Green Power Insulation Renewable Energy Renewable Gas Renewable Hydrogen Renewable Methane

Not Just The Price

Gas storage is not just about price management – it’s about protecting the power grid when the sky is dark and motionless.

There is a plan to renovate and restore the UK gas storage facility at the Rough Field. There is the usual to-ing and fro-ing about whether central government should be underwriting or even directly financing this. It will be an energy storage facility of high strategic value to the nation, particularly because of the Great British Endeavour to knock back and lock out the Russians, through participating in a Europe-wide accord to sanction and deter energy imports from the east. Should it be considered a national asset, funded by the state ?

This discourse about ownership and costs misses a trick : it’s not just about the price of Natural Gas in international day-to-day and futures markets; and it’s not even just about the supply of Natural Gas in a tight winter scenario, or with unreliable trading partners.

Gas storage in an emerging era of high levels of renewable electricity generation is about compensating for variability of supply in green power.

It’s about using gas to balance solar and wind power when the sky grows dark and motionless, such as during high pressure weather systems in winter, solar eclipses, and long winter nights.

It’s about when there is a sudden need for gas-fired power generation across a wide geographical area, where the intensity of renewable energy resources hits a lull, and gas power is needed to brige the gap across the whole region.

Suddenly, there could be a massive demand for gas, on a scale that’s something like ten times the size of gas consumption on a bright summer’s day with a light-to-moderate breeze, or stormy autumn evening, across the whole of the European region. There is no market that could adapt that fast to increase provision of gas at speed : gas storage is basically a power grid survival mechanism, as batteries all have a finite size.

Without gas storage, we simply cannot increase the percentage levels of renewable electricity power generation in the grid supply, for there will always be calm, dark hours, days, or even weeks.

Without gas storage, we will rapidly hit a solar and wind power ceiling; no higher can we go, in percentage terms of supply, if we do not have reliable, voluminous, immediate quantities of power generation backup, dispatched perhaps within minutes.

Yes, the gas storage could be the storage of Natural Gas – for now. Into the future, it would need to be Renewable Gas. It might be costly to replace all Natural Gas boilers with hydrogen boilers, and so some believe that Renewable Methane should the only Renewable Gas. However, any resource of Renewable Gas should form part of the nation’s emergency gas storage, saved for the purpose of power generation to bridge the natural variability gaps in renewable electricity supply.

Yes, gas use avoided is cheaper than gas storage. Yes, there should be a national programme of building insulation, as a national strategic policy, centrally-funded, as at the moment, nobody is taking key responsibility for implementing building insulation. Lowering consumption will help with household bills, protection from Russian blackmail, climate change. But lowering gas consumption does not mean that we can do without gas storage. Lower gas consumption in homes and offices and public buildings will help make sure the gas storage facilities of the country are used for their most high-value purpose – the support of the power grid.

It may seem paradoxical, but insulation will actually help provide more energy when it’s needed most.

And in addition, increasing insulation, in order to lower individual building gas consumption, will actually prevent winter power blackouts.

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Russia Sours

I have a theory. But I don’t have access to the data to confirm or deny it. The data is in the hands of the oil and gas companies, and private oil industry data concerns, who charge a lot of money for access to the data. Some data might become public soon, as the International Energy Agency, the IEA, have made a commitment to opening up their databases, but I don’t know when this will be.

The data I would need to assess my theory regards the chemical composition of Natural Gas from a range of fields and wells, and its evolution over time. Although some data about chemical quality exists in the public domain, such as crude assays for various petroleum oils, and is published in various places, such as Eni’s annual review, and a handful of academic research papers regarding prospects for gas in some regions or countries, there is little to go on for a global view from gas analyses.

The European Union has announced a plan to “get off” Russian fossil fuel dependency (addiction), but I would contend that they would need to do it anyway, regardless of the incentive to “cancel” Russian oil and gas in sanction over Russia’s unspeakable acts of terror and aggression in their invasion of Ukraine. My view is that the rationale for an early exit from Russian fossil fuel supplies is all to do with the chemistry.

Gas fields and oil basins deplete, that we all know. The easy, good stuff gets emptied out first, and then the clever engineers are commissioned to suck out the last remaining dregs. So-called “sweet spots”, where easy, good stuff has accumulated over the ages, are quickly pumped dry, and investors and management push for the assets to be sweated, but it’s a game of diminishing returns.

If you look for a mention of problem contaminants, such as sulfur compounds and heavy metals, the publicly, freely-available literature is quite thin on the ground – even general discussion of the global overview – in other words, it is noticeable by its absence.

Natural Gas with high levels of inherent carbon dioxide has started to merit explicit mention, because of climate change mitigation efforts, but even there, there is not much in terms of basins, fields and wells by numbers and locations, and over timespans.

There was quite a lot of discussion about the procedure of reinjection of acid and sour gases, starting in the early 1990s or so, pumping unwanted molecules from contaminated or sub-standard Natural Gas back underground, after separation at or close to the well head. This was partly to answer climate change concerns, but also to enhance further oil and gas recovery from emptying wells. This has been known mostly by the term EOR – enhanced oil recovery. Bad gas was being pumped, then filtered, and the bad fraction was being pumped back down to build up pressure to get more gas and oil out.

There has also been a lot of very public discussion of the project to mitigate gas venting and gas flaring, as a potentially easy win against environmental damage – including climate change burden. Unburned Natural Gas has been routinely vented to the atmosphere from locations where gas was not the principal product from wells, or where it has been costly to install gas capture equipment. Unburned Natural Gas vented to air leeches methane, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, two of which are climate change-sparking greenhouse gases, and the other, a local toxin to all forms of life. But flaring unwanted Natural Gas is only marginally less dangerous, as it still emits carbon dioxide to air, as well as sulfur dioxide, and potentially some nitrogen oxides (and sometimes, still, some hydrogen sulfide) : and sulfur dioxide interferes with local temperatures through localised greenhouse cooling; sulfur dioxide is also a local environmental pollutant; and both sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, in addition to the carbon dioxide, lead to acidification of air, water and soils. Obviously, it would be better to capture any currently unwanted Natural Gas, and make use of it in the economy, processing it somewhere in a way that can reduce the environmental disbenefits that would have come from venting or flaring it in the field.

However, discussion about venting and flaring of Natural Gas and the attempts to stem it centre on the potency of emissions of fossil methane as a short-term greenhouse gas, and there is little discussion of the emissions of fossil carbon dioxide and fossil sulfur compounds that are part of that unwanted Natural Gas.

Trying to drill down into the geography and localised basin- and field-specific gas composition is near-nigh impossible without insider access to data, or some kind of large budget for data. Public reports, such as the financial and annual reports of companies, focus on levels of Natural Gas production, but not the amounts of rejected molecules from the production yield – the molecules of hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen and so on that don’t make it into the final gas product. Keeping up production is discussed in terms of sales revenue and investment in exploration and production, but not in terms of the economic costs of bad chemistry.

Over time, oil and gas production companies must explore for new reserves that they can bring to production – often within their already-tapped resource base – because old fields empty, until well production starts slowing down, and become uneconomic to continue pumping. But running down the reserves, and having to find new locations within basins and fields to drill new wells is not the only issue. Oil and gas are not monolithic : resources vary in terms of accessibility, temperature, pressure, geology, but also chemistry – even within fields; and over time and operating conditions – which can even be seasonal.

Contaminants can be concentrated in one particular area, or at one particular pre-historic geological stratum or layer : the formation of the sediments. Not only that, but over time, oil and gas wells can sour, that is, production can experience increasing levels of hydrogen sulfide and other sulfur compounds. They can also show increasing production levels of inert non-combustible or acid-producing chemical species, mainly carbon dioxide and nitrogen.

As drilling goes deeper, the more likely inert, sour and acid gases are to occur, as the deposits will have had more time to mature, and reach temperatures where gas generation from organic matter is more likely than oil generation : the “gas window” depends on such things as temperature, pressure and time. And more gas can signal more non-useful molecules.

The deeper you go, the higher the risk of your Natural Gas being contaminated with hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen; as the deposits have cooked for too long. The presence of significant levels of sulfur compounds is credited to rock-oil and rock-gas chemical interactions known as TSR – thermochemical sulfate reduction – between hydrocarbons and sulfate-bearing rocks.

In addition, drilling a well can lead to BSR – bacterial sulfate reduction – where bacterial life starts to work on sulfate present in any water as the hydrocarbons are raised from the depths and depressurise and cool.

The closer to the source rocks drilling goes, the black shales, high in organic matter, from which all hydrocarbon oils and gases originate, the higher the risk of pumping up heavy metals where there are metal sulfides clustered.

Although wells can sour over time, especially if acid gas is reinjected to dispose of it, fields can even be highly acid or sour right from the get-go. For decades, some sour and acid resources were listed as proven reserves, but were considered too uneconomic to mine. But during the last decade or so, increasing numbers of sour gas projects have commenced.

The engineering can be incredible, but the chemistry is still wrong. With new international treaties, sulfur cannot be retained in fuels, so where does it end up ? Rejected sulfur atoms largely end up in abandoned pyramids of yellow granules, or on the sulfur market, and a lot is used to make sulfuric acid, a key industrial chemical, used for such things as the production of fertilisers, explosives, and petrochemicals. But after the sulfuric acid is used, where does the sulfur end up ? As sulfate in water, that drains to the sea ? And what about the granulated sulfur from the mega sour gas projects ? Some of that is used as soil treatment, as a fertiliser, either directly, or as part of ammonium sulfate. But after it is used, what happens to the sulfur ? Does it become sulfate in water, that courses to the ocean ? And what happens to it there ? How much is fossil sulfur going to contribute to ocean anoxia through BSR generation of hydrogen sulfide ?

Sulfur atoms don’t just disappear. It will take many millenia for the mined fossil sulfur to be incorporated back into sedimentary sulfides or rocks. As increasingly sour oils and gases are increasingly used, the question of the perturbation of the global sulfur cycle (as well as the global sulfur market) becomes relevant.

At what point will the balance tip, and high sulfur deposits of fossil fuels become untenable ?

In addition to management of the fossil sulfur mined during the exploitation of chemically-challenged Natural Gas, there are other important considerations about emissions.

Satellite monitoring of “trace” greenhouse and environmentally-damaging gases, such as sulfur dioxide and methane, is constantly evolving to support international calls for emissions reduction and control. For example, analyses of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry have pinpointed three geographical areas of concern for the locations of “ultra-emitters” : the United States, the Russian Federation and Turkmenistan. A lot of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry could be stemmed, but the question needs to be asked : is it worth opening up new gas fields, with all the infrastructure and risks of increased methane and other emissions ? And if the major explanation for methane emissions in gas drilling are connected to end-of-life fields, what incentives could be offered to cap those emissions, given the lack of an economic case, at so late a stage in the exploitation of assets ?

And so, to Russia.

A great variety of commentators have been working hard to put forward their theories about why Russia chose to launch a violent, cruel and destructive military assault on Ukraine in early 2022. Some suppose that Russia is looking to build out its empire, occupying lands for grain production and transportation routes, gaining control over peoples for slave labour, removing the irritant of social or political threat. Arguments about the ownership of territory, rightfully or wrongfully. Historically revisionist or revanchist philosophies are identified in the output from Russian voices and political narrative. However, there does not appear to be a truly justifying rationale for a war arising from these pseudo-historical caricatures. Even if the territory of Ukraine could be deemed, by some internal Russian legal process, to belong to some concocted Greater Russian Federation, it would require a lot of magical thinking to believe it would gain traction in the wider sphere.

Some see Russia’s actions as vindictive or retaliatory, but to assert this with any validity would require explaining what has really changed to justify the recent major escalation in one-sided aggression from Russia, action that has lasted for some time, principally since 2014.

What can really be driving Russia’s murderous marauding, the bombing of civilian districts, wanton infrastructure destruction, people snatching, torture basements and all forms of intimate, personal aggression and attack ?

I decided to do some reading, and I went back to 2004/2005 to do so, and then realised I should have gone back further, to the time of Vladimir Putin’s “ascension” to the Presidency of the Russian Federation.

Putin appears to have control issues, and seems to want to impress his will on absolutely any person and any organisation he comes across, up to and including whole countries. The means are various, and the medium also. There is continual “hybrid” warfare; and the evidence suggests that Russia has interfered with foreign democracy, for example, by playing the joker in the memetic transfer of ideologies and “fake news” through social media; used blackmail in “diplomacy”; used strong-arm tactics in trade and investment; and locked international energy companies into corrupting, compromising deals.

By far the most injurious behaviour, however, has been the outright military assaults he has ordered to be launched on lands and people groups, both inside and around the outside of Russia. I will leave the details to expert military historians and human rights organisations, but the pattern of the annihilation visited on many areas of Ukraine since early in 2022 is not new. There appears to be no dialogue possible to restrain Putin’s sadistic army of Zombies (Z) and Vampires (V).

But just what made this happen ? What was really behind Putin’s decision to launch an invasion on Ukraine ? It wasn’t to de-Nazify. That’s just weak and quite bizarre propaganda, that cannot hold together. He knows there are far fewer ultra-right wing cultists in Ukraine than in Moscow. The “war” wasn’t to protect Russian speakers. Many people in Ukraine speak several languages, and none of them have been safe from the rampaging hordes of Russian “orcs”. The invasion wasn’t to defend the Putin-styled Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, as people there don’t feel defended from anything nasty the Russians seem to visit on everybody they invade, or the military responses of the Ukrainian forces, something the Russians could have anticipated. If Russia really cared about the people in the Donbas, they wouldn’t have brought troops there. The warfare isn’t benefitting or supporting any pro-Russian factions or Russian-speakers in Ukraine, and the only thing that looks like Nazis are the Russian Nasties.

It has come into focus for me from my reading that there seem to be three major, real, potential or probable reasons for Russia seeking to have overt, administrative, and if necessary, military control of the southern, littoral part of Ukraine; and my reading suggests that this is an outworking of the maritime policy of the Russian Federation going back at least 20 years.

I intend to give a list of my resources for reading later on, but for now, let’s begin with a Tweet thread from Dmitri Alperovitch, which really resonated for me :-

He makes the point that with Russian forces control the coastal area of Ukraine, and its ports and seafaring routes, they will have a stranglehold on the economy of Ukraine. If the Russians deny grain and other agricultural exports, or deny the proceeds from export sales, then the Ukrainian economy will be seriously damaged. In addition, the continual bombing and mining of agricultural lands means that crops are already at risk this year in Ukraine, which will add to these woes. There is already some discussion about the effects on the importers of Ukrainian grain in particular, as it has been a “bread basket of the world”.

It is easy to see from maps of the fighting that controlling the coastal ports must have been a major part of the reason for the Russian invasion, but the triggering of conflict is surely not just about control of the trade routes in and out of Ukraine, as a means to squeeze the country into submission.

It’s clear from my reading so far that Russia has an historical and significant ambition to control more of the maritime routes in that region. Russia clearly didn’t like the awkwardness of having to share the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. They’d rather just run all of it, apparently. Russia appears to regard rulership of the “warm seas” to the south of Federation lands as vital to their aims. There are mentions of improving the waterway routes from the Caspian, through the Black Sea, out to the Mediterranean, to permit military vessels to exert control in the region, and to enable Russian trade. The Russians built a contested bridge to Crimea, but they may end up building vast new canals as well. Are you listening yet, Turkey ?

This is grandiose enough, but this is still not the end of Russia’s aims in taking over the coast of Ukraine, it could transpire.

What floats on top of the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov, the Mediterranean Sea and the Caspian Sea is important enough, but what lies beneath is far more important, I am beginning to find in my reading.

There has been a couple of decades or so of development of newly-discovered oil and gas resources around the Caspian Sea. Russia even acted quite collaboratively initially with the other countries bordering co-littorally. Although it hasn’t been very happy since in some parts of the region. Due to Russian military carpet-bombing and martial illegalities, in some cases.

But despite oil- and gas-aplenty, for example, in the Kashagan, fossil fuel deposits there are really rather sour, that is, loaded with sulfur compounds; particularly hydrogen sulfide, which is corrosive, explosive and needs to be removed before the fossil fuels can be utilised. That, coupled with the anoxic and difficult conditions of the undersea mining, mean that Russia has looked elsewhere to build up new proved resources, as they have become necessary.

There was much talk of Russia going to drill in the Arctic; but even with melting ice from global warming, conditions north of the Arctic Circle are tough, and the offshore prospects are likely to be costly. Yes, they might end up trying to keep their rights to trade LNG from the far North, but the “cold seas” make for harsh economic conditions.

After years of stagnating Natural Gas production in Russia, more gas fields have been opened up in the Yamal Peninsula, but they only have a half life of approximately ten to fifteen years, perhaps. And judging by other gas fields, some parts of them could be extremely contaminated with sulfur compounds, which would lead to extra costs in cleaning the products up for sale and piping out for export.

And then came the Mediterranean and Black Sea seismic surveys and gas prospecting. What was found ? Sweet, sweet gas. Little in the way of sulfur contamination, and continental sea conditions, as opposed to stormy oceans. There are many countries that border both bodies of water that have been rapidly developing Natural Gas projects, eager to jump right in and tap as much as they can from fields, presumably before other countries tap into the same fields from another entry point.

There is some evidence that the primary goal for Russia in invading Crimea in 2014 was to secure control of Ukraine’s Natural Gas production projects in the Black Sea. Ukraine had been at the mercy of Russia’s energy “policy” for decades (which seems to consist mostly of what looks like : threat, supply cuts, blackmail, extortion, compromise, false accusation, unjustifiable price hikes), and now it was about to start developing a new sizeable domestic resource, and could conceivably become energy-independent. It could have been too much for Vladimir Putin to bear, thinking that Ukraine could become the masters and mistresses of their own energy destiny. He wanted the sales of that Natural Gas for himself, and deny Ukraine control over their own economy. Hence what has been described as the “theft” of energy company, oil and gas rigs, other utility holdings and the EEZ maritime exclusive exploitation zone out at sea. Oh Chornomornaftogaz !

If Russia establish control of the whole of Southern Ukraine, recognised or no, they will almost inevitably be seeking to exploit as much of the Black Sea Natural Gas as they can. It will be cleaner than Caspian gas, cheaper than Arctic gas, and easier to export as ship-laden LNG.

So, I ask again, why did Russia invade Ukraine ? To take advantage of ten to fifteen years of sweet, cheap Black Sea Natural Gas ? Is that really what this is actually about ?

The European Union has declared that they will wind down their use of Natural Gas, and develop Renewable Gas instead over the next decade. There will be a divorce from Russian gas, because of this policy, and as a reaction to the invasion of Ukraine.

I would argue however, that this policy is needed not just because of climate change, and not simply as a reaction to unjustifiable horrors of aggression. The future of gas sourced from Russia is either sour or stolen, and so the European Union has no choice but to wean itself away.

To support my theory, I would need to have access to gas composition analysis by the major oil and gas companies of Russia, and the countries surrounding the Caspian, Black Sea, Sea of Azov and Mediterranean Sea, and the companies working on oil and gas projects onshore and offshore in the region.

I have made a few enquiries, but nothing has emerged as yet.


Natural Gas : Proving the Proved Reserves

In looking at the pathways and timelines for a transition to the use of Renewable Gas, it is necessary to consider the current and future position of Natural Gas within the global energy system.

Hydrogen is climbing up the ladder or flagpole of attention of late, as is the debate about the relative merits of a rainbow palette of hydrogens : from fully renewable hydrogen – known almost universally as “green hydrogen” – to so-styled “blue hydrogen”, which is essentially utilising Natural Gas to make hydrogen in some way, whilst at the same time permanently sequestering the carbon that is left over.

If the blue hydrogen strategy is to succeed, clearly, progress needs to be made in CCS – carbon capture and storage – as the continued use of fossil fuels must be accompanied by “carbon repatriation” to the long term carbon storage of Earth.

Perhaps more importantly however, there needs to be confidence in the longevity and chemical quality of Natural Gas supplies, and it is for this reason that I have recently re-visited my inspection of proven Natural Gas reserves.

Reported data is sometimes a bit nebulous. For example, some entities report only dry gas – Natural Gas that comes from gas-only reservoirs – also known as non-associated gas. As for the Natural Gas that is associated with liquid fossil fuels, it is often just lumped in with a total of hydrocarbons. I suppose this is because it does not make any sense to report it separately : Natural Gas that is associated with oil and Natural Gas Liquids (NGL) deposits is probably only going to be mined along with that oil and NGL. While the oil still flows, the Natural Gas will come with it; and not if otherwise.

Exactitudes are also lacking in terms of proven status. Field oil and gas engineers, along with their geologists, and management consultant accountants, can often offer expert opinion on OGIP or GIIP – (original) gas (initially) in place in a reservoir – but it is not known how much is accessible, or possible production flow rates, or the general chemical composition, until somebody tries.

In addition, codes, categories and standards on reporting proven, possible and probable levels of Natural Gas reserves are different throughout the industry. In the United States, they might talk of 3P (proven plus probable plus possible); however, in the Russian Federation and former Soviet states, the categories are likely to be A, B, C, D, 0, 1, 2, 3 – a set of reporting standards that has recently been modified, or is about to be.

Anyway, one of the things that has niggled with me for a while is that within the oil and gas industry, there have only been a few go-to trusted free-of-charge resources on resources – including the widely-cited annual BP Statistical Review of World Energy, the EIA, OPEC and the IEA. Surely, comprehensive data should be available from other entities, discovered in different ways, to allow analysis of the quality of this data ?

Also, along with reporting entities such as OPEC, IEA and EIA, the BP Statistical Review reports by country. Country-level analysis is too vague for me. It does not account for different behaviours and intentions amongst the industry actors.

I find this unhelpful in the same way that I find country-level commitments at the climate change talks to be too inactionable. Governments are not the only entities that need to be taking part in the treaties – without the participation of companies and corporations in adopting pledges and strategies, there will be no progress of any significant kind.

The transition of energy requires the transition of the oil, gas and coal industries. And the transition of the oil, gas and coal industries will come from cultural changes within individual corporations, companies, and national oil and gas concerns. We need to know the strategy of each upstream producing oil and gas entity about transition, and their shareholders and governments need to be asking for their strategies of transition.

But that’s a big ask. For now, all I can do is try to find some data.

I wanted to see if I could find out how the BP Statistical Review of World Energy is composed, and whether I had access to the underlying data.

So, armed with little except a broadband connection, I sought to try to build the equivalent of the BP Statistical Review on proved reserves from the bottom up, company by company. Because I figured there cannot be a huge number of entities in the field, so surely I could find a lot of the data I need from scanning a couple of dozen Annual Reports. Every company trading on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), the Nasdaq, and so on, has to report to the Securities and Equities Commission (SEC), and also publish for their shareholders.

What I found was irritating and concerning. There appear to be large gaps in the data as far as public reporting goes. There seems to be a lot of fudge. Some numbers appear to be withheld. A lot of data is reported in units of measurement that need conversion, and so do not allow easy comparison. Why is this information not forthcoming, when it is so important to the future of the world’s energy pathway ? Would I need to be working in the industry to have access to some of the missing information ?

Despite the holes in my analysis, I managed to find numbers that were in the same ball park as the BP Statistical Review, for a number of countries – except the United States of America and Canada.

Natural Gas Proven Reserves

Russian Federation
BP Statistical Review 37,400 bcm (billion cubic metres)
My bottom-up analysis 37,685 bcm

Islamic Republic of Iran
BP Statistical Review 32,100 bcm
My bottom-up analysis 34,080 bcm

State of Qatar
BP Statistical Review 24,700 bcm
My bottom-up analysis 24,404 bcm

The People’s Republic of China
BP Statistical Review 8,400 bcm
My bottom-up analysis 8,554 bcm

BP Statistical Review 2,400 bcm
My bottom-up analysis 1,614 bcm

United States of America
BP Statistical Review 12,600 bcm
My bottom-up analysis 6,563 bcm

I will need to check my spreadsheet, but here is how it stands right now :-

It is entirely possible that I have not yet found all the entities that own proved reserves of Natural Gas in North America.

At the moment, I have been looking only at publicly traded companies, but it might be that there are a number of private concerns that do not appear on the stock exchanges. Additionally, some of the reserves might be “held” by federal government or state agencies.

Also, I might have missed some international oil and gas companies from the list that have proved reserves in North America, but I haven’t found their reports as yet.

I can see now that I was wrong about the number of exploration and production entities in North America – there are hundreds – as witnessed to by the EIA data gathering exercise web page :-

“To prepare this report, we collected independently developed estimates of proved reserves from a sample of operators of U.S. oil and natural gas fields with Form EIA-23L. We use this sample to further estimate the portion of proved reserves from operators who do not report. We received responses from 371 of 404 sampled operators, which provided coverage of about 90% of proved reserves of oil and natural gas at the national level. We developed estimates for the United States, each state individually, and some state subdivisions”

As the market has seen large amounts of merger, acquisition and bankruptcy recently, I had to be careful to avoid double-counting reserves as far as I could, by keeping reporting years separate.

It might be that some proved reserves are being held by entities who are not actively producing oil and gas – perhaps because they are essentially bankrupt, and are still looking for transfer of ownership or restructuring.

In summary, I am frustrated and disappointed by the lack of detail in the proved reserves of fossil fuels in companies and corporations publicly trading on the stock exchanges. Sometimes, it is very hard to tease apart the Natural Gas from other numbers, and also, see the split between Conventional (dry, tight) and Unconventional (shale) Natural Gas. It is also not clear how much of the NGL Natural Gas Liquids are being used for both pipeline Natural Gas supplies and LNG (Liquid Natural Gas). There is also no understanding on how much petroleum oil ends up as pipeline Natural Gas or LNG after refining.

I suppose that, as usual, as I am a researcher outside the oil and gas industry, and with no funds for purchasing market research reports, I will not be able to get at better numbers.

One thing I noted along the way : it seems clear on cursory analysis that there are many companies in North America which are producing Natural Gas at high rates without significant proved reserves to fall back on. I suspect that the collapse of companies will continue – particularly in the shale gas arena.

Another big thing for me that I found : there are no numbers that discuss the chemical composition of the various fields in the proved reserves assets. What will help or hinder the use of Natural Gas in the “blue hydrogen” endeavour really depends on the percentages of methane, ethane, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and nitrogen in the accessible reserves in each gas field. Any propane and butane will probably be destined for LNG still, and not “blue hydrogen”. The hydrogen sulfide, just as much as the carbon dioxide, needs to be rejected in an environmentally appropriate way – with long-term sequestration. The hydrogen sulfide could be used to make hydrogen, but only if the sulfur can be properly disposed of. The nitrogen could be used for making agricultural chemicals, but it needs to be captured, and it cannot be used for hydrogen production.

The number of internal combustion vehicles that are likely to remain on the world’s roads could amount to somewhere between 1 billion and 2 billion by 2050. This means that liquid hydrocarbon fuels will continue to be needed in the economy, and this means that pressure to continue to mine raw petroleum oil will continue – unless synthetic fuels are ramped up. Hydrogen will inevitably be needed to make synthetic fuels, so this will create competition for its use : hydrogen will not only be used as a backup fuel to support renewable electricity, it will also be needed in industrial chemistry for synfuels. If it is accepted that the hydrogen for the synfuels will come from Natural Gas, this means that there could well be a tendency to continue mining oil wells for the associated gas – justifying the oil production as a means to get the gas. So liquid hydrocarbon fuels are unlikely to become universally synthesised. Oil and gas companies are unlikely to agree to stop pumping oil, and only pump non-associated gas required for “blue hydrogen” : it would not be in their best interests. The future of shale gas is potentially rocky – so any “blue hydrogen” strategy needs to take this into account. Importantly, without decent levels of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) or carbon dioxide removal (CDR), continuing the use of any fossil fuels to support “blue hydrogen” is a self-limiting strategy : sooner or later carbon emissions limits or resource wobbles will impact the plan.


Renewable Gas : Scenes From The Very Near Future : 2

The Forest is an Energy Field

Location : Scottish Highlands
Year : About 20 years from now
Time of Year : Autumn
Time of Day : Morning
Temperature : 14 degrees C
Weather Conditions : Slightly dewy; clean, cold air; weak sunlight; with a slight breeze.

A team of three forest reclamation engineers begin their morning rounds in an open-top electric vehicle.

The company transporter travels on the reclaimed glass and polymer track so quietly through the mixed plantation that it does not even disturb a convention of jet black crows cawing in the copper-carpeted inspection clearing.

As the biomass harvesting assessors step off the porous crystal roadway, the crows are momentarily startled by boots crunching the crisp leaves given up by the trees and dried by the sun.

A little residual mist hangs about in the nearest gathering of trees, busy maintaining their microclimate, despite the unseasonably dry weather. The chill of the early hours is wearing off, as the sun weakly begins to warm the tree canopy.

This is giant, managed mixed forest of species that include native British trees for this region, and include the traditional pine and conifer. With the changing average temperatures and rainfall, gradual experimentation is taking place to discover the ideal mix of trees that will offer both fast growth, good canopy cover and good processing quality.

These trees are destined for the furnace, but not ordinary combustion. They will be gasified at high temperatures in the presence of a specialised mix of salts, metal grains and ground rock powder, to capture the maximum energy value of the hydrogen and the carbon in all kinds of wood, including forest thinnings and mill chippings, and pipe this synthetic gas to an industrial gas processing plant.

The aim for the day is to do an accounting exercise to answer the question of whether this settlement is ready for harvest. A nearby dense copse is selected for analysis. The trees will not be extracted unless the potential for carbon sequestration and carbon recycling is highest according to the study.

The old practice in forestry clearance was to log – saw the trunk of each tree, strip the branches and as much bark as possible – and drag the poles away. Logging in this way has been outlawed. Significant branch, bark and leaf litter from harvesting trees is no longer permitted, as this can lead to high methane emissions. In addition, the soil at tree extraction sites must be immediately protected from erosion, desiccation and outgassing, as the earth is an important part of the overall forest carbon sink.

What needs to happen now is that for every tree that is removed, a young stripling is planted in a very nearby location. This will allow the young tree to benefit from the dying root system of the extracted tree. In addition, as much of the tree as possible is removed, as all the biomass can be used for energy, chemicals and materials purposes.

A key part of the restoration strategy after harvesting high trees is also growing forest crops, to make use of the extra available sunlight as the leaf canopy has been removed. The cropping plants need to be tended, pollarded or picked regularly – depending on whether the crops are for biomass or food – and then finally removed, when the young replacement trees become large enough to form a dense canopy of their own.

The team of forest surveyors are looking for treefall and other unusual quantities of forest floor litter, because they have grown accustomed to previously unknown diseases and infestations breaking out in these plantations. It is important that outbreaks are swiftly cleared, or vast tracts of wood can be lost, as was the case in early twenty-first century native Canadian boreal zones.

This forest is designed to be easily harvested : there are wide lanes between large copses or stands, wide enough to contain and constrain both wildfire and diseases : large area wildfire previously unprecedented in this part of the world. There are artificial as well as natural burns, tarns and canals at regular intervals, which help with material transportation as well as provide relief from singeing when there is a local fire.

Every plantation has its own gas-making plant, as this reduces energy lost to transporting woods. Turning tree into gas permits the capture of the carbon from more of the tree, preventing forest litter decomposing and releasing methane to the sky. It also sustains the energy industry, as gas can be stored to provide electricity generation when the weather is dark and calm.

Despite the massive rollout of wind power and solar power, there are still weeks of low renewable electricity generation from these sources, so backup in the form of gas is still necessary; however, nobody is permitted to mine for Natural Gas any longer.

The vast caverns of Natural Gas that were discovered and exploited in the 20th century petered and puffed out, or were found to be too contaminated to mine; and the only thing being pumped was carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and nitrogen from the North Sea. Plus, the voiding caverns started to cause earthquakes, which disrupted the energy industry infrastructure and shipping lanes.

The fossil fuel offshore industry was gradually being replaced by the wind power industry anyway, so it was a natural progression to close down the Natural Gas mining. The oil with the Natural Gas was becoming more and more degraded : the quality was reducing sharply as more and more gas was being used to inject to keep up the oil flow pressure in the reservoirs. And the good quality oil was long gone. The remaining raw crude petroleum oil was contaminated by sulfur and brine, and the energy wasted in refining it made it uneconomic to extract in the middle of the 21st century.

The North Sea oil and gas industry gradually evolved : first came offshore wind power : great windmills fixed to the seabed or floating on giant pontoons. Then, came green hydrogen, as the giant wind turbines produced so much power, it could not all be used at the time it was generated. The former oil companies had already become gas majors, so it was a logical step for them to become green gas producers, retaining the same economic place and industrial role they had already. It kept pensions and government tax revenue streams safe.

Some of the formerly fossil fuel internationals turned to solar sea power, but they could not make it work economically because of changes in the gyres and storms, making previously quite calm areas too choppy to float solar arrays. However, they did branch out into solar farming on land, in the degraded farmlands near their formerly oil terminals and petrorefineries.

To maximise gas production, green methane from gasification of biomass was added to the resources of green hydrogen produced from renewable power : it permitted a wider variety of resources to be utilised for gas, and also provided carbon-based molecules for the burgeoning green chemistry industry.

Almost anything with carbon and hydrogen in it can be gasified, including almost every part of a tree. Water is often used somewhere in the process, so a place with forests and river systems, lakes or lochs are ideal. The products will be the four main gases : methane, hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.


Renewable Gas : Scenes From The Very Near Future

The Future Phycological

A future system of near-shore, open water seaweed colonies are developed for the supply of biofuels, foods and human vitamins and minerals.

Scene : The North Sea

Season : Autumn

Scale : 5 to 10 years from now

The sun is melting and dropping slowly towards the horizon. The colours of day and the open sea are darkening; but there are globes of lime and peachy yellow light still visible on the surface of the water, all around, bobbing slightly up and down. They mark the gradually mutating locations of the seaweed balloon nets, billowing just underneath the metallic surface of the gently rocking slight ocean waves.

Little boats are still clustered around the field of lights, where workers in flotation jackets are still mending, monitoring, seeding seaweed spores and harvesting; but will soon be chugging towards the coast, powered by macro-algal oil, a very low carbon biofuel, made mostly from seaweed.

We are quite far north, and the days are short here, but the sea is rich in nutrients, so that algae, microalgae and macroalgae grow well. Since the early days of the mega-phycofarm project, a massive stock of a rich variety of well-adapted lifeforms has accumulated in and around the balloon nets, and it is more-or-less self-sustaining, given the regimes of nutrient distribution and net maintenance.

This style of alga-dominated biome is not entirely novel on planet Earth, and, relatively early in their development, with the full lifecycle of the macroalgae established, a net flow of carbon was shown to be transferring to the seabed, for permanent sequestration into submarine rock-forming systems.

A portion of the carbon dioxide that is fixed by the algal communities and the hosted co-species in their mixed communities is harvested and recycled into fuels, but this is compensated for by the other services that the seaweed-and-friends biosystems offer : seawater is filtered of dangerous environmental metals; excess agricultural run-off becomes macroalgal nutrition, reducing dangerous microalgal blooms and algal infestation of waterways; more fish and other seafood species – including seaweed – are supported and then farmed for human food, vitamins and minerals; and top waters are more well-oxygenated, meaning that other kinds of aquaculture are enhanced besides the seaweed.

From a vantage point beneath the water line, the permanent balloon nets look a lot like hot air balloons in shape, huge inverted baskets, especially when fully seeded with macroalgae and hosting other species, rising and bulging out from the mooring ropes that stretch down into the deep dark, and weighed down at regular intervals around the edge by anchors on the seabed that stabilise them.

As a rule, the balloon nets do not drift far, and only migrate significantly when violent storms cause currents that can shift the anchors laterally, carving channels in the floor of the ocean. On average, the balloon nets do not relocate into the deep sea, or get stranded close to shore. At times, the nets need to be pulled mechanically to better locations, and this is done by submersibles that haul the anchors.

The churning of the anchors dredges up debris from the seabed, and re-circulates nutrients up to the seaweed-supported biocommunity in the balloon net. Many species of coral that were becoming heat-stressed elsewhere in the world have been introduced to the drifting zones of the seaweed nets; the occasional scraping of the sea floor creates areas suitable for colonisation, and supplies of nutrients, and reefs have become well-established. Even though the Great Barrier Reef was not saved, it has been reborn here between Scotland and Norway.

Baby seaweeds are cultivated in carefully-controlled warehouses onshore in bio farms near the coast, at ports or jetties where boats can moor. The machines feed and nurture the seaweed all day and all night, and when the phycobabies are ready, they are encouraged to attach themselves to specially-designed twine, which is slowly pulled through the warm baby baths. The twine ropes are made of extraordinary industrially-manufactured seawater-resistant polymers, with embedded slow-release nutrients, which can deliver just the right levels and kinds of nutrition to growing macroalgae. The cables need to be supple enough to be knotted and tied, but strong enough to be storm-resistant.

All of these polymers are made from biomass, but they are novel in the environment, and will remain undegraded for decades. Eventually, bacteria will evolve that can eat through this twine, so new polymers will need to be developed in time.

Although this part of the process for raising new seaweed and implanting them into cables is entirely automated, bedding and replacing of impregnated twines in the balloon nets is largely a manual operation done in situ by seaweed farmers. Harvesting, in particular, requires a lot of manual labour. It would be difficult to crop these dynamic, living systems efficiently and non-destructively using sea tractors. The work is not intensive, but takes commitment and knowledge. Seaweed farmers normally work out at sea for around six months of the year, especially in the peak and optimum months for seeding baby seaweed. During the more unproductive months, they will be involved in biofuel and biogas manufacture and distribution; and the production of seaweed-based food and nutrient products.

Because some of the mega seaweed farms are close to major shipping lanes, the project development managers needed to build in a design for lighting for the balloon nets that would enable passive proximity warning and support collision avoidance. The top of the balloon nets have solar lighting bars and poles that reach above the water. This has had a quadruple benefit : the lights with in-built GPS beacons indicate to the seaweed farmers where the balloon nets have migrated to; the lights and beacons prevent destruction of nets and deter boats; the surface lights enable workers to extend their productive hours; and the extra light after dark enables increased growth of target species. The lights have to be sealed against that salt water and so the solar system is entirely isolated, and is an integral part of the balloon net ocean replenishment system.

Down in the blue-green depths, under the protection of the balloon nets, and around its edges, there rises a tall forestscape of kelp, and other seaweed species, and hiding and grazing amongst their fronds, extending up and down, is a range of sea creatures, in a diverse community. Besides feeders on the seaweed, there are some ruinous predators, and there is a delicate balance to be maintained between the growth of the alga and the elimination of such things as molluscs.

The density of the seaweed helps to extend the oxygen-rich zone, which permits communities of oxygen-loving plants and fish to extend further down into the water column than would normally be possible. There is a certain lack of energy at depth, because the sunlight does not reach this far down, but the high oxygen levels, and the artificial light reaching through from the surface, compensate for this in some respects.

The development of the balloon nets took many decades, including the time taken to perfect the design and the twine, and the time it took for algal communities to physically establish themselves. But looking at these systems of sea community closely you can see that they have a strong resilience, as they are patterned on evolved Nature.


Birkbeck 2020 : The Slides


Birkbeck 2020 : Slide 1

Each year, of late, I have been presenting some slides on the topic of Renewable Gas to students of the Climate Change and Energy module of the Birkbeck, University of London, Geography, Environment and Development Studies (GEDS) courses.

This year, I have very little time to prepare, so my usual primary-colour charts and diagrams will largely be absent, as I don’t have time to scout them out from elsewhere, or put them together myself.

I’m going to work on the principle that if you get enough people in the room, and you can describe a problem simply enough, the group normally have all the information and skills needed to solve it – you just need to draw the answers out of them.

Thus, I’m going for minimalism in terms of presentation, and relying on work groups to join the dots in the argument.


Variability in Energy Supply

Table : A Selection of Energies and Energy Supply Technologies


Power plants
Power stations
Coal, Natural Gas, petroleum oil, nuclear fission
Renewable power Wind power, solar power, tidal power

Petroleum and other fossil fuels

Solids Petcoke (petroleum coke), coals
Oils Refined petroleum, including : petrol-gasoline,
diesel, jet fuels, marine oils
Gases Natural Gas, hydrogen (from Natural Gas)


Biosolids Charcoal, wood, biochar
Bioliquids Biodiesel (Fatty Acid Methyl Esters), biotar
Biogases Biomethane, biohydrogen

Synthesised Renewable Fuels – Chemically Synthesised at Industrial Scale

Renewable Liquids Renewable Methanol
Renewable Dialkyl Ethers (DME, OME (PODE, DMMn), OMDEE…)
Renewable Gases Renewable Hydrogen, Renewable Methane

Work Group Questions

1.    What could cause intermittency in energy supply ?
    Intermittent = a sudden stoppage, explained or not explained.
2.    What causes variability in energy supply ?
    Variable = variation, modulation, change over time.
3.    How do energy types support each other ?
    What can act as “backup” to cover for a shortfall elsewhere ?


Renewable Fuels : Active Projects

A Review

Overview of polyoxymethylene dimethyl ether additive as an eco-friendly fuel for an internal combustion engine : Current application and environmental impacts

by Omar I. Awad, Xiao Ma, Mohammed Kamil, Obed M. Ali, Yue Ma and ShijinShuai

*   The co-application of PODEn and diesel reduces soot and particulate emissions.
*   Effects of blend ratio on PODEn/diesel blend fuel properties are summarized.
*   The NOx emission-soot correlation can be improved using PODEn-gasoline blends.
*   Euro 5 limits on nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate emission can be met using 10 and 20% PODE3–6.”


“The combustion of conventional fuels within the transportation sector is a crucial driver of global warming and produces a number of harmful emissions. To decrease these adverse factors, the development of synthetic fuels produced from renewable energy sources via the catalytic conversion of carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen (H2) has progressed significantly. Eco-friendly fuels have a reduced impact on the environment throughout their production and use cycles. In recent years, the use of polyoxymethylene dimethyl ethers (PODEn) as fuels has received an increasing amount of attention, owing to their engine performance and reduced environmental impact. The specific target of this paper is to systematically review the field of PODEn application-based additives as fuel for internal combustion engines. The background and highlights of current and future applications of PODEn are also discussed, and the challenges associated with the use of this additive are also briefly reviewed. A number of studies have shown that the use of fuel mixtures with up to 10% PODE3–4 can have a significant impact on the reduction of engine emissions. PODEn have been shown to reduce the emissions of soot, particulates, CO, and HC under different parameters and working conditions, although NOx and brake-specific fuel consumption (BSFC) emissions have been found to increase. Additionally, PODEn can be produced from natural gas or electric power via CO2 activation in a sustainable manner, which represents a significant benefit with regard to the use of oil-based products. Finally, fossil fuels blended with PODEn can be easily ignited and burned at stoichiometric conditions.”

A Project

Dimethyl Ether Synthesis from Renewables

“Gas Technology Institute (GTI) : Program : REFUEL : ARPA-E Award : $2,300,000
Location : Des Plaines, IL : Project Term : 06/01/2017 to 05/31/2020
Project Status : ACTIVE : Website:
Technical Categories : Transportation Fuels”

Critical Need

“Most liquid fuels used in transportation today are derived from petroleum and burned in internal combustion engines. These fuels are attractive because of their high energy density and current economics, but they remain partially reliant on imported petroleum and are highly carbon intensive. Domestically produced carbon-neutral liquid fuels (CNLFs), such as dimethyl ether (DME) that is a potential drop-in replacement for diesel engines, can address both of these challenges. Typical fuel production processes require huge capital investments and supporting infrastructure, including base-load power to run continuously. Technology enabling the small- and medium-scale synthesis of liquid fuels can move the production of the fuels closer to the consumer, and – if renewable sources are used – the fuels can be produced in a carbon neutral manner. However, significant technical challenges remain in either changing these processes for smaller scale use or developing alternative electrochemical processes for fuel development. New methods would also have to employ variable rates of production to match the intermittent generation of renewable sources. Improvements in these areas could dramatically reduce the energy and carbon intensity of liquid fuel production. By taking better advantage of intermittent renewable resources in low-population areas and transporting that energy as a liquid fuel to urban centers, we can more fully utilize domestically available resources.”

Project Innovation + Advantages

“Gas Technology Institute (GTI) will develop a process for producing dimethyl ether (DME) from renewable electricity, air, and water. DME is a clean-burning fuel that is easily transported as a liquid and can be used as a drop-in fuel in internal combustion engines or directly in DME fuel cells. Ultimately carbon dioxide (CO2) would be captured from sustainable sources, such as biogas production, and fed into a reactor with hydrogen generated from high temperature water splitting. The CO2 and hydrogen react on a bifunctional catalyst to form methanol and a subsequently DME. To improve conversion to DME, GTI will use a novel catalytic membrane reactor with a zeolite membrane. This reactor improves product yield by shifting thermodynamic equilibrium towards product formation and decreases catalyst deactivation and kinetic inhibition due to water formation. The final DME product is separated and the unreacted chemicals are recycled back to the catalytic reactor. Each component of the process is modular, compact, and requires no additional inputs aside from water, CO2, and electricity, while the entire system is designed from the ground up to be compatible with intermittent renewable energy sources.”

Potential Impact

“If successful, developments from REFUEL projects will enable energy generated from domestic, renewable resources to increase fuel diversity in the transportation sector in a cost-effective and efficient way.”


“The U.S. transportation sector is heavily dependent on petroleum for its energy. Increasing the diversity of energy-dense liquid fuels would bolster energy security and help reduce energy imports.”


“Liquid fuels created using energy from renewable resources are carbon-neutral, helping reduce transportation sector emissions.”


“Fuel diversity reduces exposure to price volatility. By storing energy in hydrogen-rich liquid fuels instead of pure hydrogen in liquid or gaseous form, transportation costs can be greatly reduced, helping make CNLFs cost-competitive with traditional fuels.”


When Is A Chemical A Fuel ?

Basically, a chemical is a fuel when it has exothermic reactions.

Some very simple-looking molecules can provide a range of valuable additional features, for example :-

Paper A

Paper B


The Way You Make It

The way that OMEs and related fuel substitutes are made is very important as regards cost as well as atom economy.

In what follows, I have drawn from this research article :-

“Production of oxymethylene dimethyl ether (OME)-hydrocarbon fuel blends in a one-step synthesis/extraction procedure”, by Dorian Oestreich, Ludger Lautenschütz, Ulrich Arnold and Jörg Sauer, in Fuel, 214, 2018, p 39-44, DOI :

In general, the authors comment that, “[…] an enormous interest in oligomeric oxymethylene dimethyl ethers (OMEs, CH3O-(CH2O)n-CH3, n=1–5) awakened and activities in this research field extremely increased in recent years. OMEs are related to DME dimethyl ethern-CH3, n=0) and exhibit an enormous potential for the reduction of soot and NOx emissions. Due to their high oxygen content and the absence of carbon-carbon bonds in the molecular structure, formation of pollutants is suppressed during combustion. Thus, strict exhaust emission standards can be met and exhaust gas treatment can be simplified. Properties of OMEs strongly depend on the chain length and OMEs with n=3–5 exhibit physicochemical as well as fuel properties similar to conventional diesel. Therefore, no serious changes of the fuel supply infrastructure and engines are necessary. Further advantages are their good miscibility with established fuels, low corrosivity as well as favorable health- and safety-related properties.”

These authors point out the predominance of methanol as a chemical feedstock, as written extensively about by George Olah – “Forget about the hydrogen economy. Methanol is the key to weaning the world off oil. George Olah tells us how to do it.”

They also point out that OMEs produced via renewable resources addresses climate change in addition to air pollution : “Regarding the production of OMEs and other fuel-related ethers, many strategies are based on methanol. Methanol is produced from synthesis gas, which is usually stemming from fossil resources, especially natural gas. Synthesis gas can also be obtained from renewable resources via different pretreatment technologies, depending on the feedstock type, and subsequent gasification. If renewable feedstocks are employed for OME synthesis, not only soot and NOx emissions can be reduced but also total CO2 emissions considering the entire system from feedstocks to combustion.”

But these wonderfuels don’t necessarily come easy – especially where routes include reagents that have a complicated synthesis of their own, such as trioxane (1,3,5 trioxane, a cyclic trimer of formadehyde) : “[…] a highly optimized and efficient production of OMEs is still a major challenge. Thus, availability is restricted at present and sufficient quantities of OMEs for intense testing can only be purchased from a few Chinese suppliers. However, capacities of Chinese plants are currently exceeding 40,000 tons per year and activities in the field of OMEs are rapidly developing there. Production of OMEs can be carried out employing different educts like methanol, DME, dimethoxymethane (OME 1) and formaldehyde sources like formalin, p-formaldehyde, or trioxane. Different homogeneous and heterogeneous acidic catalysts such as sulfuric acid, zeolites, ion exchange resins, metal-oxides or heteropoly acids are typically used.” (What do you know ? China is ahead of the curve again.)

There is a general divergence of choice in processing : “[…]A distinction can be drawn between OME synthesis in aqueous reaction systems (e.g. reaction of methanol with formalin or p-formaldehyde) and synthesis in anhydrous systems (e.g. reaction of dimethoxymethane with trioxane). In aqueous systems significant amounts of water, hemiformals and glycols are formed as by-products. In contrast, formation of such byproducts is largely suppressed in anhydrous systems. However, the use of aqueous systems, especially the reaction of methanol with formaldehyde, is highly desired since low-cost educts can be employed.”

The writers of this paper elucidate clearly the problems posed by dealing with controlling the chemical equilibrium in the production of OMEs and similar molecules; and then they introduce their contribution, “[…] a convenient one-step procedure for the production of OME-hydrocarbon blends is proposed. Selective extraction of OMEs from aqueous reaction solutions is described employing hydrocarbons such as n-dodecane, diesel and hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO) as extraction agents. The corresponding oxymethylene diethyl ethers (OMDEEs) have also been synthesized and investigated.”

This use of straight chain hydrocarbons to “wash” or extract the OMEs is not completely described, neither the recycling of by-products – especially as one of the by-products of the aqueous process is trioxane, which could be used in a later anhydrous OME production process. However, I think I grasp enough of this to see that there could be a fairly strong atom economy – so high selectivity for the desired products, and not large percentages of rejected “waste” molecules that need to be ultimately disposed of. This is important because it shows that chemical synthesis of liquid fuels from base, simple molecules can be more efficient in terms of making atoms useful, compared to chemical processes using whole biological complexes – for example, the use of lignocellulose (lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose) in wood.


Alternative Fuels : OME

Synthesised alternative fuels are already a known known in Germany, judging by this research article into alternative fuel adoption preferences :-

“What fuels the adoption of alternative fuels ? Examining preferences of German car drivers for fuel innovations”, by Anika Linzenich, Katrin Arning, Dominik Bongartz, Alexander Mitsos and Martina Ziefle, in Applied Energy 249 (2019), p 222-236, DOI :

They write in their Abstact, “Some proposed synthetic fuels have favorable combustion properties compared to existing fuels, e.g., significant reductions in pollutant formation. However, penetration of such fuels requires a favorable social acceptance […] Among the five considered fuel attributes […] fuel costs had the highest decision impact for alternative fuel preferences, followed by fuel availability and usage requirements. Pollutant emissions had the lowest impact on alternative fuel choices. A market simulation of conventional diesel and alternative fuels (dimethyl ether (DME) and a blend of diesel with oxymethylene dimethyl ethers (OME)) revealed that currently a large majority of car drivers would prefer conventional fossil fuel options […]”

Clearly, some learning about alternative fuels needs to happen, particularly as there is an overarching plan, as the Linzenich et al. (2019) paper mentions, “The European Union aims at expanding the infrastructure for alternative (renewable) fuels in order to increase their market share to 10% and reduce the GHG emissions caused by transport by 60% till 2050. This implies the need for novel, alternative fuels with drastically lower GHG emissions than fossil fuels. Simultaneously, it is necessary to reduce pollutant emissions, in particular NOx and soot. Biofuels made from biomass, electricity-based fuels (e-fuels, produced from CO2, water, and renewable electricity), as well as the combination of these approaches (termed biohybrid fuels), have the potential to reduce GHG and pollutant emissions and can overcome the range issues of electric vehicles (EV) in long-distance transport. For example, the alternative fuels methanol and methane can each reduce NOx emissions by 30–50% and total hydrocarbon emissions by 15–30% compared to gasoline. Also, some alternative fuels for compression ignition engines can drastically reduce particulate matter (PM) emissions, e.g., in case of dimethyl ether (DME) by more than 95% compared to diesel fuel. Some of these alternative fuels can even be used in conventional vehicles, requiring no retrofit of the infrastructure, car, or engines.”

Beside dimethyl ether (DME) and its homologues, the (poly) oxymethylene dimethyl ethers (OME) series is also in the frame, and techniques for synthesising them are being developed, for example, “Conceptual design of a novel process for the production of
poly(oxymethylene) dimethyl ethers from formaldehyde and methanol”, by Niklas Schmitz, Eckhard Ströfer, Jakob Burger and Hans Hasse, in Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, 2017, 56, 40, p 11519-11530, DOI :

The researchers mention that OMEs have a variety of purposes, besides OMEs with between 3 to 5 carbon atoms in each molecule being touted as alternative fuels, “Poly(oxymethylene) dimethyl ethers (OME) are oligomers of the general chemical structure H3C-O-(CH2O)n-CH3 with n >= 2. OME are alternative fuels derived from the C1-value-added [methanol, methane foundation or base chemical] chain. OME reduce the soot and indirectly also the NOx formation during the combustion process in engines. Thus, OME have the potential to significantly reduce engine emissions, which recently undergo a heavy public debate. In addition, OME are also considered as physical solvents for the absorption of CO2 from natural gas, as safe fuels for direct oxidation fuel cells, and as green solvents for the chemical industry.”

Because OMEs can be made from syngas, with supporting chemicals, “Generally, for the synthesis of OME, a source of formaldehyde (e.g. aqueous/methanolic formaldehyde solution, paraformaldehyde, trioxane) and a source of CH3-end groups (e.g. methanol, dimethyl ether, methylal) are required”, and syngas can be made from anything that has carbon and hydrogen in it, this makes OMEs a good chemistry set for the energy transition. Today, OMEs might be made from Natural Gas, but in a few years time, OMEs can be made in a carbon-neutral ways from biomass and the carbon dioxide in biogas (amongst other renewable sources of carbon and hydrogen).

For progress in althenative fuels, going down the DME/OME route is suitable for a number of reasons. “Oxymethylene ether (OME1) as a synthetic low-emission fuel for DI diesel engines”, by Markus Münz, Alexander Feiling, Christian Beidl, Martin Härtl, Dominik Pélerin and Georg Wachtmeister, in, Liebl J., Beidl C. (eds), “Internationaler Motorenkongress 2016. Proceedings”. Springer Vieweg, Wiesbaden,, reads, “Synthetic CO2-neutral fuels with oxygen content are referred to as oxygenates and show a promising way to achieve the set objectives. The combustion of oxygenates is soot-free, thus avoiding the NO x /particulate trade-off. The post-oxidation is improved by the presence of oxygen directly at the fuel. In addition, some oxygenates have no direct carbon-carbon bonds (so called C1-fuels), which prevents the formation of soot.”


People Like Me

Just in passing, during a general internet browse, I find that Bosch take synthetic fuels seriously. People like me.

“Synthetic fuels are made solely with the help of renewable energy. In a first stage, hydrogen is produced from water. Carbon is added to this to produce a liquid fuel. This carbon can be recycled from industrial processes or even captured from the air using filters. Combining CO2 and H2 then results in the synthetic fuel, which can be gasoline, diesel, gas, or even kerosene.” This is not new gizmodery, however. Synfuels have a long history : see here, here, here and here.

And they mention that the Germany Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy has been working in this area. Another search term in the internet browser later, I find companies doing work on turning wood into fuel, and capturing carbon dioxide to make methanol. But I know there’s more. So, after a little more digging, I find the bmwi 2019 Federal Government Report on Energy Research.

And what’s this ? Carbon2Chem – “CO2 reduction via cross-industrial cooperation between the steel, chemical and energy sectors”. And the section on projects and companies involved, for L6, “Oxymethyl ether: BASF SE, Volkswagen AG, Linde AG, FhG-UMSICHT, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) – Institute of Catalysis Research and Technology, thyssen-krupp AG”.

Volkswagen ? I mean, I can understand BASF and Linde being heavily involved at this stage, being chemical engineering majors, but Volkswagen ? A motor vehicle manufacturer ? Already ? I would have thought the carmakers would come along to the party a bit later. Although, actually, thinking about it, I have heard of some other automobile companies doing things in the gas sphere.

And KIT, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Here’s their general piece about the bioliq plant.

“Modern combustion engines become increasingly economical and clean. Engine developers, however, are now facing the technical conflict of whether fuel consumption or exhaust gas emission is to be further reduced. This Gordian knot might be cut by chemists’ and engineers’ further development of sophisticated fuels that help optimize combustion in the engine. […] A promising concept for diesel fuels is the use of oxymethylene ethers […]”

It goes on, “[…] Oxymethylene ethers (OME) are synthetic compounds of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen (CH3O(CH2O)nCH3). Due to their high oxygen concentration, pollutant formation is suppressed in the combustion stage already. As diesel fuels, they reduce the emission of carbon black [BC] and nitrogen oxides [NOx]”. This sounds like a very optimistic route for development.

However, there’s still the usual catch of new tech : the economics. “[…] Still, economically efficient production of OME on the technical scale represents a challenge. The OME project will therefore focus on new and efficient processes for the production of the chemical product OME.”

And clearly, they will need to be produced from renewable resources, “[…] OME might be produced from renewable resources, as is shown by the bioliq project of KIT. In this way, these substances would not only contribute to reducing pollutants, but also to decreasing carbon dioxide emission of traffic. The carbon/oxygen/hydrogen ratio of OME is very similar to that of biomass. Production with a high energy and atom efficiency is possible.”

As of now, “[…] Little is known about the effects of OME during engine combustion and other aspects of the use in vehicles. Comprehensive studies of engine tests will focus on these aspects of application and contribute to revealing the potentials of enhancing efficiency of OME use. These studies are to provide detailed insight into the relationships between the chemical OME structure and combustion properties. The objective is to demonstrate a highly simplified exhaust gas treatment process without particulate filters and catalytic treatment. […]”

And this is a very important point : the way forward for diesel engines in road vehicles implies the use of several different kinds of filtration, additives, catalytic conversion and other gas exhaust treatment – including recycling. Yet even with all this extra kit in a diesel vehicle, there will be RWDC – real world driving conditions that defeat all this added expense and weight.

We have to face the facts : dino diesel is dangerous dirt, and cleaning up after its combustion requires complex chemistry. Any alternatives could be very useful in reducing the weight and cost of vehicles, including removing the need for rare earth elements in catalysts.


Nucleation & Agglomeration 2

Trying to displace refined petroleum-sourced vehicle fuels with renewable alternatives is relatively straight forward, although there is some tinkering necessary to meet industry technical standards.

Jumping these hurdles could be seen as minor compared to measures that might be necessary to reduce the overall burden of air pollution from burning liquid biofuels and liquid Renewable Fuels in internal combustion engines (ICE).

Some emissions are suppressed or absent, for example, the levels of sulfur and sulfur compounds in the raw biomass products used to make biodiesel are significantly less than in fossil fuels. This should mean that the exhausts of burning biodiesel will cause less sulfate and less sulfur dioxide emissions to the atmosphere than burning fossil diesel.

There are hundreds research projects in this area. Since I’m not an expert in this field, I don’t know which research authors are best to reference, but I’m going pick a few at random, and work from there.

Let’s take, “Size distributions, PAHs and inorganic ions of exhaust particles from a heavy duty diesel engine using B20 biodiesel with different exhaust aftertreatments”, by Pi-qiang Tan, Yi-mei Zhong, Zhi-yuan Hu and Di-ming Lou, in Energy, Volume 141, 15 December 2017, Pages 898-906, DOI :

“Compared with the engine without exhaust aftertreatments, DOC [diesel oxidation catalyst] decreased nucleation mode particle number by 19.83%, while accumulation mode particles exhibited slight changes.”

So, to revise, “nucleation mode” refers to the process whereby individual atoms, ions or molecules group/stick/crystallise together to form a “nucleus”, the core of a particle; whilst “accumulation mode” refers to particles clumping together into “agglomerates”.

Tan et al. (2017) go on, “Compared with diesel fuel, many studies show that biodiesel can reduce particle mass, hydrocarbons (HCs), and carbon monoxide (CO) emissions, but nitrogen oxides (NOx) are slightly increased.”

Well, that seems like biodiesel offers several huge bonuses in curbing emissions; however, this is not across the board. The paper reads, “Tan et al. [2014] found that biodiesel fuel led to an increase in particle number concentration, especially small size particles, when compared with diesel fuel. Zhang [2011] drew the same conclusions. The particles, especially the small size ones, stay suspended in the atmosphere for a long time, and thus have a higher probability of being inhaled and consequently being deposited deep in the alveolar region of the human lung […] Nitrate, sulfate, and ammonium, in this order, presented the highest concentration levels, indicating that biodiesel may also be a significant source for these ions, especially nitrate. […] Biodiesel decreases the total PAH emission. However, it also increases the fraction of fine and ultrafine particles compared with diesel.”

So, biodiesel substitution for dinodiesel is not an unmitigated success.

And the situation changes with engine load. For a reference, I chose “Comparison of particle emissions from an engine operating on biodiesel and petroleum diesel”, by Jie Zhang, Kebin He, Xiaoyan Shi and Yu Zhao, in Fuel 90, 2011, 2089-2097, doi : 10.1016/j.fuel.2011.01.039 : they write, “The biodiesels were found to produce 19–37% less and 23–133% more PM 2.5 compared to the petroleum diesel at higher and lower engine loads respectively.” PM, of course, is particulate matter, and PM 2.5 is particulate matter of a diameter/size of 2.5 microns (micrometres, or millionths of a metre) or smaller.


Why are we building gas ships ?

Calum Watson at BBC Scotland rightly asks “Why are we building gas-powered ships ?

Two “problem-hit” “green” ferries are three years late, designed to be fuelled by LNG – Liquefied Natural Gas.

Of course, Natural Gas has a shelf life, a sell-by date, a leave-it-in-the-ground date. Because it’s a fossil fuel, and at some point, even though we might use Natural Gas as a “bridge fuel” to the fully renewable future, as some point we will need to stop pumping it up and burning it. The climate demands it.

So, why are we building gas-fuelled ships, then ? Well, that’s because Renewable Gas is a-coming in. For now, Natural Gas combustion produces around half the carbon dioxide per unit of useful end energy than coal or the thickest petroleum-sourced “bunker fuel” marine oils.

And in addition, as Calum Watson at BBC Scotland points out, burning Natural Gas produces far less air pollution than burning the treacle tar that comes out of the bottom of the barrel and the bottom of the petrorefinery fractional distillation columns – almost too heavy to vaporise.

The model of shipping gas halfway round the globe, compressed and chilled as LNG, in a network of efficient trading routes, is something that can put cheap associated Natural Gas to good use in energy markets – associated with petroleum oil, that is – co-produced, or by-produced when the oils and the condensates are pumped up.

The same system can in the future be used to trade Renewable Gas – Renewable Methane, synthesised from Renewable Hydrogen and Renewable Carbon.

There’s no need to abandon gas-fuelled ships on climate change action grounds, when Renewable Gas is going to displace Natural Gas.

Calum Watson at BBC Scotland asks if hydrogen could be the shipping fuel of the future, but he rightly points out that if hydrogen were to be shipped in the same way as Natural Gas is now in the form of a liquid, the cryogenic demands on liquefying hydrogen would be extreme.

He discusses electric drive ships, and that’s going to be great for short hops – but for the long haul, shipping will still need energy denser material fuels. The question in my mind is if Renewable Methane as LRG – Liquefied Renewable Gas is the best option – as it is possible to synthesise fuels that are liquid at room temperature, starting with biomass and Renewable Hydrogen.

Combusting liquid Renewable Fuels made through synthesis might be shown to have the same kinds of air pollution implications as fossil marine fuels : perhaps Renewable Gas will work out to be the best choice for new ocean-going vessels. It won’t be the ammonia-made-from-hydrogen mentioned in the article – there are too many issues with using this in bulk. Renewable Gas, however, where it is Renewable Methane, will be almost identical to Natural Gas, which has a very high methane content.

Calum Watson at BBC Scotland ponders that, “it looks like shipyards will be building a lot more gas-powered ships – whether that will satisfy climate change concerns is another matter.” This is a valid issue when considering hydrogen made from Natural Gas – which is another dead end. But if we use, as he says, “The cleanest way of obtaining the gas is by splitting water molecules using electrolysis, a process which requires electricity”, and take Renewable Electricity as our power for this, then the product will automatically be climate sound.


Nucleation & Agglomeration

I ask, “What makes burning diesel fuel so polluting ?” And, “Are there any ways to prevent this ?”

And so I enter a whole new world of acronyms, three-letter and otherwise.

Vapour, vaporised, and vapour-borne molecules and elemental atoms and ions make their way out of the diesel vehicle exhaust, subject to three key processes : condensation, nucleation and agglomeration (or accumulation).

Those particles that were solid post-combustion form potential nucleation and condensation surfaces.

Of the rest, whether they stay vaporised depends on their boiling points.


Carmageddon 5

So, today started, interestingly enough, with a no-questions-permitted press conference, during which the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom launched the COP26 conference of the UNFCCC, still to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, although without the original leader, and announced that diesel and petrol car sales would be banned from the year 2035.

It sounds like a bold announcement, and I’m sure he meant what he said, yet there are some problems with achieving this.

First of all, the relationships between the government, the vehicle manufacturing businesses, the fuel producers and the fuel sales businesses are very close and interdependent – it will take a mighty shove to shift this interconnected group off its perch.

The ban will be subject to “consultation”, and you can bet that some consultees will object, and lobby against the ban. They will probably be successful. This is because of the outright dominance of diesel and petrol-gasoline vehicles, which is very unlikely to have been unseated by 2035.

The sales of electric vehicles are still negligible compared to the number of diesel and petrol vehicle sales, and the market circulation of pre-existing diesel and petrol vehicles.

Because there are so many diesel and petrol-gasoline vehicles in the national “fleet”, and because their life expectancy is increasing, and because the number of fossil fuel-burning vehicle sales is still increasing, the accumulated number of fossil fuel-burning vehicles in 2034 is going to be huger than ever.

Because nobody will be able to justify stranding this asset, everyone will keep on running their fossil fuel drive vehicles, and others will keep on providing fossil fuels for them.

It seems now to be highly unlikely that the manufacture and sales of electric vehicles will be able to ramp up to match the levels of the fossil fuel-drive vehicle sales by 2035, so everybody will be incentivised to keep running their fossil fuel vehicles.

Because the fossil fuel drive fleet of vehicles will be so large in 2034, there will be enormous pressure to keep producing them – the fuel provision systems will still be in place, and the vehicle manufacturers will still be able to produce them. Businesses will be able to successfully argue that they cannot just stop servicing market need.

That all being said, this announcement opens up a great opportunity for the fossil oil and gas companies to jump in with an offer of Renewable Fuels.

Why ban diesel and petrol vehicles, when instead, you can just green up the fuels ?


Carmageddon 4

Combustion of fossil fuels mostly gives byproducts of carbon dioxide and water vapour. However there are also some other compounds created along with the marriage of carbon with oxygen, and some of these are highly dangerous, either to personal or planetary health.

Bringing alternative vehicle fuels to the markets, oil and gas companies who are transition ing away from petroleum to renewable fuels will need to make sure these new products do not aggravate air pollution by adding to it, at the very least; and at best, prevent air pollution.

There are some bolt-on technologies that can be applied for diesel vehicles in particular, but if alternative fuels remove the problem exhausts from burning diesel fuels, then the problems will be solved without perhaps costly car modifications.

To begin outlining some of the research, I must outline the worst offenders in terms of air pollution – both from burning diesel fuels and petrol-gasoline.

Air Pollution from Vehicle Fuel Combustion

Pollutant Formula Cause Global Warming Potential (over 100 years)
Carbon dioxide CO2 Combustion leading to oxidation of the fuel’s carbon by air 1
Carbon monoxide CO Incomplete combustion of the fuel’s carbon by insufficient air
Nitrogen oxides, or NOx NO, NO2 Combustion of fossil fuels in normal air
Nitrous oxide N2O Combustion of fossil fuels in normal air 265
VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds)
including unburned hydrocarbons, such as methane
Combustion of fossil fuels Methane : between 62 and 96
PAHs (Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons) Combustion of fossil fuels
PM (Particulate Matter)
< 10 microns, < 2.5 microns, < 1 micron
A core of carbon (C) Combustion of Fossil Fuels
Black Carbon (a fraction of Particulate Matter) C
Sulfur Dioxide SO2 Combustion of Fossil Fuels
Trace metals and their ions including possibly V, Ni, Fe, Zn, Mo, Pb, Al, Cr, Cu, P, Si, Ca, depending on original crude oil Combustion of Fossil Fuels

#ExxonKnew : Deeply Flawed Methodology

I’m scrolling through Twitter, and a Promoted advertisement pops up in my timeline.

“Don’t be misled by news reports”, it reads, “WATCH to learn the real story behind #ExxonKnew”.

I double-checked. The account was @exxonmobil, and there was a big blue tick there, so it had to be valid. ExxonMobil was running an exposé.

I clicked the link, fascinated to learn what ExxonMobil had to say regarding the allegations made against them, that they had allegedly known about climate change decades ago, and yet had allegedly carried on with fossil fuel exploitation regardless, whilst allegedly keeping the facts from everyone.

I watched the little video, complete with clinky xylophone and tinkly pizzicato violin music, and it said,

‘GET THE FACTS about the manufactured allegations behind #ExxonKnew’

‘#ExxonKnew is a political campaign that aims to advance the special interests of environmental activists, plaintiff’s attorneys and politicians.’

‘The campaign is backed by wealthy funders and plaintiff’s attorneys who have…’

‘Placed inaccurate, “pay-for-play” news stories…’

‘Coordinated with sympathetic politicians to launch baseless investigations into ExxonMobil…’

‘And manufactured academic reports with deeply flawed methodology…’

It was at this point that I smelled a highly-whiskered public relations rodent.

For starters, there’s no good being scornful about their accusers being involved in politics. After all, ExxonMobil themselves seem to play quite a lot of politics. Their annual lobbying budget, as of 2019, was apparently $41 million.

As for the “special interests”, well, that stands to reason. Quite a lot of people have a special interest in curbing climate change these days, some of them even have businesses in the sector. ExxonMobil is being a little hypocritical, perhaps, as they seem to be one big “special interest” themselves.

As for the #ExxonKnew campaign having “wealthy funders”, ExxonMobil’s campaign against #ExxonKnew is probably being backed by the enormous capital of ExxonMobil.

And as for the accusation of “deeply flawed methodology”, well, that’s surely just opinion from a major oil and gas company ?

The video carried on :-

“To date the campaign has failed to achieve any substantive results or advance constructive dialogue on climate change.”

“ExxonMobil on Climate : THE FACTS”

“ExxonMobil is committed to reducing the risks posed by climate change.”

“We support the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.”

“Through our membership in the Climate Leader Council, we are working with the top business, environmental and economic minds to advocate for a revenue-neutral carbon tax.”

“ExxonMobil has supported such a tax for over a decade.”

“We have partnered with 13 of the world’s largest oil and gas producers as part of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative to pursue lower-emission technologies.”

“Since 2000, we have invested more than $9 billion to develop lower-emissions energy solutions, including carbon capture and storage, cogeneration, methane emissions reduction and algae-based biofuels.”

“And in agreement with the U.S. National Labs we are investing up to $100 million to research and advance lower-emissions technologies.”

Whoa there ! Such a lot of money ! But wait, how does this compare to annual investment in other things ? And how does ExxonMobil compare to other oil and gas companies ?

The video captions continue :-

“We have forged partnerships with more than 80 universities to promote and share emerging scientific research.”

Hang on a minute ! Partnerships with universities ? Producing academic research ? Doesn’t that stand the risk of results being just a little bit biased ?

“And support cost-effective federal regulations of methane emissions along with setting voluntary reduction efforts.”


“For more information visit :”

It seems ExxonMobil had the facts about global warming and the contribution from fossil fuel combustion around about 50 years ago. If so, they should have acted sooner to effect a low carbon transition, and they should now be investing much, much more in the solutions.

Towards the end of 2018, in their report, “Beyond the Cycle : Which oil and gas companies are ready for the low-carbon transition”, the Carbon Disclosure Project found that, as reported by Environmental Leader’s Alyssa Danigelis, “This year the global oil and gas industry is only investing 1.3% of total capital expenditure in low carbon assets […] European oil and gas majors were slightly ahead at 7%, but overall this represents a drop in the bucket compared to the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

It seems ExxonMobil are not spending nearly enough of their capital on low emissions technologies.

Their approach, to push for a carbon tax, risks shoving the issue of climate action into the political long grass, where change will take decades to coalesce. This is almost certainly a delaying tactic on their part. If they were serious, surely they would be taking corporate action right now, instead of making climate action somebody else’s fiscal or financial responsibility ?

ExxonMobil’s investment in carbon capture is minuscule compared to their annual capital expenditure on oil and gas production. And their carbon capture and storage uses carbon dioxide to help pump more petroleum oil. How do they dare to proudly show it off ?

Their involvement with universities clearly advances their own special interests; their paid-for research is not solely concerned with low emissions technologies.

Their contribution to all the international and national energy fora and colloquia could be said to be all about them, and lobbying for their own corporate survival.

What they say just doesn’t wash, in my opinion.

ExxonMobil’s rebuttal, to use their own accusation, could be said to be one giant “deeply flawed methodology”.


Air Liquide : Blue Hydrogen : Green Hydrogen

Hydrogen is once again in the news, but it’s not renewable. And in addition, its uses are not green, either.

Air Liquide, operating as ALAR – Air Liquide Arabia – has announced the start of commercial supplies of hydrogen, produced at YASREF, via a pipeline network within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

A Reuters article, clearly based on an Air Liquide press release, reads, “Pressure has mounted on the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers to reduce their carbon emissions as concern mounts among policy-makers, investors and the general public about their impact on global warming. Many in industry are turning to hydrogen gas, which can be used to fuel vehicles and as a means to store green energy, as part of the solution.”

This all sounds great, but there are several things wrong with this picture.

The first catch is that the hydrogen in this case is not going to be used to fuel vehicles, or store green energy. As it says in the article, “Air Liquide Arabia (ALAR) on Tuesday began pumping hydrogen […] and will supply a Saudi Aramco refinery as the kingdom seeks to shift towards cleaner fuel. […] The Saudi Aramco Mobil Refinery (SAMREF), a joint venture between oil giant Saudi Aramco and a subsidiary of U.S. oil major ExxonMobil, will be the first company to use the Yanbu hydrogen grid […]”

So, the hydrogen here is going to be used to assist in the processing and refining of crude petroleum oil : such processes as hydrodesulfurisation, hydrotreating, hydrocracking.

The second nick is that the hydrogen is being made from Natural Gas, not renewable electricity with water. The Yanbu plant is a giant Steam Methane Reforming operation : “Large-scale hydrogen production unit in Yanbu : One of our many achievements in the region is the successful commissioning of a large-scale Steam Methane Reformer unit for the YASREF refinery (in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia), with a total hydrogen production capacity of 340,000 Nm3/hour. This is the first time in the Middle East that the hydrogen production for such a large refinery has been outsourced to a third party.”

Large gas projects, where the economics make sense, are normally gargantuan, leviathan, plants, covering large areas of land, and requiring high volumes of materials. This means that even plant that produce 100 times less than the Air Liquide operation at YASREF are highly centralised and capital-intensive.

Hydrogen plants are therefore a major capital commitment, and building these gigantic SMRs means that there is a strong lock-in to Natural Gas, a fossil fuel.

Air Liquide does say that they have a commitment to going green, however :-

“In practical terms, Air Liquide has made a commitment to produce at least 50% of the hydrogen necessary for these applications through carbon-free processes by 2020 by combining :
*   Biogas reforming
*   The use of renewable energies, through water electrolysis
*   The use of technologies for the capture and upgrading of carbon emitted during the process of producing hydrogen from natural gas”

2020. That’s now. I wonder how Air Liquide are doing with their capture and “upgrading” of carbon.

I haven’t seen any actual numbers yet, and there doesn’t appear to be a line in their annual accounts about this budget line, but warm words are being reported about cost reduction. Here’s the Hydrogen Council report “Path to hydrogen competitiveness : A cost perspective : 20 January 2020”.

Renewable Hydrogen will get ridiculously cheap, especially as renewable electricity becomes outrageously over-supplied.

I hope Air Liquide won’t come to rue the day they agreed to build the Yanbu project.


Carmageddon 3

Europe’s cars are getting older. Older on average, that is. Lasting longer. Perhaps being used a little less wearingly, so aging sparingly.

Yet, the numbers of cars produced and registered each year continues to climb inexorably.

Despite there being wall-to-wall advertising for electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles, the actual numbers of sales remains minuscule.

Let’s just take the figures for one country, the United Kingdom, still, until 11pm GMT this evening, a member of the European Union.

ACEA Vehicles in Use – Europe 2019 : United Kingdom : %share : 2018

Natural gas
Other +
Passenger Cars58.5%39.7%1.4%0.2%0.2%0.0%0.0%
Electric (Battery electric + Plug-in hybrid)
Light Commercial Vehicles (vans)3.6%96.2%0.0%0.1%0.1%0.0%
Medium and Heavy Commercial Vehicles (trucks/lorries)0.6%99.3%0.0%0.0%0.4%0.2%

Clearly, liquid vehicle fuels will be with us for some time yet to come. The imperative then becomes, how to reduce their net carbon dioxide emissions ? Planting trees will probably not measure up to the task.


Carmageddon : 2

One of the ways to improve the combustion of fuels, to make them cleaner-burning, is to put oxygen at the heart of the engine – in the molecules of the fuels. Oxygenates, principally alcohols, are either already being used, or are proposed for wider fuel inclusion.

None of this is particularly novel, as for example, ethyl alcohol (commonly known as ethanol), has been in use as a fuel or fuel additive since the first cars were built. Methanol has been in common use for competition vehicles, and BP has investigated butanol in a product known as Butamax.

Although simplest is often the best, in this case, other kinds of molecules might be better as substitution for petrol-gasoline and diesel : synthesised ethers and esters are being researched widely.

Coming at air pollution from another angle is the development of biodiesel – made from the long chain hydrocarbons in plant biomass. Again, not a new class of fuels, as plant oils were in at the start of the development of diesel engines, for example.

The most important thing about replacement fuels is that they need to perform well under a range of conditions, and research needs to include the trade-offs between different kinds of pollutants.


Carmageddon : Part A

Cars Make Cities Impossible

A simple consideration of the total number and type of car sales each year, compared to the total number of vehicles on the road, indicates that the average age of a car is high, and that there are vastly more internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles than electric models, and that therefore there will continue to be a need for liquid vehicle fuels for several decades to come. Turnover in the global fleet is not high, and anticipated conversions of vehicles to electric drive are not expected to be significant, or at least, not early on, so the high volume production of diesel-like and gasoline-petrol-like fuels remains a necessity.

There is the question of whether fuel refining can be sustained over this period, which is likely to be a time of upheaval in terms of technology. But the key question is whether the continued use of ICE vehicles will make life in cities progressively impossible. Will the continued use of internal combustion engines render cities unliveable, owing to issues of climate change and air pollution ?

Whilst it might be possible to reduce the amount of net carbon dioxide being emitted from motorised vehicles by substituting increasing levels of biomass-derived feedstock, whether in final blending, or as drop-in to various refinery processes, will this still contribute to falling exhaust toxins mandated by increasingly stringent air quality regulations ?

It is perhaps instructive to consider what has happened in the area of marine fuels. As recently reported to the IMO International Maritime Organization, VLSFO, Very Low Sulfur Fuel Oil, or other low-sulfur grades, developed to replace higher sulfur fuel oils for marine vessels, may be responsible for an increase in air pollution emissions of Black Carbon. The reason for this is that the processes of reformulating and blending that reduce sulfur from the final products potentially include a higher level of aromatic hydrocarbon compounds. It has been known for some time that this has the potential to lead to higher carbon particulate emissions (see here, for example).

Marine fuel oil is largely composed of gunk from the bottom of the barrel of crude petroleum oil – residues and the heaviest distillates. This fraction of the oils is where the most complex hydrocarbons generally lurk. The aim of the refiner is to reduce waste by blending otherwise unusable fractions of oils into final fuel products. As the higher sulfur streams have been barred, highly aromatised substitute streams have been brought in. This is one step forward, two steps back.

If refiners were to try to displace some of their fossil fuel feedstocks with biomass-derived feedstocks, this may introduce certain combustion inefficiencies, and lead to a rebalancing of problem exhaust species, but not reduce them.

Adding biomass-derived feedstocks at various drop-in points in refinery can lead to additional processing requirements, such as isomerisation and alkylation, to reestablish the regulated specification of the final fuels, leading to inherent inefficiency, and also to the presence of esoteric hydrocarbons (unnatural to nature, or unknown in such high quantities) in both fuel and exhaust.

Whilst biodiesel may contribute towards lubricating vehicles, obviating the need for engine improver detergents, does it lead to higher unwanted exhaust emissions ?

Also, although fuels are regulated at refinery dispatch, many companies are advising customers to add their own fuel improvers – sold as engine protection. How does this alter the profile of emissions ? And how many metals are present – which will inevitably end up in the lungs of citizens ? And how much sulfur in the form of sulfonates, which will end up as sulfur dioxide in the air ?

Oxygenates added to fuels certainly improve the efficiency of combustion, but do they lead to higher unwanted emissions – or do they rebalance exhausts to be more dangerous ?


BP : Breaking Paradigms

As you walk into BP World, be prepared to have an ideological transplant. Be prepared to have hopes dashed and disappointments bittered. Be prepared, above all, to have unrecognisable narratives thrust upon you, with all the reinforcements that money can lobby for.

This is my initial reaction upon reading the words of Bob Dudley, outgoing Chief Executive Officer of BP, reported yesterday by Bloomberg, and carried on the wires elsewhere, for example :-

In the article, headlined, “Outgoing BP CEO Warns of Moving Too Fast on Climate Change”, Bob Dudley “warned Big Oil of moving too fast on investing in new technologies to counter climate change, because their failure could lead to financial ruin. ‘If you go too fast and you don’t get it right you can drive yourself out of business,’ Dudley said in a Columbia Energy Exchange podcast with Professor Jason Bordoff.”

I suppose that sentiment would be valid if the “new” technologies he is probably referring to were genuinely radical. The thing is, wind power and solar power, the two key technologies that have been causing an explosion in renewable energy, are tried and tested, so they are definitely not “new”; and also, there’s no significant failure that could reasonably be anticipated now.

What is it with BP and Renewable Energy ? Why the long faces ? It probably has to do with the BP Solar venture, that was properly amazing at the time, although it transpired that BP was making it all work with subsidies, which obviously is not sustainable, and there was strong competition from Chinese manufacture, so it was all closed down.

The real issue here could be said to have been market manipulation; but when the markets started functioning properly, over-subsidised, cost-inefficient technologies could no longer compete.

Market rigging doesn’t really work, except to kickstart technology adoption, and so it’s a bit of a mystery why BP still clings to carbon pricing as their preferred ask, “‘I cannot imagine how we’re going to get there without a price on carbon.'”

Now that wind power and solar power are within reach at increasingly reasonable capital expenditure levels, and many power companies increasingly depend on the cheap wind and solar electrons, why does Bob Dudley still maintain renewable energy technologies cannot be assets instead of liabilities, where for example, he said, “It does have a lower return profile, there’s no question about it.” ?

And further, he says he has been taunting shareholders with what he believes – that there is a lack of financial returns from renewables, “[…] they say ‘we would like you to move really quickly into renewables.’ I say, ‘we can do that, would you like us to cut the dividend?’ They go, ‘no, no, don’t do that.’

Bob Dudley seems to be making reference to an alternative reality, because this is not how things work in this current universe. Wind power and solar power are making real money, these days.

Also, Mr Dudley still seems unconvinced that renewable electricity technology is already viable, “‘Technology has not yet been cracked that will make the big movement on climate change. Renewables are fantastic. They’re one way to do it, but we’re going to come through with some solution.'”; and “‘Oil companies must […] invest when game-changing technologies are developed.'”

There’s no need to look to the future, though. All the technologies we need, we already have.

Bob Dudley seems to suffer from a lack of insight into what could be possible within BP’s current core business. “‘Oil companies must retain a strong financial footing to be able to invest when game-changing technologies are developed’, he said.” He is implying that BP must keep their social licence to pump crude petroleum oil and Natural Gas, in order to keep their balance sheet healthy enough to invest; yet the technologies he is thinking of have nothing to do with BP’s mining and refining activities. He mentions “some sort of nuclear capability that’s much safer”, by way of an example.

He’s also leaving this shift to the future – to things not yet known or done – leaving BP drilling fossil carbon for decades.

He neglects to address what could be possible in BP’s own house, with green chemistry, to bring about a massive reduction in net carbon dioxide emissions to air.

And about this social licence to drill : “‘If we understand where the technologies are going and we invest, the best thing we can do strategically is have a strong balance sheet. When it becomes really clear certain technologies are going to move very quickly and be profitable, then we’ll be able to make that shift.'” But, but, we can’t wait for BP to jump, when they think the market’s right to act on climate change. They do need to be acting right now.

So, not really inspiring, and rather disparaging.

But here’s where I agree with Bob, “‘We should not shut down what we’re doing or sell our assets to somebody else and go all into renewables'”, he is quoted as saying, and I totally agree. Why should BP try to do anything apart from what they’re really good at – chemical engineering ?

“‘We want to be leaders in this and we do enormous amount as companies’, such as in developing technology and reducing emissions from their own operations. But ‘we’re not the epicenter of these issues.'” Again, too right. BP is not the epicentre of solar power and wind power development, it’s not really their thing. Even so, they should be very central in the global response to climate change. Nobody should shrug.

And again, I agree with Bob when he says, “‘I don’t know how the world can get to the goals of [the] Paris [Treaty, agreed by UNFCCC] without a very major role for natural gas.'” No, indeed. Methane, the main constituent of Natural Gas, is a fine energy vector, and high flexible. It’s just that I think BP should be focussing on Renewable Methane, instead of Natural Gas, in future, and need a strategy to make that transition out of Natural Gas happen.

Bob Dudley thinks we should be resigned about the reign of King Oil, “‘If we were all driven out of business that oil would still be produced’ by national oil companies and other countries.”, which is a major abdication of responsiblity. Where is the compact between companies and countries to take up green chemistry, and elect to cease and desist from digging up fossil fuels ?

I think there is room for a breaking of paradigms. It might be too much to hope for a non-white person, or a woman, or even a person not wearing a suit and tie to be the new head of BP, but I have a vague idea there’s some traction in arguing for BP to return to their 1970s glory days of fuel synthesis.


The Inefficiency of Combustion

Every transformation of energy from one kind to another engenders ineffiency, through dissipation to the environment, and through divergence of forms from useful energy to unusable energy.

Critics of wind power and solar power like to point at their low conversion efficiencies, distracting our attention from fossil fuel technologies. Mario Hirz, of Graz University of Technology, answering the question “What is an efficiency of modern average car IC engines? That use petrol/gasoline/diesel”, writes that “Diesel engines up to 35% in best point, gasoline engine up to 30% in best point. In real life use, averaged about 25% for drivetrains with Diesel and about 20% for those with gasoline engines.”

Combustion, aka burning, or fuel oxidation, has two main problems in internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, like the average urban car; which are, that the fuel burning takes place as “free fire” in a reactor, where trillions of reactions take place randomly every microsecond, with no semblance of control or order; and in addition, the fuel used is messy, a jumble of hydrocarbons, oxygenates, and so on, with chemical modifications going on during the overall combustion process.

Would there be a way to improve on ICE designs to improve efficiency of combustion, for example, creating narrow channels with high flow for more uniform oxidation ? Or would using a purer fuel narrow the range of side reactions that lead to loss efficiency ?

In Nature, combustion is highly managed. Glucose isn’t burned with oxygen in the gut. No, respiration is done in each individual mitochondria structure inside each individual cell. In animals, oxidation is done cell by cell, in a highly controlled manner. Just the right amount of glucose and oxygen permeate the cell membrane to take part in the reactor organelles, and carbon dioxide and water waste products are efficiently routed out of the cell again (unless the cell decides it needs to hang on to some of the water : diffusion and osmosis).

In a car engine, we don’t have the luxury to compartmentalise combustion, despite things like vaporising fuel into minute droplets, and using catalytic mixers. And in point of fact, ICEs need the bulk explosion of centralised fuel burning in order to physically propel drive components. Combustion done differently is seen in fuel cell vehicles, where controlled oxidation is used to create electric current, which can be “concentrated” to the correct impulse to drive the car.

Could efficiencies of fuel use be improved at the same time as air quality and climate change are addressed in road/rail/sea/air vehicles and road/rail/sea/air vehicle fuels ?


The Renewable Gas Ask : Part Q

In the continuing inquiry into which bodies and actors are likely to call for Renewable Gas, and why, I am going back to add extra comments to sectors I already discussed.

14.   Power Grid Operators (Continued)

An Embarrassment of Electrons

Stories regularly bubble away, and rise to the surface from time to time, about how renewable power is being wasted, as grids don’t need it or can’t handle it.

There appears to be a whole phalanx of media commentators, who might identify as right-wing, and therefore be fans of shareholding and markets, who complain about wind turbines being “shut down” (or more accurately “shut out”) because it’s too windy. Funny, though, increasingly more wind turbines are being planted, almost as if there’s a strong return on capital investment in these zero carbon assets. Plus, these opinion-formers don’t seem to change their story from year to year, which is a tad strange :-

2018 : Wind farms paid £100m to switch power off
2020 : “Wind farms paid up to £3 million per day to switch off turbines”

It’s a losing argument, lads. Actually, no, it’s lost. The National Grid knew what it was doing when it agreed to adopt renewable electricity sources. There’s the whole Balancing Mechanism, and soon, there will be heaps of extra electricity storage, and the storage of the power of electrons in other forms of energy.

As time goes by, and reams of solar panels and crowds of wind turbines are added to the standing army of power grids in the developed and developing countries, because neighbouring countries will all be producing too much electricity at the same time – for example in a strong storm system or a very sunny day – it will not be possible to export electrons along interconnectors.

Oops, an embarrassment of electrons. The infrastructure and grid distribution people will be looking for anything that can act as a load sink. Sure, for an anticipated storage time of a few hours, using grid-integrated solid state batteries are going to be a boon. Except the scale of the energy storage required might far outweigh original scoping.

Will the power companies turn to flow batteries and other kinds of chemical looping systems for energy storage on windy Wednesdays and sunny Sundays ? It all depends on how stable these turn out to be – how many cycles of a unit can be done before maintenance or chemical refilling is required. Also, the containment of chemical batteries is a fairly major construction cost, and for safety reasons, it might be better if they were built into the ground – also saving on build materials. If the power companies need to go to the extent of digging for battery provision, why not produce synthetic gas from excess renewable power, and store that underground instead ? It would require much less in terms of containment and build. Nature has provided a fine example of how gases can be stored safely for millions of years underground – why, we could even use the now-emptied Natural Gas caverns to store synthesised methane.

It is at this point in the logic that a wise reviewer of energy will reflect on how there is now a bit of a competition for the provision of sub-surface storage of gases. Large, traditionally leading oil and gas companies are selling the idea of CCS – Carbon Capture and Storage, where all vagrant carbon dioxide should be plucked from whichever process, or even from the air itself, to be compressed and pumped underground for eternity – but actually a good deal shorter, because of tectonics and the natural long period natural Carbon Cycle. Modern, more conscious energy companies want to use the sub-surface to store carbon-free hydrogen, despite the fact that hydrogen molecules are incredibly small and incorrigibly mobile, seeping through even metals.

Whilst it is true that the world needs Renewable Hydrogen – hydrogen liberated from water and biomass by the action of renewable power – the best gas for energy storage is definitely Renewable Methane – made from Renewable Hydrogen. There is a strong parallel with natural processes : Natural Gas, which has been resident in the sub-surface for millions of years, is primarily methane in content.

Fine. Capture and lock away a bit of carbon dioxide underground. Bury CO2. But there is no gain in locking away a source of carbon that has no intrinsic fuel value. What’s more important is energy storage – so temporarily burying hydrogen and methane – which are ideal fuels. Although, as previously noted, methane is more stable and containable, theoretically. Methane gas emissions from oil and gas industry operations have been bad in some places and at some times : due to liberating methane from its millions-years sub-surface storage : this failing will need to be deal with when applications of Renewable Methane expand.

10.   Industrial High Energy Consumers (Continued)

Developed and developing economies will continue to have industries with high levels of energy demand, causing high levels of carbon dioxide emissions : for products such as steel, glass, fuels, petrochemicals and cement. Processes in this sector are highly concentrated in terms of location, owing to the energy efficiency of highly centralised operation, and this would facilitate high volume carbon dioxide capture, and therefore lower-cost CCS – the underground, permanent sequestration of carbon dioxide.

However, in terms of capital expenditure barriers to new technologies, it would be less of a hurdle to implement low carbon synthetic gas production to meet energy demand; and in addition, provide energy-dense synthesised gases for storage which would have a future earnings potential. If syngas in high energy demand industries were to be made from renewable resources, so Renewable Gas, so Renewable Hydrogen, Renewable Methane and Renewable Carbon Monoxide, this would advance low carbon industry significantly.

Another question is that of speed-to-implementation : Renewable Gas for low carbon energy in energy-intensive industries is likely to be much faster to get going than industry-wide Carbon Capture and Storage.

In order for Renewable Gas to be called for in this sector, however, there would need to be a strong confidence that renewable electricity supplies were growing virtually exponentially, as cheap power will be essential. Renewable Gas will not only be a serious soak of excess renewable power load, it will also provide a way to capture and recycle process heat in energy-intensive industries – a matter of energy efficiency, which is highly important to make advances in.