at a presumed natural gas cost over that time of – say $5 – then I would do it. For that matter, you can hedge your natural gas price. If I look out 5 years, the price I can lock natural gas in for is still in the $6-$7 range in 2014, and in 10 years is only in the $7-$8 range. You just have to make the call on whether you are going to be financially OK if prices do get up into that range, knowing you have a substantial upside if they stay in the $3-$5 range.

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Answer

No, I don’t believe any of these free energy systems work. The ones I am familiar with all violate laws of thermodynamics (e.g., Steorn). So I certainly don’t endorse any of them, and the appearance of their ads here is because someone paid Google to place their ads on topical websites (presumably with certain energy-related keywords). I don’t know how to stop them from appearing, except I do have some ability to block them when I see them. I have done this in the past for highly non-topical ads.

My other option is of course to take the ads down altogether. The income from them is pretty trivial. However, I have always liked the idea that my writing is helping to pay my grocery bill. Best thing I would suggest is just not to click on ads that seem too good to be true.

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Answer

I am going to tip-toe around this one. As some others pointed out, there are options that are making a contribution right now, albeit I think you probably mean in the long run. To be clear, I think we will have corn ethanol for a long time. But I also think it will necessarily be subsidized for the next 30 years as it has been for the past 30. I don’t believe it will be able to make a big impact insofar as displacing large amounts of fossil fuels simply because a lot of fossil fuels tend to be consumed in the process of producing the ethanol.

However, I do think there are technologies that have a lot of promise – especially in specific niches – but that haven’t gotten a lot of attention. But in my new role, I will be working on developing some of these technologies and trying to bring them to commercialization. Some of them are very specialized and relatively unknown, and therefore I don’t want to write about them until our relationships are more secure.

But without totally dodging the question, I will provide some hints. There is a guy who posts here sometimes called Al Fin (see his website here). I was reading through a blog posting on cellulosic ethanol a few days ago, and I ran across a comment that Al made. His first paragraph here hits specifically upon some of the things that I think show a lot of promise – and in fact that first paragraph hits very close to the mark on several things I am looking at. I will at some point start writing more about some of them.

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Answer

Benny, that’s the basis for gas-to-liquids (GTL). Natural gas can be turned into synthesis gas, and then you can send that gas through a Fischer-Tropsch reactor to make longer chain hydrocarbons. From this process, you get wax which has to be cleaned up, and as part of the clean-up you can make gasoline blending components. The problem is that it is a capital intensive process due to all of the downstream clean-up equipment required, and thus is expensive. This is why – despite lots of natural gas reserves – we don’t have GTL plants popping up all over the place.

Now if your friend is working on a process to directly make gasoline from natural gas, I am unaware of such a process. Natural gas isn’t too keen on reacting with other natural gas molecules to form longer chain hydrocarbons without first converting it into an intermediary like syngas. One could perhaps envision a catalyst that could build up the chains directly from natural gas into something longer.

There is a reaction called methane coupling (which I have some experience with) in which the methane (C1, because it has one carbon) in natural gas is converted into C2. In order to get up into the gasoline range, you need to grow that chain to something like the C5 to C8 range. In other words, you have to grow the single carbon atom in methane into a string of 5 to 8 carbon atoms joined together. The methane coupling reaction, for instance, has low yields and low selectivity, demonstrating the challenge of growing these chains. If you can only get 10% of the methane to form C2, and the reaction is capable of going to C3, then your yields beyond C2 are going to be trivial. Still, it isn’t pseudoscience.

OK, that’s all for now. The next installment will start with the story about the UT Arlington researchers making oil from lignite.

August 1, 2009 Posted by | coal, Coskata, fischer tropsch, free energy, gtl, methane coupling, natural gas, plasma gasification | 24 Comments

The Long Recession

Sometimes people ask me what I think will happen as a result of peak oil. Well, it depends. We could see alternatives – natural gas, ethanol, GTL, CTL, etc. – fill the gap of falling oil supplies for a while. It just depends on how quickly production falls. But if the alternatives are not up to the task, then I think what we will see – borrowing terminology from The Long Emergency– is The Long Recession. Here’s how it would work.

As economies heat up, demand for oil increases. This puts upward pressure on oil prices, which can ultimately cause a recession such as the one we are in now. Historically, spiking oil prices tend to consume disposable income and lead to recessions. Jeff Rubin, whose new book I recently reviewed, has claimed that four of the past five recessions were caused by spiking oil prices.

In normal cycles, oil companies build up capacity when oil prices are high. A recession caused by high oil prices, combined with overcapacity built up during the price rise, can keep oil prices at bay for a long time. But what if oil capacity can’t be overbuilt, because oil production has peaked? In this situation, oil prices will start to recover just as soon as the economy starts to come out of recession. This may in turn “restall” the economy, leading to a long recession that just repeats the cycle every time the economy begins to recover.

It is hard to say that we are at that point. However, oil prices have recovered quite a bit of lost ground, and have now crossed $70/bbl:

$70 oil menaces budding recovery

At the end of May CNNMoney.com ran a story asking if $60 oil will kill any economic recovery. ‘No,” most analysts said – consumers could shoulder $60 crude, and analysts didn’t see prices going much higher.

Now oil is touching $70 a barrel. Goldman Sachs recently said it sees crude at $85 by the year’s end. With the economy still on life support, oil is drifting dangerously close to being the wet blanket at the recovery’s party.

Hmm. Sounds like what could be waiting on the other side of this recession is…a recession.

There are alternatives that start to become economical with oil at $70 or more. Oil sands, for one. Natural gas vehicles also start to look pretty good at those oil prices. Even GTL, CTL, and BTL stand a chance of being economical if oil prices hang around at lofty levels. But companies – especially oil companies – are pretty risk averse when it comes to predicting oil prices. I doubt any U.S. oil companies are basing future economics on the expectation of > $70 oil. If they were, you would see far greater investments into unconventional energy sources.

June 9, 2009 Posted by | btl, CTL, economics, gtl, oil prices, recession | 20 Comments

Summary of Archived Essays

I generally get a lot of e-mails asking for comments on biodiesel, butanol, or any number of subjects I have previously written about. But once an article goes into the archives, it is not nearly as accessible. I am about to be on vacation for a week, so I thought this might be a good time to review some previous articles on various subjects that have scrolled into the archives.

Ethanol

1. Grain-Derived Ethanol: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Synopsis: In my first blog essay, I hit a number of the popular pieces of misinformation regarding grain ethanol.

2. Improving the Prospects for Grain Ethanol

Synopsis:Here I looked at some potential breakthroughs that could make grain ethanol truly viable.

3. Ethanol from Biomass: A Sustainable Option?

Synopsis: I took a brief look here at the potential of cellulosic ethanol, the subject of my graduate school research.

4. How Reliable are Those USDA Ethanol Studies?

Synopsis: Here I address a pair of USDA reports on ethanol published in 2002 and 2004. In 2002, they claimed the energy return on ethanol was 1.34 (even though using their numbers you get 1.27). Two years later, they admitted they had grossly underestimated some of the energy inputs, yet the energy return increased to 1.67. I explain how they managed to fool so many people with an accounting trick.

5. Energy Balance For Ethanol Better Than For Gasoline?

Synopsis: Does it really take less energy to make ethanol than to make gasoline? Of course not. In this essay I flesh out the truth behind this very misleading claim.

6. The Future of E85

Synopsis: What’s going to happen if the ethanol subsidy is allowed to expire at the end of next year? Bad news for E85.

7. 60 Minutes – The Ethanol Solution

Synopsis: Were you impressed with Dan Rather’s report on ethanol? I was not. Superficial reporting at its finest.

8. E85: Spinning Our Wheels

Synopsis: Should we dramatically increase the number of E85 pumps in the country? Why don’t we first figure out how we can possibly supply them? I take a critical look in this essay.

9. Lessons from Brazil

Synopsis: Based on the stories in the media, you might never guess than 90% of Brazil’s fuel demand is satisfied with petroleum, nor that they have a fraction of U.S. energy demands. We have no hope whatsoever of following Brazil’s example, as shown in this essay.

The Panderers and the Clueless

10. Who’s to Blame for High Gas Prices?

Synopsis: One of my favorite targets is pandering politicians. Here I take my first shot at them.

11. Politics as Usual

Synopsis: More pandering politicians. They bemoan global warming and damage to the environment, so by golly let’s make gasoline cheaper. That should help.

12. Another Uninformed Consumer Watchdog

Synopsis: Here I take on a consumer watchdog group who claims that gas prices are really going up because oil companies are ripping you off. However, the group seems never to have heard of supply and demand, so I cover that for their benefit.

13. Taxing “Windfall Profits”

Synopsis: Do politicians actually believe a windfall profits tax is going to bring down the price of gas? Probably not, but they need to give the impression that they are actually doing something about high gas prices.

14. Politicians, Profits, and Inventories

Synopsis: Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell drove 2 blocks to an event to complain about rising gas prices. I wonder if his brain was working that day.

15. I’m Being Gouged!

Synopsis: Are you being gouged? It depends. What is gouging, anyway?

Conservation

16. Fuel Efficiency and Lessons from Europe

Synopsis: My first post on conservation, wondering why we can’t learn a thing from our neighbors across the pond. This essay hit #1 on Reddit.com for several hours, and generated 5,000 hits more than on a typical day.

17. I Can Drive 55

Synopsis: You can have a big impact on your energy usage by just slowing down. I have.

Biodiesel

18. Biodiesel: King of Alternative Fuels

Synopsis: I explain in this essay why I am much more bullish on the possibility of biodiesel as a sustainable energy option. The biodiesel group at UNH was referenced, including a hypothetical scenario where 100% of U.S. fuel needs are met with biodiesel produced from algae.

Butanol

19. Bio-Butanol

Synopsis: Butanol is a rising star on the energy scene. Here I discuss some of the qualities that make it a better option than ethanol.

Peak Oil

20. Peak Oil: End of the World?

Synopsis: I discussed my view of Peak Oil, and why I think some effects of Peak Oil will be mitigated. I still view it as a very grave threat, but one that I believe we are capable of muddling our way through.

21. What You Need to Know about Peak Oil

Synopsis: This one is hosted offsite. I wrote this article on Peak Oil for Omninerd. I go into much more detail, giving the history of the debate and covering the potential mitigation options. This essay is very highly-referenced.

Miscellaneous

22. A Primer on Gasoline Pricing

Synopsis: I covered some of the reasons behind rising gasoline prices, and predicted back in March that gasoline prices would continue to escalate.

23. Compressed Air Energy Storage

Synopsis: I am a big fan of wind energy, but the intermittent nature of the wind has always been a problem. In this essay, I discuss a method for storing wind energy for later use.

24. XTL: Promise and Peril

Synopsis: Here I discuss the promise and peril of extending the fossil fuel economy with gas-to-liquids (GTL) and coal-to-liquids (CTL).

Those aren’t all of the essays I have written, but are mainly those that either generated a lot of traffic, a lot of comments, or were publicized by other web sites.

Have a safe and happy 4th of July. I will start on new material next week. I hope to finally get around to that long-delayed article on solar energy, which is my favorite alternative energy source.

Cheers,

RR

July 3, 2006 Posted by | conservation, CTL, E85, ethanol, gtl, Peak Oil, politics | 2 Comments

Summary of Archived Essays

I generally get a lot of e-mails asking for comments on biodiesel, butanol, or any number of subjects I have previously written about. But once an article goes into the archives, it is not nearly as accessible. I am about to be on vacation for a week, so I thought this might be a good time to review some previous articles on various subjects that have scrolled into the archives.

Ethanol

1. Grain-Derived Ethanol: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Synopsis: In my first blog essay, I hit a number of the popular pieces of misinformation regarding grain ethanol.

2. Improving the Prospects for Grain Ethanol

Synopsis:Here I looked at some potential breakthroughs that could make grain ethanol truly viable.

3. Ethanol from Biomass: A Sustainable Option?

Synopsis: I took a brief look here at the potential of cellulosic ethanol, the subject of my graduate school research.

4. How Reliable are Those USDA Ethanol Studies?

Synopsis: Here I address a pair of USDA reports on ethanol published in 2002 and 2004. In 2002, they claimed the energy return on ethanol was 1.34 (even though using their numbers you get 1.27). Two years later, they admitted they had grossly underestimated some of the energy inputs, yet the energy return increased to 1.67. I explain how they managed to fool so many people with an accounting trick.

5. Energy Balance For Ethanol Better Than For Gasoline?

Synopsis: Does it really take less energy to make ethanol than to make gasoline? Of course not. In this essay I flesh out the truth behind this very misleading claim.

6. The Future of E85

Synopsis: What’s going to happen if the ethanol subsidy is allowed to expire at the end of next year? Bad news for E85.

7. 60 Minutes – The Ethanol Solution

Synopsis: Were you impressed with Dan Rather’s report on ethanol? I was not. Superficial reporting at its finest.

8. E85: Spinning Our Wheels

Synopsis: Should we dramatically increase the number of E85 pumps in the country? Why don’t we first figure out how we can possibly supply them? I take a critical look in this essay.

9. Lessons from Brazil

Synopsis: Based on the stories in the media, you might never guess than 90% of Brazil’s fuel demand is satisfied with petroleum, nor that they have a fraction of U.S. energy demands. We have no hope whatsoever of following Brazil’s example, as shown in this essay.

The Panderers and the Clueless

10. Who’s to Blame for High Gas Prices?

Synopsis: One of my favorite targets is pandering politicians. Here I take my first shot at them.

11. Politics as Usual

Synopsis: More pandering politicians. They bemoan global warming and damage to the environment, so by golly let’s make gasoline cheaper. That should help.

12. Another Uninformed Consumer Watchdog

Synopsis: Here I take on a consumer watchdog group who claims that gas prices are really going up because oil companies are ripping you off. However, the group seems never to have heard of supply and demand, so I cover that for their benefit.

13. Taxing “Windfall Profits”

Synopsis: Do politicians actually believe a windfall profits tax is going to bring down the price of gas? Probably not, but they need to give the impression that they are actually doing something about high gas prices.

14. Politicians, Profits, and Inventories

Synopsis: Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell drove 2 blocks to an event to complain about rising gas prices. I wonder if his brain was working that day.

15. I’m Being Gouged!

Synopsis: Are you being gouged? It depends. What is gouging, anyway?

Conservation

16. Fuel Efficiency and Lessons from Europe

Synopsis: My first post on conservation, wondering why we can’t learn a thing from our neighbors across the pond. This essay hit #1 on Reddit.com for several hours, and generated 5,000 hits more than on a typical day.

17. I Can Drive 55

Synopsis: You can have a big impact on your energy usage by just slowing down. I have.

Biodiesel

18. Biodiesel: King of Alternative Fuels

Synopsis: I explain in this essay why I am much more bullish on the possibility of biodiesel as a sustainable energy option. The biodiesel group at UNH was referenced, including a hypothetical scenario where 100% of U.S. fuel needs are met with biodiesel produced from algae.

Butanol

19. Bio-Butanol

Synopsis: Butanol is a rising star on the energy scene. Here I discuss some of the qualities that make it a better option than ethanol.

Peak Oil

20. Peak Oil: End of the World?

Synopsis: I discussed my view of Peak Oil, and why I think some effects of Peak Oil will be mitigated. I still view it as a very grave threat, but one that I believe we are capable of muddling our way through.

21. What You Need to Know about Peak Oil

Synopsis: This one is hosted offsite. I wrote this article on Peak Oil for Omninerd. I go into much more detail, giving the history of the debate and covering the potential mitigation options. This essay is very highly-referenced.

Miscellaneous

22. A Primer on Gasoline Pricing

Synopsis: I covered some of the reasons behind rising gasoline prices, and predicted back in March that gasoline prices would continue to escalate.

23. Compressed Air Energy Storage

Synopsis: I am a big fan of wind energy, but the intermittent nature of the wind has always been a problem. In this essay, I discuss a method for storing wind energy for later use.

24. XTL: Promise and Peril

Synopsis: Here I discuss the promise and peril of extending the fossil fuel economy with gas-to-liquids (GTL) and coal-to-liquids (CTL).

Those aren’t all of the essays I have written, but are mainly those that either generated a lot of traffic, a lot of comments, or were publicized by other web sites.

Have a safe and happy 4th of July. I will start on new material next week. I hope to finally get around to that long-delayed article on solar energy, which is my favorite alternative energy source.

Cheers,

RR

July 3, 2006 Posted by | conservation, CTL, E85, ethanol, gtl, Peak Oil, politics | 1 Comment

XTL: Promise and Peril

The following is a slightly modified version of an essay that I posted to The Oil Drum .

Introduction

I have stated on several occasions that I believe global warming is a greater immediate threat than Peak Oil. As long as the demand is there, energy companies will strive to supply fuel to the marketplace. To meet the demand, we will develop tar sands, while consuming enormous quantities of natural gas. We will turn natural gas (or even coal) indirectly (and inefficiently) into ethanol. Finally, we will turn vast quantities of carbon into fuel via what I term “XTL” technologies. XTL technologies consist of a partial oxidation (POX) reaction followed by the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) reaction. When the POX feedstock is natural gas, this is referred to as a gas-to-liquids (GTL) process. If the feedstock is coal or biomass, this is referred to as CTL, or BTL respectively.

I won’t go into a detailed explanation of the POX and FT reactions. What I will give is a quick, layman’s overview. When a hydrocarbon material is burned (e.g. natural gas, coal, biomass, etc.), it can be completely oxidized (combusted) to carbon dioxide and water, or it can be partially oxidized to carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The latter POX reaction is accomplished by restricting the amount of oxygen during the combustion, and it is a potentially deadly reaction should it inadvertently occur inside your home. The resulting mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen is called synthesis gas (syngas) and can be used in the manufacture of an abundance of organic compounds.

The FT reaction is a bit more complex than the POX reaction. You can find in-depth information on the FT reaction here. In short, the FT reaction converts syngas generated via the POX reaction into a distribution of long-chain hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons in the diesel fuel range are very common, making this reaction an ideal way to extend the fossil fuel economy.

The Promise

At present, the economics for GTL are far more favorable than for CTL or BTL. There are enormous reserves of natural gas throughout the world. Worldwide reserves of natural gas are estimated to be 6,200 trillion cubic feet, of which 3,000 trillion cubic feet are estimated to be stranded. (Reserves are considered to be stranded if it is uneconomical or impractical to get them to market.) This is enough stranded natural gas to produce 300 billion barrels of fuel, according to Syntroleum (Warning: It’s a 3.4 meg PDF).

GTL is not a pipe dream. The process is technically viable, having been demonstrated on numerous occasions. It is economically viable depending on the price spread between natural gas and oil. Despite the fact that the capital costs for GTL plants are approximately twice those of conventional oil refineries, a number of projects have been announced in Qatar. Plants are being built, and the fuel produced will help supply some of the shortfall that Peak Oil will generate.

The Peril

Of course there is a catch. GTL is not all that efficient. There are efficiency losses during both the POX and the FT processes. It would be far more efficient to run automobiles directly on the natural gas. Due to the fact that the gas is stranded, this is obviously not an option. But the efficiency losses are significant. According to the Syntroleum link, it takes 10,000 cubic feet of gas to make 1 barrel of fuel. 10,000 cubic feet of natural gas contain roughly 10 million BTUs, but a barrel of fuel contains only around 5.5-6 million BTUs. Forty percent of the BTUs are either lost as radiant heat, or turned to steam and consumed in the GTL plant. Unless carbon sequestration is in place (unlikely), all of those BTUs ended up as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. On top of that, the BTUs from the barrel of fuel are going to end up as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere once the fuel is burned in an engine.

The reason I find this more worrisome than Peak Oil is that I believe this path is inevitable, yet the consequences are unpredictable. We will make and use GTL fuel, as inefficient as it may be. Our carbon dioxide emissions are likely to accelerate in our quest to maintain affordable energy. As stranded gas supplies are consumed and GTL production peaks, there is CTL, with the same efficiency problems, waiting in the wings. From my view, the fossil fuel economy will be with us for a long time to come.

Look at the figure below, and think of the experiment we are conducting. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are at their highest levels in human history. The trend in the graph shows a linear increase in atmospheric levels. The trend didn’t deviate at all during the oil shocks of the 70’s.


Source: National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration

I believe I can see the foresee the consequences of Peak Oil. It certainly won’t be a picnic. But I think I can plan for it, and I believe that we will eventually adjust to a post-oil world. But I can’t foresee the consequences of warming the earth up by 5 or 10 degrees C. Humanity has never had to deal with this problem. The Sahara Desert was once lush with vegetation and teemed with wildlife. Consider the impact if this is the fate of the Corn Belt of the Midwest. Yet I see nothing to indicate that we are going to veer from the course we have set.

May 19, 2006 Posted by | btl, CTL, global warming, gtl | 18 Comments

XTL: Promise and Peril

The following is a slightly modified version of an essay that I posted to The Oil Drum .

Introduction

I have stated on several occasions that I believe global warming is a greater immediate threat than Peak Oil. As long as the demand is there, energy companies will strive to supply fuel to the marketplace. To meet the demand, we will develop tar sands, while consuming enormous quantities of natural gas. We will turn natural gas (or even coal) indirectly (and inefficiently) into ethanol. Finally, we will turn vast quantities of carbon into fuel via what I term “XTL” technologies. XTL technologies consist of a partial oxidation (POX) reaction followed by the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) reaction. When the POX feedstock is natural gas, this is referred to as a gas-to-liquids (GTL) process. If the feedstock is coal or biomass, this is referred to as CTL, or BTL respectively.

I won’t go into a detailed explanation of the POX and FT reactions. What I will give is a quick, layman’s overview. When a hydrocarbon material is burned (e.g. natural gas, coal, biomass, etc.), it can be completely oxidized (combusted) to carbon dioxide and water, or it can be partially oxidized to carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The latter POX reaction is accomplished by restricting the amount of oxygen during the combustion, and it is a potentially deadly reaction should it inadvertently occur inside your home. The resulting mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen is called synthesis gas (syngas) and can be used in the manufacture of an abundance of organic compounds.

The FT reaction is a bit more complex than the POX reaction. You can find in-depth information on the FT reaction here. In short, the FT reaction converts syngas generated via the POX reaction into a distribution of long-chain hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons in the diesel fuel range are very common, making this reaction an ideal way to extend the fossil fuel economy.

The Promise

At present, the economics for GTL are far more favorable than for CTL or BTL. There are enormous reserves of natural gas throughout the world. Worldwide reserves of natural gas are estimated to be 6,200 trillion cubic feet, of which 3,000 trillion cubic feet are estimated to be stranded. (Reserves are considered to be stranded if it is uneconomical or impractical to get them to market.) This is enough stranded natural gas to produce 300 billion barrels of fuel, according to Syntroleum (Warning: It’s a 3.4 meg PDF).

GTL is not a pipe dream. The process is technically viable, having been demonstrated on numerous occasions. It is economically viable depending on the price spread between natural gas and oil. Despite the fact that the capital costs for GTL plants are approximately twice those of conventional oil refineries, a number of projects have been announced in Qatar. Plants are being built, and the fuel produced will help supply some of the shortfall that Peak Oil will generate.

The Peril

Of course there is a catch. GTL is not all that efficient. There are efficiency losses during both the POX and the FT processes. It would be far more efficient to run automobiles directly on the natural gas. Due to the fact that the gas is stranded, this is obviously not an option. But the efficiency losses are significant. According to the Syntroleum link, it takes 10,000 cubic feet of gas to make 1 barrel of fuel. 10,000 cubic feet of natural gas contain roughly 10 million BTUs, but a barrel of fuel contains only around 5.5-6 million BTUs. Forty percent of the BTUs are either lost as radiant heat, or turned to steam and consumed in the GTL plant. Unless carbon sequestration is in place (unlikely), all of those BTUs ended up as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. On top of that, the BTUs from the barrel of fuel are going to end up as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere once the fuel is burned in an engine.

The reason I find this more worrisome than Peak Oil is that I believe this path is inevitable, yet the consequences are unpredictable. We will make and use GTL fuel, as inefficient as it may be. Our carbon dioxide emissions are likely to accelerate in our quest to maintain affordable energy. As stranded gas supplies are consumed and GTL production peaks, there is CTL, with the same efficiency problems, waiting in the wings. From my view, the fossil fuel economy will be with us for a long time to come.

Look at the figure below, and think of the experiment we are conducting. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are at their highest levels in human history. The trend in the graph shows a linear increase in atmospheric levels. The trend didn’t deviate at all during the oil shocks of the 70’s.


Source: National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration

I believe I can see the foresee the consequences of Peak Oil. It certainly won’t be a picnic. But I think I can plan for it, and I believe that we will eventually adjust to a post-oil world. But I can’t foresee the consequences of warming the earth up by 5 or 10 degrees C. Humanity has never had to deal with this problem. The Sahara Desert was once lush with vegetation and teemed with wildlife. Consider the impact if this is the fate of the Corn Belt of the Midwest. Yet I see nothing to indicate that we are going to veer from the course we have set.

May 19, 2006 Posted by | btl, CTL, global warming, gtl | Comments Off on XTL: Promise and Peril

XTL: Promise and Peril

The following is a slightly modified version of an essay that I posted to The Oil Drum .

Introduction

I have stated on several occasions that I believe global warming is a greater immediate threat than Peak Oil. As long as the demand is there, energy companies will strive to supply fuel to the marketplace. To meet the demand, we will develop tar sands, while consuming enormous quantities of natural gas. We will turn natural gas (or even coal) indirectly (and inefficiently) into ethanol. Finally, we will turn vast quantities of carbon into fuel via what I term “XTL” technologies. XTL technologies consist of a partial oxidation (POX) reaction followed by the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) reaction. When the POX feedstock is natural gas, this is referred to as a gas-to-liquids (GTL) process. If the feedstock is coal or biomass, this is referred to as CTL, or BTL respectively.

I won’t go into a detailed explanation of the POX and FT reactions. What I will give is a quick, layman’s overview. When a hydrocarbon material is burned (e.g. natural gas, coal, biomass, etc.), it can be completely oxidized (combusted) to carbon dioxide and water, or it can be partially oxidized to carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The latter POX reaction is accomplished by restricting the amount of oxygen during the combustion, and it is a potentially deadly reaction should it inadvertently occur inside your home. The resulting mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen is called synthesis gas (syngas) and can be used in the manufacture of an abundance of organic compounds.

The FT reaction is a bit more complex than the POX reaction. You can find in-depth information on the FT reaction here. In short, the FT reaction converts syngas generated via the POX reaction into a distribution of long-chain hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons in the diesel fuel range are very common, making this reaction an ideal way to extend the fossil fuel economy.

The Promise

At present, the economics for GTL are far more favorable than for CTL or BTL. There are enormous reserves of natural gas throughout the world. Worldwide reserves of natural gas are estimated to be 6,200 trillion cubic feet, of which 3,000 trillion cubic feet are estimated to be stranded. (Reserves are considered to be stranded if it is uneconomical or impractical to get them to market.) This is enough stranded natural gas to produce 300 billion barrels of fuel, according to Syntroleum (Warning: It’s a 3.4 meg PDF).

GTL is not a pipe dream. The process is technically viable, having been demonstrated on numerous occasions. It is economically viable depending on the price spread between natural gas and oil. Despite the fact that the capital costs for GTL plants are approximately twice those of conventional oil refineries, a number of projects have been announced in Qatar. Plants are being built, and the fuel produced will help supply some of the shortfall that Peak Oil will generate.

The Peril

Of course there is a catch. GTL is not all that efficient. There are efficiency losses during both the POX and the FT processes. It would be far more efficient to run automobiles directly on the natural gas. Due to the fact that the gas is stranded, this is obviously not an option. But the efficiency losses are significant. According to the Syntroleum link, it takes 10,000 cubic feet of gas to make 1 barrel of fuel. 10,000 cubic feet of natural gas contain roughly 10 million BTUs, but a barrel of fuel contains only around 5.5-6 million BTUs. Forty percent of the BTUs are either lost as radiant heat, or turned to steam and consumed in the GTL plant. Unless carbon sequestration is in place (unlikely), all of those BTUs ended up as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. On top of that, the BTUs from the barrel of fuel are going to end up as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere once the fuel is burned in an engine.

The reason I find this more worrisome than Peak Oil is that I believe this path is inevitable, yet the consequences are unpredictable. We will make and use GTL fuel, as inefficient as it may be. Our carbon dioxide emissions are likely to accelerate in our quest to maintain affordable energy. As stranded gas supplies are consumed and GTL production peaks, there is CTL, with the same efficiency problems, waiting in the wings. From my view, the fossil fuel economy will be with us for a long time to come.

Look at the figure below, and think of the experiment we are conducting. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are at their highest levels in human history. The trend in the graph shows a linear increase in atmospheric levels. The trend didn’t deviate at all during the oil shocks of the 70’s.


Source: National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration

I believe I can see the foresee the consequences of Peak Oil. It certainly won’t be a picnic. But I think I can plan for it, and I believe that we will eventually adjust to a post-oil world. But I can’t foresee the consequences of warming the earth up by 5 or 10 degrees C. Humanity has never had to deal with this problem. The Sahara Desert was once lush with vegetation and teemed with wildlife. Consider the impact if this is the fate of the Corn Belt of the Midwest. Yet I see nothing to indicate that we are going to veer from the course we have set.

May 19, 2006 Posted by | btl, CTL, global warming, gtl | 9 Comments

Coming Attractions

Just wanted to provide a quick update, since it will be a few more days before I have a new essay up. I am trying to finish up an article on Peak Oil for Omninerd, and need to devote a couple of days toward working on that. I recently finished my first submission for The Oil Drum entitled Big Oil and Alternative Energy . Feel free to comment on it at The Oil Drum, or if you aren’t registered there you can comment on it in this thread. The article addresses the statements from various groups that oil companies should invest their record profits into alternative energy. I explain why this is wishful thinking.

Below is a list of subjects that I will be covering in upcoming essays (not necessarily in this order), along with a brief description. If you have a topic you would like to see addressed, let me know.

The Solar Economy – I have only mentioned solar energy on my blog in passing, but it is far and away my favorite alternative energy choice. There is nothing else that compares to the efficiency of direct solar capture. I can envision a society that is driven largely off of solar power, but electrical applications and many automotive applications would need to be operated via rechargeable batteries.

The Diesel Economy – Even if we had no oil at all left, we can produce diesel from coal, natural gas, or even biomass. The capital costs are pretty high, but the feasibility exists (and in fact, is already taking place).

Fischer-Tropsch – I plan to give a brief, layman’s overview of this very important reaction, which will enable The Diesel Economy. This is also how the Germans produced some of their liquid fuel in WW2.

GTL – Gas to liquids, or diesel production from natural gas. This option is currently well under way in Qatar.

CTL – Coal to liquids. This is Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer’s dream for Montana coal. While it is viable, capital costs will be high, and the environmental costs may be steep. I will have a detailed discussion of the issues.

BTL – Biomass to liquids. This one is the least developed, but has the most potential for producing diesel from a renewable resource. I will discuss potential hurdles to be addressed.

I am open to suggestions on other topics. As always, I will continue to comment on current events, so I expect this list of ideas to take me through the next month or so. But I am always open to suggestions.

May 6, 2006 Posted by | btl, CTL, gtl | 18 Comments

Coming Attractions

Just wanted to provide a quick update, since it will be a few more days before I have a new essay up. I am trying to finish up an article on Peak Oil for Omninerd, and need to devote a couple of days toward working on that. I recently finished my first submission for The Oil Drum entitled Big Oil and Alternative Energy . Feel free to comment on it at The Oil Drum, or if you aren’t registered there you can comment on it in this thread. The article addresses the statements from various groups that oil companies should invest their record profits into alternative energy. I explain why this is wishful thinking.

Below is a list of subjects that I will be covering in upcoming essays (not necessarily in this order), along with a brief description. If you have a topic you would like to see addressed, let me know.

The Solar Economy – I have only mentioned solar energy on my blog in passing, but it is far and away my favorite alternative energy choice. There is nothing else that compares to the efficiency of direct solar capture. I can envision a society that is driven largely off of solar power, but electrical applications and many automotive applications would need to be operated via rechargeable batteries.

The Diesel Economy – Even if we had no oil at all left, we can produce diesel from coal, natural gas, or even biomass. The capital costs are pretty high, but the feasibility exists (and in fact, is already taking place).

Fischer-Tropsch – I plan to give a brief, layman’s overview of this very important reaction, which will enable The Diesel Economy. This is also how the Germans produced some of their liquid fuel in WW2.

GTL – Gas to liquids, or diesel production from natural gas. This option is currently well under way in Qatar.

CTL – Coal to liquids. This is Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer’s dream for Montana coal. While it is viable, capital costs will be high, and the environmental costs may be steep. I will have a detailed discussion of the issues.

BTL – Biomass to liquids. This one is the least developed, but has the most potential for producing diesel from a renewable resource. I will discuss potential hurdles to be addressed.

I am open to suggestions on other topics. As always, I will continue to comment on current events, so I expect this list of ideas to take me through the next month or so. But I am always open to suggestions.

May 6, 2006 Posted by | btl, CTL, gtl | 9 Comments