Week of August 17

George Bush on offshore drilling…biofuels and organic agriculture…Intel's wireless power…more electric cars

On the 23rd of August President Bush made an extraordinary statement in Crawford, Texas where he is vacationing. He claimed that by drilling offshore the U.S. could increase its daily output of oil by a full order of magnitude, that is, tens times over, within the space of a decade.

The U.S. currently produces about 4 million barrels per day which places it well within the top ten of global oil producers. Saudi Arabia, now the world's leading producer, and possessor of what are almost certainly the largest reserves of conventional petroleum, produces more than twice that amount on a daily basis, most of which comes from a single super giant field, the Ghawar. Global production, incidentally, is slightly over 86 million barrels per day. As a matter of interest, U.S. daily consumption of petroleum is about 22 million barrels per day, or more than a quarter of the whole.

What President Bush is saying is that the U.S. is capable of producing almost half of the total world output if Congress would only relax environmental restrictions on drilling, and it is therefore capable of becoming the world's leading net oil exporter as well.

But why has he waited until now to impart this startling information? And why did he not lift such restrictions when he still controlled Congress or simply do so by executive order? Why didn't he open the continental shelf to unrestricted drilling years ago? Then he could have paid for his wars with oil revenues, achieved energy independence, and flooded the world markets with cheap oil, and in so doing, destroyed the influence of OPEC.

He also could have devoted less attention to securing oil supplies in the Middle East. After all, if you can out produce the Saudis by a factor of five, you hardly need worry that Iran might close the Persian Gulf or that they could make enough money through petroleum sales to finance a nuclear weapons program. Hell, Bush could have smashed the economies of both Iran and Iraq without firing a shot and made a ton of money in tax revenues into the bargain.

So why didn't the Decider decide to do it?

Unfortunately, such a question will never be posed to our President now or in the future. Instead his estimates as to extent of offshore resources will be endlessly repeated in the press and will become part of the received opinion, the general wisdom, and they will probably govern the energy policies of the future. With forty million barrels per day just up ahead, there's no need to conserve, no need to develop new resources, let alone rethink the entire energy regime. There are of course those musings about greenhouse gases to which the chattering classes are given over, but those can be dismissed easily enough. Even if they're true, the unfortunate outcomes lie far in the future, years away in fact.

The fact that these figures are not echoed in leading energy journals is of course lost on the mainstream press. If the President says it, it must be true. After all, he was right about weapons of mass destruction, confounding the doubters. Ann Coulter and Christopher Hitchens proved that conclusively.

This could well have dire implications for the alternative fuels industry, never mind the populace at large. If forty million a day becomes a talking point, and I'm betting it will be, alternative energy will become synonymous with Ed Begley Jr., at least in the United States.

But then what happens if McCain becomes President and drills everywhere and oil production actually continues to decline? What then? How then do you inflame the citizenry to turn their attention away from ascending fuel prices, and surely they will ascend. Maybe you could start another bubble, and privatizing Social Security is your best bet there. There are trillions in that kitty, enough to float a mountain of junk bonds. Enough for one last spree, one final tear.
Methinks that when we look back upon the financial bubbles of the early twenty-first century we will liken them to Krakatoa. There the explosions continued over several days, coming faster and harder till the daytime sky was dark with smoke clouds. Then a final detonation more powerful than all of those that had preceded it combined. That last blast destroyed the entire mountain and created a tsunami that inundated whole cities.

Biofuels and Organic Agriculture

I've recently become pre-occupied with the issue of whether biofuel feedstocks can be raised sustainably. They definitely aren't now, at least not in most instances. The corn and sugar cane that goes to produce ethanol and the soy oil and palm oil that go into biodiesel are seldom if ever raised in a sustainable manner. Lots of fossil fuel inputs go into these crops, including diesel to operate farm machinery, grid supplied electricity, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers.

Organic agriculture is by definition sustainable. It eschews artificial fertilizers and pesticides, though not fossil fuel powered farm equipment—a singular omission in my opinion—and if biofuels could be substituted in the case of the latter, then in theory you'd have a sustainable source of transportation fuel.

I decided to start reading up on the subject, but found a paucity of documents relating specifically to organic farming and fuel production. Indeed, there's a paucity of scientific research of any sort with respect to organic agriculture compared to mechanized agriculture based on prodigal use of synthetic chemicals. Most agricultural colleges just don't focus on the area.

At length I contacted the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit research organization devoted to improving techniques in organic farming and disseminating information to farmers and to the general public. It turns out that one of the Institute's research scientists, Matt Ryan, is interested in biodfuels.

"We want to conduct a study in this area," he told me, "but we haven't been able to attract sponsors yet. There isn't much published information. I happen to believe that biofuels industries based on organic farming can develop on a local level, but I lack proof at present."

Ryan referred me to some other researchers whom I'll definitely contact. In the meantime, I must confess to deep puzzlement. Why haven't more people in the biofuels community addressed these issued instead of just assuming that production from biomass is inherently sustainable?

Intel Does Something Interesting

Intel made a flurry of announcements this last week, including one to the effect that artificial intelligence would overtake human intelligence 40 years from now with Intel leading the charge. The human cerebrum will become last year's Pentium, someone's recycling problem, presumably….

More interesting from our perspective was a brief announcement from Intel on what they called "wireless power" which they also termed "wireless resonant energy", which is supposedly based on research done at MIT. I did a document search, and in fact this is the case. MIT researchers in this area have published some papers giving us a general notion on what's going on here.

But first, a little background. Intel indicated that the new technology would permit the transmission of electrical power over distance—in other words, no need for wall sockets and power cords if what they're saying is true. Just turn on the appliance and you can magically power up—at least that's how most of the press presented it, while hailing it as a tremendous technological revolution.

So here's what's going on.

First of all, transmitting high power over distance with no physical connection is nothing new, and it is based on the principle of magnetic coupling which has been well understood since the mid nineteenth century. Electrical current traveling through a conductor generates a magnetic field around the conductor. If the field intersects another conductor it will in turn engender an electrical current in that conductor so long as the field is changing, that is, if the current in the first conductor is alternating and thus creating a changing magnetic field. This is the principle by which electrical transformers operate, and it lies at the foundation of electrical engineering.

This is also the principle embodied in radio transmissions. Electrical current energizes a transmitting antenna which then transmits magnetic fields which radiate off into space. They intersect another conductive antenna and generate an electrical current. The resulting current is amplified, and the waveform is demodulated to recover the information impressed upon it.

So in principle Intel isn't doing anything that hasn't already been done and is part the basic science and engineering of electromagnetism. But the problem with magnetic coupling of this sort is that the strength of the magnetic field falls off rapidly with distance. Unless the two conductors are very close together—say, a few centimeters apart—the coupling isn't very close, and most of the energy of the field is lost.

The MIT researchers suggested that both transmitting and receiving conductors might consist of tuned resonant circuits of the same sort that are used in radios. These electrical circuits resonate strongly at a single frequency but tend to reject all other frequencies. Resonant circuits are known to couple strongly and to permit more efficient transmission of energy through magnetic fields, but I can't recall anyone using this principle previously for transmitting high electrical power over moderate distances on the order of a few feet.

Most prior attempts to transmit electrical energy wirelessly have involved high gain, highly directional antennas which focused the fields into beams so that less of the energy was radiated off into space and more impinged upon the receiving conductor. Such schemes in fact have been proposed for transmitting electrical energy produced from solar arrays orbiting the earth.

The problem with such methods is that the transmission must occur at very high frequencies where the beam is strictly line of sight and easily obstructed. Furthermore, if the receiving conductor is in a moving or movable object, it must be automatically tracked by the transmitter. Not very practical.

The MIT innovation does not represent any revolution in basic science but rather a seemingly obvious application of decades-old technology that someone should have conceived a very long time ago. Or perhaps someone has, I haven't done a patent search. It's not something all that far fetched like the rotating thermionic generator which we discussed last week.

So does this mean the power cord is going away? I wouldn't count on it. First of all these resonant circuits will require different motor and electronic circuits on the receiving end than are present in today's appliances which are all designed to run off 60 cycle AC. This is equivalent to changing the power grid in terms of its effect upon devices utilizing grid supplied electricity.

More on Electric Cars

Recently IBM Global Business Services published a 25 page position paper entitled "Automotive 2020 – Clarity beyond the chaos". It's available online and I recommend it, not so much for the insights it affords into on the probable future of the industry but rather into the thinking that is going on among major semiconductor and computing companies who are looking to invade the automotive market.

We have already reported on the remarks of Andy Grove, ex-CEO of Intel who sees a future of all electric vehicles and, though this is unstated, a windfall for his old employer. Doubtless similar sugarplums dance in the heads of the Big Blue brass.

The IBM paper is fairly explicit, anticipating a future of progressively more complex and comprehensive control systems that, while not actually guiding the vehicle, may provide for automated parking functions and perhaps avoidance maneuvers in the case of an impending crash. The authors also see self diagnosis and even robotic tune-ups by actuators placed within the vehicle. There's also some rehashed "New Economy" notions like establishing user preferences in in-car entertainment and having the user's profile follow him or her from vehicle to vehicle.

Curiously, the authors stop short of discussing true dual mode vehicles although that is logically where increasing automation should tend. But, after all, this is Big Blue where everyone used to have to wear black suits, crew cuts, and "low quarter" dress shoes from a military commissary. Out of the box just doesn't come naturally to these folks. It's not in their DNA, as they say.

We've seen such attempted invasions before. Microsoft has been trying for some time to secure a position in the television broadcast industry by setting the standards for IP video over DSL and optical fiber. Google has been trying to get into the applications software business and the phone business, and even betimes the biotech business. These kinds of forays are characteristic of the business culture of the time.

But will they succeed?

The thing that strikes me about most of these efforts in regard to personal transportation is that the interlopers don't seem to have much enthusiasm regarding the product. What kind of driving experience would a car with "Intel Inside" written across the front provide? I'm almost afraid to ask.

I've said in the past that any real revolution in transport must entrain a multitude of major manufacturers providing materiel and support services, and past successful revolutionary transport modes have generally entrained companies on the way up not on the way down. Intel, IBM, and Microsoft are all long past their prime years as innovators, decades past in very truth. When Intel brought out the microprocessor in 1971 it was a world shaker and made possible multiple revolutions in communications, computing, and manufacturing to name just a few fields where it had a seminal impact. Now they're talking about surpassing human intelligence, but they're not bringing forth anything to equal the microprocessor, and they won't.

A couple of other thoughts on transportation systems past and future:

There already has been an electronic revolution in automotive engineering. It started with electronic fuel injection which appeared in the early seventies right around the time that the microprocessor was born. Early electronic injection units used analog computers, however, not digital.

Later came active computer controlled suspensions, ABS braking systems, and computer controlled transmissions and variable valve timing. In the future we'll have automated variable displacement and variable compression. Curiously, none of these revolutions were spearheaded by the semiconductor industry which now wants to take over the business. They didn't anticipate these changes nor did they do much to bring them about. So now they want to lead the charge. Curious.

I am presently pre-occupied with notion of charisma and transportation. I don't have a set theory yet, just a set of observations. Ships have always been charismatic, especially sailing ships. So were the big white paddlewheel riverboats of the Mississippi. Railroads were charismatic from the first, but have lost most of their charisma even as their fortunes have declined. And many though not all automobiles are charismatic. On the other hand, charisma is commonplace among motorcycles. Busses, on the other hand are never charismatic. Nor are light rail systems. Airliners usually aren't either. But ocean liners always were, though cruise ships never are. Electric cars and hybrid cars definitely aren't charismatic. No one will ever call an electric the great American freedom machine.

So what's it all mean? That will require further thought.