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. 
IGCC--I'm not clear on why hydrogen byproduct is available...isn't hydrogen the combustible component of the fuel going into the gas turbine? Why would any be left over?
The gas analyses (of the combustible fraction) that I've seen claim about 63% CO, 37% H2.  The carbon monoxide is quite combustible as well; during both world wars, charcoal-gas generators ("gasogenes") made carbon monoxide to run vehicles when gasoline was unobtainable.

You can filter out the H2 for synthesis and burn the CO in your power system, no problem.
I seem to recall reading that about 3% of US natural gas production goes toward producing fertilizer (or at least did so when we were still producing most of it domestically). I've also read that about 4% of our natural gas comes from collecting methane at land fills.
Unless I'm either badly mistaken or missing something, problem solved.
Kunstler is a poor spokesman for the peak oil idea. Didn't he have a bad case of the vapors over the so-called Y2K glitch? Seems that peak oil could be just the latest disaster scenario for him to glom onto.

Not that peaking oil production won't be painful. And EIA and IEA projections for oil consumption 20 years out are simply laughable. But running around like chicken little doesn't help anyone.
I'm confused. Is the 200,000 hectares supposed to be the total U.S. area requiring fertilizer?
That sounds kind of small. A square 100 kilometers on a side would contain one million hectares.
According to this site total US land producing crops is 349 million acres which is equal to about 140 million hectares, a factor of 700 greater than the 200,000 hectares cited above. That translates to a need for 15,400 IGCC plants.
According to The Fertilizer Institute, the U.S. used 53.9 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer in 1999. (Use has been trending down for years since a peak in the 1970's, so this number is probably conservative/high.) That is, actual nitrogen fertilizer use is around two and a half to three times the figure listed here, but even then, the difference isn't unsurmountable.
The Fertilizer Institute has a table which breaks down fertilizer use into basic components - Nitrogen, Phosphate, Potash and Nutrients. The 53.9 million tons cited by Rob is acutally for total fertilizer with the Nitrogen component being about 12 million tons.
You anonymous folks - if you won't get a Blogger account, at least sign with a nom de plume so I can attribute comments and corrections properly!
"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."

You're right in a sense; in another sense, if Kunstler read science fiction, he might know that, so I can forgive him for not knowing he is writing science fiction.

Extending current trends into the future is an excellent way to predict the future; that is how hubbert "soothsayed" peak oil for the lower 48.

So I have no problem with Kunstler's future as one example of a reasonable baseline, none at all. And I read science fiction, up to and including wired magazine.

It will require active efforts to change the outcome we are trending towards, and what I see coming out of DC is not making me optimistic. That energy bill... I mean, come on.
, like the road/rail hybrid "Bladerunner" truck concept.

If you are gonna post something like this, can you provide a link?

Here is my link for a design -

You can filter out the H2 for synthesis and burn the CO in your power system, no problem.

Please show a link to this 'no problem' technology for H2 seperation. Something that works today.
Another anonymous (hey, where's the pen name to distinguish you from all the other anonymous guys?) wanted a link for the Bladerunner concept truck.

You got it.

"Please show a link to this 'no problem' technology for H2 seperation. Something that works today."

1.  Air separation plant (all but hydrogen is condensible and can be separated, at the cost of energy loss from pressure drop).
2.  Whatever's currently used to separate hydrogen from the gas stream in existing natural gas-fed ammonia plants, assuming it isn't the same technology.
Oh, yes:  this link describes the hydrogen purification as being done by "absorption or membrane separation".
Bryan:  I expect that you are right; the auto companies are going to be forced to offer such vehicles in response to people building their own out of whatever's at hand, e.g. GO-HEV's out of Priuses.

On that point, reader Lou Grinzo has an interesting take on the question "Where are the electric cars?"  His "tinfoil hat" answer:  held back to avoid yielding the market to the Chinese any sooner than necessary.

Of course, if we'd moved when we were capable of moving (no later than the early 1990's, perhaps even the 1980's) we'd own those markets already.  Such moves were prevented by political maneuvering and errors.  If Grinzo is right, CARB and the Reagan and Bush administrations have screwed us over far more badly than I ever suspected.
Taking Kunstler whole may be a mistake and yes he was goofy about Y2K, but he's been dead on about suburbia for a long time, so I'm willing to uptake the parts of his Peak Oil theories that seem sensible.

My copy of The Long Emergency just arrived at my local bookstore, (I had to wait a bit for it as it was in subsequent printings, a clue that it's selling better than expected.) so I've not read all that there is. What makes sense to me, however, is that our economy is in for a huge change, if not a shock, when oil becomes too expensive for the working class and construction industries, including farming.

Whether we can manufacture oil or not, it's going to be out of sight expensive, and that alone will have huge repercussions in the stock market. Hell, a shift in a few oil dollars or fractions in interest rates sends it into minor paroxysms now.

And the question of whether we've been screwed by our leaders' inattention to this matter is too funny for words. Of course we have, and we've been complicit in it. The question is how screwed and who's going to suffer the most.

China worries me. I can't help thinking that much of the global economic and political maneuvering is under the rubric of a coming grab for scarce energy rescources which in itself will take money, focus and energy away from creating alternatives. Talk about a multi-front war.
1. Air separation plant (all but hydrogen is condensible and can be separated, at the cost of energy loss from pressure drop).

Yea, all it takes is a source of cheap energy to accomplish this at a price people would be willing to pay. But if you have electromotive force, why not use it directly rather than spend that energy on Hydrogen seperation?

2. Whatever's currently used to separate hydrogen from the gas stream in existing natural gas-fed ammonia plants, assuming it isn't the same technology.

Wow. For an 'engineer' you didn't pay attention in Chemistry class. I had training as an Electrical Engineer and understand that taking CH4 and making NH4 doesn't need you to seperate the H2 out and react it.

But please, show the 'seperation' of H2 you speak of. I'll give you a hint - The SeaLand process. You take air and water to make Methonal. Be sure to note how much watts of power in VS the watts you can get from Methonal.

Bladerunner truck - not seeing the advantage of it over the RUF design. At least the RUF people have thought out their design and can offer up an additional power grid.
Anonymous (too poor to afford a pen name?) writes:

"Yea, all it takes is a source of cheap energy to accomplish this at a price people would be willing to pay."

You already have this energy; it's there in the pressure from the gasifier, about 400 PSIA.  Standard air separation plants have about a 4:1 pressure drop across them, if memory serves; if the same holds true for hydrogen separation, the outlet pressure would be about 100 PSIA.

Which probably doesn't matter, because the standard methods appear to be "absorption or membrane separation" as I mentioned above.  Fractional distillation is another arrow in the quiver, perhaps not needed.

"Wow. For an 'engineer' you didn't pay attention in Chemistry class."

This from someone who doesn't know that there is no such compound as NH4; ammonia is NH3.  (I took chem with the pre-meds at Michigan.  My appreciation of irony came somewhat later.)

"I had training as an Electrical Engineer..."

But didn't finish the degree?  Unfortunately, writing requirements in schools of engineering are so lax that your errors wouldn't cast doubt on a positive claim.

"I ... understand that taking CH4 and making NH4 doesn't need you to seperate the H2 out and react it."

Perhaps you'd like to argue with the Encyclopedia Britannica:  "For many purposes, however, synthetic ammonia is preferred.  The latter is made directly from the elements by the Haber process..."  Wikipedia says more or less the same thing.  Are you now claiming you dropped out of EE to get a ChE?  BS Chem?

More to the point, adding carbon to the mix would allow the creation of hydrogen cyanide (HCN).  This is Highly Undesirable.

"You take air and water to make Methonal."

I just went through my CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, and there is no listing for a compound called "methonal".  I'm well aware of methanol (CH3OH), but such an expert as yourself could never have mis-spelled it once, let alone twice.  Any minute now I'm sure you're going to explain how this mystery compound "methonal" replaces ammonia as a nitrogen fertilizer or precursor compound, what can be synthesized from it, how many farmers use these things....

"Bladerunner truck - not seeing the advantage of it over the RUF design."

Advantages aren't hard to find:
1.  Uses existing rail infrastructure, which is often underused to the point of abandonment (no infrastructure investment required to establish it).
2.  Relatively simple modification of existing tractor/trailer rig designs.
3.  Can handle much larger and heavier loads than RUF, suitable for heavy freight.

RUF is a clever concept without a future.  Any scheme which requires a tunnel straight through the middle of the engine compartment and passenger section of a car is a non-starter for a host of reasons, structural and practical being only the most obvious.  Had the designers made it compatible with conventional drivetrains and allowed vehicles to have flat floors they wouldn't have painted themselves into such a small corner.
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