Energy and Global Warming News for April 20th: Interior moving to curb coal mining pollution, require mountaintop restoration; New life for old tires; A ˜Hamburger Helper for diesel fuel

Interior Moving to Curb Coal Mining Pollution, Require Mountaintop Restoration

The Interior Department is writing new regulations for mountaintop-removal coal mining that would expand protection for waterways and require the restoration of dynamited areas.

Christopher Holmes, spokesman for Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, said the agency is rewriting its “stream protection rule” to boost environmental safeguards.  The proposal being drafted, Holmes said, would:

*  Establish a clear standard for restoring dynamited mountaintops. The 1977 Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act requires that mountaintops be restored to their “approximate original contour,” but defining the term has been left to individual states.

*  Yank the right of state regulators to grant exceptions to the contour-restoration requirement. Federal authorities currently allow states to set their own standards for granting exemptions, and state standards vary widely.

*  Set a federal definition for “material damage” to watersheds beyond permitting areas. The surface-mining law prohibits mountaintop-removal mines and other above-ground coal operations from damaging watersheds outside areas covered by mining permits, but the requirement has been difficult to enforce because “material damage” has never been defined.

*  Require companies applying for mining permits to collect more information on the environmental health of watersheds where they intend to work and to monitor conditions during and after mining. Mines that inflict environmental damages beyond what is permitted would be required to change their operations or close.

*  Clarify that seasonal streams and temporary streams are covered by the regulations, even when the streambed is dry.

New Life for Old Tires

Of the nearly 300 million tires discarded in the United States each year, more than half end up either as landfill or are burned for fuel in cement kilns and in other industries.

Lehigh Technologies of Tucker, GA, has developed a process for rejuvenating discarded rubber that could open up new recycling opportunities. If the company’s technology catches on, it could carve out a billion-dollar market for high-performance recycled rubber.

Used rubber is hard to recycle because it is vulcanized–hardened and rendered chemically inert–by the addition of sulfur and other compounds to the material’s long molecular chains. Small chunks of used tires can be partially melted and used as filler in asphalt, but devulcanizing rubber involves expensive chemical and thermal processes.

Lehigh Technologies instead shatters rubber into a fine powder using a process that involves freezing old rubber and smashing it to pieces. This starts with tires that have been torn into half-inch chunks using conventional shredding equipment. Lehigh mixes these rubber pieces with liquid nitrogen, cryogenically cooling the rubber to -100°C. The rubber is then fed into a high speed “turbomill” that shatters it into particles no more than 180 microns in size.

Creating such fine powder transforms the rubber from a highly inert filler material to one that can bond with other materials. “We deliver a huge increase in surface area relative to size, and that allows for a much more intimate mixing with other materials,” says Lehigh Technologies CEO Alan Barton.

In 2006, Lehigh Technologies opened its first commercial facility, which has a capacity to produce 100 million pounds of rubber powder and to process four million tires per year. Sales of the company’s products increased by 40 percent last year, but the facility is still operating at less than half capacity. Barton says that his firm has sold recycled rubber to a number of leading tire manufacturers. He estimates that 30 million tires now on the road in the United States are made in part with his company’s recycled rubber, although only about 3 to 7 percent of all the rubber in these tires is their recycled material.

White-hot energy

Storing energy is one of the biggest obstacles to the widespread adoption of alternative sources of power. Batteries can be bulky and slow to charge. Hydrogen, which can be made electrolytically from water and used to power fuel cells, is difficult to handle. But there may be an alternative: magnesium. As school chemistry lessons show, metallic magnesium is highly reactive and stores a lot of energy. Even a small amount of magnesium ribbon burns in a flame with a satisfying white heat. Researchers are now devising ways to extract energy from magnesium in a more controlled fashion.

Engineers at MagPower in White Rock, British Columbia, for example, have developed a metal-air cell that uses water and ambient air to react with a magnesium fuel supply, in the form of a metal anode, to generate electricity. Doron Aurbach at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, has created a magnesium-based version of the lithium-ion rechargeable cell, a type of battery known for its long life and stability. It would be ideal for storing electricity from renewable sources, says Dr Aurbach. And Andrew Kindler at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena is developing a way for cars to generate hydrogen on board by reacting magnesium fuel with steam. The reaction produces a pure form of hydrogen suitable for fuel cells, leaving behind only magnesium oxide, a relatively benign material, as a by-product.

But there is, of course, a catch. Although magnesium is abundant, its production is neither cheap nor clean, says Takashi Yabe of the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Various industrial methods are used to extract magnesium, ranging from an electrolytic process to a high temperature method called the Pidgeon process, but the energy cost is high. Producing a single kilogram of magnesium requires 10kg of coal, says Dr Yabe.

To change this, he is developing a process using only renewable energy. Dr Yabe’s solution is to use concentrated solar energy to power a laser, which is used to heat and ultimately burn magnesium oxide extracted from seawater””where, he says, there is enough magnesium to meet the world’s energy needs for the next 300,000 years. A solar-pumped laser is necessary, he says, because concentrated solar energy alone would not be enough to generate the 3,700ËšC temperatures required. Dr Yabe calls his approach the Magnesium Injection Cycle.

A ‘Hamburger Helper’ for Diesel Fuel

In the never ending search for substitutes for oil in cars and trucks, a Nevada company has found an unusual partial replacement: natural gas.

Natural gas, of course, is already used in thousands of buses, in compressed form. But building a compression station for fueling, and converting the buses, is expensive. The Nevada company, Advanced Refining Concepts, of Reno, has developed a fuel that runs through conventional fuel pumps, truck fuel tanks and diesel engines.

That is crucial, said Peter W. Gunnerman, who co-founded the company with his father, Rudolf. “You can have the best fuel in the world, but the second you tell mechanics you have to change this or change that, it just doesn’t get done,” he said.

His company produces something called GDiesel, which starts with ordinary ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel and with natural gas, which is primarily methane.

In its refinery, Advanced Refining Concepts bubbles the gas through the diesel fuel. In the presence of a proprietary catalyst, the methane and the diesel fuel react chemically, with the diesel fuel pulling apart the methane and absorbing its component atoms, hydrogen and carbon.

As the molecules of diesel fuel absorb the natural gas, they get bigger. Mr. Gunnerman said that the liquid grows by more than 10 percent.

Diesel fuel is sold by volume (gallons refers to size, not energy content) so anything that expands the product becomes a sort of Hamburger Helper, an inexpensive filler. Natural gas is considerably cheaper than diesel.

As the fuel’s density declines, the amount of energy declines very slightly. But that seems fine with the company’s customers, said Mr. Gunnerman. They report going more miles on a tank and needing fewer oil changes. Users include a construction company and truck fleet operators.

None of the benefits have been confirmed by a lab, but sales are growing, through a distributor that serves northern Nevada and northern California.

Mr. Gunnerman’s company has produced the fuel at a single processing unit. The unit could make 10,000 gallons a day but has been limited to 4,000 because there is not much natural gas available at the spot where it is installed, in Sparks, he said. In October, the company broke ground at an industrial park nine miles east of Reno, where it is installing 10 such units. Start-up is scheduled to begin next month.

A Clear-Eyed Look at China’s Climate Target

In the lead-up to Copenhagen, and again in its submission to the UNFCCC in January, China announced a target to lower its carbon intensity, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of GDP, by 40-45% by 2020 compared to a 2005 baseline. Now, while U.S. legislators deliberate the details of a much-needed climate and energy bill, Chinese leaders have already entered into in-depth discussions on their national plans, policies, investments and enforcement mechanisms for achieving this target.

Just last week, a senior Chinese climate statesman, He Jiankun, made news when he and other energy experts recommended that China should set a target for reducing its carbon intensity by 18% in the upcoming Twelfth Five-Year Plan (2011-2015).   By including this carbon intensity target  into the next  Five-Year Plan, it will become legally binding once approved by the National People’s Congress early next year.  Progress in achieving the target will also become an indicator in the job performance rating of every provincial governor and major enterprise owner.

In order to provide more context to the recent policy proposals in China, this blog post takes a closer look at the details of China’s carbon intensity target and answers some of the crucial questions about how it can achieve its target.

Colo. passes legislation to switch power plants to natural gas

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) plans to sign into law today a piece of legislation that imposes stricter air pollution rules on power plants while helping the state’s coal-fired power plants switch to natural gas.

The legislation, opposed by the coal industry but backed by utilities and the natural gas industry, was passed by both houses of the Colorado General Assembly within 17 days of its introduction.

Mike Beasley, a lobbyist for utility Xcel Energy Inc., said it was “one of those rare perfect storms” where industry and environmental groups agree on a policy outcome.

“Gas folks wanted to increase the use of gas,” Beasley said. “Environmentalists wanted a cleaner, better utility fuel. And utilities wanted a cleaner fuel but wanted to do it in a cost-effective manner.”

Under the legislation, Xcel Energy must provide the state Public Utilities Commission with a plan for three aging power plants in the state’s Front Range. The utility will need to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides by up to 80 percent, using cleaner-burning fuel such as natural gas to accomplish the reduction.

In exchange, Xcel will be allowed to use long-term contracts to address the volatility of natural gas prices. Supporters said the bill is necessary to get a head start on tougher federal air pollution regulations, but critics described the bill as a handout for natural gas at the expense of coal.

“If we were up against imminent catastrophe,” asked state Sen. Shawn Mitchell (R), “why were we only hearing that warning now over halfway through the session, from the backers of a sweetheart deal for Xcel and the gas companies?”

11 Responses to Energy and Global Warming News for April 20th: Interior moving to curb coal mining pollution, require mountaintop restoration; New life for old tires; A ˜Hamburger Helper for diesel fuel

  1. Marty says:

    What’s really needed is widespread education about simple, how-to information for everyday use. Kind of like this:

  2. Andy says:

    The Obama administration has very much changed the way the EPA, SEC and now the Office of Surface Mine Reclamation is doing their job. The changes are staggering.

    A whole host of environmental laws passed in the 1970’s have had their often tough requirements ignored by successive administrations since Jimmy Carter left the whitehouse. For almost 30 years now the federal government has turned its back while the coal industry in the Appalacians has blatantly violated the reclamation requirements of the 1970’s surface mine environmental law. Requiring industry to abide by the law may well bring an end to mountain top removal.

    Here in Houston the EPA is finally holding Texas’ air and water pollution permitting agency’s feet to the fire. They are now going to have to actually follow the law and require signficant reductions in pollution far faster than what industry would like. Wow, actually requring folks to abide by the law. When Obama said he was for change, he wasn’t kidding.

    Who’s next? The US Army Corps of Engineers, Minerals Management Service? There is a long line of folks who have been scooting by when it comes to enforcing the environmental protections built into the numerous laws they administer.

  3. mike roddy says:

    Thanks for the interesting post, Andy, #2, I suspected as much. All we really have to do is see that existing laws are enforced.

  4. Dan B says:

    Andy @2. A second cousin of mine was a mining reclamation specialist in Nome, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Salt Lake City, and DC. He believed that quality restoration was essential to the mining industry. Without it he felt the resistance to mining would build to a level that would make mining in the US nearly impossible. We’ve seen since the 80’s, when he retired, that you can buy out a congress so it no longer represents the average citizen.

    On a related note, half of all GHG’s are emitted in the extraction, shipping, and processing of coal, and a similar amount for other materials. There were canaries in the coal mines (my grandfather’s for one) because of methane and carbon monoxide, as well as hydrogen sulfide. The first two are potent GHG’s. They seep out of unsealed mines for millenia, and out of sealed mines unless the fill is thoroughly compacted and never settles.

    Mining in all forms will be a tough challenge in a GHG constrained world. Although if the methane clathrates and tundra go our biggest need will be for a robust spirituality.

  5. catman306 says:

    Concerning ‘A ‘Hamburger Helper’ for Diesel Fuel’: Will this fuel. as it now appears, reduce CO2 emissions slightly when measured as units of CO2 per mile driven? Is this another small step toward green?

    Or because of the lower energy content, will the big diesels just use a greater volume of cheaper fuel to do the same work.

  6. catman306 says:

    Don’t we all hope that the natural gas that fuels Colorado’s new electric plants doesn’t come from tar sands?

  7. David B. Benson says:

    catman306 (4) — Yesterday’s post concerning Diesel Helper stated that fuel efficiency and economy improve. Anyway, that is obvious because users with large diesel requirements are buying it.

  8. catman306 says:

    There might be some other reason why users with large diesel requirements are buying it. But does a truck rolling for a mile using Diesel Helper generate any less CO2 than a similar truck running straight diesel fuel?My instinctive answer would be that if they both did the same work then they both generated the same amount of CO2. Perhaps someone knows better.

  9. David B. Benson says:

    catman306 — Its a slightly more complex hydrocarbon so slightly more of the energy is produced by breaking the hydrogen bonds.

  10. catman306 says:

    David; yes, yes. But will it produce less CO2 for each unit of work? I could be wrong, but doesn’t any hydrocarbon produce the same amount of CO2 for each unit of work or heat that is produced, regardless of the length of the molecular chain?

    Will someone correct these statements if they are incorrect?
    Equal work releases equal CO2 and equal water vapor regardless of the hydrocarbon. Of course, more complex hydrocarbons will release more energy, CO2, and H2O per unit of volume or weight.

  11. Larry Gilman says:

    “Mountaintop restoration” is a joke, like “virginity restoration.” Piling rubble into an “approximate contour” does not re-create a mountain. Basically this empty tough talk from Interior is a fig leaf for green-lighting continued mountaintop removal, i.e., total war on the landscape for the sake of coal. Thanks, thanks so very oodles of much, O Glorious Progressive Obama administration! I will now restore my lunch to its approximate original contours by throwing up into a bucket . . .