The New Energy Mix: Abundance and Sustainability?

5/12   in the series We Are ChE: Entering a Golden Age

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.

Suzanne Kresta

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."

Maria das Gra?as Silva Foster

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.

How can we best move toward sustainable energy in the presence of abundant hydrocarbons?

Images: Maria das Gra?as Silva Foster, Petrobras; Suzanne Kresta, Jason Franson


ehorahan's picture

In order to make progress in sustainable energy research in the presence of an abundance of hydrocarbons, we need to create a sense of urgency. We humans seem to inherently procrastinate - if there isn't any imminent danger, we aren't driven to do anything about the problem. Unfortunately, the belief that there is an issue at all is becoming a political issue - until we all agree that there is imminent danger and that we need to do something, i fear that we will not move forward at the rate necessary...

Phil Westmoreland's picture

Gasoline prices are high now in the US, but that is mainly because of recent refinery shutdowns and accidents and isn't due to availability of resources. We have to look deep into the heart of long-term energy policy. Using up gas and oil gives us time to keep working toward sustainable resources like bio-oil - but I think we have to to do it.

K. Dackson's picture

I think you are wrong. Prices in CA are primarily due to 2 main factors - refinery shutdowns AND overbearing regulations that curtails shipments from non-CA suppliers into the state. Everything having to do with price can be broken down to Supply, Demand, and Tax Burden. While global supplies have not been changed, a simple policy in the US to develop our domestic resources would necessarily lower prices across the board (through more competition). Allowing the pipeline from Canada would also increase supply. If "alternative reality" energy were economical WITHOUT governmental subsidies, we would be doing it already. Look at the stupid mandate that fines oil companies for not using cellulosic ethanol, never mind that there are no commercial scale cellulosic ethanol sources.. Who pays? Certainly not the oil companies. The procrastination is just another side effect of the economics of the situation. How many more billions of tax money do we need to waste until we understand that simple fact?

May's picture

With new technology, it creates new frontier, new economics incentives and more opportunities. I think sustainability is key in considering new alternative sources of energy. My main problem with the existing corn-based ethanol technology is that we are deriving an energy source from food (which is a scarce resource). I think what we need to focus on is to continue to innovate and come up with new and sustainable ideas.

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