About ianmillerblog

I am a semi-retired professional scientist who has taken up writing futuristic thrillers, which are being published by myself as ebooks on Amazon and Smashwords, and a number of other sites. The intention is to publish a sequence, each of which is stand-alone, but when taken together there is a further story through combining the backgrounds. This blog will be largely about my views on science in fiction, and about the future, including what we should be doing about it, but in my opinion, are not. In the science area, I have been working on products from marine algae, and on biofuels. I also have an interest in scientific theory, which is usually alternative to what others think. This work is also being published as ebooks under the series "Elements of Theory".

How Did We Escape the RNA World?

In my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I argue that life had to start with nucleic acids because only nucleic acids can provide a plausible mechanism for reproduction, and, of course, that is exactly what they do now – they reproduce. The RNA world may not qualify as life as more is required, but if this step is not achieved there can be no life. The first reproducing agent had to be RNA because ribose is the only sugar that occurs at least partially in a furanose form. (The furanose is a five-membered ring; the pyranose is a six-membered ring and is generally more stable.) Why do we need the furanose? In my ebook I show various reasons, but the main one is that the only plausible experiment so far to show phosphate esters could have formed naturally lead to AMP and ATP. While the ribose is only about 20% furanose, NO pyranose formed phosphate esters.

Later, DNA was used primarily for reproduction for a very simple reason: it uses 2-deoxyribose. The removal of the 2-hydroxyl from ribose makes the polymer several orders of magnitude more stable. So why did this not be part of the starting mix? Leaving aside the fact we do not really know how to get 2-deoxyribose in any synthesis that could reasonably have happened in some sort of pond without help (complicated laboratory chemical syntheses are out!) there is a more important reason: at the beginning high accuracy in reproduction is undesirable. The first such life forms (i.e. things that reproduce) are not going to be very useful. They were chosen at random and should have all sorts of defects. What we need is rapid evolution, and we are more likely to get that from something that mutates more often. Further, RNA can act as a catalyst, which speeds up- everything.

Bonfio (Nature, 605, p231-2) raises two questions. The first borders on silly: why did proteins as enzymes replace most of RNA catalytic activity? The short answer is they are immensely better. They speed things up by factors of billions, and they are stable, so they can be reused over and over again. So why did they not arise immediately? Consider the enzyme that degrades protein; it has 315 properly sequenced amino acids. If we limit ourselves to 20 different ones, and allow for the initial ones being either left- or right-handed, except for glycine, the probability of random selection is 2 in 39^315. That is, 39 multiplied by itself 315 times. To put that in perspective, there are just 10^85 elementary particles in the visible universe. It was simply impossible. But that raises the second, and extremely interesting question: how could ordered protein selection emerge with such horrendous odds against?

What happens now is that messenger RNA has three nucleotide sequences “recognized” and “transfers” this information to transfer RNA which selects an amino acid and attaches it to the growing chain, then goes back to the messenger RNA to get the next selection information. That is grossly oversimplified, but you might get the picture. The question is, how could this emerge? The answer appears to include non—canonical nucleotides. RNA comprises mainly adenine, guanine, cytosine and uracil, and these are the “information” holders, but there are some additional entities present. One is adenosine with a threonylcarbamoyl group attached. The details are not important at this level – merely that there is something additional there. The important fact is there is no phosphate linkage so this is not in the chain. At first sight, these are bad because they block chain formation. Thus for every time this hydrogen-bonded to a uracil, say, it would block the chain synthesis and stop reproduction. However, it turns out that they may assist peptide synthesis. The non-canonical nucleotide at the terminal point of a RNA strand attracts amino acids. This becomes a donor strand, and it transfers to a similar RNA with a nascent peptide, and we have ordered synthesis. It is claimed that this can be made to happen under conditions that could plausibly occur on Earth. The peptide synthesis involves the generation of a chimeric peptide – RNA intermediate, perhaps the precursor of the modern ribosome. Of course, we are still a long way from an enzyme. However, we have (maybe) located how the peptides could be synthesised in non-random way, and from the RNA we can reproduce a useful sequence, but we are still a very long way from the RNA knowing what sequences will work. The assumption is, they will eventually self-select, based on Darwinian principles, but that would be a slow and very inefficient process. However, as I note in the ebook, the early peptides with no catalytic properties are not necessarily wasted. The most obvious first use would be to incorporate them in the cell wall, which would permit the formation of channels able to bring in fresh nutrients and get rid of excess water pressure. The evolution of life probably a very long time during which much stewing and testing was carried out until something sufficiently robust evolved.

Betelgeuse Dimmed

First, I apologize for the initial bizarre appearance of my last post. For some reason, some computer decided to slice and dice. I have no idea why, or for that matter, how. Hopefully, this post will have better luck.

Some will recall that around October 2019 the red supergiant Betelgeuse dimmed, specifically from magnitude +0.5 down to +1.64. As a variable star, its brightness oscillates, but it had never dimmed like this before, at least within our records. This generated a certain degree of nervousness or excitement because a significant dimming is probably what happens initially before a supernova. There has been no nearby supernova since that of the crab nebula in 1054 AD.

To put a cool spot into perspective, if Betelgeuse replaced the sun, its size is such it would swallow Mars, and its photosphere might almost reach Saturn. Its mass is estimated at least ten times, or possibly up to twenty times, the mass of the sun. Such a variation sparks my interest because when I pointed out that my proposed dependence of characteristic planetary orbital semimajor axes on the cube of the mass of the star ran into trouble because the stellar masses were not known that well I got criticised by an astronomer: they knew the masses to within a few percent. The difference between ten times the sun’s mass and twenty times is more than a few percent. This is a characteristic of science. They can measure stellar masses fairly accurately in double star systems, then they “carry over” the results,

But back to Betelgeuse. Our best guess as to distance is between 500 – 600 light years. Interestingly, we have observed its photosphere, the outer “shell” of the star that is transparent to photons, at least to a degree, and this is non-spherical, presumably due to stellar pulsations that send matter out from the star. The star may seem “stable” but actually its surface (whatever that means) is extremely turbulent. It is also surrounded by something we could call an atmosphere, an envelope of matter about 250 times the size of the star. We don’t really know its size because these asymmetric pulsations can add several astronomical units (the Earth-sun distance) in selected directions.

Anyway, back to the dimming. Two rival theories were produced: one involved the development of a large cooler cell that came to the surface and was dimmer than the rest of Betelgeuse’s surface. The other was the partial obscuring of the star by a dust cloud. Neither proposition really explained the dimming, nor did they explain why Betelgeuse was back to normal by the end of February, 2020. Rather unsurprisingly, the next proposition was that the dimming was caused by both of those effects.

Perhaps the biggest problem because telescopes could only look at the star sone of them however a Japanese weather satellite ended up providing just the data they needed. This was somewhat inadvertent. The weather satellite was in geostationary orbit 35,786 km above the Western Pacific. It was always looking at half of Earth, and always the same half, but the background was also always constant, and in the background was Betelgeuse. The satellite revealed that the star overall cooled by 140 degrees C. This was sufficient to reduce the heating of a nearby gas cloud, and when it cooled, dust condensed and formed obscuring dust. So both theories were right, and even more strangely, both contributed roughly equally to what was called “the Great Dimming”.

It also suggested more was happening to the atmospheric structure of the star before this happened. By looking at the infrared lines, it became apparent that water molecules in the upper atmosphere that would normally create absorption lines in the star’s spectrum suddenly changed to form emission lines. Something had made them become unexpectedly hotter. The current thinking is that a shock-wave from the interior propelled a lot of gas outwards from the star, leading to a cooler surface, while heating the outer atmosphere. That is regarded as the best current explanation. It is possible that there was a similar dimming event in the 1940s, but otherwise we have not noticed much, but possibly it could have occurred but our detection methods may not have been accurate enough. People may not want to get carried away with, “I think it might be dimmer.” Anyway, for the present, no supernova. But one will occur, probably within the next 100,000 years. Keep looking upwards!

Energy Sustainability

Sustainability is the buzzword. Our society must use solar energy, lithium-ion batteries, etc to save the planet, at least that is what they say. But have they done their sums?. Lost in this debate is the fact that many of the technologies use relatively difficult to obtain elements. In a previous post I argued that battery technology was in trouble because there is a shortage of cobalt, required to make the cathode work for a reasonable number of cycles. Others argue that we could obtain sufficient elements. But if we are going to be sustainable, we have to be sustainable for an indefinite length of time, and mining is not sustainable; you can only dig up the ore once. Of course, there are plenty of elements left. There is more gold in the sea than has ever been mined; the problem is that it is too dilute. Similarly, most elements are present in a lump of basalt; just not much of anything useful and it is extremely difficult to get it out. The original copper mines of Cyprus, where even lumps of copper could occasionally be found, are all worked out, at least to the extent that mining is no longer profitable there.

The answer is to recycle, right? Well, according to an article [Charpentier Poncelet, A. et al. Nature Sustain. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-022- 00895-8 (2022)] there are troubles. The problem is that even if we recycle, every time we do something we lose some of the metal. Losses here refer to material emitted into the environment, stored in waste-disposal facilities, or diluted in material where the specific characteristics of the elements are no longer required. The authors define a lifetime as the average duration of their use, from mining through to being entirely lost. As with any such definition-dependent study, there will be some points where you disagree.

The first loss for many elements lies in the production state. Quite often it is only economical to obtain one or two elements, and the remaining minor components of the ore disappear in slag. These losses are mainly important for specialty elements. Production losses account for 30% of rare earth metals, 50% for cobalt, 70% for indium, and greater than 95% for arsenic, gallium, germanium, hafnium, selenium and tellurium. So most of those elements critical for certain electronic and photo-electric effects are simply thrown out. We are a wasteful lot.

Manufacturing and use incur very few losses. There are some, but because materials are purified ready for use, pieces that are not immediately used can be remelted and used. There are exceptions. 80% of barium is lost through use; it is used in drilling muds.

The largest losses come from the waste management and recycling stage. Metals undergoing multiple life cycles are still lost this way; it just takes longer to lose them. Recycling losses occur when the metal accumulates in a dust (zinc) or slag(e.g. chromium or vanadium), or get lost in another stream, thus copper is prone to dissolve in an iron stream. Longest lifetimes occur for non-ferrous metals (8 to 76 years) precious metals (4 to 192 years), and ferrous metals (8 to 154 years). The longest lifetimes are for gold and iron.

Now for the problem areas. Lithium has a life-cycle use of 7 years, then it is all gone. But lithium-ion batteries last about this long, which suggests that as yet (if these data are correct) there is very little real recycling of lithium. Elements like gallium and tellurium last less than a year, while indium manages a year. Before you protest that most of the indium goes into swipeable mobile phone screens and mobile phones last longer than a year, at least for some of us, remember that losses occur through being discarded at the mining stage, where the miner/processor can’t be bothered. Of the fifteen metals most lost during mining/processing, thirteen are critical for sustainable energy, such as cobalt (lithium-ion batteries), neodymium (permanent magnets), indium, gallium, germanium, selenium and tellurium (solar cells) and scandium (solid oxide fuel cells). If we look at the recycled content of “new material” lithium is less than 1% as is indium. Gallium and tellurium are seemingly not recycled. Why are they not recycled? Metals that are recycled tend to be like iron, aluminium, the precious metals and copper. It is reasonably easy to find uses for them where purity is not critical. Recycling and purifying most of the others requires technical skill and significant investment. If we think of lithium-ion batteries, the lithium reacts with water, and if it starts burning it is unlikely to be put out. Some items may have over a dozen elements, and some are highly toxic, and not to be in the hands of the amateur. What we see happening is that the “easy” metals are recycled by organizations that are really low-technology organizations. It is not an area attractive to the highly skilled because the economic risk/return is just not worth it, while the less-skilled simply cannot do it safely.

The First Atmosphere

Ι have now published the second edition of my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”. It has just under 1290 references, each about a different aspect of the issue, although there is almost certainly a little double counting because references follow chapters, and there will be some scientific papers that are of sufficient importance to be mentioned in two chapters. Nevertheless, there is plenty of material there. The reason for a second edition is that there has been quite a lot of additional; information from the past decade. And, of course, no sooner did I publish than something else came out, so I am going to mention that in this post. In part this is because it exemplifies some of what I think is wrong with modern science. The paper, for those interested, is from Wilcoski et al. Planet Sci J. 3: 99. It is open access so you can read it.

First, the problem it attempts to address: the standard paradigm is that Earth’s atmosphere was initially oxidised, and comprised carbon dioxide and nitrogen. The question then is, when did this eventuate? What we know is the Earth was big enough that if still in the accretion disk it would have had an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium. If it did not accrete until after the disk was expelled, it would have no atmosphere initially, and an atmosphere had to come from some other process. The ebook shows the evidence and in my opinion it probably had the atmosphere of hydrogen. Either way, the accretion disk gets expelled, and assuming our star was the same as others, for the first few hundred million years the star gave off a lot of extremely energetic UV radiation, and that would be sufficient to effectively blow any atmosphere away. So under that scenario, for some number of hundred million years there would be no atmosphere.

There is an opposing option. Shortly after the Moon-forming event, there would be a “Great Bombardment” of massive impactors. There are various theories this would form a magma ocean and there is a huge steam atmosphere, but there is surprisingly little evidence for this, which many hold onto no matter what. The one piece of definite evidence are some zircons from the Jack Hills in Australia, and these are about 4.2 – 4.3 billion years old – the oldest of any rock we have. Some of these zircons show clear evidence that they formed under temperatures not that different from today. In particular, there was water that had oxygen isotope ratios expected of water that had come from rain.

So, let me revisit this paper. The basic concept is that the Earth was bombarded with massive asteroids and the iron core hit the magma ocean, about half of it was sent into the atmosphere (iron boils at 2861 degrees C) where it reacted with water to form hydrogen and ferrous oxide. The hydrogen reacted with nitrogen to form ammonia.

So, what is wrong with that? First, others argue that iron in the magma ocean settles to the core. That, according to them, is why we have a core. Alternatively, others argue if it comes from an asteroid, it emulsifies in the magma. Now we have the iron doing three different kind of things depending on what answer you want. It can do one of them, but not all of them. Should iron vapour get into the atmosphere, it would certainly reduce steam and make hydrogen, but then the hydrogen would not do very much, but rather would be lost to space because of the sun’s UV. The reaction of hydrogen with nitrogen only proceeds to make much ammonia when there is intense pressure. That could happen deep underground. However, in atmospheric pressure at temperatures above the boiling point of iron, ammonia would immediately dissociate and form nitrogen and hydrogen. The next thing that is wrong is that very few asteroids have an iron core. If one did, what would happen to the asteroid when it hit magma? As an experiment, throw ice into water and watch what happens before it tries to reverse its momentum and float (which an asteroid would not do). Basically, the liquid is what gets splashed away. Rock is a very poor conductor of heat, so the asteroid will sink quite deeply into the liquid and will have to melt off the silicates before the iron starts to melt, and then, being denser, it will sink to the core. On top of that it was assumed the atmosphere contained 100 bars of carbon dioxide, and two bars of nitrogen, in other words an atmosphere somewhat similar to that of Venus today. Assuming what was there to get the answer you want is, I suppose, one way of going about things, in a circular sort of way. However, with tidal heating from a very close Moon, such an atmosphere with that much water would never rain, which contradicts the zircon data. What we have is a story that contradicts the very limited physical evidence we have, which has no evidence in favour of it, and was made up to get the answer wanted so they could explain where the chemicals that formed life might have come from. Needless to say, my ebook has a much better account, and has the advantage that no observations contradict it.

Ebook Discount

From May 27 – June 3  Jonathon Munros will be discounted to 99c on Amazon in the US and 99p in the UK. The third book in a series, in which the evil Jonathon Munro violates the only reason his evil behaviour has as yet not been punished. He is to be replaced by an android, who learns to behave like the real man. However. Jonathon’s inherent evil has been underestimated, and the android, knowing of Jonathon’s obsession with sex, and knowing that sex is needed for reproduction, decides to start reproducing itself. What could possibly go right? A dystopian hard science fiction novel that, while the third of a series, stands alone as long as you accept the characters have a past, and a problem that makes the Terminator seem modest.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00EK5T6WE

A Pox on Them

For those of us somewhat tired of Covid-19, there is more depressing news. An article in Nature (605, 419 – 422) noted that virtually every viral pandemic that has occurred since the beginning of the 20th century was triggered by the virus jumping from animals to people. Now for more bad news: an analysis of outbreaks over the past four centuries indicates that the annual probability of pandemics could increase several-fold in the coming decades because of human-induced environmental changes. We are doing it to ourselves! But wait: there is a fix, and it only costs the world around $20 billion a year, provided everyone cooperates. (Do I hear the “Good luck with that” comment?) That is asking for about $3 from every person, but given the way incomes are distributed, probably somewhat ore for those in the West.

According to Nature, that is small compared with the millions of lives lost and the trillions of dollars spent as a consequence of SARS-C0V-2. It is also 1/20 of the statistical value of lives lost each year to viral diseases that have spilled over from animals since 1918. Yet interestingly the WHO set up a panel to consider what should be done in the future to prevent such pandemics, and in an 86-page report apparently wild-life got two mentions and deforestation one mention. Either the “experts” did not understand where these pandemics originate, or they did not care. The article suggests four actions are required.

Spillover is more likely to occur when the number of animal-human interactions increase, such as in farming, the trade in wild-life, or when forests are cleared and the animals no longer have their normal environment for living. The article suggests four actions:

  1. Tropical and subtropical forests must be protected. Wildlife that survives such cutting of forests includes the wildlife that can live alongside people, and they also often host pathogens capable of killing people. As an example, bats in Bangla Desh carry Nipah virus, which can kill 40 – 77% of the people it infects. These now roost in areas of high human population because their forest habitat has been largely cleared. Loss of forest also increases climate change. Besides stopping such climate forcing, it also stops driving animals out of regions that have become too inhospitable for them to stay. Once upon a time, if the climate changed, animals could migrate. Now their environment tends to be in islands, and if they have to leave, that is into human living areas.
  2. Commercial markets and trade of live wild animals must be banned or strictly regulated. Some progress is being made here. In China, the trade and consumption of exotic wildlife has been banned since Covid 19.
  3. Biosecurity must be improved when dealing with farmed animals. We need improved veterinary care, better surveillance for animal disease, improved housing and feeding for animals, and quarantines to limit pathogen spread. Up to a point, we have made progress here, in controlling mad cow disease, but more is required. It is important to stop livestock pathogens since nearly 80% of such pathogens can infect multiple host species, including humans.
  4. More attention needs to be made to contain early outbreaks, and that includes increasing people’s health and economic security. A big problem is that people in poor health, and particularly people with immunosuppression, can host pathogens long enough for the virus to mutate before being passed on.

If we could stop spillover, we eliminate the need to contain it. As most will recall, disease surveillance, contact tracing, lockdowns, vaccine development and therapeutic development are expensive, and unless done properly, ineffective. As most will realize now, the response to Covid 19 immediately ran into people who refused to have their rights infringed, in the belief they were young enough to get through it, or did not even care. “It won’t happen to me.” That caused 6.25 known million unnecessary deaths, but Nature estimates the deaths to be between 15 – 21 million who would not have died but for the pandemic. By 2025 we will have spent $157 billion on Covid-19 vaccines.

So, the question is, will we do something about it? My guess is, probably not much.

And no sooner did Nature publish that article and we suddenly found we have a new disease: monkeypox. Now guess where that is likely to have come from?

Indigenous Rights in Science

Most readers will have heard of the fights for the rights of indigenous people, but what about people born in the country, whose ancestors have been there for a long period? What rights to they have? Should they have rights to the resources of their own country? You will have heard about animal poaching, where endangered species are smuggled out of the country, and will have a view on that. However, there is a new argument coming in the scientific community, reported in Nature (605, 18 – 19) and it came from an article in the journal Cretaceous Research. The article described Ubirajara jubatus, a 110-million-year-old fossil of a dinosaur that appeared to display the precursors to feathers. The fossil had been collected in Brazil decades earlier but no Brazilian had heard of it. The authors claimed the fossil had been exported with a permit signed by some official, and the skeptic might suspect corruption here.

The publication sparked a revolution. A massive Twitter campaign was launched, and eventually the paper was withdrawn, although how you withdraw a printed paper is another matter. The specimen is in the State Museum of Natural History in Karlesruhe, and apparently the museum is engaged in negotiations to return it.

This practice, called by some colonial palaeontology, has caused a storm across south America. A report that analysed 200 studies published between 1990 and 2021 found that more than half did not involve local researchers, and of the Brazilian fossils used, 88% of them were kept outside Brazil. One of the authors of the Ubirajara paper protested that the study cherry-picked data, and omitted a whole lot of earlier American practices. The author of the report states it picked on starting at 1990 because that was when Brazil introduced laws preventing the export of such fossils, and it would be wrong to criticise a practice that was perfectly legal before then. He also noted it was a curious defence to state that others were doing it, so why not him, despite the law?

Now the South Americans are attempting to persuade scientific journals to act to stop such colonial practices. They noted that none of the 200 studies published an acknowledgement of the permit they should have had to take the specimen out of the country. If you read scientific papers, you often see a remarkable list of acknowledgements, such a X made helpful comments. Acknowledging that you followed the law might seem to be a useful step.

Apparently, this “revolution” had some less that satisfactory behaviour. Members of the public began visibly harassing scientists involved in the Ubirajara research, while the Karlsruhe Museum had to close its Instagram account due to the flood of negative comments.

There followed a spat about how researchers local to where the fossil was found should be involved when the fossil has been in a foreign museum for ages. Our author who protested (above) then continued to protest that this would involve tokenism if they had to include a scientist from the region on the paper. Of course, a way out of that would be to return the fossil. Two other countries particularly affected are the Dominican Republic and Myanmar, both of which have significant fossilized amber, of Jurassic Park fame. What happens next is unclear, although it appears the move to return fossils is growing.

That thought leads to another. Scientific publication involves peer review. It would be interesting to compare the fraction of rejections from third world countries with those from major US/European Universities. Does the address “Harvard” give a serious advantage over some town in Myanmar? Or is it done truly on content?

On a completely different matter, a huge fang of an ichthyosaur has been found from the Swiss alps. From the size of the tooth, the reptile would have measured about 21 meters in length. You might have heard that ichthyosaurs were somewhat vulnerable and only lived in shallow waters. Not this beast. A carnivore the size of a sperm whale would not be a pleasant thing to encounter. However, it died out at the end of the Triassic so no current danger.

Banana-skin Science

Every now and again we find something that looks weird, but just maybe there is something in it. And while reading it, one wonders, how on Earth did they come up with this? The paper in question was Silva et. al. 2022. Chemical Science 13: 1774. What they did was to take dried biomass powder and exposed it to a flash of 14.5 ms duration from a high-power xenon flash lamp. That type of chemistry was first developed to study the very short-lived intermediates generated in photochemistry, when light excites the molecule to a high energy state, where it can decay through unusual rearrangements. This type of study has been going on since the 1960s and equipment has steadily been improving and being made more powerful. However, it is most unusual to find it used for something that ordinary heat would do far more cheaply. Anyway, 1 kg of such dried powder generated about 100 litres of hydrogen and 330 g of biochar. So, what else was weird? The biomass was dried banana skin! Ecuador, sit up and take notice. But before you do, note that flash xenon lamps are not going to be an exceptionally economical way of providing heat. That is the point; this very expensive source of light was actually merely providing heat.

There are three ways of doing pyrolysis. In the previous post I pointed out that if you took cellulose and eliminated all the oxygen in the form of water, you were left with carbon. If you eliminate the oxygen as carbon monoxide you are left with hydrogen. If you eliminate it as carbon dioxide you get hydrogen and hydrocarbon. In practice what you get depends on how you do it. Slow pyrolysis at moderate heat mainly makes charcoal and water, with some gas. It may come as a surprise to some but ordinary charcoal is not carbon; it is about 1/3 oxygen, some minor bits and pieces such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and sulphur, and the rest carbon.

If you do very fast pyrolysis, called ablative pyrolysis, you can get almost all liquids and gas. I once saw this done in a lab in Colorado where a tautly held (like a hacksaw blade) electrically heated hot wire cut through wood like butter, the wire continually moving so the uncondensed liquids (which most would call smoke) and gas were swept out. There was essentially no sign of “burnt wood”, and no black. The basic idea of ablative pyrolysis is you fire wood dust or small chips at a plate at an appropriate angle to the path so the wood sweeps across it and the gas is swept away by the gas stream (which can be recycled gas) propelling the wood. Now the paper I referenced above claimed much faster pyrolysis, but got much more charcoal. The question is, why? The simple answer, in my opinion, is nothing was sweeping the product away so it hung around and got charred.

The products varied depending on the power from the lamp, which depended on the applied voltage. At what I assume was maximum voltage the major products were (apart from carbon) hydrogen and carbon monoxide. 100 litres of hydrogen, and a bit more carbon monoxide were formed, which is a good synthesis gas mix. There were also 10 litres of methane, and about 40 litres of carbon dioxide that would have to be scrubbed out. The biomass had to be reduced to 20 μm size and placed on a surface as a layer 50 μm thick. My personal view is that is near impossible to scale this up to useful sizes. It uses light as an energy source, which is difficult to generate so almost certainly the process is a net energy consumer. In short, this so-called “breakthrough” could have been carried out to give better yields of whatever was required far more cheaply by people a hundred years ago.

Perhaps the idea of using light, however, is not so retrograde. The trick would be to devise apparatus that with pyrolyse wood ablatively (or not if you want charcoal) using light focused by large mirrors. The source, the sun, is free until it hits the mirrors. Most of us will have ignited paper with a magnifying glass. Keep the oxygen out and just maybe you have something that will make chemical intermediates that you can call “green”.

Biofuels to Power Transport

No sooner do I post something than someone says something to contradict the post. In this case, immediately after the last post, an airline came out and said it would be zero carbon by some time in the not-too-distant future. They talked about, amongst other things, hydrogen. There is no doubt hydrogen could power an aircraft, as it also powers rockets that go into space. That is liquid hydrogen, and once the craft takes off, it burns for a matter of minutes. I still think it would be very risky for aircraft to try to hold the pressures that could be generated for hours. If you do contain it, the extra weight and volume occupied would make such travel extremely expensive, while sitting above a tank of hydrogen is risky.

Hydrocarbons make by far the best aircraft fuel, and one alternative source of them is from biomass. I should caution that I have been working in this area of scientific research on and off for decades (more off than on because of the need to earn money.) With that caveat, I ask you to consider the following:

C6H12O6  ->  2 CO2 +2H2O + “C4H8”

That is idealized, but the message is a molecule of glucose (from water plus cellulose) can give two molecules each of CO2 and water, plus two thirds of the starting carbon as a hydrocarbon, which would be useful as a fuel. If you were to add enough hydrogen to convert the CO2 to a fuel you get more fuel. Actually, you do not need much hydrogen because we usually get quite a few aromatics, thus if we took two “C4H8” and make xylene or ethyl benzene (both products that are made in simple liquefactions) these total C8H10, which gives us a surplus of three H2 molecules. The point here is that in each of these cases we could imagine the energy coming from solar, but if you use biomass, much of the energy is collected for you by nature. Of course, if you take the oxygen out as water you are left with carbon. In practice there are a lot of options, and what you get tends to depend on how you do it. Biomass also contains lignin, which is a phenolic material. This is much richer in hydrocarbon material, but also it is much harder to remove the oxygen.

In my opinion, there are four basic approaches to making hydrocarbon fuels from biomass. The first, which everyone refers to, is pyrolysis. You heat the biomass, you get a lot of charcoal, but you also get liquids. These still tend to have a lot of oxygen in them, and I do not approve of this because the yields of anything useful are too low unless you want to make charcoal, or carbon, say for metal refining, steel making, electrodes for batteries, etc. There is an exception to that statement, but that needs a further post.

The second is to gasify the biomass, preferably by forcing oxygen into it and partially burning it. This gives you what chemists call synthesis gas, and you can make fuels through a further process called the Fischer-Tropsch process. Germany used that during the war, and Sasol in South Africa Sasol, but in both cases coal was the source of carbon. Biomass would work, and in the 1970s Union Carbide built such a gasifier, but that came to nothing when the oil price collapsed.

The third is high-pressure hydrogenation. The biomass is slurried in oil and heated to something over 400 degrees Centigrade in then presence of a nickel catalyst and hydrogen. A good quality oil is obtained, and in the 1980s there was a proposal to use the refuse of the town of Worcester, Mass. to operate a 50 t/d plant. Again, this came to nothing when the price of oil slumped.

The fourth is hydrothermal liquefaction. Again, what you get depends on what you put in but basically there are two main fractions from woody biomass: hydrocarbons and phenolics. The phenolics (which includes aromatic ethers) need to be hydrogenated, but the hydrocarbons are directly usable, with distillation. The petrol fraction is a high octane, and the heavier hydrocarbons qualify as very high-quality jet fuel. If you use microalgae or animal residues, you also end up with a high cetane diesel cut, and nitrogenous chemicals. Of particular interest from the point of view of jet fuel, in New Zealand they once planted Pinus Radiata which grew very quickly, and had up to 15% terpene content, most of which would make excellent jet fuel, but to improve the quality of the wood, they bred the terpenes more or less out of the trees.

The point of this is that growing biomass could help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and make the fuels needed to keep a realistic number of heritage cars on the road and power long-distance air transport, while being carbon neutral. This needs plenty of engineering development, but in the long run it may be a lot cheaper than just throwing everything we have away and then finding we can’t replace it because there are shortages of elements.

The Case for Hydrogen in Transport

In the last post I looked at the problem of generating electricity, and found that one of the problems is demand smoothing One approach to this is to look at the transport problem, the other major energy demand system. Currently we fill our tanks with petroleum derived products, and everything is set for that. However, battery-powered cars would remove the need for petrol, and if they were charged overnight, they would help this smoothing problem. The biggest single problem is that this cannot be done because there is not enough of some of the necessary elements to make it work. Poorer quality batteries could be made, but there is another possibility: the fuel cell.

The idea is simple. When electricity is not in high demand, the surplus is used to electrolyse water to hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is stored, and when introduced to a fuel cell it burns to make water while generating electricity. Superficially, this is ideal, but there are problems. One is similar to the battery – the electrodes tend to be made of platinum, and platinum is neither cheap nor common. However, new electrodes may solve this problem. Platinum has the advantage that it is very unreactive, but the periodic servicing of the cell and the replacing of electrodes is realistic, and of course recycling can be carried out because unlike the battery, it would be possible to merely recycle the electrodes. (We could also use pressurised hydrogen in an internal combustion engine, with serious redesign, but the efficiency is simply too low.)

One major problem is storing the hydrogen. If we store it as a gas, very high pressures are needed to get a realistic mass to volume ratio, and hydrogen embrittles metals, so the tanks, etc., may need servicing as well. We could store it as a liquid, but the boiling point is -259 oC. Carting this stuff around would be a challenge, and to make matters worse, hydrogen occurs in two forms, ortho and para, which arise because the nuclear spins can be either aligned or not. Because the molecule is so small there is an energy difference between these, and the equilibrium ratio is different at liquid temperatures to room temperatures. The mix will slowly re-equilibrate at the low temperature, give off heat, boil off some hydrogen, and increase the pressure. This is less of a problem if you have a major user, because surplus pressure is relieved when hydrogen is drawn off for use, and if there is a good flow-through, no problem. It may be a problem if hydrogen is being shipped around.

The obvious alternative is not to ship it around, but ship the electricity instead. In such a scenario for smaller users, such as cars, the hydrogen is generated at the service station, stored under pressure, and more is generated to maintain the pressure. That would require a rather large tank, but it is doable. Toyota apparently think the problem can be overcome because they are now marketing the Mirai, a car powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Again, the take-up may be limited to fleet operators, who send the vehicles out of central sites. Apparently, the range is 500 km and it uses 4.6 kg of hydrogen. Hydrogen is the smallest atom so low weight is easy, except the vehicle will have a lot of weight and volume tied up with the gas pressurized storage. The question then is, how many fuel stations will have this very large hydrogen storage? If you are running a vehicle fleet or buses around the city, then your staff can refill as well, which gets them to and from work, but the vehicle will not be much use for holidays unless there are a lot of such stations.

Another possible use is in aircraft, but I don’t see that, except maybe small short-haul flights driven by electric motors with propellors. Hydrogen would burn well enough, but the secret of hydrocarbons for aircraft is they have a good energy density and they store the liquids in the wings. The tanks required to hold hydrogen would add so much weight to the wings they might fall off. If the main hull is used, where do the passengers and freight go? Another possibility is to power ships. Now you would have to use liquid hydrogen, which would require extremely powerful refrigeration. That is unlikely to be economic compared with nuclear propulsion that we have now.

The real problem is not so much how do you power a ship, or anything else for that matter, but rather what do you do with the current fleet? There are approximately 1.4 billion motor vehicles in the world and they run on oil. Let us say that in a hundred years everyone will use fuel cell-driven cars, say. What do we do in the meantime? Here, the cheapest new electric car costs about three times the cost of the cheapest petrol driven car. Trade vans and larger vehicles can come down to about 1.5 times the price, in part due to tax differences. But you may have noticed that government debt has become somewhat large of late, due to the printing of large amounts of money that governments have promptly spent. That sort of encouragement will probably be limited in the future, particularly as a consequence of shortages arising from sanctions. In terms of cost, I rather think that many people will be hanging on to their petrol-powered vehicles, even if the price of fuel increases, because the difference in the price of fuel is still a few tens of dollars a week tops, whereas discarding the vehicle and buying a new electric one involves tens of thousands of dollars, and with the current general price increases, most people will not have those spare dollars to throw away. Accordingly, in my opinion we should focus some attention on finding an alternative to fossil fuels to power our heritage fleet.