Extracting energy from the tar sands is not a pretty equation.
It isn' cheap. It isn't energy efficient.
And it is becoming increasingly politically charged given its heavy carbon footprint.
But the tar sands remain a massive reserve that has the interest of very large, innovative energy development companies. And the dollars and desire to exploit these non-conventional hydrocarbon resources could grow exponentially in the years ahead as companies try to change the cost equation.
Can Bitumen derived syngas lower costs? Some of the largest non-conventional energy reserves in the world are found in North America's tar sands and oil shales.
The problem is that we are a bit early. These reserves still need a few more million years of natural bio-geological processes to rearrange the chemical bonds to make extraction easier. But instead of waiting, energy companies are developing ways to lower the costs of processing this carbon heavy resource. One of the reasons for high cost is the demand for outside energy needed to reform the tar sands into a usable form of liquid oil.
The Al Fin Energy blog is reporting on a new technique for substituting high priced natural gas with synthetic gas (syngas) derived from waste bitumen which is currently a byproduct. The process, developed by Nexen Inc. and OPTI Canada at the Long Lake Project, could change the price equation of exploiting the tar sands.
Good, bad or ugly - the tar sands cannot be ignored in a future where issues of climate change, 'energy independence', and peak oil production converge. The conversation about the future of the tar sands is just getting started.
Eco-Energy blogs seem to love stories about cleaner ways of making cement - which accounts for at least 5% global carbon dioxide emissions. Last year the viral story was a novel process developed by MIT students, and now Australian-based Zeobond is gaining a lot of attention. The company uses industry waste materials to reduce the environmental impact of cement material compounds.
The case for investing in a 'New Energy Economy' was just validated by one of the world's leading material solutions companies.
3M has announced the formal creation of its new Renewable Energy Division that will include two divisions dedicated to Energy Generation & Energy Management.
The Energy Generation Division will develop materials for solar, wind, geothermal and biofuel solutions such as films, tapes, coatings, encapsulants, sealants and adhesives to reduce costs and improve performance.
The Energy Management Division will focus on thermal efficiences (e.g. film efficiencies), membranes for energy storage devices (e.g. fuel cells, batteries) and other applications for the Automotive, Commercial Building and Residential market segments.
New Energy Economy depends on Advanced Nanostructured Materials This is big news for the cleantech sector. Energy is about interactions between light, molecules, metals, and heat. The only way to build a 'green' economy is to advance materials that make these interactions cleaner and lower cost.
3M has the resources to fundamentally change the performance-price points of cleantech materials. And it is a corporate stamp of approval on the idea that we must begin to move beyond extracting ancient stored energy (coal, oil and natural gas) and shift towards producing and storing energy using renewable resources that make clean electrons and clean molecules.
Becoming 'energy efficient' goes far beyond changing light bulbs. Our greatest gains will come from moving beyond today's 'combustion' energy systems that burn fuels in large power plants and under our hoods.
Central to this 'post-combustion era' strategy is the fuel cell- which converts chemical energy of hydrogen or hydrogen rich fuels (e.g. natural gas, methanol) into electrical energy. Fuel cells are modular, have no moving parts, offer higher efficiencies, lower maintenance and are ideal for distributed applications.
One of the major roadblocks has been the high costs of platinum catalysts that are peppered on fuel cell membranes (MEAs). To scale up in the decades ahead, fuel cell researchers need to find non-precious metal catalysts.
Can Carbon outperform Platinum? Now a research team from the University of Dayton has found a way to create a carbon nanotube based catalyst that might outperform platinum and dramatically drop the costs of fuel cells.
Shape helps speed up reactions The research team, led by Dr Liming Dai, synthesized carbon nanotubes using an iron base and doped nitrogen particles to change the shape (and properties) of the nanotube cathode, resulting in a faster reaction / higher efficiency.
New Scientist reports Dai's claim that "They are even better than platinum, long regarded as the best catalyst," as they avoid problems with carbon 'poisoning' that leads to lower performance.
We have written extensively on the disruptive role of nanoscale science and engineering in all energy applications (old and new), and the importance of 'shape' in determining molecular system performance in catalysis. We cannot simply extrapolate our assumptions of what is possible or impossible with carbon or hydrogen based on a microscale era of scientific knowledge.
Giving Carbon a New Image (Nanotubes, Nanoparticles & Graphene Sheets)
The larger pores could be helpful in separating alcohol gases from water in creation of fuels from biomass, while the smaller pores can be used to store hydrogen as a solid.
We have featured a number of stories (below) on MOFs, and believe they are on a solid development path towards commercialization in a wide range of energy applications.
First synthesized in the mid 1990s, MOFs have the highest surface area of any known material. They can be used for 'separating (carbon-hydrogen rich) gases, acting as catalysts to speed up chemical reactions, and for storing gases as solids.'
The future of energy will be based on our mastering of interactions between basic units like light, molecules, and metals. MOFs provide human beings with a platform of unprecedented surface area that increase our ability to manipulate these interactions. They might play a critical role in enabling a new era of energy systems that go beyond 'extraction' of hydrocarbon reserves.
Why Science, Not Consumerism, is Needed to Move beyond the ‘Extraction’ Era of Energy
Environmental and Energy advocacy group Bellona has released an interactive tool for understanding geo-engineering based CO2 capture and storage (CCS) technology designed to reduce power plant based emissions. The tool describes the engineering solutions for carbon capture, as well as point source carbon emissions based around the world.
Charlie Rose recently hosted a conversation [35 min.] with United States Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. The conversation covered a wide spectrum of ideas being explored from the 'low hanging fruit' with energy efficiency and new building design tools, to evolution of Smart Grid and anticipatory management of energy flows, new tranmission lines for renewables, emerging carbon pricing markets, cleaner coal systems, regulatory framework for nuclear, and next generation liquid fuels.
And ended with Rose stating 'that the convergence/merger of our scientific know-howand energy' will determine our future. On that note, I wish Chu would have uttered something about 'nanoscale' engineering, and bioenergy (algae/bacteria, and synthetic biology) just to seed these emerging concepts with Rose's audience. But baby steps, I guess!
Energy Revolution Rises from Materials Science and Bio-science, not Geo-Engineering Chu arrived at the right time! The first half of this Industrial Age was based on us being smart geo-engineers, not necessarily smart energy materials scientists. And that is our future- growing and storing our own energy supplies! I am just very thankful that we have a DOE Secretary who recognizes that the 'green revolution' will arise from science, not shopping!Oh, the places we'll go!
Human beings have mastered the brute-force era of ‘energy by engineering’ where we’ve pulled stored energy from the Earth locked up as coal, oil and natural gas. But we are just beginning to achieve a more Zen-like ability to manipulate molecules that we harness and store ourselves.
Energy is about the interaction of molecules. And the way human beings can create cleaner energy interactions is by designing materials at the nanoscale to achieve unprecedented performance. Surface area is a key piece to this puzzle.
One Gram = One Football Field = How many molecules? Now, imagine holding a material in your hand that was made up of tiny nano-sized ‘cages’ that could hold gas molecules like hydrogen and carbon. Now imagine a gram of this material having the surface area of a football field. How many hydrogen or carbon molecules could you fit in that space? We don't yet know what practical storage systems might yield. This is a big question for energy researchers.
A research team led by University of Michigan’s Adam Matzger has created a novel nanoporous material known as UMCM-2 (University of Michigan Crystalline Material-2) that could claim the world record for surface area with more than 5,000 square meters per gram.
"Surface area is an important, intrinsic property that can affect the behavior of materials in processes ranging from the activity of catalysts to water detoxification to purification of hydrocarbons," Matzger said. That means we can design high surface area materials to scrub carbon leaving cleaner hydrogen bonds, or desalinate water using less energy.
Until recently the threshold for surface area was 3,000 square meters per gram. Then in 2004, a U-M team that included Matzger reported development of a material known as MOF-177 (metal-organic frameworks) that has the surface area of a football field.
"Pushing beyond that point has been difficult," Matzger said, but apparently not impossible using a new method of coordination copolymerization. If it's hard to get your head around, just think: Building Legos wth Molecules! That's a Big Idea!
Rethinking the Problem: Think Small, not Big Our current 'crisis' around energy and climate change has less to do with our relationship with the Planet, than it does our relationship with molecules.
To change our footprint on the Planet, we have to change our relationship with nature at the molecular level.
We are still living in an Industrial Age where we extract carbon-hydrogen bonds assembled by ancient plants and algae to power our world and to make plastic-based products. To stay within the Planet's carrying capacity, we have to change this relationship with molecules.
This is the next, yet to be written, chapter: The Nanoscale Era of Materials Engineering.
Industrial Age Part Two: Green Chemistry Why be hopeful? Scientists continue to move us closer to a new era of Industrial manufacturing based on a vision of 'Green Chemisty' in which we create the basic components used in making materials, energy, food and pharmaceuticals using more sustainable practices, often without the use of petroleum based feedstocks. Now we have another step forward.
“Using platinum clusters, we have devised a way to catalyze propane not only in a more environmentally friendly way, but also using far less energy than previous methods,” said Argonne scientist Stefan Vajda.
Researchers believe that this 'new class of catalysts may lead to energy-efficient and environmentally friendly synthesis strategies and the possible replacement of petrochemical feedstocks by abundant small alkanes.'
(Alkane? There's another funny word. But honestly, it's just a different arrangement of carbon and hydrogen! Whether you say 'ethelyne', 'human being' or 'breathing' it is just another funny way of saying carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.)
Can you get 1 billion people to turn off their lights at the same time?* Maybe.
It's a powerful idea that seems to be gaining momentum city by city. The World Wildlife Fund is asking individuals, businesses, governments and organizations around the world to turn off their lights for one hour Earth Hour to make a global statement of concern about climate change and to demonstrate commitment to finding solutions.
Last year, an estimated 15 million people in cities around the world voluntarily turned off their lights, and organizers hope for a billion in 2009 to raise awareness about the link between our energy consumption and environmental impact.
What's after Consuming Green? 'Continue reading below' for my take on the need to balance these 'consuming green' efforts with a global strategy centered on industry level change based on new energy science.
The combined company will have ‘approximately 7.5 billion barrels of oil equivalent (boe) of proved (developed and undeveloped) and probable reserves, on top of an estimated contingent resource base of approximately 19 billion boe.It will also have significant refining capacity of 433,000 barrels per day (b/d) and a strong Canadian retail brand in Suncor.'
Preempting the Inevitable Contraction of the Hydrocarbon Sector Energy analysts expect a wave of mergers as companies find it difficult to grow reserve assets through traditional exploration and development. Cash rich companies might find it easier to expand reserve totals by acquisition.
Future sucess might also be based on an ability to develop non-conventional resources like carbon-heavy 'tar sands' and deep water reserves. So for Canada's leading energy companies it was important to merge before being acquired.
According to Suncor CEO Rick George "The combined portfolio boasts the largest oil sands resource position, a strong Canadian downstream brand, solid conventional exploration and production assets, and low-cost production from Canada's east coast and internationally."
Coal is the world's fastest growing source of energy, and at the center of the debate over advancing our efforts to reduce CO2 emissions even as we attempt to meet the demands of a global doubling of energy consumption in the decades ahead.
'Clean' vs 'Cleaner' While one side of the debate spectrum ridicules the concept of 'Clean Coal', the other side is pushing forward down the road to 'Cleaner' ways to convert coal energy into electricity that goes far beyond today's 'coal fire' combustion power plants.
Via a process known as 'gasification' we can remove much of the carbon from coal to create a cleaner hydrogen-rich synthetic gas (syngas). Industrial scale fuel cells can then convert this syngas chemical energy into electricity. The challenge is scaling up fuel cells to meet the challenge!
The milestone marks a key step towards non-combustion based conversion using 'low-cost Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFC) technology for coal-based power plants and other power generation applications' using carbon heavy feedstocks such as syngas, natural gas and biofuels.
Integrated gasification fuel cell plants are expected 'to achieve an overall operating efficiency of greater than 50 percent—15 percentage points higher than today’s average U.S.-based coal-fired power plant—while separating at least 90 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions for capture and environmentally secure storage.'
The US Department of Energy hoopes to have a a 250-kilowatt to 1-megawatt fuel cell module demonstration by 2012; a 5-megawatt proof-of-concept fuel cell system to demonstrate system integration, heat recovery turbines, and power electronics by 2015; and then a full-scale demonstration of a 250- to 500-megawatt integrated gasification fuel cell power plant by 2020.