Friday, April 11, 2008

Who knew there are things in North Dakota?

Aside from the joke in the title, the US geological survey is announcing that an oil reserve found in Montana and North Dakota may hold between 3 to 4.3 billion barrels of oil along with 1.85 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Although much more difficult to recover than oil from Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, it is possible to recover it and in today's era of high oil prices it has become not only possible but profitable to recover oil from difficult places such as the oil sands area in Canada.

Even though this is an exciting find, and proof that although we should prepare for the worst oil will still be available for at least as long as the 40 years that industry experts are predicting, I think that the United States might be best served to sit on its proven oil fields for now. Just like the oil fields in Alaska, saving them will allow the US to hold a strategic advantage over other countries should the world realize a strong decline in crude oil or if OPEC attempts to embargo oil to the United States. Also, holding on to proven reserves will allow the US to hold on to a commodity that almost assuredly will not decrease in value over the next few years -- making it a very strong investment option.

Here is a map from the USGS (geological survey) indicating the approximate area of the underground reserves.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Methane replacing natural gas

Poet of Sioux Falls, South Dakota and a major corn ethanol producer here in Iowa, is laying the plans to implement a new technology aimed at cost reduction and sustainability. The company plans to build 10 miles of pipelines from Sioux Falls' landfill all the way to Poet's ethanol facility outside of the city. There the company will be able to use methane, (a major greenhouse gas), instead of natural gas in the process of making ethanol. With recent volatility and high prices in natural gas, Poet has resisted going the route of using coal to power their plant, which could lead to higher emissions. Instead, they will end up paying the city of Sioux Falls (a total which could reach over $1 million a year), in order to offset 10% of their natural gas using methane in the first phase and 30% offset by 2025. This will inevitably save Poet money and could reduce carbon dioxide emissions at the plant by 26,400 tons per year. This in turn would make ethanol's GHG reducing ability that much greater and make the process more appealing and sustainable. It is good to see a company like Poet, who has been a proven leader in ethanol technology innovations, coming forward with this bold but well thought out plan.

Here's a look at Poet's ethanol plant:

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Nuclear Electricity

As a neat little aside from ethanol production, there is a cool new result from former Los Alamos Lab nuclear engineers who have started their own company, named LAVM. This company revealed that they have created a nanoparticle array, composed of gold and lithium hydride (LiH), that is capable of converting nuclear radiation into electricity. Currently, nuclear energy is given off as heat, which in turn warms up water baths creating steam to move turbines and generate electricity. Although in its trial phases, researchers point out that using this technology could allow small nuclear applications such as space-craft using a small nuclear reactor to generate electricity in a small space. Furthermore, since the nanoparticles use the radiation to generate electricity, it has the potential to act as a radiation 'scrubber.' This technology is however in only preliminary stages and it will be some time before we know if it can be applied on a large scale. Either way it is very cool to see these new innovations moving forward.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Update on PHEVs

In previous posts I've touched on PHEVs (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles), and their role in moving our transportation system away from liquid fuels. Keep in mind that PHEVs are vehicles run on electricity supplied from an outlet such as one in your garage. This is completely different than a HEV or hybrid vehicle that stores energy produced from breaking the car. While hybrids are definitely the way to go in conjunction with biofuels to lower gasoline consumption, PHEVs need to be looked at carefully to ensure a productive transition to their use. What many might not understand is that although there will be no pollution at the tailpipe for PHEVs, the electricity must be generated somewhere. As I noted in an earlier post, this electricity can cost as much as gasoline right now and emit almost 7 times as much GHGs as gasoline burning cars if the majority of the electricity is derived from coal power plants.

A study from Carnegie Mellon University emphasizes this point and clearly shows the difference in advantages gained using PHEVs if the electricity comes from coal burning or a diminished GHG emitting source such as nuclear power or wind/solar power. Below is a chart of their findings:

The results from calculating how much GHGs are emitted throughout the generation and utilization of the energy indicate that using current average electricity rates, using PHEVs could reduce GHG emissions by 32%. This number is approximately equal to that of hybrids -- 30-40% reduction in GHGs. The reduction is even better when combining HEVs or PHEVs with biofuels such as E85, shown in the above chart on the right hand side.
Proponents will be quick to point out that the reason to switch to PHEVs is a continuation of the ideology that simply removing imported petroleum from the equation is a good thing for now and we can deal with the greenhouse gas emissions with developing technology. I agree with this but also feel that switching a majority of the US automobile fleet to electric too quickly would negate any kind of gain from solar/wind energy that might be realized and the result would be a large demand for coal power plants. As the above chart shows, combining renewable technologies such as biofuels and electrically powered cars could be the best solution we've got.
For the full article and to review the above chart, check out: