Archives For oil

An Ironic Pairing

One of the biggest dangers of coasting along in the mentality of business-as-usual is that inefficiencies can become cemented into the forces that are considered to be essential to our daily lives. At some point, rectifying the problem can require more time and effort than most are willing to stomach. Our tendency to allow historical experience to evolve into present-day gospel can lead us to miss opportunities for innovative improvement, especially when it comes to sustainability.

Let’s take one of the pillars of American energy usage: our cars. Every living American can look back on the constant of gasoline serving as the energy source for our mobility. Meanwhile we have watched cars become more efficient over time, bolstering our confidence in the system. As part of this mindset, the bulk of our efforts in increasing efficiency have revolved around the puzzle of how to make cars get more miles for every gallon of gasoline they consume. But what if instead of doing more with gasoline it was actually more efficient (maybe much more) to burn oil to create electricity and use it to power cars instead? Perhaps the cultural constants that we assume are the best solution actually don’t hold as much as water as we think.

As it turns out, it is true. Continue Reading…

drilling for petroleumDespite history of bountiful production, we are no longer a country know for making very many things. One thing that we do have a talent for producing, perhaps better than anyone else, is “hype”. With its contagious force, 100% pure American-made hype can surge from coast to coast and beyond. Hype allows for a select few topics to rise above the countless other bits of information that are all struggling to reach us via a thirty-second sound byte. A key goal of successful hype is eliciting the strongest response from the greatest number of recipients. Historically, one of the topics that has been consistently successful in the world of hype is oil, particularly its relationship with gasoline prices. Amidst the rising tide of the upcoming presidential elections (a prime breeding ground for hype), gas prices have re-emerged to claim valuable reporting time as the average price for regular gasoline approaches $4 a gallon even before the surge of summer driving. Continue Reading…

Once again we have arrived at a familiar place of rising oil prices and once again we can see the momentum building behind the line of oil companies as the discomfort for high gas prices sets in. Only days ago the House of Representatives passed a bill to expand offshore drilling and expedite new permits with proposed legislation right behind it to open access to new reserves in ANWR and the Outer Continental Shelf.  These familiar conversations also have familiar anticipated repercussions that all point to new drilling wells having no affect on short term pricing and the expanding of drilling outside of current federal areas having miniscule long term affect on price and supply. Continue Reading…

Cars vs TransitMost major transit initiatives can currently be divided into two camps: those that want to make our transportation landscape greener by creating alternatives to car travel vs. those that want to create a greener generation of automobiles. Arguably, both pursuits can lead towards the same goal of reducing environmental impact but each option brings with it significant directional decisions as to the future of our culture and how we design the built environment. In the end there may not be one universal option that fits a country like the U.S., but different courses whose implementation should follow the demands between urban and suburban development.

Continue Reading…

historic gasoline pumpsEvery so often we find a bit of knowledge that refocuses our perspective on reality; a sobering fact for the repercussions of our daily routines. I have decided to begin to share them here and the first one is how much energy we use not to drill for oil, not transport it and not burn it in cars, but refine it from barrels of crude into gallons of gasoline.

Sobering Fact #1

Gasoline is the centerpiece of our the American petroleum industry, comprising just over 46% of refinery output in the country. In 2008, Americans used a total of 137.8 billion gallons of gasoline, or around 380 million gallons per day, according to the Department of Energy. Gasoline accounts for 62% of all energy used for transportation. Naturally all of this product comes from oil with 18.5 gallons of gas refined from every 42-gallon U.S. barrel of crude, meaning that we need 7.5 billion barrels to satisfy our hunger for gas. Some estimates peg the energy required to refine a single gallon of gasoline at 9,317 BTUs or 2.73 kWh. This would earmark 376 billion kWh of electricity annually to turn oil into gas. Given that the average home uses roughly 12,000 kWh every year and that estimates for the number of households in the United States are as high as 115 million… this energy could power one quarter of all American homes.

Photo Credit:


As our technological boundaries continue to be conquered and redrawn, there are some on the bleeding edge of innovation that seem to blur the line between technology and magic. What Cambridge, Massachusetts based Joule Biotechnologies is claiming to have accomplished seems nothing short of magical: putting organisms, sunlight and carbon dioxide into a box and making a viable petroleum substitute appear. No drilling, no burning off waste. According to the company, that has been operating in stealth mode for nearly two years time, they are ushering in the new standard of fuel as essentially, liquid solar power.

“There is no question that viable, renewable fuels are vitally important, both for economic and environmental reasons. And while many novel approaches have been explored, none has been able to clear the roadblocks caused by high production costs, environmental burden and lack of real scale,” said Bill Sims, president and CEO.

If correct, their plan can take two of the most abundant things on the planet—photons and carbon dioxide—and circumvent the need to be drilling more wells searching for oil. Their “black box” is dubbed a Solar Converter, which reportedly uses proprietary organisms to induce photosynthesis, creating a hydrocarbon liquid the company calls SolarFuel. Simms points out that this separates them from a biofuel process, like ethanol, which uses a plant base for its feed stock.


The prospect of sun fed fuel could impressively leap-frog the ethanol industry, replacing it as the renewable fuel of choice given that its carbon footprint could vastly outperform ethanol’s much debated, corn-based and energy intensive process. Eventually, such a model could propose to achieve the impossible: bring the use and production of our country’s fuel to a level of stasis with the net input of carbon equaling the net output of its use.

Joule Biotech says they can create 20,000 gallons of fuel per acre at roughly $50 a barrel with current subsidies, certainly a competitive price point out of the box. Furthermore, the fuel is purportedly going to be compatible with existing engines for diesel and gasoline, wiping out the potential snag of retooling an industry. With a pilot plant scheduled to come online in 2010, their next milestone could be a ramp up for commercial scale production in 2012 with additional investing. Despite not knowing how cleanly the fuel burns in comparison to ethanol or conventional gasoline, the prospects of carbon improvement on the national scale are far-reaching.

So where is the downside? I had trouble finding one myself. Though I have to admit that the claims bring to mind another magical fix that spawned years ago called Thermal Conversion Process (TCP) technology developed by a company called Renewable Energy Solutions.

Their process claimed to make synthetic petroleum from super-heating agricultural and industrial waste such as tires, plastics and paper. The idea seemed attractive when they claimed their only by-products were fuel gas (butane, methane, propane mix), synthetic oil and water. The prospects seemed to offer a solution to not only our foreign oil dilemma, but a significant portion of our waste issue as well with (similarly) a virtually unlimited feedstock. Unfortunately, it seems no new plants other than the pilot plant in Carthage Missouri have been constructed and for some reason, they have not catalyzed a new standard in fuel production. Hopefully, we will be hearing much more from Joule Biotech in the near future.