Forecast of Rising Oil Demand Challenges Tired Saudi Fields
February 24, 2004 12:31 PM   Subscribe

Saudi Arabia, the leading exporter for three decades, is not running out of oil. Industry officials are finding, however, that it is becoming more difficult or expensive to extract it (weblog safe NYT link). A very readable article that, without even mentioning it, does a good job of explaining what is "the peak of oil". Cornucopians, that should sent shivers down your spine!
posted by samelborp (59 comments total)
The link I just posted goes to the printer friendly version of the article. Weblog safe link.

BTW, I just noticed that this made the Drudge Report frontpage today...
posted by samelborp at 12:37 PM on February 24, 2004

"He expects global oil markets to be in short supply by 2015."

For years I've been mystified as to why people aren't screaming hysterically about this. In twenty years we aren't going to have enough oil to do things like drive cars. No one seems to care.

Are people thinking that 1) new supplies will suddenly materialize, or 2) space aliens will break us a new power source? There aren't any other options. Fuel cells still need an energy source to create, and fusion power has been 50 years away for the last 30 years.

In your lifetime combustion engines will be too expensive to use. How do you feel about that?
posted by y6y6y6 at 1:06 PM on February 24, 2004

And right on below this post is one which laments the fact that more Americans aren't world travelers. The irony is astounding!
posted by Wulfgar! at 1:19 PM on February 24, 2004

Don't worry, we'll find oil on Mars by then, and ship it all back with our transporter technology.

I know that this wasn't a double, but FWIW, there was a actually good discussion on Peak Oil and the resulting apocalypse on MeFI last month.
posted by psmealey at 1:22 PM on February 24, 2004

People have been "proving" we'll reach the peak or run out of oil soon since the 1950's using the King Hubbert curve. The great thing is that every time this is published, it is updated, and the parameters of the curve are stretched a bit further to explain why we didn't reach the peak the last time it was published.

What keeps us from reaching this peak is that the "reserves" published by the oil companies/OPEC/etc. are based on things that are technically and economically feasible. Exploration and production technology have improved vastly since the 1950's, so resources which were previously unusable or unknown are enabling us (for now) to keep up with growing demand.

(IIRC, we've used since the 1970's four times over the amount of fossil fuel energy that was in the 1970's "reserves", but I can't find the reference offhand).
posted by whatzit at 1:24 PM on February 24, 2004

Anything Into Oil
Technological savvy could turn 600 million tons of turkey guts and other waste into 4 billion barrels of light Texas crude each year

By Brad Lemley

In an industrial park in Philadelphia sits a new machine that can
change almost anything into oil.


"This is a solution to three of the biggest problems facing mankind,"
says Brian Appel, chairman and CEO of Changing World Technologies, the
company that built this pilot plant and has just completed its first
industrial-size installation in Missouri. "This process can deal with
the world's waste. It can supplement our dwindling supplies of oil. And
it can slow down global warming."

Pardon me, says a reporter, shivering in the frigid dawn, but that
sounds too good to be true.

"Everybody says that," says Appel. He is a tall, affable entrepreneur
who has a! ssembled a team of scientists, former government leaders,
and deep-pocketed investors to develop and sell what he calls the
thermal depolymerization process, or TDP. The process is designed to
handle almost any waste product imaginable, including turkey offal,
tires, plastic bottles, harbor-dredged muck, old computers, municipal
garbage, cornstalks, paper-pulp effluent, infectious medical waste,
oil-refinery residues, even biological weapons such as anthrax spores.
According to Appel, waste goes in one end and comes out the other as
three products, all valuable and environmentally benign: high-quality
oil, clean-burning gas, and purified minerals that can be used as
fuels, fertilizers, or specialty chemicals for manufacturing.

Unlike other solid-to-liquid-fuel processes such as cornstarch into
ethanol, this one will accept almost any carbon-based feedstock. If a
175-pound man fell into one end, he would come out the other end as 38
pounds of oil, 7 pounds of gas, ! and 7 pounds of minerals, as well as
123 pounds of sterilized water. While no one plans to put people into a
thermal depolymerization machine, an intimate human creation could
become a prime feedstock. "There is no reason why we can't turn sewage,
including human excrement, into a glorious oil," says engineer Terry
Adams, a project consultant. So the city of Philadelphia is in
discussion with Changing World Technologies to begin doing exactly that.

"The potential is unbelievable," says Michael Roberts, a senior
chemical engineer for the Gas Technology Institute, an energy research
group. "You're not only cleaning up waste; you're talking about
distributed generation of oil all over the world."

link and link
posted by jbou at 1:35 PM on February 24, 2004

People have been "proving" we'll reach the peak or run out of oil soon since the 1950's using the King Hubbert curve.

My understanding of the Hubbert curve is that it was only calculated for US reserves, not world reserves, and that it has proven to be quite accurate. Remember, the curve only predicts when production will peak, not when we will "run out".

"There is no reason why we can't turn sewage,
including human excrement, into a glorious oil,"

Soylent Green is people!
posted by Slothrup at 1:51 PM on February 24, 2004

Actually this article is not some hair brained scheme about disappearing oil, extraction cost are rising in Saudi, funny thing is they seem to be declining in Iraq and at the same time the possible tally of extractable fields seems to be expanding in Iraq as detection technology gets better. Hmm, interesting timing.

Of course Canada in the nation with the largest total pool of oil, its just in sands that make it very expensive to extract. As soon as our technology gets better, I wonder how long it will take for "regime change" in the great white north.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:54 PM on February 24, 2004

Concerns about shortfalls in Saudi oil production are very well founded, but are due to Saudi mismanagement and under-investment - they tell us very little about the larger 'peak oil' issue.

Fossil fuels may be legislated away due to concerns about pollution and CO2, and/or they may become technically obsolete because we get better options, but the idea that we'll 'run out' is totally false.

Forget about 'Anything Into Oil' AND all the oil sands deposits like those in Alberta that are coming on line as technology improves.

Just by using World War 2 technology we can make all the oil we want to from coal and oil shales, at about $50 a barrel. Yes, there would be huge investments in physical plant required, and there will be huge environmental costs, but we can do it if we want. Coal/shale oil supplies would probably last another 60 to 80 years, if they supplied 100% of demand.

$50 dollar a barrel oil prices would mean about $1 per liter gas at the pump, prices that the rest of the world is already used to.

And then there is the wild card - methane hydrates. Still a very fuzzy science, but current estimates are that between 10,000 and 1 million times the global supply of All other fossil fuels (coal, oil, conventional gas) are sitting in the arctic and on the ocean floor. Most of that won't be economically recoverable, but some will be. The Japanese are investing heavily in research.

Just because we can does not mean we should develop these fuel sources. But the idea that we will 'run out of' fossil fuels is absurd.

The question is, will we be wise enough find better alternatives not because we have to but becasue we should do so.
posted by Jos Bleau at 1:57 PM on February 24, 2004

Is it time to break open people's heads and feast on the goo inside?
posted by jon_kill at 1:58 PM on February 24, 2004

> Of course Canada in the nation with the largest total pool of oil, its just in sands
> that make it very expensive to extract. As soon as our technology gets
> better, I wonder how long it will take for "regime change" in the great white north.

Well, they invaded us first. Burned the White House, they did.

> Soylent Green is people!

We can't turn that into food, we have to save it for lunch.
posted by jfuller at 2:15 PM on February 24, 2004

Is it time to break open people's heads and feast on the goo inside?

When isn't it time for broken-head goo-feasting?

there's a band name in there.... ROU Xenophobe and the Goo-Feasters. Or maybe Fwi-Song and the Goo-Feasters.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:55 PM on February 24, 2004

I find it perverse how much glee you people find in this.

"Oil is running out! The Gulf Stream is collapsing! Western Civilization is doomed! I told you so!" [fap fap fap fap]

(Oh yeah-- I'll believe it when I see it.)
posted by keswick at 3:06 PM on February 24, 2004

Microbial fuel cells.
posted by homunculus at 3:07 PM on February 24, 2004

Oh, you'll want (any of you interested in energy issues anyway) must read The Saudi Arabian Oil Miracle (pdf file, 3,2 MB), latest (and I say it's fresh from today!!) report from Matthew Simmons, an energy investment banker and adviser of the Bush administration. He's a banker and a pessimist. Very interesting.
posted by samelborp at 3:08 PM on February 24, 2004

Oh yeah-- I'll believe it when I see it.

So I take it you don't prepare for anything.

Seriously: While it's true that some get hyper about subjects like this, these are issues that need to be looked at. It's very easy to be sanguine about these type of things because people have a desire for stability. Furthermore, a whole lot of folks seem fantasy-prone enough to believe that just because they want something to be true that it will be.

So while I would tend to agree that people can get overwhelmingly excited about issues like the 'end of the world', not thinking about it at all seems just as foolish.
posted by moonbiter at 3:19 PM on February 24, 2004

a whole lot of folks seem fantasy-prone enough to believe that just because they want something to be true that it will be

Which, to elaborate, works for both sides of a debate, which is exactly why we need to examine these issues.
posted by moonbiter at 3:20 PM on February 24, 2004

Jos Bleau - Didn't we used to disagree on various things? I can remember what they were, exactly....anyway - it would be smart to get at those methane hydrates before the oceans heat up much more and liberate them into the atmosphere. That would be a big problem.


"The irony is astounding!" (wulfgar!) "The irony is astounding!" (echoes troutfishing) "Astounding!....ounding!......ounding!.......ounding!......"


Keswick - "The scientists and petroleum geologists are masturbating!.....ating!.....ating!......ating!

Science is bunk!......unk!.....unk!....unk!......."

Hubbert King was right on the money, and no subsequent technological improvements in oil extraction technology have reversed the accuracy of his prediction one whit. 1971 still remains the peak oil production year for the US.

Oddly enough - it was also exactly then, give or take a year, that :

1) The US became a debtor nation as it developed a net balance of trade deficit.

2) Trends in increasing equality in American wealth distribution began to reverse.

3) And - eerily - wasn't "The Death of God" proclaimed around then ?! ......well, maybe this isn't related to the first two in the slightest, but it sounds flashy.
posted by troutfishing at 3:36 PM on February 24, 2004

Economists... meet Reality.

She wants her Inputs back.
posted by meehawl at 3:46 PM on February 24, 2004

I think rock and roll died around '71, too.

This is all the Tri-Lateral Commission's fault.
posted by keswick at 3:48 PM on February 24, 2004

I like the graphs on this page. Especially the last one, population decline and all.

Given that so much of our agriculture is based on steadily increasing energy consumption, their predictions of a human population dieback seem reasonable.

One bright point is that with less oil to burn, greenhouse warming won't be so severe due to a reduction in gas emissions. Unless, of course, the gasahol people manage to convince everyone to ferment everything and stink up the joint.

World oil and gas supplies are heading for a "production crunch" sometime between 2010 and 2020 when they cannot meet supply, because global reserves are 80 per cent smaller than had been thought ... One side-effect of having lower oil reserves might be that the worst predictions of climate change would be forestalled - because there would be less fuel to burn, and therefore less carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas, produced.
posted by meehawl at 4:13 PM on February 24, 2004

meehawl - As jfuller pointed out (at least partially correctly, in my opinion) in the recent "Secret Pentagon report warns Climate Change..." thread, the oil scarcity doomsday scenario and global warming doomsday scenarios are at least in part mutually exclusive.

I disagree with much of Julian Simon's "Cornucopianism" - especially in that I think humans will for the foreseeable future have a damn hard time replacing the functions of the biosphere which we are rapidly consuming and degrading - but on this I fully agree with (the now sadly deceased) Simon - in the economic sphere, and with materials substitution, don't ever make the mistake of underestimating creative human genius

In general, I'm with Ehrlich but for that extremely important point.

For example - this whole energy scarcity problem can be addressed a number of ways - 1) frugality (energy efficiency technologies which tend to be more cost effective now than new production, 2) Biomass, wind, hydro and tidal power (wind power, initial costs amortized, is now within a shade of the the cost of coal) 3) Maybe fusion.....BUT :

Solar energy is everywhere and can be collected with nothing more complex than insulated boxes with one insulated glass face. And energy/fuel to power the EXISTING energy/transportation infrastructure can be derived by devices as basic as "solar chimneys", located in desert areas, which drive turbines that - in turn - produce hydrogen by electrolysis. Combustion engines will run on hydrogen with minor, cheap modifications. Hydrogen will heat homes and run electric power plants. It's an excellent, clean burning fuel.

The most basic solution, then, is pitifully basic - glass panes and metal framing for the structures, turbines, wiring, and salt water (piped in from the Pacific, no desalinization necessary, and a byproduct is then gold and other precious trace metals in solution), and desert.

Meaning - if we ALLOW a crunch, then we deserve what we get, but for those innocents (mostly children and the insane, as well as those lacking basic educational training or average intelligence) who would suffer from our pitiful myopic denial.

It would be so simple. Hey W - psssst - want to make the enviro freaks LOVE you ? well, let me tell you......."
posted by troutfishing at 5:09 PM on February 24, 2004

Peresonally I'm fond of the Agriculturally-driven Human Dieback Scenario trumping all lesser doomsday scenarios...
David Pimentel, an expert on food and energy at Cornell University, has estimated that if all of the world ate the way the United States eats, humanity would exhaust all known
global fossil-fuel reserves in just
over seven years. Pimentel has his detractors. Some have accused him of being off on other calculations by as much as 30 percent. Fine. Make it ten years.
Although about 50% of all the solar energy captured by photosynthesis worldwide is used by humans, it is still inadequate to meet all of the planet's needs for food worldwide (Pimentel and Pimentel, 1996). To make up for this shortfall, about 345 quads of fossil energy (oil, gas, and coal) are utilized worldwide each year (International Energy Annual, 1995). Of this, 81 quads are utilized in the United States (DOE, 1995a,b). The U.S. population consumes 40% more fossil energy than all the solar energy captured by harvested U.S. crops, forest products, and other vegetation each year (Pimentel and Pimentel, 1996) ... The world supply of oil is projected to last approximately 50 years at current production rates (BP, 1994; Ivanhoe, 1995; Campbell, 1997; Duncan, 1997; Youngquist, 1997). Worldwide, the natural gas supply is adequate for about 50 years and coal for about 100 years (BP, 1994; Bartlett and Ristinen, 1995; Youngquist, 1997). These estimates, however, are based on current consumption rates and current population numbers. If all people in the world enjoyed a standard of living and energy consumption rate similar to that of the average American, and the world population continued to grow at a rate of 1.5%, the world's fossil fuel reserves would last about 15 years (Campbell, 1997; Youngquist, 1997).

posted by meehawl at 5:57 PM on February 24, 2004

There's no proof that oil is:
a) A "fossil fuel," created from decomposing organic matter. It could just as easily be created by some process that occurs deep within the earth.
b) Not currently being created by the earth by whatever process created it in the first place. There are tons of stories about old reserves filling up again.

It's actually kind of interesting... we don't know a lot about how oil is created, even though we rely extremely heavily on it.
posted by ph00dz at 6:19 PM on February 24, 2004

The question of "how" oil is created is outside the scope of the issue at hand, which is that the known reserves of oil are peaking.

If oil is created by fossil fuel decay, or sub-terrane deep lithosphere organisms, or weird hydrocarbon chemistries we know nothing about, or even sexy pixies from inside the Hollow Earth, the process rate remains the same: extremely slow by human timescales. Certainly not fast enopugh to replace the current rate at which it is being consumed, and certainly not enough to support larger future rates.

On a basic level, think of it this way. It takes energy to pump oil up the gravity well to the surface, or to inject water down to displace it.

Sooner or later, as easy surface deposits are depleted, you have to expend more energy pumping. Eventually it costs you more energy to lift it up out of the gravity well than you get by burning it.

So all the remaining oil deposits, deep down, are essentially worthless. And their rate of upward climb due to geothermic processess is, again, too slow for human timescales.
posted by meehawl at 6:42 PM on February 24, 2004

That's not fair! just bopught a used Hummer! can anyone tell me the link used to get theTimes directly on a page without reg etc--it was commented on a few days ago at Metafilter but I lost it.
posted by Postroad at 7:29 PM on February 24, 2004

Biomass... Solar Energy... Glass panes...

All good ideas, even considering that intensity of direct sunlight hitting the surface is decreasing due to the scattering effects of aerosolized pollution and dust high in the atmosphere. We're seeing a drop in direct solar energy of around 3% per decade now, which impacts photovoltaic efficiency yields.

Anyway, David Pimental again has some thoughts on these options:

A city of 100,000 people using the biomass from a sustainable forest (3 tons/ha) for fuel would require approximately 220,000 ha of forest area, based on an electrical demand of 1 billion kWh (860 x 109 kcal = 1 kWh) per year ... Biomass could supply the nation with 5 quads of its total gross energy supply by the year 2050 with the use of at least 75 million ha (an area larger than Texas, or approximately 8% of the 917 million ha in the United States)

Using photovoltaic modules with an assumed 7.3% efficiency (the current level of commercial units), 1 billion kWh/yr of electricity could be produced on approximately 2700 ha of land (Table 2), or approximately 0.027 ha per person, based on the present average per capita use of electricity. Thus, total US electrical needs theoretically could be met with photovoltaic cells on 5.4 million ha (0.6% of US land). If 21% efficient cells were used, the total area needed would be greatly reduced. Photovoltaic plants with this level of efficiency are being developed ... The major environmental problem associated with photovoltaic systems is the use of toxic chemicals such as cadmium sulfide and gallium arsenide, in their manufacture (Holdren et al. 1980). Because these chemicals are highly toxic and persist in the environment for centuries, disposal of inoperative cells could become a major environmental problem.

Approximately 23% (18.4 quads) of the fossil energy consumed yearly in the United States is used for space heating and cooling of buildings and for heating hot water (DOE 1991a). At present only 0.3 quads of energy are being saved by technologies that employ passive and active solar heating and cooling of buildings ... Installing passive solar systems into the design of a new home is generally cheaper than retrofitting an existing home. Including passive solar systems during new home construction usually adds less than 10% to construction costs (Howard and Szoke 1992); a 3-5% added first cost is typical.1 Based on the cost of construction and the amount of energy saved measured in terms of reduced heating costs, we estimate the cost of passive solar systems to be approximately 3¢ per kWh saved.

Solar energy technologies, most of which require land for collection and production, will compete with agriculture and forestry in the United States and worldwide (Table 2). Therefore, the availability of land is projected to be a limiting factor in the development of solar energy. In the light of this constraint, an optimistic projection is that the current level of nearly 7 quads of solar energy collected and used annually in the United States could be increased to approximately 37 quads (Ogden and Williams 1989, Pimentel et al. 1984). This higher level represents only 43% of the 86 quads of total energy currently consumed in the United States (Tables 1 and 3). Producing 37 quads with solar technologies would require approximately 173 million ha, or nearly 20% of US land area (Table 3). At present this amount of land is available, but it may become unavailable due to future population growth and increased resource consumption. If land continues to be available, the amounts of solar energy (including hydropower and wind) that could be produced by the year 2050 are projected to be: 5 quads from biomass, 4 quads from hydropower, 8 quads from wind power, 6 quads from solar thermal systems, 6 quads from passive and active solar heating, and 8 quads from photovoltaics.
posted by meehawl at 8:19 PM on February 24, 2004

Let's see.
a) Oil resources (and I mean all oil - wether it is currently feasible to extract it or not) are not infinite - even if the whole planet was one large sea of oil, it would still not be infinite.

b) No new oil is being created. (Unless jbou's story isn't a hoax). We might be able to squeeze oil out of mineral coal or whatever, but mineral coal is a limited resource too.

c) The amount of oil consumed is greater than zero.

So, if we're eating into a limited resource, will that resource last forever? No.
Would it be correct to say that if you are depleting a limited resource, it will run out? Yes.

Note that this argument says nothing abut when it will run out, only that it will.

I've tried to make this as clear as possible, but if you still think a non-infinite source will sustain infinite consumption, that's fine by me.

Now, upon realizing that we will have a problem in the future, the constructive person should turn his attention towards finding a solution (and not to bickering about the size of the problem).

There are 2 possible solutions:
1) Find a way to create oil - again, let's hope jbou's link is not a hoax. Finding a way to extract oil that previously was inextricable is not a solution - it only delays the problem.
2) Finding alternative sources of energy. Remember that fuel cells are not sources of energy - they're storages for energy.

Since 1) requires a source of energy other than oil (unless you propose to use a manufacturing process that produces more energy than it consumes - clearly impossible) so that in reality leaves only 2) as a feasible solution.

Alternative sources of energy consist of biochemical, wind, solar, hydroelectric and nuclear power.

Wether any of these methods become feasible might depend entirely on you, and what you decide to devote your time to.
posted by spazzm at 8:35 PM on February 24, 2004

Using photovoltaic modules with an assumed 7.3% efficiency (the current level of commercial units)[...]

Your quote, although interesting, seems to be out of date:
"The Photovoltaics Special Research Centre at the University of New South Wales has been a world leader in the development of solar cell technology since the early 1980s. In 1983, the Centre set a new world efficiency record for a silicon solar cell of 18%. For the first time, a silicon solar cell was able to convert 18% of the light energy falling onto its surface directly into electrical energy. Since then, the Centre has continued to improve on this record, taking it past 20% in 1985 and 24% in 1994." (emphasis mine)

Link here:
High Efficiency Solar cells.
posted by spazzm at 8:51 PM on February 24, 2004

There are other interesting techniques for extracting electricity from sunlight being developed as well:
EnviroMission Limited.
posted by spazzm at 9:01 PM on February 24, 2004

the constructive person should turn his attention towards finding a solution

While I agree with you in general, I'm going to get a bit pedantic. The sun is a limited resource, but we probably shouldn't go looking for a solution to that problem right now. There are other more pressing matters, and we still have a few billion years. Similarly (although not nearly so extreme) until we have a pretty clear idea of how soon we are looking at a depletion, there may be other things we concentrate our efforts on first.

Overall I agree with your sentiment, though. It seems pretty clear that we are going to have to face this issue in the next couple of decades. Consumption is going up, up, up, and we seem to be getting close to going through close to half of what's available. Consider, if the US has 5% of the world's population, but uses 25% of the worlds oil, imagine the consumption that would result if everyone else came up to our standards.

By the way, here is some more about what jbou is talking about (thermal depolymerization).
posted by moonbiter at 9:04 PM on February 24, 2004

You're right of course - we should concentrate our efforts on the most pressing problems. However, many of humanity's other problems would be solved if we found a cheap, clean, long-term source of energy.

I'm glad that thermal depolymerization is real - it means the future is bright after all, especially if combined with stuff like this:

New (well, 2002) research breakthrough might mean cheap, ultra efficient solar cells.
posted by spazzm at 9:24 PM on February 24, 2004

However, many of humanity's other problems would be solved if we found a cheap, clean, long-term source of energy.

No doubt. We are definitely in agreement -- I was just being a nitpick.

I'm glad that thermal depolymerization is real

Well, we'll see how real it is. I'm still a little skeptical about it, because it seems like one of those things that is too good to be true. I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be not so efficient as the marketing-types from Changing World Tech make it out to be. Still, even if it is only a break-even or inefficient process it looks like it is worth pursuing just for the landfill-reduction benefits.
posted by moonbiter at 9:31 PM on February 24, 2004

Yes, some of the claims seem a bit fantastic:
"Technological savvy could turn 600 million tons of turkey guts and other waste into 4 billion barrels of light Texas crude each year" (from this article.)

Now, if I'm not making any big mistake in converting to metric here, that would mean turning 5.44x10^11 kg of turkey offal into 6.36x10^11 liters of light crude oil.
This give roughly 0.86 kg turkey offal pr. liter of crude oil.
Now, I don't know much about turkeys, but humans are about 70% water - and you can't make crude oil out of water. This leaves 0.86 * (1-0.7) = 0.258 kg dried turkey offal pr litre of oil.
This seems strange, given that crude oil weights around 0.8 kg/litre - where does the extra mass come from?

There's several reasonable explanations for this, of course - marketing hyperbole misinterpreted by journalists, the article means dried turkey offal, not the raw stuff, or I've simply made a mistake in converting Imperial to Metric.

Any thoughts?
posted by spazzm at 10:20 PM on February 24, 2004

I know I posted comments about the Hubbert Curve many times in Mefi comments, here is it's first emergence (in a post) on Metafilter.

Toot toot.

Meanwhile - I'd advocate low tech solutions (solar chimneys, passive solar collection systems, etc.) for the simple fact of economic efficiency (dirt cheap cost) and reduced environmental impact. Glass - as a solar collector - is environmentally very benign. Solar Cells are currently not so benign (eventualy they will be, I hope) and - given the scale of the required transition - we will need minimal impact solutions.

Also, dramatic reductions in energy requirements - a la Lovins' "Nanowatt" concept - tend to be cheaper than the creation of new energy production capacity. Most energy efficiency technology amortizes over about twenty years (around the amortation rate of non-nuclear power plants) but some efficiency technology has much shorter payback times.
posted by troutfishing at 10:24 PM on February 24, 2004

spazzm - I'm a scientific illiterate, but the math seems simple enough. I bet you are right and it's a case of an especially - ummm - enthusiastic industry campaign.

Turkeys ! Oil ! - Whoo hoo !

There's a flock of wild turkeys (a herd as big as 30) that wanders into my back yard from time to time. I think I'll follow them and scoop up their shit. I should be able to run a couple of cars on that, right?
posted by troutfishing at 10:30 PM on February 24, 2004

Any thoughts?

Well, the numbers in the Discovery headline are suspect. If you look at the first paragraph, they give per-day conversion values of 200 tons offal to 600 barrels of oil. That's about 182,000 kg to about 95,000 l, which is roughly 1.92 kilograms per liter. Using your back-of-the-envelope figures, this comes out to 1.92 * (1-0.7) = 0.576 kg. Still doesn't meet the 0.8 kg/l requirement, but since this proves that Discovery's math is a bit screwy that doesn't mean a whole lot.
posted by moonbiter at 10:55 PM on February 24, 2004

Er, Discover, not Discovery.
posted by moonbiter at 10:57 PM on February 24, 2004

Good discussion about the Discover article at
posted by moonbiter at 10:59 PM on February 24, 2004

This seems strange, given that crude oil weights around 0.8 kg/litre - where does the extra mass come from?

You're not turning dry turkey guts into oil. Think about making a gooey hydrocarbon -- you need carbon, which you get from the guts, and you need hydrogen, which you can get handily enough from water. ISTR that the thermal depolymerization plants talked about here use a mix of the stuff's own water and high-temperature steam that it gets mixed with.

I dunno if that makes the math work out or not.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:59 PM on February 24, 2004

From what I've gathered, the process works by breaking down the complex hydrocarbons in turkey guts into the simpler hydrocarbons that oil consists of, not by creating hydrocarbons from basic elements.

The relevant sentences from the Wikipedia article is:
"Under pressure and heat, long chain polymers of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon decompose into short-chain petroleum hydrocarbons with a maximum length of around 18 carbons."

"The feedstock material is first ground into small chunks, and mixed with water if it is especially dry. It is then fed into a reaction chamber where it is heated to around 250°C and subjected to 600 psi (4 MPa) for approximately 15 minutes, after which the pressure is rapidly released to boil off most of the water"

Also, it's quite hard (requires a lot of energy) to separate out hydrogen from water.

I think the "ignorant journalist" line of explanation is much closer to the truth.
posted by spazzm at 1:56 AM on February 25, 2004

What this all means is that President Carter was correct about the need to gain independence from Middle Eastern oil.

Imagine the world today if Saint Raygun hadn't killed Carter's program for energy independence. US dollars wouldn't be going to terrorist supporting countries like Saudi Arabia but would be staying at home providing jobs for the citizens. Troops wouldn't have been involved in the Middle Eastern politics and wars (Gulf War I and II) and none would be dying today to preserve "stability." Without funding terrorism would not have been able to spread, relying solely on CIA funds instead of wealthy oil sheiks.

Yup, Carter was correct, it truly was the "moral equivalent of war." But then, as now, and we've recently seen with Dean, an honest man who truly cares about people is quickly savaged in Washington politics and corporate media.

Too bad the oil companies rule our politicians.
posted by nofundy at 5:10 AM on February 25, 2004

Well, I don't know about you-all, but this is a major concern for Nurri and I just now. We're considering whether or not this is a world worth bringing children into, and we're pretty damn close to "not." (Reading "Out of Gas" is not helping.)

I sense a bottleneck in the not so distant future, accelerated by our own stupid, shortsighted policies, our mendacious leadership, and less debatable things, like five hundred million Chinese consumers coming on line in the next decade, at approximately 1960's-US levels of energy demand and efficiency.

In America, we've squandered the last four years on spectacle, on meanspiritedness, oil-driven profiteering, and culture war smokescreens, whereas I guarantee you that one thing Al Gore would have gotten right as President (maybe the only thing, but still) would have been keeping America's attention on this particular challenge. These four years, I am coming to believe, will be understood as our last chance to enact meaningful change.

The lines are converging, from where I sit: the demographics and resource-depletion rates, the projections of technologies coming on line, the politics and social trends. It paints a pretty ugly picture. The planet will abide, of course; it always does. But I think it's going to be mighty difficult to be human for a few thousand years, and not much fun to be much of anything else. Not a world I look forward to witnessing, or would wish on my beloved.

The canary died a while back; the frogs have started to boil in the pot. We were too busy expressing shock and horror at an exposed nipple on television, or the idea that any two people in love might want to marry one another, to notice.
posted by adamgreenfield at 7:24 AM on February 25, 2004

Looking forward to the demise of Saudi Arabia: may the place to completely back to sand and a poor population.
posted by ParisParamus at 9:25 AM on February 25, 2004

(turn, not to)
posted by ParisParamus at 9:27 AM on February 25, 2004

I still think the key issue is the energy required to produce Western agricultural products.

All this talk about converting biomass ignores the inputs into that biomass, that currently run about 10:1 in terms of total potential energy yield.

In other words, for every one joule of agricultural biomass produced, we have invested 10 joules of energy.

Talking about converting bird shit just makes this problem worse. Aside from the pollution issues involved in cracking complex carbs into hydrocarbons, the turkeys introduce another inefficiency factor of 10-100 into the energy conversion process.

That 10:1 figure above was talking about raw grain starch yields. Feeding it to birds, then converting the bird shit is not going to keep us in the style to which we have become addicted.

And finally, photovoltaic yields for various chemistries and production processes run an efficiency curve, a bell curve ranging from 7% to around 22%, that has been tending upwards in recent years. However, as I mentioned the decreasing incidence of direct solar energy (3% per decade) is pretty much cancelling out any strategic benefits from advances in efficiency.

Finally, the production of such vast quantities of photovoltaics will requires more fresh water than current agricultural systems in the US can provide, notwithstanding the ongoing depletion of the aquifers. Producing chips - photovoltaic or computer - is a plain dirty business.

What are the environmental impacts of producing and using a 32-megabyte DRAM computer chip that weighs a mere 2 grams? The UNU team found that to make every one of the millions manufactured each year requires 32 kg of water, 1.6 kg of fossil fuels, 700 grams of elemental gases (mainly nitrogen), and 72 grams of chemicals (hundreds are used, including lethal arsine gas and corrosive hydrogen fluoride).

The lower bound of fossil fuel and chemical inputs to produce and use one 2-gram microchip are estimated at 1600 g and 72 g, respectively. Secondary materials used in production total 630 times the mass of the final product, indicating that the environmental weight of semiconductors far exceeds their small size. This intensity of use is orders of magnitude larger than that for "traditional" goods. Taking an automobile as an example, estimates of life cycle production energy for one passenger car range from 63 to 119 GJ (42). This corresponds to 1500-3000 kg of fossil fuel used, thus the ratio of embodied fossil fuels in production to the weight of the final product is around two.

posted by meehawl at 11:33 AM on February 25, 2004

All this talk about converting biomass ignores the inputs into that biomass

Mmm, that may be the case in this thread, but from my reading it doesn't seem to be the case among those who do this for a living. A quick example off the top of my head is from the Biodiesel discussion I linked earlier:
... there are two different types of energy analysis for determining energy efficiency. ... For example, producing biodiesel from transesterification has a life cycle energy efficiency of around 82% or so (can't remember exactly). In this analysis, ALL energy input is included, including solar energy input. It's essentially a means of analyzing the efficiency of the process. The analysis tells us that the energy in the fuel is 82% of the sum of ALL of the energies that are input into producing it - but, it includes solar energy (into photosynthesis), which we don't put in. It includes it by counting the energy in the vegetable oil as an energy input, even though we don't produce that energy.

But, the fossil fuel energy efficiency of producing biodiesel (from soy) is 320% - the energy in the product (biodiesel) is 320% of the fossil energy put in (or the energy that WE as humans put in, since the energy doesn't have to come from fossil sources - i.e. , running tractors on biodiesel, electricity for running the plant coming from renewables, etc.). A fossil fuel efficiency greater than 100% means it's a renewable fuel - but, the life cycle energy efficiency CAN NOT be >100%, since it includes ALL energy input, even that that we're not responsible for.
[emphasis added]
posted by moonbiter at 12:11 PM on February 25, 2004

People who make these sorts of energy cycle calculations usually leave in or take out inputs and post-production expenses, depending on whether they are in favour of corn syrup corporate welfare.

cost of fertilizer production.
cost of fertilizer distribution.
cost of fertilizer runoff cleanup.
repeat for herbicides.

cost of creating machinery from raw materials.
I could go on, but countering the Rube Goldberg idea of a self-sustaining energy-positive monoculture system using our depleted soils has been done by far more erudite people than me.

Not only does ethanol cost roughly twice as much to produce as gasoline, but producing ethanol may actually be a net destroyer of energy. The Oil & Gas Journal reported in 1980 that production data from a 1979 application for a federal ethanol subsidy filed by ADM with the Energy Department stated that ADM's Decatur, Illinois, plant was producing 1,485 barrels of ethanol a day. At that time, the plant was consuming the equivalent of 1,284 barrels of natural gas to produce the ethanol, and the electricity used to power the plant was equivalent to another 46 barrels of gas a day. Thus, looking only at the energy used directly in ethanol production, analysts found that the plant showed a "net energy gain" of only 165 barrels of ethanol a day--less than 15 percent of the total ethanol produced. But, as the Oil & Gas Journal noted, "The ADM analysis presented to the Department of Energy, however, didn't disclose the energy input associated with growing, harvesting, and transporting the corn feedstock for the plant."

Corn, rice, and wheat are especially adapted to catastrophe. It is
their niche. In the natural scheme of
things, a catastrophe would create a blank slate, bare soil, that was
good for them. Then, under normal
circumstances, succession would quickly close that niche. The annuals
would colonize. Their roots would
stabilize the soil, accumulate organic matter, provide cover.
Eventually the catastrophic niche would close.
Farming is the process of ripping that niche open again and again. It
is an annual artificial catastrophe,
and it requires the equivalent of three or four tons of TNT per acre
for a modem American farm. Iowa's
fields require the energy of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs every year.

The use of fossil fuels to expand food production even as soil fertility became increasingly exhausted no doubt freed most of humanity to migrate from agrciultural labour to the urban centres, providing necessary conditions for the technology-driven productivity gains of the past couple of centuries. It also enabled a vast population increase. These developments should properly be seen as a response to a specific set of conditions and an easy availablity of "free" energy.

Sadly that time is passing.
posted by meehawl at 1:53 PM on February 25, 2004

One final comment, I promise, for the biomass folks. By the way, here's the original journal article.

Less than 10% of the carbon content of plants is converted to coal, while the formation of oil and gas from plankton is less than 0.01% efficient ... the fossil fuels burned in 1997 were ultimately derived from 400 years' worth of “primary production”, as the organic material produced by photosynthesis is known [this] raises the question of whether existing energy consumption could be sustained in a future when a larger proportion of energy was derived directly from unfossilised plant matter, or “biomass” as it is sometimes referred to in this context. Biomass is a potential source of both hydrogen for fuel cells and ethanol for motor fuel, but it would have to be converted, in a process which would, in some ways, resemble fossilisation. So Dr Dukes decided to try applying his methodology to this question, too. Of course, the conversion processes involved would be far more efficient than fossilisation, but Dr Dukes nevertheless calculates that completely replacing 1997's fossil-fuel consumption with fuels derived from biomass would use up almost a quarter of the Earth's primary production.

The fossil fuels burned in 1997 were created from organic matter
containing 44 × 1018 g C, which is >400 times the net primary productivity (NPP) of the planet’s
current biota. As stores of ancient solar energy decline, humans are likely to use an increasing share
of modern solar resources. I conservatively estimate that replacing the energy humans derive from
fossil fuels with energy from modern biomass would require 22% of terrestrial NPP, increasing the
human appropriation of this resource by ~50%.

posted by meehawl at 2:04 PM on February 25, 2004

"In other words, for every one joule of agricultural biomass produced, we have invested 10 joules of energy."

Sounds strange. Do you have a source for this?

fields require the energy of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs every year."

How much is 4,000 Nagasaki bombs in Metric?
posted by spazzm at 5:27 PM on February 25, 2004

Check any of Pimentel's articles referenced above, or this one for a summation. Basically, the "Green Revolution" is based on the application of vast quantities (literally centuries of solar energy) of energy each year, every year, ot produce large yields from exhausted soils.

Our system of intensive, grain-based agriculture has prospered since around 6000BC by expanding ever outward from its Mesopotamian and Caucasian heartlands. Coincidentally, it has tended to leave devastated lands in its wake, but there were always new lands to conquer and exploit.

Unfortunately during the 1960s we ran out of new arable lands. It's the tragedy of the Mayan hillside farmers, writ large. Their solution was to invest ever larger quantities of labour into irrigation projects on marginal land. Our solution is to pour fossil fuels into the fields in the form of fertiliser and mechanized fuel. In the end, it's an unstable system that becomes more prone to external shocks and eventually ceases to function.

One of the first people to link Euro hegemony over the past 1000 years to the successful displacement of other global ecologies before the Euro portmanteau biota was Alfred Crosby in Ecological Imperialism : The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900.

Other people also observed very well how invasive Eurasian biologies swarmed across the Americas and Oceania, obliterating everything in their path. HG Wells, for example, referred to the invading Martians sowing their "Red Weed" on earth, and how it spread relentlessly across the Earth. He was referring in that case to the recent experience of the Maori in New Zealand, who witnessed their entire agricultural system annihilated by invasive Eurasian species, especially the terribly efficient synergy of clover and bees.

More recently, Ian McDonald has written some good stories about an invasive botanical Alien called "Chaga" that spreads across the Earth. It's a common theme.
posted by meehawl at 5:59 PM on February 25, 2004

Check any of Pimentel's articles referenced above, or this one for a summation

Sorry, can't find a mention of the "for every one joule of agricultural biomass produced, we have invested 10 joules of energy" factoid anywhere - I must have missed it. Could you point it out to me, please?
posted by spazzm at 6:43 PM on February 25, 2004

I'd like to see some more hard numbers of this myself. I'm sorry, but articles like the Infoterra one are full of unsubstansiated claims and speculation that frankly show the author's desire to be a noble hunter-gatherer more than anything else. And that Stanford journal article (pdf) you point out simply makes the case that solar and biomass are more efficient in fuel synthesis than fossil fuels:
As fossil fuel stores are depleted, modern solar resources are likely to supply an increasing fraction of societal energy demands. Fortunately, these resources are more efficient than fossil fuels in terms of solar energy capture (Table III).
I hardly see this as a damnation of biomass. Furthermore, while it is true that ethanol has been a debacle, ethanol is not biodiesel or those fuels that might be generated by thermal depolymerization (which, admittedly, still has to prove itself worthwhile to do).

Like it or not, with six-point-something billion people on the planet, we are tied to modern agriculture unless we want to go through a big, big dieoff. I agree that a path of ever-growing population and energy consumption is unsustainable, and I am a big proponent of energy conservation techniques. But going back to a hunter-gatherer style of life is not really an option any more.

Oh, and I second spazzm on wanting to see where your 10:1 energy to biomass ratio comes from. I'd be surprised at that, given the enormous amount of energy put into the process by the sun (even given a 5% reduction you cite above).
posted by moonbiter at 12:58 AM on February 26, 2004

10:1 investment in grain energy biomass for the products of Western agriculture. Note the adjective used earlier. Read the linked articles.

Non-agricultural biomass of course has a lower direct energy investment from us, but also lower yields. Also, do you really want to strip hillsides, marshes, and other marginal lands where non-grain biomes persist? The yield from them will quickly tail off and then you will be back, forced to invest high energies in terms of fertiliser and fuel for mechanisms.

And as for the rather snarky "How much is 4,000 Nagasaki bombs in Metric"? Let me break it down for you:

4000 times
21 kT times
4.6 TJ
386.4 PJ (petajoules)

For your convenience, this equals around

107 petaWatts.

If you are not capable of understanding that pumping through the veins of our agriculture every year is the stored energy from several decades of solar input, and that this quantity must be factored into any calculations of input cost, then I can't help you.
posted by meehawl at 11:14 AM on February 26, 2004

Sorry, that should be tW
posted by meehawl at 11:16 AM on February 26, 2004

No wonder we had that war, eh.
posted by Slagman at 10:37 PM on February 27, 2004

meehawl - I agree with you. I've read the same calculus - from many different sources.
posted by troutfishing at 10:41 PM on February 28, 2004

I'd love to be proved wrong - maybe sonofusion is more than just hype and dreamy wishes?
posted by meehawl at 12:32 PM on March 3, 2004

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