A Response to Climate Change, But Will it Work?

By now, if you have not heard that climate change is regarded as a problem, you must have been living under a flat rock. At least some of the politicians have recognized that this is a serious problem and they do what politicians do best: ban something. The current craze is to ban the manufacture of vehicles powered by liquid fuels in favour of electric vehicles, the electricity to be made from renewable resources. That sounds virtuous, but have they thought out the consequences?

The world consumption of petroleum for motor vehicles is in the order of 23,000 bbl/day. By my calculation, given some various conversion factors from the web, that requires approximately 1.6 GW of continuous extra electric consumption. In fact much more would be needed because the assumptions include 100% efficiency throughout. Note if you are relying on solar power, as many environmentalists want, you would need more than three times that amount because the sun does not shine at night, and worse, since this is to charge electric vehicles, which tend to be running in daytime, such electric energy would have to be stored for use at night. How do you store it?

The next problem is whether the grid could take that additional power. This is hardly an insurmountable problem, but I most definitely needs serious attention, and it would be more comforting if we thought the politicians had thought of this and were going to do something about it. Another argument is, since most cars would be charged at night, the normal grid could be used because there is significantly less consumption then. I think the peaks would still be a problem, and then we are back to where the power is coming from. Of course nuclear power, or even better, fusion power, would make production targets easily. But suppose, like New Zealand, you use hydro power? That is great for generating on demand, but each kWhr still requires the same amount of water availability. If the water is fully used now, and if you use this to charge at night, then you need some other source during the day.

The next problem for the politicians are the batteries, and this problem doubles if you use batteries to store electricity from solar to use at night. Currently, electric vehicles have ranges that are ideal for going to and from work each day, but not so ideal for long distance travel. The answer here is said to be “fast-charging” stops. The problem here is how do you get fast charging? The batteries have a fixed internal resistance, and you cannot do much about that. From Ohm’s law, given the resistance, the current flow, which is effectively the charge, can only be increased by increasing the voltage. At first sight you may think that is hardly a problem, but in fact there are two problems, both of which affect battery life. The first is, in general an overvoltage permits fresh electrochemistry to happen. Thus for the lithium ion battery you run the risk of what is called lithium plating. The lithium ions are supposed to go between what are called intercalation layers on the carbon anode, but if the current is too high, the ions cannot get in there quickly enough and they deposit outside, and cause irreversible damage. The second problem is too fast of charging causes heat to be generated, and that partially destroys the structural integrity of the electrodes.

The next problem is that batteries can be up to half the cost of the purely electric vehicle. Everybody claims battery prices are coming down, and they are. The lithium ion battery is about seven times cheaper than it was, but it will not necessarily get much cheaper because at present ingredients make up 70% of the cost. Ingredient prices are more likely to increase. Lithium is not particularly common, and a massive increase in production may be difficult. There are large deposits in Bolivia but as might be expected, there are other salts present in addition to the lithium salts. There is probably enough lithium but it has to be concentrated from brines and there are the salts you do not want that have to be disposed of, which reduces the “green-ness” of the exercise. Lithium prices can be assumed to go up significantly.

But the real elephant in the room is cobalt. Cobalt is not part of the chemistry of the battery, but it is necessary for the cathode. The battery works by shuttling lithium ions backwards and forwards between the cathode and anode. The cathode material needs to have the right structure to accommodate the ions, be stable so the ions can move in and out, have valence orbitals to accommodate the electron transfer, and the capacity to store as many lithium ions as possible. There are other materials that could replace cobalt, but cobalt is the only one where, when the lithium moves out, something does not move in to fill the spaces. Cobalt is essential for top performance. There are alternatives to use in current technology, but the cost is in poorer lifetimes, and there are alternative technologies, but nobody is sure they work. At present, a car needs somewhere between 7 – 20 kg of cobalt in its batteries, and as you reduce the cobalt content, you appear to reduce the life of the battery.

Cobalt is a problem because the current usage of cobalt in batteries is 48,000 t/a, while world production is about 100,000 t/a. The price is increasing rapidly as electric vehicles become more popular. At the beginning of 2017, a tonne of cobalt would cost $US 32,500; now it is at least $US 80,000. Over half the world’s production comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which may not be the most stable country, and worse, most of that 100,000 t/a comes as a byproduct from copper or nickel production. If there were to be a recession and the demand for stainless steel fell, then the production of cobalt would drop. The lithium ion batteries that would not be affected are the laptops and phones; they only need about 10 – 20 g of cobalt. Even worse, there are a lot of these batteries that currently are not being recycled.

In a previous post I noted there was not a single magic bullet to solve this problem. I stick to that opinion. We need a much broader approach than most of the politicians are considering. By broader, I do not mean the approach of denying we even have a problem.

This post is later than my usual, thanks to time demands approaching Easter, and I hope all my readers have a relaxing and pleasant Easter.


Misleading Accusations

Fake news is becoming more common, and most of it is either political in nature or it is an attempt to be humorous. Last week I posted on the attempted murder of the two Skripals. Since then there have been a raft of accusations, some of which border on the pathetic, and some of which are definitely misleading.

The first example comes from the Russians. A Russian ambassador stated that for the British to be able to identify this agent as a Novichok, they must have a sample, therefore they are making it. There was then the implication that this could have been the source, although he never actually said he believed it. This last implication is just plain stupid. I am quite convinced the British would not do this. If they wanted to get rid of the Skripals, which I do not believe they would, at the very least they would do it in a way that would not harm anyone else. It is almost as if the Russian government sees itself as some sort of gangster organization and thinks everyone else is too. That is why I think it was a stupid comment; it is the sort of thing that immediately backfires.

But what about the point that Porton Down must have samples? That is just plain wrong. They must have some sort of expertise, but since it is the UK national defence laboratory, that expertise should be taken for granted. If so, it is a rather straightforward task to identify something like that. We know what the structures involve, and such structures do not occur in nature. You have to have some idea what it could be before you start if your sample is really small, but given the circumstances, that would be a given. One approach would be to run a mass spectrum of the sample (having done some sort of chromatographic purification), and do it under a few different conditions. One such determination would be low energy ionization to determine the overall molecular weight, which tells you how many atoms are there, and if the instrument is good enough, the molecular formula. That is because although all elements comprise protons and neutrons, which have a constant mass, the binding energy varies from atom to atom, and from relativity there are clear but very small mass differences between the various possibilities from the general molecular weight. The next attempt would be hit it with higher energy, which would break it into fragments, and again the molecular weights of the fragments will tell you how the various groups are assembled. Finally, some small groups will give you more information, and the exercise then is to interpret how to put this back together again. Of course had they ever had access to a sample, they would have records of the fragmentation patterns of all the Novichoks they knew about. So there is little doubt the British authorities would have been able to find out what this was without having to go around making or having samples.

However, then the British politicians made a further statement: we can tell where it came from through the structure. Sorry, but you can’t. That statement violates the first law of thermodynamics, from which you can show the nature of a chemical is independent of how it was made, or from where. Had there been tonnes of the stuff, yes, then you might, not directly from the structure but rather once you knew what it was, you would know who made it because chemical plant, by and large, gets dedicated to making one substance and there would probably be only one making some of these components. But at the gram level, there is no way of knowing from its structure where it came from.

The problem with these sort of comments is they sound convincing to those who do not know much about the general subject However, eventually someone points out the errors and conspiracy theories start up. When it becomes known that the authorities made politically desirable statements, all sorts of rubbish comes out of the woodwork. Another problem with such announcements is that they may look to be politically desirable at the time, but what about the downstream consequences? In this case, the desire to blame Russia has set off some tit for tat diplomatic expulsions, and some sanctions. Now what? Why could that not have waited until the evidence came in? If it can be shown that Russian agents did it, then surely the various actions would be stronger and even the Russians might seem embarrassed. But suppose some individual or small rogue organization did it? Now Russia has been made angry for no good purpose. Nothing has been done that could not have waited, so why not wait and make sure the conclusions are right?

Sergei Skripal, Novichoks, and Accusations

One of the more depressing pieces of news this week was the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia by what appears to be a Novichok agent. There is a large family of these, which were developed in the old Soviet Union as chemical weapons. Their structure involves a phosphoramidate or a phosphonate, either of which is often fluorinated. These can be made simply by mixing two chemicals: a substituted phosphoryl compound with at least one halogen on it, and if there happen to be two fluoride substituents, displacing one of these leaves the other fluoride as part of what is desired. The other compound appears to usually involve an amine or an oxime, and phosgene oxime (a chemical weapon in its own right called CX) appears to form particularly active Novichoks. A major advantage of these as war chemicals is that they can be made by mixing the chemicals at the point of use, which makes them safer to handle up to use, especially if they can be mixed remotely. The Novichoks are extremely dangerous, as can be seen in that when the Skripals collapsed after being poisoned elsewhere, a policeman who came to help was himself struck down by residue seemingly adhering to the Skripals.

As might be expected, everyone has jumped up and down blaming the Russians, and of course, they may well be to blame. The Russian case for innocence is not helped by the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko some time ago with 210-polonium, which in some ways was quite clever in that after administering, it takes several days before any symptoms appear, so the villain would have left the country before a crime was even recognized. While we do not know who did that, the actual use of such an isotope meant that the perpetrator had to have access to extremely dangerous isotopes, and that strongly suggests a nation such as Russia. You can’t make such isotopes in a shed, even with an unlimited budget.

However, Novichoks are not particularly difficult to make for a skilled chemist. The synthesis would involve some sophisticated equipment and quite a bit of patience to make them from chemicals you could often purchase if you were in the chemical business, but they are not impossible for someone with the necessary skill. It would be very difficult to make them on a large scale, but a gram of each precursor would not be that difficult. There are other sources. They were developed in the old Soviet Union, and not just in Russia. Uzbekistan was one of the places, and I would suspect other parts also had some of the necessary chemicals. Of course Russia would be a good source.

Teresa May delivered some sort of ultimatum to the Russian government: either account for all your Novichok agents within about 36 hours, or “face the consequences”. With the best will in the world, I doubt a country as large as Russia could account for its entire chemical stock in that short a time. Probably much less than a gram of each precursor would have been used, and I doubt any country could account for that degree of accuracy in a chemical stock in that time, if ever. However, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, did make a response: he asked for a sample of the Novichok. Given there were could be many of them, and the different ones could well have originated from different places, wanting to know the structure is a reasonable request. Maybe a sample of the agent is too much to ask, but at the least a mass spectrum would be helpful because that should define which Novichok was used, assuming it was one.

As it happens, Russia did not respond to May’s demands. Now what? The problem with delivering an ultimatum is that if the other side declines to give in, you have to deliver, and Britain’s position is too weak to worry Russia.

So, who else could be responsible? What we have to realize is that Skripal, as a double agent, managed to hand over a GRU list of agents in the West, most of whom were promptly arrested. Now suppose, many years later, some were released? Or one of their associates who managed to avoid detection found out where the Skripals were? Anyone want to bet they would not have a motive? The man they trusted, a senior officer in their own organization, handed them over to the West, and they, whose lives had been ruined, don’t want payback? And why a Novichok? The real problem with them is there is a good chance the damage is permanent. The victim may recover, but only partially, and some nerve damage will be permanent. That would be revenge.

So how do we find out? My guess is good old police work. It is known when it happened, where it happened, it was a public place so someone must know something. Britain has a large number of surveillance sites, and with any luck, images of the perpetrators will be available. Let us wait and see what the investigations produce before jumping on the bandwagon. Evidence is what we need. Facts. Not wild accusations. Maybe it was the Russian government, but not necessarily. If the perpetrator can be identified, at least an arrest warrant can be issued. In the meantime, being a KGB defector does not look like being a good position to have.

Predicting the Outcome of Trade Wars

I have written a series of novels that form a sort of “future history”, all of which, of course, were imaginary and in most cases I hope those futures won’t come to pass. I never intended to try to predict any future, because predicting the future is tricky and it seldom complies with our wishes. There are two basic approaches. The first is to be sufficiently general that with any sort of luck, you can say, “Yes, that complies with the prediction.” A classic example was when a king asked the Delphic oracle what would happen if he went to war with a neighbouring king and he got the answer, “A great kingdom will fall.” Overjoyed, the king went to war, overlooking the fact that it could be his kingdom that fell. Oops.

The alternative is to look at what has happened in the past and extrapolate. If you want to know what the weather will be like in two hours time, look out the window. In general, the chances of a dramatic change are not that great. If you look further to the future, the problems get more difficult. I recall in my youth, there was something of a drought in Westland, New Zealand, and since that is rather wet generally, the weather forecast consistently seemed to think that this could not last, so they predicted rain. The drought persisted for 48 days, when finally the weather forecast decided to yield and predict continued fine weather; a front arrived and it rained! The problem for New Zealand then was there were very few data coming from the Tasman sea. Now, with satellites, they can see what is coming, and follow its rate of arrival.

Anyone who has tried to predict sports game results will know how difficult that is. With some sportsmen (and women) form is transient to say the least. Only the bookmakers do well, and of course they don’t care who wins; they lay the odds so that they always make more from the losers than they pay to the winners, or at least they try to. That is why they like to offer “multiple choice” bets in big team games. So why are sports so difficult to predict? The problem involves random variables. Someone is not feeling very well, a key player gets injured, players have mental aberrations, the list goes on.

Anyway, the cause of this particular post is President Trump’s latest proposal to put tariffs on foreign steel and aluminium. This was totally unpredictable, but the question now is, how do you predict the consequences? It is no good extrapolating because there is nothing recent to extrapolate from. It is no good being Delphic, because that does not get anyone anywhere. The problem then is, how will other countries respond? They have two considerations. If they retaliate, you get a trade war and everyone loses. If they do not retaliate, then Trump will be encouraged and keep at it, and again most lose. They could try to persuade him not to, but so far he has not been particularly amenable to receiving advice and changing his mind.

The EU has stated it will impose tariffs on US products, but Trump has threatened to counter those with tariffs on European cars, which are more of a big-ticket item for Germany. I was unaware that the EU was a significant exporter of steel or aluminium to the US. A check on the EU statistics showed that “metals and others” came in at about 4% of trade, and the EU imported a little more from the US than it exported. In my opinion, a better strategy for the EU would be to shut up and see what happened. There are a lot of other countries far more deeply involved, so let them do the fighting. Unfortunately, politicians, when interviewed, feel they have to say something and cannot resist the chance to look important. Much better to “make a stand” and never mind the consequences, which in this case would be severe.

This raises the question, why has the US got such a big trade deficit? The answer from a US professor of economics at first sight seems of low relevance, but on thinking about it I suspect he is in part correct. According to him, a very important cause is the US government deficit. If you think about it, suppose the trade should be at equilibrium if there were no deficits. Now, when you borrow money, if that goes more or less in the same ratio to domestic and imports as before, the imports rise, but the government deficit is not going into exports, or, at present, into infrastructure, which would enhance economic growth. So the balance swings to more imports. There is a second problem. No industrialist likes to expand production or invest more to do it when there are frequent random changes to the rules. Good growth is encouraged by clear government rules that stay the same. Right now there is the threat of chaotic rule changes. All of which raises the question, what next? I don’t think anyone knows, but the worrying thought is that suddenly the world could fall back into trade wars and nobody wins.

Read an Ebook Week Discounts

raew 2018 - 4

From March 4 through to March 10 (US Pacific time), my books on Smashwords, and related sites, Apple, Kobo, etc will be discounted in support of “Read an ebook week”. For details of the books see:


For expected prices (USD) and links (In order, Smashwords, Apple, Kobo, B&N) Note, where you see /nz/ in a link, replace that with your country code. (A very brief, “What is it” is also included.)

Puppeteer: Free. (Debt, terrorism, Kerguelen cabbage)





‘Bot War: $1.50 (Terror from uncontrolled war machines, Economic collapse.)





Troubles: $1.00 (Emergence from anarchy)




http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/troubles-ian miller/1112037527?ean=2940044672888

Biofuels An Overview (Nonfiction. What you don’t know about biofuels.)