“What Happens When the Oil Runs Out?

Professor Chris Rhodes,
Fresh-Lands Environmental Actions, Reading, U.K. www.fresh-lands.com

World Energy Consumption (TW) by Source.


World Energy Use Over Time.





Crude Oil (Petroleum).
• Petroleum (from Greek πετρέλαιον, lit. "rock oil") is a naturally occurring, flammable liquid found in rock formations in the Earth, and is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons plus other organic compounds. • There are various theories as to its origin, both biotic and abiotic.

Oil Production.
• 30 billion barrels of oil are recovered each year (84 million barrels per day). • The major producers are Saudi Arabia and Russia at around 10 million bpd each. • Oil comes as “light” or “heavy”; “sweet” or “sour”, in reference to its viscosity and sulphur content, respectively. • Light, sweet oil is best for petrol and easiest to refine, and there are large quantities in Saudi, Iraq and Iran.

Oil Samples (Different North Sea Fields). (Norsk Teknisk Museum, Oslo, February 2009).


Oil Reserves.
• Most of the oil left is high-sulphur (sour) and heavy (e.g. from Venezuela), needing more costly processing. • “Ultra-heavy” oil is not liquid but is bitumen. • Oil not only fuels transportation, but it is the raw “carbon” chemical feedstock for plastics, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and most other modern materials. Computers, cell phones etc. • Without oil and natural gas (fertilizers) we could grow no food.

Peak Oil.
• M.King Hubbert (Shell) in 1956 predicted mathematically that the peak in oil production would come 40 years after the year of “peak discovery”. • Proved spot-on for U.S. Production which peaked in 1970. Now the U.S. imports 2/3 of its oil. • World oil discovery peaked in 1965 and no “elephant fields” have been found since 1980. Thus we should be close to world “peak oil”.

• The point at which peak oil is reached corresponds to when half the oil originally present in the well has been used-up. • We have used around 1 trillion barrels since 1859, and it is thought there are 1 trillion barrels left, which would also suggest that we are close to “peak oil”. • Thus oil supplies can now be expected to decline forever. • The EROEI for early oil (“gushers”) was around 100, and now it is about 8, (or 3 for “heavy oil”). • Thus the oil left will be much harder to get out.

We Need to Find Alternatives to Oil.
• We are running out of cheap, light and easily procured oil, thus we need to find alternative fuels and carbon feedstocks. • Burning oil also contributes 3 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere every year (40% of all carbon emitted by mankind) which may affect the climate. • Obviously as oil runs-out we will emit far less carbon, but civilization will collapse without alternative means for fuel to run it!

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Hailed as the perfect “green” fuel: 2H2 + O2 → 2H2O You mix hydrogen with oxygen (air) in a fuel-cell, which produces electricity to run a “green-car”, and pure water drips out of the exhaust pipe.


Most of the world’s hydrogen is made by “steam reforming” natural gas: CH4 + 2H2O → CO2 + 4H2

It can also be made by “steam reforming” coal: C(s) + 2H2O → CO2 + 2H2

Both are bad news on the “climate change” front, especially coal, because they produce CO2. Capturing CO2 costs about 30% of the energy that will be recovered from the hydrogen! 14

An alternative is water electrolysis: 2H2O → 2H2 + O2 But how to make the required electricity?

One recent analysis suggests that it would take around one 1GW (1,000MW) power station to produce enough hydrogen for 30 filling stations Hence we would need 100 new 1 GW power stations to supply them (U.K.)!


If they were coal or gas-fired, that would add considerably to our CO2 emissions


Nuclear power? Well yes, but it means installing 100 new NPPs!

How many could you bring-on per year? 5, say? That would take 20 years, by which time we are running out of oil! There is only one factory in the world (in France) that can make the newgeneration reactors – it makes two per year! In total!

What about “renewables”

“Wind-power” say? We would need the equivalent of 100 GW worth of generating power = 100,000 MW If we used 2 MW wind-turbines X 0.2 (capacity factor), so each actually delivers 0.4 MW on average. Hence we would need 250,000 of them The coast of the UK mainland is 2,560 km. If we placed the turbines at the recommended 0.5 km apart, a single band around the entire coast would take >5,000 turbines.


Hence the band would need to be 250,000/5,000 = 50 turbines deep = 25 km!!


Shortage of Rare-earth elements (REEs): Wind Turbines and Hybrid Cars?
• Each MW of wind-power needs 1 tonne of REE magnet: contains 0.27 tonne neodymium [Nd2Fe14B ]. • Requires 135,000 tonnes of new Nd. • Need 5 x REE production to meet existing targets for wind-powered electricity: still take 50 – 100 years, assuming manufacturing capacity and other energy OK. • Toyota Prius (hybrid),1 kg Nd, (plus 15 kg La, battery). • 97% of REEs come from China. • Chinese now keeping REEs for their own renewables use. • U.K. won’t be able to meet E.U. carbon emission targets.

Sugar Beet


Bioethanol: grow sugar beet and ferment the sugar into ethanol.

However, we would need 125,000 square kilometres of arable land to grow it, and there is only 65,000 km2 available in the UK Biobutanol: about the same.

Rapeseed, gives one tonne of biodiesel/ hectare, but we need 40 million tonnes of it (assuming all vehicles were converted to more efficient Diesel engines, which get 40% more tank-to wheel miles than spark-ignition engines). That would take 400,000 km2 of arable land and we have only 65,000km2 hence, if we stop growing crops for food, and just rapeseed for biodiesel instead, we can still only meet 16% (about one sixth) of our annual fuel requirement. 23

Energy Returned on Water Invested (EROWI, in analogy with EROEI).


New hope!


from algae.



This can be grown in tanks at a yield of over 100 tonnes per hectare. Hence just 4,000 km2 would suffice to produce 40 million tonnes of biofuel, which is only 1.5% of the total UK land area. No need to use crop-land, hence foodproduction is unaffected. Grows well on saline water or wastewater, so no demand on freshwater, unlike biofuel crops. Can be “fed” nutrients from agricultural run-off water and sewage water, avoiding the need for mineral inputs of N/P fertilizers and cleaning the water/effluent to prevent “algal-blooms”.

Can be “fed” CO2 from power-plants, improving algal growth and reducing carbon-emissions. Easier to process than other biomass, e.g. into CH4 , biodiesel, ethanol or hydrocarbons. Biodiesel is more biodegradable than petroleum and fuel derived from it. 50% of algae can be oil (lipid) c.f. 5 – 10% for land-based crops (e.g. soya, rape-seed). Reduces CO2 release by replacing oil-based fuels and absorbs CO2 when it grows, through PS. Can be used as a chemical feedstock; plastics.

Further Advantages of Algae.

Algae (and other biomass) can be processed into organic chemicals, in a “biorefinery”, as a basis for a new “bio – organic” chemicals/industry. ExxonMobil, Shell, Unilever and many private companies are working on algae to make fuels and other products. Recent study shows that growing algae is most efficient as integrated with cleaning CO2 from power station smokestacks (or a cement plant) and N/P from sewage wastewaters.

Integrated algae plant, power plant (CO2), sewage/wastewater treatment (N/P) plant.


Regenerative Agriculture/ Permaculture.

This is a means for producing food with minimum inputs of oil and artificial nitrogen (natural gas) and phosphorus (“peak phosphate”) fertilizers. Also freshwater.
Modern “industrialized” agriculture depends on all of the above, so how can we feed the world when they begin to run out? And all of them are.


It seems extremely unlikely that we can replace oil in the enormous quantities that we have become used to using it in.

There are various technologies, biofuels maybe (algae?), “tar-sands”, coal liquefaction which can produce some levels of fuel – but tar and coal will not last forever, and neither will the gas and water used to process them. The upshot is that transportation will be cut, maybe by 80% in 10 - 15 years, and that means a return to a “ localised” society from the “global village”. Local farms will provide food. Electrical “tram systems” may provide local transport – but so will the foot and the bicycle!


We will need to work closer to home…
No more cheap foreign holidays!


The Likely Future

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Petroleum will become very expensive within 10 years and will be in short supply within 20. We don’t need to produce more energy, we need to use less. Gas will become expensive. Just as more people are switching to gas, this too will begin to run short around 2030 Coal creates problems because of climate change, and nuclear has problems because the uranium won’t last long (at least in conventional reactors). Renewables can’t fill the gap – wind needs backup/storage, biomass needs massive land area so that it would affect agriculture, and other options have a low power density.

Some Quick Ideas
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Get out of debt! Cutting energy use – 50% of domestic consumption is space heating, and 25% water heating (low energy light bulbs won’t solve the problem – only saves about 4.5%!). Energy reduction becomes more difficult to achieve the more you cut, so it’s actually easier to look at on-site energy production (micro-generation) to offset consumption. Solar systems can reduce hot water demand by 50%, but for the larger savings you’ll need to do some major engineering on the house and install a solar roof and heat store – note that a thermal system is more productive (and cheaper) than PV You need to tackle your use of commodities – the easiest way of doing this is gardening to produce food, and developing local networks to supply other goods from within your area.


When JFK was assassinated in 1963, there were fewer than half as many humans on our planet as there are today.
And today there are...? 7 billion




A Happy Ending?
• Maybe. “Transition to a resilient, more localised society which avoids the worst potential of climate change and peak oil through building thriving, lower energy communities teeming with satisfying lifestyles and fulfilled people.” (Transition-Town statement). • Food and water. Population and demographics. Electricity and energy. Travel and transport. Health and medicine. “We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.” – Charles Kingsley (1819 – 1875).


Do Universities Fit-in With the Future Plan?
Black comedy: http://universityshambles.com
Nominated for Brit Writers' Awards Published Writer of the year. My “First Novel”!


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