Saturday, September 27, 2008


Alternative Fuels

I am interested in generating alternative energy sources, and I have long been a proponent of a hydrogen economy even though the storage problems with that are at present insurmountable. But as I look at the other ones, less green than lysing water with electricity, it is getting very difficult to see either any short term successes or long term solutions there. Let's look at the least popular ones first.

Making alcohol from corn or any other good food source is a bad idea. Too much energy and water goes into it to make it a long term solution and it makes food prices higher. Bad idea. John McCain told the truth last night to dismiss that as a solution.

Making alcohol from sugar. Could work but we would never get above 10% additive to gasoline unless we turned huge tracts of our nation into cane or sugar beet farms, which is unlikely.

Making alcohol from non food crops. Too much energy and water goes into it to make it a long term solution even if it has no effect on food prices.

Biodiesel from good food sources. Same problem as alcohol. OK to reuse french fry oil, but not a lot of that around, certainly not even a 1% solution here.

Biodiesel from algae. It turns out it's easy to grow algae but very, very difficult to turn the algae into oil. Many have grown algae in ponds and plastic tubes. only one company, in New Zealand, has actually made any substantial amount of oil out of it. Algal biodiesel corrodes rubber. That's not so good.

Methane from manure. A medium sized farm, with 200 pigs, 70 beef cows or 90 dairy cows, can produce, with a lot of daily effort, enough methane to heat a 1400 square foot house for a year. Some help but hardly worth the effort unless you have a huge smell problem you have to abate. Few farms of any size bother with it. Methane so generated usually contains toxic and corrosive contaminants. That's not so good

I just don't see a future here.

Falling water will generate power, but there are few places left to build dams and we want to preserve the un-dammed rivers left. Tide is so far unproven but where are you going to put it? The sandy parts of the coast are used for recreation and the price to crowd the sun and sea bathers out is prohibitive. In the mud parts of the coast, we, again, want to preserve the life generating wetlands and not make them into more sterile, power water storage areas.

Let's look at the big ones.

Wind power. It obviously works, but it's expensive, causes a sort of noise pollution and for many is a scenery spoiler. It also chops up a lot of birds and bats. That's not so good. Also, the wind is usable only about 30 to 35% of the time so it would have to be backed up by a 'nimble' power plant that could take over immediately when the wind dies down.

Photovoltaic. Obviously works as well, but only generates usable power about 35 to 40% of the time. Also it is very expensive, only 25% efficient, even in theory, and takes up a lot of space. What do you do with the area under the collectors? Except for small time generation, on roofs, the answer now is nothing. Has the same back-up needs as windmills.

All alternative ways of producing electric power would need a lot of new infrastructure to put them on the grid.

So it looks like oil, natural gas and coal into the future as far as almost anyone can see.

There is one solution that seems just the ticket. Nuclear. It produces almost no CO2. It works really well (just look at Sweden and France) and a single, merely large nuclear power plant would produce as much power as 1400 of the largest commercially produced windmills. I'd much rather have the nuke power plant. You have to store some of the nuclear waste safely, forever, but there is a mountain in the middle of nowhere Nevada (I know that doesn't narrow it down much) that is all ready for just such storage.

The arrow of the future appears clear. 50 new nuclear power plants, as many windmills and photovoltaics as we can afford, backed up with natural gas power plants. Meanwhile, there is no reason to pump up the price of oil by artificially depressing the supply. Drill, baby, drill. Here and now.

Like Germany during the latter half of WWII, we'll only make gasoline from coal when there is not real gasoline to be had.

Have I left any real promising ones out?


Something needs to be done.
I'm open to suggestions, but nothing looks good right now but nuclear power plants. Maybe there will be a breakthrough in green energy, but I sure can't see it, nor can nearly anyone else.
I still think we need a Manhattan Project-like program to solve the hydrogen problem.

Build the nuke plants to supply electricity for the grid, and solve that damned hydrogen production and distribution problem.
Oh, and drill baby, drill!
Nuclear power should be generated by Thorium based fuel rather than Uranium. It is a cleaner, safer alternative, Thorium is more abundant and needs no enrichment. The federal government has stock piled 3,200 tons to Thorium nitrate for use as fuel, we need to develop the technologies to utilize it. We have used it in the past, it works, just use Google and you will see. Thorium is the fuel of the future.
All good ideas. I seem to recall a downside of thorium, but it's not in my brain anymore.
Roger: Excellent and pithy summary of the options. My contribution is to expand on the idea of nuclear fission a bit.

The common perception - somewhat reflected in your option list - is that fission is only useful in large, central station steam power plants, but the reality is quite different.

It can be used as the heat source in other kinds of heat engines - like Brayton Cycle gas turbines or thermoelectric converters - and it can be made as small as a household trash can.

The US just decommissioned a 400 ton research submarine - the NR-1 - powered by a nuclear steam engine that would easily fit into a single car garage. It had been operating since 1970.

I just spoke to a man for my last episode of The Atomic Show who was involved in the construction of the PM2-A, a 1000 kwe heat and power station used to provide electricity to a remote station in Greenland. That plan was a prefabricated unit that was built and tested in about 14 months and then delivered and installed in Greenland in a single season. Total time from preparing contract specifications to operating the plant was just 2 years (October 1958-November 1960)

The US navy has been using fission power plants as oil combustion replacements in submarines and aircraft carriers for about 5 decades. The machines work fine and now run for 33 years without new fuel. The world's inventory of ships big enough to be pushed with fission consume about 6% of the world's current oil production.

The list of other small, more quickly constructed nuclear reactors built and operated over the years is quite extensive. The really exciting thing is that there are several start-ups like Hyperion, NuScale and at least two more in stealth mode that are focused on build small fission power plants as direct replacements for oil and gas in distributed applications.

Thorium is great, but it is just another expansion on the theme. The introduction of thorium 232-uranium 233 fuel cycles as part of the mix does not negate the value of uranium as a heat source any more than the introduction of natural gas negated the value of oil.

With creative use of heavy metal fission fuels - uranium, thorium and plutonium - we have the opportunity to dramatically increase the world's overall supplies of useful heat that can be converted into work. We can use that heat in so many ways, but one of the more important is to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels so that more of those valuable materials are left for future generations and so that we can reduce the emissions from those fuels to a level that can be mitigated with natural processes like photosynthesis.

The only people who have something to fear from such a concept are those people who make their living finding, extracting, transporting, refining, marketing, financing, and controlling carbon based fuels. In other words - there is going to be a HELL of a lot of resistance to the notion because that is one powerful group of people. They fight hard to protect their market share and may use sneaky or nefarious tactics.

Rod Adams
Editor, Atomic Insights
Host, The Atomic Show Podcast
I Lwas thinking of big nuclear power plants but you're right, they don't have to be big. I wonder if the need to safeguard them against terrorist attack will require that they be big and well guarded.
Roger - small plants such as Rod mentions above could be placed underground (covered by a several layers of protection/shielding by concrete), and remotely operated, which much reduces security related expenses.
Roger, I think there is a future for coal to gas as long as the massive amount of heat needed for production is produced with clean fission. The coal industry could benefit hugely as this new end product would have value added and thus they could make a much higher profit per ton. The economics of such a factory may be more appealing than new drilling projects. I think it is very important to promote exploration of these ideas so that nuclear can be a friend to coal and not an adversary.

Pro Nuclear Democrats
Good points, Rod, Ondrej and Jason. And if all else fails for some of the reasons I included above, we'll always have hydrogen. I'm cautiously optimistic, but I still don't have a weekend project for experiments in alternative energy generation. I guess I could always hook up a single photovoltaic panel to tubes in which to lyse water and see how much hydrogen (and oxygen) it generates over the weeks and months. That won't be as much fun as growing algae but could be fun.
I don't see the point of coal to gas - why not just use nuclear electricity directly, perhaps in conjunction with heat pumps?

Coal to oil (and eventually, atmospheric CO2 to oil) would take care of a more pressing need, namely transportation fuels. Hydrogen has too many problems IMHO (incompatible with existing vehicles, lower energy per unit volume, easily leaks due to tiny molecules).
George, I wasn't clear. I intended to mean gasoline. The better point being that heat from fission allows for a whole host of creative industrial solutions that would otherwise create more GHG with fossil fuels.
Please check out this document:

for further reading if you are interested.
Wave/Tidal energy is a possible source with some promise. It has the advantages that the good sources are close to large population areas and the energy available is fairly large. The technology seems to be approaching commercial viability. Mid-term, this could be significant.

For longer-term solutions, I see three with the potential to be truly significant:

1) Orbital solar: It's expensive, the downlink beam is basically a death-ray, and this technology effectively adds surface area to the planet for insolation but no surface area for radiation. But there's not much practical limit to the amount of power you could, in principle, generate.

2) Core tap: Geothermal writ large; this could produce quite large quantities of energy, but the engineering problem is non-trivial.

3) Fusion: A glance upwards shows that this is possible, but the engineering here is proving refractory. Still, this one seems to me most likely to be a real solution.
Nuclear desalination?

Isn't the most pressing need for desalination though in the Arab world, which cannot use nuclear energy because any reactors constructed there would be bombed by the Israeli Air Force?
I can't recall where I read it, but I believe the German soldiers complained bitterly about the coal to gasoline they had to use at the end of the war. I knew you meant gasoline, Jason.
Doug, the problem with tides is siting as I suggested. We could pipe the electricity down the space elevator we are eventually going to construct. I'm fine with driling to magma but the risk of not being able to control the pressure will give us pause. When I was but a lad, they used to say that fusion was about 40 years away from reality. Now that I'm a grey bearded man 40 years later, they still say fusion is 40 years away.
George, thanks for reminding us of a political reality, but in oil and gas rich countries, it's tough for us to believe they need uranium too and easy to believe they want a nuclear weapons program, which Iraq did and Iran now has. I'm for denying the Iranians nuclear weapons using any means necessary.
To all and sundry,

I continue to have concerns about nuclear energy. Whatever is happening in Europe, Three Mile Island occured less than 30 years ago.

The issue of storage of spent fuel has yet to be resolved.

I think there are technological solutions to most safety and storage problems but I have one remaining consern that needs addressing.

It seems that the world is now populated w/ extremists who have zero regard for human life including their own. These are people who see no connection between a nuclear disaster that occurs in one location resulting in fallout elsewhere.

Increasing our nuclear output necessarily results in increased opportunities for terrorists.

Tone, why not mention Chernoble (sp?) which actually killed several dozen and make a large part of the former Soviet Union uninhabitable. Most of the fuel rods are reprocessed, it's irradiated scrap metal, etc., that has to be stored. We can guard our nuclear power plants certainly as well as we guard our airplanes, now. The downside of nuclear power is minimal compared to the upside--cheap, practical, reliable electric power with no greenhouse gasses produced. Nothing else can say that.

I could and perhaps should ghave mentioned Chernobyl. I am somewhat concerned about plant safety. I think it would take another 9/11 hijacking to pose a threat to a plant.

The transportation of spent rods, contaminated metal, etc from wherever to Yucca Mountain or wherever is much scarier.

Hijacking spent fuel rods. Does that really sound like al Qaeda to you? We brought down the Twin
Towers, put a big hole in the Pentagon and missed the White House/Capitol by this much. Then, we followed it up with a hijacking outside Reno of an 18 wheeler and we got metal too toxic for us to do anything with.
Just not that likely.

If you have to move spent fule from Indian Point to Yucca Mountain, the stuff is going to be exposed for over 2K miles to weapons of destruction much smaller than airplanes.

We are not dealing w/ rational people here. If they can render a small piece of Nebraska uninhabitable for 10,000 years, they will.

To the last poster:
If you are suggesting that a bomb would be planted along the train route, then the containers can withstand that type of an attack. If they were indeed breached, the outcome would be nothing like you describe. It would require hazmat cleanup of course, and being that it is solid could be cleaned up without much of a problem. The biggest problem it would be the unnecessary fear it would cause among the nuclear illiterate.
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