Alternative Transportation modes – The Train System, Part 1

In the first post on this blog we talked about technology and its impact not just with the industrial revolution but also the insidious production of pollution.  In the 1700s the development of the steam engine allowed the rapid development of multiple forms of engine that could work far more effectively than had simple muscle power for most of human civilization.  One of the most obvious of these engines was the locomotive steam engine and the vast network of rails that carried them across immense distances in relatively short periods of time.

While started in Great Britain for use in mining, the onset of passenger and freight rail began in earnest by 1804.  Between 1830 and the 1880s, rail networks sprang up across all of Europe and the North American Continent, all driven by the stream engine fueled by wood and then coal.   It was said that in the USA, you could get to within 10 miles of anywhere you wanted to go in the country by rail since the rail network was so expansive.  In 1869 the last spike was driven in the ground at Provo in Utah creating the first rail line from the Pacific to the Atlantic.  Freight and passengers could now go from San Francisco to New York in less than a week compared to ships that took as much as 3 months and had to navigate the treacherous Cape Horn route at the tip of Patagonia.  If you look at a night sky picture of North America it is interesting to note how the cities and towns west of the Mississippi river to the Rocky Mountains all seem to follow moderately straight lines.  These towns grew up along the rails being laid down and where towns were established at rail fueling stops.  Indeed, one of the many myths used to bring settlers west was that the smoke from the steam train stacks created clouds that produced rain for the westward expansion of farmers.  These emigrants were eager to claim land under the many land laws used to settle the public domain.  The period between WWI and WWII was characterized by a decline in Rail use because of lobbying efforts by Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller to establish road transportation as the dominant mode of movement in the USA.  One minor side note is the just before WWII the diesel-electric train engine began to appear making the smoky exhaust stacks of coal fired steam engines a thing of the past.  Now the pollution was less obvious, yet still as pervasive in reducing air quality.

In the 1971, Amtrak was created to consolidate the remaining 20 passenger rail companies still left in the USA.  At the time it was the state of the Art in Locomotive passenger travel with some trains running as fast as 125 mph in open long sections of track.  And there it stayed with no further innovation, being more of a tourist transportation system than a passenger movement system.  Freight rail is still popular because of its ability to move multiple cars of heavy freight at the same time.  Air travel took over as the main form of mass people transportation with the less popular Bus lines (e.g. greyhound) taking up some of the slack, and more people using their own cars to get around.  The creation of the Interstate freeway system meant further decline for passenger travel using mass transit.  The American love affair with the automobile and the urge to get places fast are today the main stumbling blocks for innovation in further railroad development.  But are we actually moving faster around the USA?  Airport and freeway backups coupled with automobile gridlock in the cities makes innovative rethinking of how we move around more essential than it has been since the mid-1800s.

Meanwhile in Europe and Asia, rail innovation has taken off and even supplanted air travel for quick efficient travel across the continents.  The famous Shinkansen bullet train in Japan was built in 1964 and a high-speed rail system has become the norm for most industrialized countries.  Think about a plane flight from Denver to Chicago.  Having driven it many times from Loveland I can attest that it is about 18 hours or more of driving.  To fly is obviously quicker, but let’s add up the time it actually takes.  The drive to DIA from Loveland is about an hour with no holdups.  By the time you park your car and get to the airport could add at least another 30 mins on an average by parking shuttle (assume you are not just being dropped off).  You arrive 2 hours early as required to play it safe to get through TSA and to the concourse train and to your gate.  The flight takes around two hours but the airports around Chicago (O’Hare and Midway, or Mitchell in Milwaukee) are not near the city center.  To get from the gates to the outside curb can take 30 minutes.  If you want to get downtown you need to take the airport train or a taxi, which adds another 45 minutes.  Time to get from Loveland to actual downtown Chicago about 6-7 hours by air travel.  And unless you upgrade your basic ticket you are crammed into a tight seat for the actual travel or sitting around in a less than exciting airport.  Now imagine less of the hassles and getting to Chicago in the same amount of time and where you can relax in comfortable seats and walk around without restriction while actually traveling and you are looking at rail travel in the rest of the world.  And the cost of train travel (also electric trains, not diesel) is actually cheaper than air flight, and goes from city center to city center.

To be continued …..

Renewable Energy 6 – Biomass energy systems

Burning wood is probably one of the oldest and most common forms of producing heat and energy.  Yet, as anyone who has ever sat around a campfire will attest, the smoke can be problematic.  Photosynthesis is one of the most incredible mechanisms in nature – diffuse light energy from the sun is captured and turned into concentrated chemical energy – the most common of which is cellulose.  Yet, the release of that heat and light causes the release of the chemical materials (carbon dioxide and ash – residues of all the other chemicals) in to the atmosphere.  Of course, some heavier ash is left at the site if combustion.  The obvious problem is that all biomass energy is a reverse of photosynthesis, yet that being said, it still has a lot of potential to power our systems and is completely renewable.  

There are basically four types of biomass in use today – Wood and agricultural products that accounts for about 44% of current biomass usage.  

  • Wood and biowaste from burning dead trees, and waste wood from places like wood mils, forest debris, building demolition sites, and even dried animal manure.  Many people in more affluent areas often have open wood fires that are both esthetically pleasant and can make use of dead wood.  In rural areas the pollution is not severe but in a large town or city would quickly come to produce the smoke smogs that were so devastating to health in the 1700s and 1800s.   Waste wood can be burned directly or it can be processed into smaller pellets for incineration in higher temperature boiler systems.  This is a way to ‘reuse’ wood products, but in the end it is simply an advantageous economic aspect of energy generation and does little to alleviate pollution problems. 
  • Alcohol fuels (like Ethanol or Biodiesel), that are derived from crops like corn and algae.  One of the big problems with using crops is that these are also our food supplies. It’s a strange choice – food or fuel.  In the USA we have a surplus of food, but many developing countries struggle to feed their people let alone think about using what food they do produce for fuel.  Add to the problem of developed countries financing fuel crop growing in these developing countries creates hunger problems for people.  Add to this the problem that growing these crops is also energy intensive technology.  Alcohol is a lot cleaner to burn than fossil fuels – although there is still some pollution – but when the total spreadsheet is framed for Alcohol fuels, the only real option worth considering is that of algal alcohol, but that is still in its infancy.   There is E85 fuel available but a main problem of alcohol fuels is that alcohol can be corrosive to components of an engines fuel injection system thereby requiring more stainless steel and erosion resistant components be added to the engine. 
  • Solid waste incineration (conglomerate biomass – waste to energy or energy from waste)has been around for a few decades.  At first it was a solution to the growing solid waste problem in that it burned trash in traditional coal burning electrical generation plants.  The problems with burning solid waste is that the mixture of materials includes plastics and a multitude of other chemically derived products.   If the waste is not burned at a high enough temperature the resulting emissions can form toxic byproducts that need further treatment making this a potential health and economic problem.  Strict regulations are required to ensure public health safety and sorting trash before it is burned can be a costly process.  One advantage of this is that the emissions tend to be carbon dioxide, which is less polluting than Methane emissions often found from simple biological degradation with a trash dump – the old now rapidly disappearing form of trash disposal in the developed world but still prevalent growing problem in the developing world. 
  • Landfill gas and biogas.  This energy option derived from the methane produced by biodegrading trash or biodegrading wet animal manure.   Most landfills today are aseptic in that degradation is limited because of the compartmentalized nature of how trash is now stored in landfills.  The trash is packed into the landfill and then surrounded by clay.  This restricts the oxidation biodegradation thus keeping the trash in its undigested form for long periods.  What degradation does occur is anaerobic and produces methane.  In order to safeguard the landfill from potential explosive ignition of methane pockets, methane pipes are added to the landfill to vent off the methane.  Rather than vent the methane, many landfills are now capturing the methane for energy generation.  This works for the developing world and big cities around the world because of the immense amounts of trash generated in a consumer society.  In the developing world, however, one of the biggest problems, especially in rural and remote areas is that of over use of wood fuel.  Deforestation has been almost catastrophic in this areas with locals walking many miles a day to find enough wood for cooking and heating.  These people generally tend to be more pastoral and have many animals and hence lots of wet animal manure on hand.  Relatively small Biodigestor units can be given to each family where the wet manure is kept in a sealed tank to digest anaerobically.  The resulting methane each day serves as both the cooking and heating fuel, thereby relaxing the demand for fuel wood.  This has benefitted these rural villages in economic and ecological ways as well.  The reduction of fuel wood use has allowed the depleted forest to regrow, and the time saved in not having to find fuel has given the women especially, time to devote to crafts they can sell at local markets to tourists.  The men have been reported happy with the resulting digested liquid organic sludge as it is a better fertilizer for their crops than simple manure.  Of course, this biogas from biodigestors can be scaled up to community level to produce methane for larger numbers of homes.

While biomass can be a boom for many areas, especially more rural and remote areas, it is difficult to see how it can be scaled up for industrialized systems.  While biomass is renewable it often just substitutes for a more polluting alternative.  It does have advantages in that it usually produces less pollution.  In developed countries, the use of biomass such as algae has a lot of promise to substitute for oil-based fuels without disrupting the existing infrastructure and so as a stop gap option is beneficial.  One of the big aspects of biomass is the incredible amount of non-crop cellulose to be found on the planet.  This has been a difficult problem to crack – how to use cellulose economically, because degrading plant cellulose is not easy. 

There is some recent research that could soon change that.  In a 60 minutes episode on January 6, 2019,  unlikely genius inventor Marshall Medoff talks about a new technique to break down Cellulose cheaply and economically viable.  As Marshall says about his work, “What I thought was, the reason people were failing is they were trying to overcome nature instead of working with it.”  “What MIT trained chemist Craig Masterman has done is help implement Medoff’s novel idea of using electron accelerators to break apart nature’s chokehold on the valuable sugars inside plant life – or biomass. The accelerators can break the cellulose down to simple sugars that cane be used for a myriad number of functions from fuels to foods, and the process can even break down plastics easily.  The process doesn’t disrupt existing infrastructure systems but complements them with low polluting alternatives. 

Understanding Modern Energy 4 – The reality of Mining, Extraction, and use of Fossil Fuels (FFs)

Do you know where your energy comes from?  The big concept here is that it takes energy to get to the energy.  The easy ways of getting to the fossil fuels are long gone.  The more of the FF resources that are extracted, the more technology and energy it takes to get what extra FF resource we can squeeze out of a site.  Just google image any of the key terms in this post to see what is happening to get you your energy.  Besides the fact that the amount of FFs available is declining rapidly, and pollution problems are increasing, obtaining FF energy is not a benign industry.

MINING COAL

Coal can be highly variable in quality and consistency.  ‘Young’ coal that has not undergone much transformation from heat and pressure of overlying rock strata is usually just a more solid version of peat (Lignite).  As moisture is removed by heat and pressure over time, the coal becomes denser and less filled with other minerals such as sulfur and nitrogen (sub-bituminous, then bituminous).  The best quality coal is Anthracite because it has the highest carbon content, the fewest impurities, and the lowest water content making it burn hot with little less smoke and flame.  Alas, it is also the rarest and most expensive form of coal with only about 1% of world coal reserves found worldwide in deeper layers of rock strata.  Most coal fired systems will mix cheaper and more polluting bituminous coal with Anthracite to exactly meet pollution emission standards.  Note: these emission standards are not zero emissions, they are only what levels are deemed as acceptable pollution versus economic benefit, which is still amazing amounts of pollution that occurs producing continuous health problems.  The other source of pollution from burning coal is the ‘coal ash.’  Each year U.S. power plants dump more than 100 million tons of this toxic ash (containing Arsenic, Lead and Mercury especially) into ponds and landfills with leakage always a high problem, raising the risk of ground water and surface water contamination.

Coal Mining – Underground

Underground coal mines are becoming harder to mine with rock fault systems making it prohibitively expensive to continue this kind of mining.  Coal seams deep underground have a shaft for the workers, machines to get underground and also for the extracted coal to come to the Surface.  The main tunnel is reinforced concrete that leads from the shaft to the continually moving coal face where drum cutters drop coal on to an armored chain conveyor belt system that takes the coal all the way back to the main shaft.  The space immediately in front of the face is supported by roof props that are moved forward with the advancing face and the main tunnel support.  Usually, the props are removed and the area once filled with coal is left open on the outside of the main tunnel concrete chamber.  This void is prone to frequent roof collapse with the main tunnel being the only protection for the miners and machinery.  In areas where the geological rock strata is highly faulted, the coal seams are dislocated and much effort is necessary to keep the tunnels moving in a linear fashion.  Needless to say it becomes economically less feasible as the price of coal varies and coal mines producing bituminous and especially sub-bituminous coal become less useful because of high impurities (produce excessive pollution – recall, devastating black-smogs).

Coal Mining – Opencast Mining and Mountain Top Removal

More surface mining from Opencast mines is one of the most common forms to extract primarily bituminous coal.  The mining is generally more surface level coal, although deep pit mining techniques can be used.  In Mountain Top Removal, the mountain is literally removed to access the coal seams.  Imagine a chocolate layer cake with a cream center layer.  In surface mining, the top layer (the overburden) has to be removed to access the cream layer.  In reality this is mountain top removal where all the overburden is removed and dumped off to the side below the layer often into river valleys around the mountain while the coal (the cream layer) is removed.  If you ever see tailings tips from old mining, think about his on a scale where the whole area is one big tailings tip.  It is an extremely destructive form of mining leaving hundreds of square miles of surface land stripped to lower level bedrock.  The river valleys now filled with overburden still have the watercourses moving through pulverized rock leaching out all manner of minerals that pollute the surface and the groundwater – acid mine drainage is a extensive problem in all surface mining that is almost impossible to remedy without expensive water treatment or water purification plants.

Tar Sands and Tar Shales

You may have heard of Tar Sands and Oil Shales where Kerogen lies permeated into the near-surface layers of sands and rock shale (e.g. Alberta).  I said at the start of this post that it takes energy to get the energy.  In these sands and shales, the kerogen is strip mined and then chemically treated to make it into an oil-like substance.  I have it on good authority from a Conoco colleague that it is barely a money making proposition since it takes about 4 barrels worth of oil energy to get five barrels of yield.  Meanwhile it does completely ruin thousands of square miles of ground for hundreds of years before it will naturally remediate back to a prairie, and eventually back to a boreal forest (just google image ‘Tar Sands Canada’ and see why).

DRILLING FOR PETROLEUM OIL

Petroleum Oil (a complex mix of hydrocarbons) is found in deep underground reservoirs and rock impregnated with oil or Kerogen.  When a well is drilled, the pressure on the underground reservoir usually forces the primary extraction to the surface on its own.  Once that natural pressure is gone, secondary extraction requires that some form of pressure from the surface (e.g. water injection, natural gas reinjection and gas lift) be applied to the oil well to force the oil to the surface.  About 35-45% of the oil reservoir is recoverable by primary and secondary techniques.  A further tertiary 5-15% may be extracted using techniques like high pressure steam and surfactants that make the viscous remaining recoverable oil flow under generated pressure to the surface.  The ‘Estimated Ultimate Recovery – EUR’  is an approximation of the quantity of oil or gas that is potentially recoverable or has already been recovered from a reserve or well.  When it is extracted it is usually piped to the coast and loaded on to really big oil tankers for shipping around the world.  The transfer pipes too often rupture or explode and the oil tankers sometimes run aground (think Exxon Valdez), although the newer tankers have double hulls to lessen the likelihood of oil spills in such cases.  The big new threat is that of oil rail cars on the railroads.  The majority of these oil cars are still not up to standard for controlling spills.  You may have heard of derailments where small towns have had to be evacuated because of these oil cars rupturing and exploding in derailments.

DRILLING FOR NATURAL GAS (NG)

Drilling for NG was a lot like drilling for oil in that it is a similar drilling technique to a large underground deposit.  When NG was first found it would be possible to simply drill a hole and then tap the gas fields.  Since the 1970s the numbers of large gas fields have fast become depleted and in the mid-1990s, Hydraulic Gas Fracturing (Fracking) finally became economical to use.  From one drill head the drill goes vertically down to the level of the shale containing the many small pockets of NG where the drill can then go horizontally through the shall layer.  The same drill head can go horizontally in various directions   Once the hole is drilled, water (up to 1 million gallons per frack), fine grained sand (50%) and a mixture of proppants (up to 655 chemicals, many toxic, making 0.5% of the fluid mix total) are pumped under high pressure to crack the shale rock, thereby releasing the NG from the pockets.  The pipeline is cleared by withdrawing as much as 70% of the fracking mixture leaving behind the sand and some proppants to keep the cracks open so that the gas from the now ruptured gas pockets can flow freely back to the surface.  This sounds innocuous, unless you live right next to a drill head.   All the water used cannot be recovered unless it is extensively distilled (really expensive) and so is removed from the water cycle and pumped underground (along with the chemicals) into old extraction sites.  It is assumed that the groundwater will not be contaminated and that the cracks produced in the rocks deep underground will not leach to the groundwater or to the surface itself.  Numerous reports suggest that this is not predictable and does occurs occasionally.

While oil fields tend to be in non-populated places, fracking is done everywhere, including populated areas and even within communities.  First there is the noise from a drill rig going 24/7 accompanied by endless truck traffic going back and forth from the site.  Since the drilling is 24/7, there are intense arc lights on during the night.  And then there is the potential of blowouts, which sadly are more frequent than the news reports would have you believe.  When a frack is occurring, the high pressure can rupture the drill head containment system.  At this point, the back pressure would push some of the frac mixture out of the drill head into the air.  There are numerous stories of people who live downwind of a drill head suffering unusual debilitating health problems.  With a blowout, the problem is magnified as the chemicals (the injection list is proprietary) become more concentrated in the air, and possibly the worse hazard is the fine grain sand (around 10 micron grains) that if you are downwind and should be unfortunate enough to get a lung-full, would cause silicosis!  The industry argue that the system is safe and that the economic benefits outweigh the environmental and health risks, yet their faith in the system is so weak that they vehemently fight any regulations that place any health and safety issues at their door.

Issues surrounding natural gas extraction. 

Colorado Issue 112 (2018) – This issue has only one sentence – setback any drill site 2500 ft instead of the current 500 ft.  This is NOT an anti-energy proposal, but an increased safety proposal.  There are already regulations limiting where fracking can occur and that have obliged the industry to cater to health and environmental safety.  So why should an extra 2000 ft safety setback raise such commotion?  Issue 112 does not restrict the right to drill.  The 85% of areas currently not open to drilling are irrelevant in this issue.  Yet, the industry has launched an $80-100 million misinformation campaign to defeat this issue emphasizing an economic Armageddon that will engulf Colorado should it pass.  Based on data from drill-head blowouts, even 2500 ft is barely enough should you be nearby or downwind from the blowout.  It is not a restriction on legal drilling nor is it extending any of the existing regulations other than the setback distance – NG will still be as available as it currently is – this issue is merely an extra setback safety space.  Horizontal drilling can go 5200 ft from the drill head.  This increased setback would mean more negotiating with landowners for site placements to reach shale rock beyond their existing reach, but the safety factor for homeowners, schools and businesses overall would be greatly improved.  The venom exhibited by the oil and gas industry and their proponents is quite extraordinary – even death threats to 112 supporters.  The CSPR roundtable report list lots of economic data to support their viewpoints, except WHY this setback would actually impact the industry.  Why would jobs be lost? Why would revenue be lost?  Why would the industry go into economic freefall? – what makes issue 112 reckless, besides the fact that the industry does not want anyone telling them what they can or cannot do?  Existing regulations on the industry would still allow fracking where it is currently allowed, except they would have to think more clearly about the setback distance and safety issues.

A little history.

Projects Gasbuggy (1967), Rulison (1969), and Rio Blanco (1973).  As an example of clear thinking by the Energy industry, let me appraise you with a brilliant idea of three projects with peaceful uses of underground nuclear bombs, all part of Operation Plowshare.  As an example, in the Rulison project, a 38.5 Kiloton nuclear bomb was exploded 8,400 ft underground, 8 miles southeast of Parachute, Colorado.  The resulting blast was meant to open up all the shale rock in the area and provide a large central chamber in which all the Methane could collect for piping from the blast site.  In all three cases the resulting methane was contaminated with Radioactive Kypton 85 and very high levels of Tritated Hydrogen (apparently, no one thought of radioactive contamination as a serious side-effect) and eventually the gas was flared off (burned in to the atmosphere).  Fracking was seen as a better alternative – it didn’t upset the public as much with radioactivity being absent, except in residues of the retrieved fracking solutions.

Hello Loveland

Welcome to Renewables now Loveland.  The blog begins with the latest post and scrolls down through to the first post.  It is meant to educate about Electrical Power and why we need to embrace renewable energy while acknowledging its history in making this modern world possible.