March 27, 2009

Bow Before the Power of Chlorophyll...And Coffee

Artist unknown
One of the Brickmuppet's Crack Team of Science Babes(tm) brings us news of a couple of reported breakthroughs in the refining of fuel from Algae.

 First comes this story concerning a much improved refining process. What is described as a "continuously flowing fixed-bed" process allows a vast increase in efficiency and reportedly can be managed to produce no waste water. A big advantage of this method is that it uses a reusable catalyst rather than expendable reactants. Finally, as its name implies the process is...continuously flowing, which removes the "filling/emptying reaction tanks" stage and massively improves flow output. One of the developers  This comes on the heels of the sucsessful testing of a seawater algal oil farm in Florida. This produced a thousand gallons of refined ATSM certified biodiesel on an eight of an acre...though the time interval is not mentioned.  There is more on this here.
This is particularly big news as they not only were using seawater..but open ponds. 

 Getting this performance from a SEAWATER species in open ponds vastly increases the potential locations and at a stroke reduces the fresh water demands of such an industry.

Finally, a recent breakthrough in biodiesel from discarded coffe grounds may at first blush seem to be of limited utility (one would want to use already used coffee grounds to avoid displacing excessive amounts of forests or cropland for coffee beans) but it could possibly have a non trivial benefit.
You see, the Coffee diesel is reportedly much more stable than some other biodiesels so there exists the chance that it may have some utility as an organic additive. This last is speculation of course, but it bears investigation.

Hydrocarbons are very hard to replace for many mobile power applications (vehicles...especially aircraft) because they are so good as energy carriers. With that in mind, Brickmuppet Blog has been touting the advantages and potential of algal oil for some time as the potential energy density advantages over other oil crops are stupendous (300 percent or more). Unlike other oil crops it need not necessarily displace food acreage. It is very renewable, should not impose a severe environmental impact if properly managed and such farms can (in theory) do double duty in waste water treatment. With Nuclear power providing the refining and distribution energy we have the potential to have a clean, sustainable and damned robust energy network both electrical and liquid.

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December 28, 2008

Questions Answered

Some questions  recently appeared in the comments of these two posts, regarding energy policy.

"Fortunately" after a tragic lab mishap involving Mentos, one member of the Brickmuppet's crack team of science babes is now ideally equipped to deal with comment threads that have returned from the dead! She now shambles up to answer these questions.

First up, 'Alternate Energy' asks about the relative energy yields of sugar beets and switch grass.

That's a hard one to figure as there are several factors involved, but some ballpark assumptions can be made.

Here sugar beets are credited with providing even better yield than sugar cane at an experimental French farm.

For ethanol, the top yields per acre are 714 gallons from sugar beets in France and 662 gallons per acre for sugarcane in Brazil

This might well be misleading as sugar beets are hard on the soil and need to be rotated rather more than other crops. That site mentions that one sugar beet crop per field every 4 years is a good rule of thumb with one per 3 being rather risky, so the number probably would realistically be 1/4th of that given.

By comparison, according to this report, switchgrass yields a theoretical maximum of 1,150 gallons of ethanol per acer.

These numbers are also somewhat as the celulosic process mentioned in the post is not fully operational (though it is very promising). The big advantage of switchgrass is that it is a weed, a native species and can be grown very well on marginal land that isn't really suitable for other crops. This is not the case with sugar beets and is important because we don't want to be displacing food crops for fuel. That is a very bad thing!

I personally think that algael oil, about which more here, here and here is a better option in general with a yield of kerosene type hydrocarbons 50 times that of the best ethanol producing crops. However,  switchgrass certainly has potential to supplement that. (Ethanol also works fairly well in suitable Otto cycle engines, whereas algae produces what is fairly close to diesel fuel.)

A comparison of various crop yields can be found here. Note that most displace food and that Congressional favorite corn is by far the worst of the lot.

Alternate Energy also asks in this post why there has been so little buzz surrounding Thorium Cycle Reactors (first mentioned here, or rather at the old blog, in '06).

The reasons for that stem from in part from the anti nuclear hysteria found in so much of the green movement, but also from a policy decision made by the Carter administration in 1977 when we got out of the fuel reprocessing business. The idea was that plutonium should not become a commodity to be traded and that this would ease proliferation risks...In practice this meant the US ceded an entire industry to the Europeans, the Russians and the Japanese.

Additionally, the media has been very hostile to nuclear power in general over the years. It should be rembered too that this is a technology that was abandoned. This gives, to a casual observer, the mistaken impression that it failed....which can cause it to be further dismissed.

The most promising thorium reactors are liquid fluoride reactors which burn up the vast majority of their fuel, far more efficiently and with less ultimate waste than other types. However this cycle is a breeder cycle and that got it nixed from consideration. Other types of thorium plants  have the advantage of using thorium fuel instead of uranium of course. This vastly increases global fuel reserves but these other thorium reactors don't really minimize waste as far as I know.

A previous post on this blog regards nuclear power in general can be found here, and nuclear  scientist Kirk Soronsen...who actually KNOWS what he's talking about...has a blog as well as a very informative discussion forum where thorium fueled reactor related issues are discussed in great detail by a variety of people far more experienced in them than an undergraduate oceanography major.

Undead science babe has been identified as "Franken Fran" and is a creation of Manga artist Kigetsu Katsuhisa.

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October 12, 2008

Energy Issues Almost Solved

 One of the Brickmuppets crack team of science babes points out that current and very near term technologies have the potential to meet our energy needs for the foreseeable future...without giving huge vast sums to the perpetrators of windmill boondoggles.

Hyperion Power Generation's little reactor has been mentioned in passing here before, but it has now gone from concept to prototype to being prepped for mass production. The company has contracts with Romania, the Czech Republic and is in negotiation with The Caymans, the Bahamas and Panama. (HT Brian Wang, who should be in your link list)
This reactor is developed from a General Atomics  design intended for educational purposes and is currently making use of the regulatory loophole designed for very small and safe reactors. The reactor is "walk away safe" and has NO moving parts.
(It does need connections for a heat exchanger to operate a steam plant and turbogenerators)

With each producing enough power for ~20000 homes the residential power needs of 300 million normal sized American homes could be met with 15,000 of these things. This number makes an interesting comparison with the companies tooling up to build 4,000 of the little boogers over the first 10 years. This number does not allow for industrial level power generation of course.

There are other small reactors intended for mass production as well.

The Toshiba/Westinghouse 4S reactor has gained a lot of publicity because it is being installed in the remote village of Galena AK. ( A further report in PDF form is here) This reactor is experimental and intended largely for 3rd world applications. It can last 40 years without refueling

An interesting design from the Oregon based firm of NuScale Power has been designed to be just small enough to allow for US industrial limitations.

That is, it can be manufactured from off the shelf components and not require any large imported casting and turbopumps that the US can no longer produce. This greatly facilitates mass production.
(The fact that we have lost the capacity as a nation to produce heavy industrial castings is worrisome in and of itself, but it is not something that can be fixed in the short term.)
This design is not as maintenance free as the others but it has a little less than twice the generating capacity.

Small reactors such as these have a few things going for them quite aside from the theoretical ease and speed of putting them into service.

Redundancy: Lots of small genrators are inherintly more resistant to single point failures than a few large ones. Large nmbrs of these, if relatively evenly dispersed would provide a good hedge against grid damage from natural disasters, deliberate attacks or squirrley wrath. The big northeast power failures of 1968, 1977, and 2005 were not just caused by the aged grid,but because the system was (and is) still fairly centralized.

Scalability: Power can be increased by the simple exedient of adding new reactors. All of these are designed to be set up in fairly remote locations. This allows bringing clean power to remote areas (the raison d'être of the 4S reactor for instance). This can be for industrial applications, or power to rural or third world settlements. Power allows not only industrialization, but such basics as refrigeration and water purification which are lacking in much of the world.

Reduce strain on the grid: The US energy grid is old..the oldest in the world simply because it was the first large scale one. This is part of the reason the big blackouts not associated with natural disasters happened in he northeast..the grid is oldest there. Distributing and decentralizing the power supply allows there to be less strain on the grid at any one point. This is not practical with, say, a coal plant, as the transportation infrastructure for the fuel is uneconomical to duplicate, but with nuclear power the refueling/replacement takes place every 10-40 years depending upon the specific design, so that is no longer a major consideration. Incidentally, this was, reportedly, one of the reasons the Czech Republic went with Hyperion.
We've already signed up our first customers, Romania and the Czech Republic. They were looking at a very high infrastructure cost for an electric grid, but are now doing a distributed model.

Grid upgrades need to be done of course, but this allows both for more time and far less disruption in the process.

Note that while the ammounts of waste produced by these are very small the waste must be dealt with. Until the late 70s the US planned to reprocess its nuclear waste. This not only allows most of it to be reused greatly increasing reserves, it significantly reduces waste that needs to be disposed of.

Belgum, Germany, France, The UK, India, Japan, and Russia all reproces their waste, however, the Carter administration, as part of a larger overall policy of making bad decisions whenever possible,  outlawed nuclear reprocessing. Now the plan is to bury the unreprocessed..and therefore more dangerous than it needs to be...waste in a Yucca mountain cave. This was selected primarily because of the areas relative geological stability and Nevada's small congressional deligation and number of electoral votes.

Reprocessing is the key to nuclear power.

We simply MUST start building large reprocessing plants. (Reprocessing plants can be designed produce scads of electrial power as well).
Beyond that everything needed for energy in perpetuity is easy.
Brian Wang reports that great breakthroughs are being made in thermoelectrics, which has the potential to greatly increase the useable output of the above mentioned reactor designs ( or, alternatively remove the associated turbines and their maintenance/repair costs)
This would, as well, increase the effeciency of most other industrial processes.

In the short term "Drill Baby Drill!!!" and increasing efficiencies in diesel and hybrid vehicles will help the world meet its liquid fuel needs but petroleum is a finite resource. Biofuels are one answer, but not the corn based ethanol that requires vast acreage of food crops to be displaced...and is damned inefficient anyway. The only biofuel that is really good in terms of amount produced per acre is oil from algae. There have been big advances in this recently as well as several production ventures. (More here and here) Algae can be cultivated in lots of places, but both he hydroponic systems and the refining process require energy....thus the necessity for nuclear power.

If these things are followed through on we could have a remarkably robust, clean, and more than adequate set of complimentary power sources within 20 years. If we go with windmills we will have to lay vast ammounts of power cables to vast ammounts of windmill that wil be highly erratic in their output...though via subsidies...we will make T.Boone Pickens rich.

As this is the silly season there are thoughts on the politics of this descretely below the fold.


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October 03, 2008

Thorium Legislation Before Congress

One of the Brickmuppet's Crack team of Science Babes relays this bit of important information from Kirk Sorensen.

I want to alert you to an exciting development in the US Senate regarding
thorium--legislation introduced by Senators Hatch and Reid to amend the US
Atomic Energy Act to further the utilization of thorium as a planetary
energy source. This represents what so many of us have been saying and
hoping for for so long, a safe clean abundant energy future powered by

Here is a link to the text of the legislation and the press release from
Senator Hatch's office:

Thorium is abundant and can be used in nuclear reactors much like Uranium.

Even better, when used in a liquid fluoride reactor, thorium is extremely efficient and can be utilized to reprocess nuclear waste reducing the amount of waste that has to be disposed of significantly*. Its efficiency would reduce waste further and likewise reduce radioactive fuel consumption...extending our reserves significantly.  As an additional perk, the US has huge thorium reserves.  Given the vast increase in available fuel combined with the incredible efficiency of the fuel cycle, adding thorium to our energy mix has the potential to massively increase our fuel reserves. This seems great and we've enthusiastically blogged about it before. However, it has NOT gotten any official support.

Until now.....

 There is a discussion of this over at Energy From Thorium and there is more on recent developments in thorium power here and here. Nuclear power developments including thorium news from the US and India are mentioned here.

That this is actually before congress is an extremely important development and potentially a real breakthrough.

While the bailout is immediate in importance, as soon as that is resolved, write your congress in support of this legislation. It may hold the key to our future.

* This explains why normally anti-nuke Harry Reid is a co sponsor. It promises to vastly reduce the amount of waste that would need to be stored at Yucca Mountain.

Text of he legislation is below the fold.

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July 12, 2008

Look!...a Particularly Cunning Energy Plan

T. Boone Pickens has an Energy Plan that is getting a lot of attention.


One of the Brickmuppets crack team of science babes crunches the numbers and comes up with some pertinent suggestions.

There is little to add really.

The Pickens plan involves filling the windiest parts of the west all the way from from the Canadian border to the Rio Grande with windmills over a 10 year period.

Back to the weather problems...the area is very windy on average but that is just an average...atmospheric high pressure systems which can cover vast areas tend to stop the wind....How vast an area?

The two low wind high pressure systems on this map could stretch from ...oh...say...the Canadian boarder to the Rio Grande!

Note that high pressure systems are also associated with heat waves and cold snaps, so the wind would not be available during weather conditions that would boost demand.
Wind is inherently problematic in this regard...
This does not get into incidents where the wind blows too fast and damages the mechanism....not unheard of in this area where powerful line squalls account in part for the high AVERAGE wind velocity.

Besides the fickleness of wind there are other problems:

The areas involved are quite far from most places the power is needed. Power loss through the resistance of power lines is going to take a huge toll.

Windmills have moving parts and dynamos that require a fair bit of maintenance and this is multiplied in this plan by the remote areas.

Freeing up natural gas for vehicles is illusory...for one thing we actually have to import some of our natural gas supplies and few cars in the us can run off NG. Its energy density sucks is little better than electric with regard to range.

The money and the 10 years would be far better spent  doing mass producing Generation-4 reactors.....its doable...we know this because it is BEING DONE!( just not here)

This plan is a monumental waste of time and energy. Like the corn based ethanol boondoggle this proposal smells. It makes no economic sense whatsoever unless one takes into account the subsidies offered for wind power by congress. Charles Barton has the scoop here in the transcript of a remarkably candid interview with Pickens who admits that not only is he not going to pursue the proposal without subsidies, not only is it not going to produce constant power, but he is going to see to it that none of the windmills are built on his land!

This is, like, the ethanol from corn boondoggle, little more than a way to siphon off taxpayers money. Unlike that is less than likely that there is any good faith mistake here.


A Brickmuppet Blog post on nukes in general from last year can be found here.

'Science babe' is Maria from Sakura Wars....out of character and out of costume.

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