About Me

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Chemical engineer working in the field of bulk chemicals for e.g. plastics and energy, specifically energy efficiency and renewables.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

My problem with carbon capture and storage.

The European Energy Review has in the previous few months published a plethora on the subject of carbon capture and storage. Their viewpoint has been both positive and negative. For example, there are two articles showing the case for and against CCS.
Both of these are well written articles and well researched. Both points of view are valid and the question put simply comes down to whether you believe that fossil fuels are needed or not. Assuming that you agree with a goal of a low carbon future, CCS is thus the only way to provide for that while using our remaining reserves of fossil fuels. However the other side would argue against that as it adds to complacency and the CCS is too expensive so we run the risk of running with the status quo.

However my problem with carbon, capture and storage is more to do with the name and thus the implications thereafter. Why? The name is incorrect. The process of CCS is described in many places but essentially, energy is expended to take carbon dioxide out of flue gas streams and then inject this carbon into the ground where it should stay. That is a disposal operation and not a storage operation. Routes for using that amount of CO2 have not been identified and even those proposed (i.e. solvents) are still in very early stages of development and because of the harsh conditions, are a long shot at best. In other words the technology should be called carbon capture and disposal or CCD.

Yet everyone seems to be missing this point. Obviously a disposal technology is at the bottom of the waste pyramid. Thus using this technology only promotes the excessive use of our resources and does not prompt us to use alternatives and cut back. The flip side to this is that storage sounds better and disposal. Further fossil fuels will be necessary for at least the next 50 years (the Germans are projecting at least till 2030 though estimates are broadly showing that half of the grid is based on intermittent sources. Using intermittent sources to power a grid is not feasible according to E.ON and I agree with E.ON; see the summary).

In that context we see a boarder fault. Efficiency in our system is never really brought to the fore. Despite the large subsidies for alternative energy sources and CCS, standard efficiency saving measures are not funded very well. For example estimates at the cost of CCS in the prototype stage suggest that to capture most of the CO2 from a power station, we would require that station to use approximately 30% more fuel to keep its current output. Remember that is at the prototype stage and that is at the initial stages of injection when pressures underground are minimal. Thus we are already loosing an efficiency battle here before we begin.

From that point of view I have large reservations on CCS. I am not necessarily against CCS in total as  I can see that fossil fuels will be required but the emphasis should be on using less and not on making the system more inefficient. The CCS option should really be a last resort. That does not mean that renewable are the answer solely either. Extending the issue is very complex and I can only hope to have sprinkled a bit of light onto the issue regarding my position.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Year of Travel

In 2011 I will write my first end of year review. This is a catalogue of things I have done in the past year.
2011 is the year of travel (a nod to Earth abides where there is a custom of calling years after events). This year I have travelled to a fair few countries. I easily exceeded by my annual travel to one new country rule that I try to keep. 

 My first stop was spending New Year with friends in Rouen. This was the first time in that part of France and I even managed to get there using passable French. I tried skiing for the first time in Switzerland in February and even managed to get across the country and see some friends in Zermatt. The skiing part is where you tell your body to become a giant snowball. I much preferred the hiking with crimps. The Matterhorn is stunning and I had a quite chuckle as I sipped on coffee in front of the fabled mountain. 
I also entered Spain for the first time but via Catalunya (they are proud of that sort of thing). I met up with a former colleague and friend in Barcelona for April. I also had the surprise of staying in a Villa outside Barcelona which was truly beautiful. Next I managed to cycle form Alkmaar to Apeldoorn, again to meet a former colleague and friend. During the early summer, I travelled to Cologne which I have described earlier. It is a truly amazing city. 

After that, I joined my local rugby club for the Ameland beach rugby festival. Far too much booze was to be had under the auspices of long and ‘serious’ conversations. In other words the craic was mighty and banter was to be had. Then I went home to Ireland to see my parents. I climbed the Galtee mountains for the first time (why have I waited so long) and tried to meet as much of my extended family as I could. Even some of our American family made an appearance. 

Next my job contract ended on October the 1st. I had seen it coming and was happy to leave. Instead of rushing out to get a new job, I decided to cycle the Rhine after the rugby world cup was finished for Ireland. Finally I was to get one last surprise. I was invited to Swansea and Cardiff (travel expenses paid) for a weekend; another country to tick off the list.

During the year various friends stopped off and enjoyed my hospitality. Two from New Zeeland, one from Australia and a multitude from Ireland made the journey to the low lands. I can truly say that with the upheaval in my job (I will be going abroad for a new job) and all the travel, this year was the year of travel.

Next up will be carbon capture and storage. Shudder. Even including the lie that is storage makes me cringe.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Details of the bicycle trip.

  • Bicycle: Trek 1.5 racing bike, standard setup, 7L handlebar bag, lights and armadillo armoured tyres.
  • Trailer: Extra wheel trailer with 2 60 L Crosso dry panniers
  • Trip: Alkmaar to Strasbourg via Arnhem mostly following the Rhine. Detours included Frankfurt and Heidelberg.
  • Plan: Loose plan. Hostels were preferred but I had a tent in emergency but I never had to use it. Was aiming for a 12 day trip but ending up spending 16 days. From Strasbourg, I got a train to Paris and met up with friends for a few days and then we drove back.
At the end of September, my contract with the company expired. I did not renew with them and instead decided to move on. In this process I also decided to take some time out as I still had some money coming in from side projects. Thus I fixed my sights on cycling down the Rhine taking about 3 weeks in total for the holiday. I had never toured by bicycle before. I have extensive road bike experience and from my younger days (I am 27), downhill mountain bike experience. However something like this was completely new for me.

The first step was to decide what setup I was going to use. I had a Trek 1.5 racing bike but I did consider buying a new bike specifically a touring bike completely setup for touring. The two bikes I was considering were from Koga and from the Cannondale touring range. The latter was discontinued and the former seemed to my mind to be over the top for the time I would spend. Thus I decided to stay with the racing bike. The next step was to work out whether I would go ultra-light or carry gear. I decided that the time of year warranted gear. Options for carrying gear on the racing bike were limited so I decided to buy a trailer. I choose the extra wheel trailer over the bob yak as it allowed me to buy the complete package. With the Crosso dry panniers, the trailer cost approx €300 + delivery from Poland.

The next step was to pick my route. I decided to go down the Rhine along the Rhineradweg. I choose this as it is a pretty flat route (according to bikemap.net) and should have a pretty good surface for many parts. Further in the case of any emergencies, the area is well populated and has many bike stores and train stations. I planned to stay in hostels but I carried a tent just in case. I had my stops laid out until Cologne. After this point I would work on the fly. The distances I was going to do until that point were on average 100km per day. I would at Cologne assess the setup and the distances. I would aim to start early (06:00-08:00) and finish early (no later than 15:00). 

Trip details
The first few days were pretty uneventful. I had travelled to my 1st step Utrecht before but I had a beautiful day of sun. Arnhem my next stop, was new and the landscape started to change from the flat, open plains to forest areas with some slight inclines. Getting across the border proved to be difficult as when I left the hostel, there was essentially a thunderstorm occurring. Further calamity would occur as the side of the Rhine I would choose was closed to cyclists just as I crossed the border. There were no boat crossings in the vicinity so I had to detour. The storm lasted all day and I stopped around 14:00 to assess my situation. I had cycled 70km and due to the detour had a similar distance to go. I also had picked up an injury on my Achilles so I decided to get the train the rest of the way to Duisburg where I stayed with friends. The next day having strapped up my ankle and finding that all my gear was dry, I continued to Cologne where I would have 2 days to spend.

At Cologne I opened all my bags and emptied then. I did find a small amount of moisture but this was more due to having hastily packed semi-wet clothes into the waterproof bags rather than water ingress during the storm. I let the bags dry out and enjoyed the jewel on the Rhine including its impressive Dom, a praetorian excavation, a museum depicting the Nazi rise to power in Cologne and other various sights.
After Cologne I decided to reduce my travel distance per day. I was now aiming at travelling approximately 40-60km per day. Below Cologne, the Rheinradweg is incredible beautiful and easy to follow especially on the right side of the river as you look south. Indeed this is the recommended side to travel as it stays truer to the Rhine. With the weather holding dry and temperatures around zero to twelve degrees, conditions were perfect for taking in the breath taking scenery. In particular the hostel in Oberwessel was located on top of a hill beside an old and renovated castle. Other sights included Lorelei , the pretty Koblenz and uncounted castles among a long list of others.

At Mainz I could not find accommodation and tried to get to Frankfurt. On paper, it is easy as you simply follow a river branch off the Rhine. On that weekend, a cargo vessel full of chemicals sank and so that track was closed. I made a detour which became pretty ardours as it took me through vineyards. There was no direct bike track for a long way and thus I ended up doubling my distance. However I finally made it to Frankfurt. Frankfurt has a spectacular skyline (unusual for us Europeans) but it is a pretty soulless place filled with flashy bars and restaurants that lack substance and depth. Sachsenhausen, the old part of the city does provide some more substance.
Form Frankfurt I stopped in Worms which is noted for the Diet of Worms and has a nice old town. From there I travelled to Mannheim (which is a weird city with a chessboard layout and no street names) and continued on to Heidelberg. Here I delighted in the castle and the philosopher’s way which cumulates in the ruins of an old monastery as well as the Thingstätte amphitheatre. Heidelberg is a beautiful town. Afterwards I headed to the quaint but under construction town of Karlsruhe. A large remodelling of the towns metro and tram system makes it appear ugly but the people are very friendly. My final stop was Strasbourg which is a historic and beautiful French town. This was a fitting end to the trip.

Impression: Route
The route is highly recommended. It is visually impressive and contains many distractions to get you away from the cycling. For the most part the surface is paved though there are several sojourns across forested areas without paving. Sign posts are pretty regular but the golden rule is always to keep near the Rhine. Once you go too far away, you are on your own. If you accomplish this, the route is flat and contains no climbs. However if you do feel adventurous, most of the castles are located on top of the hills along the Rhine and 10% gradients need to be overcome to get to these by bike.

Impression: Gear
The handling of the bike and the trailer held up extremely well even under difficult conditions such as forest trails. The racing bike is obviously not the best for these trails but the trailer added extra stability. Under normal conditions the trailer lowers the centre of the gravity so there is more manoeuvrability which helps avoid bumps. The panniers proved to be large and water proof even under thunderous conditions. One thing is that the bike with the trailer attached is difficult to take up and down stairs. Cycling with the trailer does take a bit of getting used to but after 100km, I was completely at ease.

I would make some improvements. A rear mudguard for the back on the racing bike would be an idea. A kickstand would also be very useful. For the trailer, a long carry strap would be useful. Also a socket for a light would also be appreciated.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

An ending. A new beginning.

Near St Goar
One can only measure ones humility, courage and strength of character by doing something that changes ones perception of humility, courage and strength of character.  In recent weeks I stopped writing because I was challenging my determination. I have cycled from the Amsterdam area to Strasbourg, mostly on the Rhine. In many respects it was the celebration of an ending and the utterance of a potential new beginning. In all honesty it was a mental test of unyielding stupidity. Truely after nigh on a thousand kilometres and on reflection, one could wish for a new beginning and perhaps a new intelligence. But in consequence, I remain mostly the same.

At the end of October I finished my contract with the current company. I am not unhappy about the situation as I believe that the company is resting on its laurels. Further in the group and unit that I was in, I see very little coherence in management and see the wrong people brought to the fore and talking advantage of the situation. Finally the goals that I had set for the company and its primary product (it takes/makes research products and tries to bring them to market) at the start of this contact did not materialise. I do not see them being realised in a significant way for some years despite that fact that I feel that these goals were attainable during my period at the company. One of the main drivers for doing the trip was to soften the negative feelings related to the lack of progress and to let the positives from my experience assert themselves more.

My trip down the Rhine took me to places such as the beautiful Cologne, the charming Oberwesel which is just up the road from Lorelei, the soulless Frankfurt, the country town of Karlsruhe and to the very French Strasbourg among others. I finished with friends in Paris via train. In all I spent 21 days travelling with 16 days taking me from Amsterdam to Strasbourg at approximately 850 km on the bicycle.

This trip has put some very important issues into perspective. It has allowed me to focus on the negatives but in a more humorous light. It has brought to the fore my sense of achievement in the job I did which allows me to articulate on that subject. In brought into perspective a small part of the energy issues in Germany that I wrote about earlier. Most of all it showed my determination and overcome an obstacle that was placed in front of me. This will prove useful in my forthcoming job hunt.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The German nuclear folly

There were many releases in the media regarding Germanys announcement that it would phase out nuclear power by 2022 a few months back. Indeed these stories have been around from at least 5 years ago (Ny times, Business week: Coal boom). Now that the dust has settled, three very disturbing facts seem to be coming to the fore. Germany will no longer be able to export electricity to other countries and may have to rely on imports. Germany may be facing blackouts as soon as this winter.  Meanwhile Germany will be destroying its environmental credentials as it will have to increase fossil fuel use.

Germany currently receives around 23% or approximately 31 GW of its electricity from nuclear production (CNBC: Germany dims nuclear). Its total electricity production is around 133 GW so stopping the electricity from nuclear power will leave 100GW. The demand for Germany is approximately 80-90GW. There are already calls to keep the availability of one or more of these reactors operational from the head of Germany’s federal network agency no less. (Spiegel: Calls for nuclear).  This is because variability in the solar and wind network could easily see that 10 GW safety margin disappear  (As a follow-up which came some time after I wrote the above we see that Germany will rely on dirty coal and imports to power itself (Platts: Nuclear not needed)). Germany is no longer an electricity exporter).

Indeed despite apparent success in the renewable energy sector (The renewable sources act),  the real story of the last five years is the boom in coal plant construction as indicated by the Business week: Coal boom report. This expansion under the new revised timeline for nuclear departure is likely to increase with increased reliance on coal and gas (Businessweek: Russian gas for Germany). Despite the promise of clean coal, the only major project in Germany is Vattenfall’s project and this pales in comparison to the size of typical plants (Vattenfall clean coal pilot plant, Clean coal). Not only that but initial estimates show that the process consumes nearly 30% of the energy that it generates leading to the use of even more raw material.

The politicians cannot guarantee that the climate goals that they have set for themselves can be meet while keeping electricity as cheap as it is now. However in a quote from the CNBC: Germany dims nuclear article, there is a much greater threat
This winter, Amprion predicts its grid will have 84,000 megawatts of electricity at its disposal, to provide 81,000 megawatts needed for consumption — an uncomfortably slim margin of safety, Vanzetta said. In prior years, electricity was readily available for purchase on the European grid if the price was right. But exported German power is what helped keep France glowing in winter.
There is the chance that there will be blackouts in both Germany and France due to the slim margins. Indeed considering that margin and that up to 6% of the electricity generated in a grid is lost (ABB: Efficiency in the power grid), one might even believe that meeting the demand is impossible without imports.

The poignant message is that German politicians are either lying to its electorate or are illiterate on energy issues. Increasing renewables will cause massive cost increases to the German taxpayer due to the high feed in tariffs needed to keep these energy sources competitive (competitive for the producer, not the consumer). Subsidies for solar and wind (see the renewable energy sector link) are approximately 10 times the industrial spot electricity price (EU industrial energy prices). As the share of renewable power increases, electricity prices will start to rise and meet the feed in tariff cost. Indeed change over to gas will also increase electricity prices to a certain extent.

My opinion on the issue is quite simple. Merkel has simply bowed to pressure from the ill-informed electorate to stop nuclear power due to fears after Fukishima. This was the incorrect choice and such issues should not be decided by political pressure. There is an easy choice that should have been offered to the German consumer. They could accept stability of supply by keeping a large part of the nuclear power online or they could have been shown that electricity production without nuclear is extremely fragile. In that light I think that the German consensus would have been to reduce rather than do away with. However that would have required some political will. 

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Potentail for a new and cheaper desalination process from Siemens

Chemical engineering magazine in their August issue  is running a story that has high importance to many people worldwide. Siemens has been running a  demonstration unit for water desalination for the last 3 years based on a relatively niche technology called electro dialysis (ED).  Apparently using this system reduces the costs of desalination as compared to reverse osmosis by half. 

This is big news. First reverse osmosis membranes has a hefty market value of $9 billion and most of this comes from desalination. Being able to capitalize on that market, expand it and dominate it with a new technology would be very profitable for Siemens and its baseline. Secondly reverse osmosis usage is only going to increase so the market will tend to grow naturally even without a large step improvement in the technology.  Obviously countries like Australia, Singapore  and Israel have RO. Water scarcity in these countries rivals energy and environmental concerns with pressure on existing reservoirs and on reusing water.  However large desalination plants exist in wetter countries such as the UK and other Northern European plants due to the pressure on the natural reservoirs.

Taking the UK as an example (I use it as I happen to have the data saved) we can look into more detail. Current water costs taken for the existing system in the UK are approximately €1/L though it varies widely on the authority. Using current electricity prices, RO water would cost approximately 0.80€/L before markup. This would suggest that either RO can be directly put into the water grid there or that the market is significantly larger than 0.20€/L (which is why we don’t see a lot of RO in the UK). The advent of the new technology would mean that desalination could actually compete as a standard technology (and not just because of scarcity) in the UK and countries with similar situations. 

Indeed in drier countries, we may start to see RO being used for agricultural water which would certainly help reduce the depletions of various aquifers worldwide to supply farms. Water scarcity is going to be a major problem in the future with many countires already having a high water stress.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

About three years ago I moved to The Netherlands and was subsequently using my summer bonus to buy a Trek 1.5; a standard entry level raving bike (the frame is fantastic BTW). Currently I also have a 30 year old Peugot bike as my go to for socialising and shipping. This was brought about by the fantastic cycling infastructure in The Netherlands. While the weather is not always the best, it is easily possible to cycle from one side of the country to the other without ever joining a road that contains cars. Essentially The Netherlands has a bike road network with its own traffic lights and sign posts. Cycling is not only segregrated, it is revered in this country with the right of ways always in favour of the cyclist (except on major roads where bikes are not allowed) when cars and bikes should meet. Since nearly everyone cycles, there is a good respect between cyclists and other road users. The use of the bicycle does many things for me and this article got me think about it again. I will discuss some of these things below.

Carbon footprint

My daily commute to work and back is approximately 50 km. I work on average 220 days a year assuming I take no overtime and an 8 hour day. My annual commute is approximately 11,000km. I have three main modes of transport to get to work. I can get the company provided bus, I can get a lift from my house mate who works on the same site sometimes and I can cycle. The breakdown is as follows
  • Company bus: 6,800km
  • Lift from friend: 2,000km
  • Cycle 1 day a week: 2,200km
Using the carbon footprint calculator for driving a car, I can come up with a figure that is specific for the make and model of the car. Using the data from the slate article allows me to calculate the carbon footprint for the overall lifetime. By cycling that amount and not going by car I am saving around 300kg of CO2. The average CO2 emissions per person for the UK is around 10,000kg. One thing to note is that it is difficult to get CO2 emissions data for cycling.

Cost for fuel

Obviously I would have to purchase a car, have insurance etc. But in terms of fuel, the cost is easy to calculate. The car I chose for the carbon test does approximately 6.6L/km and fuel costs in The Netherlands is around €1.65 per liter. I save €550 from the exercise.

Freedom and exercise

The feeling of freedom on a bicycle is hard to convey. Hitting the road and exploring the surroundings is always interested. Not only that but it leads me into a bicycle trip that I will be doing in the future where I currently plan to go down the Rhine. Obviously I do not need to go to the gym (though I do for rugby) to keep in shape.