Doing Due Diligence

To people who follow the energy industry closely, it’s a common occurrence to come across announcements from companies proclaiming to have developed the key to the ‘next big thing’ — for solving the world’s energy crisis. Maybe they say they can take any sort of waste biomass and turn it into fuel — ethanol, diesel, pyrolysis oil, mixed alcohols — at very low cost. Or they say they can produce renewable electricity at a price competitive with coal.

The layperson reads the news release and is curious: “Is this real?”

When I am asked to comment on a press release, I try to be cautious with my opinions until I have peeled the onion a bit. There are technologies with real potential, and just because a company hypes their technology doesn’t mean it won’t work. So my opinion on technologies that I haven’t particularly studied will tend to be general and conservative.

But let’s say you are interested in becoming a stakeholder in the process. You could be a private investor, a government entity, or you could be someone from the media who is interested in sorting out hype from reality in order to protect potential stakeholders (such as taxpayers). That requires quite a different level of investigation than rendering an opinion based on a press release, and many people don’t know where to start.

In my own experience, perhaps 90% of the stories you see promoting various technologies are at least exaggerated. So how do you separate fact from fiction and wishful thinking from reality?

Understand the Levels of Scale and the Hurdles that Come With Each Step

It is a huge challenge to take results that were achieved in a laboratory and scale those up through a pilot facility to a demonstration facility to a commercial facility. Each of those steps is a gate, and each of those gates will stop most technologies from advancing to the next gate. Skipping steps — for instance jumping from the lab to a demonstration size facility — greatly lowers the probability of success while putting much more money at risk.

There are no hard and fast rules on the borders between these particular facilities; one person’s pilot facility may be another person’s demonstration facility. In general, I think of lab experiments as consisting of one aspect of a technology at scales of ounces or milliliters. Piloting moves up into scales of pounds or liters per day, and will incorporate more pieces of the puzzle into the experiments. Demonstration facilities reach the realm of barrels per day (1 barrel = 42 gallons), and are typically integrated facilities designed to demonstrate that all aspects of the technology work — in conjunction with each other — at that particular scale.

A facility producing 10 barrels a day (150,000 gallons per year) is demonstration size; one that produces 1,000 barrels a day is on the low end of commercial size. To put those numbers into perspective, the average size of a corn ethanol plant is just over 4,000 barrels per day and the average size of an oil refinery in the U.S. is 125,000 barrels per day.

Data Omitted From the Press Release: How and Who to Get it From

Before you even get to ask questions, you may be asked to sign a secrecy agreement. This is a legitimate and necessary step for companies who wish to protect against someone running off with their technology and starting a competing company, or leaking proprietary information to competitors. A secrecy agreement will give you access to information you might never obtain otherwise, and you will often find out very quickly that what companies tell you privately is different from their press releases. On the other hand many companies that are out promoting their technology and trying to get funds will answer many questions before asking for a secrecy agreement — and ideally you want to learn as much as you can before signing an agreement.

Of course if you are a reporter doing an investigative story, you will never sign a secrecy agreement. You are just going to have to dig a little harder to find answers to your questions. In my case, I fall into both categories. I sign secrecy agreements with companies whose technology we may be interested in developing. I do not write about those companies. The technologies I do write on are based on information I have been able to glean through some of the methods I detail below.

As you dig for information, generally the first people you will encounter are those promoting the technology. They will probably be careful and very optimistic with the information they provide. What you really want to do is ultimately talk to an operator or technician who is involved in the day-to-day operation of the process. They will be the ones to tell you about potentially significant issues.

First Questions

The first question to ask is “At what scale has this process been demonstrated?” But that’s just a start, because you will get misleading answers and people will withhold information. They may not tell you that they only simulated some parts of the process. For instance, a biomass gasifier produces synthesis gas (syngas), but there can be problems with the gas quality because of tar formation. If a simulated syngas is used in lab or piloting experiments (e.g., bottled hydrogen and carbon monoxide were mixed together to produce the syngas), that tar issue can be conveniently ignored in the lab and yet be a show-stopper for a commercial plant.

So you have to dig into the details. You want to know the scale of the process that has been demonstrated, but then you also want to know how many consecutive hours it has been run, and you want to know the source of the raw materials and the composition of the final product. Ask about the nature of byproducts and waste products as well. Product quality and waste disposal are both issues that have bankrupted companies attempting to commercialize a process.

Know the Limits of Computer Modeling

Next you have to ask about the assumptions that they are using to model a commercial plant. What is the scale-up factor between what they actually demonstrated and what a commercial plant will be? What are the production volumes in each case? How were the costs estimated for construction of a commercial plant? Have they attempted to skip steps in the scale-up process (e.g., going from lab or small pilot to small commercial scale)? If they are running at lab or small pilot scale and projecting their production costs for a commercial plant, I generally never take those numbers seriously. There are just too many hurdles between the lab and commercial scale. Small lab scale problems often become much bigger problems at demonstration scale.

You want to clearly distinguish between how much of the process has actually been proven and how much has been simulated with computer models. I saw a recent question posed by a renewable energy developer: Isn’t it true that you can prove a technology through modeling? The answer to that question is ABSOLUTELY NOT! In fact, the reverse is true: You prove a model by actually demonstrating that the process gives results consistent with the model. But some people will present model results as if they represent reality. Models are merely guides; a model won’t tell you whether a process will work or not. It will give you some guidance, but ultimately you have to take the results from the model and actually run the process. That is how you prove a technology (and validate a computer model).

Biomass Feedstock, Economic Assumptions, and Energy Requirements

You need to ask about the presumed source and cost of the biomass that will be used. As I identified in Bad Assumptions, I believe the assumption of a long-term supply of cheap, free, or even negatively-priced biomass is one of the most unrealistic assumptions companies make, and yet the assumption that commonly results in those claims of $1 or $2/gallon biofuel.

So I want to know what the economics look like if the biomass costs are similar to the cost of hay. I want them to tell me about their costs if the biomass is $100 per ton (and I expect elusive or misleading answers). It is true that there is a lot of wood in the U.S. that has been killed by the pine bark beetle, but it still costs money to process those trees and move them to a facility for conversion into fuel.

The energy requirement for the process is a very important issue, but one that is not generally easy to dissect. But you want to know the types of energy used in the process, as well as the energy balance for the process (the energy of the fuel out over the energy it took to produce it). People will omit all sorts of energy inputs when stating an energy balance. They will assume that they will burn waste biomass in the commercial plant and thus assume low external energy inputs. They won’t count the energy that it takes to grow and transport biomass, and they won’t count the energy inputs to move the fuel to the customer. When you see someone claim an energy return of five or ten to one for a renewable process, those are often the kinds of assumptions they are making. (While it is true that the the economics of using coal as a primary energy input for making fuels may be attractive even if the energy balance is poor, such a process can’t rightly be labeled renewable).

Competitors and Former Employees Can Be a Source of Valuable Info

I also want to know about predecessors and competitors. Very little is invented from scratch; almost everyone builds off of previous work. So who came before and did similar work? Who is doing similar work now? How is their work better than that of others? Then you ask the same questions of competitors. This is a very effective tool for sniffing out problems. Competitors are always happy to tell you what is wrong with the other company’s process. On the other hand, many will insist that they are so unique they have no competitors. Don’t fall for that.

Talk to former employees. If there are skeletons in the closet, they may tell you where to look (especially if they are disgruntled). The difficulty here is that they may not be willing to go on the record, but they can provide leads. For instance, an employee will likely be bound by a confidentiality agreement, but that doesn’t prevent them from pointing you to a specific bit of information in a patent that doesn’t mesh with the company’s public claims.

Bring up the company in casual conversation and see where it leads. I did this on a recent trip, where a manager relayed to me that many years ago he had worked for a company that was claiming a breakthrough in turning natural gas to gasoline. I mentioned this process, and he said “Yes, it works but the gasoline has a very high aromatic content.” That was the first time I heard that particular revelation, and yet many countries have very low aromatic allowances for their gasoline. Hence, this was a potential show-stopper, or in any case a good bit of information to have as I continued to investigate the company.

Read Between the Lines and Use Common Sense

Claims like “Ideally suited for landfill waste” sometimes mean “Our economics only work if we are getting paid to take the biomass.” A statement like “Perfect for co-locating with a power plant” can mean “We need cheap steam.”

Are there patents or patents pending? If so what are the patent or patent application numbers? Find out if “patent pending” means “Some day we hope to get around to filing for a patent.”

There will often be specific technical claims that may be outside of your particular area of expertise. For instance, someone claims to be able to run a car on water. You may not have the technical foundation to understand why this isn’t what it claims to be, but you can find lots of information on the Internet that breaks the technical issues down. You can also consult with someone who knows the area. Sometimes you can locate a free opinion. You may see a quote from a professor who is skeptical of the process. Contact them for further information.

Beyond the technical questions, there are the obvious signs. Do the company’s claims appear to be grandiose? If yes, this is a warning sign. Most companies making grandiose claims do not deliver. Do they issue press releases for fairly trivial developments? For instance, I saw a recent press release from a company claiming that a university had validated their (seemingly inflated) claims. Yet there was no actual detailing of which claims were being validated, nor exactly what the results of the university study were. It was a press release designed to draw attention without actually conveying any useful information.


To break this down into a short “cheat sheet”, here is a summary of some important questions that you want to ask. Try to corroborate answers by talking to employees or competitors.

  1. At what scale has the process been actually demonstrated, and is the process currently running?
  2. What is the source of raw materials for the process?
  3. What is being done with the product?
  4. What are the primary energy inputs into the process, and what is the energy balance?
  5. Will there be intermediate scale-up steps before a commercial facility is built?
  6. What are the key assumptions for a commercial facility (e.g., size, cost of production, location)?
  7. What is the presumed source and cost of biomass for a commercial facility?
  8. Has the process been proven on that specific biomass?
  9. What are the patent or patent application numbers relevant to the process?
  10. What prior work is most similar to yours, and who are your perceived competitors?

If you manage to get honest answers to those questions, you will be well on your way to burrowing through the hype to understand the true potential of a process.


As usual another useful contribution to the debate-this one VERY useful to anybody in a position to invest, advise potential investors or legislators, and so forth.

The business of advertising and public relations (formerly known as propaganda!) has advanced to such an extent that one needs the skills and dedication of a professional detective to filter out the truth in respect to almost anything you read, hear, or look at directly these days.

Change of subject, but :

If somebody were willing to pay my expenses, I would bet my last dime I could obtain samples of supposedly secret fracking chemicals within six months-simply by playing an old redneck farmer with a CDL and handy around machinery, out of money, and in need of a job;I could convince a field supervisor in that line of work within five minutes that I would cheeerfully run over any damn copmmie environmentalist with his truck if a suitable opportunity were to arise for a convenient "accident".

My point in making this last comment is that in any industry where there are a lot of small players, and numerous non professional employees, there can be no professional secrets-if somebody is willing to spend a little money to dig them out.

mac - Ok by me if you want to go through all that trouble. Although it does sound like a fun field trip...more than once I've sneaked through the mesquite to spy on another company's drill site. But if you like I can call my Halliburton rep and order a bbl of any of their frac fluids for you. Or you can just wait till I do my next frac job and I'll catch a Mason jar full and mail it to you.

IOW anyone can buy anything Halliburton or any other company sells and analyze it to the heart's content. AFAIK Halliburton and the other companies just refuse to publish the formulas (and more likely the process they use to make their fluids). But they'll sell anything to anyone who has the money. Also, in Texas and La. at least, the state is allowed to sample anything anyone not only pumps down a well but also any material that comes on to a drill site. How tough do these states monitor activity: it's illegal in La. to pump RAINWATER off a drill site. In Texas I have to have an independent third party test and certify any fresh water drilling mud I want to pump onto the ground. And even then I still need written permission from the landowner to do it. The always give permission because where I pump the mud is the greenest grass come spring. It's also against fed law to let rainwater drain off an offshore drill rig. It has to be collected from the gutter system and disposed as per the regs.

Don't ask me why Halliburton et al make a big deal out of releasing this data nor why the regulators pretend they either don't know exactly what these chemicals are or why they don't test themselves. IMHO just one more non-issue to make an issue out of.

BTW - Did you catch my post the other day about the problems my Yankee cousins were having with frac fluids? As I've pointed out numerous times it's physically impossible to propagate a frac in a rock at 9,000' back up to the shallow fresh water aquifers. The real environmental danger has always been improper disposal of the PRODUCED fluids. And...TA DA! article in the Drumbeat in the last couple of days highlighted the problem with some folks dumping those fluids into municipal water treatment plants.

I just love being right. That happens so seldom for a geologist, ya know.

Hi, Rockman

Thanks for filling in the blank spots in my understanding of the ff biz!

I owe a great deal to you, Rocky Mountian Guy, and a couple of others in this respect.

Actually I expected something of the sort, but past commentary here has lead me to believe that "in the field" operators in new areas are often able to keep the locals in the dark as to what they are using.

I can walk into the local industrial supply and buy damned neear anything the sell, no questions asked, as the clerks know me as a long time customer and sometimes employee of various local contractors.

I seldom miss one of your comments, and generally go back thru old threads atybout the time they are closed.

I basically agree with you-a PROPERLY REGULATED ng industry should not be a problem-so long as there is no midnight dumping and wells are constructed and closed properly when they are exhausted.

I can walk into the local industrial supply and buy damned neear anything the sell, no questions asked, as the clerks know me as a long time customer and sometimes employee of various local contractors.

If you want to know what's in Halliburton's frac fluid, try printing up a bunch of business cards that say "Oldfarmermac Oil Company", putting on a suitably scruffy pair of blue jeans and a confused expression, walking into one of Halliburton's offices, and saying, "I'm a new hire. My company was thinking of doing some frac jobs around here. What can you do for us in the way of frac fluids?" And then ask them to send the specs to your fax machine. It never hurts to ask.

But basically, frac fluid consists of water and sand. The engineers add other stuff when they want to do specific things, and the possibilities are endless, hence the "586 billion different chemicals in frac fluid".

And if the government regulators really want to know what is in frac fluid, they will just pass a law requiring oil companies to disclose it. And they will have a form to fill out. And then it will say something like "water, sand, and tennis balls". And you might ask why they are injecting tennis balls, but they will never tell you because it's "secret".

Thanks Rocky,

Being an amatuer, I had to make a dumb assumption based on news articles and previous comments here to find out the truth;well, as they say, better to be thought an idiot today for asdking a dumb question than known for one for sure later due to failure to ask.

But considering how many times these supposedly secret formulas have been mentioned, I'm suprised you pro guys haven't set us amatuers straight sooner.

Hi Rockman:

Recently on NPR I heard an interview with an opponent of fracking who asserted that the failure rate of the concrete seals on wells was in the 5% range and, given that and the number of bores in any given area, there had to be some danger of contamination of ground water. You have consistently denied the risk. Are there any reliable data on seal failure and, if so, does it actually pose any risk?

Best regards,


jj - Based on 36 years experience cmt failure is much more common than that. That sounds more like the number a cmt salesman would put out. LOL. But the great majority of cmt failures do no environmental damage. They do a lot of financial damage to the companies though.

I have never denied risk. Go back and review all my posts in detail. There are absolutely no oil field activities that are risk free. Just the opposite. I've highlighted the riskiest aspects of frac'ng in great detail. What I have explained in painstaking detail that there is zero risk of propagating a fracture in a rock many thousands of feet below the surface up into a fresh water aquifer. Not an opinion: a physical impossibility that would take many thousands of words to explain.

What I have pointed out is exactly what I think you're alluding to: if a well has a bad cmt job/weak csg, the frac fluids could be pushed into the fresh water up the well annulus (the area between the rock and the csg where the cmt is pumped). Or the csg is ruptured and those nasty fluids squirt out that way. That does happen but not often. And typically when it does the hands on location can tell almost instantly and will shut down the op. Not so much for saving the environment but such accidents can be very deadly. There is no environment in the oil patch (including standing on the drill floor as the 11 who died on the BP rig) as dangerous as frac job IMHO.

What I have constantly warned about is the risk to the environment of improperly disposed fluid produced from a frac'd well. And in just the last couple of days there has been a post on TOD highlighting exactly that problem: folks are dumping those produced frac fluids into municipal water treatment facilities. The point I kept making was that my Yankee cousins were focusing on the wrong potential threat. I'm sure the disposal companies (who are not the companies drilling or frac'ng the wells) were very happy to see everyone focusing on Halliburton et al and not them.

All I can guess from your comment is that I didn't do a good job explaining the situation. Feel free to ask anything. Trust me: if I give you an incorrect answer it will be out of ignorance and not deception. You should understand that from a position of self interest it would be of great benefit me if there was never a shale gas well produced in the NE or anywhere else in the country for that matter. I drill for conventional NG targets. All the SG drilling did was knock the price of NG out from under me and took away some of my profits.

So from that stand point all I can say is: NO MORE FRAC'NG...NO MORE FRAC'NG.

I must have missed your previous comment about the cement jobs. I'm not here every day anymore. I do, however, put great store in both your knowledge and that of Rocky Mtn Guy. I understand your postion about the fracking itself not able to reach the water table. It makes sense to me. Just to clarify; are you saying that problems people are having with nasty stuff in their water ( assuming they aren't more crazy or greedy than the average) is more likely from dumping than a cement failure? Even tho you think the cement failures are common?

jj - Yep. Aside from catastrophic events like the BP blowout the everyday "little bit here...little there" illegal dumping cumulatively has caused greater problems w/ground water contamination in Texas than any other source. Not so much now but in the bad ole days.

But from I've read illegal dumping in NE isn't a new problem by any means. You hear horrible stories/jokes about New Jersey...whether they are worse than anyone else I don't know. Proper disposal can be very expensive. Probably a lot more expensive in NE than Texas. I paid to disposal of some oil contaminated water a couple of months ago. Cost me $7.50/bbl. Doesn't sound like much but it costs $75,000 to get rid of that 10,000 bbls. It might cost the disposal company $50,000 to get rid of it properly. But if the trucks pull down a dark road at 2 AM and make a "midnight haul" they'll pocket most of that $50,000 on top of the $25,000 profit margin.

Take the word "cmt failure" with a big grain of salt. I've had cmt fail three times on one well. But there was never a pollution risk. The biggest risk was having a blow out like BP. So I go in hole and squeeze more cmt and test it again. If it tests OK we go forward. If it doesn't I sqz again. Might cost me $100,000 every time I sqz. And guess what: Halliburton not only charges me full price for the failed cmt but they also charge me for the sqz jobs. It's such a common problem they keep the sqz equipment on the rig 24/7. It's a pain in the *ss and can get costly. But 36years I've never had a failed cmt job cause any groundwater or surface pollution. But it can and has happened to others.

So once again folks might get focused on the "failed cmt" issue and continue to ignore the real threat: illegal dumping.

In my area, there has been some talk of fracking in coal seams to be used for coal bed methane.
Could you please comment on the possibility of groundwater contamination from fracking in relatively shallow coal seams of 1000 ft depth, for coal bed methane ?

doc - essentially the same good news/bad news as the shale gas plays. Except that if you get shallow enough (guessing less than 2,000') you could be looking at the possibility of propagating fracs up into the fresh water. Another important consideration is produced water disposal. Typically the CBM produces millions of galllons of water from each welll. Even if the water is fresh they need to be aware of even small concentrations of undesirable stuff. OTOH if the water is good and there's a local shortage it can be a godsend. Some folks out in the dry west love CBM or more precisely the water production.

Just to clarify; are you saying that problems people are having with nasty stuff in their water ( assuming they aren't more crazy or greedy than the average) is more likely from dumping than a cement failure?

In most cases, the nasty stuff in their water is caused by the fact that their underground water runs through mineral deposits of nasty minerals, or nasty things seep down from the surface. Underground contamination with arsenic, lead, mercury, uranium and radon is common. Surface contamination with bacteria from livestock operations and agricultural chemicals is common. You never know until you test the water.

If you live in an area with shallow gas deposits (if you live in an area with coalbed methane then you have shallow gas deposits), then you are likely to get methane in your water. Although it looks pretty spectacular when someone sets their kitchen water on fire on a documentary, you can easily get rid of methane by venting it into the air before the water goes into the house.

Methane is not toxic, and even human beings produce methane, particularly in the bathroom, although some are notorious for venting it in the bedroom. I'll stop here.

Thanks for the clarification RMG

CH4 venting is probably worst in the car ;

Although it does sound like a fun field trip...more than once I've sneaked through the mesquite to spy on another company's drill site.

AHAH! You were the guy lying in the brush with the binoculars! We were wondering who it was, because it wasn't one of the local spies. We've got pictures of you, you know.

The local spies had their own professional association, held conventions, and exchanged tips. They even advertised in the Yellow Pages, but you had to know what the advert meant. "Oil scout" means spy for hire. We always hired professionals, so did our competitors, and they all knew each other. We even hired spies to spy on our competitors spies because it's important to know what your competition wants to know about you. It was a cozy business.

But the idea that the contents of frac fluid is a deep dark secret is bogus. If the government inspectors want to know, they will just go to the head engineer on the site and ask him. And he will tell them because it's not his secret, it's Halliburton's, and he wants to continue the frac job. Any confidentiality agreement he signed with Halliburton would be inoperative in this context because they can send him to jail and Halliburton can't.

Rocky - Actually I usually sat in a folding chair. That was back when I was drillin amongsy a bunch of litle independents in S scouts in sight. usually just count csg joints to know how deep they were completing. One night I actualy got the nerve to walk up to the logging truck while they were rigging down just on the chance there was a log laying around. They would swap if you have something they wanted. Otherwise zero professional courtesy. It wasn't like super secrets in the first place. Just helped me fill out holes in my mapping.

Well, okay, as long as you didn't put on a hard hat, walk up to a drilling rig, and pretend to be part of the crew. The crews have been known to send people like that for a swim in the mud tank.

Other than that it's a pretty genteel business.

Sometimes, when the crew was pulling up the pipe to replace the drilling bit, they would run up a section of pipe, pause, and then run it right back down the well. They knew that people were lurking in the bushes with binoculars, counting the sections of pipe to get an estimate of how deep the well was, and they were trying to throw the count off.

A less sneaky method was just to cover the rig with canvas so the guys with the binoculars couldn't count the pipe sections at all. article in the Drumbeat in the last couple of days highlighted the problem with some folks dumping those fluids into municipal water treatment plants.

Can you please link this article?

it's physically impossible to propagate a frac in a rock at 9,000' back up to the shallow fresh water aquifers.

I'd love to get your take on the "flaming kitchen faucet" scene in the Gasland trailer.

The full movie is pretty good for an amateur.

I also thought the bubbling flammable air coming up the bottom of the creek posed some interesting questions.

My brother's farm in Alberta, the water from his new (15 yrs ago) drilled well is flamable too. Nat. Gas disolved in the water. Nothing "man-made" about it, his farm just happens to be underlain by coal seams, as is much of southern Alberta. Water's fine after aeration. About eight years ago a company came through laying a gas line and poking holes at about 1 mile intervals into the coal seam to collect CBM, but they certainly had nothing to do with his well off-gassing.

Nat Gas in well water is very common and natural. Nothing to do with exploration, usually.

According to the presentation in the movie, this was unusual. That the reason I mentioned it.

Time will tell how fair and balanced the movie was, but I'm seeing a few articles about PA water issues that are most certainly due to exploration.

The problem is that the movie makers are trying to sell the movie, not necessarily be accurate. Most people are unfamiliar with what shallow gas fields are like. In gas-prone areas, people are very likely to get gas in their water. It's easy enough to vent it off.

If you drill a water well in some arid places you are much more likely to hit gas than water. One farmer I talked to said he drilled a water well, and got only natural gas. So he hooked up his well to his furnace, and trucked in water. He felt it was a fair trade-off.

The Medicine Hat shallow gas field was found a bit over a century ago when the Canadian Pacific Railway, drilling next to one of their stations for water for their steam locomotives, hit natural gas instead of water. It blew up their rig and burned down their station. That is an area where you need to be very careful drilling a water well.

Rudyard Kipling, passing through on the CPR, described Medicine Hat as having "all hell for a basement" after observing what was going on.

Pennsylvania has shallow gas in addition to the deep shale gas reservoirs. The shallow gas deposits are the source of the gas in people's wells, not the deep shale gas formations.

There are really two completely different gas trends there, one shallow, one deep. Fracing the deep formations has no effect on people's water, but drilling water wells into the shallow ones sure does.

E-P - I would only give a take on it if I knew the source of the NG. On the face of it, it doesn't impress me at all as an indication of a frac propagating up shallow and delivering NG to the fresh water aquifer. Over 30 years ago I watched NG bubbling out of a water well in Texas. Wasn't from a frac job though...there were very shallow and commercial NG fields in the fresh water aquifers in this area.

Also, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Mike had a bottle of propane hooked up to the water line. But I also wouldn't hold that against against him. There may be well documented instances of such events occurring in that area. From either natually occuring NG or from some made-made cause. So a recreation, for the sake of the camera, of an actual event is fair game IMHO.

But that's not so say any of the NG in the movie wasn't from drilling activity. About 34 years ago I had a rig blow out and kill 4 hands after it drilled into a fresh water sand chraged with NG (where we knew there was no NG...originally). But over decades bad csg/cmt jobs allowed NG from the deeper reservoirs to seep into the shallow sands. That's what got those hands killed: the certainty that there was no shallow NG in this area.

Again, I've never said drilling/production activity can't pollute the fresh water aquifer with nasty chemicals, salt water or NG. What I've said is that it's physically impossible to propagate a fracture from that deep up to shallow rocks. The frac companies have spent tens of $millions on frac research trying to get the fracs to extend upwards a couple of hundred feet. And I don't have a great deal of confidence they can do that most of the time even today. I keep avoiding the very long tech explanation about over burden pressures, fracture gradient, rho b, etc. I doubt anyone could keep awake through the exercise.

I know it might be tedious but read my words very carefully. It's easy to read more between the lines than what I'm really saying. To be clear: I've never said there wasn't significant potential pollution problems as a result of expanding SG drilling in New England or anywhere else. What I've tried to do is point out what specific activities (like improper disposal) that my Yankee cousins should focus on.


Very sound advice indeed. I learned form my readings of TOD that being very cautious is vital. I have read much on the subject and Pimental's book of which both you and Nate Hagens were contributors was sound advice.

I work for a large chemical company that produces petrochemicals. One of our smaller groups make biodiesel catalyst. Suffice to say that despite all the optimistic forecasts it never quite happens. No wonder. Few in the business of biofuels have any idea of refining and what the drivers are. Refiners are conservative at best and in my opinion have only invested in biofuels for PR purposes. To be seen to be doing something, and only by chance might they hit the jackpot - but I doubt it.

Every week I see bad data trotted out that the entire global jet fuel demand could be met by algae grown on an area the size of Belgium/ or Ireland whichever country it is this week. 69000 square kms? Did they do any energy balance. Probably not, because if they had they would see that this was rather optimistic for open ponds, and bioreactors would have been unaffordable, even if they worked.

One genius who spouted this number at a seminar in London had no idea that CO2 addition was needed to support algae growth anywhere near fuel type growth rates. He thought the CO2 would be obtained from the air.

I spoke at a local energy group last year. Sitting down and going through the energy balance and the real cost left them speechless. One member present contructs tanks and has been asked to build biodiesel plants by fools ploughing there life savings into these crackpot schemes. Get rich on waste cooking oil. The snags is that waste cooking oil now cost $0.6 per litre inthe UK. Needless to say these patsies have either gone bust or lost their money.

Today as I write Soy based biodiesel trades in Rotterdam at $1387 mt and Rapeseed biodiesel at $1485 mt. 10 ppm Diesel is $966 mt. Why would anyone use biodiesel when it costs 30+% more, is a truly lousy product, and has some very dodgy credentials. Europeans are paying a high price for this folly.

Making biomass products is one thing. Turning biomass into usable transport fuels and amke a profit is a different ball game.

Show me the numbers and show me a viable working plant would be my minimum.

Once you sit down and do the process engineering, most photon-> Biofuels plans are going to be nigh impossible to implement as sold to the public.

Waste -> energy plans need raw fuel ... the waste. If the plan is marginal now, what happens when the waste stream is diverted with recycling/upcycling/whatever?

Schemes like algae -> fuel need land, and near the sources of waste, cities, all the land is "in use" so how ya gonna get the raw heavy 'waste' to the bio-processing systems?

Oh, and a reminder - "rock oil" is also a 'bio oil'.....just not in the timeframe of a human being.

When Louisiana is flooded by sea level rise there will be a large area of shallow ponds and the whole Mississippi river as a waste stream. Should be great for biofuels production!

And once the hurricanes come and destroy the facilities, you can stimulate the economy by building 'em again!

Note, also, that there is a difference between something that will be profitable, and something that will solve our energy problems. For example, solar hot-water panels will not solve our energy problems, but they help, and small improvements there (in cost, efficiency, durability, maintainability, longevity) could make someone a nice pile of money.

The people I know of who invest (my grad school advisor, and my father, both introduced Famous Venture Capitalists to women they later married) seem to be putting their money into high-risk/ubiquitous-fractional-payoff stuff, like optimizing the transistors in switching power supplies, or ultracapacitor development. If you can take an SPS from 85% efficient to 95% efficient, that's a big deal. Won't completely solve our problems, either, but reducing waste in every SPS out there, will help, and make someone a ton of money in the process.

Swedish academia take Rossi's demonstration seriously. here

"18 hours * 16 kWh = 288 kWh = 1,037 MJ. That is the amount of energy in 26 kg of gasoline (7.9 gallons). Given the size and weight of the device, this rules out a chemical source of energy."

(I make it 27.77kg of petrol.)
Nothing subtle about that.

From here.

I don't know how familiar you are about the Coulomb barrier and Quantum tunnelling, or the role of the weak force that can change the flavour of the the bottom quark, thereby changing a proton to a neutron which of course would make it invisible to Coulomb barrier.

I would love to see your calculations on these issues.

Did the Romans understand the chemical explanation for cement? Did they allow their ignorance of all the facts prevent them from investigating the potential of the phenomenon?
Then why do we insist on a theory to support the evidence of our eyes?
Why do we spend huge sums on ITER and dismiss out of hand the many thousands of papers on Low Energy Nuclear Reactions.

Are all these researchers deluded?
This is pathological skepticism.
We will pay dearly for it.

18 hours * 16 kWh = 288 kWh

If I were teaching freshman physics he would get an F. hours times hours = hours squared (not a unit of energy). Those that throw units around without knowing what they mean "don't understand physics". Unfortunately this includes 99% ofthe press that writes about energy.

The rest is pretty strange psuedobabble. protons changing into neutrons (where does the charge go?). Definitely sounds like charlatans after your money.

18 hours * 16000 Watt hours = 288KWh^2 (kilowatt hours hours)

hours ^2? (because kilowatt PER hour is a mispell'n. And 18 hours * 16 KW per hour should be 288 KW)

There may be something to cold fusion and it should be looked into. It may never become a viable power source - but that doesn't mean there is not an effect going on.

Kinda like the wierdness of Terrawatt Research LLC - the something going on may be removing the field from magnets or not understanding AC phase/power curves - but you'd think UL/TUV would have the testing part down.

All typos above

power of 16kW (kilowatts) operating over 18h (hours) generated 288kWh (kilowatthours) of energy

18h * 16kW = 288kWh

protons changing into neutrons (where does the charge go?)

This part at least is well understood.

p+ + e- -> n + ve

Where ve is the neutrino. So charge is conserved. But it still requires an input of energy.

I'm with you Arthur. I lack the technical skills (outside of geology) to understand any of the analysis. All I need to see is the end product and an accurate accounting of what it cost to get from A To B. You right about Roman cement: I can go out today and put my hand on the proof. All I need to beleive any of these pitches is to do likewise: show me the proof...not not the theory. Formulas written on a piece of paper don't even come close. Couldn't understand it very well 40 years ago when I was in quant chem so I sure can't understand it now. Show me it working as pitched and I'll toss in a few bucks.

One of the rules I apply to things like that is: If it worked, it would be a valuable energy product. A valuable energy product earns income by its operation and doesn't require my belief, my support, or my money. Things that make money tend to propagate quite well whether they are approved of or not, if you look at the history of technology and innovation.

Anything that asks for my belief and my money (and especially requires the suspension of the laws of physics!) is likely to be a crock.

thereby changing a proton to a neutron

It's been a while since I took my Theo Phys class, but I seem to recall that you can't convert a proton into a neutron without an input of energy.

I seem to recall that you can't convert a proton into a neutron without an input of energy.

Correct, and the whole thing as described is an endothermic reaction - it would consume energy rather than producing it.

The "scientists" have no idea what they are talking about. It's typical for this kind of over-hyped "Give us your money and we'll create free energy" promotion. I would look for a concealed fuel line somewhere in the experimental apparatus.

The problem is that they don't ask for any money. At least not yet, and their tight schedule suggest that they never will. They plan to demonstrate a 1 MW plant in October this year.

If it works it works.

As usual with these "cold fusion" experiments, the lack of dead bodies lying around afterwards indicate it's not nuclear fusion. Whether hot or cold, it should generate enough hard radiation to kill everyone in the room. If these were legitimate researchers they would know that.

The use of nickel has the additional problem is that it is the second most stable element after iron. Any fusion reaction involving nickel is likely to produce lots of hard radiation, and little or no heat. Again, the researchers should know that.

That's why hot fusion experiments normally go from hydrogen to helium. That reaction would generate lots and lots of heat, and is certain to work if you can get the hydrogen hot enough. In a hydrogen bomb they use an atomic bomb to generate the heat, in the laboratory it's more difficult.

the lack of dead bodies lying around afterwards indicate it's not nuclear fusion.

Not saying that I buy the content of the article, but I'm not sure this is such a useful metric.

Fusion only emits x/ɣ-ray radiation in the range of a few hundred KeV to MeV. You would only need a few cms of stainless steel to absorb it. It certainly wouldn't be enough to knock everyone dead in the room in a matter of minutes. Sorry to disappoint!

In fact that's one of the key advantages of Fusion over Fission and why it would be so beneficial to see it developed.

Here's hoping.

Edit: Of course it would also produce a few neutrons for which you'd need a much thicker wall of a less dense material (such as 1m of water) if you wanted to fully absorb them, but if you were only running a small scale fusion reaction then it would produce relatively low levels of neutron radiation. Plus the radiation is emitted isotropically, i.e. in all directions. So your dosage would drop with the square of your distance from the reactor. Merely standing a few meters away would minimise your exposure for the short demonstration times involved I would have thought.

Having looked at the relative doses from neutron radiation and gammas, and knowing that D-T fusion releases neutrons at a whopping 14.7 MeV, anything that releases fusion heat at a rate of multiple kW is going to throw off enough neutrons to have discernable effects.  Just the neutron-capture gammas in a water shield should put on a show from Cerenkov radiation.

Unless they've cracked aneutronic fusion... ;-)

Alpha radiation causes primary damage by ionization, the worst.
Beta radiation causes surface burns at low energy.
X rays and neutrons cause damage when they collide with atoms in the body causing the excited atoms to radiate alpha particles or x rays.

Radium alpha decays at 5 Mev, which is equivalent to 10 Mev of neutron radiation.
U-235 alpha fissions at 200 Mev but U-238 alpha decays at 5 Mev.
All together D-T fusion produces 14.1 Mev neutrons plus 3.6 Mev of alpha.
Of course, we need about 11 times as many D-T fusions as U-235 fissions
for the same energy per event but there is theoretically no radioactive waste as the He4 product is not radioactive.

Most of nuclear fission turns into heat with 8.8 Mev of lost neutrons.
I would guess that if the neutron flux is the same that a fusion reaction would require much less shielding than a fission reaction.

Alphas have such short range that they are harmless if emitted outside the body.  (They are devastating inside, which is why one approach to radiation treatment for cancer uses drugs containing boron followed by neutron irradiation:  11B + n -> 3 α.)

Neutron energy in a nuclear reactor is not lost.  It is converted to heat in the moderator, excess energy in fission of excited nuclei, or gammas after neutron captures.

Neutrons from D-T fusion are several times as energetic as fission neutrons, and carry 80% of the energy of the reaction.

Neutrons from D-T fusion are several times as energetic as fission neutrons, and carry 80% of the energy of the reaction.

This is the part I had trouble understanding. Is this energy captured in a fusion reactor? What fraction escapes as potentially harmful radiation?

D-T fusion reactors need to make tritium (it doesn't occur in nature).  Using a blanket of lithium to capture high-energy neutrons causes several reactions:
6Li + n -> 4He + 3H + Δ
7Li + n -> 4He + 3H + n + Δ

Excess neutron energy becomes kinetic energy of the products and winds up as heat.

The second reaction, believed a priori to be negligible, caused the surprisingly high yield of the Ivy Mike test blast.  The cross-section is significant and 14.7 MeV neutrons have enough energy to drive it.

Right, got you. So you'd need a roughly 1m blanket of lithium for the reactor to be productive in any meaningful sense.

That would probably explain why I got the ludicrously large dosage rates in my other post here - effectively without the lithium it was saying the people would be exposed to pretty much all of the energy produced by the reactor!

No wonder you wouldn't survive long..

The one exception is if you can convert deuterium to helium-4:

2H + 2H -> 4He + γ

High-Z materials stop gammas, as does a sufficient depth of water (and you get a lovely blue glow).

I understand that the aneutronic reaction doesn't occur often compared to 2H + 2H -> 3He + n

I wish we could get a good explanation of what's going on in all these electrochemical cells where people think they're getting cold fusion.  They should be producing helium and substantial amounts of high-energy something.  If not, something funky's going on.

Same here. I see the wiki article ( has details of other types of aneutronic interaction but they seem infeasible. E.g. p + 11B requires 10 times the heat of a D-T reaction.

Rossi's team claim they are using a Nickel-Tritium reaction.. which I presume would produce something like copper and gamma radiation?

60Ni + 3H -> 63Cu + γ

If that were so then they could possibly get away with minimal stainless steel shielding..


And is a nickel fusion reaction even theoretically exothermic? Well, I guess that's what the whole debate is about!

Edit: Although, hang on. There's hardly any Tritium about so that can't be right. It must be Deuterium, urgh, I give up. Chemistry was never my strong point!

I really should RTFM more:

And something that I found thought-provoking in an earlier publication of Rossi and Focardi from 2008 was their hypothesis about what might happen in the nickel-hydrogen case, the nickel-58 isotope captures a proton, becoming copper-59, transferred to a nickel-59 through beta decay, then the chain continues on to nickel-60, nickel-61 to nickel-64.

I'm exaggerating about the dead bodies, although I wouldn't want to be anywhere near it if it actually worked.

However, they're ignoring quite a lot of basic nuclear physics and saying, "Trust us, we found a way around the rules, somehow." And then they come up with some authoritative sounding nonsense to explain it.

No I don't trust them. I want to be able to take the apparatus apart and look for the concealed fuel line.

The trouble with scientists is that they are too trusting of people. The trouble with fraud artists is that they are too good at fooling trusting people.

Right, of course - there's bound to be some residual radiation in any case and no credible scientist would expose the general public to that risk, at least not without a disclaimer.

But I'm intrigued now, I'm going to see if I can do a little case study to see if I can calculate the neutron flux for a 16Kw D-T reactor and possibly other types of fusion too. Just to see how the numbers turn out.

Check out:

I'm sure you can find someone has already done the calculation. They're worried about shielding from Neutrons for D-D reactions in the few hundred watt range.

Cheers will do. I actually fancied just doing it as a quick thought exercise. I've managed to get the neutron flux but am having trouble trying to find the relevant Dose Conversion Factor for 14MeV neutrons. Will keep searching, or perhaps ask on that forum..

Edit: Actually I think I take it all back - I wouldn't want to be anywhere near that thing if fusion was really going on. I'm sure I've made a mistake somewhere, but from my very rough calculations an unprotected 16kW D-T reaction at a distance of 1m would give you a horrifying 80 sievert dose per second! Even at 4m the dose would be 5Sv/s, easily fatal.

I had another very brief look at a p+-B reaction which is a lot less risky but would still give a 0.002Sv dose per second at 4m. You wouldn't want to stick around long!

That can't be right, surely...

Try this page, which has conversion factors for neutrons of various energies.

Thanks for that. It confirms the DCF I was using.

So yeah, while the gamma rays wouldn't be too much of a problem, for a traditional D-T reaction, due to the neutron flux, you literally would be killed in a matter of minutes.

Then why do we insist on a theory to support the evidence of our eyes?
Why do we spend huge sums on ITER and dismiss out of hand the many thousands of papers on Low Energy Nuclear Reactions.

Are all these researchers deluded?
This is pathological skepticism.
We will pay dearly for it.

This is a good candidate for Doing Due Diligence tests.

Only I would expand the Reality Check Questions tests a little :

a) Is it reproducable ? {here they claim 3x, but perhaps on the same equipment.} Better is the same results over different equipments.

b) Even if they will not reveal (or fully understand) what makes it go, why did they stop ?

In this example, Did fuel feedstock get consumed in 18 hours, or did they cease for some other reason. Why not 15h or the more logical 24h ? What does the kW/time profile look like ?

c) Can they control it ? Again, you do not have to reveal how, or even need to understand how yourself, so long as you understand the control elements.

Here it seems 15-20kW is mentioned, and a peak of 130 kW ?
When does it hit 130kW, and why ?

d) If there is a feedstock usage effect, how quickly, and at what cost, can they restart the experiment ?

e) Can they set up a better experiment. The excess ratio reported seems well clear of equipment margins of error, but there are many easy extras they can add to give a much better experiment.

i) Collect the warmed water, in a large vessel, and stir and time the cooling. This reality checks the kW numbers.
ii) Use precise flow and temperature logging, and vary flow, to see if power changes with flow. A custom power meter, that both logs, and gives rapid display feedback, would help 'tune' the process.
iii) Run more than one unit at a time, and also a control unit.
If they plan to jump to 100, smarter might be 3-5 in a Lab, with the control one, rotated. (Control is identical but minus the secret sauce)

This is an excellent overview of cautions. The same applies to photovoltaics (solar cells). There are some extremely exciting changes taking place in the PV market but most of those are based on conventional technologies (crystalline Si and CdTe primarily with some hints of breakthroughs in CuInSe2). While there are interesting research efforts in topics such as organic photovoltaics it is not at all clear that any of these (especially those based on quantum confinement) will be superior to the classics. The comment about these being important for investors to know is very important. The issues are complex though and investors need good and diverse advice. The problem in PV and in other areas is that there are highly competent researchers capable of making careful arguments but who have an agenda of their own. Unless the investor gets a broad spectrum of advice and educates themselves in detail it is hard to know who is right.

Currently all organic photovoltaic suffer from UV degradation and oxygen degradation. Until those two are solved you won't get solar cells that will last more than a couple of years after initial production.

So anybody looking to invest in OPVs, remember to ask about UV and oxygen damage, and cell lifetime.

Decades ago Huntington Hartford, the A&P heir, garnered considerable publicity hyping his company the Oil Shale Corporation (now Tosco - for The Oil Shale CO). It would not have been easy to do due diligence - particularly for an amateur. I bought a modest number of shares. The oil shale project was a total failure but as I recall the company survived at least partly due to ownership of a refinery capable of processing crude from Alaska

And sometimes it's not just the hype that sucks unsophisticated investors in but outright fraud. And these folks know so little they truly can't see the obvious. Many years ago a phone bank boiler room opened up on our floor. Got to look at the brochure they were pitching to every dr, lawyer, etc they could find in the book. Forget that the geologic basis for the prospect was completely ridiculous. They were charging $25,000/1% working interest to drill a well that would actually costs only around $5,000/1% to drill. So even if they did drill a commercial well (a nearly 0% chance of success) the folks would have never make a penny of profit or even get all their principal back. I actually suspect the well would never be drilled.

I called the Texas Att. General and gave them the name of the company. They knew about the company and that it was taken care of since they shut down their office in DALLAS. I corrected that incorrect assumption and gave them the company's HOUSTON address. Still today one of my greatest disappointments is that I was out of the office the day the Texas Rangers hauled the two managers off in hand cuffs. My cohorts, with their morning coffee cups in hand, just stood at the elevator, smiled and waved goodbye to the crooks. One of the most irritating aspects was that they didn't try to hide the scam from us. Guess they figured since we were oil patch we were crooks also. A poor assumption on their part. BTW - Their office manager...his last job was used car salesman. Honestly. LOL.

As a small operator I have sold hundreds of drilling deals and for the most part my only realized "profit" for generating the prospect was a carried working interest to casing point. I also always bought interest in my own prospect on the same "promoted" basis I was selling it. I was always honest about risk and always used the worse case scenario for intial production rates, EUR's and return on investment. I have had the same partners for 35 years as a result, some private investors, some very well known oilmen and ranchers. I am proud of that. It always pains me to hear stories such as yours and I commend you for pointing those yahoos toward the hooscow.

In the world of unlimited information we live in today there is no excuse for anyone to be "unsophisticated" anymore about investing in any oil related venture. Due diligence is just a keyboard away. My peeve at the moment is all the whining going on in Eagle Ford shale play by mineral owners that feel like they were taken advantage of by landmen, that they might have been able to get 2000 dollars an acre instead of 1500 dollars and if they had just held out longer 28% royalty reservations instead of a quarter. There is a blog on the net that advises all mineral owners from Eagle Pass to Eagle Lake that their minerals are worth 30,000 dollars an acre, beware of evil oil companies offering less. Nevermind that those minerals are worth zip 3 miles deep in the ground, that it might take 8,000,000.00 dollars to have a look see. Mineral owners are now due, it seems, 25% of the value of the EUR from Eagle Ford shale wells without risk whatsoever.

When the numbers get big hype becomes a four letter word and everyone, top to bottom, wants to dance.

Keep a bind on it, Rock.

Mikey - I'm not sure most folks believe how we get p*ssed off with the crooks. Bad enough when folks have legitimate problems. The crooks damage us all greatly.

Amen. Its plenty hard enough what we do without it being a people problem too.

Firstly- thx for this interesting read RR.

Then, here is a new ‘next big thing’ called Vigor Wave Energy Converter - Click image for video and more -and it is still at a pre- prototype stage.

Actually I am puzzled and intrigued by this idea- although it resembles the functionality of existing and tested wave-stations like this
It looks costly and with some obvious limitations at first sight. For instance, how do you turn this arrangement as the waves take another direction?

I guess the big *if* is whether it can generate large enough pressure differentials as claimed. Claim : 400 m hose could produce 6 MW (capacity) at nominal wavehighs of ..??
Ahhh probably another Dodo-machine.

For wave power generation, it is helpful to read Waves and Beaches by Willard Bascom. The number one question has to be, "how will it fare in a N-year storm", where N is at least as large as the desired lifetime of the installation.

Beyond that, there's the problem of hazards to navigation and fishing, plus the effects of years of fouling (barnacles, oysters, sea squirts, mussels) in the ocean, plus damage from sea junk (e.g., logs, drifting ships), plus everybody's friend, corrosion.

On the one hand, yes, there's tremendous power in those waves, but on other hand, it's a really hostile environment for machinery. Stop to think about the number of *ships* that disappear in the ocean every year; is your ocean-energy device more durable than a ship?

how will it fare in a N-year storm

A very important question. If it can be made to submerge when a big storm is forcast, that would be one way of dealing with the issue.
I would think if it was teathered on one end, that the other end would move downwave. Of course if you want to put a lot close together you better keep them from tangling.

Yes, that's the problem.

The energy contained in a wave is proportional to the square of the height, and wave heights from which a device needs to be able to extract energy vary by an order of magnitude. So a device has to work across a factor of 100 input energies.

I was a pilot plant and semi-works manager way back (before I became a plant manager). The marketing department convinced the brass that we needed to scale-up from the semi-works to a really big production plant...and that they could sell everything produced.

I was the start-up manager for the production plant in addition to running my regular stuff. Well, things didn't scale-up worth a darn. Even though we were using identical equipment albeit on a larger scale nothing worked right. It took months to debug the plant.

And, then when it was running, it turned out the market wasn't there so the plant only ran now and then. What was worst was that my men had trained the production guys with the understanding that they would continue in the semi-works. Wrong! One day I was called in and told to layoff my semi-works staff - 30 people. I knew the president fairly well and he didn't have the ba[[s to take the 20 minute drive from his office to tell my people what was going on.

I got to stand up there with none of the powers that be who made the decision present to tell them how their layoff would work. I can't say how angry I was. In the end, it was one of the issues that led me to leave the chemical industry.


Can you comment on this claim in today's Daily Mail?

"Joule claims, for instance, that its cyanobacterium can produce 15,000 gallons of diesel full per acre annually, over four times more than the most efficient algal process for making fuel. And they say they can do it at $30 (£18.45) a barrel."


Bit recursive, but anyhoo, this was mentioned in the last Drumbeat here -

Oh yeah, plus you really shouldn't put too much faith in the Daily Fail ;-)

I had so many inquiries over Joule that this is what prompted me to write this essay. I know that one reporter who contacted me tried to pin them down by asking some of the questions on my list. Their answers were very evasive. The bottom line is that they have done some lab work and written a theoretical paper, but they have demonstrated nothing at any sort of scale that would warrant the claims they are making. They did hire John Podesta, which is a clear sign that they intend to go after public funding. And who can blame them? As long as these sorts of overblown claims receive very little in the way of critical investigation and then receive millions in public funding (like Range Fuels, who recently closed their doors after blowing through millions of tax dollars), people will continue to promise the moon.

I had so many inquiries over Joule that this is what prompted me to write this essay. I know that one reporter who contacted me tried to pin them down by asking some of the questions on my list. Their answers were very evasive. The bottom line is that they have done some lab work and written a theoretical paper, but they have demonstrated nothing at any sort of scale that would warrant the claims they are making.

Interesting case, and yes, Joule also need their own special questions.

Assuming they can create hydrocarbons, the feedstock issue is barely mentioned (what feedstock(s) do they need, and at what purities and pressures ? )

Next, is their post-process separation. They need to remove their biotech from the fuel, for two reasons :
i) to clean the fuel to acceptable standards
ii) to not waste their expensive growth medium.

That separation may be harder than creating hydrocarbons.
The growth medium may not tolerate outside some mechanical stress/ temperature/pressure envelopes.

Joule have less issues with scaling as such, but more with production-rate/costs/waste optimising and tuning.

Re: $30 per barrel. . .

Reminds me of the guy on CNBC who claimed that they could produce oil from the Colorado oil shales (Green River kerogen) for $30 per barrel, but then said that the US needed a massive government investment in the project. As Ron pointed out, the two claims seem contradictory.

I haven't run the numbers, and can't, without dragging out the dusty old reference texts, but such a high production would seem to be an impossibility on the face of it, unless lots of nutrients are being pumped in in the form of hydrocarbons-which is afer all the desired finished product.

As RR and others often point out,such processes might possibly prove out in some cases to be economical-if for instance an operator were to get paid to run raw sewage thru his plant, and could sell not only bio oil but reasonably clean water and other byproducts such as animal feed or fertilizer. But even this sort of process, so far as I know, has not yet proven to be commercially viable.

In reference to other comments-it should be perfectly obvious to anybody except the terminally niave or utterly uninformed that what Chu KNOWS and what he CAN ADMIT PUBLICLY are as far seperated as the East and the West;this of course assuming that he is not an idiot-which seems a safe enough assumption, given his resume.

As an aside-I would not be suprised if he has hired somebody (probably legally, not on the public dime) to scan the media daily and give him a rundown on what is being said about him.Such a source of intelligence should be well worth the cost to any high ranking , well paid person, public or private.

In his position, I would pay the price just as insurance against making a public misstep on some boondoogle seeking funding , etc.

His pr guy might put this very comment in the daily summary.;)

A few thermodynamics might help. Cyanobacteria is a C3 plant.

Overall 2H2O + CO2 = CH2O + O2 + H2O

Benson- Calvin cycle Z scheme 8 photons of light for each CH2O + O2 produced

Overall maximum possible thermodynamic efficiency is ~5-6% (insolation)
Incident mean PAR in US South West 100 watts/square metre.
Max Theoretical Yield is = 189 MJ carbohydrate/ m²/yr

If 50% of the net carbohydrate produced was converted to oil ( approx 28%) at no losses this would equate to around 2.5 kg oil per m² or 25mt per hectare/yr. At very best.

This oil yield is well below many claimed yields in press releases.

Of the max theoretical yiels up to half could be used in respiration. The carbohydrate has an energy value of a little under half of the oil value, and the conversion process of carbohydrate to oil would consume energy.

On an equivalent basis the Joule claim is 100+ mt approx of algae oil per hectare, assuming it is esterified. That is nearly 4 x the theoretical maximum. It would be hard to produce that even as biomass with a low oil content.

Some good reading is here from Walker.

his book Energy, Plants and Man - recommended

You can get this book in pdf for free by sending an email to Walker.

Simply Email David Walker at

Joule = Total bunkum in my opinion.

You're way too negative(which is in keeping with the post).

The US southwest gets about 7 kwh/m2 per day of insolation(6-8) on average from the sun.
5% of that 350 watts per day and 50% of that is 175 watts per day, times 365 days per year = 64 kwh per m2. A hectare is 10000 m2 so 1 ha would produces 640 mwh or 400 boe of energy or 54 mt of algae oil using your figures.

This ancient NREL report(page 5) says that 200000 ha of land could produce 1 quad of 'fuel' (~ 178 million boe) or 1 ha = 890 bbls of 'fuel' per year(121 mt?). I don't know exactly how much algae 'fuel' is needed to make a barrel of algae diesel, maybe it is 25%).

I think there are lots of reasons algae biofuels can reach 100 mt per ha. The scientists need to redouble their efforts.

One idea I've heard is to remove the biodiesel by solvent extraction and convert the huge amount of residual matter into
ethanol with yeast.
Of course, soybean biodiesel co-product is resold as nutritious animal feed, maybe algae feed will work.

You're way too negative(which is in keeping with the post).

With my post? My post isn't negative at all. It is just giving people pointers on sifting through hype.

I would say you are more a 'biofuels skeptic' rather than a 'biofuels denier'. I would say I'm one of the hand full of 'biofuels enthusiasts' at TOD.

There are constraints on biofuels, the biggest one being scaling but as fossil fuels(including uranium) diminish we have to maximize renewable sources of energy as small as they seem to be.

A world without energy is inconceivable.

as fossil fuels(including uranium) diminish

Uranium?  Uranium is about 2.5 ppm of earth's crust; thorium is about 10 ppm.  A ton of average rock has about 12.5 grams of Th+U, which yields about a terajoule of energy if fissioned completely.

One TJ ~= 1 billion BTU, or the energy from burning roughly 60 tons of coal.  There is no way to run out in any meaningful sense.


Sorry you are wrong. What is important is the PAR - the photosynthetically active radiation. The annual mean value can be obtained form here. You are mixing up insolation with PAR. PAR is about 50% of the insolation.

The problem with C3 and to a lesser extent C4 plant (but no much) is that at high level of PAR there is a photoinhibition effect and the incoming radiation is rejected as heat. Plants also do not photosynthsise well at high temperatures.

One of the best publicised algae farms is Seambiotic. They can produce about 20g metre@ per day and they know what they are doing.

See here note Page 8.

The plant antenna are optimised for lower light levels much like a funnel. As the PAR increases the funnel overflows. You can dream of genetic engineering to reduce the antennae but the natural species will always dominate as it will be able to out photosynthesise the modified antennae at low levels. for some interesting reading - sadly it now costs

and here

I suggest that you also look at Alan Walker. See my post above.

If you do the maths and then the conversion from carbohydrate to lipds my figures are correct - if a tad optimistic.

Turning algae into useful biofuel is another issue. I do not like methyl ester biodiesel for many reasons. Algae oil has even more olefinic bonds than veg oils and will be even worse. The only real option would be hydrogen addition.

I do not think much of selling the algae residues for animal feed. In msall amounts yes, but scale it upand you would have tonnes to deal with and the market would collapse quicker than you could blink

You also need


Oh and CO2 - lots of it.

Jon Benemann has written much on the ASP and infi is available in TOD archives. I am not sure he is so confident of the NREL figures and he was on the ASP.

I go by facts. Show me one facility that has managed even the yields I quoted over one year. Just one.

No I am realist. I wish I could go into more detail on Solazyme but for commercial reasons I cannot. Bad example.

Do your homework. !st. 2nd and 3rd Law of thermodynamics. Read Walker. Look at PAR and then come back YOU ARE WRONG big time.

Carnot, You are a biofuels denier.

No, I'm sorry Majorian, but Carnot is a realist, not a denier.

The numbers don't work out on producing fuel from algae. It's all very good if nature spends a few million years doing the large-scale processing for you and puts the product in a convenient, easily accessible place in an oil field where you can retrieve it by just sinking a well into it, but it's quite another to do it yourself. You just don't have the time to do it, nor the free energy to make it economic.

I've seen a large scale algae farm. Long story short, we ran our yacht on the rocks in front of it, and Bruce from the algae farm (a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary) came out and fixed our steering. It's lonely out there on a remote island off the BC coast with no electricity and only weird alternative-lifestyle people for neighbors, so he invited us over for a tour.

Bruce and his brother had a HUGE algae operation going, with a dozen 100,000 gallon tanks of algae out in the bay. They had one employee, a woman with a masters degree in microbiology who came over from a neighboring island to do their lab work. They had about 23 different strains of algae in the lab which they custom-grew for anyone who wanted a large batch of it. Different customers wanted algae with different properties, and they would grow one of their proprietary strains to meet the specs.

The thing was, Bruce was into making money, not losing it, so growing algae for fuel was not in his business plan. He was primarily growing it for fish food, and secondarily for health food companies and the cosmetics industry.

Bruce had pictures up on his walls from his regular skiing trips to the Italian Alps, so we could see he was not doing too badly in the algae business.

But I could see that this kind of thing would not scale up nearly large enough to provide the US with biofuel. Bruce's operation was huge in scale, but it was on a nearly uninhabited island, you couldn't see it from outside the bay, and nobody would take their boat into the bay without local knowledge of the rocks. (Something we should have had).

If you tried to do this thing on a vastly larger scale off the California coast, it would be about 15 seconds before the NIMBYs in the mansions on shore launched a court action and Greenpeace showed up with their rubber dinghys and banners. I think it would be much more expensive to do in the desert, the NIMBYs would still notice, and Greenpeace could be counted on to show up anyway.

Bruce's neighbors are not likely to complain to the authorities because, frankly, they don't want anybody wandering around looking at what they are growing on their own properties. If Greenpeace shows up they'll shoot holes in their rubber rafts.

So a realist is someone who says something can't be true and then doesn't back it up?

The fact is that the US Navy bought a contract for 20000 gallons of jet fuel made from algae from Solazyme and a year later bought a contract for another 150000 gallons. I'm sure the navy would not
put algae products into their jets that didn't work or buy 7.5 times as much fuel given their tight budget.

My test for a denier is that when he sees this his first conclusion is 'that's a lie'.

For example when you talked about riding to work on a wind powered train, I suggested that you were lying (I think I said 'joking')--in that case I am a wind powered train denier because I just don't believe wind powered trains exist and you never posted a source for your wind powered trains.
I could call myself a wind powered train realist but that sounds far too immodest, like I have a deeper understanding of reality than you but that would be rather pretentious, don't you think?

Bruce who?

Sorry your test is not worth the paper it is written on. The USN like you is in dreamland. The cost of that sample was not taken into account. By all indications it was way off the clock on costs. Using the USN is in no way representative of reality as defence organisations are willing to pay any costs. Witness the price of jet kerosine in Afganistan which is way above the market price that any commercial organistion could afford.

As for Solazyme which you also champion then do the maths, if you can. A C4 plant running a process that converts carbohydrate to algae oil? Do your homework; you are converting shit into shiola. This is a hopeless waste of energy. Clearly you need a lesson in EROEI. The issue is called entropy my dear boy. Look it up.

Ist Law -you cannot win

2nd Law You can at best break even at abs zero

3rd law. you cannot reach abs zero.

The 4 horsemen are getting restless.

Do even know what the 2nd Law says, carrot?

"No process is possible whose sole result is the transfer of heat from a body of lower temperature to a body of higher temperature."

Nothing about EROEI, nothing about absolute zero and nothing to do with biofuels.

The fact is that the higher the temperature, the higher the useful energy.

Stop waiving your arms, bubala!

The 2nd Law would apply to the idea that it takes more work to obtain oil from more diffuse sources.
One would need to spend more time/energy gathering the resource.

Now a higher temperature is of course a more disordered system in effect, which allows more work to be extracted relative to the surroundings which are more ordered (cooler) relatively speaking.

The 2nd law means that systems tend to go to the most disordered state possible.

The system and surroundings together try to maximize disorder -- and if they can then a process will proceed.

If the system and surroundings have the same disorder, then the change in entropy with be zero and the whole thing will be in equilibrium. That of course occurs when the temperature of your coffee becomes the same temp as the room. Or your steam cools down to the temp of the surroundings. No more work. No more entropy to exploit.

But steam turbines are basically exploiting gas expansion and the second law all the time.

a higher temperature is of course a more disordered system

You have this backwards.  The entropy of a given amount of heat energy is inversely proportional to the absolute temperature.

dS = dQ/Tabs

It's a causal thing. A higher temperature indicates that more random motions, either translations for free particles, or vibrations for fixed points in a lattice are occurring.

In statistical mechanics, higher temperature invariably relates to a higher entropy. More states of the system are being occupied therefore entropy increases.

So disorder is greater for a higher temperature.

I think like a physicist on this topic, not like a mechanical engineer who only sees the equation.

I agree completely with Oct on this one. He and I think alike. And he has met Chu.

In statistical mechanics, higher temperature invariably relates to a higher entropy. More states of the system are being occupied therefore entropy increases.

Only if the system as a whole is hotter.  If the same amount of energy is divided between a hot reservoir and a cold reservoir, entropy is the least when all the energy is in the hot reservoir.

I agree completely with Oct on this one. He and I think alike. And he has met Chu.

But was Chu wearing his pol hat or his physicist hat?  Having seen Oct's postings, I don't think he'd be able to tell the difference.

LOL. You took a shot at me. Ouch! I felt that.

What exactly have I said that is wrong?

Either you agree or disagree with the idea that systems tend to a state of higher statistical probability or you do not, but only one way of thinking is in line with reality.

I know Chu as a biophysicist and he has made as much as an impact on physics as biophysics at this point. Look his research lab is very very near to mine, like less than 100 feet. But he is not here anymore. He is in DC. His lab still does biophysics though.

I am not physicist but I do teach thermo more-or-less in a statistical sense.


A perfectly ordered system would exist at absolute zero. So hot systems would tend to be less ordered.

What exactly have I said that is wrong?

It's more your statement that higher temperature means higher entropy (yes, but...) which lacks proper context and lends itself to misinterpretation.

In engineering terms we talk about availability.  Entropy of a working fluid increases with temperature, but for a given amount of energy the entropy goes down with temperature.  The amount of energy which can be turned into work goes up with temperature.  Going back to the oil analogy, a given amount of oil in barrels has a lot more available energy than the same amount of oil as 1% by volume in an impermeable shale.

He didn't say anything wrong, qualitatively.

Put some numbers into the problem and then you can say if the solution is quantitatively right. The issue is that no one has defined exactly what the problem is.

But that is precisely where the equation dS = dQ/T is best used. You have two temperature baths and this equation basically describes the path it takes as the two equilibriate. That's why it is used in engineering because it has practical applications for working out stuff like the Carnot cycle.

Yet, it doesn't describe the physical concept of entropy very well which is essentially the concept of disorder, and how the Boltzmann energy distribution and the partition function define entropy quantitatively. Chu understands that part very well since he is a physicist.

If you are combining energy and entropy then we are not talking strictly about 2nd Law. You are combining the 1st and 2nd laws.

You may be thinking that a process can be enthalpically favorable and entropically unfavorable, but the enthalpy can drive the reaction forward.

But when you think about 2nd Law then I usually consider that dU = 0 or dH = 0, to simplify the discussion.

When we are in regime where only S changes then either a hot system (more disordered) cools if the surroundings have some order to give up. Well if the surroundings are more dissordered then the system gets hotter. If they are the same temp, then nothing happens and the entropy change dS is zero -- they are in thermal equilibrium.

Or you think about a compressed gas (more ordered) wants to expand to become (less ordered).

Or you think about a more purified system, when given the chance, wants to spread out and become more diffuse. Like adding food dye to water. The food dye spreads out and dissolves evenly spontaneously. You do not need to add dU or dH to drive the thing fwd.

Or you think about exploitation of oil resources, you exploit the most ordered sources first, since they have the most order to surrender to the surroundings. Those sources are most viable.

The last paragraph is brilliant because it ties it back to what we need to understand.

I said that wrong if you have a different system than I am imagining ;-)

If you mean a system with compressed gases, then the direction of spontaneous change is always from high temperature to lower temperature, or a more pressurized system is higher in order than a less pressurized system of equal moles of gas.

But a system at absolute zero is more ordered than a system at higher temperature. (Think of it statistically.) There are more populated microstates in a less ordered state. At absolute zero (an extreme case) then the entropy is defined as zero since all of the matter in the system is frozen in one lowest energy-level microstate.

Sorry about that.

But you mean

Delta_S = q(reversible_heat)/T

It is not an arbitrary amount of heat. that definition applies under reversible situations. To expand in an isothermal reversible process then you suck heat from surroundings. The max amount of work is limited at q_rev. w_rev = -q_rev when the thing is isothermal. Delata_S sets the absolute upper limit for the max amount of work that can be achieved. So the second law does have some significant bearing on the max output.

There are 3 definitions of Delta_S which are all equivalent

That is the oldest one. But another way to think about it is that the system and surroundings try to maximize the multiplicity of states.

Delta_S = kB ln W2/W1

(An expanded gas has more multiplicity (W) than a compressed gas (of equal moles)). So Positive dS means gas will expand.

Or if you like S is sum of all p_i ln p_i of each microstate, i, where p_i is the probability of each microstate.
If you can increase that sum, then dS would be favorable.

But a system at absolute zero is more ordered than a system at higher temperature. (Think of it statistically.) There are more populated microstates in a less ordered state.

We're not talking about systems equilibrated at a particular temperature, we're talking about systems with available energy we desire to extract.  A system with a certain amount of kinetic energy will have maximum availability if all but one of its particles is at absolute zero and the remaining particle contains all the energy.  This is as far as you can get from a system in equilibrium, and you can't even say that the system as a whole has "a" temperature.

Yes, available energy and entropy added together change the picture. This is why we have Gibbs Free energy to understand the direction of a process.

In any case, we are not going to come up with anything new about thermo this way. I was just throwing out a definition of entropy for the folks arguing about what it was, since I am lecturing on it ;-) right now.

Define temperature as the number of translational modes that are populated.

A system of N particles at absolute zero has not populated any translational modes so its multiplicity is W = N!/N! = 1. Everything is in the ground state.

S = kB ln W = 0

A system of N particles at some finite temperature (K) would populate translational energy levels in lets say a Boltzmann distribution by Ni = N exp (-Utrans_i / kB T) / Q, where Q is the partition function.

Well since pi must be less than unity for populated energy levels.

Then using the following:

S = -N kB SUM ( p_i ln p_i)

S (at finite temp) > S (absolute zero)

So put some math to your definition of entropy.

My best guess. Your system has order in one or more of the translational degrees of freedom since your gas is pressurized.

So you have order in your system that way where say Sx_trans is highly ordered and say Sy_trans and Sz_trans are less ordered. That allows you to do work entropically.

I do not think that way but that would reconcile the two positions

My statistical thermo was never strong and I haven't used it since class mumble years ago.  But if you have a system in which all the kinetic energy is in one particle above the ground state which is confined to 1 mode, the system has exactly 1 mode if the particles are distinguishable, and N modes if it has N indistinguishable particles.

Also, there's a problem with the definition of temperature in such a situation.  The concept of temperature assumes a thermal distribution of energies.  If the statistics are so completely different, you can't say "the system" has "a temperature".  It's as warped as negative temperatures in the distribution of nuclear spins; they aren't colder than zero, they're hotter than infinity.

Thank you Oct.

Majorian, I gave you a rather succinctand jocular interpretation of the laws of thermodynamics. It came from a book called Physical Chemistry by Walter J Moore. Sorry it did not originate from myself.As petroleum chemist I see the 2nd law increasing disorder . Oct has said it clearly. Our current fuels sources provide us with highly ordered or low entropy range of fuel products that we have been able to exploit in heat engines. All of the "heavy lifting conversion work" has been done by nature; burying it under sedimentary rock and then slowly pressure cooking it over millions of years. We can extract these fuels and they are near finsihed or semi finished in relation to their end us. This has enabled a high EROEI. Each refining step consumes energy which results in an overall increase in entropy. I think we call all agree to that. We will never achieve in the product fuel stream the same amount of energy that we put in with the starting materials.

The same applies for biological processes and the thermodynamic effciencies of both C3 and C4 plants are well known Sugar cane is often given as an example of high efficiency which I would agree that in the right conssitions it will show higher yields than nearly any other species in terms of photosynthetic effciency. The fact it is a C4 plant is a major reason and the best data available suggests that Brazil can yield about 77 mt per hectare of sugar cane, and a sugar yield of 5789 Kg., or about 7.5 % of the cane weight ( source Pimental). To achieve these yields require a ongoing application of products to maintain soil fertility, especially if the bagasse is used for heat. I will not go into soil effects but removing the bagasse and hence soil organic carbon might not be a good idea.

The problem with Solazyme is the need for a carbohydrate sourcet to feed the algae. The connundrum here is that convering the carbohydrate into algae will result in a significant net loss of Joules in the product since convering the carbohydrate into lipids and proteins will consume energy. That is where this process will fall over. Notwithstaning, and it does not matter which carbohydrate source is used then the logistics will be a nightmare as a large volume of bulky biomass is harvested and processed.

My employer has looked at biomass for various chemical applications and some are just about viable when there is a high value product at the end and it takes multiple steps to synthesise. Making the chemical building blocks from biomass though is much miore difficult. Ethylene from ethanol is possible but it does not make economic sense. Biobutanol to butylenes is also a no go. Yet these olefines are the building blocks that we use for many of our industrial plastics and rubbers. Making aromatic molecules is even more difficult i.e. benzene and xylenes.

Processing algae into usable transport fuels is not easy. The algae oil has more olefines in the backbone than most vegetable oil and will spoil easily. The refining proces will need to provide a range for products, but could be configured to produce just one, say jet kerosine. The refining step to jet -kero only will need a significant amount of hydrogen and there will be some mild cracking and isomerisation of the backbone. All of the oxygen and other hetero atoms would need to be removed. It could be done but there will be a significant expenditure of energy and a significant source of hydrogen required.

In theory at least the non-lipid algae residue could be used for hydrogen production or gasification but these plants are not cheap. Algae could be processed by FT and that will be vey expensive both in investment cost and product yield.

Compared with crude oil, conventional type, algae will have a yield of finished products significantly less. In a conventional oil refinery about 5-10% of the oil charge is used as fuel. For algae oil is could be be up to half depending on the processes used, possibly more if the whole algae were used.

I have looked at algae hard, and I have followed a number of companies many of whom have made wild claims. Show me the numbers.

By the way my TOD identity is carnot.

The killer for me in all the issues with plants and biomass is the following.

Plants cannot produce enough sugar in a season to cover out fuel needs. Compound that with using food to make fuel.

So something has to give.

But plant materials are a good way to produce some smaller fraction of fuels. I just wish it was not ethanol from corn. I have seen promising results showing that fungal cellulose transporters can be integrated into yeast to allow cellulose fragments to be directly consumed by yeast and this is just going into commercial strains of yeast now. I imagine we will make a critter that utilizes cellulose better, but that is years away at best, but those science routes have not been explored well enough yet to my knowledge.

I hope that such a critter does not escape into the environment, wouldn't be good for agriculture.


I know. I agree.

Remember the bugs that ate the tents of soldiers in WII.

That getting souped up on steroids for the energy program could do a lot of damage outside. I hope they are basing their strains on variants that are easy to kill in the wild since they will get out. Trouble is a few hundred mutations down the road.


Not my project, but biosafety protocols should apply I imagine to control them.

I think the idea is to feed these guys predigested cellulose but not fully broken down cellulose, which is not stuff we see in nature. Maybe that is a built in feature to mitigate the creation of a super cellulose pac-man.

Well they can live on longer fragments already, but they have not pushed the thing further.

But be assured that many have expressed this concern as well.

The fact is that the US Navy bought a contract for 20000 gallons of jet fuel made from algae

The fact that the US military buys something does not mean that it makes any economic sense. Heck, the coffee maker on the B-52 bomber cost $5000. It was designed to withstand a crash. I suppose that if the crew crashes the plane they might want a nice, steaming hot cup of coffee to cheer them up, but most civilians can't afford that. The fact is that, in the military cost is not a top priority because you, the taxpayer, are paying all the bills.

For example when you talked about riding to work on a wind powered train, I suggested that you were lying (I think I said 'joking')--in that case I am a wind powered train denier because I just don't believe wind powered trains exist and you never posted a source for your wind powered trains.

I thought you were joking about not believing me. This technology is not exactly rocket surgery, you know. Go to the Pincher Creek area of Southern Alberta. Note the hundreds of wind turbines on all the hill tops and ridges. Note that the wind is just about strong enough to rip the doors off your car (it did a lot of damage to the door on my car). Drive north on Hiqhway 2. Note all the transmission lines running north. Arrive in south Calgary, and note the light rail transit stations at the south end of the city.

Calgary Transit - Ride the Wind

Ride the Wind! is a program where all of Calgary Transit’s CTrains are powered entirely by wind-generated electricity, making the CTrain 100 per cent emissions free.


On September 1, 2001, Calgary Transit partnered with ENMAX and Vision Quest Windelectric to develop the Ride the Wind! program.

These windmills are located in Southern Alberta, that generates this wind-power. The equivalent amount of power used by the CTrain is sent to the main power grid.

This initiative made Calgary Transit is the first and only public light rail transit system in North America to power its train fleet with wind-generated electricity! We are not aware of any other program like this in the world!!!

Bruce who?

You asked for it:

I didn't get his last name. If your yacht gets in trouble near Lasqueti Island off the coast of BC, and you make an emergency call to the Coast Guard, you'll probably meet him. I know I did. He had a light plane that had crashed in the strait, and a 35-foot power boat that had sunk in a nearby bay. The owners had given them to him after he rescued them because they didn't ever want to see them again. Nice guy. Handy at fixing up crashed planes and sunken boats.

Lasqueti Island

About Lasqueti

Lasqueti Island lies in the Georgia Strait, north of French Creek (on Vancouver Island), and southwest of Texada Island. It is approximately 8 km wide and 22 km long, with an area of 73.56 km2. About 350 permanent residents call Lasqueti home. It is accessible by foot passenger ferry service only, or by private boat or plane.

The roads are unpaved and the island has no public transportation. There are no public camp grounds. Lasqueti is not serviced by B.C. Hydro. Residents live either without electricity or with alternative sources of power like solar or micro-hydro. There is very little industry and no bustling economy.

Life on Lasqueti

Residents are accused of trying to put the clock back, living a self-sufficient lifestyle reminiscent of an earlier century. Lasqueti ís the place where the conversation is more likely about solar panels or composting toilets than about microwaves or toasters -- foreign objects for most of the 400 residents. Nobody can work a five-day week away from home because it takes three days work just to survive -- to cut firewood, to maintain power, water, and waste systems, to work in your garden to produce your food. An island of individuals, with poets, artists, physicists, fishermen, loggers, tree planters, designers, professional musicians, published authors, some small scale manufacturers, some commercial agriculture, mariculture as well as professional consultants in education, engineering, forestry and alternate energy make up a population that Statistics Canada says is the most highly educated community in British Columbia.

Many of the "Doomers" here would like to go there to await the inevitable crash. I just go to interesting places and meet interesting people.


Thanks. I would intuitively like to support Greenpeace but I cannot. They are full of left wing Nimby's. Your summation of algae ponds says it all. Right on the head.

I work in petrochemicals and we have looked at length on biofeedstocks across the spectrum. Bear in mind that products like ethylene and propylen trade above fuel values and even they do not work.

Last year I did an example for our company taking our powerplant and working that it ws fueled by NG: actually it is fuelled by coal. Here is the scenario:

1000 megawatt natural gas fired power plant
50% efficiency = 2 GJ fuel per second.
I mt methane gas = 50 GJ
Fuel demand = 3456 mt/day = 1.26 million tonne year
Approx 1 million tonne carbon = 3.7 million CO2
Sequestering this CO2 would produce 2.5 million tonnes carbohydrate.
1 Kg carbohydrate = 15.5 MJ
Maximum theoretical conversion of 6% = 12 kg carbohydrate per square metre.
Or 83 square metre per tonne carbohydrate (US south west 30º latitude)
Algae pond area = 207 square kilometres-or a circle of approx 16 km diameter.

How many power plants have 207 square kilometres of “free” land nearby?
How would the CO2 be stored at night?

This wa absolutely the best case. We do not have an area of 10 miles diamather around our plant and I do not know of many plant with this capability either. Moreover this do not take into account the land for access and services- add 20 %.

Algae is for fantasists.

Forward this to the Secretary of Energy. Is he aware of this issue of "scale"?

Honestly, has Chu given any explanation about why his pet technology "to end our dependence on foreign oil and address the climate crisis" produced precisely nothing of its 100 million gallon mandate last year?

Chu has a Nobel Prize, which last I checked is hard to get in science.

You think he is not smart enough to know the physical limits of this planet?

These are rudimentary calculations. Chu knows the answer but like Cheney, he cannot speak the truth about energy.

It violates the American Law of No-compromise Thermodynamics, which last I checked is wrecking suburbia.

Something gotta give as the oil party crashes.

And no one energy source can replace oil.

But ultimately we got the sun (and whatever flows from it) and we got radioactive dirt. Most everything else is being depleted and the remaining oil surplus is largely controlled by dictators.

Just because Chu is smart doesn't mean he knows everything.  Even with a very smart staff, he can be missing important things.

One of the things he has to know is that a ton of average rock has as much energy in the fissiles and fertiles as 60 tons of coal.  Another thing he has to know is that heat can be used to drive chemical reactions.

A third thing he must know is that we can do a much better job turning heat to electricity.  That part is the subject of an interesting press release today:  Supercritical carbon dioxide Brayton Cycle turbines promise giant leap in thermal-to-electric conversion efficiency.  That will be a game-changer for both combustion and nuclear power.

Just because Chu is smart doesn't mean he knows everything. Even with a very smart staff, he can be missing important things.

I've known many people with PhD's and many people who belonged to Mensa, and a consistent picture I've developed of them is that you would not want any of them making decisions for you if your life depended on it.

I was on a Wilderness First Aid course with a couple of PhD's and a Mensa member once, and we had this little exercise. Victim injured, next to river, and we needed to lift him 4 feet onto the riverbank. Well, the two PhDs and the Mensa guy spent about 15 minutes debating the best kind of pulley system we could rig up with ropes and carabiners to lift him onto the bank. Finally, I had to say, "Guys! there are 12 of us here! Let's all just pick him up and set him on the riverbank!"

I have dozens of stories like this about PhD's and Mensa members since I have done a lot of challenging things in the wilderness with them. But I won't get into them, I will say that brains are no substitute for common sense. If you have an emergency, you want the person in charge to be a bit smarter than average and have a lot more common sense than average. They don't give PhD's for common sense.

My decision to sign up with DENSA is validated. ^_-

If you have an emergency, you want the person in charge to be a bit smarter than average and have a lot more common sense than average. They don't give PhD's for common sense.

They do give PhD's for doing in-depth analysis and getting the results right.  That's what you want when trying to create good policy.  What we've had is "emergency", politically-driven, off-the-cuff panic responses to issues which need decades of steady progress, and the results can be seen for what they are:  abject failure.

A guy with a PhD being used to cover for politics as usual will fail just as badly, of course.

I've known many people with PhD's and many people who belonged to Mensa, and a consistent picture I've developed of them is that you would not want any of them making decisions for you if your life depended on it.

Agree...But you would want people who make decisions listen to people with PhDs, when they talk about their stuff, not about carabineers.

Mensa does not qualify for anything as it is only about getting a 98% score on a test which tests only ability to solve the said test. Yes PhDs will have higher scores because all their lives they've solved tests and some of them still think it's fun. IMHO, taking a decision of pursuing PhD is a proof of lack of common sense. See "The Big Bang Theory" on CBS.

intelligent, well-educated persons are frowned upon in the US

Rocky you just fell prey to gross "generalizations". You might consider the fact that Chu is extremely physically fit. He carries a security detail with him as he walks the stairs and bikes whenever he can.

Name an energy sec that got it right down to his daily routine.

Some scientists actually are more than you will give credit. Chu is one of them.

re: Brayton. Look at the bottom of this comment thread for a comment by GoodOldWhatsHisName.

Yeah, well have you spoken to Chu? Do you know him? I have, and he is far smarter than you give him credit. So please give credit where credit is due.

Simple calculations of the earth's fossil fuel endowment and the rate of utilization are well know facts. Only renewables and nuclear can fill that void (partially of course). So what doesn't he get. It is not rocket science or subatomic physics.

He is a success by all accounts.

Yeah, well have you spoken to Chu? Do you know him? I have, and he is far smarter than you give him credit. So please give credit where credit is due.

He's in a policy-making position, and I have been watching the policies coming out of Chu's Department of Energy.  They are timid and halting, not visionary.  They look like they are driven by the political priorities of his boss and the administration's shadow backers, not the needs of the country.

He may be smart, but either he's not smart enough to resign and blow the whistle on the affair or he's been bought off (and is using his public post for private gain).

I have seen Chu speak about energy issues as diverse as nuclear, high efficiency coal, solar, wind, biomass-to-liquids.

Which area does he need to address?

Do you think the future of energy is not a broad portfolio of possible sources. Are we not headed toward maximizing the system by diversification?

Congress has not exactly allocated the resources to fund any of these things significantly.

You are somewhat misdirecting at Chu what should be directed at Congress.

Where are the science-minded folks in that body. Chu is on your side more than they are imho.

I am not an energy policy person so I am not sure what specific policies make you upset. List them then.

I have seen Chu speak about energy issues

Talking about issues and proposing policy are two different things.

Which area does he need to address?

The fact that the USA's nuclear research position has been nearly destroyed and needs to be rebuilt, the USA's nuclear industry has been sold to foreign interests (Japan, the only country ever on the receiving end of a nuclear attack, restarted its LMFBR and bought a large part of the formerly US PWR business; the US hasn't had an LMFBR since 1994) and several technologies mothballed 3-4 decades ago need to be brought back at least to laboratory scale.

Chu has been in office since the first days of the Obama administration, more than 2 years now.  It took less than 2 years to build one of these technologies at laboratory scale (the MSRE) and start it in the 60's.  AFAIK we don't even have a proposal out of his DOE.  We also don't have a re-write of policy at the NRC, which is purely an executive branch function.

Congress has not exactly allocated the resources to fund any of these things significantly.

Congress isn't likely to fund programs unless somebody proposes them.  Chu is the expert, and could have been out there with some bold ideas.  So far he's looked more like a bureaucrat covering his anatomy.

Well I thought the whole idea was for an energy bill at the end of last year. But that fell through the cracks when people were mad about Arizona of all places and illegal immigrants.

I thought there was going to be a nuclear compromise -- maybe a slight renaissance -- but nothing happened. I guess now they just want to cut everything down to the bone. No one will throw weight behind anything now it seems.

Me personally - I would like to see dollars going to cutting-edge nuclear.

But the previous administration did not seem to do much for nuclear either.

When will we wake up to it, I do not know?

I thought the whole idea was for an energy bill at the end of last year.

Which was the very controversial idea of capping carbon emissions, with the really bad idea of using tradeable permits (involving shenanigans in what to put under the cap, doling out free or discounted permits, and deadweight losses in "trading" speculation).  I didn't hear if it had anything nuclear-related in it.

the previous administration did not seem to do much for nuclear either.

You weren't paying attention.  The Bush administration re-wrote the rules for nuclear plant permits, creating the Combined Operating License.  It used to be that a plant had to be built under one license, and then needed a separate license to operate.  Imagine shelling out $billions, following directions to the letter, and then having a bunch of activists keep you from getting a license to operate!  Nobody was willing to build under a capricious and abusive regulatory system.

The COL changed that; if the plant meets the requirements set forth in its construction license, it automatically gets an operating license.  This was responsible for the surge in applications around 2006.  Under Obama/Chu, several projects have been put on hold or cancelled.  It looks like it's back to the same old anti-nuclear prejudice, no matter how many Nobel winners are in the West Wing.

Nice to hear from you again Robert, As you know, I am in the biomass business, and understand, only too well, what you are pontificating about, I would reiterate that most people have no feel for the limitations brought about by simple physical reality.

Does the biomass production require fertilizer, irrigation, weed control, pest control etc, etc? How much does that add to the overall cost per ton? What about potential diseases or drought or other forms of crop failure?

Does it have to be transported over highways which require taxed, registered, inspected vehicles and trailers, capable of highway speeds?

How easy/ difficult/ expensive is it to get the water content down? Where and what does it cost to dispose of the ash?

Only a few of the questions that immediately come to mind. I must admit that I don't trust any of the claims that seem to be coming faster and faster, these days, (probably a direct correlation between the number of silly outlandish claims and the price of oil). Thanks for the reason you bring to the discussion

Great post Robert and thankyou for putting in the effort behind these articles

What we need is the government and media to take more notice of people like you with the skills to separate the wheat from the chaff (pun intended)

I dont think there is any hope whatsoever of the mainstream media having any clue about this stuff. Sadly government advisers seem to have very little idea either.

I am a research chemist (not an engineer) and I have seen many reactions/processes that work fine in a beaker, but not at 100kg, let alone 100tonne. I can think of one particular example from the late eighties when "risk taking" was encouraged, that resulted in several million $$$ in write-offs when the process failed to scale. Not long afterwards the "risk takers" were "encouraged" to look for another job.

I am not sure I buy your argument. It goes against chemistry.

If a process occurs in the test tube, then is has to be able to done similarly at scale. (Details withstanding)

Otherwise you are violating Laws of Chemistry.

As a practical matter, the only limits are the scale and purity of the reagents and catalysts used. The ability to control the process etc. But those issues each require tweaking. So unless you try to scale it then you will not know the practical limits.

So to fire an employee because they could not scale a process is kind of insane in a way, since the effort required a practical experience to evaluate feasibility.

What was that part about 'details' again?

Feasibility means that all sorts of aspects that are small enough to appear insignificant in the testing phase have to grow as well, and I'm sure there are frequently aspects of things like material handling, storage, preparation or conditioning (ie, temperature maintenance) that end up creating 'unexpected complications' that make the scaling suddenly impractical or dramatically less economical.

Volumes of backup materials, sufficient space/storage for waste disposal.

Chemistry is Extensive, which means it happens at all scales.

Now you may not be able to do a chemistry at large scale but that is because it is not the same chemistry. It cannot be by definition.

But to fire someone who cannot scale a process is kind of rash.

One would not know unless one tried. It is called research. LOL

Our country hates the idea, but science occurs at incremental steps -- gradually increasing the scale of a process to achieve it at the required scale.

That is my point. If everyone wants test-tube-to-scale processes in a right-now timeframe then we are all lost. LMAO

But to fire someone who cannot scale a process is kind of rash.

They were "encouraged" to look for other work because they had not taken the necessary steps to prove the process at pilot (100kg) scale - that was an avoidable mistake, that should not have occurred

See my argument below. You are saying that we fire scientists who fail. LOL.

The best scientists make mistakes every single day.

Do you know how may filaments were tried in the incandescent light bulb?

Should they have fired Edison?

That is the definition of rash, especially with respect to research science, which scaling a process falls under.

Here is a point to consider. Research requires work and money to develop a process. Talent and human capital are also required. Firing a scientist who uses 5% of research capital and fails (wasting another 2% of capital) to then hire another scientist who uses 5% of capital and fails (requiring 2% to pay for the next hire and so on). Well that is kind of dumb.

Why not have researcher X do 3 experiments for 15% of capital and save 6%?

If costs money to hire people you know.

In any case I am done with this. The usual arguments are here which I see everywhere. The future is not oil and other things will move into place as the R & D springs them forth.

Focus on failure and you are off course.

You are saying that we fire scientists who fail

No (those are your words, not mine)

Scaling a chemical process requires taking incremental steps to prove the process as you scale
The point is that they should have proven the process at pilot (100kg) scale first - they did not do this

The rest of your post seems like some rant

Oh brother.

You were the only boasting about this guy seeing the door because he failed to scale a process when that happens every single day. LOL

Hire and fire however you want. That company has no idea how to figure things out it seems. How many patented processes have they mastered? Not many unless they bought them from a company that was successful.

Companies with the most failures have the most patents.

There are two ways to acquire patents. Grind it out yourself or cherry pick the successful ideas when they mature. Either way you did not get something for nothing. You had to go through countless failures to make that process scale.

So fire away. That is the fastest route to failure unless the employee is flat out stupid.

If you call that a rant, well that is your label.

You were the only boasting about this guy seeing the door because he failed to scale a process when that happens every single day.

Nope - they failed to prove the chemical process at pilot scale (100kg) first
Had they taken the necessary steps to do this no-one would have been shown the door - it was completely avoidable

Did management allocate the funds and time in the schedule to build a pilot line? Or did they push for full production to make quarterly numbers so they could collect their fat bonuses?

Did management allocate the funds and time in the schedule to build a pilot line?

Clearly that should have happened, but no it didnt.
As I outlined in my first post, it occurred at a time when "risk taking" was encouraged and steps that normally would have been taken were bypassed, such as the pilot stage work. There were a number of people working on the project at the time. The lesson was a costly one and highlights the need to take incremental steps in proving a new chemical process as you scale.

I'm neutral on whether the scientist should have been fired for skipping the pilot phase, I don't know the details. But I do know that it was the manager/board who authorized the funding for the phase-skipping step who really deserved to be fired, but I'll bet (s)he/they weren't.

Now, if they had been bankers instead of scientists they would have been give huge bonuses:(


I am not sure I buy your argument. It goes against chemistry.
If a process occurs in the test tube, then is has to be able to done similarly at scale. (Details withstanding)
Otherwise you are violating Laws of Chemistry.

I dont know if you are just trying to be pedantic, but NO, I am not suggesting that the chemistry doesnt work in the lab NOR am I violating the laws of chemistry (thats just being silly isnt it).

The question is whether the chemical process can scale and in particular whether it can scale efficiently and economically. If it cant then its not commercially viable, even though it works in the lab.

You need to understand that as you scale a whole range of factors can cause problems, such as materials handling, mixing, pumping, heat dissipation, coagulation, precipitation, filtration etc. Any of these can stop a chemical process from being commercially viable at scale.

The example I was referring to did not include enough pilot scale (100kg) work to properly prove the process - this was an avoidable mistake.

I know I said there would be "factors"

But you are acting like the scaling part is a whole new physics.

It cannot be. You are only able to say scaling a process requires work or research.

Well of course. It always has for everything in every industrial process.

Everything started in a test tube.

Just acknowledge that is all I am saying.

I know I said there would be "factors"

Indeed and those "factors" can stop a chemical process from being commercially viable at scale

Sometimes sure, but this is not the problem with non-oil energy tech. It requires R & D to master the production problems. They will find a way to reduce the cost of solar panels and reduce the cost of the enzymes to break down cellulose to base sugars.

Just plot the cost of say rooftop solar against time and tell me why those costs are reduced with time.
Or for example plot the energy density of battery tech against time. why those improvements?
Plot corn ethanol conversion efficiency with time. You get the idea.

But smart people figure it out. That is what we call research. There is an incentive in the way of patents and so forth.
I am not talking about crack-pot stuff. I am talking about solving problems. It happens every day.

Look there are harsh thermodynamic limits, but without surplus oil, well we need to scale back our energy intensity and so that is that. Cost and so forth in a non-oil liquid energy process can seem to be uneconomic when oil is cheap, but alas that is not the appropriate metric to compare it against, is it?

In any event, you start with the test tube and then you scale up the process trying to mimic the test-tube process at larger scale as best as possible.

I acknowledge there are failures but there has to be failures. We do not run the other way from them in the lab. We enjoy them because crossing a failure off the list is one less thing to try in achieving our goals. May the man with the most failures win. ;-)

BTW, my best scientists have the most number of failures behind them. You know why. Throughput and higher rates of experimentation make the most discoveries.

That is research in a nutshell.

Sometimes sure

Great, as long as you acknowledge that
That was the point of my original post, those "factors" can stop a chemical process from being commercially viable at scale

The rest of your post seems to have deviated off on a tangent

Yeah but you just post some story about a single failure and a guy getting canned.

It fails to reflect that most of research is failures, which are by design the negative means to a final positive result.

You either see that or you don't.

You should see my points by now. The whole redirecting the argument to me ranting is kind of dull.

*Chemistry can be scaled but it ALWAYS takes work.
*FAILURE goes hand in hand with the efforts to scale the chemistry (that is the work part)
*Canning a scientist for failure (negative results) is generally a failure of the management to understand what science is. They could have stopped the project by management doing a careful evaluation of the incremental results. LOL

Sure if he is lazy or idiotic yeah fire away. I would. But you are saying he failed to scale a process so he lost his job.

Being idiotic is not the typical failure to de-bug the scaling of a novel process -- science is the problem.

But you are saying he failed to scale a process so he lost his job.

Nope - again, it was because they failed to prove the chemical process at pilot scale (100kg) first
Had they taken the necessary steps to do this no-one would have been shown the door - it was completely avoidable

Again, your other comments seem to go off on a tangent, from my original post

Well the company likely is not a good one or successful it seems, because they decided to fund his project without seeing the data. That is sad really.

I cannot believe that but I will take you at your word. What a waste of company money, and only the company can be blamed unless the scientist committed fraud and showed false results.

As long as real science is being done, then the scientist should keep his/her job.

What a waste of company money, and only the company can be blamed unless the scientist committed fraud and showed false results.

There were several scientists involved and there was no fraud/falsification of results, just some key steps that should have been done (but were not done) to prove the chemical process at pilot scale first.

First you claim this

I am not sure I buy your argument. It goes against chemistry.

but then you start talking about Process Engineering

As a practical matter, the only limits are the scale and purity of the reagents and catalysts used. The ability to control the process etc. But those issues each require tweaking.

and so you reveal it is the Process Engineering, where the wrinkles and fish hooks are, and failures there does not require 'going against chemistry' at all.

'The Chemistry' is but a small step.

Yeah well everything starts somewhere.

My argument is fairly obvious.

Some person is fired for not being able to scale a process.

Here are my points. First, the test-tube reaction is not obviously the same reaction in the large-batch else you violate laws of chemistry. LIke the fact that chemistry is not scale limited. The larger scale reaction is not uniform or higher grade materials are too expensive or something like that, but your process is of course in need of debugging.

Debugging a process to find which steps need improvement requires RESEARCH, which is a labor intensive process. If the debugging requires the ability to make an expensive catalyst cheaper, well then that is going to require research.

So to fire some guy because doing science is hard work is kind of rash.

No two ways around it. You either know that because you do science or you don't I guess.

If the company believed some guy who was going from 1 mL to 500 million L then the company is idiotic. LOL. Same goes with anyone who funds it, including venture capitalists or the government.

But science is science and you do not get results for free.

@Oct - you're not doing a good job of defending your point or your reputation. You might want to think about that.

The problem is, industrial processes are not the same as mere chemistry. The test-tube prototype proves that it can work; scaling up involves everything from "sh*t happens" to "heat happens, causing thermal runaway" -- for example, the polyester resin I painted into fiberglass is still liquid, but the (compact) mass I am dipping my brush into, has gone all hot and jelled uselessly. Same chemistry, different scale.

I can report similar stories in homemade solar water heaters, where high temperatures (sometimes, very high, when people go on extended vacation) and dissimilar metals lead to heinous corrosion. Or, in the category of sh*t happens, if you get an unexpected cold snap, the heater can freeze and burst a pipe. Industrial processes have to account for the actions of fallible human operators, too.

Well with my reputation on the line. LOL. Is that advice or a threat?

You know as well as I do that Chemistry obeys the same laws at all length scales. Chemistry is not practical science. LOL
If you deny that they you deny Chemistry.

I also said very obviously (read what I said) that practical science (which is what Engineering is, right?) is a means to optimizing the scaling of a process.

When a process "fails" it is not the same process that occurred at small scale. It cannot be. It never can be, else you are making up a new science for Chemistry.

So you pay a research team to figure out why. You debug it. Whatever it is. Catalysts. Materials purities. mixing. heat exchangers. Whatever. That is called Chemical Engineering, which also obeys all the laws of chemistry and deals with the real world.

Now when I read the following post that says Researcher X was fired because he could not scale a process, then it read like people are absolutely clueless about real science and discovery.

No one should ever get fired for failing to do novel research, which scaling a reaction obviously entails. If the test-tube reaction works, then well it has to work at scale in some form -- when that form is discovered via research.

Now in defense of the post from WastedEnergy he/she said that the person was fired for going up the scale ladder too fast, but wait a second. Why would they do that? Management allowed the most obvious step to be skipped. Management should have been fired for funding and doing the study.

See I think the real reason is detailed below.

IN the 80's they "fired/let go" R &D departments in ChemE firms to save money. My Dad is a ChemE and that is what happened in the plants he was in and around.

I was just calling out some unusual situation which made zero sense. I hope you get my points. If not, then please be specific.

It means, it looks to me like you have a low signal-to-noise ratio, and you're more pedantic than constructive. Being a pedant myself, I'm pretty tolerant of this sort of thing, so if it bugs me, I think that it bugs a lot of people. Whatever message you hope to get across, what comes across, is "oh, him again". It's not a threat, it's just a datapoint, and a suggestion.

By making the point, that Chemistry has to be able to be scaled, then you have to acknowledge that the project is doable (point #1). You may not know the details or the exact cost -- but how could you? Now of course we all know the practical details of scaling (the factors) but sifting through factors requires work and new research. So that is point #2. Yes, we need a researcher to shift through the factors of scaling.

So point #3 is well why did they fire the scientist for not immediately scaling the whole shebang? Well I argue, that we all know that is impossible to do since science works incrementally. So either the scientist lied and said he could scale it by skipping steps or the management wanted immediate results. Either way management was duped! LOL.

My last new argument to add to the critique of funding efforts to scale processes. Well we need to try to scale-up in order to know whether it can be done. If we learn that scaling has problems, then we know the exact research questions to fund in future R & D on these processes.

You have to open the door first to see what lies ahead.

Not just, "what is the source of the inputs" but also "what is the most realistic rate that those resources can be utilised". In general, what are the real-world limits of the process, as some pilot plant cannot simply be scaled up (in size of plant or number of plants), if the raw materials needed will not be there.

One statistic that I've heard from a couple of sources is that all of the plant biomass in the US captures and converts sunlight that is equivalent to only half the energy consumed by the US. Consequently, any process that uses biomass as its raw material will only ever be able to produce a tiny fraction of the energy needed by modern society, unless we want to kill our biosphere and starve everyone.

I couldn't find much on net primary productivity for the USA (though, as the Keeling curve proves, plants are capable of taking up carbon several times as fast as humans release it at least during the spring/summer growth phase).  However, at 314,000 BTU/bushel, the record 2009 corn crop of 13.2 billion bushels yields 4.1 quads of energy.  Even if the cobs and stover have the same amount again, that's only about 8% of total US energy consumption.

I first heard the figure I quoted a couple of years ago, I think at an ASPO presentation (not sure about that but it was from a recognised expert on the subject). I read it again in an excerpt from Richard Heinberg's up-coming book about the end of growth. Your estimate is even more stark.

It is a little interesting to think, would it be possible to maximize your "harvest" of solar energy, if could separate out the wavelengths to their appropriate consumers? Plants are most interested in particular colors of red and blue; most of the rest for them, is waste heat. Solar cells absorb at specific frequencies, the rest (for them) is heat. There have even been studies (on LED grow-lighting) that show that you maximize growth by chopping the light at high frequencies.

Just a thought. Actually making this work, is probably not practical.

yeah it's been done.

Anywhere I can read about it?

For example, the LED spectrum/chopping article is here: (horrible URL at National Taiwan U).

My only comment is that biomass can be used to make liquid fuels but they cannot replace the liquids we currently consume, which means we will make some biomass fuel, but our overall energy problem cannot be tackled that way alone.

However, my experience with new genetic engineering efforts show that cellulosic feedstocks will be able to be utilized by yeast directly in the next 10 years or so. This means ethanol will be able to be made from cellulose without as much of the expensive enzyme mix required to break down cellulose.

But like I said the costs may decrease, but at the end of the day, there is not enough plant matter to save us from the waste that is our daily oil-eating lives. lol

You want to clearly distinguish between how much of the process has actually been proven and how much has been simulated with computer models. I saw a recent question posed by a renewable energy developer: Isn’t it true that you can prove a technology through modeling? The answer to that question is ABSOLUTELY NOT! In fact, the reverse is true: You prove a model by actually demonstrating that the process gives results consistent with the model. But some people will present model results as if they represent reality. Models are merely guides; a model won’t tell you whether a process will work or not. It will give you some guidance, but ultimately you have to take the results from the model and actually run the process. That is how you prove a technology (and validate a computer model).

For certain industries the most risk averse approach is to computer model and simulate. For a big CPU, everything is modeled and simulated before it goes to silicon. A failure at that stage is huge in terms of cost.

The other aspect is that a model can be just as useful to disprove something. The most common ones use first-order physics to prove that concepts related to the infamous perpetual motion machines won't work. That is why most people don't chase outlandish ideas -- the model often tells them it won't work so they pass on it.

Just trying to stand up for the essential idea, which gets attacked quite often for reasons I have never understood. Sure it can go wrong, but so can intuition and lab experimentation. The title of the post is "Due Diligence" and I see modeling as an essential part of due diligence in most advanced technology endeavors. So its good that you mentioned that it does happen.

Good points, and

The other aspect is that a model can be just as useful to disprove something.

Carnot, upthread, does a good job of demolishing one of the wilder bio (cyanobacterium) oil projections by looking at theoretical maximum. His 'model' is just a few lines of knowledge and logic, but then bio oil is scarcely Hi Tec and there is plenty of existing data from agricultural and botanical science!
Edit: I originally got the algal and bacterial projects confused, but a bit of existing science and 'modeling' for algal oil does not go amiss either.

For certain industries the most risk averse approach is to computer model and simulate.

And just to be clear, it isn't the modeling that I am knocking. I have used modeling many times in my career to simulate a process. But there has to be some way to validate that the model accurately simulates what it is trying to model. My use of models would be to simulate a process, feed actual process data in and see if the model matches the observations, change the model conditions to something more far-removed from the process, and then pilot that on a smaller scale (or build a prototype) if appropriate.

What I have seen far too often is someone build a model, and then start making claims on the basis of an unvalidated model.

Robert - You have forced to once again make my crude observation: modeling is like's OK as long as you don't start feeling it's the real thing.

OK...I know...but I don't tell that old joke unless some straight man sets it up for me. BTW...thank you.

Following on the joke, climate scientists can run their models but can't put their hands on the real thing. The weather scientists can, but a few days later, when they already forgot.

And you guys when you are tired of 3D seismic or whatever, you can go play with Big Iron. And your industry can offer a lot of Freudian allusions.

One machine you mentioned a few days ago made my jaw drop..300,000hp pump. That is 220 MW. Do you have a picture of a such an operation?

So you think your local weathermen are accurate?
Mine are terrible predictors--a couple weeks ago there was a prediction of a massive snowstorm but (gasp!) nothing happened.
OTOH, average temperatures keep on rising and the plants are budding and animals are out frolicking about like it's April.

No, they can just check their models.

Frolicking - sure but in the snow, I am going out but can't decide whether skiing or skating.

The most common ones use first-order physics...

Excessively sounding claims involving energy are particularly suitable to this kind of treatment, as physics needed to bring reality check is basic, and all one needs to do is to connect few dots. Proverbial back of the envelope calculation.

Experience show that this treatment of claims that sound too good to be true cuts discussion threads dead, at a risk of being considered an arrogant type.

WHT, Oct, phil harris, I am wondering, Absent a model, as long as the basic science is within tolerance, should the concept be pursued condemned, or modeled? I think it all depends of course, but potential pay off for a concept is a factor. I did some assisting in growing algae at the Nantucket Marine Lab years ago, in order to grow shellfish. So having seen many crops of algae I can agree with the basic logic growing it, but I love switchgrass too. The only modeling I have any ability to afford is with my pencil and paper and clipboard. One of my ideas for algae is with the additional use of compressed air. The model would look like this: Solar thermal would preheat water. Coal or other, switchgrass or wood, would be burned to generate electricity for local use, or to make Hydrogen. The CO2 from the burn would help to feed algae, along with sewage and biomass. This would be in large ponds, warmed by the waste heat. A near by geothermal deep well would have an incoming pipe full of the algae sludge, and this would be cracked into oil there, "for free". I like to think a "cardboard" model is the first place to start, cheap and dirty. Often I know something will work, but how well is the question. The above would work, buy it. OK? It's easy to buy into a simple cheap and dirty work up of an idea. Beyond that, let the chips fall. If something will work, and the payoff is there potentially, then the concept should be bought into for modeling purposes, because there is a synergy and a symbiosis of ideas working in concert.

Hello TODsters,

Haven't visited/commented here much lately... Did the "big shrug" a few months back (nothing much an Average Joe can do I decided, life's too short kinda thing). So, just getting on with business as usual, paying bills, spending time with the kids - now teenagers.

I guess I'm now officially a Doomer. While I agree the next Energy Black Swan would be a wonderful thing, we'll still have compounding growth (more people wanting more), still be living on a finite planet and still have the same Powers That Be.

Not sure I read a summary question on that.

Regards, Grumpy-bum Joe
(Still a concerned dad)

Hey Joe,

Welcome to the Doomer Club!

It doesn't mean we're all depressed; big downers at the party punch bowl. I see it as simply reaching a conclusion that there is no realistic solution that will allow the trajectory our species is on to continue. Something I remember from Tainter's 'Collapse' is that collapse is a rational choice for the individuals affected - declining marginal returns means it's better to just dump the complexity and revert to an earlier way.

I know, I know, that means war and starvation and suffering but I choose to be an optimistic doomer - I think I'll be OK. Pessimism for the species, optimism about me!

I surely don't think that ethanol is a fuel for the masses. Given the needs of farms and agricultural production, could small-scale ethanol be sufficient to power farms on a local basis. Could each farm have it's own ethanol production, or would local producers be able make enough for farm equipment without having a major impact on food production?

I agree with you -- I also think farmers will use a lot more ethanol in the corn belt.

But also ethanol, methanol, butanol, etc. or another ether-type molecule are needed to make gasoline burn properly.

Now why they don't convert ethanol into diethyl-ether to avoid the damage to tanks and pipelines, etc. is beyond me.

Also methanol could be used as RR has pointed out either on its own or in the form of dimethyl ether.

We shouldnt ignore the fact that we are going to have 10% oxygenate in the fuel so why not do the research to figure out the best ways to produce the stuff from biomass. I would like to see less food used for this also.

Ethanol works for me. Oh, you meant *burning* it to power machinery :-).

You might build farm equipment differently, if energy gets expensive. For example, you can pull a plow with a tractor (which needs the power to move the tractor, too, plus enough weight for traction) or you can pull a plow with a cable winched from a fixed point, or a very heavy thing that moves from row to row as you plow. Up to a certain cable length, that should use less energy. With a little bit of robotics and GPS and laser range-finding, you could have a pair of sort-of remote-controlled tractors (moving very slowly and intermittently, connected by a cable loop), running a plow back and forth between them.

See my comments in a previous article re electric traction engines.


or you can pull a plow with a cable winched from a fixed point, or a very heavy thing that moves from row to row as you plow. Up to a certain cable length, that should use less energy. With a little bit of robotics and GPS and laser range-finding, you could have a pair of sort-of remote-controlled tractors (moving very slowly and intermittently, connected by a cable loop), running a plow back and forth between them.

Perhaps, but a tractor is multi-purpose, and the costs are spread over all those various uses. IT is also adaptive and instantly re-assigned.

Meanwhile Cables+Drums+Agriculture are not great bedfellows, and wire rope injuries can be nasty.

As an aside, I have seen on the web good examples of Market Garden type intensive use, using a large rotating arm/axle + small motor.
That seemed a reasonably balanced solution, that worked.

The layperson reads the news release and is curious: “Is this real?”

Good question...

Let me take you down, 'cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields.
Nothing is real and nothing to get hung about.
Strawberry Fields forever.

Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see.
It's getting hard to be someone but it all works out.
It doesn't matter much to me.

Strawberry Fields Forever
The Beatles

I read the news today oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grave
And though the news was rather sad
Well I just had to laugh
I saw the photograph
He blew his mind out in a car
He didn't notice that the lights had changed
A crowd of people stood and stared
They'd seen his face before
Nobody was really sure
If he was from the House of Lords.

A Day in the Life Lyrics

Speaking of promising new technologies. Anyone familiar with the Opposed Piston Opposed Cylinder engine? Claims of "50% better fuel economy than a conventional turbo diesel engine", with financial backing from none other than Khosla Ventures and Bill Gates. “it’s a turbocharged two-stroke, two-cylinder, with four pistons, two in each cylinder, that will run on gasoline, diesel or ethanol. The two pistons, inside a single cylinder, pump toward and away from each other, thus allowing a cycle to be completed twice as quickly as a conventional engine.” They’re claiming 100mpg in a conventional car.

Opposed cylinder designs are nothing new, and neither are opposed piston designs. Both of them go back before WW2. The only thing new is the idea of combining the two. I don't think that would give enough of an improvement in fuel economy over modern engine designs to compensate for the vastly increased complexity. I don't believe the 100 mpg hype because there's not that much room for improvement in a diesel design.

Of course the old VW beetle was an opposed cylinder (boxer) design, as are the current Subarus. Porsche sports cars, Honda Goldwing motorcycles, and a lot of light aircraft also use the design. It's expensive to build so it tends to be used in high-end products.

The opposed piston diesel design was used in a number of early diesel locomotives, diesel submarines, and the Germans even used them in some aircraft. They do have the advantage of lower weight and better thermal efficiency caused by eliminating the cylinder heads, but on the flip side they are more complicated to build. In the end, improvements in cylinder head design put them into the dust-bin of history.

The ultimate version was the British Napier Deltic engine, which took the concept to the limit. The Deltic used three crankshafts serving three banks of double-ended cylinders arranged in an equilateral triangle, with the crankshafts at the corners. It came in 9 and 18 cylinder versions with 18 and 36 pistons respectively. The Brits used in in fast patrol ships and locomotives. They were typically British - incredibly ingenious and an utter maintenance nightmare. They had to send them back to the factory for repairs because they couldn't fix them in the field. And they had to fix them quite often.

Yair...pretty common here in Australia was the Commer "Knocker" or Rootes diesel.

Three cylinders, six pistons, two stroke, supercharged for scavenging.

They look complex on paper but with all those rockers and cranks the loads were spread out over a big area within the engine and the noisy things seemed to run forever...usualy untill some newbie driver who didn't know their foibles over revved them going down a hill.

I had never heard of the Commer "Knocker" before, so naturally I had to Google it, and then I found the Youtube videos, and before I knew it I had wasted a couple of valuable hours.

Man, is that one weird sounding engine! I can see why you would want to keep one around on a flatbed so you could start it up at parties. Well, guy parties with hardly any chicks, and if most of the guys and all the chicks were engineers. It would be a poor second to shooting the doors off an old truck with a WW2 sniper rifle, but I digress.

After looking at it, I would have to say that the old Commer Knocker looks like a more practical engine than the new Ecomotors design and would probably get the same fuel economy. The only advantages of the Ecomotor are that it would probably sound less weird and has better promotion. I'm sorry but those are the facts.

Yair...glad some one found that of interest RMG. They also made a higher output marine version...that distinctive sound would carry for miles over water.

I had a friend who had a special edition in a shark boat, all chrome and polished fittings and numbered with a factory plaque...I think from memory his was "No86 of 100".

OPOC gets its efficiency improvements from uniflow design and shutting down engine modules not needed for the immediate power demand.  It doesn't seem to have much potential for e.g. asymmetrical compression/expansion ratios.  Last, my understanding of the design is that each module fires both sides at once, causing large torque pulsations.  That's hard on the driveline and creates high NVH.

The Scuderi split cycle, which divides the 4 strokes of the Otto cycle between a compression cylinder and a separate expansion cylinder, seems to me to have more potential.  It has some losses inherent in pumping the air charge through the crossover passage, but the expansion cylinder can be larger than the compression cylinder so the expansion ratio can be greater than the compression ratio.  The crossover can be connected to an air reservoir, allowing energy to be stored (air hybrid).  Fuel is not introduced until the outlet of the crossover passage, so the octane rating of fuel is not important; this also allows the combustion/expansion side to use insulated heads and pistons, reducing heat loss and putting more energy into expansion work.  The engine seems ideally suited to combination with Transonic Combustion's supercritical fuel injection system, which could heat the fuel using exhaust heat and improve thermal efficiency through regeneration.  And of course, it can be turbocharged (reclaiming exhaust energy to perform compression work).

If you have to make a bet, I'd bet on Scuderi.

RR - Thanks for another well thought out article. You touched on the pine tree death in the western US. I look at it to as potential source of fuel. The trade term ( and IRS - don't forget tax expense on that fuel source ;-) ) is 'stumpage value'. The value of trees in the woods is less that the value of logs at the sawmill, because as you point out the cost of processing, hauling, etc.

This economic fact is lost on too many people. Thinning is even more expensive because of the care needed to prevent bark damage to the still live trees during mechanical removal.
Removal of dead trees would reduce fire suppression costs but funding and decisions are easier when the forest is burning. Kind of like peak oil.....

I keep coming back to small scale biomass gasifiers - community, small commercial for the longest term outlook. I just cannot see a clear path between here today 3/4/2011 and that 'future'.

Good luck on your research, thanks for the article.

The thing about the pine beetles killing trees in the Rockies is that it is not exactly a new phenomenon. It is a part of the natural cycle.

Pine cones have a waxy coating on them that breaks down in the heat of a forest fire. After a forest fire melts the wax, the pine seeds germinate, and very shortly you have a forest that consists of millions of little pine trees. I think it's just a conspiracy on the part of the pine trees to kill all the other trees so the pine trees can take over. It's significant that the beetles only kill overmature pine trees and don't touch the younger pines.

In the natural cycle, beetle-killed trees result in localized forest fires that destroy the other trees. The fires cause the pine cones to seed, the pine trees grow up very fast, and they take over the forest. Then, once the slower growing trees start overtopping the pines, the pine beetle kills the pines again, there are forest fires that kill all the other trees, and it repeats one more time.

The problems really arise when human beings interfere with this natural cycle by suppressing forest fires. You get a forest with a lot of overmature pine trees, the beetles kill all of them, and then you have a forest full of nothing but dead pine trees. It looks awful and is a major fire hazard.

Locally the forest management people solve the problem by selectively torching the forest themselves every summer. The biggest problem with this is that we have to put up with forest fire smoke in the air all summer.

There is another way to use biomass for fuel, and at nearly 100% efficiency (for the heat generation process, that is). You burn it in a stoichiometric flame and use the heat to run an engine.

To start with I'd like to mention that I am a mechanical engineer. I know I've posted a couple of blue-sky ideas in the past, but the stuff I am posting here is backed up by thermodynamic calculations and working examples.

Background: I found the TOD site from a friend while searching for real information on world petroleum reserves. I agree with your analysis that we will probably face a series of severe liquid fuel shortages in the near future. Since then I've been brainstorming for some technical solution. I investigated bio-fuels and found them to be either totally dependent on subsidies, or not ready for prime time, or both. I looked into fermentation, cellulostic fermentation, biomass syngas generation, and fast pyrolysis conversion to bio-oil. Then I lined up all the equipment that would be needed for a homeowner sized system, and ended up with a sketch of a garage stuffed with a mini refinery. The bottom line is, you can't buy a working system, you'd need several years of R&D to build your own, and the city probably wouldn't let you put one in. I even looked into a compressed air car, which would actually work. Unfortunately a 100 gallon compressed air tank stores about as much energy as 1 gallon of gas and there's a lot of energy loss due to cooling. There is another scheme that could work, which is a natural gas fueled car with large tanks compressed to a couple hundred PSI. That could be rigged up at home with reasonable equipment. But once again a large tank would only hold the equivalent of a few gallons of gasoline. However existing engines can be readily converted, and I expect we will see kits offered before long.

Unfortunately all the workable scalable solutions are powered by oil. So I dug a little further and may have found an angle. The Brayton cycle is used in all modern gas turbine engines. You know it well; intake - compression - combustion in a burner - expansion. But I stumbled across something interesting while researching Brayton's original patent ( Turns out Brayton didn't use turbines, he used pistons. This makes sense because in the kW size range a piston engine is much more efficient than a turbine. Unfortunately Brayton's original engine still used internal combustion of hydrocarbons so it's not quite what we're looking for.

However in 1861, a guy named Philander Shaw built a piston type heat engine that is what we are looking for ( The basic difference is that Shaw used a heat exchanger instead of a combustor for heating the compressed air. So the fire is now a continuous flame in a firebox which can be fueled with anything that burns (or even concentrated sunlight).

This is no small or marginal effect. If you heat air from room temperature to 1000 F it expands by about 2 1/2 times. If you sketch an air compressor, a heat exchanger, and an air motor with a piston 2 1/2 times larger than the compressor, it doesn't take any fancy calculations to see how the power is generated. Force = Pressure x Area. I estimate you need to put back about half of your gross power generation into air compression. It's true that the engines of the day were large for the power output. But that was true of gasoline engines too. It's not due to any limitation of the thermal cycle.

This cycle could be implemented with a standard shop air compressor, a heat exchanger, and a gasoline engine with the valve train converted to operate as an air motor. In fact I am in the process of doing that as a small demonstrator. But even so, that doesn't get us down the road with existing cars. For that I would propose a conversion involving an engine rebuild. A six cylinder engine could have two cylinders converted to air compression, and the other four converted to air motor operation. Then with the addition of an external heat exchanger it could be operated on any combustible fuel. If that fuel could be finely powdered and injected into a combustor instead, the size and weight of the package could be greatly reduced.

The best fuel for this is switchgrass. This plant grows well on marginal land with no irrigation and few inputs, and does not compete with food crops for resources. And it can be harvested and handled in bulk with existing equipment without intensive manual labor. Two and a half pounds of dry switchgrass has about as much heating value as one pound of gasoline. A typical yield for switchgrass is between five and twenty tons per acre. This means that your typical farmer could harvest the heat equivalent of over 1000 gallons of gasoline per acre. With the current price of grass feed at about $100/ton, he would get at least four times the value using it as fuel. Recent data shows that an acre of grass can be harvested for less than three gallons of gasoline, giving you an EROEI of over 300 for non-irrigated pasture. And you don't need a science breakthrough and acres of expensive glass panels to grow the stuff.

Switchgrass is about 7% mineral ash by weight. This would have to be removed if a combustor was used rather than a heat exchanger (in other words, if you were directly expanding hot exhaust gases in a cylinder). However the ash melts at about 1500 F, and the hot gases would need to be quenched with excess air to about 1000 F to keep the engine in one piece. So the ash would be solid and should be removable with a standard cyclone separator. This is important not only to keep the engine alive, but also the recovered ash should be spread back onto the pasture to recycle the mineral content.

A quick calculation shows that there isn't nearly enough pasture land to fuel the nation's fleet, not to mention that it's currently being used for feed. But I am very interested in keeping the crucial infrastructure operating. And I would expect that a lot of farmers would be interested in growing their own fuel. So the agriculture market is where I am looking. As I mentioned, I am currently putting together a small 3 kW demonstrator to obtain thermal efficiency numbers. With performance and fuel economy numbers from that, I plan to see about converting a tractor. If it pencils out without government subsidies, the concept should fly on it's own after that.

None of this is new science, and operating versions of this thermal cycle have been built commercially up to ship sizes in the past. Thermodynamics was a well developed science 100 years ago, and many interesting engines were designed and built before oil became king. This is truly helpful to us now because all those patents are long since expired, leaving the field relatively unencumbered by legal barriers and licensing fees. Anybody out there with a machine shop is welcome to start building and selling these things. In fact, if I were run out of the business by cheap Chinese copies that would be outstanding. If nothing else, this approach could let us decouple our food production from oil imports by modifying existing equipment. I plan to find out.

This is not a comment about technology, nor about viability of renewable fuels; but about approach. Isn't it simpler to substitute heating with oil (e.g. in Maine) or with gas (everywhere else), with switch grassa free hydrocarbons for better use?

Many folks in Maine do heat with wood. But they don't need advice from an engineer for that. My work is directed toward transportation.

The point is, the amount of equipment needed to convert an existing engine to a Brayton cycle is much less than the equipment needed to make liquid fuel. And burning biomass in a heat engine is a far more efficient way of extracting power when measured from sunlight to work done. So why is everyone on rails toward liquid fuel? I suspect it could be due to the fact that there's not much new to patent about a simple Brayton cycle engine.

Hmmm. OK, so this isn't the type of place for this kind of discussion. Ten-four, I'll take it somewhere else. Thanks for all the food for thought that you have provided.

GOOD OLD WHATS HIS NAME: I would love to help you put together your machine. I am located in Hyannis Massachusetts. I care for an engineer as a helper and could cart her along. Where are you and do you want some help? I can weld, work with tools, mostly boat experience. This topic is on it's way out, that is the only reason no response, I think most have moved on to other discussions.

That was a really interesting post. We can use human waste to fertilize switch grass to burn. We can also use wind mills to compress air to supercharge the engine.

Great breakdown, Robert, thanks.

The below lines really struck a chord with me.

Have they attempted to skip steps in the scale-up process (e.g., going from lab or small pilot to small commercial scale)? If they are running at lab or small pilot scale and projecting their production costs for a commercial plant, I generally never take those numbers seriously

Back in the mid nineties I was involved in building a 'clean coal' plant sized to small commercial scale. I don't mean to get into the clean coal thing at all here but rather the tech scaling.

This particular design required a precombustor and slag combustors and the intended fuel was low grade coal from the adjacent mine--coal which wasn't up to export standard from what I heard. I happened to be in position to see the project's main consulting engineer describe the project to several groups of people over the course of a summer. The engineer was a decent guy to have on the job--practical, and personable.

Anyway I happened to notice that in the middle of his very upbeat descriptions of the plant and process his demeanor would always change and be much more guarded when he talked about the precombustor and slagging combustors. He also was a bit elusive in his description of the projects scale up history.

Well, third of a billion dollars later the plant was up and running, but it took more than a third bigger crew including skilled millwrights to keep the plant operational through its extended trial run than were supposed to be needed. The local utility would not take over the plant because they said it did not perform near to the level it was supposed to, those holding the bag disagreed. The plant was mothballed and has sat for better than a decade as the legal wrangling between all the entities involved, govt. and private, drags on.

What I've heard from guys who were there for the full load test run is that the slag built much more than expected inside the units and when it fell the whole building shook violently and the crash made it sound like the entire plant was about to explode. I always wondered if the tech went right from table top sized design to small commercial. Govt. grants and loan guarantees were involved.