Apr 16, 2009

Book Review: "Energy & International War: From Babylon to Baghdad & Beyond"

The author presents a somewhat academic description of the role played by access to (both fossil fuel and other mineral) resources in international conflicts. Not withstanding the numerous typos, the book is interesting from a historic as well as future-energy policy standpoint. For example, the author describes how access to the iron and coal-rich Alsace-Lorraine region shaped the frontline positions during WW I, how the conversion of British naval fleet from coal to oil gave them an advantage over the Germans before WW I, how the inferiority of the German Fischer-Tropsch aviation fuel contributed to their defeat in the Battle of Britain during WW II, and how Japanese pre-war thinking was heavily influenced by access to energy and mineral resources in south east Asia. On a more contemporary note, the author examines the current war in Iraq and presents some interesting conclusions. Additionally, natural gas, uranium and renewables markets are also explored in a similar vein. French foreign policy towards uranium-producing countries in Africa, and its role in civil/international regional conflicts is discussed. The author notes that after being assured of a dependable world supply for uranium, French policy has undergone a sea-change. The author discusses natural gas markets and the relations of the biggest supplier (Russia) with its former client states and Western European consumers.
The author notes that the European Union evolved from the European Coal and Steel Community, which was established to prevent future wars between France and Germany. One theme expressed in this book is that energy rarely is the main driver for international conflict, however, access to energy resources does play a role in shaping them, or as in WW I and II, influences their eventual outcomes.


Apr 12, 2009

Curiouser and curiouser!: Underground Coal-to-Liquids (UCTL) pilot test

UCTL Process flow diagram (click for an enlarged picture), source

The GCC reports that Regal Resources, an Australian company, is planning to acquire Magma Oil, which holds patents in underground coal-to-liquids (UCTL) processes. According to Magma Oil, hydrothermal reactions of coal (lignites) in the presence of suitable catalysts produce steam, methane and hydrocarbon liquids. The hydrocarbon liquids are separated for further refinery processing, whereas the steam (and other products) are reinjected. According to Magma Oil, the advantages of the process are the use of oilfield equipment (significantly lower capital costs compared to surface- and underground coal gasification technologies)and lower temperature (350 C), maximizing liquid hydrocarbon yields.
My comments
One cannot strictly compare the UCTL process to UCG (underground coal gasification) process. UCG technology aims to utilize stranded coal resources (not necessarily limited to lignites), and therefore requires some capital outlay for advanced (horizontal) drilling equipment. On the other hand, from the information available, it seems that the UCTL process works with mineable coal seams as well (seam depth > 50 m). Whereas previous UCG pilot tests have established to some level of certainty that groundwater pollution can be avoided, this is doubly important for the UCTL technologies where significantly higher quantities of water and other chemicals (catalysts) are likely injected. Other competitors to UCTL processes include the Syntroleum-Linc Energy air-based UCG-synfuel process also produces above-ground Fischer-Tropsch liquids from air-blown UCG syngas.
Two other issues might also be important: namely, the availability of supplementary "natural catalysts/impurities located in all coal seams" (coals are necessarily heterogeneous) and the real extent of zeolite-formation and CO2 sequestration.


Apr 10, 2009

UCG update: Lower CO2 emissions compared to NGCC

World Coal ($ubscription required) has an article in their March 2009 issue [Next Generation Drilling, World Coal, v. 18(3), p.28-36] detailing an economic-engineering analysis of underground coal gasification (UCG). According to Kempka et al., producing UCG-syngas to electricity has lower CO2 emissions per unit energy produced compared to natural gas combined cycle power plants. I think this is significant because natural gas-fired power plants have almost half the CO2 emissions of a conventional pulverized coal-fired power plants. Therefore, in a high-gas price scenario, UCG might become economically as well as environmentally favorable (provided sulfur, VOC, ground water contaminant emissions are taken care of).
My previous UCG post:
Underground Coal Gasification: Keep the coal in the ground, convert it to gas


Apr 7, 2009

"That Which Belongs To None Belongs To Every One" : Arctic Climate Change & Energy Geopolitics

Verne wrote about energy resources (coal) in the Arctic & the possibility of human-engineered climate change resulting in enhanced access to these resources. Credits

Scott Borgerson, in his article "The Great Game Moves North", in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs notes that rapidly changing Arctic climate could has countries such as Russia, Denmark, Canada, Norway, and the U.S. coming up with plans to tap the resources of this region. I did not realize it when I read the article, but in Jules Verne's The Purchase of The North Pole (aka Topsy-Turvy (Project Gutenberg)), the same nations (except for U.K. instead of Canada, Netherlands and Sweden-Norway instead of Norway) participate in an auction organized by the North Polar Practical Association to claim ownership of the earth's surface from 84 oN to 90 oN. In this article, I will compare fact and fiction to draw some conclusions on Arctic energy geopolitics.

The quote in the title comes from "The Purchase of the North Pole". In contrast to fiction, Borgerson contends that U.S. still has to verify the U.N. Law of Sea Convention, improve cooperation with Canada and retrofit its aging icebreaker fleet. According to the USGS, the Arctic likely has 13% of the world's undiscovered oil (90 billion barrels) and 30% of the world's undiscovered gas (1670 trillion cubic feet). Whereas more than 70% of the undiscovered oil resource is estimated to occur in Arctic Alaska, Amerasia Basin, East Greenland Rift Basin, East Barents Basin and West Greenland-East Canada basins, the distribution of natural gas is more concentrated. More than 70% of undiscovered natural gas resources is estimated to occur in West Siberian Basin (Russia), East Barents Basin and Arctic Alaska (USGS factsheet, pdf). The USGS estimated that it would take 37 $/barrel to produce oil from a big (billion barrel) field. Note that the associated natural gas produced is reinjected in these calculations. The WSJ points out that:
[L]arge parts of the Arctic, especially offshore, remain unexplored.

In his article, Borgerson notes:
At the same time, Arctic countries are closely collaborating on mapping the area's seafloor, with scientists from one country frequently sailing on icebreakers of another. On the face of it, everyone seems to be getting along swimmingly.
But all of this camaraderie is at odds with the growing remilitarization of the Arctic. The region is in the midst of transforming from a frozen, sleepy backwater into a potential epicenter of world affairs. How this all plays out in the geopolitical development of the region is a story that is very much still being written.

Arguments in support of various countries' claims to portions of the Arctic can be found here. A map showing various claims in shown below. An interactive version of the map can be found at Spiegel online.

Map of Russian Arctic claims © BBC

Russian developments constitute a major portion of Borgerson's article. He notes that Russia has the largest icebreaker fleet, and that Gazprom is aggressively developing the Shtokman natural gas field, and considering potential future LNG exports to the US eastern seaboard. Interestingly, Borgerson also notes that countries without Arctic coastlines such as China, South Korea, Japan are also participating in Arctic expeditions or are involved in building icebreakers and ice-strengthened tankers.

My opinions:
There are indications that the Arctic likely contains large oil and gas resources. However, the comparatively high cost of crude production in the Arctic indicate that production would not be economical in a market with low crude prices. Additionally, developing the natural gas resource located in the Russian Arctic is likely to involve significant investments in infrastructure, either as liquefied natural gas (LNG)-carrying tankers, or floating production and offloading platforms where the gas is converted on-board to liquid fuels such as methanol. The prospect of refreezing winter seas and rough weather would make operations on oil and gas production platforms a dangerous affair by today's standards. Therefore, I would expect the shipping/tanker companies to be the initial beneficiaries of an ice-free Arctic. Projects such as the Shtokman field would benefit from seasonal ice-free shipping lanes which reduce distances to markets, both in the US as well as South-East Asia/Far East.

Unlike the events in Verne's novel, where the representatives of Britain, Sweden-Norway, Holland, Denmark and Russia agree to form a syndicate against the American-represented North Polar Practical Association, alliances over the ice-free oceans would be tenuous. Recently, Denmark and Canada held talks on the delineation of the limits of the outer continental shelf. The Russian claim over the North Pole would be evaluated by the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) this May. It is in U.S. interests to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea to have a role in these discussions. Regardless of these outcomes, one fact stands clear; no diplomat or leader can dare to think in similar lines to Jacques Jansen, the Netherlands' representative to the Arctic auction in Jules Verne's novel, who scoffs at the value of the Arctic ocean:
It would be much better to buy a load of codfish than to throw one’s money into the ice-water of the North.


Carbon dioxide Sequestration Revisited

Artist visualization of CO2 sequestration of CO2 from a coal fired power plant into brine deep below the ground

Just read an article on Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN) that Dow Chemicals and Air Products have signed separate agreements to capture and sequester CO2 emitted from coal fired power plants in US and Germany, respectively.
Dow's proposed agreement is with Alstom for a pilot plant to be built at South Charleston W.Va. They are proposing about 1800 tons/yr of CO2 capture from the flue gases of a coal fired boiler. The removal technology here is an amine based CO2 removal post capture method.
The Air Products project is Germany is with the Swedish utility company Vattenfall AB. Sequestration options are being explored currently. More details can be found in the source article [Link]. New findings in the the sequestration of CO2 indicate that substantial amount of underground CO2 may remain dissolved in deep formation brine, rather than getting fixed into mineral carbonates, as previously believed.


The Energy Webring