Robert Rapier: The Scientific Challenges to Replacing Oil with Renewables

So, assuming the Peak Oil camp is on to something, what's the likelihood for a disruption-free transition to another energy source that can replace the energy output we currently enjoy from oil? There's no shortage of promising claims from new laboratory experiments, and there is a lot of optimism in political and entrepreneurial circles that renewable, alternative forms of energy (wind, solar, biofuels, etc.) may be able to fill the "energy gap" in time. How realistic are these hopes?

Not very, says Robert Rapier, energy specialist and Chief Technology Officer of Merica International.

The problem is one of return on invested energy. It is extremely difficult to create fuels with the same energy density that Nature has concocted over thousands of millennia without using up as much (or more) energy in the process.

When you think about what oil is, then you understand why these biofuels companies have a tough time of making it work. I mean, oil is accumulation of millions of years of biomass that has accumulated. Nature has applied the pressure, it’s applied the heat, and it has cooked these into very energy-dense hydrocarbons. Now what we are trying to do in real time is speed all this up. Somebody has to plant the biomass, somebody has to grow the biomass where nature did it in the first place. We have to transport it, we have to bring it into a factory, we have to get it in that form, we have to convert it from biomass into some fuel. We are adding energy and labor inputs all along and then finally we get a fuel out of the back end.

A lot of the time, a lot of these so-called "biofuels" are very heavily dependent on fossil fuels to begin with. So for some of them it is not even clear that they would be viable if you took the fossil fuels out of the process. When you think about all the labor and energy that goes into making a biofuel from an annual crop it becomes apparent why oil has been the dominant fuel for the last 150 years. It is much easier to go poke a hole in the ground and get that oil out of the ground than it is to go through all the labor of actually producing the fuel. So companies are competing against that.     

On top of this, false hope and confusion is frequently created in the marketplace by new companies announcing "breakthroughs" that may indeed work in optimal laboratory environments, but just simply don't under real-world conditions, at scale:

The scale-up issue is the most important issue, because in my experience, most technologies get wiped out as they go up in scale. So something you may be able to do in a lab, 90% of those lab ideas don’t work, and only 10% will go on to make a pilot plan. And for lab experiments there are going to be all kinds of things: your catalyst didn’t work; your actual process didn’t work....

Let’s say your process did work in a lab. In the lab you are doing all kinds of things that are different than what you would do at a larger scale. Your waste products may not be a problem, you may have a small amount of bi-product that can be thrown away. Lab equipment is smaller and so the heat transfer in that lab equipment is very different than it is as you scale up. The example I give a lot is: think of a turkey. We are coming up on Thanksgiving. If you are cooking one turkey and you imagine an oven with the heating elements on the sides, that is simply one factor, and not everybody gets that right; the turkey is too dry, it’s overdone, it’s not cooked enough. Now imagine taking that turkey and scaling it up to cook, say, 1,000 turkeys an hour. You can imagine that the issues there are very, very different than they would be in a smaller oven. You maybe have turkeys in the middle that would still be cold while the turkeys on the outside are burnt to a crisp. So you are trying to get an even heating distribution across this larger oven, and it is the same as a reactor. As the reactor goes from lab scale up to larger scale, as you get heat differences and temperature differences inside that reactor you can make different products, different byproducts, more things that you didn’t want to make, or not as much of the thing that you did want to make.

And some companies will skip those steps. As you skip the steps, if you think about it – most technologies get knocked out at each step. So normally a company would go from lab scale to pilot scale to demonstration scale to a commercial scale. If somebody is jumping over steps they are greatly reducing the risk or their chance of success...

That will be the case with most of the biofuel companies out there making promises. They get out there; they will build their pilot plant. They will discover that things don’t work as they thought they would and then they will close down.     

While it is critical we invest our current resources to finding solutions to the approaching energy gap, it's also essential we approach the situation realistically and with as little magical thinking as possible. Currently, the U.S. is consuming 10 million barrels per day more than it produces domestically. For perspective, our best ethanol refineries can produce around 4,000 barrels per day (at a much lower EROEI). And if we decided tomorrow to begin converting our transportation fleet to full-electric vehicles (i.e. away from liquid fuels), it would realistically take somewhere between 30-50 years to fully build out the infrastructure and retire the combustion-engine vehicles. The short of it is there is going to be no single fuel source that replaces oil, and the transition to a post-Peak-Oil future is going to involve a period of "less energy" for society for an undetermined period of time.

I think that we hope and we believe that our energy predicament can be solved by technology. We have seen technological advancement in so many different fields and we expect this is what we are going to see in the energy field. If you look at where computers have come over the last 30 years we expect that to happen with our energy production that the whole society is going to be running off of solar and wind power going forward. I sometimes say there is not always a neat solution to every problem. We have still got the common cold. It is still with us. That has not been cured despite it being around forever. So not all problems can be solved easily. And the energy problem is one that is not going to be solved easily in my opinion. Our society has grown up on something that was rich, abundant, and pretty easy to get to. We are trying to replace that with something that the energy required to get it and process it and produce it is a lot higher than the energy required to process oil. 

There is not going to be one thing that replaces oil. I think there are going to be a lot of different things, and, more importantly, I think it is going to take a lot less oil than we are using now. The good news is we have dropped a million and a half barrels a day over the last five years. The bad news is a lot of that is because of the recession; it shows we do have some capacity to reduce our oil consumption. There is still a lot of low hanging fruit in my view. It is going to be painful as we scale down and some of the alternatives are going to have to meet somewhere -- at some level higher than they are today and at some level of oil consumption lower than we are today -- those will have to meet. 

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Robert Rapier has been devoted to energy issues and has worked on cellulosic ethanol, butanol production, oil refining, natural gas production, and gas-to-liquids (GTL). He grew up in Oklahoma, and received his Master’s in Chemical Engineering from Texas A&M University.

He is presently the Chief Technology Officer for Merica International, a renewable energy company. Merica is involved in a wide variety of projects, with a core focus on the localized use of biomass to energy for the benefit of local populations.

Robert is also the proprietor of the blog R-Squared, which fosters open discussions of Energy and the Environment.


 

Our series of podcast interviews with notable minds includes:

 

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://peakprosperity.com/robert-rapier-the-scientific-challenges-to-replacing-oil-with-renewables-2/

youtu.be/Jc7N7554M2o
Craig Venter on using synthetic algae-like organism to make crude oil.  He proposes capturing CO2 to feed the organism in the massive grids.  (4) plants could supply all oil the US needs per his calculations.

 Great!
Let us know when he’s out of the lab and into his first demonstration project.  Then when the pilot plant starts.  Then commercial-scale.
:slight_smile:
That’s the entire point of this podcast…there are so many great sounding ideas, many from visionaries,…but nothing yet running at scale.  Why is that?
Robert explains all in this podcast.

 You can’t answer this question without knowing the numbers. These are here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubic_mile_of_oil

I suggest you buy the book referenced in the site. Here are the short answers:

1) What's the likelihood for a disruption-free transition to another energy source that can replace the energy output we currently enjoy from oil? 

Short Answer: Slim to none.

Longer Answer: World supply chains for goods and services are dependent on money, oil and each other. Cheap transportation for physical goods, worldwide is critically dependent on ONE power source (i.e. cheap oil). Even continued oil production depends on cheap oil. When oil gets too expensive or too scarce or returns too little energy, these supply chains will break. This break may be "permanent" from the point of view of anyone living today.

2) Is this solvable?

Short Answer: Yes

Longer Answer: It won't be solved by purely capitalist societies. Purely capitalist entities like corporations act a lot like bacteria colonies. They respond to the immediate monetary environment (which you need) but often don't think ahead very far, or very well (Lehmans, AIG, Enron). That's what governments are for. China, for all it's horrendous flaws and faults is in a better position to address this because they can override short-term economic needs for long term gain. A system of purely electric trains that run on hydropower might not make economic sense right now, but will serve admirably in a situation in which petroleum is no longer viable as a fuel source.

3) Will it be solved?

Short Answer: Yes

Longer Answer: It will be "solved" by our using much less energy as a culture and individuals. We have about 20-40 years left of economically viable oil, depending on how enthusiastic we are in warfare and how much "technically" recoverable oil is actually recoverable with a positive energy return. There are lots of different energy technologies around, but none that scale with positive energy return (Algae, for example, is simply an inefficient solar collector with a direct chemical output as are solar hydrogen generators). We'll use algae, biofuel, and anything else we can, of course, but all of it, taken together won't run a civilization like the one we have now. 

[quote=cmartenson] Great!
Let us know when he’s out of the lab and into his first demonstration project.  Then when the pilot plant starts.  Then commercial-scale.
:slight_smile:
That’s the entire point of this podcast…there are so many great sounding ideas, many from visionaries,…but nothing yet running at scale.  Why is that?
Robert explains all in this podcast.
[/quote]
Mr Venter addresses the scalability problem in his talk.   He originally tried to find a gem species of algae with the help of Exxon, but it did not turn up.   So he proposes inventing it from scratch since it is now known how algae mechanics work and, hence, he believes they can be optimized. 
Mr. Venter left the NIH because the vested interests (scientists wanted slow money spread far and wide) did not support his radical idea on how to decode the human genome.   The company Celera actually decoded the genome far before NIH, but he decided to co-announce since he wanted to maintain good relationships with the community.
I wonder if he is up against the same forces again…and a banking problem to boot.

 Algae and bacteria have to get energy from somewhere to convert. This makes them either direct solar energy converters or indirect solar energy converters with even worse efficiency. The nice thing about algae is that you get a direct chemical fuel as your output, which mitigates the efficiency problem to some degree. Still, there’s only so much sunlight on earth, and any sun you use to get power is sunlight that isn’t growing food or supporting a natural ecology. If you were to go that route, you’d do better to use solar electricity directly.

 

Very good analysis. I find it somewhat interesting, as mentioned in the interview, that there is so much hype and enthusiasm around potential alternative technologies that really, if you do a quick overall energy analysis, can be quickly dismissed right from the get go as being unfeasible. As explained so well above, biofuels simply cannot offer a solution to our energy problems – because the energy just isn’t there! And this will become even more acute with increasing demands for food from the growing global population hitting the wall of ecological degradation and decreased per hectare productivity as fossil fuel inputs to agriculture diminish. And then there is the fabled "hydrogen highway" that could have been, and was, discounted by analysts right from day 1 as not being feasible. Yet the media laps up the hype.

Now, contrast this with the "hype" surrounding electric cars. Not only have there been tens of thousands manufactured and sold in the last year or so, but they are almost cost competitive, and if you factor in where oil prices are likely going in the next 10 years, they probably already are. Imagine that, a brand new product that has never been offered before on a mass scale, that is cost competitive in its first year of availability! That is unheard of! How many readers have driven an EV? They are a dream, they are so much fun, and they are more powerful than their ICE siblings, believe it or not. Every criticism you hear about EV’s is basically false, and even the range limitation won’t be an issue soon with a network of high capacity 1/2 hour charging stations being built all over the place.

Again, where is the hype? I hear more negative sentiment in the media than positive. It makes no sense. What is going on here? There are two issues at play here I think: Firstly, I think people tend to fall into two camps with regards to the energy problems we face. We either latch on to fantastical promises of unproven technology and dream our lives away in anticipation of future miracles, or alternatively we spend our time focusing on all the solutions that won’t work. The obvious solutions that are sitting right in front of us aren’t given the attention they deserve, because one group is an unrealistic dreamer and the other group is a pessimist.

We have the solution staring us in the face, and overall we are largely ignoring it. The other factor I think is that there are powerful forces behind the media trying to stymy the transition to electric vehicles, for obvious reasons. Call it a conspiracy theiry if you want, but there is ample evidence showing that Big Oil has some very dirty hands in its involvement with suppressing EV’s. I am actually surprised that Nissan hasn’t been somehow aggressively taken over by Texaco, and its EV program killed.

With Peak Oil and the limitations of biofuels, liquid fuels are dead! The only solution for mass transportation beyond bicycles and donkeys is electric transportation. So why are we beating around the bush? If it’s the only solution, and if Peak Oil lasts say 10-15 years, then that does provide us with the opportunity to transition a significant portion of our infrastructure over. But as dicussed in the interview, politics being what it is, especially with the influence of big industry at the upper levels throwing wrenches into the spokes, we will not get that coordination unfortunately. But I think the various Peak Oil bloggers really could go a long way by openly supporitng this inevitable and essential transition. I am wondering when we can expect an article on CM.com about electric cars and the opportunities they present?

And the issue with solar panels is not their low EROEI – at around 10:1 they are actually higher than many alternative oil sources – but that it takes a few decades for that net energy to be realized. As explained in the interview, this presents a problem because in these highly volatile and uncertain economic times, investors just aren’t willing to put up the money. So then, again, the problem is not technical; it is political. A solar panel returning 15% energy from sunshine is phenominally efficeint if you compare it to biofuels which are probably down around 0.1% efficient, and even to fossil fuels which had billions of years to accumulate all that solar energy. Yes, there are obvioulsy lots of problems with ramping up solar panel production but the fundamental advantage of solar energy, either though PV or solar thermal, is that the enery is indeed there for the taking, whereas with biofuels, it just isn’t there, so why are we wasting our efforts and time?

 

[quote=MrColdWaterOfRealityMan] Algae and bacteria have to get energy from somewhere to convert. This makes them either direct solar energy converters or indirect solar energy converters with even worse efficiency. The nice thing about algae is that you get a direct chemical fuel as your output, which mitigates the efficiency problem to some degree. Still, there’s only so much sunlight on earth, and any sun you use to get power is sunlight that isn’t growing food or supporting a natural ecology. If you were to go that route, you’d do better to use solar electricity directly.
[/quote]
Venter states (see minute 14 min to about 18 min) that by reducing and optimizing the sunlight receptors, output of lipids shot up (not what one would expect).   Venter dismisses Biofuels as well; he is talking about producing crude oil.  I am missing your point on solar panels vs synthetic lipid generator arrays.   Both would occupy space on the earth and the scale/efficiency Venter is talking about would have less impact on land per unit output.   Of course, it is still theorical, but he is no dummy.

it’s about storing energy or making appliances that work directly off of solar and chilling at night.
i use this example to understand the concept.

i have a small well insulated house that takes 3 cords of wood to heat in a michigan winter.

that’s the equivilent of an oak tree that has taken 60 years to grow.

so i use up in one 6 month period what takes nature 60 years to make.

most people don’t comprehend how much energy is in one gallon of gasoline.

a whole tree is stored solar energy, as is oil.

we need to pace our useage.

and probably the rich will have lawnmowers and the poor won’t.

 

[quote=KugsCheese]youtu.be/Jc7N7554M2o
Craig Venter on using synthetic algae-like organism to make crude oil.  He proposes capturing CO2 to feed the organism in the massive grids.  (4) plants could supply all oil the US needs per his calculations.
[/quote]
I’d like to see that…  four plants, each producing 5 million barrels of oil a day (6% of the global output!) or nearly 58 barrels PER SECOND!
There’s gonna be some really hectic tanker queues methinks!
Mike

" By reducing output of sunlight, lipids shot up… "OK, the energy still has to come from somewhere. In algae, the energy source is the sun. There’s no magic. If lipid production increased with decreased sunlight, the energy density of the lipids decreased per volume. Total energy out = solar plus what the algae eats. You could possibly develop algae that ate an energy dense substance like sugar, which would up your energy output (with decreased efficiency due to conversion), but then, what’s the point of the algae? just grow sugar cane and convert to alcohol like Brazil.So you need sunlight to get energy for the synthetic lipid generator arrays. Without it, you get no significant energy out. Ventner can talk efficiency, but I’ll believe it when I see it. At the moment, a regular photovoltaic panel and a lead acid battery would get you more useful energy, albeit in electrical, not chemical form.
All of this is a fancy way of saying that Ventner is either lying or misinformed about what algae can and can’t do.

Indeed…  in fact you got me thinking.  If one of these plants were to be able to produce 5 mbls/day (using round number of 1/4 US oil consumption) then we get these figures:
1 barrel of oil contains ~1.7MWh (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrel_of_oil_equivalent)
So 5Mbls contain 8.5TWh (5,000,000 x 1,700,000 = 8,500,000,000,000Wh)
If you assume 5 peak sunshine hours at an appropriate site, then power required = 1.7TW (8,500,000,000,000,000Wh/5h)
At 1000W/m^2 you need 1,700,000,000,000 m^2 of algae ponds converting sunlight at 100% efficiency.  That’s a square with a side 1300km or 800 miles!
Of course you wouldn’t get 100% efficiency, so it would need to be bigger.  Anyone know the efficiency of agael conversion?
Maybe someone else can check my calcs…?
Mike

I enjoyed the talk. Thank you.
Ideas come too thick and fast for my fingers to keep up.

Mr? Rapier is on top of his subject. Well done.

We have 9 Billion people to keep alive with a energy return on the farm of 10 units of oil energy makes 1 unit of food energy. Conventional thinking will doom us. We cannot solve our present crisis with yesterdays solutions.

The conversation is being tightly controlled and focused on Chemical reactions. Chemical reactions are just not going to cut the mustard. If we are going to be stuck on this model of reality then it is party time, because we are all doomed.

Chemical reactions are a cul-de-sac. A brick wall. And as Dmitri Orlov says , a brick wall is a patient teacher.

Chemical reactions yield a pathetic 5 eV per reaction. We can do much better.

Being shot at clears the sinuses. One begins to think fast. The military has being using nuclear energy for a long time. The military is takeing Cold Fusion seriously.

If small advances in chemical reactions receive overblown media coverages, why do large advances in Cold Fusion receive none? Answer: Models of Reality. Our intellectual class has (yet again) succumbed to Status.

The answers will come from what we don’t know, not by regurgitating what we do.

Progress is made one death at a time.

I shall stoop to discussing Chemical reactions.


Anyone know the efficiency of agael conversion?

I had a flutter of hope with Bot. Braunii. I see from this release from Japan that they have been engineered to produce 10 thousand times larger than the natural strain. Whatever that means. I seem to recall that the natural form of BB yielded 5% efficiency. My old computer died and with it , my notes.

[quote=Arthur Robey]I shall stoop to discussing Chemical reactions.

Anyone know the efficiency of agael conversion?
I had a flutter of hope with Bot. Braunii. I see from this release from Japan that they have been engineered to produce 10 thousand times larger than the natural strain. Whatever that means. I seem to recall that the natural form of BB yielded 5% efficiency. My old computer died and with it , my notes. [/quote] Thanks Arthur.....  at 5% efficiency of course, you need 20 times the area I calculated, or 1,700,000,000,000 km2 x 20 = 34,000,000,000,000 km2 which is 34 million square km, and with four of these, that's 140 million square km.  Seeing as the USA's surface area is "only" 9.83 million km2 Houston, I think we have a problem.........! I propose that regardless of the REAL figures, doing anything remotely as clever as this might sound is errrrrr.......  hard to scale up as Chris said! Mike

http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2006-08-30/commentary-peak-oil-and-fall-soviet-union

…and you were a defence department official, wouldn’t you invade the middle east to secure the remaining supply?
…and you were in finance, and knew the economy would collapse without cheap oil, wouldn’t you break all the laws and grab as much loot as you could, whileyou could?

Hey Damnthematrix, I think you got an extra factor of a thousand in your calculations somewhere. That’s a lot of zeroes to keep track of. Here is what I get:
1.7 TW divided by 1000 Watts / m2 = 1.7 giga m2

This is how much area is needed to provide 1/4 of US oil consumption assuming 100% conversion efficiency which of course isn’t valid.

First let’s look at algae, and I am going to assume an overall efficiency of 0.1% because photosynthesis for a leaf is around 1%, but this algae pond is an ecosystem and a lot of the sunlight doesn’t hit photosynthetically active surfaces, and then you have to process the biomass into the final product, and a lot of that biomass isn’t oil, so 0.1% is probably roughly what you can expect. Maybe it’s up to 1% efficiency and if you prefer this then just divide my final number by 10.

So 1.7 giga m2 divided by 0.1% = 1.7 tera m2.

Now, multiply this by 4 to bring up to total US oil consumption, and then by 2 because the US uses approx. twice as much energy as the oil it burns, and you get 14 tera m2.

Taking the square root, and you get that one side of this square would be 3,700 km long – totally unfeasible, out of this world.

Now let’s analyze solar panels. I assume overall 10% efficiency, so 1.7 giga m2 divided by 10% = 17 giga m2. Again, multiply by 4 and 2 to bring to total US energy consumption, and we get: 136 giga m2.

Take the square root and you get that one side of this square would be 370 km long.

Not an easy task, but not out of this world. Now, Saudi Arabia, Africa, the Andes, Mongolia, Australia, Nevada, and California all have a lot of empty desert (and Walmart roofs) that doesn’t have high ecological value. Arizona desert is quite diverse so I don’t think we should be paving that over with solar panels. World energy consumption is about 4X that of the US I think, so to power the whole world we’d need a block of solar panels with a side 730 km long! This is only a rough order of magnitude calculation, but it puts it into perspective.

Why are we even considering biofuels? If there was a way to so substantially increase ecological productivity, then nature would have already figured out how to do it.

And if someone can figure out nuclear fusion or thorium fission, then great. But until then we should be working with proven technologies.

Tell me about it… sent my head into a spin!  Thanks for the checking…

[quote=Mark_BC]Take the square root and you get that one side of this square would be
370 km
long.
Not an easy task, but not out of this world. Now, Saudi Arabia, Africa, the Andes, Mongolia, Australia, Nevada, and California all have a lot of empty desert (and Walmart roofs) that doesn’t have high ecological value. Arizona desert is quite diverse so I don’t think we should be paving that over with solar panels.[/quote]
And you think our deserts don’t…??  BTW, it’s common now for PVs to be 15%+ efficient.

Beats me…  of course this guy we’re discussing is making OIL, which I know is strictly a biofuel as per that method, but crude oil is more than fuel, it’s used for plastics, fertilisers, and a squilllion other things not least making tyres for cars…

Yeah well show me one working power plant and I’ll convert… where will the money come from for starters?

Yeah I know, I watched The Crocodile Hunter, but Australia is only a tenth the size of the US so I’m sure you could squeeze them in somewhere.

Yes this is why it is so depressing. I guess theoretically we could use electricity to do some kind of Fischer Tropsch synthesis at a reasonable efficiency to produce all these nice products. But, the amount of coordination that is going to be needed to pull this off in the time we have left is such a tall order, and when the financial system crashes how are we going to coordinate long term investments like this? I try to be optimistic with what technology offers but realistically we just aren’t going to be able to do it. I see a Malthusian Collapse in the not too distant future. I guess we should always keep trying though.