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By Robert Rapier on Aug 1, 2009 with no responses

Answering Reader Questions 2009: Part 1

Before I took a recent trip to Canada, I opened up the floor for questions. Getting them answered has taken longer than I intended. Fortunately, other readers answered a lot of them in the comments of that thread. So I have sifted through the list, trying to find questions that were still open, or those I wanted to make an additional comment on. Thanks to those who submitted questions, as well as to those who answered them. A special thanks to Kit P., who wrote some extensive answers to some of the questions around electricity and saved me a good deal of work.

This is going to take at least three installments. But I have put this off long enough, so here are my answers to the first five questions. This installment covers plasma gasification, natural gas projections, free energy, promising alternative energy technologies, and GTL.

I have a total of about 25 to answer, and I will get to them in the coming week.

The Questions

Russ wrote: I read about plasma gasification of garbage. Naturally the people promoting it say how great it is. Your comments please. Answer

Bob S. asked: What will natural gas production in the US be 5, 10 and 15 years from now? Should I convert my 310 delivery trucks (I operate in an east coast city) from diesel to natural gas? Answer

bc asked: The inline ad for this article claims “Never pay for electricity again”, something called Magniwork. I recommend NOT clicking the click, as it does dodgy things with your browser. Does Magniwork really work? Is there such a thing as “free energy”? How do I stop these scammers’ ads appearing on my screen? Answer

C asked: Which alternative energy technologies do think will have the greatest impact in the US? Answer

Benny wrote: A friend of a friend of mine is working on a process to convert natural gas to gasoline, through some sort of heat and pressure. My friend did consulting on pressure and flow inside of a tube. That is all I know. Is there any hope for such a scheme? Any hope of commercial viability (obviously, we have abundant NG in North America)? Answer

The Answers


Gasification technologies in general have a lot of idiosyncrasies that can make them difficult to get right. I have seen this first hand in a gasifier that failed to perform. The issue in that particular case was the refractory which protects the metal from the very high temperatures of the gasifier. If the refractory has a problem, you can get hot spots on the shell of the gasifier and weaken the metal.

That’s just an example of one of the things you have to get right. Plasma gasification is a special case within gasification technologies. It uses electricity and very high temperatures (thousands of degrees) to gasify the feed. Because of the electricity demands, the external energy inputs into plasma gasification can be high relative to other gasification technologies. Further, if you are using the synthesis gas produced to further produce a liquid fuel, there are a couple of other considerations. Plasma gasification occurs at low pressures. Many of those downstream reactions (like Fischer Tropsch) are carried out at high pressure, requiring a further energy intensive compression step. This means that plasma gasification has been looked at very little for the production of liquid fuels. Coskata is looking at it for their system, but this was one of the criticisms I had of them. The technology at scale and in that application is an unknown. That puts increased risk on Coskata’s technology.

If the purpose is merely to destroy the garbage and produce a bit of syngas in the process, then that might be a more workable option. I think it just depends on how the costs compare to digestion or to producing power from incinerating the waste. But if the intent is to turn that garbage into liquid fuels, plasma gasification may not be the best choice.

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Bob, the projections from the EIA (admittedly taken with a grain of salt) are that natural gas production will be relatively flat because prices are expected to be relatively flat. Because of all of the shale gas that starts to become economical in the $6-$8/MMBTU range, I think it is going to be hard for natural gas prices to break through those levels for a good while. Therefore, if I was planning for fleet purposes, I might take the upper end as a worst case and see what that would do to my business. Then, I think whether to convert depends entirely on how many miles per year your fleet travels and the availability of fueling stations in your area.

I believe that if the savings would pay back the conversion costs in 3 years at a presumed natural gas cost over that time of – say $5 – then I would do it. For that matter, you can hedge your natural gas price. If I look out 5 years, the price I can lock natural gas in for is still in the $6-$7 range in 2014, and in 10 years is only in the $7-$8 range. You just have to make the call on whether you are going to be financially OK if prices do get up into that range, knowing you have a substantial upside if they stay in the $3-$5 range.

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No, I don’t believe any of these free energy systems work. The ones I am familiar with all violate laws of thermodynamics (e.g., Steorn). So I certainly don’t endorse any of them, and the appearance of their ads here is because someone paid Google to place their ads on topical websites (presumably with certain energy-related keywords). I don’t know how to stop them from appearing, except I do have some ability to block them when I see them. I have done this in the past for highly non-topical ads.

My other option is of course to take the ads down altogether. The income from them is pretty trivial. However, I have always liked the idea that my writing is helping to pay my grocery bill. Best thing I would suggest is just not to click on ads that seem too good to be true.

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I am going to tip-toe around this one. As some others pointed out, there are options that are making a contribution right now, albeit I think you probably mean in the long run. To be clear, I think we will have corn ethanol for a long time. But I also think it will necessarily be subsidized for the next 30 years as it has been for the past 30. I don’t believe it will be able to make a big impact insofar as displacing large amounts of fossil fuels simply because a lot of fossil fuels tend to be consumed in the process of producing the ethanol.

However, I do think there are technologies that have a lot of promise – especially in specific niches – but that haven’t gotten a lot of attention. But in my new role, I will be working on developing some of these technologies and trying to bring them to commercialization. Some of them are very specialized and relatively unknown, and therefore I don’t want to write about them until our relationships are more secure.

But without totally dodging the question, I will provide some hints. There is a guy who posts here sometimes called Al Fin (see his website here). I was reading through a blog posting on cellulosic ethanol a few days ago, and I ran across a comment that Al made. His first paragraph here hits specifically upon some of the things that I think show a lot of promise – and in fact that first paragraph hits very close to the mark on several things I am looking at. I will at some point start writing more about some of them.

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Benny, that’s the basis for gas-to-liquids (GTL). Natural gas can be turned into synthesis gas, and then you can send that gas through a Fischer-Tropsch reactor to make longer chain hydrocarbons. From this process, you get wax which has to be cleaned up, and as part of the clean-up you can make gasoline blending components. The problem is that it is a capital intensive process due to all of the downstream clean-up equipment required, and thus is expensive. This is why – despite lots of natural gas reserves – we don’t have GTL plants popping up all over the place.

Now if your friend is working on a process to directly make gasoline from natural gas, I am unaware of such a process. Natural gas isn’t too keen on reacting with other natural gas molecules to form longer chain hydrocarbons without first converting it into an intermediary like syngas. One could perhaps envision a catalyst that could build up the chains directly from natural gas into something longer.

There is a reaction called methane coupling (which I have some experience with) in which the methane (C1, because it has one carbon) in natural gas is converted into C2. In order to get up into the gasoline range, you need to grow that chain to something like the C5 to C8 range. In other words, you have to grow the single carbon atom in methane into a string of 5 to 8 carbon atoms joined together. The methane coupling reaction, for instance, has low yields and low selectivity, demonstrating the challenge of growing these chains. If you can only get 10% of the methane to form C2, and the reaction is capable of going to C3, then your yields beyond C2 are going to be trivial. Still, it isn’t pseudoscience.

OK, that’s all for now. The next installment will start with the story about the UT Arlington researchers making oil from lignite.