My focus last week was the surge in US production of natural gas by hydrofracturing and the prospects for the rest of the world. The supply/demand balance and resources aren't the same worldwide, so the US mix won't be the same elsewhere. However, the prospects for new fossil-energy hydrocarbon resources raise questions about what attention will be paid to sustainability.
Other mixes: Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Middle East, China, Germany, Japan
Shale gas isn't necessarily an option for all countries, but it will likely be important where possible. Poland and Ukraine hope to benefit and are the targets of exploration, but the outcome is uncertain. Russia and Middle Eastern countries presently have ample oil and gas and are major exporters. China is a prospect for large shale-gas resources, but what it has for sure is coal - and far less oil than it needs. Some countries are relying on nuclear-generated electricity. Others, like Germany and Japan, are renouncing nuclear power after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster and will be more dependent on fossil fuel.
But wait - there's more - in North Dakota, Brazil, and Canada...
Shale gas isn't the only "unconventional resource" having an impact. Consider North Dakotan shale oil, Canadian oil sands, and Brazilian pre-salt oil. Along with other new resources, we may be moving to an oil glut, much to the world's surprise. North Dakota passed California as the third biggest oil-producing state in the US, according to Reuters last March. As for shale gas, the keys were improved horizontal drilling and fracking technologies that have doubled its production since 2009.
Oil sands in Alberta are an enormous crude-oil resource, third as a proven reserve after those of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. By 2010, it had reached 7% of the oil demand of the US, transforming Alberta's economy. The University of Alberta's Suzanne Kresta, an oil-sands researcher and past president of AIChE's North American Mixing Forum, says, "Oil sands require large-scale solutions - solutions to extraction, upgrading of heavy oils to refinery-ready feeds, minimizing water use and tailings production, and massive land reclamation to return the boreal forest to its original state. Chemical engineers are actively engaged in finding solutions to all of these challenges."
Brazil's discoveries of vast, very deep, offshore oil and gas in the pre-salt formation since 2007 have positioned the country to be one of the world's top energy producers. By government, these operations must be run by Petroleo Brasileiro SA (Petrobras), a partly government-run, partly publicly owned company that is led by chemical engineer and CEO Maria das Gra?as Silva Foster, a veteran of the offshore drilling business.
So what happened to coal?
We've seen worldwide shifts in attention to energy before. When OPEC tightened up on oil in 1973, the whole world got serious about coal conversion to liquids. When oil prices dropped in the mid-1980s, so did work on coal conversion. Now, cheap, clean natural gas has quickly shifted US electricity generation away from direct coal combustion. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that current gas prices yield electricity at half the price from coal in many plants. Coal is a rock and contains mineral matter - dirt! - and it or its products have to be cleaned up. Natural gas requires some cleanup, too, but that's much easier. CO2 production per unit of energy is lower from gas, too. If you accept that CO2 generation is affecting climate change, then that's good. However, burning gas still generates CO2 - and it is still a finite resource.
Let's use the opportunity
We know there are great challenges. Using fossil oil and gas is ultimately not sustainable because these resources are finite. As we burn abundant fuels, CO2 release is still a concern. As the Deepwater Horizon accident showed, production holds added dangers when the resources are deep underground and underwater. As the plains of Alberta and the mountaintops of Appalachia show, surface mining carves away the land. However, our lives can all benefit from the abundant energy resources that are crucial to have healthy, growing economies worldwide. The present changes can buy time for ChEs to lead the way toward sustainable fuels. It is a bright time for ChEs, both in our new areas and as classically strong areas like energy are transformed. Our skills and insights are important for the world's benefitting from such new resources in the long term. Next week: Biology and ChE: Applying a molecular science.