The Ergosphere
Monday, May 30, 2005

Not enough science fiction

Grist has an interview up with "doomsaying author" James Howard Kunstler.  He sees the decline of oil production as deadly to the status quo and predicts violent upheaval in American life culminating in a return to small-town agrarian living.

In the typical gloom-and-doom style loved by certain advocates of "simpler" lifestyles, he predicts "the beginning of a major collapse of suburbia" within the next 10 years, based on the coming volatility of energy (primarily petroleum) prices.  Industrial farming will fail, people will have to grow their own food, the middle class will largely vanish, and we'll see a reversal of the flow of labor from farms to cities which has prevailed over the last century and a half.  (Presumably this will be accompanied by a die-off forced by the decreased productivity, but this is not expressed in the interview save as a reference to the Black Plague.)

What's curious is that he flatly states "I read next to zero science fiction.  And I don't write it." [emphasis added]  I would beg to differ, because his interview (and by extension, his book) fits squarely into one of the classic segments of the genre:  extension of current trends into the future, with dystopian outcomes.

Kunstler works it as a morality play, ignoring typical human reactions to difficulty.  The interviewer sets the tone and implies a falsity with a question:  "If technology can't dig us out of this problem, what will?"  Here's where Kunstler lapses into fiction:  he does not attempt to disabuse the interviewer (and by extention, the reader) of the notion that technology can do nothing (humans will pay for consorting with eeeevil technology!).  Technology dug us into this problem just as it was digging us out of the last one (horse manure and its health effects); of course technology can dig us out of this problem too.  It's just too small, and the available resources too large, to remain unsolved... once people get serious about it.

Kunstler's conception of the collapse appears to have three major elements:
  1. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides will become unavailable, causing farm productivity to drop steeply.  (He calls our current methods "eating oil", with a certain amount of justification.)
  2. Lack of petroleum for motor fuel will slash both the mechanization of farming (causing a surge in agricultural prices and farm labor) and the capabilities of national and global transportation networks; goods such as California oranges and Chilean grapes which are now commodities will become prohibitively expensive.
  3. Also due to the lack of petroleum for fuel, personal transport will become very limited for all except the rich.  Air transport will again be the exclusive domain of a "jet set", driving will be a rarity, and most people will spend the majority of their lives within a few tens of miles of their birthplace.  The world will be dominated by the super-rich, forming a class akin to feudal lords.
Kunstler's technological breakdown scenario centers around two basic things:
  1. Declining supplies of natural gas lead to an unavailability of nitrogen fertilizer (natural gas being used to make hydrogen, hydrogen fixing nitrogen using the Haber process).
  2. Scarce and expensive petroleum makes it expensive to power farm machinery, over the road trucks, container ships, and every other element of the transport network.  Bulk goods such as phosphorus and potassium fertilizer become prohibitive, and toys and televisions from China join wheat from Nebraska as too expensive to transport compared to local products.  As the standard of living declines, most people don't go much of anywhere either.
Overall Kunstler's future looks a lot like the 19th century.

The problem with Kunstler's thesis is that you don't even have to look to fiction to find the counterexamples.  For one thing, we're not going to quit using oil if we really need it; we can make it.  Nazi Germany had industrial coal-to-liquids plants over sixty years ago, and apartheid South Africa kept the technology alive while dealing with oil embargoes.  Oil is a good deal more convenient than many of the alternatives, but it was not indispensible even with 1930's technology; in the 21st century we can do much better.

Solutions to these "fatal" problems are going to bubble out of other initiatives, unbidden.  Take nitrogen fertilizer.  It's currently made by steam-reforming natural gas to hydrogen (CH4 + 2 H2O -> CO2 + 4 H2), then fixing nitrogen gas to ammonia with the hydrogen (3H2 + N2 -> 2 NH3); the ammonia can be used as-is or chemically altered to make urea or nitrates.  High natural gas prices in North America have shut down most ammonia production, and the US is now importing a great deal of nitrate fertilizer (an excellent reason to eliminate incentives for gas-fired electric generation, like, yesterday).  One of the "clean coal" initiatives that's been in the works since long before Bush is IGCC, which is at least 20% more efficient than powdered-coal fired steam cycles.  IGCC burns fuel in two stages:  first it partially burns it with air or oxygen and steam to make a "syngas" containing combustible CO and H2, scrubs pollutants out of the syngas, then burns the clean syngas in a gas turbine (exhaust heat from the gas turbine makes steam to drive another turbine).  Each IGCC powerplant is going to be handling hundreds of thousands of tons of hydrogen each year; this hydrogen could be tapped for other purposes.  It takes 3 tons of hydrogen to fix 14 tons of nitrogen in the Haber process, so each IGCC powerplant could produce millions of tons of fertilizer during its off hours.

How much would we need?  If we assume 200,000,000 hectares planted to crops requiring 100 kg of nitrogen per hectare (numbers lifted from an Australian page on canola), that's 20 million tons of nitrogen requiring 4.3 million tons of hydrogen to fix it.  If one IGCC plant could produce 200,000 tons of surplus hydrogen per year, we'd only need 22 of them to handle this demand. [NOTE: numbers corrected from original post; see update and comments.]

I cannot conceive of the US having any difficulty building 22 IGCC powerplants and the required ancillary equipment over the period of a decade; regulatory obstacles are going to dwarf the technical ones.

The other problem Kunstler sees is transport fuel.  'Tis true, our current economy depends a lot on personal automobiles running on gasoline, and long-haul trucks running on diesel fuel (aircraft, ships and river barges also run on oil).  But Kunstler ignores two facts inconvenient to his thesis:
  1. Rail is profitable, far more fuel-efficient than trucks, and can be electrified; and
  2. Today's "no plug" hybrids are already being modified to make gas-optional hybrids, or GO-HEVs.
Both of these can slash the fuel required to move a ton-mile, and short-haul trucks running on batteries can bridge the gap from railhead to destination.  The electricity to run them can come from the aforementioned IGCC powerplants or a variety of other sources: This doesn't even look at any of the less traditional possibilities, like the road/rail hybrid "Bladerunner" truck concept.  Rail-capable road vehicles would quickly fill available rail capacity, leading to the placement of new rail in highway medians.  If that rail was electrified with overhead power, large amounts of freight could travel along highways using no liquid fuel whatsoever.  This could lead to a continental transport network faster, quieter, cleaner and even cheaper than what we have today.

This analysis doesn't address Kunstler's entire thesis.  Some modes of transport will remain wedded to petroleum power, and will either have to pay the going rate for oil (air transport) or accept the bulk and weight penalties of e.g. powdered coal slurry.  River barges are in this category, while open-ocean shipping may be able to make partial use of sail power.  (Cheap stuff from China may become more expensive than domestic after transport costs - CHECK!)  But do we have to have massive upheavals in our society?  Only if we're really, really short-sighted.

The only people who don't seem able to see this are those who don't read enough science fiction.

UPDATE 2-Jun-05:  Corrections abound.

An anonymous commenter notes that US cropland amounts to about 349 million acres, or ~140 million hectares; he then draws a conclusion regarding the number of fertilizer plants required.

About 2 hours later, a reader signing himself "J. Case, Classical Values" offered a correction by e-mail:
"How much would we need? If we assume 200,000 hectares planted to crops requiring 100 kg of nitrogen per hectare (numbers lifted from an Australian page on canola), that's 20 million tons of nitrogen..."

I make that to be kilograms, not tons. Don't feel too bad, I do this sort of thing ALL the time.
In other words, my numbers were 3 orders of magnitude too low... which more than offsets the factor of 700 noted by Mr/Mrs/Ms Anonymous.  Finally, Rob sets the record straight with the actual fertilizer numbers:  12 million tons of nitrogen, a little less than 100 kg/ha over 140 million ha.  I admit, I was in a hurry and didn't do enough checking.  The above numbers have been corrected. 
Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Getting down to earth

(NB:  This post was almost titled "On Bullshit", but I thought the better of it.)

Over at Futurepundit, a commenter quotes a 1979 Mother Earth News article about a home-built hybrid car.  This article is, unfortunately, typical for the publication:  short on firm data and long on claims, some of them dubious.

The blogosphere and society in general are full of people making unsupported claims and questionable statements.  Picking them apart is a good hobby; it dulls the superficial attractiveness of the nonsense and sharpens the mind.  A few examples will suffice to illustrate.
According to David, the Opel has not only a virtually unlimited range (when driven prudently), but also a top speed of 90 miles per hour . . . and emits a minimum of pollutants as it tools along the highway.[Emphasis added.]
It did?  How did they know that it was so clean?  Did they measure it?  Put it on a chassis dynamometer with an exhaust analyzer?  What are the chances of that?

Lawnmower engines of the day were bad polluters even by old standards.  They were air-cooled (with consequent loose tolerances), had no pollution controls and often ran well rich.  A 1979 car would have had an early catalytic converter system, perhaps with air injection; the lawnmower engine had none of these things.  By 1982, cars were running closed-loop mixture controls to make the catalysts work better.  The one advantage the lawnmower engine would have is that it could run at constant speed.
... the engineer installed four 12-volt, heavy-duty automobile batteries-in series-which are "fed" by a 100-amp generator that's run off a 5-horsepower lawn-mower engine.
He's certainly not producing 100 A @ 48 volts (4.8 kW) with a 5 HP (3730 W) engine.

Nor was the builder cruising at even a continuous 55 MPH on a mere 5 HP.  I'd believe that "prudently" meant 40-45, not the 50 claimed.  If a typical car requires ~20 HP to cruise at 60 MPH and drag scales as speed squared (meaning power scales as speed cubed), the ~4 HP available through the engine, generator and motor would deliver enough power for about 35 MPH; a small car like an Opel would get a bit more out of it.  That's plenty for around town, but forget cruising the Interstates.
Hot or traveling in a very mountainous area-could, however, tax the car's charging system . . . but even these demands don't pose much of a problem, because the batteries can be brought from a 1/4 charge (the effective "dead" state, with a built-in safety factor) to a full charge in only 15 minutes.
The author states that battery can be charged from 25% to 100% in 15 minutes using less than 4 kW.  This means the storage is 1.3 kWh at most, which is quite a bit less than the Prius carries.  You're not going to get much range on that; any driving on Interstates better be between closely-spaced exits.  (An alternate explanation is that the claim was erroneous or the builder was mis-quoted.)

How many people bought the plans for the hybrid conversion and expected "miracle carburetor" results?  How many built it and were disappointed?  I don't know, but my money is on the square marked "most".

My point here is to show that the Mother Earth News is not a technical journal, and its breathless praise should not be mistaken for honest and critical analysis.  Neither should most of what's found on the blogosphere or the media at large, unless you can confirm the claims and repeat the calculations... and that goes for The Ergosphere as well. 
Friday, May 13, 2005

A list of don'ts

Hints for web site designers:

1.)  DON'T use Javascript links to other pages.  Use direct links.  I can't see where a Javascript link will take me, and often they won't let me launch it in a new tab - they do whatever YOU THINK it should do, not what I NEED it to do.  Especially DON'T use Javascript functions where links will do.  (Are you listening, all you bloggers who use HaloScan?)

2.)  DON'T default links to popping up in new windows. If I want a new window or a new tab, I'm quite capable of launching the link in one myself (unless you prevented this using Javascript; see #1 above).  I do NOT need to click your link, close the new window I did not want, then control-click to get a browser tab and then close the original tab I don't need anymore.

3.)  DON'T squeeze significant amounts of text into frames much smaller than the full window.  If the navbar and other things take up so much room that I can't have them up while reading the text, let me scroll them off.  The window is for INFORMATION, not just all the pretty thingies that web designers like.

4.)  Along with #3, DON'T use Javascript to re-load all the frames I tried to get rid of by clicking "View only this frame".  If you've put too much nav clutter on your page, let me get rid of it.  Better yet, provide buttons so poor folks still using IE can do it too.

5.)  DON'T make a link do different things if it's launched in a new window/tab instead of the same window/tab.  (Are you listening, Yahoo Mail?)

6.)  DON'T force your pages to ridiculous window widths... especially not in flyspeck fonts.  Ultra-wide text columns are hard to read, and even harder as the font gets smaller.  Text becomes nearly impossible to read if lines grow wider than the window, or the screen.  This should never happen, so why do so many of you do it?

7.)  DON'T give your nav links priority for window space over the content.  If the user expands the font to read the content, the nav stuff should move aside gracefully.  If this doesn't work with your whiz-bang layout, rethink your layout.

8.)  DON'T use a style sheet which keeps the user from scrolling over to the left margin if their window width isn't what you think it should be.

9.)  DON'T make me re-load button graphics and other static stuff every time I come by; if I visit you every day, those things should come right up out of cache.  The last-modified and expiration date on all elements of the page should be trustworthy.  (Are you listening, Keenspot and the rest of you comic sites?)

10.)  DON'T use automatic reloads unless it's essential for the READER!  Your view-tracking is not reason to reload a page, suck down the user's bandwidth and maybe make the browser go wonky.

<the engineer-poet breathes a sigh of relief as one insistent peeve is let out to do its business> 
Thursday, May 12, 2005

The glossary

This blog (and others) use enough acronyms and terms of art that it is important to have a ready reference for people who wonder what the conversation is about.  I have decided to keep my own glossary (which is likely to contain pointers to outside resources) to make this a bit easier.  Suggestions for the glossary are welcome.

CHPCombined Heat and Power.  This is the additional production of electricity from processes which otherwise produce only space heat or domestic hot water (DHW); this is also known as cogeneration.

Direct Carbon Fuel Cell:  This is a variant of the MCFC which takes its fuel as solid carbon (graphite, charcoal or coke) rather than as a gas at the anode.  The DCFC may be able to reach 80% efficiency.

Cogeneration:  The additional production of electricity from processes which would otherwise yield only some other product.  Most cogeneration systems make space heat, but it is feasible to extract electricity from systems making medium-pressure steam for industrial process heat.  Should it become feasible to extract useful energy from e.g. strongly exothermic chemical reactions in industrial processes, this would probably also fall under the definition of cogeneration.

Demand-side management:  The adjustment of the power balance of the electrical grid by controlling loads (e.g. turning electric water heaters on and off) instead of adjusting generation.

GO-HEVGas-Optional Hybrid Electric Vehicle, aka plug-in hybrid.  This is a hybrid-electric vehicle which has enough battery capacity to travel distances of several miles without starting its engine and can recharge from the electrical grid.  As long as the user plugs in and does not need to drive long distances, gasoline is completely optional.

Links:  WorldChanging, Institute for Analysis of Global Security.

IGCCIntegrated Gasification Combined Cycle.  This is a process where a fuel (usually coal, but sometimes coke or bitumen) is partially burned in an oxygen-deficient environment to convert it to a "syngas".  The syngas is filtered to remove particulates and scrubbed of pollutants such as sulfur, then it is burned in a gas turbine to make power.  The hot gas output of the gas turbine is fed to a heat recovery steam generator (HRSG); the steam from the HSRG runs a turbine which makes more power.  IGCC plants burning coal are substantially more efficient than powdered-coal combustion (PCC) steam-cycle powerplants (~40% vs. ~33%) and have much lower emissions of sulfur, nitrogen oxides and particulates.

Molten Carbonate Fuel Cell:  This is a fuel cell which uses a molten bath of carbonate salts as its electrolyte.  At the cathode, it combines oxygen, electrons and carbon dioxide to make carbonate (CO32-) ions; at the anode, the carbonate is combined with carbon and/or hydrogen to make CO2, water and free electrons.  The electrons complete the circuit outside the fuel cell.  A further refinement is the direct carbon fuel cell (DCFC).

MSWMunicipal Solid Waste.  All the stuff that you put into the can to be thrown "out", from coffee grounds to 40-year-old insecticide powder.

Proton Exchange Membrane:  This is an element of the most common type of hydrogen fuel cell (as well as some electrolyzers), which allows protons to pass but blocks electricity.  Current PEMs have short lifespans and are difficult to fabricate into working cells, which is part of the high expense of hydrogen fuel cells.

PHEVPlug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle.  Synonymous with GO-HEV and PIH.  Appears to have replaced PIH and GO-HEV as the favored term (13-Apr-2006).

PIHPlug-In Hybrid.  Synonym for GO-HEV.  May be falling out of favor.

PVPhotovoltaic.  A technology for converting photons (light) to electricity.  Historically, PV cells used semiconductor materials such as silicon or cadmium indium sulfide but they are increasingly moving to common materials such as titanium dioxide and plastics.

SOFCSolid Oxide Fuel Cell.  A fuel cell which uses an oxide ceramic, typically zirconia, as its electrolyte.  The charge carriers are oxygen ions (O2-), which has useful properties in certain circumstances.  SOFC's require high operating temperatures to allow ions to move within the ceramic and permit current to flow; the lowest operating temperatures are now around 800° C.

TDPThermal DePolymerization.  A process owned by Changing World Technologies which uses conditions of high temperature, pressure and anoxia to convert mixtures of carbonaceous material and water to light hydrocarbons, combustible gas and carbon solids.  This process appears great in the lab, but the pilot plant has severe odor emissions of an undisclosed nature.

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