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Commentary on The Capital Markets- Category [Energy]
2017-08-19 06:35 by Karl Denninger
in Energy , 361 references
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Mazda has announced that it has mastered and will produce HCCI gasoline engines, dubbed SkyActiv-X, for their 2019 vehicles.

This has been attempted by car manufacturers for some 30 years, yet tiny Mazda, not Honda, not Chevy, not Ford -- has apparently finally done it.

The value of this breakthrough cannot be overstated.

If it works to anywhere near its promise this breakthrough will utterly destroy the EV industry -- including Tesla -- for light passenger vehicles.

Mazda knows what it has as well -- it has announced that it has no intention of selling these engines to any other vehicle makers.

Let's be clear: This engine and the vehicles it will be deployed in will utterly decimate the EV industry.  The only remaining argument for EVs will be political, not economic or energy-related.  I note that gasoline can be produced from any carbon source desired, which means it's an infinitely-renewable fuel and it has zero range issues since the tank can be refilled in a couple of minutes.  The infrastructure to refuel a gasoline vehicle not only exists everywhere there are literally no places within the United States where you are more than a quarter-tank away from another fueling station on any road you choose to drive.

This will not be true for EVs for decades, if ever.

Further, battery-powered vehicles suffer from an inherent physical infirmity that cannot be overcome -- the reactants for their energy production must all be carried inside the case of the battery.  An ICE, on the other hand, obtains one of its reactants from the atmosphere -- oxygen -- and thus it will always have a massive size and mass advantage.

This in turn means the EV always loses in the total energy budget (from source to the wheels) calculation and it always will because the more mass you must accelerate the more energy is required.  Since you must carry the reactant and product mass with you in a battery all the time you therefore must lose in this regard.

We do not use petrol for fuel because we're pigs -- we do it because nobody can get 114,000 BTUs into a one-gallon liquid container via any other means than liquid hydrocarbons.  To put it more-succinctly, one gallon of gasoline is equivalent to ~33 kilowatt-hours of electrical energy; an "80 kWh" battery, assuming you can use all of it (you can't; depth-of-discharge limits range from 50-85% without damaging the pack) has less than two gallons of gasoline in energy contained in it at full charge and it not only massively outweighs the 12lbs of gasoline (by 100x!) it also consumes many times the physical space.

These are physical laws; they cannot be violated by political decree.

Diesel engines have, under heavier and heavier constraint on both particulate and NOx emissions, been forced to turn to expensive, efficiency-robbing and complex exhaust treatment systems.  These systems make the economic argument for current light-duty diesels impossible.

This problem does not apply to HCCI gasoline engines; traditional catalytic converters with common closed-loop fuel control, as has been available and in-use now for close to 20 years, is sufficient to meet those requirements.

What this means is that 50mpg highway-mileage mid and full-size sedans are now scheduled for production.  A "light" hybrid that can recapture braking energy and use it in city driving (a huge amount of the energy lost in city driving, occurring at relatively low speeds where air resistance is not a major factor, is from braking) will make that sort of mileage possible in the city as well, but whether the additional cost will be worth it is another question -- I suspect the answer is "no."

I note that my current Mazda "6" can break 40mpg on the highway if I keep the speed at or under 65mph (and I have proved it on multiple tanks in the real world) so reaching 50mpg is pretty-much right up the middle in terms of expectations.

I will finally note that in over 110,000 miles of operation to date my current SkyActiv Mazda 6 has required exactly zero in terms of maintenance input other than routine oil and filter changes, plus tires and one set of brake pads.  In other words the argument that the EV will "win" on service costs is flat-out bunk and I have no crazy-expensive battery pack to worry about either.

Put it all together and the bottom line is this: It's coming folks.

You see, this won't be a $30, $40 or $50,000 car -- base models should be right around $20,000 -- with a cost-per-mile of operation nearing if not at the lowest among vehicles on the road today.  Oh, and reports are that it has forced induction via a supercharger and as such the engine both has a higher peak output than the current SkyActiv engines for a given displacement and materially-superior torque as well.

What this means is that there is neither an economic or "green" argument for EVs compared against a vehicle powered by this technology.

Bye-bye Tesla.....

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2017-07-24 07:00 by Karl Denninger
in Energy , 437 references
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The scaremongering is still going on with regard to the Fukushima plant.

But the latest news appears to quash any of the nonsense that people were running for months after the incident -- that the cores of the reactors that melted down had breached the containment.


Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. says solidified lava-like rocks heaped up from the bottom inside of a main structure called the pedestal that sits underneath the core inside the primary containment vessel of Fukushima’s Unit 3 reactor. Experts believe the melted fuel fell to the chamber’s bottom and is now submerged by radioactive water.

That would be where you'd expect it to be.  The reason for all the screaming harpy stuff is that thus far they hadn't found it (which means it could have remained inside the pressure vessel itself, and a good part of it probably is.)

This also explains the radiation readings in the containment building and their "lumpiness"; in some places levels in the 100-500 Sievert range have been recorded or estimated (levels at that degree are high enough that accurate measurement is basically impossible -- not that it really matters much) in some places, where in others it's in the 1-10 Sievert range in the same containment.  There are many technical reasons why this happens (you can actually get "shine" effects with radiation just like sun will reflect off water, for example, while if your dosimeter is behind a solid metal or concrete object it provides very material shielding, etc.) all of which is consistent with the containment doing exactly what it's designed to do in a situation like this.

Not that this will make removal easy -- it will be extraordinarily difficult.

The other issue that the screamers have been "on" about is the tritiated water.  The plant's external areas (outside of the containment -- wiring and machinery spaces, etc) were built, shockingly enough, close enough to the water that groundwater infiltration is a factor and in fact the plant when running normally basically had to run sump pumps to keep the water out!  In addition Tepco is intentionally circulating water in the containment to keep the melted fuel there cool and since the rod cladding is nowhere near intact there is some isotope transport into the circulating water.  This is not hard to filter out except for the tritium -- because tritium is just hydrogen, it's in the water, and thus it's basically impossible to differentiate it through filtration.

Tritium however is not especially dangerous; it is not bioaccumulative since it's part of water (in other words it cycles out of a plant or animal that consumes it) and when it decays it releases a beta, which has very low energy (~5.7keV) and thus doesn't travel far (it's only able to penetrate ~6mm in air -- your skin's dead cell layers are more than sufficient shielding against it.)  While there is some risk from ingestion it is tiny by comparison to other radioisotopes that do bioaccumulate and decay releasing much-higher energy particles.  This is why it has been used for things like glowing dials on instruments and such; you don't need a material amount of shielding (e.g. the glass crystal on a watch) for it to be safe and if it gets loose it won't do a great deal of harm (unlike, for example, radium.)  Further, the actual amount that is being produced by decay is very small -- but it is detectable, and it's also dispersed in the water (since it's just hydrogen chemically and thus binds perfectly-well with oxygen as does any other hydrogen atom.)

So yeah, the mess is still there.  Yes, there's a lot of water in storage that has to be discharged.  Yes, it contains tritium.  Yes, that's radioactive, but not strongly so, and frankly, the realistic risk of actual harm to persons, flora or fauna from same is zero -- you could stand right next to a plastic tank full of highly-tritiated water and measure exactly zero radiation from it, because the energy level of the released betas is insufficient to pass through a plastic water tank's walls.

There still remains zero evidence that any core material, other than radioisotopes in the steam when the plants vented, got out of the containment -- and that release was more-or-less intentional (the alternative was a steam explosion that would have leveled the entire plant and violated the containment on a mass scale, so of the two that certainly appears to have been the better choice -- no?)  The maintenance hatches to the containment have been able to be cleaned sufficiently to allow people to place the robots inside without exceeding dosage limits and those people are not all dead, so we know that has been successful.

Is this reason for complacency?  No.  Nor is it a reason to be "happy" about what happened at Fukushima, or to downplay the engineering (and cost!) challenges that remain in cleaning up this mess, a process which is going to take decades.  Nor is it any excuse for building a plant that requires electrical power to remain safe and placing the switchgear in a location where it can be flooded by seawater in a tsunami -- an event that is known to be a risk at that location.  The people responsible for that should have been jailed long before the earthquake ever happened.  But the fact remains that the repeated claims that fuel went through the containment and are now in the ground under the plant, thus contaminating the land in an irreversible fashion, have not been born out by either the presence of said radionucleides in the groundwater and now the fuel has apparently been located -- in the containment where it was expected to wind up.

One final note. I own a fairly high-quality recording geiger that can measure alpha (most don't.) I intermittently scan the food that comes in the house, and have yet to find any evidence of increased radioisotope presence, nor any increase in background radiation level as the unit is on 24x7 and recording. Note that I didn't say "an increase that was cause for concern"; there has been literally zero increase in background radiation level here and I have had zero incidents where I have detected any radioisotope contamination in purchased food. That doesn't mean there isn't any somewhere on the planet, but if it was happening on any sort of material scale it's highly likely I would have detected something by now.

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Ok, if you've listened to Pickens and the Ratigan show, you know that they seem to think that we can fix things with natural gas and perhaps with some renewables.

That will never work.  Nor will drilling here - we can replace some of our demand, but not all of it.  Further, the amount of oil we have is finite.

Indeed, all of the various energy resources are finite.  Even The Sun is finite.  It will eventually run out of fuel and "die."  It just won't happen for a very, very long time.

We have about ten years of natural gas supplies in proved reserves at present rates of consumption.  But "growth" is a nasty thing; it's a compound function, and I discuss this often - compound functions cause trouble, and usually quickly.

Pickens wants to move trucks (at minimum) to natural gas.  Nice sentiment.  But he's talking his book and pushing something that, if we double our consumption - and if we replaced gasoline and diesel we would - the "solution" would only last five years, make him filthy rich, and still leave us screwed.

There has to be a better way.  We need a solution that will last at least fifty years.

What if I told you that there is one?

It's coal.

But not how you think of coal.

We think of coal as going into a power plant that makes electricity.  But that's wasteful, believe it or not.

Here's the math on gasoline, diesel and coal.

1 lb of gasoline contains about 2.2 x 10^7 Joules of energy.
1 lb of coal contains about 1.1 x 10^7 Joules of energy.

These are reasonably-comparable; another way to look at this is that you need about 200% of coal (in pounds) as you do in gasoline for the same energy content.

Edit: Numbers vary on coal depending on type.  Changed to reflect the most-pessimistic reasonable observed number - 4/1 1:44 pm

We currently consume 378 million gallons of gasoline a day.  At 6lbs/gallon (approximately) this is 2,268 million pounds.  Reduced to short tons (2,000 lbs) this is 1.134 million short tons of gasoline/day, or 414 million short tons a year.  Converted to coal, this is 828 short tons.

The most-current value I can find for distillate (diesel fuel) is 3.794 million barrels a day.  At 42 gallons to the barrel, this is 159 million gallons of diesel fuel.  Diesel contains about 20% more BTUs per gallon than gasoline, but is about 17% heavier at 7lbs/gallon, so if we convert simply based on weight we get close.  So we have 1,113 million pounds of diesel daily; reduced to short tons that's 0.557 million short tons of diesel daily, or 203 million short tons a year.  Converted to coal, this is 406 million short tons.

Add these two and we get 1,234 million short tons a year of coal equivalent.

Why is this important?

Because according to the EIA, again, we consume about 1,073 million short tons of coal a year, virtually all of it being burned to produce electrical power.

How much coal do we have?  According to the EIA the total reserve base - the reasonable commercially recoverable coal, is about 489 billion short tons.  That's roughly four hundred years worth of supply at current rates of use.  If we assume our population will grow at about 1% a year and per-capita energy use remains roughly constant, we should have enough coal to last at least 200 years.

Now stay with me a minute.

Remember, we consume about that amount in coal-equivalent between both gasoline and diesel.

Consider this: There is 13 times as much energy in coal in the form of Thorium as there is available by burning the coal, and right now we literally throw it away in the ash pile!

What is Thorium?  It's a fertile material.  That means that when struck by a neutron in a reactor it transmutes via a nuclear process to an element that is capable of fission.  Note that Thorium itself is not fissionable - that is, it will not (directly) split and release energy.  Instead it captures thermal neutrons and turns into Uranium-233.  U-233 is fissile.

There is a type of nuclear reactor that utilizes this fuel cycle.  Instead of the traditional nuclear reactor which uses water as a moderator and coolant (either a boiling or pressurized water reactor) these reactors use a liquid salt.  In the vernacular they're called "LFTR"s, pronounced "Lifter." 

You've probably never heard of them.  But they're not pie in the sky dreams.  Our nation ran one for nearly four years in the 1960s at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  It was scrapped in favor of the traditional uranium fuel cycle we use today because the fuel it produces is very difficult to exploit for nuclear weapons, and it breeds fuel at a slow rate.  The natural process of the nuclear reactions in the core of such a unit produces a byproduct that is a very strong gamma emitter that is difficult to separate from the other reaction products.  For this reason - and because we wanted both nuclear power and nuclear weapons - we built the infrastructure for uranium and plutonium rather than thorium.

Thorium-based reactors have several significant advantages and a few disadvantages.  We have much less experience with LFTRs than traditional nuclear power, simply because we stopped working with them for political and war-fighting reasons.  They use a fluoride salt which is quite reactive when in contact with water, but the reactivity is a bonus in all other respects, because it tends to encapsulate the reaction products (the nasty fission products that you don't want in the environment) through that same chemical process.  It runs at a much higher temperature (typically 650C) than a traditional reactor and unlike a traditional reactor the fuel and the working fluid is the same - there are no fuel rods that can melt and release their nasty fission product elements, as the fuel is dispersed in the coolant.

Finally, the unit is intrinsically safe.  It does not require high pressure; the working fluid and coolant is a liquid at ordinary atmospheric pressure.  This gets rid of the need for high-pressure pumps, pipes and similar materials.  Without the moderator the reactivity is insufficient to sustain a chain reaction, and the moderator is in the reactor vessel itself through which the fuel/coolant is pumped, so criticality is impossible outside of the reactor vessel and inside the vessel the fuel and coolant are the same, and a liquid.  The working fluid is contained in the reactor loop by an actively-cooled plug.  If power is lost cooling ceases and the plug melts; the working fluid then drains into tanks by gravity under the reactor and cools into a solid, as it cannot maintain criticality outside of the reactor itself (there's no moderator in the tank or the plumbing.)  As the fuel is in the fluid, there is no core to melt as occurred in Japan and being dispersed over a much larger area the working fluid naturally cools from liquid to solid without forced pumping and cooling.  This safety feature was regularly tested in the unit at Oak Ridge - they literally turned off the power on the weekends and simply went home!

There are some downsides.  The working fluid requires special metals made out of Hastelloy.  But these are no longer particularly-special materials, being used in other chemical plants where highly-corrosive material is commonly handled.  They are expensive, but then again so are traditional reactor pressure vessels which require high-pressure integrity and thus special welding and inspection techniques.

Why did I just spend all this time talking about LFTRs?

Let's remember two facts from up above:

  • There is 13 times as much energy in coal in the form of Thorium as there is available by burning the coal.


  • We use 1,234 million short tons a year of coal equivalent in gasoline and diesel fuel which is approximately - within 20% - of the amount of coal we burn now.

One final piece of information: The Germans figured out how to turn coal into synfuel - gasoline and diesel - before WWII.  This process, called Fischer-Tropsch, requires energy to drive it and is currently in commercial use in some places that have a lot of coal but little or no oil, such as South Africa.  Malaysia also has an operating plant.  Typical operating temperatures for this process are in the neighborhood of ~350C.

This light bulb should be coming on about now: We can replace our gasoline and diesel consumption, plus replace the coal-fired plant electrical generation, and have lots of energy left over - all while completely eliminating the requirement for foreign petroleum from anyone!

Now let's put the pieces together.

We'll start with the same amount of coal we burn today.

We have the fuel energy in the coal, and we have 13x that much energy which we are going to extract from it in the form of the thorium naturally contained in the coal.

Let us assume we consume twice the fuel content of the coal extracting the thorium.  We have 11x the original energy left (once in combustion of the coal, and 10x in thorium energy content.)

We will then use the Fischer-Tropsch process to turn the coal into synfuel - gasoline and diesel.  We will be rather piggish about efficiency (that is, presume we're not efficient at all) and assume we put in twice as much energy as the coal contains in fuel content converting it.  Since the process heat from the reactor is of higher quality (higher temperature) than the Fischer-Tropsch reaction requires by a good margin, we can do so directly without first converting to electricity (which would introduce more losses.)

We now have all of our gasoline and diesel fuel, and we also have 8x the original BTU content of the coal left in thorium energy content.

We will then use the remainder to generate electricity.

So what do we have out of this?

A nuclear and physical technology that:

  • Replaces all of our gasoline and diesel fuel requirements.  This ends our foreign oil imports.  It also allows us to remove all foreign military activity related to securing that foreign oil.  It is essentially a lock that we can drop $200 billion a year off our military budget this way, and it's not unreasonable to expect that we might be able to cut the DOD in half.  Over 20 years this is at least $4 trillion in budget savings, and might be as much as double that.  Those funds should do nicely to build the plants involved.

  • Continues to use liquid hydrocarbons for light and moderate transport needs.  Sorry folks, there's nothing better.  I wish there was too.  There isn't.  Some day there might be, but that day is not today.  The problems with the alternatives are all found in thermodynamics as a consequence of energy density and those are laws, not suggestions.  The energy and money required to produce a plug-in vehicle or hybrid is, for most users, greater than the incremental cost of the fuel over the entire lifetime of the car.  Hybrid and all-electric vehicles make no sense unless you have no rational way to produce the liquid hydrocarbons.  We do have the ability using the above.

  • Reduces our carbon emissions by the amount of the former oil imports that were burned.  We still burn the gasoline and diesel, but that's in the form of the converted coal.  Since we're only using half the hydrocarbons we used before between coal and oil, our CO2 emissions go down by the amount of the formerly-burned petroleum.  I'm not an adherent of the global warming religion but if you are you have to love this plan for that reason alone.

  • Provides us dramatically more electrical power than we have now, and more-efficiently on a thermal-cycle basis.  Conventional nuclear power uses Rankine-cycle turbines.  This is one reason why they need access to large amounts of water.  Due to the higher temperature of operation these reactors can run combined-cycle generating turbines, which makes practical siting them in places where they are air-cooled yet they can still achieve reasonable thermal efficiency.

  • Is sustainable for two full centuries, even assuming our historical 1% population growth rate and no decrease in per-capita energy use.  Within 200 years we should be able to get fusion figured out.  200 years is a long time for technology to advance.  This much is absolutely certain: There is no other option that is reasonably feasible with today's technology and which has an exhaustion horizon of more than 100 years available at the present time, allowing for our historical population growth and no dramatic reductions in per-capita energy consumption.

  • Is not subject to the same constraints and risks that exist for today's reactors, even though this has nuclear power at its core.  The accident in Japan, for example, cannot occur with these units because they do not require active cooling after being shut down to remain safe.  The working fluid also tends to bind any reaction products, which inhibits the spread of any material if there is a pipe break or other release into the environment.

  • Produces much less high-level nuclear waste than conventional reactors.  Most waste is burned up in the reactor via continual reprocessing on-site.  The final waste product produced is a tiny fraction in volume of that from conventional plants.  It is not zero to be sure, but these units present a much-smaller waste profile than do traditional uranium/plutonium cycle nuclear plants.

The biggest disadvantage is that we've only built one of these reactors, at Oak Ridge, and then we stopped because a decision was made to pursue "conventional" plants due to their dual-use capability.  But the challenges presented by LFTR technology are known, and the ability to build and operate such a plant is not "pie in the sky"; we've performed all of the necessary technical parts of assembling this alternative individually and ran one of these reactors for four years.

Are their engineering challenges in this path?  Yes.  Is it "free energy"?  No.

Can this be made to work given what we know now, at a reasonably-competitive price?  YES.

If you're going to propose something else then show me the math. If you can't, then get on board, because this is the bus that will work.

Incidentally, China and India appear to have figured this out as well; I'm not the only one with a brain.

We had better lead on this or we're going to get trampled.

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