Stuff enviornmentalists should be (more) concerned about…

February 4th, 2008
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I made this post quickly to address claims that “well there’s nothing you can do for the environment if you don’t tell people to put solar cells on their roof..” Here are some issues which get either zero or far too little attention from the most public enviornmental groups but are huge issues with relatively favorable cost/benefit ratios. Why isn’t someone pushing for better policies on these? Beats me. There are, of course, many more.  But here are a few.

It’s not that hard to figure out if you just think.

Yes, these do sometimes get some attention, but they’re far from being the focus of most enviornmental organizations. If only half of the BS stunts installing a few solar panels or protesting nuclear energy could be diverted to tackling such issues…  Well, that’s just not going to happen.

Flaring - The practice of burning off gas and other hydrocarbons from oil production is becoming an increasingly large source of CO2. Flaring is simply the act of burning gas in an open flame, usually on a stack. No energy is recovered and the gas simply goes to waste. Why is it done? On occasion, flaring may be a necessity, such as if an exploratory well hits an unexpected gas pocket and there is no way to contain the gas. Releasing the gas would be both dangerous and worse for the environment, because methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than Co2 (although methane is sometimes vented as well).

So why would oil companies just burn perfectly good natural gas? The reason is usually economic. The price of the gas (or in some cases other hydrocarbons) is not high enough to generate profit from building the pumping systems and pipelines to actually use it.

What can be done?

A lot of flaring occurs in Africa, where oil drilling produces surplus gas that cannot be efficiently transported to market. This is a double tragically because in addition to the unnecessary pollution, the gas and the loud and bright flames only make life harder for those who live in the area and are almost always poor to begin with.

The nations where this often occurs have taken steps to reduce flaring, but they have been far too few. Oil companies do have the resources to build pipelines to take away usable gas, if they were required to by the nations whose resources they exploit as well as the governments of the world. Alternatively they could use it to produce electricity on-site, which would be great for those who live in the area and lack basic utilities. If it is simply not possible to use the gas, it can also be forced back into the ground under pressure generated by turbines fueled by a small portion of the gas. This is not only environmentally beneficial but it does not squander a precious resource for the future.

Green groups have taken little interest in this, although there has been some. They may find an unexpected ally, as the World Bank has been the largest single body working to reduce gas flaring. For the areas where flaring occurs, requiring better management of this resource by the (highly profitable to begin with) petroleum companies would be both beneficial to both the enviornmental and quality of life.

Underground Coal Fires – Something you hardly hear about but produces a huge amount of greenhouse gas. More info here.

Landfill Gas - The decay of organic waste in landfills as well as in sewage treatment plants, agricultural waste “ponds” and other manmade waste facilities is far lower in volume then CO2 emissions but up to 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas. Thus collecting burning the methane can not only produce usable energy, but actually have a negative effect on greenhouse gases. By how much? By some estimates methane from man made waste could account for as much as 8% of the relative greenhouse gas production. Compared to a lot of sources that is very significant.

What can be done?
It can be collected from landfills and using modern vacuum collection systems it can be done so quite efficiently. Sewage treatment plants are even easier and agricultural waste can also be used as a source if it is consolidated into landfills, which is sometimes done anyway. Even better, the burning of the methane from landfills can generate electricity. Although it would not nearly be enough to replace other sources, the reduction in coal burning would certainly help. Methane produces a third less CO2 then coal and can also be used to fuel more effecient plants. It can be used as part of municipal gas service as well. Better still, since most landfills are already administered by local governments and since the activities which generate the most methane are already regulated heavily, much of the would would be able to make a near term difference relatively easily.

A landfill gas plant on nominally sized city landfill produces far more energy than several 400-foot wind turbines. It is not greenhouse neutral, it is greenhouse NEGATIVE. The cost to benefit ratio is extremely favorable. More info.

Dioxins - Or to be more technically correct, Polychlorinated dibenzodioxins. If you take all the scary claims about nuclear waste such as “We are passing this on to future generations”, “it’s been proven that even small amounts can impact health”, “There’s no way of getting rid of it once it’s in the environment”, “it causes mutations, birth defects, illnesses of all kinds and cancer.” These claims can easily be made true by crossing out the word “nuclear waste” and replacing it with “dioxins” these chemicals have been shown to have a very appreciable effect on biological systems, they are easily to uptake and are biologically concentrated. They are not broken down by the body and they are only very slowly excreted. They are very stable in nature and don’t break down under normal circumstances. The dioxins from today will be there millions of years from now.

They are produced mostly by some chemical processes but the largest source is overwhelmingly the high temperature burning of organic materials. Nearly half comes from waste incineration with a large portion of that coming from medical waste incineration. Other sources include fossil fuel burning, fossil fuel refining and burning of wood.

What can be done?

Since waste burning is relatively small in terms of overall material burning and because it is the primary source of dioxins it is the logical place to go after the problem. Dioxins can be removed by scrubbers or destroyed by secondary flu gas burners. This is relatively inexpensive and proven technology. Deployment to waste incineration plants would not be difficult since many are already operated by local governments. Medical incineration is also a large source relative to the size of the operation. Since the volume produced is relatively low requiring treatment of exhaust would have a very high benefit for a small cost.

Ship Pollution – exhaust from large ships such as tankers, freighters and even cruise liners is not a very large source of CO2, but is a surprisingly large source of other pollution which can effect human health and the environment. Ships generally burn the cheapest oil avaliable. This heavy, dirty oil gets the job done but is far dirtier than would be allowed for most land-based activities. Ships are also not required to have any kind of exhaust scrubber, making them far dirtier than newer power plants.

What can be done?

Controlling the activities of ships in international waters can be difficult and often requires complex treaty arrangements, however countries like the US and other nations could have a huge effect by enforcing enviornmental requirements for ships which wish to come to port in a given country. As things currently are, few countries recognize or in any way govern the fuel systems or exhaust of their shipping traffic.


This entry was posted on Monday, February 4th, 2008 at 2:42 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Culture, Enviornment, Good Science, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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36 Responses to “Stuff enviornmentalists should be (more) concerned about…”

  1. 1
    Michael Says:

    ISTR reading an article about a container-freighter being on it’s first productive run which has an additional kite as means of propulsion. The article (german) is here: http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/26/26996/1.html

    the shipping company claims an increase in efficiency of 15% with this early model. sounds cool to me (and it’ll _look_ cool!)


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  2. 2
    DV82XL Says:

    Wellhead flare gas can be converted to liquid fuels in a multi-zone catalytic reactor without the need for cooling and compressing with mobile processing plants examples of which are already in service.

    Capstone Turbine Corporation has a line of mobile generator systems in several sizes to convert both flare gas and landfill gas into grid-ready electric power. These are right off the shelf technologies.

    Also it would seem some of Wall Street’s biggest investment banks say that they are imposing new environmental standards that will make it harder for companies to get financing to build coal-fired power plants. It would seem they have an issue with emissions-capping could hurt coal-dependent utilities profitability.

    Those damned greedy banks.


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  3. 3
    drbuzz0 Says:

    I was not aware that there there were catalytic reactors that could do it on site. I know the gas can be processed to various other products but if they could do it on-site with a simple plant that would be ideal. I suppose the profitability thing would still be an issue with the return on the investment to transport the liquid product.

    Of course, if countries started saying “If you want to export our oil you’re going to have to stop venting and flaring the gas. You can sell it if you want but you cannot dump it in the atmosphere”… believe me, the oil companies would be able to do that without going bankrupt.


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  4. 4
    drbuzz0 Says:

            DV82XL said:

    Wellhead flare gas can be converted to liquid fuels in a multi-zone catalytic reactor without the need for cooling and compressing with mobile processing plants examples of which are already in service.

    Capstone Turbine Corporation has a line of mobile generator systems in several sizes to convert both flare gas and landfill gas into grid-ready electric power. These are right off the shelf technologies.

    Also it would seem some of Wall Street’s biggest investment banks say that they are imposing new environmental standards that will make it harder for companies to get financing to build coal-fired power plants. It would seem they have an issue with emissions-capping could hurt coal-dependent utilities profitability.

    Those damned greedy banks.

    Okay, so the comment quoting plugin seems to work now. That’s nifty


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  5. 5
    Michael Ejercito Says:

    Landfill gas plants are a great idea, a useful energy supplement.


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  6. 6
    Ecofriend Says:

    Very good posting and I’m so glad to see people drawing attention to these things. I am sure that Friends of the Earth and other organizations will take this into consideration and I already know that there is interest in many of these ideas and how they can help the environment.

    If I may make one suggestion, I think your last posting on the environment may be confusing people. A lot of people mentioned that they think it has served the purpose of stimulating discussion well and now you should consider taking it down. That seems like a good idea. It will draw attention away from these new posts. I would suggest if you take down that one that it will help your readers move on to other posts like this one and the discussion can continue.

    Please take this into consideration :-)

    Thank you,
    Vincent


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  7. 7
    Tako Nigiri Says:

    Ecofriend, stop trying to censor people you don’t agree with. You kept writing over and over again in the “Ten Things…” thread about how much you disagree and want the thread removed. If you have something to add, fine… more power to you. If you disagree, then say so and tell us why you disagree as well. The disagreements actually make for a healthy discussion but don’t expect anyone to take you seriously on your points if you are advocating silencing the group you don’t agree with.


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  8. 8
    drbuzz0 Says:

    Okay a couple of other things:

    Environmentalists should be ALL OVER waste heat and cogeneration, structure heating accounts for almost as much Co2 as automobiles and more than aircraft, shipping and rail combined. Power plants tend to dump a lot of perfectly good heat into the air or water because it’s not enough to effectively drive the turbines. That heat could make a dent in heating of large buildings in the area and the fact that it’s basically free makes it financially appealing.

    “District heating” has proven to be very effective in places like iceland where the runoff from geothermal power heats more than half of homes. They use aboveground pipes to bring it from the plants and then distribute it. Some cities already have district heat systems. It tends to be cost effective for larger structures.

    Example: A nuclear power plant near me could run about three miles aboveground insulated pipe along existing runs of HV lines and a railroad rightofway and then only about a mile of underground pipe and provide heat to the town hall, the high school, the library, two grade schools, the YMCA and a number of buildings in the town center.

    Could district heat by heat recovery from suitable power plants make a big difference? It could make a much bigger difference than many things they spend a lot of time promoting. Also, it’s easy and financially beneficial. The return on investment is huge. Very economically effecient. Anywhere this isn’t being done somebody needs to ask why.

    (I asked why in the town near the nuke plant… try to guess what happened when I suggested the condenser discharge could heat a school.. with THE CHILDREN!)


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  9. 9
    DV82XL Says:

    Along with dismantling urban light rail, allowing the great district steam networks to fall into disrepair and ultimate closure were two of the most shot-sighted moves of the post-WWII era in North America. The only one that survives anywhere near it’s original size is Con Edison’s steam distribution network in Manhattan.

    The role of corruption in the death of light rail is well documented, I wonder if similar force were at work in the loss of district steam.


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  10. 10
    drbuzz0 Says:

    it truely was. The effeciency of district heating has been demonstrated in a lot of places. In parts of Denmark they’ve managed to have a system that provides heat and hot water efficiently even out in the more ‘burb-ish areas and not just cities.

    Rebuilding a central steam system would be difficult but there are enough large facilities that have large heating needs (hospitals, colleges, prisons, large multi-building office complexes, airports and so on) that I’d estimate it could probably be done economically if one concentrated on simply doing it step-by-step by linking up the really big consumers of heat.

    Anywhere you happen to have a thermal power plant you have the potential to use the heat. Of course, they don’t generally build them near big cities anymore, now that it’s become apparent how detrimental they are.


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  11. 11
    mlp Says:

    What the **** is up with the “polite” requests to take posts down? I’m wondering if this is some kind of new “direct action” tactic — instead of trying to intimidate people by railing at them, ask nicely and people will be so surprised that they’ll just willingly comply? The mind reels.

    All that aside: drbuzz0 mentions that “structure heating accounts for almost as much CO2 as automobiles and more than aircraft, shipping and rail combined.” I’m interested in this because in the discussion on my own blog after I plugged the “Ten Things” post, someone brought up that mine fires in China account for about 1% of global CO2 emissions. (The BBC reports an estimate of as much as 2-3%, but that’s hardly an order of magnitude or anything. 1%, fine, whatever.) Point being, the American Association for the Advancement of Science argues that putting out the Chinese mine fires “would cut CO2 emissions equivalent to the volume produced by all US automobiles in a year.” Whether the figure is 1% or 3%, this still means that the amount of CO2 produced by US automobiles is not that high in the grand scheme of things, and eliminating one car — or even 10,000 cars — is chump change. Evidently “conspicuous consumption” gets noticed, whether it actually matters a damn or not; carbon offsets are laughable.

    In any case, one thing that I personally would find useful is a quick breakdown on how all the CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) gets generated; a percent here and a percent there just doesn’t add up. Wikipedia provides a list of countries ranked by their total CO2 output, but all that provides is a way to point fingers and sneer. The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency attributes 4% of total CO2 emissions to cement production (intriguing!) but doesn’t go into more detail than that. The International Energy Agency has a 2006 report which I should hope goes into more detail, but I don’t exactly have 120 euros to drop on finding out.

    I will keep looking for more useful information; pointers gladly appreciated. I’d be glad to whip up a couple of infographics and make them available under Creative Commons licensing if I can find the relevant data.


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  12. 12
    Fabio Says:

    Can I suggest another couple of topics? Methane leaks from the pipelines should be fixed. It is supposed there is a lost of the so called “natural gas” of about 2% travelling inside the pipelines from production to consumer’s locations (see. Lovelock, The revenge ofGaia pp.96. But you can not talk of this because methane is the preferred fossil fuel of the environmentalists. I have heard claims that russian pipelines have much more leaks than the average, accounting for 20%-30% of the gas. It is clear that a 2-3% leakage is already a big problem considering methane potential as greenhouse gas, and bigger percentage would be disastrous.

    Than if you think that a form of renewable energy that works 90% of the time, producing both electricity and heat, with little land footprint and available in many place should be an environmentalist dream, right? Wrong, geothermal energy works very well in many places of the world, has a large potential untapped (less for electricity but a lot for heat) and a huge potential if used in enhanced systems but as it involves drilling in sacred heart they don’t like it. Here in Italy they are campaigning against saying (don’t ask me the reason) it is not renewable and in the best case saying it should be used as a transitional form until wind and sun are full developed.


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  13. 13
    DV82XL Says:

    Well technically geothermal is not renewable in most cases. The heat often doesn’t get replaced as fast as it is removed, and at this point we cannot drill deep enough to places that it can. This is also true of geothermal fluid (the hot water from these wells) it to may not be replaced as fast as it needs to be ether.

    I don’t know what the situation is in Italy, it may be you do have some fields that can be tapped on an unlimited bases, but these are rare.

    There is also legitimate concern with the disposal of large volumes of the spent geothermal fluid, which is often brackish and corrosive in it’s own right, and needs to be treated before discharge. This can be expensive and add to the cost and complexity of an installation.

    However your observations about the condition of the gas networks, especially in ex Iron Curtain countries is unfortunately too true.


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  14. 14
    Fabio Says:

    Well maybe you think it is not renewable, but in Italy we have wells who have been producing for more than 50 years. It is not renewable if the field is overused and not correctly cultivated (like it happens in the USA) but this is true of any other of the so called renewables (think biomass, wind and hydro).
    If you exploit the land for growing crops, the production decreases if you build wind turbines too close the output is decreased (wind regimes can also change in long periods), the same for hydro. And anyway you have to periodically rebuild the power plant. .In the long long time also oil is renewable… (think of coal produced from trees: it was widely used in Italy in the last century and it is actual renewable)
    The environmental impact is really improved (much less H2S, which has always been more a nuisance then an a real health problem). The spent geothermal fluid usually goes back in the field. Much depends on what there is in the fluid (which is depending on location): in Italy it has been used since 1904 for electricty and no serious health problems have been noticed.


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  15. 15
    Charles Barton Says:

    drbuzz0, You must have caused some pain if the ecofreaks want you to take your post down. Keep up the good work.


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  16. 16
    Dave G Says:

    ROE and CBA are the two big things you look at. Stuff that is low risk low investment and high return. Obviously this is where you go. There are tons of huge sources of all kinds of pollution that do not get attention like they should. Those which you can’t do much about and are small in proportion – forget about them. There’s no point.

    This should be blatantly obvious to anyone with an engineering background. But most in the movement seem more interested in politics than engineering. That’s the problem. Engineers are trained and conditioned problem solvers. We have a problem and therefore I think the engineering mindset is the way to go. It will always work better than spinning one’s wheels like Greenpeace and FOE do.


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  17. 17
    drbuzz0 Says:

    cement production is something else that is important to bare in mind but I’m really not sure what can reasonably be done about that. I’m not a chemist but if anyone knows more about that and any potential to reduce it beyond limiting cement production in general, I’d appreciate info.


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  18. 18
    DV82XL Says:

    We’ve got to build more portland cement plants. It’s not an issue of chemistry, only one of supply and demand. On the positive side these are not that complex plants, and raw materials to make the product are generally not in short supply.


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  19. 19
    Cleanthes Says:

    Re Flaring, I’m not sure that you have the whole story.

    In effect, most flares are actually large “pilot lights” for the plant. If there is a large leak, or you need to vent gas quickly, then you can dump it through the flare to burn it.

    What you don’t want is lots of unburned gas kicking around in the air around the plant. The amount of gas burned at the flare itself is trivial by comparison with the volumes going through the plant proper. Enviroloons tend to be keen on safety – that’s what the flare is about.


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  20. 20
    drbuzz0 Says:

    I’d suggest you do some research on some of the flaring that goes on in Africa. Yes, some flaring is a safety thing, but there are huge volumes of gas wasted by flaring on rigs. There are efforts to reduce it and have seen some success.

    I’d suggest looking up what goes on in nigeria.


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  21. 21
    drbuzz0 Says:

            DV82XL said:

    We’ve got to build more portland cement plants. It’s not an issue of chemistry, only one of supply and demand. On the positive side these are not that complex plants, and raw materials to make the product are generally not in short supply.

    I had been under the impression that CO2 production was an inherant part of cement chemistry due to the reduction of lime and some other aspects of the conversion. I’m not sure if there’s any way that it could be reduced. Obviously energy related Co2 from cement could be reduced. Looking up some quick figures at least 40-50% of the co2 comes from the heating of kilns. That would definitely be possible to tackle. The calcium carbonate reaction though I do not know about. I suppose the Co2 could be captured although that presents it’s own problems. Is there any alternative?


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  22. 22
    DV82XL Says:

    Cleanthes I think you are confusing wellhead flaring with refinery flaring which a two separate issues. The comments refer to wellhead flaring.


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  23. 23
    DV82XL Says:

    Sorry I thought you were the current shortage in available concrete.

    Check out Sustainable Cement Replacement Manufacturing by Celtic Cement for an alternative.


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  24. 24
    drbuzz0 Says:

    DV82XL, that is an excellent link. If you consider that energy-based carbon in cement accounts for nearly half and the information you provided as far as alternatives and recycling, it would seem cement has a HUGE potential for dramatic reduction in CO2 output.

    I searched on Greenpeace’s site for cement and it was never mentioned on any of their news pages or blogs or initiatives in the context of CO2. The only stuff I found was one passing reference to the “energy intensive cement industry” on a member blog which wasn’t directly about cement: http://members.greenpeace.org/blog/engel

    It was also mentioned that the cement industry produces a lot of CO2 (again in passing) by a non-member in the archive section of an open forum. Additionally there were a few news items praising the use of cement “free of PVC fibers or other toxic material” but not ever addressing cement manufacture.

    Anyone surprised?

    Oh yeah… they did do some other stuff for CO2 though. They protested at an airport and then they also opposed oil (by protesting).


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  25. 25
    mlp Says:

            Dave G said:

    ROE and CBA are the two big things you look at.

    Stuff that is low risk low investment and high return. Obviously this is where you go.

    There are tons of huge sources of all kinds of pollution that do not get attention like they should.

    Those which you can’t do much about and are small in proportion – forget about them. There’s no point.

    Got it in one. That’s why I’d like to see statistics on how CO2 is produced and what industrial processes generate the most CO2, because those will be the most beneficial targets of research to reduce CO2 output. Taking the 4% figure for cement manufacturing and the 1% figure for US cars that I cited above — reducing CO2 emissions from cement manufacturing by 12.5% would eliminate as much CO2 as reducing automotive emissions by 50%. The former seems much more feasible than the latter, especially in light of the link DV82XL posted above.


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  26. 26
    KLA Says:

    Hi,

    I found several references to methane (natural gas) as greenhouse gas. Most give a factor of about 20 times that of CO2. What I don’t know if this is on a mass basis or volumetric basis. Assuming volumetric it means that even 5% leakage releases as much greenhouse potential as burning it. 2-3% means its actual greenhouse gas contribution is 40-60% higher than what’s “officially” stated. If russian pipelines loose as much as 20-30% as some claim, you might as well be burning coal and be better off as far as greenhouse gas release is concerned.


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  27. 27
    DV82XL Says:

    The comparison is by mass. Methane emissions have 25 times the impact on temperature of carbon dioxide emissions of the same mass over the following 100 years. Methane has a large effect for a brief period (about 10 years), whereas carbon dioxide has a small effect for a long period (over 100 years). Methane accounts for 20% of the total radiative forcing from all of the long-lived and globally mixed greenhouse gases.


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  28. 28
    drw Says:

    CO2 can be combined with hydrogen under heat and pressure to made fuel! DME! ch3-o-ch3 to be exact, just add heat and hydrogen. Where can you get it from? Nuclear power plants or electric fueled by some green technology. DME can replace propane and run on diesel engines.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dimethyl_ether

    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0FZX/is_11_72/ai_n16869530/pg_2


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  29. 29
    DV82XL Says:

    The problem isn’t getting process heat and hydrogen, the issue is getting CO2 without using so much energy that the process isn’t worth it.


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  30. 30
    drbuzz0 Says:

    DME is just one more example of a fuel that can be made with relative ease and established chemical processes but which requires primary energy to make.


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  31. 31
    George Carty Says:

    About ship pollution, why are there no nuclear-powered container ships?


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  32. 32
    Chuck P. Says:

    Heavy fuel oil is dirt cheap.
    Diesel engines are very low maintenance.
    Diesels are very mush easier to operate than steam plants (therefore permitting smaller crews).
    Most big container ships have crews smaller than 35 people.
    It would be very difficult to compete economically with the heavy fuel burning motor-ship.


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  33. 33
    DV82XL Says:

            Chuck P. said:

    It would be very difficult to compete economically with the heavy fuel burning motor-ship.

    That’s very true of current navel reactors of the type now in service on military ships, however there are several designs of the so-called ‘nuclear battery’ type that would be most competitive in operating costs and that don’t need a large crew.

    However it is calculated that annual emissions from the world’s merchant fleet have already reached 1.12bn tonnes of CO2, or nearly 4.5% of all global emissions of this gas. About twice that of air transport. While this is not insignificant, it is not nearly as big an issue as electrical generation by fixed combustion plants.


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  34. 34
    Chuck P. Says:

    Assuming the nuclear renaissance proceeds and that fossil fuels are successfully banished from baseload electrical generation, the next step fould be eletrifying rail and road transportation. While large commercial ships would be good cantidates for an MSR or ”nuclear battery,” we probably don’t want every schmuck with an 80′ fishing boat to have his hand on radioactive material. At the end of the day, I’m pretty sure that aviation and small commercial shipping will be the last bastions of fossil combustion.


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  35. 35
    DV82XL Says:

            Chuck P. said:

    Assuming the nuclear renaissance proceeds and that fossil fuels are successfully banished from baseload electrical generation, the next step would be electrifying rail and road transportation. While large commercial ships would be good candidates for an MSR or ”nuclear battery,” we probably don’t want every schmuck with an 80′ fishing boat to have his hand on radioactive material. At the end of the day, I’m pretty sure that aviation and small commercial shipping will be the last bastions of fossil combustion.

    No question, but I could imagine that fuel cells will make some inroads into the small gauge end of that market.


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  36. 36
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