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August 25, 2008.  The Department of the Interior along with the Department of Energy has announced that the Hanford B Reactor has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.

A pdf download details the history of area 100-B.  In this document there is a figure that shows how new fuel elements were pushed in one side and how the spent elements came out the other side into a water basin with the aid of the local (and free) gravitational field.

This seems very clever. I fear that a modern solution would involve 10 years of studies and would result in a half billion dollar high tech solution. Contractors would lock on to the DOE tit and hang there for decades with service contracts and spec’d in consumables.

 Hanford Refueling Process

The 2005 government report entitled Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management, by Hirsch, Bezdek, and Wendling, is a sobering tally of the current picture of oil production and consumption in the world today. Often referred to as the Hirsch Report, the authors take a “now shot” of the global oil production scene and speak directly to the matter of mitigating the approaching economic disruption that must usher an unprepared nation into a future of peak and declining oil production.

If you read the Hirsch Report and pay attention to current events, you may be gripped by a kind of cognitve dissonance, or a haunting sense resembling a schizophrenic episode of contradictory voices in the collective consciousness.  While the global warming showboat is paddling up and down the Mississippi blowing steam and calliope music, nationalized oil producers are failing to answer calls for increased production in reply to a dramatic ramp-up in petroleum demand. Some call for increased exploration and others call for drop in replacements for petroleum. All the while, evidence accumulates that the ecosystem suffering from consumption and waste generation.

As with any discussion involving economics, it is possible for people to speak imprecisely when discussing supply and demand. Econobrowser takes Hirsch to task in this manner. It seems that many of us confuse demand with desire.

Supply equals demand today, supply will equal demand in 2025, and supply will equal demand in 2050. Whatever Hirsch means by “peaking of world conventional oil production,” it certainly isn’t the condition that “production will no longer satisfy demand.”

Our news media, now almost fully morphed into a perverse mix of gibbering Bill O’Reilly clones and entertainment news programming, prattles endlessly about the hurtful gasoline prices and truncated vacation plans. Government makes flatulent noises about more drilling, but hardly a peep about reduced consumption.  Where is the journalist corps? Who is asking the tough questions?

In isolation, either climate change or an exponential oil shock are more complex than nimrods leaders in the Bush administration can process. Together, these stresses add up to a major challenge to the way we live.  Maybe the situation is more complex than any nation can reasonably respond to. With global prosperity comes global demand for resources.  Western nations have built a house of cards based on cheap petroleum. Instead of wage growth in the past 20 years, we have been given easier access to credit. Instead of increased savings, we have found ways to burn up discretionary income.

A major part of what has to happen to adapt to the new reality of petroleum scarcity is a remodel of our infrastructure. We need more passenger rail lines and terminals with the necessary right-of-way issues taken care of. Workers need to live closer to their place of employment. The airlines have to figure out how to operate profitably with reduced passenger miles. We must upgrade our electric power distribution system to accommodate the increasing reliance on electrical energy. If wages do not change, we must adapt to having less discretionary income to spend. 

But a remodel of infrastructure will require that we adapt to living nearer to it. In the past, a proposal to build a power plant is met with a chorus of outrage or “concern”. It used to be called NIMBY- Not-In-My-Back-Yard.  The latest acronym is BANANA- Build-Absolutely-Nothing-Anywhere-Near-Anything. New power transmission lines and generating plants will have to go up and it will have to happen somewhere. People naturally fret about real estate prices and their view from the dining room window. I foresee more exercise of eminent domain in the future.

German manufacturing culture does many things very well, but a few things particularly stand out. One of these items pertains to the concept of verbund manufacturing. Verbund simply means “integrated” or “linked”. Verbund manufacturing sites are clusters of manufacturing units that take advantage of proximity. Clustering can offer certain logistic and energy advantages if done intelligently.

A cluster of manufacturing sites can operate and share a co-generation plant for the distribution of steam, waste heat, and electricity. Large capital items like steam plants can be shared so funds can be plowed into larger scale for better economy. Rail operations and other transportation resources can be shared as well. Clustering also provides for the possibility of vertically integrated manufacturing on site and a reduction in transportation costs.

Clustered manufacturing may also have the effect of concentrating the supply of skilled workers for the labor pool. A manufacturing nexus can attract community colleges and other vocational opportunities for the next generation of employees.

The USA has many manufacturing sites where similar industries congregate. Look at the Gulf coast with all of the refinery locations. But the extent to which there are synergistic interactions between companies is unclear.

In the US, corporations tend to behave as the Republic of Exxon or the Republic of the Union Pacific. This kind of a fragmented confederation of corporate states is becoming obsolete as we go up against nationalized business entities that control key resources and trade. The key to future vitality is greater efficiency with resources. Synergistic cooperation is one model that is available. But to do this requires trust and the desire to cooperate for mutual benefit. Competition begets gamesmanship and posturing which works against the verbund model for US businesses.

US corporations have much to learn from this business model.

According to an article by Greg Walters at, crude oil output in Russia is expected to decrease for the first time in 10 years.

“Two years ago, we said the growth rate was falling, and we said this was bad for Russia, remember?” Trutnev said in televised remarks after a government meeting in Moscow today. “Now we’re saying the production rate is falling this year. This is not a bogeyman, unfortunately, this is real,” Trutnev said, without giving a specific forecast.

The petroleum problem in Russia seems to stem from the lack of investment in exploration in combination with exorbitant taxes on the industry.

Gail the Actuary has an interesting post on the post-peak-oil economy. Gail is a contributor to The Oil Drum Discussions.  It’s all kind of gloomy.  Time for a nice glass of Bordeaux.

One year ago a couple of us from the observatory gave a presentation before our town board in support of an ordinance for outdoor lighting. The proposal was along the lines of that used by the city of Tucson, AZ. It is really just a type of tweaking of the town architectural standards and is promoted by IDA, the International Dark Sky Association.

A draft of the document was developed and approved by the town board of trustees just tonight. It will come up for a vote in the next meeting. Based on tonights meeting, it should pass readily.

This is the first time a law has been passed where Th’ Gaussling wasn’t some kind of negative example.  Maybe I should have spent my 15 minutes of fame in some other way. Hmmm.

If one examines the composition of propellants and explosives, what you find is that the successful and desirable compositions are those substances that decompose to produce many more moles of decomposition products than moles of starting materials.  As a result, modern propellant compositions have not just a preponderance of nitrogen atoms, but also more skeletal C-N or N-N linkages that replace C-C linkages. Dinitrogen as a decomposition product is more atom efficient in producing PV work than is CO2 or H2O if only because a molar volume of N2 contains only 2 moles of atoms as opposed to 3. 

Designers of explosives and propellants are principally concerned with doing work (W=Fd=PV) against the environment. It could be moving soil, forming a shock wave, or a accelerating a projectile out of a tube. Some particular mass needs to be accelerated over a distance and extracting the last bit of work from the expanding gases is desirable.

PV work is performed by evolving lots of -kJ/mol from heat of formation and arranging for the expanding gas to do something useful. In the case of propellants, dinitrogen formation yields a healthy heat of formation produced from making a triple bond. Hot gases want to expand and move whatever they are in contact with. The more molar volumes of gas generated, the more work that can be done. 

Some of the above line of thinking applies to the combustion of hydrocarbons as well, though the necessary formation of triatomic gases lowers the atom efficiency. The combination of C=O and H-O bonds being formed leads to a net evolution of heat compared to heat absorbed in breaking C-C, C-H, and O-O bonds. Properly chosen fuels and oxidizers provide a net increase in moles of gaseous products leading to an increase in molar gas volume.

Now, consider the case of the combustion of hydrogen and oxygen to produce water: 2 H2 + O2 –> 2 HOH.   In this reaction three moles of gas react to produce only 2 moles of  gas. There is a net loss in molar volume of 1/3 at constant presssure.  Obviously H2 reacts violently with O2 to produce PV work.  Hydrogen can be used to power an Otto cycle engine. But the net loss of molar volume across the reaction would appear to be a drawback to this system compared to others. The question I have is, how does this figure into the overall efficiency of H2 as a fuel?? 

Hydrogen is known to be problematic in engines due to what is called a cooling effect.

One of the key issues to consider with hydrogen economics is the fact that every last molecule has to be manufactured from hydrogen rich feedstocks using energy input. Hydrocarbons have to be cracked in some way, water has to be electrolyzed, or metals have to be oxidized with acid to produce dihydrogen. 

Given that H2 has to be manufactured by cracking hydrocarbon resources or electrolysis of water, does it make sense to use H2 as an automotive fuel? Why not just combust the hydrocarbon that was cracked to give up the H2 in the first place? Better yet, combust H2 at a centrally located gas turbine power plant and distribute the energy as electricity.

Hydrogen isn’t easily liquified (like propane) and the compressed gas requires heavy containment. 

With xtal ball in hand, the more I peer into the next 50 years, the more the future appears to be electrically powered. Todays hydrogen and ethanol schemes found in the popular media result from our collective unwillingness to address the real problem: How do we modify our behaviour to consume fewer kilowatt-hours (or BTU’s) per capita?

The answer is that we need to live closer to work, drive fewer miles, divert fewer hydrocarbons into disposable products, and generally consume fewer kg of resources per capita. Hydrocarbons are a very valuable resource- we’re fighting in the middle east over access to oil output in that part of the world. 

Petroleum distillates have a wonderful combination of attributes that make them valuable. Petroleum distillates have high energy density, they are liquid in ordinary conditions and hence can be pumped and atomized, they offer a choice of flash points, and are reasonably safe for people to handle. This is a splendid set of properties! We should be more appreciative and take better care of how we use it.

For Americans, a glimse of the future can be had for the price of a plane ticket to Japan or Europe. Higher population density, smaller portions of most things, and a larger fraction of income spent on energy.

Somewhere on the web I saw a funny warning sign for lasers- I’m sure it was a joke.

Do not stare into laser with remaining eye.”

What a hoot!

Many years ago I had the chance to visit the National Maritime Museum in London. It is a fantastic museum and if you’re ever in London, try to take a day to visit.  The Royal Greenwich Observatory is nearby as well, so you can see the prime meridian and the transit telescope. I seem to recall that Christopher Wren was the architect of the Observatory. Anyway, I remember a visit to the cafeteria there and an observation that I made while buying lunch. 

As an American in Europe, your presence is obvious to everyone. Well, to everyone but a few who may suspect you’re a Canadian.  And a more awkward bunch of preening land lubbers you’ll never find than American tourists abroad. So, standing there at the food counter with fish & chips and waiting for my aliquot of Coca Cola, the matron behind the counter noted that I was an American and asked if I required ice. Yes indeed, says I. She nods and hobbles over to a small ice bucket, not unlike the kind you see in a motel room. She brings the bucket and using a pair of tongs, reaches in and fetches a single ice cube for my 300 mL portion of the blessed nectar. 

At first I was struck with their miserly approach to dispensing ice. They didn’t invest in a commercial high output ice machine like even the most modest American mom & pop cafe had. But sitting there munching on my deep fried cod, I started to think about the vast resources Americans consume in order to have a ready supply of ice.

Just think of it. How many restaurants are there in the USA? According to Datanetwork there are 516,326 restaurants in their database for the USA. If you assume that each restaurant has 1 ice machine, and the ice machine draws, say, 12 amps at 120 VAC, and using the rms value for AC voltage (0.707 * 120 V = 84.84 Vrms) we can use Ohms law to calculate the wattage: power = EI = (84.84 Vrms * 12 Amps) = 1018 watts while in operation. Obviously, there are wide variations in parameters out there in the field. This is just a SWAG- Scientific Wild Assed Guess.

So, multiplying the number of restaurants times the wattage: 516,326 * 1018 watts = 525,619,868 watts, or ~ 526 megawatts of demand.  Assuming that the power distribution losses  in the grid are ~20 % (just a guess!), that means that the utilities have to generate 657 megawatts at the plant so that 526 megawatts get to the consumers.  But it gets better.

The thermodynamic efficiency of a power plant is approximately 33 %, so 657 megawatts/0.33 = 1991 megawatts thermal have to be consumed to to generate the 657 megawatts electrical.  Let’s assume a typical ice maching runs 25 % 0f the time, or 6 hrs per day: Energy consumption for one day is 1991 megawatts * 6 hours = 11,946 megawatt hrs thermal per day. So, lets get down to coal and oil consumption-

(11,946 MWHr * 3,412,000 BTU/MWHr) = 40.76 E9 BTU ==> (40.76E9 BTU/13,000 BTU per lb bituminous coal) = 3,135,000 lbs of bituminous coal per day, or 1568 tons per day, or 572,000 tons per year. The metric conversion is 1.1025 tons per metric ton. So, 572,000 tons/1.1025 = 518,821 metric tons per year.  For conversion to equivalent barrels of crude oil, use 4.879 barrels equivalent crude oil per metric ton of coal.  Thus, 518,821 MT coal * 4.879 bbl crude oil/MT of coal = 2.53 million barrels of oil per year to energize ice machines for our cokes and Slurpies. 

So, 2.53 million barrels of oil * 60$/barrel= $151.8 million. A drop in the bucket in a $10 trillion economy. But it is just a tiny sliver of the whole spectrum of profligate uses of energy.  What we need is to summon some sensibility and reduce our individual consumption of energy.  Think of all of the devices the typical home now has that are always on- anything with a clock, DVD  players and televisions that can be activated by remote, plug in cell phone chargers, etc.- all consume a trickle current.

So forgive me for asking the following question. If we are more than happy to commit the brightest minds in our country to find new energy souces, develop more potent weaponry, teach urban combat in our war colleges, invade savage and squalid middle eastern “countries”, resurrect the nuclear power industry, invent hybrid automobiles, etc., then why can’t we commit a small portion of that effort to reducing demand for resources whose scarcity can trigger a war?

Oh yea, reducing consumption means buying fewer goods and services. How do you reduce consumption while maintaining growth? There is the fly in the ointment.

[Note: this posting makes a lot of assumptions. It is meant to be an order of magnitude estimate of the consequences of our fetish for ice cold drinks.  I value and welcome corrections, comments, and dialog. Th’ Gaussling]


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