The Ergosphere
Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Ruminations of a restless mind

When sleep teases and then says au revoir, my mind tends to wander in strange territory.  Tonight it was paper-pulp byproducts.  I knew that the "black liquor" byproduct of papermaking (which contains the lignin) is usually burned, but I didn't know if it had been investigated as a fuel for gasification (which would allow production of power, methanol, F-T hydrocarbons, or any combination).

Turns out there's been quite a bit of research in this area.

Pity there's only about 170 million tons of black liquor solids produced annually worldwide, compared to 1.3 billion tons of waste biomass in the US alone.  For some reason, I'd hoped for more - why, don't know.



I'm noticing a bunch of people are picking up on the plug-in hybrid concept (which isn't mine, I just flog it heavily; "if I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.").  It really is the best ticket out of our current dilemma:

  1. Electricity delivers energy to the wheels much more cheaply than gasoline.
  2. Electricity comes from resources which cannot be embargoed by OPEC.
  3. You can generate electricity at home.
  4. Hybrid cars with extra batteries allow some operation on electricity alone.
  5. Recharging from a typical 20-mile commute would require only an extension cord.
  6. (most important) We could start building them TODAY.

Since there is some interest here in points for letters to editors, here are some sample ideas that you can re-write in your own words.  But keep it terse; newspapers like to edit verbiage, and anything too long may have its meaning butchered before it gets into print.

If your write a letter and it gets published, feel free to post the URL of your paper's letters page so we can all look.  Post the original if it's different.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The triumph of exurbia

Say what you will about James Howard "The End of Suburbia" Kunstler, he's got a vision and he's certainly true to it.  But is it a true vision?

The conclusion that the end of cheap petroleum will cause the abandonment of suburban and exurban communities is based on the assumption that these areas require large amounts of energy from outside themselves.  This claim would have surprised the yeoman freeholders of 200 years ago who grew all their own food, produced their own energy using relatively inefficient plants, and traded still more for tools and other finished goods.  Both houses and people lived off what grew on the land.

Time and ingenuity have rolled on, and McCormick's reaper, steam power and then the internal combustion engine have both increased the amount of land one person can farm and also the energy invested in it.  In so doing, they have also reduced the price of farm products to levels so low, the agricultural inputs to foodstuffs are but a small fraction of the retail cost.  The economics of the small freehold have long since gone negative; nobody farms anything so small except as a hobby.  But economics are one thing; energetics are another.


An exurban house may sit on one or several acres, or may be part of a cluster with large areas reserved for greenspace.  Some owners prefer acres of grass (up to golf courses), some have woods, others like landscaped gardens; the style is largely dependent upon taste and budget.  Kunstler sees these homes as dinosaurs, about to be wiped out by the looming meteor of peak oil.  But what he doesn't see is that land is more than an extravagance; it is also a resource.

Considerable effort has gone into re-establishment of ecosystems once common in the USA, but largely pushed aside by forest clearance and conversion of land to agriculture.  One of these ecosystems making a comeback is the tallgrass prairie, consisting largely of fast-growing perennials like switchgrass.  Switchgrass has attracted considerable attention lately as a biomass crop, as has elephant grass or Miscanthus.  Being useful to humans is a strong selective advantage for a species; humans will go to great efforts to spread them.

What if they were deliberately spread to exurbia?

Reliable productivity of the grass species appears to be on the order of 4-5 tons/acre/year; one sterile Miscanthus hybrid is claimed to have yielded as much as 27 tons/acre.  If a dry (short) ton of biomass yields 15.8 million BTU, the owner who devotes half of a one-acre plot to energy might be able to depend on getting 39.5 million BTU of fuel every year, perhaps as much as 213 million BTU at the extreme.  Dried clippings from the rest of the lawn, trimmings from the shrubs and other stuff would add something to this total.  Compressed and turned into pellets, this fuel crop would easily fit into a bin for later use for heat or other purposes.  Harvest would take something more than the standard rotary riding mower, but the required equipment is certainly within the reach of small consortia if not individuals acting on their own or as contractors.

A question of sufficiency

The big issue is, can the land produce enough fuel to allow its owners to continue to live in exurbia?  That answer depends in turn on how much fuel they need, and for what purposes.  If I recall correctly, the average gas-heated home uses 50 million BTU of fuel for space heat, another 15 million BTU for heating water, plus some for cooking.  This looks like it could require ¾ acre or more to satisfy.  But that assumes no improvements elsewhere.

Rather than trying to produce all the way to sufficiency, conservation can make up the difference.  An Energy Star-rated house uses only 70% as much energy as the average, cutting the 65 million BTU to about 46.  Houses entered into the Solar Decathlon competition do far better; they use around 30% as much energy as the average even before their solar features are considered.  If the average gas-heated home was built or brought up to Solar Decathlon standards, its total heating needs would shrink from 65 million BTU/year to 19.5 million BTU.  Excess heat from a solar DHW system could take a further bite out of heating needs on cold sunny days, but the extent depends upon the microclimate and the weather.

Compared to ~20 million BTU of need, 39.5 million BTU of fuel looks like a healthy surplus; 200 million BTU looks like enormous riches (go ahead, leave the cover off the hot tub!).  Irony of ironies, the exurbs could be self-sufficient while more compact (thus land-starved) suburbs go begging.

But keeping warm isn't the end of the matter.  Exurbia is not self-contained; its residents must travel to work, to appointments and to shopping.  This means more energy.

Getting around the problem of getting around

The typical exurbanite drives something like an SUV, and drives considerable distances.  These vehicles average less than 20 MPG; a driver covering 18,000 miles per year would burn 900 gallons or more, consuming 114+ million BTU of energy.  Only large estates or the best harvests of Miscanthus are going to be able to meet such demands.  But this is where the plug-in hybrid comes in.

With a plug-in hybrid, anything that generates electricity makes "motor fuel".  If we assume a plug-in hybrid SUV consuming 500 watt-hours per mile, 18000 annual miles could be satisfied with 9000 kWh of electricity (about 30.7 million BTU).  Burning 39.5 million BTU of grass in a cogenerator at 20% efficiency makes 7.9 million BTU of electricity, about 26% of transportation needs.  20 square meters of 15%-efficient PV panels receiving 1000 kWh/m^2/yr yields another 3000 kWh (10.2 million BTU), or about 33% of transportation needs.  The remaining 41% could be met by wind or other purchased power; at 10¢/kWh, the ~12.6 million BTU (3690 kWh) would cost under $400/year.  Compared to $4500/year for 900 gallons of $5 gasoline, this is nothing.

These figures could be slashed if the exurbanite drives something greener when roads are clear and not hauling compost.  Attention to efficiency (or the willingness to sacrifice more lawn) could turn the exurban homestead into a net energy supplier.  Hello, yeoman hobby energy farmer!

So, is Kunstler's vision of a countryside emptied of commuters a likely outcome?  It does depend; people might not be willing to make the lifestyle adjustments to satisfy their energy needs from the land they're living on, and might prefer a balcony on a high-rise to a back yard they can't see over between June and December.  But I don't give this much chance of happening; too many people are going to like the feeling of independence whether or not it gives them a chance to hunt rabbit and pheasant in their energy acreage.  Even if it goes down, exurbia could rise again.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Quote without comment

Stuart Staniford:
... I think our commitment should be 100% to the facts, whoever's ox ends up having to be gored in the process.
Wednesday, November 16, 2005

You just can't talk to some people

Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic Airways kind of gets it, but he seems to be barking up the wrong tree.  Cellulosic ethanol isn't going to make good jet fuel (too heavy for the energy), and it probably will not be available in sufficient quantity to take the price pressure off petroleum.  In short, it won't keep jet travel economical.

I decided to share my thoughts with him via mail (I doubt he's one of my regular readers, so an open letter just wouldn't do) so I went to the Virgin Atlantic web site to get an address to write to.

Wouldn't you know, there are NO physical mail addresses on the site's contact page?  It's like they don't want anyone writing to them.

I guess you just can't talk to some people.

(NB:  Further digging yielded "The Office, Manor Royal, Crawley, West Sussex, RH10 9NU".  I may yet write.)


The MSM doesn't care about ballot-box stuffing

While electronic voting machines with no provision for audits or recounts proliferate, the MSM fails to mention the bipartisan report on the dangers to democracy.

How much evidence do we need before we can call it a conspiracy?


Good Gulf

Exploding costs for nitrogen fertilizer are making it increasingly difficult to farm; I've read of ammonia prices as high as $500/ton for next year.  Some of this is bound to be ameliorated when coal-fuelled domestic nitrogen plants come on line (previous mention), but in the mean time farmers are going to be using nitrates as sparingly as they can.

This should be good for the Gulf of Mexico.  Excess nitrogen from Midwest farms has long wound up running down the Mississippi; it has increased biological oxygen demand where the water loses its aeration and created a dead zone on the bottom of the Gulf.  When farmers cut back to just the nitrogen their crops are guaranteed to use, there will be a much smaller excess.  The eutrophication of the Gulf will have a brief pause.

This is a golden opportunity for research.  Just as the grounding of airliners after 9/11 provided data on the effect of contrails and the 8/14/03 blackout did the same for air pollution from powerplants, this cutback in nitrate use will show just what influence it has on the life on the continental shelf.  With luck, we'll be able to use it to modify farming practices so that they lose much less nitrogen and become ocean-friendly.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Peak what?

We've already seen peak US oil, and peak NA natural gas.  We may already have seen peak oil for the world, or it may hold off until turkey day.  But I keep seeing people who insist on using the term "peak energy" for this.

This term is misleading.  It's true that we don't have other resources ready to pick up where oil and natural gas are leaving off.  This is to be expected; oil and gas have been so cheap that it made little sense (greenhouse emissions and other pollution aside) to create a parallel infrastructure to substitute for them.

Right now we are getting toward the tipping point.  The production of crude oil either peaked last year, is about to peak (perhaps on Thanksgiving) or will peak by 2010; it depends whose crystal ball you consult.  Even US gasoline prices are getting high enough to move consumer demand from the large SUV segment (50% decline over 2004) to hybrids.  Does that mean this peak energy?

Oil only accounts for about 160 quads out of humanity's 400 quad/year energy consumption.  The remainder comes from natural gas, coal, biomass, hydropower, nuclear and the like.  At least two of those have substantial room for growth in world production in the relatively near future; extrapolating "peak oil" to "peak energy" is unwarranted.

On the other hand, transportation is still closely wedded to oil.  Does that mean we're about to see "peak miles" and a slow collapse of the economy as jobs and homes must be abandoned due to unaffordability?

Not on your life.  One of the biggest complaints about the US vehicle fleet is its inefficiency!  A replacement of the American vehicle fleet (~22 MPG average) with Prius-class vehicles (46 MPG highway, possibly greater city) would deliver the same miles from roughly half the amount of fuel.

We are already seeing some movement in this direction.  Over just a few months, many drivers have changed their vehicle of choice from a large SUV to a small SUV or even an economy car.  People drove slower.  For a given number of miles travelled, less fuel was needed.  These adaptations can only go so far, but they show that it is both possible to cut fuel consumption and that people will act to do it.

Suppose that a 50% improvement in fuel economy reduction in fuel consumption is the best we can do.  When we're all driving things as good as the Prius and oil falls to half its current production, THEN are we in trouble?

Not if we play our cards right.  The plug-in hybrid is coming; electric propulsion is already good enough to be offering 85% reductions in motor-fuel needs.  But that's not the end.  Radically improved batteries have been announced by several different companies, offering huge increases in power/weight (5 kW/kg), charge/discharge rate (100 C), and lifespan.  The inevitable outcome of these advances is an all-electric car which can go several hundred miles at highway speeds and recharges in 5 minutes.  Long before that, the same batteries will make hybrids more muscular than all but the most exotic sports cars.  The same advanced 5 kWH battery which could drive a Prius+ for 20 miles or so could also deliver enough power (500 kW!) to leave Corvettes in the dust.  If you're imagining a Miata with the power of a NASCAR racer, you've got the right idea.

The energy to run these cars will not be hard to come by.  The US auto fleet burned roughly 139 billion gallons of gasoline last year.  At an average efficiency of 17%, this amounts to 99.7 GW actually delivered to the wheels, or 873 billion kWh per year.  The wind in Texas alone could produce 386 billion kWh per year, or 44% of the total.  Efficiency of the electric vehicles will be higher, but losses will cut the available energy by perhaps 30%; regardless, the available energy is more than sufficient to meet our needs.

The available wind power world-wide has recently been calculated as 72 terawatts.  That's more than 5 times what humanity currently uses from all sources, and enough to give 8 kW to each of 9 billion people.

I haven't even touched on solar yet.  Humans use about 400 quadrillion BTU (quads) of energy per year from all sources; the Sun delivers this much energy to Earth in about 41 minutes.  Developments in the pipeline might increase the efficiency of PV cells from 15% to 60%, roughly 30 times as great as the most efficient higher plants.  Such cells would produce an explosion in energy availability and thus energy use, without pollution.

So:  Will we see "peak energy" in this decade, or even in this century?  We may well see a local maximum in the raw consumption curve and some slide in useful output, but as for absolutes in either.... not any time soon.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Do the math

One simple change to semi-trailers can reduce total fuel consumption of the rig by 10%.  If we could save 10% of US diesel consumption, that would be approximately 277,000 barrels/day or 101 million barrels/year.  This is just one simple change which could be retrofitted; it's only the beginning of possible improvements.

Oil production from Alaska averaged 908,000 bbl/day last year (down 55% from its 1988 peak of 2.02 million bbl/day).  ANWR reserves are estimated at 6.4 billion barrels.  In short, if we started trying to produce ANWR oil today and it first hit the pipeline in 2015, semi-truck boattails could have saved 1/6 of the total oil in the reserve before the first barrel got to a refinery (and probably at a much smaller cost).  Improvements which cut consumption by 30% are likely both possible and inexpensive, and would save a full ANWR-worth in the next 20 years.

The US Senate has wisely removed ANWR drilling from the bill to cut the budget.  If our Senators are wiser, they should also insert a provision over-riding state truck length limits for boat-tail extensions and other drag-reducing devices.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Solar snake oil

(from the are-these-people-serious department)

I was taking a quick look through the blogroll this morning when I found an interesting-looking ad on Rod Adams' blog (it's good, go check it out).  It was plugging an in-window solar heater - just the thing I think people could use this coming winter!  So I clicked through to check it out.

Man, what a disappointment!  Rather than capturing sunlight that would otherwise fall on the earth or outside walls and be lost, the so-called heater doesn't bring any new energy indoors at all.  It is essentially a black surface in a box, which "is mounted inside your window."  All it does is capture sunlight that was coming into your house anyway, and convert it to heat before it can bounce around the room and make things lighter.  Oh, and it concentrates the heating effect by the window and no lower than sill-level, rather than letting heat warm the floor toward the center of the room.  And last but not least, it's an ugly opaque box that blocks the view out the window.

For the indoor unit (24" by 19-¾", less than 4 square feet) they want $89.95; that's over $28 a square foot for questionably-effective visual pollution.  I can see the outdoor unit producing useful heat, but it's even more expensive per square foot.  The thing that worries me most is that people will be taken in by the sales pitches for such things, be disappointed with the results, and conclude "Solar is crap".  That is an outcome we cannot afford.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Unit analysis

A long-overdue post about a very common error.

One reader (who I hope does not mind me quoting him anonymously) wrote:

I was confused by your dislike of the term kh/w and baffled by your assertion that it is a meaningless term....

You seem to be asserting that the term KWH is meaningless and not a defined amount.

I replied:

You've got a relatively common confusion of two different things.  Let me see if I can clear this up.

A kilowatt-hour is a kilowatt TIMES an hour.  A kilowatt in turn is 1000 watts, there are 3600 seconds in an hour, and a watt is a joule per second; a kilowatt-hour is thus 3.6 million joules (the basic unit of energy in the MKS units system).  Kilowatt-hour is abbreviated "kWh".

kW/h would be a kilowatt DIVIDED BY an hour.  This is not a unit of energy, it's a rate of change of power; in most contexts, it's simply wrong.  Some people write "kilowatts per hour" and it's just as wrong [it's just as wrong because it's the same thing].

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Starting the cycle

(The compulsion leapfrogged this impromptu piece past everything else.  Surprise.)

In the news, a specialist in Fischer-Tropsch synthesis (Rentech) has signed a deal to purchase the outstanding shares of Royster-Clark Nitrogen, Inc (h/t:  GCC).  The major asset of RCI appears to be a Danville, Illinois fertilizer plant.  Nitrate production in N. America has been mostly shut down due to high natural gas prices (natural gas is the standard feedstock used to make hydrogen for Haber synthesis of ammonia).  Rentech intends to build a set of coal gasifiers on the site to supply hydrogen to the ammonia plant (boosting its capacity from 830 tons/day to over 900 tons/day), as well as creating 87 million gallons per year of motor fuel by Fischer-Tropsch synthesis and generating electricity.  The exact breakdown of the plant's output is not specified, but it is stated that it will consume 5200 tons/day of coal which is "the commercial equivalent capacity of a 650 megawatt Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power plant."

This may be a step backward for CO2 emissions, but it's a step forward for reliability of US energy supplies.  But it's not the end.  A plant which burns coal in a wet-slagging gasifier has the potential to burn many other things besides.  The possibilities include charcoal and raw biomass.

Anyone who has travelled through southern Illinois and the neighboring area of Indiana has seen that farming is very big.  Corn is king.  Corn byproducts, such as leaves and stalks (stover) and cobs are certainly available in abundance.  If these farms are typical, much of this material goes to waste.  It therefore represents several unrealized potentials:


Fischer-Tropsch synthesis requires a synthesis gas consisting of mostly carbon monoxide and hydrogen.  Methane is undesirable (too stable), and larger molecules ditto.  The gasifiers used to make F-T synthesis gas are almost always high-temperature, entrained-flow units burning finely powdered coal; the gasifiers are engineered to break down their inputs into the simplest molecules possible.  It stands to reason that a machine for burning finely-powdered carbonaceous material may not be overly fussy about its exact diet.

The Wabash River IGCC plant (using E-gas gasifiers) burns coal or petroleum coke with equal facility, and it appears likely at first glance that similar gasifiers could also process charcoal with relative ease.  Raw biomass would be more difficult; fibrous materials cannot be handled as easily as powders, but advances in processing may make this feasible.  I'll speculate on both possibilities.

Getting back to Danville, the re-engineered fertilizer plant will consume 5,200 tons/day of coal, or 1.90 million tons/year.  Assuming 25 million BTU/ton of coal, this is 47.4 trillion BTU/year.  (The article states this as the equivalent of a 650 MW IGCC plant; this appears to be based on an assumption of roughly 41% efficiency.)  From this it will produce 87 million gallons/year of F-T motor fuel (roughly 12.8 trillion BTU worth), 330,000 or more tons of fixed nitrogen, and an unspecified amount of electricity.

The energy supply

At a typical yield of 150 bu/ac, corn yields approximately 2.5 dry tons of excess stover (not needed for erosion control) per acre.  If it contains 15.8 million BTU per dry ton, the yield is 39.5 million BTU/ac; if it can be processed into charcoal at 28% yield and 15,000 BTU/lb (30 million BTU/ton), each acre could produce 0.70 tons of charcoal per year yielding 21 million BTU/ac.

There are three different possibilities for supplying the energy requirements of such a plant using biomass:

  1. Feeding it with charcoal produced off-site.
  2. Producing charcoal on-site, with the carbonizer off-gas used either for (a) a co-fuel in the gasifier or (b) fed to the power-generation block as gas-turbine fuel.
  3. Direct feed of biomass (either raw or lightly processed) to the gasifier.
As case 2(a) comes close to case 3, and case 2(b) comes close to case 1, I'm not going to address case 2 any further and look only look at 1 and 3.

Case 1:  charcoal produced off-site.  This case comes closest to a feed of coal, with the difference that charcoal will have less intrinsic moisture (almost none) than coal.  Supplying 47.4 trillion BTU of energy with charcoal at 30 million BTU/ton requires 1.58 million tons/year of charcoal.  At a charcoal yield of .70 tons/ac, the production from 2.26 million acres would be required.  This is about 3530 square miles, or a circle about 34 miles in radius.  Allowing for non-cropland in the area, the plant could probably take the stover-derived charcoal from all the cornfields within roughly 40 miles.

Case 3:  biomass fed directly.  Supplying 47.4 trillion BTU of energy from biomass at 15.8 million BTU/ton requires 3.00 million tons.  At a dry biomass yield of 2.5 tons/ac, the production from 1.2 million acres would be required.  This is 1,880 square miles, or a circle about 24 miles in radius.  Allowing for non-cropland in the area, the plant could probably take the stover from all the cornfields within roughly 30 miles.

Energy sufficiency

A big question for sustainability is if a process can yield enough energy to run itself and still produce a surplus.  If the planting, cultivation and harvest of an acre of corn requires 6 gallons of diesel, the 87 million gallons of F-T fuel produced by the plant would suffice for 14.5 million acres of crops.  This is roughly 6.5 times the crop area required for case 1, and 12 times the crop area required for case 3.  This is an 540% to 1100% excess, which is clearly sustainable.

The other question is the nitrogen balance.  Corn is fertilized with an average of 77 pounds of nitrogen per acre.  The plant's production of 330,000 tons/year of nitrogen would suffice for 8.6 million acres of corn.  This is a 280% to 580% excess, which is also clearly sustainable.


The press reports do not specify the electric production expected from the repowered fertilizer (to become polygeneration) plant.  On the other hand, the production of charcoal would produce heat and off-gas with an energy content which can be estimated.  Turning 39.5 million BTU/ac of stover into 21 million BTU/ac of charcoal releases 18.5 million BTU as heat and gas.  If this energy can be turned into electricity at 50% efficiency, the processing of the stover from 2.26 million acres would yield 24.6 trillion BTU (7.21 billion kWh) of electricity.  This is an average of 823 megawatts.  A single stover-to-charcoal plant handling the product from 2.26 million acres could co-produce 0.18% of the nation's electric demand by itself.  The 80.7 million acres planted to corn in 2004 might fuel 36 such plants; these could produce 260 billion kWh/year, enough electricity to almost replace hydropower or displace 37% of the power produced from natural gas (data).

Carbon balance

The natural gas input to the original plant is not specified, but that never stopped me from guesstimating.  Production of 330,000 tons/year of fixed nitrogen would require 70,700 tons/year of hydrogen; produced from methane via partial oxidation of CH4 to CO + 2 H2 followed by shift conversion of CO + H2O to CO2 + H2, the process would consume 189,000 tons/year of methane and produce 520,000 tons/year of CO2.

The coal-fired polygeneration plant would produce quite a bit more.  The 1.9 million tons/year of coal would contain 1.24 million tons of carbon.  All of this would wind up as CO2, adding 4.54 million tons per year to the atmosphere.  The production of motor fuel and electricity would offset this somewhat.  The contribution from electricity is not quantified, but 87 million gallons/year of F/T diesel at 7.67 lbm/gallon would offset roughly 1.05 million tons of CO2 from petroleum.  The net CO2 contribution of the plant is roughly 2.97 million (4,540,000 - 520,000 - 1,050,000) tons per year, minus offsets from the unspecified electric production.

The carbon production of the biomass-fuelled plant would be a big fat zero.  To the extent that its F-T fuel production would displace 1.05 million tons/year of CO2 from petroleum, its net contribution would be negative.  Electric production would drive the total further into the negative.  If CO2 emissions credits were worth even $20/ton, the avoided cost would be about $59 million/year.

Farm income

The question of what biomass is worth is a good one.  Is it to be rated by its BTU value compared to a particular fuel, by the avoided carbon emissions, by avoided environmental contaminants?  It's hard to tell what farmers could or should be paid for.

Selling by BTU's (avoided cost) is relatively direct and simple.  If coal costs $30/ton at the plant, the plant is paying $1.20 per million BTU.  A farmer reaping 2.5 dry tons/ac of stover at 15.8 million BTU/ton could gross another $47.40/acre (minus harvest and transport costs), equivalent to about an extra 30¢/bu in the price of corn.  Compared to current prices of ~$2.50/bu, this is significant.

If other fuels are being displaced, this figure could go considerably higher.  Natural gas is currently running over $12/million BTU wholesale.  If carbonizer heat and off-gas is worth $8/million BTU as input to a gas-turbine generator, the 18.5 million BTU/ac from the carbonizer would be worth a whopping $148/ac.  If the farmer could get 50% of that, it would pay another $74/ac, or roughly another 50¢/bu; this might make farming highly profitable.  Sales of the .7 ton/ac of charcoal (worth about $21/acre at coal prices) to coal consumers might pay for the carbonization process, or it could be returned to farmers as fuel to heat homes and barns.  The potassium and phosphorus in the ash would be right where it needs to be to close the cycle.

What it can't do

We're clearly not going to fuel the nation from crop wastes.  87 million gallons per plant times 36 plants is only 3.1 billion gallons per year, a minuscule fraction of our 139 billion gallon/year gasoline appetite.  Even if yields were sextupled through e.g. the growth of switchgrass or Miscanthus at 15 tons/acre we would only get to about 30% of distillate fuel consumption or 9.3% of total motor fuel consumption.  The outlook for electricity would be rosier, but it would still not come close to replacing coal.

But that's not so bad; it would lay the groundwork for more efficient systems to follow, and by itself it would be a very promising start.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Yes, I don't write enough.

In public response to a private complaint that I don't write enough for this blog:  Yes, you are right.  I don't.

Mostly there aren't enough hours in the day for everything (and I lost a partially-completed piece on power transmission due to a brief dropout of grid power - how ironic; it's back at square one, since I can't even find the press release again).  The amount of reading and research I'm doing are biting into essential activities.  I'm not an academic; I don't receive a salary for educational activities, and I have no grant.

In short, this means that I either have to cut back, or find a way to get paid.  Getting paid would be the ideal situation, but as I'm an engineer by trade rather than a journalist I don't have many connections to that part of the business world.  This presents somewhat of an obstacle.

The Adsense ads won't cut it.  Total revenue since I signed up has been a whopping $2.49 (that's no typo), and I'll probably discontinue the ads at the end of this month.  Per-click has been amazing (between 15¢ and 33¢ per click) but almost nobody clicks through.  I guess there just aren't that many products which appeal strongly to Ergosphere readers.  And I have a distaste for tipjars for reasons I can't quite specify.

There's a bunch of stuff I'd love to write about, and my disk is littered with fragments of entries I began and set aside before I could complete them.  Many of those are now outdated, overtaken by events (some things move DARN fast).  Some other things, like the vehicle design study, are on hold until I can finish drawing the necessary graphics (a slow process given the lousy tools I'm using) and post them (another issue which is not going to happen without an OS upgrade).  But I don't see anything getting done this week besides "Peak what?" - too much else needs doing.

There you have it.  I can't think of anything to add.

OT:  Looks like Blogger just added trackbacks (they call them "backlinks") as an option.  I've done what I hope will enable them.

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