Friday, September 4, 2009

There is no future for oil! The Future for oil is fine!

There is no future for oil! The Future for oil is fine!

Everyday the argument continues and the so called evidence mounts each day for both sides of the argument.

I personally believe that oil is finite and that we've probably reached peak production, but there are a lot of voices from people more qualified than me that might disagree. The announcement last week of BP's deep discovery in the Gulf of Mexico is being used by some to support the theory that there's lots more oil and that modern technology will help us find it and extract it.
That may be true, but as the cost of finding and extracting oil climbs the search for alternatives grows. The problem is that many of the alternatives are not really viable today. Either they cost considerably more than oil, or they are not really scalable and so while contributing to the pool, do little to change the situation.

North America consumes about 8.16 billion barrels of oil per year. Biomass is often touted as the solution. There are about 1.3 billion tons of biomass available in the US to be turned into fuels. Canada probably has more, but i could not find the numbers i needed to confirm this. The problem with Canada is that most of the biomass is in remote areas and the costs of transport and harvesting make it unattractive at the present time.

The truth about biomass everywhere, is that it is expensive to grow, harvest and transport to fuels production facilities. I'm not saying biomass cant work, merely that there are large problems to which we have not found answers. If all of this biomass was converted to liquid fuels, I've estimated we'd create no more than 34% of the fuel needed for North America.

On the other hand waste presents a very interesting set of numbers.
*Municipal solid waste contains about 8000 BTU per pound.
*Each barrel of oil contains about 5.8 million BTUs.
*Each ton of waste converts to 2.7 barrels of liquid fuels
*We dump about a billion tons of waste into landfill each year

This means, using existing technology that we know works, we could produce 2.7 billion barrels of fuel from the MSW we produce and currently spend about $80 billion a year to dump in holes in the ground.

The beauty of converting waste to liquid fuels is that we kill two birds with one stone; we reduce our dependence on landfill and solve a number of the problems that go along with it like the escape of methane into the atmosphere, the leachate that seeps into our ground water and the odors that affect all who are close by.

However more importantly if we were to convert all of this waste we could produce about 37% of North America's fuel needs from a widely distributed energy resource. We go a long way to reducing our dependence on foreign oil and we produce a fuel that is one of the greenest on the planet.

It is unlikely that in the short term there will be the capital available to convert all of our hydrocarbon waste to fuels, but if the governments of the world want to create green jobs, this technology would be a good place to put money.

Fischer Tropsch fuels contain no sulfur, no particulates, no nitrous compounds and no aromatics. Their life cycle greenhouse gases are among the lowest of all fuels and their is a huge carbon offset from the waste diverted from landfill.

What's also important is that these fuels can be produced today, with virtually no technology risk. This technology has been around for over 80 years but only operating at very large scale. With second generation advances it is now possible to build economically viable small scale plants that would provide waste handling solutions to the more than 336 cities around the world with more than 1,000,000 people.

I recently returned from Cleantech Boston where there was much talk of waste to energy, but most were talking about using waste to generate electricity. There's no doubt that this approach works, but it is low value add when compared with fuels. More about this in a later blog.

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