Cambridge energy forum

The Cambridge Energy Forum organised a day-conference on Sustainable Energy – 1 Dec.2006. Sadly I had a program meeting in the morning and children to pick up after school so I only got to go to bits of it: which was: Mr Karl Carter Director of Operations, British Sugar and Biofuels; and Professor Trevor J T Whittaker Professor of Coastal Engineering Queen’s, University of Belfast on Tide, Wave and Offshore Wind.

Biofuels from British Sugar: what I remember was: will only account for maybe 10% at very most, due to the land required and needs to be done properly to get any kind of CO2 payback. Which means just turning stuff into bioethanol using imported electricity and gas has virtually no gain (this is whats done in the States, apparently mostly as farm support). To get a decent payback (including transport and fertiliser) requires CHP and strawburning plants. Factoid I didn’t know: adding 5% ethanol to petrol improves the octane rating; which allows you to add slightly cheaper petrol; adding more than 5% is a problem because the energy density goes down. By happy coincidence the EU is due for 5% within a few years. He was unkeen on oil-based plants (oilseed rape, etc) since strach-based apparently gives you about 2* as much output; making this stuff reasonably competitive will need using more of the biomass. The economics of this all were rather unclear (he talked more in terms of CO2 payback than money) and I’m guessing its only viable with subsidies. Apart from anything else, ethanol cheap enough to replace petrol is cheap enough to replace vodka…

Tide, Wave and Offshore wind was sort of more fun; in that it had exciting engineering in it (by contrast biofuels didn’t show any details of the conversion; either its too dull or too secret). Amusing titbit: increasing oil prices should be great for its financial viability: but: all the jackable barges, which are needed to install these things, are off earning money exploring marginal oilfields because the oil price is high… Apart from that: the bottom line was that its non-mature stuff, not really competitive on cost at the moment. There is a nice wave-powered station in the Orkneys; but it requires nuclear-bunker levels of concrete (which costs; CO2 and money) in order to survive being pounded by the waves.

Then I had to rush off to pick up the kids…


  1. #1 Eli Rabett

    The actual issue with alternative energy sources is the marginal cost of the next barrel of oil. It makes no sense to invest if someone, somewhere can turn on a pump and raise oil at $10/bbl. while selling it at $20. OTOH, if oil is really at $60/bbl or there are taxes/duties on it so that effectively it is, then you can invest in alternative energies and make some money.

  2. #2 Lubos Motl

    Two years ago they could create a $15/barrel oil from turkey guts.

    Whatever happened with it. Everyone who cares should try to support should try to invest the price of 8 hours of Kyoto protocol, 200 million dollars, to construct thermonuclear fusion using fusors

    which is a good competition to ITER and Tokamaks.

  3. #3 Ian Forrester

    Eli said: “It makes no sense to invest if someone, somewhere can turn on a pump and raise oil at $10/bbl”.

    This has been the problem with alternative liquid fuel projects for the past 25 years. Assuming you have a real project (most of those described in the lay press are either just ideas or are complete scams) you have to do enough scale up to determine your costs. $15 per barrel is completely out of line for any of the proven technologies but they will be competitive at a price of $40 to $60 oil. Your next step is to round up potential investors (one unwritten rule in this step is that the more outlandish your claims on technology and pricing the more the investors are attracted to you). At your first meeting with investors the question of why your process will need $40 selling price for your product when Acme Technology’s, seemingly similar, process says that they can get away with $15 per barrel. So after spending much time convincing these investors that it is highly unlikely the AT’s technology will either work or provide a product at $15 you convince them that from a technical point your process may be in fact better. Then the bombshell. They say that if you follow the price of oil there is no guarantee that the price will stay above $40 which you require to make your process economical. There are many examples of oil dipping to very low numbers (1986, 1998 being two of the bigger drops). Potential investors then tell you that they would rather put their money into a project where they have $15 to $20 costs and can sell for $60 (tar sands comes to mind here).

    How do I know this? Well, in 1985 I developed a process for turning forestry and agricultural waste into a synthetic oil which was miscible with gasoline and diesel. Unfortunately, timing is everything and the price of oil crashed just as we were writing up our final reports. The technology is similar to the one described by Lubos but temperatures for the first stage were considerably higher and it was performed at atmospheric pressure. I foresee many problems in loading a high pressure reactor with a slurry of turkey guts or anything else. Our system produced a liquid product which could be fed into a high pressure reactor for hydrogenation (or more correctly, deoxygenation since these TDP products are highly polar).

    This is, in my view, one of the reasons the price of oil has become so volatile it keeps competing technologies away. Coal liquefaction is a proven technology and would be much more widely used if oil prices were stable.

  4. #4 Richard Gay

    Any notes on Algae-based oil?

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