Archive for October, 2010

BP and Halliburton knew about flaws in cement

October 29, 2010 2 comments

While driving across the hill country this morning, I caught up on some national news via National Public Radio (and KUT). On the docket – a story discussing the fact that Halliburton and BP knew that the cement used to seal the bottom of the well that would later spew oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 3 months, was flawed and did not meet industry standard. Failing 3 of the 4 tests it was subjected to, the concrete slurry was labeled “unstable” by Halliburton as early as February 2010.

According to an article published by the NY Times:

In the first official finding of responsibility for the blowout, which killed 11 workers and led to the biggest offshore oil spill in American history, the commission staff determined that Halliburton had conducted three laboratory tests that indicated that the cement mixture did not meet industry standards.


Castlen Kennedy – woman in the oil patch

October 29, 2010 1 comment

Yesterday, the Houston Chronicle featured an article about women working in the oil and gas industry – a distinctly male-dominated field – and the challenges that they have faced (catcalls, sneers, and other derogatory remarks). The article also discusses how the industry has evolved to include more women throughout all aspects of the industry – from the oil fields to the board room.

Featured in the article is Castlen Kennedy, who I have previously written about in the context of her trip from Austin to Boston in a Tahoe fueled by natural gas this past summer. A member of my research group at the University of Texas, Castlen is also a manager of public affairs at Apache Corporation.

The Chronicle’s article covers pieces of the Women’s Global Leadership Conference in Energy and Technology, which was held last week in Houston. I attended this conference two years ago and can say that it is a unique experience to be in a room filled with women who work in oil and  gas. It shows how the face of this industry is changing as we move into the future.

To check out the Chronicle’s article – written by Monica Hatcher – click here.

Vampires – they’re not just out at night

October 27, 2010 2 comments

You may have turned off your TV, unplugged your cell phone from its charger, and clicked off the radio you were listening to as you left the house this morning – but chances are that they did not stop consuming electricity while you were away. According to the Department of Energy standby (or “vampire”) power is responsible for 5 to 10 percent of residential electric bills in the United States, costing consumers approximately $4 billion per year.

But, according to a Green Blog post in the New York Times, new developments in nanotechnology might revolutionize the very device that is responsible for this slow bleeding away of power – the transistor. I.B.M, in partnership with several European companies, is looking to redesign the transistors found in many of our consumer electronics.

If their plan is successful…

…we could have “cellphone batteries that last 10 times longer than today’s models, and computers and other devices that use virtually no power when in stand-by mode”.

This would be quite an accomplishment, both from a consumer standpoint (no more mid-day charging of cell phones) and from an energy efficiency point-of-view. Eliminating 5-10% of residential electricity consumption could translate into large economic savings, through not only smaller electric bills in the short-term, but also by reducing the need for new power plants in the long-term.


Energy Storage – a la Fulvalene Diruthenium (say what??)

October 26, 2010 2 comments

The intermittency of many renewable energy fuel resources greatly inhibits the ability of these technologies to economically compete with non-renewable technologies like coal, natural gas, and nuclear power. In some ways, this is the opposite of the problem experienced by fossil fuel plants, which ramp their output up and down to meet demand that could jump up or drop down at any moment.

When the sun slips behind a cloud or dips below the horizon for the night, the solar panels you installed become interesting roofing tiles, instead of a valuable generation resource, sending you back to the fossil fuel-based grid for your energy. Because of our inability to economically store the energy that you captured with your panels during the day, their usefulness is limited to the periods of the day when the sun is shining.

The renewable energy panacea  = economic, large-scale energy storage.

Researches throughout the world, including several here at the University of Texas, are working to figure out a way to store large amounts of energy for small amounts of money. One area of focus – material science, or more specifically the study of different materials to figure out how they can be used to economically store energy.

A recent discovery by MIT researchers, in partnership with colleagues at LLNL and UC Berkeley, might be the one we look back on and say “that was the moment that changed everything”… or maybe not… but either way, MIT’s determination of how a molecule called fulvalene diruthenium stores and releases heat on demand is pretty awesome.

According to a paper published on Oct. 20 in the journal Angewandte Chemie, fulvalene diruthenium actually undergoes a structural transformation when it absorbs sunlight, putting it into a higher-energy state where it can remain stable indefinitely. By adding a small amount of heat or a catalyst, the molecule “snaps” back to its original shape, releasing heat. Well… sorta…. According to Dr. Jeffrey Grossman, professor of power engineering in MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering:

“It turns out there’s an intermediate step that plays a major role…that was unexpected.”

What is the importance of this unexpected step?

According to Grossman, this step results in the stability and reversibility that makes it possible to produce a “rechargeable heat battery” with this material. In this battery, we can store and release heat energy, bringing me back to solar energy.

Fulvalene diruthenium has the ability (in theory) to store heat up to 200 degrees C, which could be used directly to heat your home – kind of the opposite of the Ice Bear concept. So, what if we could store excess solar power during the day in portable, rechargeable batteries that we could run our cars with, power our lights, or even combine together until we have a big enough system to generate electricity for our street or town? This might be possible with MIT’s discovery.

But, before folks get too excited, I should note that these ruthenium is very expensive (and rare) and so is not itself a good candidate for cheap, abundant energy storage. But, understanding its behavior could lead to finding less rare materials that exhibit the same behavior. According to Grossman,

“[Ruthenium] is the wrong material, but it shows it can be done…It’s my firm belief that as we understand what makes this material tick, we’ll find that there will be other materials [that work the same way]”

To check out the journal article referenced in this post, check out the following reference:

Yosuke Kanai, Varadharajan Srinivasan, Steven K. Meier, K. Peter C. Vollhardt, Jeffrey C. Grossman. Mechanism of Thermal Reversal of the (Fulvalene)tetracarbonyldiruthenium Photoisomerization: Toward Molecular Solar-Thermal Energy StorageAngewandte Chemie International Edition, 2010; DOI: 10.1002/anie.201002994

Thanks to Science Daily for bringing this paper to my attention. Very cool.

New EPA Regulations – is coal on its way out?

October 23, 2010 1 comment

In the United States, we use coal to meet about half of our electricity needs. But, with new EPA air pollution rules slated to go into effect next year 20% of the country’s coal power plants might be cooling down their boilers closing the plant doors. According to a recent Christian Science Monitor article on the new EPA rules, the speed with which these requirements are instituted is the driving force behind these plant closures.

The 20% of the coal fleet that is at rick is predominately filled with older facilities (40 years + in service) that have historically benefited from exemptions from emissions requirements (a.k.a. “grandfathering“) but will not escape from Clean Air Act requirements.The short timeline (new rules will be in effect starting in April and November of 2011) makes it uneconomic for these plants to upgrade their current systems. Instead, older power plants – with their antiquated emissions control systems – will quickly fall into retirement.

Amidst this recent revelation is the famous EPA plan to begin regulating carbon dioxide emissions from large, stationary emitters (power plants) starting in January 2011.

It looks like there is quite a year in store for us on the energy and environment front…

Hooyah! The military’s going lean, clean, and green

October 20, 2010 2 comments

Check out David Wogan’s post (copied below) about the military going “lean, clean, and green” to save the lives of our troops.


First and foremost, energy reform is about the lives of our troops. For every 24 fuel convoys that go into Afghanistan, we lose one American, killed or wounded. That is too high a price to pay for energy.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, discussing why diversifying energy supplies is such an important concern for the military.

We normally don’t think of the military as being lean, clean, and green, but seeing as it is the largest consumer of energy in the United States, and there are very real logistical concerns with relying on a dizzying array of fossil fuels, the military is in a perfect position to lead energy reform.

This quote caught my eye because my friend Sheril is off to talk with some military folks about science (and possibly climate change). I think if anyone needs to know about science and climate change, it’s our military.

Transportation Efficiency – Energy is Urgent

October 19, 2010 2 comments

The Washington Post is a part of most of my mornings – a staple on my list of “to reads” each day – though I will quickly admit that I’m an online post scanner and not a front-to-back aficionada.

Last month, the post ran a special report on energy legislation in Washington, which included commentary on the quickly fading effects from the deepwater horizon oil spill in the Gulf this summer (note: the Post’s discussion was on the quickly fading animosity toward BP – not the quick cleanup of the Gulf’s waters). Their report included coverage of their forum Energy is Urgent – an event designed to bring together top policymakers, academics, industry leaders, and other energy experts to discuss the future of energy in our country and beyond our borders.

As an introduction to the event, one Washington Post editor published the following:

Few issues are more critical to Washington, the nation and the world than the choices we make about how we find, create and use energy. President Obama has pledged to end America’s worrisome dependence on foreign oil. Leaders in Congress and business hope to focus the nation’s entrepreneurial ingenuity on finding more affordable and environmentally friendly ways to heat our homes, run our businesses and power our vehicles.

When discussing critical aspects of the energy sphere, we (generally) clump the discussion into two camps – electricity and transportation. Until the Nissan Leaf, Prius PHEV, or Chevy Volt take-off, it will be fair to say that these two camps are separate (electricity doesn’t power cars, petroleum doesn’t produce electrons). When discussing ending “America’s worrisome dependence on foreign oil” the President and his advisors are not talking about electricity generation (in fact, only 3% of our nation’s electricity comes from petroleum – mostly in Hawaii and Florida) – they are talking about transportation fuels.

In order to decrease our nation’s dependence on foreign oil we have two strategies:

  1. Produce more oil on U.S. soil
  2. Use less oil

For the moment, I will ignore the first option – we can get into a discussion on the limitations of our domestic resources and the strategic arguments against depleting them too quickly later on – and will focus on the second, use less.

If the almost non-existent decrease in miles traveled per vehicle during $4.00+ gas prices is any indicator, “use less” does not likely mean conservation in this country (or many others, for that matter)…. instead, it probably means “do the same with less” a.k.a. energy efficiency.

This efficiency strategy was explored by Peter Whoriskey – Washington Post staff writer and a go-to-guy in the quest for knowledge on transportation technology and policy. In Whoriskey’s 9/30/10 article, he explores the parallel gains in vehicle efficiency and in size in today’s vehicles. According to Whoriskey, today’s cars will extract (on average) twice the amount of energy from a gallon of gasoline than they would 25 years ago.  So, why do our cars still carry the same low gas mileage (miles per gallon) ratings as they did in 1985?

Size, weight, power.

So far, we (a.k.a. the generalized American consumer) has prioritized power, size, safety, and convenience over fuel savings. According to Mike Jackson, the cheif executive of AutoNation (the country’s largest auto retailer):

Right now, my customers will give up 5 mpg in fuel economy for a better cup holder.


What do we need to do to translate higher energy conversion rates (getting more energy out of our fuel) with higher gas miles (increased energy efficiency)?

How can we shift our priorities away from size, weight, and power to efficiency?