Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Whither the Steel?

Some years ago, when I was still writing diaries at Daily Kos, I began to write a series dedicated to what might be called "the nitrogen problem," in which I plaintively asked and then tried to find the answer to the question "What percentage of the nitrogen in proteins and nucleic acids has been fixed industrially?" The series was called Troll Rating Fritz Haber, Jimmy Kunstler and the Oracle at Snowmass.

Here is how I began one entry of the series:

To my mind, all of the laws of thermodynamics involve relationships to zero.


"Troll rating" at the time I wrote that diary was KosSpeak for "I strongly disapprove of... {insert name here}..."

It happened from time to time that the inserted name was my Internet name, "NNadir." That was because I often was not, and I am still not, polite about my contention that nuclear energy is the only form of energy in these times that has an acceptable environmental profile, a position that I have come to hold after much evolution in my thinking. So some members of the Daily Kos community routinely "troll rated" me from time to time, something I generally viewed with considerable amusement.

Once when I was interviewed by my friend Rod Adams on his "Atomic Show" he posted a link to my interview describing me as a "popular blogger" at Daily Kos. Rod is a very smart and good guy, and a tireless worker for nuclear energy, but I'm not sure if I was universally popular at Daily Kos and he may have misspoke when he described me as such.

As for Fritz Haber, he was the guy who discovered how to "fix" nitrogen gas with hydrogen - thus making ammonia. Ammonia and ammonium salts are constituents of all fertilizers, manufactured or natural. Also if one has ammonia, one can make lots of other things, including nitrates, hydrazines and a bunch of other things that have huge industrial importance.

Fritz Haber, besides being a scientific genius, was also a rabid German Nationalist, at least until the point that he was forced to leave the country forever because he was a Jewish rabid German Nationalist. His idea of a good time was to kill a lot of French with poison gas, and he was so enthusiastic on this score that his beautiful wife - a wonderful scientist herself - committed suicide rather than live with him anymore.

Be that as it may, a fair percentage of what you are - that part of you at least which is DNA, RNA, and protein - came out, ultimately, of a chemical reactor in some chemical plant somewhere, maybe a very dirty plant that you wouldn't want your children to live near, that was running the still extremely important "Haber-Bosch" process.

Overall my nitrogen series was a failure, I think, not only in a literary sense but in the sense that I wasn't able to find - even though I have access to one of the greatest libraries in the world - a satisfactory technical answer to the general question of how much of the world's protein and nucleic acid derives from industrial processes, although I was able to find lots of specific cases where synthetically fixed (Haber) nitrogen overwhelmed particular ecological zones, sometimes killing them completely.

I didn't even finish the series and never got around to insulting Amory Lovins - one of my favorite things to do - or insulting Jimmy Kunstler, whose meme is "Without Petroleum, we will all die."

Since I never got around to saying it on Daily Kos, let me say it now, "Bull, Jimmy, Bull..."

On the failure of my "Troll Rating Fritz Haber" series, let me address the literary matter first. When writing some of my diaries at Kos - it's been more than a year since I stopped - I often, not always but often, was trying create works of art.


This summer I took my boys to the Guggenheim Museum in New York - my oldest boy is starting to explore his visual artistic talent in these increasingly terrible times - a talent by the way that I conspicuously lack, - the Guggenheim being a wonderful museum that continuously invites the patron to ask the question, "What, exactly, is art?" while providing no answer to the question.

If my son - he's 15 - pursues art with some seriousness, that would be a wonderful thing for him to understand right out of the box, that there is no answer to the question, "What is art?"

Speaking of art, the painting above is "Self Portrait With Horn," which was painted by Max Beckman in 1938, is now at the Neue Gallery in New York, just down the street from the Guggenheim. I have never visited the Neue Gallery, which is devoted to German art, but I must do so some day before I die.

In the 1920's, Max Beckman had been a famous and financially successful German painter. In 1938 Max Beckman was broke and broken, but he continued to paint anyway - exiled in France - survived the war in Amsterdam, and died in 1950 on the streets of New York, at 69th Street and Central Park West, not far from where the Gallery Neue is today. When Max Beckman painted "Self Portrait With Horn," it was around the time that more than 500 of his paintings had been removed from German museums by the German "authorities" at the time, on the grounds that his art was "degenerate."

In the technical language of quantum chemistry by the way, the word "degenerate" can mean, "indistinguishable," as in "degenerate orbitals," although as we now now, the word "degenerate" as applied to Max Beckman in 1938 actually has come to mean, ironically and happily, distinguished, although when he died, Max Beckman had no idea whether he would ever again be considered as "distinguished" as he had been in Germany in the 1920's.

I posted this painting on Democratic Underground in the Lounge section, and included it what will probably probably be my last Journal entry on that web site, although I reserve the right to drop notes there on the "Energy and Environment" forum to post, without comment, little tidbits about how that "renewable energy will save us" meme - which has done so much damage to our planet - is working out , now that countries like Germany have squandered billions of Euros on it with no significant practical result.

So called "renewable energy" will not save us, not our Western lifestyle, not our lives, not the lives of our impoverished brethren or sisterhood, not anything connected with humanity, neither those things about humanity that have proved magnificent, nor those things about humanity that have proved tragic. This fact should be intuitively obvious since around 1800, when there were less than 1/6 of the human beings that there are today, so called "renewable" energy was abandoned because it could not provide for humanity's greatest aspirations. Somehow it's not obvious though, just like it's not obvious than an appeal to Jesus will not, in fact, cure your brain tumor, if you have a brain tumor.

People believe only what they want to believe, in spite of all reason, which has always been a psychological truth and was remarked upon by artists throughout history, from Homer to Shakespeare to Mark Twain, with a mixture of irony and tragedy.

Now, at Charles' invitation, I have started to blog at "Nuclear Green." Charles contacted me via my email in the discussion forums at Kirk Sorensen's wonderful, albeit technical - not that there is anything wrong with being technical - website Energy From Thorium . When offering the invitation, Charles indicated in his message that he hoped I would participate in his proposed "White Paper" on nuclear energy by writing the sections on the recycling of nuclear fuels. I demurred. It happens that I do know quite a bit about nuclear chemistry, but I protested that I don't have much time on my hands, and I don't, even though I spending time (that I don't have) on this opening post at Nuclear Green.

There is intellectual life, and then there is moral life, artistic life and then there is real life, and few and rare are they who have the luxury of combining all these simultaneously in one life.


I will try to write some technical stuff here when I have time, by the way, here, like, for instance whether it is always a good idea to separate strontium from barium from useful fission products - worth the effort to do so - giving my answer to such questions. (My answer is "sometimes yes, sometimes no, depending on the question of for what one is using these elements.

When I was writing like this at Daily Kos, railing on about all sorts of irrelevant stuff, I always had to remind everyone at some point that I was actually writing about nuclear energy even if I seemed to be writing about something else. When writing at Kos, I was often preaching to the converted, in the sense that I was writing for my fellow Democrats, and here I am preaching to the converted in the sense that almost everyone here knows that nuclear energy is the best form of energy there is. So here I will remind everyone that this is a post about humanity, for which nuclear energy is the last best hope.

The nuclear community is, I think, sometimes too technical, because understanding how beautiful nuclear science is impossible without technical training, but how is it that we forget the beauty of nuclear science and carry on about neutrons and cross sections and shielding ad nauseum as if that the technical points building nuclear reactors was the only important thing about nuclear physics?

Even though my "Troll Rating Fritz Haber..." diary was an artistic failure, some of the other things I wrote at Daily brings me some sense of pride as art. The best diaries there feel like art - even if it is a conceit to say so - because when I reread some of them, I still feel like crying.

Charles seems to have appreciated some of my Daily Kos diaries too, and, I have learned, composed a nice tribute to them here at Nuclear Green. It was, I think, a technical tribute, since it included things like my remarks on plutonium, an element that I happen to believe is equally essential as thorium. As for my protests about time, Charles wrote to me to say, (I paraphrase), "Well hell, do whatever you want at Nuclear Green, NNadir, even if it's just reposting some of your Daily Kos diaries there." I may take Charles up on that, reposting diaries from Daily Kos, if only because I sometimes feel like Max Beckman must have felt in 1938, worrying over the fate of my text as he might have worried about the fate of his paintings, many of which were in fact, ultimately lost, which is not to say that my art is at the level of Max Beckman's art.

So much for discussing art.

The technical question I sought to address, and failed to address, in the "Troll Rating Fritz Haber..." series, was, again, "what percentage of living biomass on this planet, human and otherwise, owes its existence to Fritz Haber's industrial process?

It does seem that the answer to the technical question is, at least, "a lot," even if "a lot" is not a technically pristine phrase.

During my literature search into the matter, I read lots of very interesting scientific papers on the subject of biological and industrial catalysts to fix nitrogen gas, nitrogen gas fixation being a process that requires energy whether it is conducted in an industrial plant or in a biological plant. Nitrogen is pretty much an inert gas, that would rather not be involved with bonding with any other element. It takes a lot of work in all senses of the word "work," including the thermodynamic sense, to take nitrogen from the atmosphere and make it something more useful and far less inert. Because fixed nitrogen is so important to humanity, we would not be remiss in saying that our atmosphere is a huge feedstock for our industrial culture, even as we are destroying said atmosphere.

My personal opinion is, by the way, that the atmosphere could be an even more important raw material than it already is, but that's something for another time.

In the process of doing background research for the "Troll Rating Fritz Haber..." I learned that about 1% of the industrial energy consumed on earth, somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 exajoules is used to fix nitrogen. Most of the energy comes from dangerous natural gas currently, although historically much of it came from dangerous coal. If I wasn't so lazy, I could probably use this information to back calculate the answer to my original question, more or less, within an order of magnitude, but I am lazy.

Nitrogen has interesting nuclear properties too, one of which is that nitrogen-14, with deuterium, Hydrogen-2, is one of only two stable nucleons in the universe that has both an odd number of protons and an odd number of neutrons. How these nucleons got to be so odd is a mystery, to me at least. Neither nature nor humanity deal well with things that are odd.


Isn't marvelous, and sacred and ineffable, and incomparably beautiful that deuterium exists? Isn't it marvelous that the odd-odd nitrogen-14 nucleon not only exists but is also the predominant - by a very large margin - isomer of an element that is every bit as essential to life as is carbon, way more prevalent than the odd-even nucleus?

Anyway. I was focusing on the technical aspect of "Troll Rating Fritz Haber..."

A fellow whose name came up a lot in the references in several of the scientific papers I read while researching "Troll Rating Fritz Haber..." was the very interesting thinker on the subject of industrial processes, macroscopic industrial energy flows, and macroscopic industrial mass flows, Vaclav Smil, who is Professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba.

When I was writing "Troll Rating Fritz Haber," I said that I did not have access to Smil's book, Enriching the Earth, which is often cited in prestigious journals like Nature and Journal of the American Chemical Society. As it happens, I have access to the book now at Princeton's Firestone Library, although it always seems to be checked out whenever I go to look for it.

The Firestone Library, by the way, was funded by a car CULTure millionaire, that Firestone, Harvey Firestone. It is one of the greatest libraries in the world, filled with remarkable curiosities, like the original German version of Hitlers Ziele und Persönlichkeit (Hitler's Aims and Personality), by Johannes Stark, Nobel Physics Laureate, who declared that Hitler was an incomparable genius, and who also had famous or infamous opinions on the subject of whether Jews could have the creativity to be scientists. (His answer was, "Of course not!") "Take that," Alvin Weinberg, Eugene Wigner and Hans Bethe. Stark rejected quantum mechanics and relativity on the grounds that it was Jewish Physics. (Interestingly, in 1907, Stark was one of the first scientists to solicit a review article from Albert Einstein, who was nowhere near as famous as Stark was at the time.)

Um, well then...

Like John Lennon said, "I just had to look..."

Anyway, I was talking about Smil.

Enriching the Earth is a classic work on what Fritz Haber meant to humanity. I'm sure that Smil is proud of that work being cited in Nature, and other journals almost whenever nitrogen fixation is discussed, although he has also published a number of important papers and commentaries in Nature, including what was called a "Millennium Essay" (Cf. Nature Volume 400, 29 July,1999, page 415) called "Detonator of the Population Explosion," which is of course, all about the importance of Fritz Haber, and which claims, without reference, that the percentage of human protein on earth that was fixed in a chemical reactor using the Haber-Bosch process is 40% and that virtually the protein in the entire population of China is composed of Haber fixed nitrogen.

Well then...

If I didn't get any artistic or technical feeling of accomplishment from "Troll Rating Fritz Haber..." I did, at least, discover, during the library research, the thinking and writings of Vaclav Smil. My admiration for Vaclav Smil does not imply that I agree with everything Smil says, but he is an important analytical thinker, and humanity and the earth are, well, enriched by his considerations.

Smil was born and raised and educated through his undergraduate training in the former Czechoslovakia. There is something more than a little wry about his matter of fact writings. He wrote a fabulously funny review of Amory Lovins' insufferably stupid book, Natural Capitalism, called Rocky Mountain visions: a review essay.

Smil is a polymath, and is at home discussing not only the chemistry and physics and biology of nitrogen and phosphorous, but also history, and in particular, he is an expert in Roman History.

Smil reminds me of another Czech intellectual who fascinated me and opened my mind to seeing alternate viewpoints - even if he was something a libertarian and inexplicably worshipped Ayn Rand, nutcase, who had another acolyte, Alan Greenspan, who nearly destroyed the US economy via spectacular inattention - Petr Beckmann, whose famous book A History of π described the Romans has a particularly grotesque set of vicious, exceedingly, stupid barbarians. Maybe the label "libertarian" is a little unfair, since Beckman, as is described in the Wikipedia entry on the book wrote that people who opposed public science funding were, um, quote:

intellectual cripples who drivel about 'too much technology' because technology has wounded them with the ultimate insult: They can't understand it any more.

His views on Randian theology aside, Beckmann taught me many things, like how Archimedes almost certainly invented calculus more than 1000 years before Newton and Leibnitz, (a contention for which recent discoveries in ancient manuscripts have added support) only to be executed by a Roman thug. Beckmann also wrote a book called the The Heath Hazards of Not Using Nuclear Energy. I never read it actually, having formed my current opinions about nuclear energy using the writings of Bernard Cohen.

Beckmann was a Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote electrical engineering texts and other publications, and was something of a crank in the sense he claimed that the General Theory of Relativity was bunk, which is of course, nonsense.

The Czech intellectuals diaspora's fascination with the Romans may have had something to do with the Czech history of dealing with empires. After having briefly escaped being a vassal culture in the Austrian Hungarian Empire, the Czechs were awarded - without any solicitation of their own consent - by the Prime Minister of the vicious British Empire to the criminal Nazi Empire, only to be "liberated," with the consent of the self same British Empire and the American Empire, by the Stalinist concrete encased murderous Soviet Empire, from which they only escaped a mere 20 years ago, partially via the efforts of another great Czech intellectual, Vaclav Havel.

There's lots of Vaclavs and Beckmanns in this post.

When Vaclav Havel first came to the United States to visit, the Reagan-Bush era folks were extremely solicitous and fawning and asked their avatar of "freedom" what he most wanted to do in the United States. What he wanted to do was to meet Frank Zappa. As far as I know, Vaclav Havel wasn't particularly interested in the Romans. While Havel was President of Czechslokia, the country disintegrated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. That was a great time for the peaceful disintegrating of countries, with the notable exception of the former Yugoslavia.

But let's return to Vaclav Smil.

Like I said, Vaclav Smil wrote an extremely wry and amusing review of the very stupid Amory Lovins' stupid book, Natural Capitalism, and published it in the Wiley journal Population and Development Review (PDR, 26:163-176, 2000). The review was entitled Rocky Mountain Visions: A Review Essay.

The delicious sarcasm begins with the opening paragraph:

Why should I review a book whose American edition sold out before its publication date, a book called by its dust-jacket boosters a "conceptual milestone," "the design manual for the 21st century," the wisdom of "three of the world's best brains," and "the bible" for the next industrial revolution?' I am not a keen book reviewer but such an astonishing lack of historical perspective and such marketing hubris devoid of any sense of proportion, emblematic as they may be of the times we live in, impel me to pen a modest essay recalling useful lessons from the past and offering cautionary observations about the present and the future.

Then in a throwout that is, I think, deeply ironic coming from a writer whose people survived the Nazi Empire he writes a few paragraphs later:

Actually, large parts of the book are simply recycled, with only slight alteration, from their recent writings, particularly from Factor Four, which the co-CEOs of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) coauthored with Ernst von Weizsacker.2

As a witness to Amory Lovins's transformations during the past three decades-from zealous critic of nuclear energy to militant advocate of "softpath" energies to his most recent incarnation as a guru of corporate consulting coming to save the planet through natural capitalism-I have felt like a tourist trudging along a particularly well-worn path.

One aspect of the irony of this excerpt, in case you missed it, involves reference to Ernst von Weizacker, who is the son of one of the Carl Frederick von Weizacker, and the grandson of another Ernst von Weizacker.

Carl Frederick von Weizacker, the father, was one of the Nazi nuclear scientists interned at Farm Hall after World War II - where the British and Americans secretly recorded every word they said, trying to understand whether they had been trying to build, or were interested in building nuclear weapons. The German nuclear scientists used the time that they were confined together in Britain to construct a claim that they would never have dreamed of being so immoral as to have tried anything like that and were merely trying to construct a power reactor to serve humankind.


I covered this topic of Nazi nuclear scientists in more detail in what I consider may have been one of my best diaries at Kos - as art - The Deformed Nucleus: Neptunium and the Rain. (I'd like to move that one here someday.)

Ernst von Weizacker, the grandfather, had been a career German diplomat, starting in the Weimar Republic, and then under the Nazi regime, where he served as Director of Policy at the Foreign Office under von Ribbentrop. (After the war, von Ribbentrop was one of the Nazi leaders to be hung by the allies for war crimes.) Von Weizacker, the grandfather, joined the Nazi Party in 1938, then joined the SS, where he obtained a rank equivalent to Brigadier General and ended his Nazi diplomatic career as Nazi Ambassador to the Vatican. In 1947 von Weizaker, the grandfather, was himself convicted of war crimes and sentanced to 7 years in prison, of which he served very little. Another of his sons, brother of nuclear physicist Carl, Richard von Weizacker, later became President of West Germany.

Let me make, at this point, a statement which may sound a little extreme in this context, but is nonetheless heartfelt: It is a crime against humanity to have a policy of phasing out nuclear energy.

Anyway, lets not get lost in history. This is supposed to be a post about Vaclav Smil and nuclear energy.

Smil's long review of Lovins' book Natural Capitalism continues thusly, making reference to his Czech upbringing in an empire:

...I share their calls for technical rationality, higher efficiency, lower environmental impacts, and more considerate farming-but I cannot foresee such easy walks and such stunning rewards in so short a time as they claim or imply. My quarrel is not with their goals but with the excessive promises, repeated exaggerations, wishful thinking, and righteous insistence that theirs is the only enlightened way.

Our fundamental differences lie in the awareness of history and in the readiness to prescribe grand solutions. I am constantly aware of the presence and importance of the past (natural for someone coming from Kafka's city), and hence I marvel how even the most "revolutionary" ideas grow so unmistakeably from tangled thickets of old thought, and how little our individual contributions matter when one looks at incremental and cumulative progress in science, engineering, and human well being. And having lived for 27 years in a vassal state of the Soviet Empire has made me distrustful of any normative solutions revealed in point-by-point instruction sheets by "best brains." (Comrade Stalin, as I well recall from my gradeschool days, had one too!)...

Here, Smil, is a little kinder than I might be to Lovins, for in my opinion Lovins can hardly be described in any sentence that refers to technical rationality, and clearly (as Smil connotes) Lovins is, if anything, irrational - I'll put it bluntly - in the extreme.

My personal opinion of Lovins is that he is not merely wrong but, as he is paid by a huge percentage of dangerous fossil fuel companies to offer up his blathering nonsense, that Lovins is pernicious, probably nearly as criminal, in a moral sense if not in a legal sense, as his old buddy Jeff Skilling of Enron fame, who keeps an active appeal process going - one case recently reached the Supreme Court of the United States - trying to spring himself from the Federal Penitentary where, frankly, he belongs.

Never let it be said that my opinions are mild and restrained.

But back to Smil, in the above reference:

How should I close this essay? Nothing is so salutary when looking ahead as taking a look back. In 1976 Amory Lovins published his signature piece in Foreign Affairs, in which he argued for an accelerated demise of centralized energy production and for the takeover of the world energy supply by soft-that is, decentralized, small, and renewable-conversions.35 Two years later, in a follow-up review, he plotted two very similar graph lines predicting fractional market penetration of these soft techniques in the US commercial energy market and concluded that their slope "does not appear unreasonably steep in view of the simplicity, short lead times, and diversity" of soft conversions.36

Those lines predicted that in the year 2000 the United States would draw about 35 percent of its commercial energy from soft energies. Another two years later, in 1980, I listened, both bemused and irked, when at an international energy conference the Lovinses concluded their sales sermon about the inevitability of soft energies during the coming generation by saying: "It must be that way."37 The year 2000 is here, and renewable energies supply about 7.5 percent of US primary energy. But half of this is hydroelectricity generated by water compounded by large dams, definitely no species of small, decentralized soft-energy production.38 Biomass (mostly combustion of wood waste by lumber and pulp and paper industries and some fuel alcohol), wind, and solar energy provide just over 3 percent of all US energy use, or about one-tenth of Amory Lovins's "not unreasonable" projection. Being off by more than 90 percent-factor ten in reverse-hardly qualifies as a triumphant vision of an inevitable future...

...The US economy, we are told, should simply rid itself of $2 trillion of waste that is "a built-in feature of an outmoded industrial system." The trio provides a long list of things to be eliminated, ranging from hidden social costs of driving, guarding sea lanes bringing oil, and bad dietary choices, to current insurance systems, illegal drugs, lawsuits, complex tax codes, and all government waste. The list reads like part of a naive sermon: humanity shedding its cherished modern vices just because the three supremely rational utopians tell it to do so. Too bad that we are not told how the trio will make society virtuous within a generation when countless religious visionaries, social and economic reformers, and political dictators (from benevolent to brutal) have failed to prevent or eliminate even lesser vices throughout recorded history ...

...And so to you, younger readers-who, after finishing
Natural Capitalism, are eagerly anticipating a world filled with gas-reforming plants at every wellhead so the continent could be flooded with hydrogen-feeding myriads of silent fuel cells, where only healthy food choices come from bucolic roof patches that use no synthetic fertilizer, where nobody sues anybody else for the sake of maximized efficiency, where factories that produce WalMart junk ooze no waste, where government does not waste a penny, and where super-sleek F- 16-like indestructible composite-fiber hypercars (sorry, HypercarsTM, or I'd get sued) that weigh less than you do, create no environmental burdens and act like power plants while you sleep-my only counsel is: beware! Turning once more to those durable Romans, I will quote Pliny the Younger who, writing nineteen centuries ago, put it best: "It is better to believe the world than individuals. For individuals can deceive and be deceived, whereas no one ever fooled the world."

Charles has referred, on this blog, to the Smil/Lovins interface in a post about the challenge made by David Bradish, a very fine young man with whom I once had lunch, to Lovins in a post called Amory Lovins Discredited.

It is not my intention, here in my opening post at Nuclear Green to repeat what Charles or David have already said about Lovins. All proponents of nuclear energy find Lovins to be a ridiculous and insufferable fool, no less nutty than, say, Ernest Steinglass, or Harvey Wasserman, and Smil disposes of Lovins better - and with more authority - than I could hope to do.

Rather, all of the above is a wordy and desultory - as is my style - introduction to introducing Smil and then referring to a point he raised about steel. (Yes, I am aware of how I titled this post.)

Although it would be too much to regard Smil as oracular - as many people view Lovins - Smil is very clearly a fine and remarkable thinker on the topic on the energy and mass flows associated with modern technology, and is particularly adept at sketching out realities of the problems that humanity now faces. This is not to say that Smil is universally right about everything - I certainly can find many places where I disagree with him - but only that he is technically well reasoned and highly analytical, and with his considerable wit, something of an literary artist worthy of our respect if not our whole hearted agreement on every point.

But Smil has raised a point about carbon, not that in the atmosphere - which concerns me far more than it does him - but rather that which is in, well, steel. To be honest, I never really thought about the point he raises in a article he includes in his publications list on his website called The Iron Age & coal-based coke: A neglected case of fossil-fuel dependence.

As an old-fashioned scientist, I prefer hard engineering realities to all those interminably vacuous and poorly informed policy “debates” that feature energy self-sufficiency (even Saudis import!), sustainability (at what spatial and temporal scales?), stakeholders (are not we all, in a global economy?) and green economy (but are not we still burning some 9 billion tonnes of carbon annually?).

High regard for facts and low regard for wishful thinking has forced me to deal repeatedly with many energy illusions–if not outright delusions–and to point out many complications and difficulties to be encountered during an inevitably lengthy transition from an overwhelmingly fossil-fueled world to economies drawing a substantial share of their primary energies from renewable sources.

Steel & Coal-Derived Coke Here is another challenge for the energy transformationists, one that is both inexplicably neglected and extraordinarily important: steel’s fundamental dependence on coal-derived coke with no practical substitutes on any rational technical horizon. Those with a warped understanding of the real world might scoff: steel? Is not the electronics everything that matters in the post-industrial world? Yes, according to scientifically illiterate media and to the ceaseless self-promoting noise coming from assorted software companies. But,
contrary to these naïve perceptions of reality, ours is still very much the Iron Age and not a Microprocessor Age.

We had prosperous and vibrant economies long before solid state electronics was invented (that is before December1947 when the first transistor was demonstrated at the Bell Labs) and before the first microprocessor was released by Intel (that is before November 1971). But no aspect of modern, or post-modern, economy is imaginable without steel: so many things that surround us made of it (from car bodies to cutlery, from shipping containers to skyscraper skeletons), and just about everything around us made with it as steel tools and steel machines are used to produce countless metallic, plastic, wooden and stone products and as steel is the dominant material in complex engineering assemblies ranging from massive offshore drilling rigs to supertankers, and from reinforced concrete to the world’s longest bridges.

One might add that steel is important to those massive, if short lived and unreliable wind turbine towers that are often offered as a weak solution to our energy problems and climate problems - particularly by what Smil calls (and on this I happen to agree with him on this point) "our scientifically illiterate media" If Smil is right about the essential steel, this would be yet another way that the so called "renewable energy" industry functions, as it does in my opinion, as a prop to the dangerous fossil fuel industry: Smil points out that an essential ingredient of steel is coke, which is pyrolyzed coal, and he claims, there is no viable substitute for steel, telling us in a section called "wood is not the answer" that...

Adding substantial amounts of fine charcoal to pulverized coal injected into a blast furnace in order to lessen the reliance on fossil fuels is not an option because charcoal destroys coking properties of coals by reducing the degree of coal’s fluidity. Conversion of the world’s ironmaking to charcoal-fueled furnaces would have to be thus accompanied by a massive reversion to smaller, more costly and less efficient, blast furnaces.

Wood Isn’t the Answer.

Such a massive reversion would be very expensive and in practice highly unlikely, is technically possible; finding enough wood to produce all that charcoal would be another matter. Traditional charcoaling was extremely wasteful, with more than 10 tonnes of wood needed to produce a tonne of charcoal but even for the modern methods that were used commonly in Brazil during the 1990s (before a large-scale conversion to coke) the ratio of wood: charcoal was 4:1. This means that a complete replacement of 520 million tonnes of coke (setting aside those nontrivial matters of differences in compressive strength and furnace size) would require nearly 2.1 billion tonnes of wood. Even if that wood were to come from such high-yielding species as tropical eucalypts, producing about 10 tonnes per hectare/year, today’s iron smelting would require harvesting annually an area of 210 million hectares of well-managed tropical wood plantations –- or an area equivalent to half of Brazil’s Amazon tropical rain forest. This choice of enormous monocultural plantations replacing a highly biodiverse forest should not, one would hope, get a green approval –- but if the wood harvest for metallurgical charcoal were to come from the world’s major concentrations of existing tropical, temperate and boreal forests then the impact would be even more extreme. Global harvests of roundwood have now reached about 3.9 billion cubic meters a year, and if metallurgical charcoal were to claim 2.1 billion tonnes it would mean that only about 10% of today’s worldwide wood cut would be left for all timber (mainly for construction and furniture) and pulp (mainly for paper) needs.
Well then...

Smil's contention is that as a result of this situation we have to mine coal for as long as it lasts, for as he puts it:

No amount of renewable electricity and no amount of bioethanol can smelt a billion tonnes of iron –- and all the charcoal that could be produced in a responsible and truly sustainable manner could be used to reduce only a small fraction of today’s iron needs, and even a smaller one of the future demand. There can be no doubt: coal-derived coke will be with us for generations to come.

At the risk of sounding as glib or as utopian as Amory Lovins - perish the thought - I disagree with Smil on this point of whether coal based coke need be with us for generations to come.

In the stupid high school term paper quality publication that would make Amory Lovins famous, the glib, "The Road Not Taken" (Foreign Affairs, Vol 55, October 1976, pgs 65-96, citation page 76) Lovins states:

People do not want electricity or oil, nor such economic abstractions as "residential services," but rather comfortable rooms, light, vehicular motion, food, tables, and other real things.

True enough. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

At the risk of siding with Lovins against the much smarter Smil however, what people want, or at least what engineers want is a strong metallic material, not steel.

That we live still in the steel age and have lived in it, as Smil points out, for centuries is essentially true. Nevertheless, we also now also live in the aluminum age as well, and aluminum is a relatively new material. Until the early part of the century just past, aluminum metal was a laboratory curiousity. Although the ore, alumina - aluminum oxide - is one of the most common materials on earth, it was very expensive because there was no good way to produce the metal from the ore until the discovery of the electrolytic Hall process. The Hall proces is still - and it may be a while before molten salt nuclear reactors replace it as such - the most important technological application of molten salts that there is, the molten salt in question being cryolite, a sodium fluroaluminate. Bauxite, aluminum oxide, is dissolved in this salt and then is electrolytically reduced to the metal, consuming somewhere between 2 percent and 5 percent of the world's electricity.

It may be true - and I hope I'm not engaging in too much Lovinsian hand waving here - that much as we have entered the aluminum age, we may still yet enter the titanium age, and in so doing, displace much of our need for steel with a superior material available via electricity. If the dangerous fossil fuel terrorists had struck the World Trade Center with their dangerous fossil fueled weapon of mass destruction in exactly the same way and the frame had been made of titanium, and not steel - titanium being a lighter, stronger, and higher melting metal than steel - the Trade Center would still grace the New York Skyline albeit, perhaps, after some extensive repairs.

Titanium is not a rare element on earth by any stretch of the imagination. Titanium dioxide is, in fact, one of the most common inorganic commodities of commerce and is used widely in products as diverse as paint, tooth paste, water purification filters and sunscreen. However, it is in the same position as aluminum was a century ago. The ore is easy to find, but the reduction of the ore to the metal is problematic.

Pertinant to this point, let me reference myself on another website where I have written and to the reference therein, repeating more or less what I've said here: Electrowinning Titanium in Molten Salts.

On this website, we all know how to get clean electricity.

Let me return to Vaclav Smil:

Smil, unlike me, is, I would guess, something of a free marketeer. That may be a pyschological artifact of having grown up in a Stalinist world and placing oneself totally in reaction to it, throwing out the baby with the bathwater because all of the bathwater one has seen has been unbelievably polluted. It is no disrespect to Smil to state that I differ from him in that I'm an unreconstructed New Dealer, neither a Ayn Randian cultist nor a pure socialist.

Actually, I am more moved by Eleanor Roosevelt than by her husband Franklin and the essense of my political life is the Statement that Mrs Roosevelt included, as the twenty-fifth article in the International Declaration of Human Rights which she pushed through - as the first American Ambassador to the United Nations, which reads, in part:

•(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Call me quaint. This is my political moral universe.

I think that Government can - and should - play a role in the economy, in particular in protecting our common space, air, water, land. It is of course, possible that governments will make bad decisions, even with popular approval and general public myopia, driven by what Smil and I agree is a stupid media run by scientifically illiterate journalists, but if it is so, such things are reversible and it is the responsibility of the better informed to try to communicate - I often try to do it with a rhetorical sledge hammer with mixed success - with the less well informed.

In a democracy, one can always say, at least, that one gets what one deserves.

I have been picking on Germany in this post. Germany of course, represents a case of a democratic country making a popular bad decision, not only in the case of that unfortunate case of Hitler being elected Chancellor, but also in matters of energy.

The modern German government, for example, famously announced a plan to phase out its largest source of climate change gas free energy, nuclear energy, and attempt to displace it via subsidies for solar and wind toys. This was a disasterous policy, wasting billions of Euros for little result. Now that the German government is phasing out solar subsidies, one can show that the billions of Euros thrown down the solar rabbit hole do not even produce as much energy as a 500 MWe power plant of any type could produce if operated continuously, not that the solar plants can run continuously. The use of solar and wind energy is the surest way to entrench, irrevocably, the gas industry. Moreover the energy is produced in such a way that it displaces even less dangerous fossil fuels than the 500 MWe figure might suggest, since it requires spinning reserve - most often, gain, gas fueled spinning reserve - to use so called "renewable energy."

I refered to Zero at the beginning of this post. The effect of the solar fantasy in Germany, after ten long years, has been as close to zero as is possible in the fight against climate change.

If the result was really meant to fight climate change - and I suspect that the real purpose was to assure Gerhard Schroeder a good job with Gazprom after he retired from "government" - it was a miserable failure and could only have been approved in a climate of mass public ignorance.

Be that as it may, I suspect we will soon see the phase out of the nuclear phase out just as we are seeing the phase out of the solar subsidy.

Germany is now proposing to build coal plants, something I find tragic, dangerous, and unacceptable in these times.

This is my first post on Nuclear Green. Thanks Charles, for the invitation.

Whether, ultimately the post comes down as art, artifice or technical, or none or all of these, I leave it for whatever readers may come to judge.

(Future posts are unlikely to be this long.)

I have tried in the last several years as a blogger to be unyielding in my support of nuclear energy, and my vision for it - steely if you will - but truth be told, I have been questioning the value of my blogging and having been giving serious thought to abandoning the whole thing.

Wither my steel?

Writing this post was certainly nostalgic for me, inasmuch, it was like the old days of writing at Kos and I confess, maybe, I enjoyed it a little, or maybe even too much for what it's worth. At least I don't have to compose a poll. (The Kos polls were often the most popular features of my diaries there, but truth be told, they were often the most difficult things to put together.)

Whatever the merits of my work, or my ability either technically or artistically, the fight for nuclear energy remains the most important task before humanity.


Robert Hargraves said...

NNadir, I love your writing style: offhanded, competent, train of thought, history, technology, all flowing along with cynicism, quotes, and facts. One has to be in a receptive mood to read such a long post, though.

Can you help me on nitrogen? I often say (without enough backup) that two thirds of the world's food comes from crops fed by ammonia fertilizer, and that the "green revolution" in Africa (50 years ago?) that diminished starvation is largely due to such fertilizer. Where's a good reference?

High temperature reactors (900-1000 C), such as the pebble bed reactor or LFTR, can dissociate water to make hydrogen with a 50% thermal/chemical-potential efficiency. (Where's a good reference?) Of course hydrogen is a poor fuel, but a wonderful feedstock for NH3 ammonia or H3COH methanol or H3COCH3 dimethyl ether, all of which can be used as vehicle fuels.

Joffan said...

hey NNadir... nice to have another ramble with you through the backwoods of industrial history.

The point on coke for steel is spectacular, it has to be admitted, even if the answer is not "more coke" but "different metals". And I simply have to steal Mr Smil's phrase "High regard for facts, and low regard for wishful thinking".

Charles Barton said...

I am, needless to say, very pleased to have NNadir posting on Nuclear Green.

David Walters said...

Titanim! Who would of thunk it? It would be interesting to see a comparison of a coke-driven steel costs chart next to one of an LFTR driven Titatium one. ya' know...Steel is one of the most widely recycled materials in the world...I think the number is something like 90% of all steel products is derived from recycled material. Something like that.

Most/all/many of the newer steel mills in the US and most of the world use recycled, not ore-derived steel. So I suspect, even with the advent of titatium, steel will be around long after MSR produced titatium makes it to market.

David Walters

NNadir said...

Robert: Finding out the actual percentage of fixed nitrogen that derives from the Haber process is actually quite complicated.

Smil throws out in one place a figure of "40%," but there isn't a good description of methodology.

Methodological papers tend to focus on isotope ratios between N-14 and N-15 but often they are localized. For instance there is quite an interesting paper on this case referring to several Connecticut rivers, but the local ratios are effected by the fact that Connecticut has many septic and sewer run-off systems.

I may dig out some references to these papers in the future. It's not a clear cut question.

The most famous hydrogen cycle is the SI cycle, but there are many (possibly hundreds) of such cyles.

The favorite ones are not necessarily even the best ones.

I may write here a full post on the subject, giving the historical reasons why the SI cycle is probably the most studied and most advanced and why it may not be the best of even the known cycles.

NNadir said...


According to Smil, the quantities of steel used that is recycled is somewhat smaller than 90%.

It's about 70%.

I didn't cover this, but even Smil notes that some steel is made by using methane as a reductant from dangerous natural gas.

Methane is readily accessible from carbon dioxide if one has the energy to produce hydrogen. Under certain circumstances it is a side product in the production of DME.

Moreover it is readily separable from DME (to a certain extent.)

My point is that we don't necessarily need coal as much as Smil thinks we do.

I am more concerned with metals like vanadium.

Interestingly vanadium is a side product in the separation of uranium from sea water, although not in amounts that could ever be industrially important. This is true, however, only for the most well known aldoxime resin type uranium concentrating solid phase resin. There are certainly other approaches to obtaining uranium from seawater.

None of these should be necessary for many centuries however.

Duncan said...

Don't sell Rod Adams short - you were by far my favorite blogger at Daily Kos!

Even after I discovered there was more left than I ever knew and I was pretty moderate and decided DKos was better off without me, I went back for your posts.

R Ramjet said...

What a wonderful, informative, stimulating, amusing, desultory ramble. I hung in there to the end because it was worth it? My brain is a little fried but there's a smile on my face so who cares?


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