Week of May 19

"Green gasoline from glycerine…Jatropha in Mexico…New global warming culprit…Arctic National Wildlife Refuge…Ben Stein's blatherings…The age of sail returns…

Fuel from Glycerine – XcelPlus Global Holdings

First up we have an announcement from XcelPlus Global Holdings, Inc., a publicly traded company with a portfolio of intellectual property relating to alternative fuels. They offer a fluid additive that supposedly allows one to burn biodiesel in one's gasoline engine, though new GT-R owners might have second thoughts, and they also have a kit for converting ordinary gasoline engines into flex-fuel units. They have a scheme for producing ethanol from coal as well. But the big news at XcelPlus is something else entirely, a new technology purchased from Maverick Biofuels for converting glycerine from biodiesel production into "green gasoline", at least that's what the press coverage says. According to Bill Smith, the CEO, whom I interviewed today, the resulting fuel is actually in the middle distillate range, more resembling kerosene and diesel than gasoline. "But," Smith insists, "it is a true hydrocarbon essentially similar in chemical composition to diesel and kerosene derived from petroleum."

What, one might ask, is green gasoline? The term lacks any strict definition but is generally applied to light hydrocarbons produced from biomass rather than from petroleum or other fossil fuel feedstocks. Yes, it is perfectly possible to produce fuels that are chemically indistinguishable from petroleum gasoline—or kerosene, for that matter—from biomass, and a number of schemes have been devised for doing so, mostly involving pyrolysis or gasification. Anaerobic digestion could work as well if one were to produce a methanol intermediate from the resulting methane, and one particularly interesting process utilizing peat was developed by the University of Uppsala where nothing more than heat, pressure, and a carbon dioxide atmosphere was used for producing a petroleum analog. Another technique that has been employed by both Changing World Technology and Shell Oil involves treating biomass with supercritical steam.

Catalytic conversion of glycerine into gasoline and middle distillates has been mentioned in the scientific literature, but I have seen no economic analysis of the process. Economics, as we know, is everything in the world of alternative fuels, the chief determinant of success or failure. Currently glycerine is a low value coproduct of biodiesel production and if it too could be converted into fuel the overall marginal economics of conventional biodiesel production would improve considerably. According to Smith his process is indeed inexpensive. "All you need really is tankage, and you can use plastic tanks because there's no heat or pressure."

We will track this company and see if any of these products or processes come to market. Alternative fuels, as you know, is an area replete with impressive claims.

Jatropha in Mexico

Jatropha is the miracle plant of the biodiesel industry, the hardy, high yield, low maintenance feedstock that is supposed to be environmentally benign and economically advantageous. Actually higher yields may be had from either the oil palm or from the Chinese tallow tree, but the former requires energy intensive and environmentally destructive cultivation to achieve superior yields while the latter is an invasive plant that can wreak havoc with native ecosystems. In this light Jatropha seems preferable, but to date it has only been cultivated in Southeast Asia. Now Global Clean Energy Holdings, Inc. has purchased land in Yucatan to grow the plant.

They had better be patient because Jatropha requires several years to mature, and by the time it does, algal biofuel may have proven its feasibility and might be poised to rout all rivals.

Still this is an encouraging sign in that it challenges the dominance of soy beans as a biodiesel feedstock in North America. The price of soy is already ascending in price as a result of biodiesel processor purchases, and the crop itself could never be raised on a scale that would allow for wide scale petroleum diesel substitution based on soy oil derived biodiesel.

The Nitrogen Menace

Global warming is generally associated with CO2 or methane, not with nitrogen, which is of course the chief constituent of our atmosphere. But now a University of Virginia environmental scientist, one James Galloway, is warning that reactive nitrogen compounds such as ammonia are responsible for global warming ozone depletion, acid rain, and various sorts of local air pollution.

According to Galloway the source of these chemicals is primarily nitrogen based fertilizers, which are produced by the billions of tons, and are principally responsible for the huge global agricultural yields that are currently feeding six and one half billion people. Agriculture devoted to livestock production is particularly harmful by Galloway's reckoning.

Galloway has formed an organization called the Nitrogen Initiative to deal with the issue, though how the world might be weaned away from nitrogenous fertilizers without a drastic decline in population I can't imagine. Vaclav Smil, who has written widely on the role of artificial fertilizers in increasing crop fertility, estimates the elimination of such fertilizers might result in a world that could only support about two billion people, the approximate population at the middle of the last century. So what's that mean for biofuel production? Another big problem we never anticipated. But that's a subject for a future article.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

We all know about the ANWR, how the conservatives want to rape and pillage it for oil and how the enviros want to keep it pristine and thwart thirsty motorists. The dispute over access to its oil resources is truly a dialogue of the deaf, as the French say, a dispute where neither side is prepared to give any weight to the other's principal arguments.

I don't expect that to change, but now we have some information from U.S. Energy Information Agency which is evidently intended to change the terms of the debate. In the past no one professed to known how much oil was in the Refuge. Conservatives assumed that there was a lot, and that the Wildlife Refuge would become our refuge from rapacious OPEC moguls. Environmentalists assumed that there was very little oil, at least not enough to justify the despoliation of a prime wilderness area.

Now the EIA is giving us figures. They're saying the Refuge would produce 2.6 billion barrels from 2019 to 2030, the assumption being that it would take ten years to reach the production stage. During this same period 710,000 barrels per day would be forthcoming, and the price of crude on the world market would drop by seventy-five cents.

Many of us who report on energy have always mistrusted EIA figures, and there is more reason than ever to mistrust them given the tendency of the Bush Administration to massage the findings of Government agencies. But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that they're correct.

Seven hundred thousand barrels per day strikes me as a suspiciously high output from 2.6 billion barrel resource. Ghawar in Saudi Arabia is believed to contain several tens of billions of barrels, and yet it produces less than 8 billion barrels per day. The entire province of Alberta, which has over a trillion barrels of oil locked up in the tar sands, produces only a little over a million barrels per day.

It is a well known fact in the petroleum industry that every well has its optimum production rate which will maximize total production. Exceed that rate, and total recovery will drop over the lifetime of the well. It sounds to me as if the EIA is suggesting that we go for broke and extract large volumes of oil as quickly as possible to quell the markets and then worry about what to do next a couple of decades off.

The only problem with that plan is that if a peak in global production is imminent or has already been reached, we're going to experience a decline of from two to four percent per year, or maybe even more. That would mean a shortfall of over two million barrels of oil just in the first year of decline with further declines every year thereafter. And it never gets any better, it just gets worse and worse unless hitherto recognized resources come on line. ANWR can't possibly make good such a shortfall unless it's a lot bigger than anyone believes.

Ben Stein's Blatherings

When a game show host starts pontificating on energy policy you know you've got problems. Ben Stein's editorial in the Sunday New York Times is just what you'd expect from a man who recently made a movie in support of Creationism while still doing the game show thing.

Stein concedes that a peak of production may be near and that global warming may be a problem, potentially damaging admissions for a spokesman of the far Right, but the palliatives he proposes are astonishingly ill-informed. Or maybe I shouldn't be astonished because they're pretty much right wing boilerplate. Drill on the Continental shelf, set up a lot of coal-to-liquids facilities, and revive the nuclear industry.

Unfortunately, shallow water offshore drilling isn't apt to make much difference. There simply isn't enough oil located conveniently offshore. Ultradeep is another story, but only a handful of ultradeep deposits have been profitably worked. The two really big ones in the Gulf of Mexico, Jack and Thunderhorse, haven't been put into production yet after years of effort. They will be some day, but they won't bring back cheap oil, at least not according to Roger Blanchard writing in the Energy Bulletin, a mainstream energy trade publication. Blanchard, in fact, completely rejects the contentions coming from the Right that there are vast oil reserves on protected lands that will bring back cheap oil, and points out that under Presidents Clinton and Bush, and especially Bush, much drilling has already been permitted on public lands that were formerly off limits. The results? Four dollar gasoline.

I believe coal-to-liquids will emerge as a real industry, and so I would accept Stein's contention that these technologies will contribute to the enemy mix. Several plants are under development now in the U.S. They will not, however, lead to cheap gasoline. The probable cost of each plant is in the billions, perhaps $8 billion dollars for a new 100,000 barrel per day facility based upon established technology. It might take forty or fifty such facilities to make a real difference, so you may be talking about $400 billion dollars, supposedly what has gone into the Iraq War thus far. Making such plants carbon neutral would be an even more expensive undertaking, and, depending on how it's done, it may add another couple of hundred billions, and much more if you're talking about the construction of a comprehensive carbon dioxide pipeline. And, if you don't make them carbon neutral, the total increase in carbon emissions gets really substantial, easily another couple of percent. Indeed, if most liquid fuel were derived from coal and oil shale without carbon sequestration, the increase in emissions would be unimaginable, perhaps 25% more than today's already high levels.

And where's that money going to come from? The investment banks? The hedge funds? Loans from the Federal Government?

As for nuclear, we have previously considered the likelihood of declining uranium supplies. Nuclear is not a renewable resource, and the breeder reactor technologies intended to extend nuclear resources have yet to prove out. Maybe thorium reactors will eventually be perfected, but it's not a sure bet, though maybe a better bet than fusion.

So Ben Stein should not be your first source of information regarding the formulation of sound energy policy.

The Shadow Knows – Shadotec opens New-Old Vistas in Maritime Transport

Soaring fuel prices are causing shipping companies to begin to think the unthinkable, revisiting the age of sail. Shadotec, whose principals were formerly associated with the Walker Wingsail, are hoping to benefit. They recently announced a favorable assessment of their system by the Norwegian National Rsearch Council.

The Walker Wingsail, an evolutionary derivative of which is used by Shadotec, is the brainchild of the English aeronautical engineer, Peter Walker. Walker's wingsail, is in fact a solid, high lift wing to which a control flap is attached for varying lift to suit wind conditions. The wingsail is controlled by a motor, and a vessel equipped with the device largely sails itself through the agency of a computer loaded with specialized software for trimming and tacking the wingsail.

The Walker Wingsail created quite a stir in yachting circles at the beginning of this decade when the company began producing a costly 43 foot trimaran that supposedly anyone could sail and which was extraordinarily safe as well as fast, de-powering automatically when heeling exceeded so many degrees. Unfortunately, the firm ran into critical financial difficulties, and only six were made, one of which functions as a charter boat today and may be rented by the curious. I talked to a yacht salesman who briefly had the franchise in California, and he attested to the extraordinary performance of the rig while disparaging Peter Walker personally in the most violent terms.

Walker had originally attempted to sell the concept to merchant shippers, but had failed to find a market. The recreational boating market was something of a last resort.

Wingsails in fact are nothing new. Many experimental designs have handily outperformed traditional flat sails—recall that one of the Stars and Stripes America's Cup racers had a wingsail system—and they're specified in the super fast class C racing catamarans. But practicality and salability have always been problems. Solid wingsails such as Walker's cannot be reefed—he uses the flap instead to vary lift—and most recreational sailors have been put off by the bizarre appearance of the devices. They've also been outlawed in almost all sailboat racing divisions. A number of inventors have attempted to develop soft wingsails, essentially two conventional sails disposed over an armature to provide a wing shape, but these have found little acceptance either, even though they're easier to handle by sailors used to conventional rigs.

A few commercial ships have been fitted with custom built wingsails, such as Jacques Cousteau's famous Calypso II, but no one has ever successfully manufactured them. If Walker succeeds this time around, he'll be the first.

Another type of sail system for merchant vessels is the kitesail, which is actually being sold on a limited basis by SkySails GmbH of Germany. The superiority of kites to conventional sales and even to wing sails is generally recognized by those interested in speed sailing, that is, the pursuit of world records for speed under sail. With kites the problem of heeling is completely eliminated, and the kite itself can be positioned hundreds of feet above the water level where wind speeds are generally greater. So why don't we see kites on recreational sailboats let alone merchant vessels? Because they're damned hard to launch and control as we all know from wrestling with toy kites. Try handling a lifting surface with hundreds of times the surface of child's kite.

SkySails claims to have almost completely automated launching and handling (like the Walker Wingsail, their device is computer controlled). And they've made a number of videos to prove the point.

The SkySails system is strictly a retrofit intended augment the performance of a conventional freighter and to reduce fuel consumption. They still don't have much of a market, but they garnered a lot of publicity.

Another scheme for bringing back wind power, which scarcely seems credible on first hearing, is to utilize a wind turbine on the deck to turn a propeller! Sounds crazy? A ship using just this sort of system crossed the Atlantic in the 1870s, and various mad inventors have played around with it ever since, the most successful realization being an English yacht called the Revelation II which was built a few years ago and still sails. Revelation II is not a particularly fast vessel—it is slightly slower than a conventional sailing catamaran of the same weight and dimensions—but it is extremely easy to sail. At any rate, it aroused my curiosity, and I did some analysis of the concept. With a modern ultra-high performance wind turbine such as the new FloDesign, which develops about 100 horsepower with a 12 foot diameter, one could probably make a boat that would be considerably faster than a conventional sailing vessel. One wouldn't be bound by conventional design criteria for sailboat hulls and could use the type of air entrainment and air lubrication designs found in advanced high speed powerboats. The turbine shroud would of course impose considerable drag, but one has to remember that conventional sailboats of even the most advanced design are hard put to sustain speeds in excess of twenty knots. A hundred horsepower driving a prop with an optimized hull should be able to better that.