Carbon Sink Concrete Snake Oil

When I was a kid, I learnt that carbon dioxide (CO₂) makes up around 0.3 % (300 ppm) of the atmosphere. Man-made CO₂ output, from burning of fossil fuels to deforestation, has increased this number year after year. In 2013 it first exceeded 400 ppm. Even back in the 1950s, after over century or coal and oil burning, the number was already the highest in 650,000 years. We are still adding CO₂ to the atmosphere every year and the amount being added per year is still increasing. As CO₂ is a heat-trapping greenhouse gas, this has far-reaching consequences. There are dangerous feedback loops that will amplify the consequences, from increased arctic warming from absorbed sunlight due to melted sea ice to increased methane output from melted permafrost regions. Disappearing mountain glaciers will have effects on rivers downstream.

As humanity realizes the dangers from changing climate, from rising sea levels to extreme weather patterns, devastating droughts and wildfires, desertification and failing harvests we need to take action. We will need to cut CO₂ emissions as much as possible as soon as possible, but we also need to look at ways of binding CO₂ that has already been released.

Some people are trying to make a quick buck on this or to deflect consequences from industries that harm the environment. Because of this, be very skeptical of any claims made for carbon sink technologies that aim to delay the phasing out of fossil energy sources (including but not limited to “clean coal”).

A couple of years ago a US company called Calera made headlines with bold claims of a process that could act as a carbon sink for CO₂ from fossil fueled power stations while producing a product that could be used in place of cement. About 5 % of global CO₂ output is from cement production while power stations account for about 1/3 of CO₂ output in the US, therefore this would sound like a win/win situation. The process would extract calcium from sea water, combine it with CO₂ from the smoke stack of a power station and output calcium carbonate (lime stone) as a building material. Calera received funding from ventures capital fund Khosla Ventures and built a prototype plant adjacent to the Moss Landing power station at Monterey bay, California.

The company has always remained fairly tight lipped about how its process would actually work and what its inputs and outputs would be. However, despite the numerous articles that repeated its ambitious claims, nothing much seems to have come off it since.

The fact is, their claims were debunked by two critics, Jerry D. Unruh and Ken Caldeira, but relatively little attention was paid by the media to the inconvenient facts they had pointed out.

Most of the calcium and magnesium dissolved in sea water is either in the form of calcium bicarbonate or magnesium bicarbonate. To precipitate dissolved (Ca,Mg) bicarbonate as solid (Ca,Mg) carbonate, one has to remove CO₂, not add it.

Fundamentally, calcium and magnesium ions (Ca++, Mg++) in sea water are not a viable option for binding millions of tons of CO₂ without having a near unlimited low-carbon supply of strongly alkaline materials on hand. Turning bicarbonates into carbonates either releases CO₂ or it requires huge amounts of alkaline materials to bind CO₂.

The truth is, besides CO₂ and seawater, Calera’s prototype plant consumes existing stocks of alkaline magnesium oxide left over from previous industrial uses at the site, but those stocks won’t last forever. If one had to replenish these stocks from scratch year after year, this typically would involve the high temperature calcination of magnesium carbonate, which consumes roughly as much energy and produces as much CO₂ as making cement does.

The alternatives alkaline process inputs suggested by Calera for a full scale production system don’t make much more sense either: Making sodium hydroxide from brine via electrolysis consumes more electricity than can be produced from any power station whose CO₂ this process could clean up. Fly ash from power stations can be a low cost source of alkalinity, but only in the case of relatively carbon-heavy coal and not natural gas. Even there the amounts of ash are far too small relative to the amount of CO₂ to be absorbed from burning the coal. Cleaning up CO₂ from coal using fly ash still leaves you with more CO₂ than burning natural gas without cleanup.

Long term, the cheapest way of dealing with rising CO₂ levels are not carbon sinks, but not producing the CO₂ in the first place. This means reducing energy consumption, a halt to deforestation, switching transport to electricity and producing power from wind, solar, geothermal and other non-fossil energy sources. The sooner we do this, the more livable this planet will remain for its 7 to 12 billion inhabitants this century.

Further reading:

Exploring the Chuo Shinkansen Maglev Route

Not many cars drive on prefectural road 35 near Akiyama, but I’ve cycled there many times on the way to or from Tsuru city during brevets and other long rides. Akiyama’s claim to fame, other than being a charming rural backwater, is it’s Maglev test track, which will grow into a section of the 286 km Tokyo-Nagoya line scheduled to open 10 years from now in 2027.

The test track was built in the 1990s to develop and test prototypes for the train and track, first 18 km in length, then extended to 42 km to be able to test the train at higher speed. The best detailed summary about the route that I’ve found so far that is not in Japanese is this (in German).

Ten years is not a very long time for a project of this scale, especially when there is always the risk of unforeseen difficulties during tunneling (the known unknowns). A 25 km long tunnel will run between Hayakawa in Yamanashi and Oshika in Nagano. Construction has started at both ends. As the Maglev train needs a near level track, this will be a base tunnel at low elevation. Consequently there will be 1400 m of rock above at its deepest point.

Near the end points at Tokyo and Nagoya, new stations will be built under existing train stations (Shinagawa station in case of Tokyo). The lines will run in tunnels at least 40 m underground. Under Japanese law (“Deep Underground Law”), construction at least 40 m below the surface can be done without having to purchase the land above, as long as its purpose is deemed to be in the public interest.

The Chuo Maglev line has been called the world’s longest subway line, as more than 85% of it will be in tunnels. From Shinagawa the tunnel will first run southwest towards the Tamagawa, passing Senzokuike and crossing the river near Todoroki (between the Daisan Keihin and Tokyo Toyoko line bridges).

It continues on the Kanagawa side towards Sagamihara. Avoiding Machida to the south and Tama New Town to the north, it will run south of Onekansen. The first stop after Shinagawa will be near Hashimoto station, to connect it to the existing rail network (JR Yokohama line, JR Sagami line, Keiō Sagamihara line) with proximity to the Ken’ō Expressway. The Maglev line will cross the Sagami river on a bridge, heading between Tsukui-ko and Miyagase-ko.

A 50 ha railway yard for maintenance with train depot is planned near Toya, which my cycling friends mostly remember for the Sunkus convenience store north of Miyagase-ko. From there the line tunnels west through more mountains to the existing test track.

Altogether there will be 9 emergency exits that connect the line to the surface in the tunnel section near Tokyo.

If you check Google maps for the satellite view, you’ll see the test track line emerge to northwest of Tsuru. where it crosses national route 139 from Otsuki to Kawaguchiko. If you drive out from Tokyo on Chuo expressway, you can see the line cross over the expressway on a bridge. There’s a Yamanashi Prefectural Maglev Exhibition Center nearby.

Heading further west into Yamanashi, the line first stays a little south of Chuo mainline and the Chuo expressway, before those two swing northwest while the Maglev route heads straight west. You can see it emerge for shorts covered bridges near Hatsukari, then pop out for longer viaducts as it crosses national route 137 and prefectural route 36 on the edge of the big Yamanashi plain. The current end of the viaduct is at Fuefuki, Yamanashi, according to Google maps.

There will be a station for Yamanashi prefecture in Ōtsumachi near Kofu, with access to JR Minobu Line.

The Yamanashi plain is where most of the above ground distance of the line will be found. The viaduct sections will either have noise barriers or complete covers. A main reason to opt for viaducts in this area is the relatively high water table, which would complicate tunneling.

The debris from 246.6 km of tunnel drilling amounts to 56.8 million m3 (some 145 million t by weight) that will be deposited at locations along the line.

Personally I’m a skeptic about this project. The time savings compared to regular bullet trains are relatively minor, once you factor in that most people will also spend a fair amount of time getting to and from one of the Maglev stations via conventional public transport.

For the people along the line who don’t live in Tokyo or Nagoya, they get one station per prefecture. Chances are, with Japan’s population on the decline, as the new line starts up that train services on the JR Chuo line, which runs somewhat parallel to the Chuo Shinkansen line, will get thinned out. We’ve seen the same thing with bullet train lines that opened that lead to cutbacks on other regional train connections.

So how much time will people actually save, if they don’t happen to live in Shinagawa and want to go to Nagoya or vice versa? Even Nagoya is only a halfway solution without the extension to Osaka that isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2045 (or 2037, if the central government steps in with a huge loan).

I think the only thing we can say with any certainty about benefits from the project is that, yes, the construction companies and the suppliers of equipment will benefit handsomely. Drilling and lining 247 km of tunnels with concrete and pouring some more of it for 24 km viaducts and 11 km of bridges will make them some money but will add a fair amount of CO2 to the atmosphere. The air resistance of trains at 505 km/h and therefore their energy consumption will definitely be higher than that of conventional trains. One source I saw listed it as having a CO2 output of 2-4x that of conventional commuter trains (not sure how those compare to a shinkansen).

Nevertheless, the dice have been cast and construction is under way. I will try and find more information about where construction is going on and what parts can be explored on bike rides or visited. You can already get train rides at the Maglev visitor center in Tsuru. There was some discussion of extending the test track 7 km to the west and building a station by 2020 to be able to offer test track rides as far as Kofu by the Olympics but without the Kanto connection that seems like a gimmick to me. I doubt that’s going to happen, as all kinds of construction projects are already competing for capacity before the magic Olympic year, driving up prices and busting budgets.

Olympic Hydrogen Hype

Today’s Japan Times reports that the Organizing Committee of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is considering the use of hydrogen torches to light the Olympic flame (“Olympic panel mulls high-tech hydrogen torch, pares soccer venues” — JT, 2017-02-27):

“An important theme of the Olympics is how to promote environmental sustainability. We will talk to experts and see how realistic it is in terms of technological development,” a committee member said.

One official said there are still safety and cost concerns, and asserted that there also was a need for a lightweight torch that can be easily carried.

In March 2016, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced a project to have the 6,000-unit athletes’ village for the games run entirely on hydrogen power.

The Japanese government is one of the most active promoters worldwide of a so called “hydrogen economy”. It sees the 2020 Olympics as an opportunity to showcase Japan’s lead on hydrogen. Other projects are the construction of a nationwide network of hydrogen filling stations for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCV) such as the Toyota Mirai, research into shipping liquefied hydrogen from overseas using special tankers and production of hydrogen from lignite (brown coal) in Australia for export to Japan.

Let’s start with the most obvious problem in the article, the hydrogen fueled torch: The usual Olympic torches use LPG (propane/butane) as a fuel, a gas mixture that can be stored as a liquid under moderate pressure at normal outdoor temperatures. This makes it easy to carry a significant amount of fuel in a light weight container. Hydrogen by contrast does not liquefy unless chilled to about -252 C. Hydrogen powered vehicles run on compressed hydrogen instead, at pressures of up to 700 bar, equivalent to half the weight of a car on each cm2 of tank surface. As you can imagine that kind of pressure calls for some fairly sturdy containers. An even bigger problem is that pure hydrogen flames are invisible because they radiate energy not as light but as UV. You could feel the heat, but you couldn’t directly see if the flame is burning or not, which makes it quite hazardous. Talk about playing with fire…

The comment about running the Olympic village on “hydrogen power” is quite misleading. It’s like saying they would run the Olympic village on battery power, without explaining where the energy to charge those batteries came from. Like batteries, hydrogen is not a primary energy source, it’s an energy carrier. Since elementary hydrogen does not exist in significant quantities on earth, it has to be produced using another energy source such as natural gas or electricity generated using coal, nuclear, wind or solar.

Though it’s possible to produce hydrogen from carbon-free energy sources such as solar electricity (splitting water through electrolysis) and then produce electricity from hydrogen again, this process is far less efficient than either consuming renewable electricity directly or via batteries. When you convert electric energy to chemical energy in hydrogen and back to electricity, about 3/4 of the energy is lost in the process. This is incredibly wasteful and far from green.

With its sponsorship of hydrogen, the Japanese government is trying to create business opportunities for industrial companies such as Kawasaki Heavy Industries, a Japanese shipbuilder (see “Kawasaki Heavy fighting for place in ‘hydrogen economy'” — Nikkei Asian Review, 2015-09-03) and for its oil and gas importers, as almost all hydrogen is currently made from imported liquefied natural gas (LNG). In the longer term, the government still has a vision of nuclear power (fission or fusion) producing the electricity needed to make hydrogen without carbon emissions. Thus the ‘hydrogen economy’ is meant to keep oil companies and electricity monopolies like TEPCO in business. The “hydrogen economy” is coal, oil and nuclear hidden under a coat of green paint.

These plans completely disregard the rapid progress being made in battery technologies which have already enabled electric cars with ranges of hundreds of km at lower costs than HFCVs and without the need for expensive new infrastructure.

Hydrogen, especially when it’s produced with carbon-intensive coal or dangerous nuclear, is not the future. Japan would be much better served by investing into a mix of wind, solar, geothermal and wave power, combined with battery storage and other technologies for matching up variable supply and demand.

See also:
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Are Not The Future (2016-12-05)

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Are Not The Future

On my bicycle ride last Saturday I passed a service station near Hachioji in western Tokyo that is being set up as a hydrogen station for fuel cell cars. Japan is in the process of setting up such infrastructure to support a small fleet fuel cell vehicles such as the Toyota Mirai (its name means “future” in Japanese).

For decades, hydrogen has been touted as an alternative fuel for transport once we move beyond fossil fuels. The idea was that it can be made in essentially unlimited amounts from water using electricity from solar, wind or nuclear power (from either fission or fusion reactors). The only tailpipe emission would be water, which goes back into nature.

Unlike electric cars, which have limited range compared to fossil fuel cars, hydrogen cars can be refilled fairly quickly, like conventional cars, giving them a longer operating range. Car manufacturers have experimented with both internal combustion engines (ICE) running on hydrogen and fuel cell stacks that produce electricity to drive a traction motor. Both liquefied and compressed hydrogen has been tested for storage.

Here is a Honda fuel cell car I photographed on Yakushima in 2009:

It’s been a long road for hydrogen cars so far. Hydrogen fuel cells were already providing electricity for spacecrafts in the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 70s. With the launch of production cars and hydrogen fuel stations opening now in Japan, the US and Europe it seems the technology is finally getting ready for prime time. However, the reality is quite different.

Arguably the biggest challenge for hydrogen cars now is not the difficulty of bringing down the cost of fuel cells or improving their longevity or getting refueling infrastructure set up, but the spread of hybrid and electric cars. Thanks to laptops and mobile devices there has been a huge market for new battery technology, which attracted investment into research and development and scaled up manufacturing. Eventually reduced costs allowed this technology to cross over into the automotive industry. The battery packs of the Tesla Roadster were assembled from the same industry standard “18650” Li-ion cells that are the building blocks of laptop batteries.

Li-ion batteries have been rapidly falling in price year after year, allowing bigger battery packs to be built that improved range. A car like the Nissan Leaf that is rated for a range of 135 to 172 km (depending on the model) would cover the daily distances of most people on most days without recharging during daytime. Not only are prices falling and range is increasing, the cars can also harness the existing electricity grid for infrastructure. A charging station is a fraction of the price of a hydrogen filling station.

Here in Japan I find many charging stations in convenience store parking lots, at restaurants, in malls and at car dealerships – just about anywhere but at gasoline stations, which is where the few hydrogen stations are being installed.

After the tsunami and nuclear meltdown hit Japan in March 2011, some people here viewed electric cars and their claimed ecological benefits with suspicion: The Nissan Leaf may not have a tail pipe, but didn’t its electricity come from nuclear power stations? This criticism is not entirely justified, because electricity can be produced in many different ways, including wind, sun and geothermal. Car batteries of parked cars are actually quite a good match for the somewhat intermittent output of wind and solar, because they could act as a buffer to absorb excess generating capacity while feeding power back into the grid when demand peaks. If cars were charged mostly when load is low (for example, at night) then no new power stations or transmission lines would have to be built to accommodate them within the existing distribution network.

The dark secret of hydrogen is that, if produced from water and electricity through electrolysis, it is actually a very inefficient energy carrier. To produce the hydrogen needed to power a fuel cell car for 100 km consumes about three times as much electricity as it takes to charge the batteries of an electric car to cover the same distance. That’s mostly because there are far greater energy losses in both electrolysis and in fuel cells than there are in charging and discharging a battery. A fuel cell car actually has all of the above losses, because even fuel cells still costing about $100,000 are not powerful enough to handle peak loads, therefore a battery is still required. Think of a hydrogen fuel cell car as a regular electric car with an added fuel cell stack to recharge the battery while the car is running. This means a fuel cell car suffers the relative small charge/discharge losses of a battery-electric car on top of the much bigger losses in electrolysis and fuel cells that only a hydrogen car has.

What this 3x difference in energy efficiency means is that if we were to replace fossil-fueled cars with hydrogen-fueled cars running on renewable energy, we would have to install three times more solar panels and build three times as many wind turbines as it would take to charge the same number of electric cars. Who would pay for that and why?

Even if the power source was nuclear, we would be producing three times as much nuclear waste to refill hydrogen cars than to recharge battery-electric cars — waste that will be around for thousands of years. That makes no sense at all.

So why are hydrogen fuel cell car still being promoted then? Maybe 20-30 years ago research into hydrogen cars made sense, as insurance in case other alternatives to petroleum didn’t work out, but today the facts are clear: The hydrogen economy is nothing but a boondoggle. It is being pursued for political reasons.

Electrolysis of water is not how industrial hydrogen is being produced. The number one source for it is a process called steam reformation of natural gas (which in Japan is mostly imported as LNG). Steam reformation releases carbon dioxide and contributes to man-made global warming. By opting for hydrogen fuel cell cars over electric cars, we’re helping to keep the oil industry in business. That you find hydrogen on the forecourt of gas stations that are mostly selling gasoline and diesel now is not a coincidence. Hydrogen is not the “fuel of the future”, it’s a fossil fuel in new clothes.

Due to the inefficiency of the hydrogen production it would actually make more sense from both a cost and environmental point of view to burn the natural gas in highly efficient combined cycle power stations (gas turbines coupled with a steam turbine) feeding electricity into the grid to charge electric cars instead of producing hydrogen for fuel cell cars from natural gas.

Even if electrolysis is terribly inefficient, by maximizing demand for electricity it can provide a political fig leaf for restarting and expanding nuclear power in Japan. Both the “nuclear fuel cycle” involving Fast Breeder Reactors and the promise of nuclear fusion that is always another 30-50 years away were sold partly as a power source for a future “hydrogen economy”.

While I’m sorry that my tax money is being used to subsidize hydrogen cars, I don’t think hydrogen as a transport fuel will ever take off in the market. Electric cars came up from behind and overtook fuel cell cars. The price of batteries keeps falling rapidly year after year, driven by massive investment in research and development by three independent powerful industries: IT/mobile, automotive and the power companies.

The hydrogen dream won’t die overnight. I expect the fuel cell car project will drag on through inertia, perhaps until battery electric cars will outnumber fossil fueled cars in Japan and only then will finally be cancelled.

Tepco drowning in radioactive water

A recent leak of 300 tons of highly radioactive water at Fukushima No. 1 has highlighted the long term problems that Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) is facing in its struggle to manage the crisis at the wrecked nuclear power station (see Japan Times, 2013-08-21). One massive steel tank had been leaking as much as 10 tons of water a day for a month before the leak was noticed. The water level in the tank dropped by 3 m before anyone noticed. It is not clear yet how the water is escaping.

The water in the tank has been used for cooling the melted reactor cores. Consequently it is highly radioactive from strontium, cesium and tritium. At a distance of 50 cm, as much as 100 millisieverts per hour (mSv/h) were measured. That means a nuclear worker there would absorb as much radiation in one hour as is legally permitted over a total of 5 years.

You might think that with a witches’ brew like that on its hands, Tepco would take every possible precaution to prevent leaks and to monitor fluid levels. Tepco uses both welded steel tanks and temporary tanks for storing contaminated water at Fukushima No. 1. Welded tanks are supposed to be stronger and more leak proof, whereas temporary tanks can be bolted together quickly from sheet metal and plastic. About one third of the over 1000 tanks at Fukushima No. 1 are temporary tanks, including the one that recently leaked. Tanks of this type have been used at the site since December 2011 and they are supposed to last five years before needing repair or replacement. So far 4 of these tanks have leaked, yet Tepco is planning to install even more temporary tanks for storing water. I guess they must be cheaper.

I am curious why the leaks were not detected sooner. Are there no monitoring devices installed that can automatically report water levels?

Tepco is planning to treat the water in the tanks with its ALPS filtering system, which can remove radioactive cesium and strontium from the water, but not tritium. It was meant to start operating this month, but after problems it is now expected to not resume operation until December.

Even after treatment, Tepco will have a water problem. Any water pumped from the turbine halls that has been in contact with the reactor basements has elevated levels of radioactive tritium. No chemical removal system exists for tritium, as it’s an isotope of hydrogen, one of the two elements that make up water. Tepco can not simply evaporate water from those tanks to reduce volume and concentrate contaminants into a smaller volume, as the tritium would be released with water vapour and come down as rain again elsewhere. So what is it going to do? Release it into the atmosphere slowly? Dilute it with sea water? Or store hundreds of thousands of tons of water for hundreds of years? Neither alternative seems very appealing.

The earth4energy scam

In recent months I have come across many ads for a website called If you haven’t seen the ads, it makes implausible claims of anyone being able to become energy independent for a only small investment. Make no mistake, it’s a scam, designed to sell worthless “e-books”. See this site for a thorough debunking of their claims.

The fact is, the electricity usage of average households can not be met easily or on the cheap from renewable sources using some DIY design. Any photovoltaic panels or wind turbines that are powerful enough to make a significant contribution will cost you a lot of money, typically at least several years worth of your normal electricity bill. These people would have you believe that for a few hundred dollars you could become independent of the utility companies. They do so because their business is selling e-books and videos to people. The exaggerated claims are how they get people to send them money. They are using an elaborate affiliate scheme and paid online ads to fish wide and far for people who might fall for their promises.

What I find particularly interesting about is how similar it looks to the earlier “Run your car on water” scam I reported about a little over 4 years ago that made similarly outrageous claims. Then they promised cutting your fuel bill by wiring a “hydrogen generator” to your car alternator. Of course it didn’t work.

Both scams made money by selling worthless e-books. Both used affiliate schemes. On either set of sites when you try to navigate away from it, a dialog box will pop up to ask you if you really want to leave, trying to keep you there. If both schemes were not run by the same person, I’d guess they either used the same web designer or one guy closely copied the other. Typical for the hype used to sell on both sites is a “limited time offer” on When I checked it, it said the special offer expired on November 22 at midnight, which is today:

To secure your purchase and get the bonus products for free please order now. (This offer expires Thursday November 22 at midnight)

When I checked the source code of the website, I found this piece of Javascript code that always outputs the current date:

To secure your purchase and get the bonus products for free please <a href=”ordercd.php”>order now</a>. (This offer expires
<script type=”text/javascript”>
var d=new Date()
var weekday=new Array(“Sunday”,”Monday”,”Tuesday”,”Wednesday”,
var monthname=new Array(“January”,”February”,”March”,”April”,”May”,
document.write(weekday[d.getDay()] + ” “)
document.write(monthname[d.getMonth()] + ” “)
document.write(d.getDate() + ” “)
at midnight)</p>

It will tell you the offer expires on today’s weekday and today’s exact date at midnight. It will do so today, tomorrow or a year from now. The offer is not meant to ever expire, the fake deadline is only claimed to rush you into buying. That is just one example of deception on their site.

The identity of the registrant of domain “” is hidden behind a WHOIS proxy, so we don’t know who it is. What’s interesting though is that the site was registered in June of 2008, around when I wrote about the earlier scam. Back then there was a site called (notice the similar naming scheme!) run by a guy calling himself “Ozzie Freedom”, whose original name was Eyal Siman-Tov. He is from Israel and appeared to be a member of the Scientology cult. In 2008 he got sued by the state of Texas for deceptive business practises. You can read about the court case here.

I find it interesting how many web pages out there promote both water4gas by Ozzie Freedom and Here are a few of them. Is that by coincidence or are they connected?

Romney’s energy self-sufficiency fallacy

Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for US president, recently made headlines by proposing that under his policies the US could become independent of energy imports by 2020. To make this claim slightly less incredible (the US uses 20% of the world’s petroleum while holding only 3% of its proven reserves), he included Canada and Mexico in his plan, effectively widening the scope to all of North America. The essence of his plan, which was received favourably by conservative media, are policies to boost hydrocarbon output (oil and gas production). The aim of the policy is to create jobs in exploration while keeping energy costs low for consumers, boosting the economy.

Let us assume that government policy could actually significantly boost oil and gas production. What effect would that have on the US and world economy in the next decades?

There was a time when the US was largely self sufficient on petroleum. Output was growing rapidly until the 1940s. However, new discoveries could not keep up with the rate of depletion of old wells. Production in the contiguous 48 states peaked in the early 1970s. The US became increasingly dependent on imports for oil supplies.

Worldwide hydrocarbon reserves are limited. There will come a point when worldwide production will peak (some believe it has already been reached) and from then on, rising oil prices will ensure that consumers reduce their demand to match available declining production.

Let us assume that, thanks to Mr Romney’s policies, oil and gas production in North America will magically rise enough to cover the entire amount currently being imported from the Middle East, South America and elsewhere (an assumption that is extremely optimistic according to experts). The amount currently imported will then become available as extra supplies to China, India, Brazil, Europe, Japan and other countries, keeping energy costs low for them and allowing them to compete more effectively with US manufacturers over the next decade.

At some point those new oil wells, shale gas wells and tar sand pits will run dry too. What then? By then oil will be a far more scarce resource, with more cars, motorcycles and power stations in China, India, Brazil, Thailand, Malaysia, etc. burning it than today, as those economies will have been rapidly growing. At that point the US will have to revert to buying oil from Saudi Arabia again, whose reserves are estimated to be more long-lasting than North America’s. It will have no reserves left to replace those premium price imports then. Every dollar saved on import substitution in the next couple of years could cost US consumers 10 dollars then.

Imagine a world in which the price of oil were to double every decade. The oil in the ground in North America won’t go away unless it is pumped up and used. Why would you want to consume it while it’s worth only $70 a barrel instead of when it’s $140 or $280 a barrel? In a world of rising prices it pays to be a buyer early and a seller later.

Perversely, one of the beneficiaries of US policies on oil could be Iran. Economic sanctions linked to the country’s suspected nuclear weapons program have depressed Iranian oil sales. The more slowly Iranian oil reserves are depleted, the more Iran will benefit economically from these reserves when they are eventually used after oil prices have gone up.

Japan without nuclear power

Since last weekend, Japan is without a single nuclear power station feeding power into the grid, the first time in 42 years. All 50 nuclear power stations are currently off-line (this count does not include the 4 wrecked reactors in Fukushima I, which are no longer officially counted — it used to be 54 nuclear power stations).

Some of these power stations were shut down because of problems after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Others were taken offline one by one for routine inspections and maintenance but have not been started up again, which would only happen with the consent of nearby local governments. That consent has not been forthcoming.

Electrical utilities and the government are raising concerns about a power shortage when the summer heat sets in, which usually results in peak usage for air conditioners. Critics of nuclear power see an opportunity for a quick exit from nuclear power. Others are concerned that if the government rushes to bring power stations back online before the summer without safety upgrades and a change in the regulatory regime, a unique chance to prevent the next nuclear disaster will be squandered. If upgrades and reforms don’t happen when the memory of Fukushima is still relatively fresh, what’s the chance of it happening a few years down the road?

The utility companies are facing high costs from buying more fossil fuels for gas and oil fired thermal power stations to cover the demand; restarting the nuclear power stations would keep those costs in check. But that is only part of the reason they are keen on a restart. The sooner they can return to the pre-Fukushima state of power generation, the less leverage governments and the public have for making them accept new rules, such as retrofitting filters for emergency venting systems or a permanent shutdown of the oldest and seismically most vulnerable stations. Because of this it’s in the interest of the utilities to paint as bleak a picture of the situation as possible. Japan would be smart to proceed cautiously and not miss a unique chance to fix the problems that are the root cause of the Fukushima disaster and of disasters still waiting to happen.

Using Sanyo Eneloop Ni-MH AA batteries to power your mobile phone

About two years ago I started using Sanyo’s rechargeable eneloop batteries. These relatively inexpensive Nickel-Metal Hydride (Ni-MH) cells are available in both AA (単3形) and AAA (単4形) sizes. They are low self-discharge cells that keep their charge for months when not in use. I’ve bought boxes of 8 cells of either type, for use in flash lights, bike blinkies, helmet lights and Bluetooth keyboards.

They are initially more expensive to buy than regular alkaline (primary) cells, but you only need to re-use them about three times before they work out much cheaper than primary cells, while you can actually recharge them hundreds of times before they start losing significant capacity.

Here are some nice gadgets that will take them, which I found sold in convenience stores here Japan.

These little cases (by take power from two or three regular alkaline AA or Ni-MH AA cells and provide a USB port for powering mobile phones and other small gadgets with a USB power cable. As you would expect, the three cell version is slightly more powerful, looking to my Google Samsung Nexus S as an AC charger (i.e. it provides more than 500 mA). For the two cell version, the phone shows “charging (USB)” as the status, i.e. it can draw up to 500 mA. The two cell version has a USB-A socket (female) for generic USB cables while the three cell version comes with an integrated micro USB (male) cable. A very similar concept has been around for a while as the MintyBoost.

The nice thing is, if you carry enough pre-charged eneloop cells with you, you can swap cells as needed and have virtually unlimited power. You could even buy primary cells to top up if desperate (one set came bundled with each device), but they would end up costing you more than re-usable eneloop cells in the long term. I’ll carry some Ni-MH cells as spares on long bike trips or hikes, which could come in handy with these little cases.

UPDATE 2012-04-04: I also tried using this adapter with alkaline (primary = non-rechargable) AA cells and it goes through them quite rapidly. Alkaline AA batteries have a notoriously poor performance in high drain applications because of their high internal resistance. You’re much better off sticking with Ni-MH batteries such as Sanyo Eneloop!

It says on the pack that a set of 3 AAs will boost the charge state of a smartphone battery by 30-40%, i.e. it would take you about 3 sets (9 cells) to fully recharge an empty battery. Or put another way, if the phone lasts 5 hours on one charge doing whatever you’re doing, you will consume a set of fresh AAs every 100 minutes to keep it topped up. To provide 500 mA at 5 V (2.5 W) on the USB connector at 80% efficiency would draw 3 W from the batteries, or 700 mA at 4.5 V (3 x 1.5 V). At that kind of load, an alkaline battery might only supply a quarter of its rated capacity, which is normally measured at a much smaller load (which is OK for alarm clocks, TV remote controls, etc. but not high powered electronics like digital cameras or smart phones).

Fukushima “cold shutdown” announcement up to 25 years too soon

The Japanese government has announced that the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi power station has reached a “cold shutdown”. The BBC quotes Prime Minister Noda:

“The nuclear reactors have reached a state of cold shutdown and therefore we can now confirm that we have come to the end of the accident phase of the actual reactors.”

It is meaningless to still use the term “cold shutdown” for a reactor in which the fuel rods and containment vessel have lost their integrity. It’s like saying the bleeding has been stopped in an injured patient who had actually bled to death.

The normal definition of “cold shutdown” is when, after the chain reaction has been stopped, decay heat inside the fuel rods has been reduced enough that the cooling water temperature finally drops below 100 C. This means the cooling water no longer boils at atmospheric pressure, making it possible to open the pressure vessel cap and remove the fuel rods from the reactor core into the spent fuel pool. After that the reactor core no longer needs to be cooled.

Only units 4, 5 and 6 have reached a genuine cold shutdown. Unit 4 had been shut down for repairs in 2010 and did not contain any fuel at the time of the accident. In units 5 and 6 a single emergency diesel survived the tsunami and prevented a meltdown there.

In units 1, 2 and 3 of Fukushima Daiichi the fuel melted, dropped to the bottom of the reactor pressure vessel and penetrated it. The melted rods then dripped down onto the concrete floor of the containment vessel and are assumed to have partly melted into the concrete up to an unknown depth.

While in a regular cold shutdown fuel can be unloaded within weeks, the Japanese government estimates it may take as much as 25 years before all fuel will have been removed. The technology to remove fuel in the state it’s in now does not even exist yet and will have to be developed from scratch. Even the most optimistic schedule puts it at 5 years, during which time the reactors will have to be cooled 24 hours a day, with no new earthquakes damaging them or knocking out cooling again, no major corrosion problems, no clogged water pipes, etc.

In my opinion, the announcement of a “cold shutdown” at Fukushima Daiichi is greatly exaggerated and was made mainly for political purposes. More than anything, it is meant to provide political cover for restarting other idled nuclear power stations during the coming year.