Biofuels and fossil oil replacement

Today, I am publishing an ebook entitled “Biofuels An Overview”. So why do I think I should write that? Basically, because this is an area in which I have actively worked and published on and off over the last 35 years. The reason I got into this research was that early in my career, while working for the main New Zealand government chemical research lab, I was given the job, and a useful travel budget, to try to survey what were the possibilities, and to unravel what the more promising (if any) options were. As a consequence of that, I have now repeated the exercise (without the travel budget!) and put my conclusions into this ebook.
The first question is, why do we need biofuels anyway. My answer to that is, there is only so much fossil oil on this planet and the planet is not making more at anything like the rate we are using. There are also issues with climate change and ocean acidification, and of course we have to eat. We also have to get around, maybe not as much as now, but we have to get to work, get groceries, and have a social life. We may not have to make biofuels to compensate for our current oil usage, but I try to show we have to make a lot of them.
What I felt was important was that such a book must explain why it is important to develop biofuels and to do that, numbers have to be put on the assertions. I feel that is the biggest problem with most other writing about biofuels. The objective of most writing on this topic is to advocate something, which in itself is laudable, but somewhere along the lines we have to form some sort of a plan for the long term. It is true, and I conclude this in the ebook, that there is no single ‘magic bullet’, and that a very large number of resources will have to be used, and there is no harm in using resources that are available, even if, by doing so, you will be doing something that is not general. But it is also important to end up with a limited range of fuels. There is no point in having 120 different fuels on the market, when a given motor can only reasonably operate on one. Now, if you put numbers on resources, you very quickly find that if you want to eat, and you want to retain something of the natural land-based environment, you cannot replace oil from the land. There is simply insufficient area that is reasonably useful. Accordingly, I conclude that eventually we have to utilize the oceans. Now the problem here is that we have very little truly adequate technology to do this with. On the other hand, we know that in principle we can grow the algae. Problems include getting past “in principle”. There have been clear demonstrations of growing macroalgae in deep water, but the experiment by the US navy started in the 1970s got wrecked in a storm, and when, at the time, the price of oil collapsed, the project was stopped. That does not mean it cannot be restarted, but it will require more work to solve the obvious problems. Similarly, it is reasonably easy to grow microalgae at sea, but very difficult to harvest them at a reasonable cost.
Accordingly, any survey of resources comes up with a variety of different resources, each of which shows different problems. The issue then is, how do we convert those to fuel? The book shows the limitations and advantages of a variety of potential methods. For those who say, use electricity, we still have to make that, and a quick survey of battery technology shows that will not be the answer to all of our problems any time soon. That may change, but I think we shall always need liquid fuels. My preferred option is hydrothermal liquefaction, primarily because it can process any biomass and with some reservations, it succeeds with only minor adjustments to the methodology as one changes resources. (In fairness, this is also the area in which I worked, so I may be biased!) It then produces a mixture of drop-in fuels, and fuels than need a little more processing, however, once one gets to the liquid state, it is much easier to transport the “pre-fuel” to a refinery for upgrading.
Can we totally replace oil? Probably not. Probably we shall have to reduce the wasted travel, but in principle we can come reasonably close. And while I most certainly do not claim to have all the answers, I am putting what I have out there. If you have any questions about this, or any alternative views, please feel free to contact me.


MH 17: finger-pointing and points-scoring.

Further to the rhetoric about MH17, it is of interest to note the logic behind many of the comments. For example, take this quote from David Cameron: “For too long there has been a reluctance on the part of too many European countries to face up to the implications of what is happening in eastern Ukraine.” Well, David, what are the implications? The item from where I took the quote did not give any discernible ones, although in fairness that may merely mean bad reporting. We then see only too many leaders telling Putin that ‘he must take responsibility’ for what has happened. You are responsible for what you control, so is this a statement that Eastern Ukraine is really part of Russia? What does, “take responsibility” mean? Go stand in the corner with a dunces hat? Or is everyone just trying to score points to raise their local poll ratings? I rather suspect there is a lot of the latter.

Then there were protests about pillage, and accusations that passengers’ property was stolen by Eastern Ukrainians. Now, pillage is bad, right? Yes, it is, but it happens. Note the pillage of Iraq’s national treasures after US troops entered Baghdad, and the amount that ended in America. Everybody holding those treasures is guilty of pillage, because they know they were stolen. But who objected to that pillage?

Then there is the call for retribution. Impose sanctions! Stick it to those Russians. The fact that the Russians probably had no real input to this event is beside the point. But what about precedent? The nearest precedent I could find was IR655, which was shot down by the USS Vincennes, which had recently (then) been bullying Iranian gunboats. Now, here we had the most sophisticated equipment then available and a highly disciplined crew (or so we were led to believe). These were not a bunch of ill-trained separatists, and they had not been recently subjected to aircraft bombing, yet they pulled the trigger. If they could, why could not someone else? And who suggested sanctions on the US? Nobody, because they would lose money and achieve nothing.

One of the more interesting quotes I have heard was on a TV item where a leading Ukrainian rebel was told that he should show more contrition and respect for the bodies, and he responded something like, “In the same way you showed concern for Eastern Ukrainian bodies?” He was referring, of course, to the outcomes of the Western Ukrainian shelling and bombing. The same could be said for Palestinan civilians, or Iraqi civilians killed due to “shock and awe”. I have heard some say that Putin must be responsible because he supplied the missiles that brought down the aircraft. The same could be said for the US Presidents at the time of the deaths of Palestinian civilians, because Israel has received huge amounts of US funding. And, of course, the US was clearly responsible for deaths due to “shock and awe”, and the subsequent Iraqi collapse

No, I am not on a major witch-hunt. What I am saying is that politicians should at least be consistent, or as they say, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If supplying arms is bad, and perhaps it is, let he who makes arms and has never supplied dissidents cast the first stone. I suspect there would be an absence of stone throwing.

What is the alternative to the rebels not having such missile systems? Either the Russian air force defends Eastern Ukraine, or Western Ukraine has free shots at killing Eastern Ukrainians. Of course some will say, that is OK because it is “them”. The problem with this aircraft is, “It could have been me on it.” It might be natural to feel more for your own citizens, but the Iranians were still human beings, exactly like us, with the same faults, the same virtues, and the same desire to live amongst their friends and families and enjoy their life. As are the bombed eastern Ukrainians. Time to be fair! Of course we want this sort of thing not to happen again, but you do not achieve that by throwing ill-considered insults at someone else?

Malaysian flight MH 17 shot down.

First, my sympathy for the victims of this tragedy. It should not have happened, and now the blame game will start. For those who have read any of my fiction, you will guess that I have two ways of approaching a problem like this: first, use logic, and second, put yourself in the position of the person you blame, just to make sure that he is blameworthy. The question then is, what can we learn from this tragedy by doing that?
The first thing we can be fairly sure of is that this aircraft was brought down by a surface to air missile, probably either a Buk SA 11 or a BUK SA 17, with the former more likely. These are Russian-made systems, so they came from Russia. So we blame Russia? Just a minute. These systems were also inherited by Ukraine at the break-up of the old USSR, they are more suitable for using at a border (i.e. first shots) so Ukraine deployed a number of them along the Ukraine/Russia border, which happens to be territory taken over by the rebels. They may well be technically Ukrainian missiles.
Who would fire it? My guess is it is almost certainly from the Ukrainian rebels. The only other possibilities are Russian or Ukrainian forces, but neither of those options makes sense. Both have nothing to gain and an awful lot to lose, and worse still, both have the ability to tell it is a civilian aircraft, and both can tell it is harmless to them.
Why would the rebels shoot down such a plane? First, assume it is an SA 11, which is a mobile launcher with relatively primitive radar. The correct way to use such equipment if you do not have air control is to move to a site, light up the radar, select a target (or don’t), shoot (or don’t) turn off the radar, and MOVE. Once that radar is lit up, YOU become a target for enemy anti-missile launcher defences, and the last thing you want to do is to give yourself a radar channel to attract enemy missiles. Now, put yourself in the position of whoever had this missile. Your home city has been bombed, maybe someone you know has been killed or injured, you are angry, you light up, you see a jet heading to Donetsk, you have no means of determining what it is, but if it is close to the city, you do not have much time. If you have a timetable of expected civilian flights, there should be none then, because unfortunately, MH 17 was half an hour late. You shoot.
So, who is to blame here? I believe the air traffic controllers, and to some extent, the airline. It would have been a simple matter to divert the fight so it did not cross that territory, and there is no reason to believe the relevant governments would not have accommodated a change of course. They should not put aircraft over a war zone. As another example, suppose you have to walk from A to B, and half-way there, you find your path crosses a live-fire rifle range. Now, you could walk across, on the basis that the shooters will see you are a human, and won’t fire. But would you risk it? Me, I would divert and walk around the back. What do you think?

Bombing in Gaza, Ukraine, etc.

Ever noticed that when politicians see parts of their country or a part that they think probably should be subservient to their interests and it is weak enough that it cannot return the favour, they seem to resort to bombing as a means of first resort. They see it as a good deal because it costs rather little politically, and they think it brings the errant population to heel. The fact is, it does not.

Obviously, bombing has a real purpose in a real military conflict, but that purpose is to prevent resupply of the armed force of the opposition, or to destroy opposition troops or equipment. Examples of the first that succeeded include in World War II, German production of tanks was such that on the western front, in France, Germany could only put something like 35 tanks in the field at one time, and at the end, they finally got their Me 262 to fly, but their supplies of fuel were near zero. Bombing ships, troops, etc is obvious. However, as a means of making the civilian population call to surrender, it has always been a failure. Hitler’s bombing of Britain merely made the recipients want to resist more strongly, as did the allied bombing of Germany. Some would say that “shock and awe” led to the collapse of the Iraqi military, but that would be wrong. The Iraqi military realized it had no defence to US air superiority, that Iraq topography was unfortunately ideal for the US to deploy tanks and tank-killing aircraft, and to go out and fight would merely lead to everybody getting killed.

The problem was, just as in Afghanistan, the population did not surrender, nor did they accept defeat. They merely realized they would have to fight a different way. Afghanistan had more friendly topography for resistance, so in Iraq even that sort of resistance was difficult. Nevertheless, the only two ways to win wars are to remove the opposition from the field, or to remove their means or willingness to fight. The usual route for an occupation force is to remove the willingness to continue fighting. That can be done through fear, or through showing there is a better way. At the end of WWII, Stalin resorted to the first; the western allies resorted to the second, thanks to some enlightened policy from the US. Unfortunately, in Iraq, that sort of policy was abandoned. Recall Paul Bremer? There was a man who single-handedly took the opportunity to grasp victory and immediately trashed it for some sort of personal power gratification.

So, where is this going? My view is that bombing Gaza will achieve nothing, nor will Kiev achieve much by bombing eastern Ukraine (other than smash buildings and generally make a mess). In the first case, Israel refuses to give the Palestinians enough to think there are better things to do than to get killed, and in the second, Kiev refuses to give the Russian speaking people some sort of economic independence, or to make them feel welcome. The outcomes? I do not know, but I cannot see them as being desirable in the short term.

Biofuels – why we should be interested?

At the end of July, I am self-publishing an ebook on biofuels, and it will be available for those interested at most ebook outlets. But leaving aside the commercial, why do I think I am in a position to write this? Sure, there are a number of very skilled scientists and engineers involved in this work, but whoever cuts their paychecks will have them under confidentiality. Also, most will not have time to do this sort of thing. I have had a long if intermittent involvement with this work, the intermittent being due to interest and funding coming and going. In the 1970s I worked for Chemistry Division, DSIR, which was the New Zealand Government Laboratory for the chemical sciences, and when the oil crisis struck, I was given the task of surveying what was being done around the world, and also a generous travel budget to make observations. At the end, I wrote a survey that identified the issues as I saw them, and then started an experimental program on what I thought was the most promising and, from my point of view, likely to be productive technology for me to work on. This last point is important. With a rather small budget, the work had to be in an area where it was likely to be productive, but not “me too”, and this can be a little difficult. Anyway, I made a start, I thought I was making headway, but two things stopped me. First, the price of oil collapsed as the OPEC agreement fell apart at the seams, and second, I resigned to go out and form a private laboratory. More on this some other time.

Now there have been further oil price rises, and this time it is serious and not artificial, so we should do something, right? I acted as a consultant for a New Zealand company, and they made real progress, but instead of re-financing when there was an excellent opportunity, they waited until Wall St decided to implode, and found it almost impossible to refinance. So I now find myself in a state of semi-retirement, and I thought I should share my thoughts.

Why do we need biofuels? My answer is, we need transport, and while we can presumably cut back and conserve by not taking silly trips and using more efficient vehicles, no matter what, we need fuel. Electricity will take some of the slack, but unless we invest very heavily in nuclear power, or make fusion power work, we shall have insufficient electricity, and some parts of transport will still require liquid fuels. There is a limit to how much oil we can find and it must run out eventually. The fact that we do not know when is irrelevant because to replace the current oil products with something else would require the replacement of 150 years of investment in infrastructure. Not all of that is still working, but its use led to the improvements we now have. And herein lies a fact of chemical engineering not usually appreciated: unlike the making of new electrical products, chemical plant has to be developed in stages and it takes a long time to get major plant right. I estimated that it would take 30 years before a new process in biofuels could make an impact. You believe it is much quicker? Search the web for “Range Fuels” to see what goes wrong when you try short cuts.

People will protest and say, look how soon we got corn ethanol. True, but that still does not make a major dent in the world’s oil, and there is a limit to its expansion, and that limit has probably been reached. There are other problems, one of which is peak food. That means we cannot just expand agricultural land indefinitely, and we may be hitting the limit sometime soon. So what do we do? My argument is, look carefully at the options, decide which ones will really give room for expansion, and start to learn. What I suggest is that we really get to work removing problems from the “don’t know” basket to the “answers” basket.

The ebook is called, Biofuels An Overview, and is available from 31 July. (Pre-orders help me!) I shall give some more thoughts in this blog, but in the meantime, what is your opinion on what should be done?

If Kapteyn’s star has no life, why not? If it has, why haven’t we seen evidence?

One curious question is, are we alone in the Universe? Most people would say there must be others there, but there has been one disturbing thought recently, in that two planets have been found around the red dwarf Kapteyn’s star, which happens to be about rather close to us, at about 13 light years distance, and which also was formed about 11 billion years ago, and hence is almost two and a half times older than our sun and planetary system. One of these planets is in the habitable zone, so the question is, if it is habitable, and if life has a reasonable chance of being generated, why don’t we see evidence of it around this star? Perhaps a civilization is rare. Perhaps civilizations exterminate themselves after so long. Perhaps civilizations keep themselves secret. Perhaps something else is why we see no evidence, such as radio signals.
Rather intriguing is its proper motion; it was about 11 light years distant about 11,000 years ago. The reason for this is that it is orbiting the galaxy in the opposite direction to us! Galaxies grow by accreting galaxies, and our galaxy has apparently swallowed a small galaxy, some of which may be known now as the Omega Centauri cluster. One characteristic of this star is that it is rather short of elements heavier than helium. All such elements are made in supernovae, and then thrown into space. The younger the star, the fewer such supernovae to feed them.
The planets have been found using the Doppler method, which measures small variations in velocity of the star as it wobbles due to the gravitational tugs of planets. This star has a mass of about 0.28 times that of the sun, and a small mass and close planets make such detection easier. The two planets are (b) at 0.168 A.U. from the star, and at least about 4.5 times Earth’s mass, and (c) at 0.311 A.U. from the star, and at least about 7 times Earth’s mass. (The “at least” is because what is measured is msini, i.e. the actual tug that we see is the component in our directions, and the angle of the orbital plane is unknown.) An A.U. is the distance from the earth to the sun, and because the red dwarf is cooler than our sun, (b) is in the so-called habitable zone. Unfortunately, the news media then proceeded to make claims that were unjustified. The planets were described as “rocky planets”, and in some cases sizes were calculated. The fact is, all we measured was the gravitational tugs of the planets, and since the value of a sine is less than 1, the given sizes are minimum sizes.
However, the natural question was, with over 11 billion years for life to evolve, would it? If it would, with an extra 6.5 billion years, why hasn’t its technology led to space travel to us? What I find surprising is that so far I have yet to see anyone claim that it could be the source of UFOs. Some might also claim that since we have not been visited, the absence of such visits proves technical life cannot get into space, which again would be wrong and illogical.
If you accept my theory stated in my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”, the answer is reasonably clear: these are not rocky planets, and (b) is unsuitable for life to form. Therefore, no UFOs, no radio signals, no life. A characteristic of the standard theory of planetary formation is that you start with planetesimals, but nobody has the slightest idea how they form. My view is different: accretion depends on chemistry (and yes, I, being a chemist, am biased), and what happens in turn depends on temperature. The temperature at a point in the accretion disk depends on the potential energy lost getting to it, which depends on the radial distance from the star, and the rate of the starwards component of matter flowing through the point, which, from observation, is very roughly proportional to stellar mass squared. Accordingly, the radial distance for equal temperatures will vary between accretion disks proportional to stellar mass cubed, plus or minus a lot. One complicating factor is less the energy radiated by dust and heavy gases, which will vary depending on the shape of the accretion disk. If we assume my approximate relationship, then the Jupiter equivalent should be at 0.12 A.U. and the Saturn at 0.20 A.U., both plus or minus quite a lot.
If so, we do not have rocky planets. The planet (b) is 1.4 times further out that where Jupiter is expected, and (c) 1.55 times that expected for Saturn. That could be expected because less heat would be radiated (because there is less dust to radiate it) hence a given temperature would be reached further from the star. In my theory of planetary formation, these two planets would be interpreted as the cores of the Jupiter equivalent (formed like a snowball by ice sticking together near its melting point following collisions) and a Saturn equivalent (formed by melt fusion of methanol/ammonia/water near that eutectic temperature, the energy of the collision providing the heat, the melt then fusing the ice.) The reason they would not develop to full gas giants would be simply a lack of material to grow that big. Of course such dust as was available would also be incorporated, and the resultant planets would be like a giant Ganymede and a giant Titan. Thus I would expect (b) to have little atmosphere but maybe be a waterworld on the face tidally locked to the star, and (c) to have a nitrogen atmosphere, and maybe methane. Why maybe? Because methane is photochemically degraded, and presumably has to be regenerated on Titan. On Kapteyn c, with 11 billion years photochemistry, the methane may not have lasted. There would be no life on (b), nor for that matter in any Europa under-ice ocean, because of a general deficiency of nitrogen, and also a probable difficulty in forming phosphate esters.