Unnatural gas

Guest Post by Tom Blees. Tom is author of Prescription for the Planet – The Painless Remedy for Our Energy & Environmental Crises. Tom is also the president of the Science Council for Global Initiatives.


Last month Bobby Kennedy Jr., a tireless advocate for the environment, gave a talk in New York City to a packed house. He spoke about the devastation wrought by coal mining and argued that we must get away from fossil fuels if we’re to deal with climate change. He also, to my chagrin (since I know he’s got my book), threw in some tired clichés about how bad nuclear power is. He then waxed enthusiastic about wind and solar power, asserting that if we build a smart grid and pour enough resources into building a lot of wind and solar production, we can have “free energy forever.” The crowd ate it up. Bobby’s a very good speaker, he’s definitely got the Kennedy knack for that.

Later, as he expanded on the renewable energy topic, he pointed out that we have abundant natural gas in the USA that we can use to fill in when the wind and solar production is insufficient. Bobby is certainly not alone in having a huge blind spot in this regard. Virtually every prominent advocate for a renewables-only future includes natural gas as a big part of the mix. Though it’s usually de-emphasized by wind and solar promoters, this embrace of natural gas generation is a tacit admission of the logistical and economic impossibility of providing all the energy humanity needs from renewables alone.

The willing acceptance of increased natural gas use by so many who consider themselves environmentalists is stunningly inconsistent with the science of anthropogenic climate change. The nearly religious fervor of the windies and sunnies virtually ignores this devil in the details. The most classic example of such willful blindness is the elevation of T. Boone Pickens to the status of environmental hero because of his plans (since scrapped, ironically) to build a huge wind farm in Texas. Back in 2004, T. Boone was infamous among these same people as the nefarious money man behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the abominable smear campaign that helped keep George W. Bush in power for a second disastrous term. T. Boone’s transformation into a darling of environmentalists is reminiscent of the “rehabilitation” of political pariahs in Maoist China. How quickly we forget.

A cynic (or realist) might well observe that T. Boone Pickens is a gas guy. That’s his stock in trade, it’s what made him the billions that freed him to support arch-conservative interests until his recent foray into the world of lefties. His political chameleon act, though, is much easier to understand if one keeps in mind the fact that the more massive the deployment of wind turbines and solar farms the more dependent we will become upon natural gas. It’s telling that T. Boone eventually abandoned plans for his mega-wind farm, attesting to his recognition that the economics simply couldn’t justify it. Ironically, he’s still pals with the big shots on the left. Ah, sweet redemption!

The use of the term “natural” has long been a problem in the food industry, where everybody and his brother wants to put the term on their packaging if their product is produced anywhere short of a chemistry lab. Consumers are suckers for the word, and the food industry knows it. So does the natural gas industry, though the use of the term for their product is one of those serendipitous appellations that predates the era of Madison Avenue spin. But let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? Natural gas is no more natural than coal or oil. And it’s high time that self-styled environmentalists stopped acting as if coal is the bad guy but natural gas is our friend.

Natural gas (aka methane) is a potent greenhouse gas, with an effect at least 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Though considerably shorter-lived in the atmosphere, as it breaks down it converts to the much more persistent CO2, so it is far from environmentally friendly any way you cut it. But with the widespread awareness that coal is bad news, the comparative cleanliness of natural gas (which doesn’t leave mountains of ash in its wake nor release heavy metals and other nasties as it burns) has made it the fuel of choice for filling in the massive gaps that are the inevitable corollary of increasing reliance on wind and solar power.

Like coal and other fossil fuels, though, natural gas is subject to sometimes wild fluctuations in price. The more we use it, the higher those prices are likely to rise. Reliance on supplies outside one’s own country (the case in most nations of the world) can also create real problems, as when Russia decided to use its natural gas a political fulcrum.

When it comes to the arguments between renewables and nuclear advocates, many of which have been conducted on these pages, those who argue against nuclear power have often cited it as being poor at load following, unlike natural gas turbines that can spin up and down relatively quickly. These are pretty weak arguments on a couple of fronts. For one thing, the newer nuclear power plants are quite good at load following. But any type of power plant is going to experience undue wear and tear from the increased variability that is part and parcel of wind and solar integration into the grid (particularly wind, for obvious reasons, though solar power can dip quickly when clouds move in). In areas where gas turbines have been used to compensate for the vagaries of renewables, utility companies are finding that they’re taking quite a beating, with an expected diminution in their service lives.

So how can wind and solar be best integrated into the power grid without relying on gas? And how can we do it without investing up to two trillion dollars in a smart grid?

Let’s not.

Let’s forget about integrating wind and solar power into the grid at all (except for small solar installations like rooftop solar, for those who want to go that route). Let’s remove the urgency of building a smart grid and rely instead on the gradually smartening grid we’ve already got. This relatively dumb grid works pretty well so far and we could take our time revamping it. If Gen III and Gen IV nuclear power plants are used to replace coal- and gas-fired generators we’ll get clean electricity quite reliably no matter how intelligent our grid is.

This is not to suggest that we should abandon the building of wind and solar farms (the question of their economics is another issue beyond the scope of this article). Instead of hooking them to the grid, though, we could easily and cheaply build electrolysis systems at each site to generate hydrogen, and with that hydrogen we can make ammonia (That’s NH3. The nitrogen is simply taken from the air). Indeed, the economics may warrant building ammonia plants right at the site of wind and solar farms, or at least producing the hydrogen there and trucking it to nearby ammonia plants.

This would take the problem of intermittency completely out of the picture. Hydrogen production would proceed as electricity supply allows, utilizing every watt no matter how variable its production. Similarly, electrolysis systems could be integrated into the grid at nuclear power plants so that they could run at full capacity around the clock regardless of demand. That hydrogen, too, could be utilized to produce ammonia.

Which brings up the burning question: Are cow farts carbon neutral?

Much has been made of the problem of livestock flatulence. Usually it’s tongue-in-cheek, but those with an anti-meat agenda often argue quite seriously that reducing the vast herds of animals raised for food would help remedy the global warming problem. (These are also often the same people who argue that instead of using ammonia as fertilizer we should use manure, which would necessitate increasing livestock herds from about 1.3 billion to 7-8 billion.) The contrary argument is that since these animals are eating plants their methane emissions are carbon neutral. But are they?

Take a look at how their food plants are grown. It’s almost a sure bet that the plants they eat (primarily corn and soybeans in the USA) have been grown using ammonia as a fertilizer. The food we eat is the same. According to a recent article in The Economist, about half the nitrogen atoms in our human bodies have come through ammonia plants. Ammonia production for agricultural purposes is a huge worldwide business, about $100 billion/year. And the source of most of the ammonia used in agriculture is natural gas. The hydrogen to make the ammonia (NH3) is derived from methane (CH4), a process that strips off the hydrogen and results in a great deal of carbon dioxide. Aside from the approximately 1% of this carbon dioxide that is used by the oil industry to inject into wells (much of which seeps to the surface anyway), all of it makes its way into the atmosphere either directly or indirectly. (Next time you’re drinking a carbonated beverage reflect a moment on the fact that the CO2 you’re ingesting probably came from natural gas.) So ammonia production is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions the way we do it today. It might be mentioned here that the single largest producer of ammonia by far, China, produces nearly all its ammonia (28% of the world total) from coal, resulting in over twice as much CO2 per unit ammonia as that produced with natural gas.

Byabandoning the problematic integration into the electrical grid in favor of electrolysis and hydrogen production, wind and solar farms would be decreasing the use of natural gas instead of increasing it. But if we also built electrolysis systems even into our nuclear power plants (along with desalination systems), would the world have a use for the great amounts of ammonia we’d be making?

Ammonia is one of the most highly produced inorganic chemicals in the world, with over 110 million metric tons produced each year, 80% of which is used for agriculture. Clearly it would take a massive amount of electrolysis to produce such quantities, so the question of whether wind and solar could outproduce the demand is moot for the foreseeable future.

There’s yet another area that could create a far greater demand for ammonia, though, since internal combustion engines can be built that burn ammonia and produce no harmful emissions (the nitrous oxides can be removed with a catalytic converter). There’s a company that’s been building ammonia-powered tractor engines for a while now (since farmers have a ready source of fuel at their ammonia tanks). The next project is building an engine for use in over-the-road trucks.

Technology optimists look to the day when battery evolution will allow us all to drive electric cars, but commercial trucks can hardly be expected to be battery powered, and trucking is a huge industry, moving about 60% of commercial goods in the United States. Converting the world’s trucks to zero-emission ammonia power would be a boon to the environment, eliminating the diesel exhaust from millions of these big vehicles. Even if no cars at all ever converted to ammonia power (and why not build ammonia hybrids?), it would be a herculean accomplishment to produce all the ammonia the world would need for both agricultural and trucking needs. Thus there is simply no truly compelling reason at all—aside from ossified thinking—to integrate wind and solar into the grid, with all the costs and difficulties that entails.

So let’s stop the tedious arguments about how nuclear power doesn’t make sense because you have to dump too much of the power during off-peak hours. We can use the extra power for electrolysis or desalination. And please let’s stop with the ridiculous assumption that natural gas is something that’s environmentally benign. If we’re serious about dealing with climate change, fossil fuels—most definitely including natural gas—must be left in the ground.

But most of all let’s take a hard look at the whole idea of hooking wind and solar generators to the grid. The many problems associated with that concept can be eliminated in one stroke, and their energy can be put to good use to eliminate at least some of the natural gas and coal use that is currently employed for ammonia production around the world. If we ever get to the point where we get more hydrogen/ammonia from wind and solar than we can use, then we can talk about smart grids and displacing nuclear power as a primary source of electricity. Until then, let’s use nuclear’s 24/7 capability for our 24/7 electricity demand, and our variable sources for uses that work fine with intermittency. There’s simply no need to go through continual costly contortions to integrate the two.

Oh, and if we save a trillion or two by not having to build a smart grid right away, what might we do with it? Well, at the price China expects to be building nuclear power plants pretty soon, a trillion would build about 1,000 GWe of nuclear power plants (right now the whole world has about 368 GWe of nuclear capacity, 15.2% of the worldwide total electricity production). For a bit over a trillion, we could produce half of all the electricity we now produce from all sources, even if all the current nuclear plants were shut down. And yes, that means that for two trillion—the high end of the smart grid cost estimates—we could produce just about the same amount of electricity from brand spankin’ new nuclear power plants as the world produces now from all sources put together. That sounds to me like a heck of a lot better deal than a smart grid that will make it easier (yet still far from easy) to integrate maybe 20% of our intermittent electricity production into our grid.

How does it sound to you?

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  1. Many hot button issues here. Clearly the politicians and bureaucrats now favour NG since it’s not nuclear and renewables won’t make a dent in coal. In addition combined cycle plant is now down to $2 a watt capital cost I believe and can be air cooled in any location. When NG depletes coal seam methane can be substituted if there is as much as they reckon and they can find somewhere to put the brine discharge. However everybody wants gas hence the the multibillion dollar LNG export deals and I think some three of four coal gas liquefaction plants are also on the drawing boards. Given that crude oil the feedstock for diesel is depleting at 5-7% pa I think we can expect a huge shift to CNG initially in trucks and buses then maybe cars. I also think many people want long range cars, not battery vehicles. A wild guess is that Australia could use 30 Mtpa for domestic transport as soon as five years time. After a decade or so there will be concerns about enough for transport (30Mt?), export (40Mt?) and electrical generation (50Mt?) and the gas price will skyrocket. That will erase the lower capital costs.

    I disagree that ammonia is preferable to methane. NG, CSG, biogas and synthetic methane can all be blended and sent via the existing gas grid. They run on only slightly modified piston engines with low NOx exhaust. If the there is cheap H2 available make methane using the Sabatier reaction
    CO2 + 3 H2 = CH4 + 2H2O as is proposed for Martian astronauts. Chemical reaction vessels are not like coal mines, cows and swamps that leak CH4. Piped methane will not have the seepage and embrittlement problems of H2. It is odourless and non toxic. It can be converted to dimethyl ether with similar properties to LPG/propane.

  2. Well, IF you pull your CO2 out of the air for your Sabatier reaction and IF you have cheap H2 available, then yes, it would be carbon neutral. Those are two very big ifs. Otherwise, where do you get the CO2? And how do you pull it out of the air in sufficient quantities to power the world’s vehicle fleets? I think you’ll have some serious scalability issues there.

    By the way, the link Barry put in there to the yellow ammonia-powered truck refers to a truck that burns a mixture of ammonia and gasoline. Our newest member of The Science Council for Global Initiatives, whose page isn’t yet posted but will be soon, builds engines that burn just ammonia. Forget the gasoline.

  3. In a previous post, I asked Peter Lang whether he could think of any uses for stranded wind. I believe his reply was essentially negative. However, Tom, you are proposing the production of hydrogen through electrolysis. The subsequent synthesis of ammonia, making use of this hydrogen, has huge potential, as you point out, for nitrogen fertilisers and heavy vehicle transport. You acknowledge that surplus nuclear power could do the same thing and one is therefore left to ponder the relative economics.

    Could someone explain the technology underpinning hydrogen production by electrolysis? In particular, how much is the efficiency of the process likely to be impaired by intermittent and variable electrical loads? I would guess that you wouldn’t have proposed this approach were it to be hopelessly inefficient or uneconomic. Supposing such to be the case, why couldn’t a single landowner on a good wind site build his own turbine(s) and use electrolysis to produce his own fuel and/or fertiliser? In other words, can these processes be scaled down to this level or do the plants have to be on a large industrial scale?

    On a slightly different tack, I would like to bring up the subject of biochar. Eprida, a US company, had a potentially interesting approach to fertiliser production. Wood pyrolysis produces energy and biochar. Biochar is essentially activated charcoal. If the energy is used to produce ammonia and ammonia is adsorbed into the biochar, the resulting product can be used as to take CO2, SO2 and NOx out of flue gases of fossil fuel plants. One ends up with a potentially valuable fertiliser of ammonium carbonate, ammonium sulphate and ammonium nitrate which is also high in organic carbon, lacking in many soils. However, I have seen no indication of progress in this area and was wondering why.

  4. how much is the efficiency of [water electrolysis] likely to be impaired by intermittent and variable electrical loads?

    Little. Every NiMH battery is a water electrolyser. Plus the M sops it up as it is produced, so that no gaseous hydrogen is involved.

    … I would guess that you wouldn’t have proposed this approach were it to be hopelessly inefficient or uneconomic. Supposing such to be the case, why couldn’t a single landowner on a good wind site build his own turbine(s) and use electrolysis to produce his own fuel and/or fertiliser?

    As far as I know, ammonia now-a-days is still produced using the Haber process. That requires a big pressure vessel whose contents need to be hotter than melting lead. The equilibrium fraction of ammonia is small at this temperature, so what you do is cool the effluent until the ~20 percent of it that is ammonia condenses and can be drained off, and then you return the not yet reacted high-pressure gaseous mixture of three-quarters H2, one-quarter N2 for another go.

    Containing and moving large amounts of gas at many tens of bars of pressure and ~350°C isn’t for amateurs, and in the case of the Haber process it is being done on a large scale, so it isn’t for small operators. They would produce very expensive ammonia, and it isn’t all that hard to ship.

    Per unit delta ‘G’ of oxidation, as liquid under its own 9.9861-bar vapour pressure at 298 K — NIST data — it is 2.87 times more voluminous than equally energetic, unpressurized gasoline/petrol. If on a hot day a full tank were to warm up to 313 K, the pressure would rise to 250 bar … OK, one would not do it that way.

    Rather, one would size the tank for the saturated liquid volume at 40°C, 313 K, where the vapour pressure is 15.5 bar, and then you’d leave ten percent extra, and a relief valve. On that basis, it is 2.99 times more voluminous than petrol.

    (How fire can be domesticated)

  5. Tom, what have you been able to find out about natural gas royalties and tax revenues?

    With uranium at US$0.71 per water-reactor-accessible thermal MWh, and natural gas near $20 per match- or spark-accessible same, natgas royalties of $2 to $3 per thermal MWh, if they should happen to exist, would handily explain the hot blue flame of ideology in those of today’s lefties whose concern for government revenues is akin to my cats’ concern that I should eat more fish.

    (How fire can be domesticated)

  6. My father’s research on radon in natural gas, led him to contend that assuming the linear no threshold hypothesis, there would be 10,000 natural gas radiation related deaths in the United States every year. This estimate was made about 30 years ago. I am skeptical about the LNT hypothesis, but for people who raise the issue with nuclear power, raising the natural gas radon issue will drive home the point that they are not really concerned about radiation, because they ignore the radiation issue with natural gas.

  7. How much of the original energy remains after electrolysis makes the hydrogen and the hydrogen is converted to ammonia and the ammonia is transported to where it is needed.

  8. Those perusing this article may find the National Renewable Ammonia Architecture a worthwhile read. This 6,500 word piece should provide all of the required background for an educated reader not familiar with ammonia’s history and place in our agriculture and industry today.


    The assertion that there is no use for stranded wind is, IMHO, incorrect. It requires different thinking than a baseload + spinning reserves type system, but it does have its uses. Capital utilization is a concern; any plant so powered must be sized for maximum output, but will live and die on the Weibull curve of wind power production.

    I welcome further questions on this and I would direct any inquires regarding ammonia as a fuel to my cohort, Larry Bruce, chairman of the Ammonia Fuel Network. I’ll provide his contact if upon request.

  9. I don’t pretend to have worked out all the economics of the system (Graham is so much better at that stuff than I am), but consider this: The Vemork power plant, an early 1900s 60MW hydro plant in Norway, produced ammonia from electrolysis for many years. That one plant provided the lion’s share of fertilizer for Europe (not all of it ammonia) until the 40s. They built the electrolysis plant right next to it because it used DC current which they couldn’t transport for long distances without a lot of line loss (they didn’t have HVDC). Translating this precedent to the idea of producing hydrogen on-site at wind and solar farms, the use of DC there is a no brainer. What’s not to like?

    Bottom line, without having done the math: If a 60MW power plant could economically produce large amounts of ammonia almost a hundred years ago using electrolysis, I suspect we can do it today. Oh, one other economic treat: We wouldn’t need to build in molten salt storage facilities. We’d just use the current as it’s produced to make hydrogen.

  10. Hot button issues is right! Well done Tom.

    OK, a few/lot of caveats to Tom’s suggestions.

    First, when you get down to it…anything useful coming out of solar and wind has to be economically justified. Right now it’s not so I’ll skip over H2 & NH3 production unless Peter Lang wants to jump in here. I don’t see it, but who knows?

    BUT…as it happens, when we get to any variety of Gen IV atomic power, most notably the LFTR but perhaps too the IFR, the ability to load control *rapidly* will mechanically implemented (or can be) be inversely proportional to process heat production. A second loop valve on the hot gas (CO2/N2/He) can divert the energy from the primary loop to *any* process heat application: desalination; H2 and, NH3 production; synthetic gas production: di methyl ether and/or methanol.

    AT night the LFTR (in this example) can run flat out 100% capacity with *no load* on the generator/turbine set *at all* and all the energy used in the production of what you want. I would *think* this is “better” than any wind or solar scheme. On energyfromthorium.com we’ve given a tremendous amount of thought to all the various application of LFTRs of every size. I mean…what could 5000MWt of LFTR get you in cu ft of H2O?


  11. @Tom the answer to obtaining pure enough CO2 could also come via charcoal. Instead of venting the O2 from electrolysis it could be used to burn charcoal. It’s on my list of experiments for next year so if I stop posting you’ll know it went wrong. Incomplete combustion of woody biomass in air adds considerable N2, dust and tar. That poisons the catalyst for conversion to methane as well as reducing heating value.

    Thus the carbon could come from charcoal and the hydrogen from water splitting either electrolysis or thermal dissociation. It seems that any synthetic hydrocarbons will have poor energy return eg 0.5 kwh heating value or less for 1 kwh electrical input. However in density terms synfuel 40 MJ/kg stores energy better than batteries 0.2 MJ/kg even if the production is wasteful.

    The other problem with gas fired electrical generation is that it will never achieve 80% CO2 cuts. It seems likely politicians will write the cheques for token wind and solar while more and more gas fired intermediate load plant chugs away in the background, in effect greenwashing. Brown coal generators in Victoria have apparently been offered billions to switch to gas. Since the south eastern gas basins are past their prime eventually that gas would have to piped in from the northwest or from black coal basins. Nobody wants to think that far ahead.

  12. Renewable ammonia production facilities were slaughtered en masse by cheap natural gas. Iceland and British Columbia held out far longer than the continental European operations. The largest survivor and the only one I’ve been able to find data on is the Sable Chemical operation in Kwekwe, Zimbabwe. This 250k ton/year facility limps along at 20% capacity due to power troubles and very old electrolyzers.

    The assertion that we’ll simply directly make hydrogen is attractive until you dig into the economics. Hydrogen storage isn’t cheap, hydrogen pipelines are complex, fragile things not suitable for long distances or the sort of distribution to homes that we now do with natural gas. On the other hand, ammonia moves by a 3,100 mile pipeline network centered in the corn belt.

    if you’re curious about hydrogen pipeline technology a quick Google of my name and hydrogen pipeline should turn up a piece I did for The Cutting Edge News last year …

  13. David, thanks for the feedback. I too have written about the ease of utilizing a secondary heat exchanger loop to run desal and other processes. The whole tired argument about nuclear being uneconomical because you’ll have to overbuild to meet peak demand and then dump power during off peak hours is absurd on the face of it, a desperate attempt by anties to find fault with nuclear by grasping at straws (or straw men).

    John, I’ve heard the arguments for biochar, but my problem with it is scaling it up to a volume that would make a meaningful difference in terms of global warming. I’ve handled a lot of wood in my day and it’s no laughing matter. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I wonder how economical it would be compared to, say, drawing CO2 out of the air with Klaus Lackner’s fake trees.

  14. Who is that wants to reduce cattle while increase manure use? I’m guessing
    nobody, certainly not me.

    I’m doing a post on this soon, but here’s a taste.
    Nigeria is a very poor country with some
    huge public health issues, but it is within about 10% of being self sufficient in
    feeding its 150 million people in a country about 1/10 the size of the US, and
    it does it with very little manure (they have almost the lowest cattle/person
    ratio in Africa) and, as far as I can tell, very little nitrogen fertiliser. I’ve long
    assumed that cheap N fertiliser was essential to feed the planet, but I
    think I’ve been wrong. More soon when I have worked through more details.

    I share your skepticism on biochar scaling … a massive distribution

    Lastly, cattle aren’t really carbon neutral … first, they take carbon from plants
    and put it on steroids as far as its forcing is concerned, this is carbon
    neutral, but not forcing neutral. Second, they cause deforestation globally
    and locally, this reduces methane sinks and produces nitrous
    oxide sources, and turns standing
    biomass into atmospheric CO2. The methane drive tropospheric
    ozone which kills people and reduces crop production. Overgrazing
    is normal in many poor (and not so poor!) parts of the world and this
    depletes soil carbon and degrades soil productivity. Foraging crop
    residues is widely practised and depletes soil carbon, damages
    soil structure and accelerates top soil losses. In rich countries feed and
    forage are both driven by N fertiliser and both deplete soil carbon and
    soil nutrients.

    Lastly, livestock drive about 2/3 of anthropogenic burning globally
    which releases plenty of greenhouse gases + black carbon.

  15. I haven’t heard that thermal plant can be switched easily between desalination and electrical output. I guess at constant load with fixed cooling needs the proportions of output that go to water preheating, once through cooling, water pumping within and outside the plant and electricity to the grid could each be varied. Claims that wind power satisfactorily offsets the electrical input for reverse osmosis desal seem to be somehow based on changes to electricity prices, see e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurnell_Desalination_Plant

    Re rigours of rural life it’s mid Christmas morning here and the hay cutting contractor has just turned up to run noisy machinery in the neighbourhood for several hours. Perhaps hay could be converted to charcoal not fed to cows if we all ate less meat.

  16. I’m not saying [biochar] can’t be done, but I wonder how economical it would be compared to, say, drawing CO2 out of the air with Klaus Lackner’s fake trees.

    I think just about anything can beat those. Even real trees might be able to, as long as they are sunk in a deep part of the ocean after being cut down. If they’re easy to dig up and burn, someone will soon do so.

    This is the cheapest method, and the only one that has demonstrated large-scale leakproof sequestration.

    (How fire can be domesticated)

  17. Good and useful discussion after an overheated main post, IMO.

    First, to remind everone that the stuff you burn for cooking and heating is called ‘natural gas’, but it certainly is not, anymore than gasoline is crude petroleum. The actual natural gas coming out of the wellheads contains, besides methane, butane and propane, CO2, H2S and probably water vapor. All the stuff other than the methane is refined away; the butane and propane are sold seperately; the CO2 is typically released to the atmosphere and the H2S is turned into small mountains of elemental sulfur. Sometimes the industrial price for elemental sulfur is sufficiently high that the mountains of S are taken away; then again, visit northern Alberta to see what the prairies look like when it is not.

    To summarize, the stuff you burned is almost pure methane; I’ve taken to calling it natgas if from the usual source and biiomethane in obtained via anaerobic digestion of biomass. This latter process is ery attractive when the biomass is already concentrated, as in municipal waste managment facilities. More and more cities are turning to such digesters and producing small quantities of biomethane to go into the natgas network.

    With enough room, one can produce enough algae to run a combined cycle gas turbine with at east 90% closed carbon cycle; the deficit has to be made up by other, readily available sources of biomass for the digester. Think about 1500 ha (of desert) for an average of 500 MW all year.

    The immediate advantage is lower capital costs and a project completion time, start to finish, of 4 years or less, with construction company guarantees on cats and time. Not shabby, methinks. The disadvantages are to large footprint and the current estimate that the CCGT won’t last for more than 30 years.

    To grow algae at a price competative with natgas probably requires a point source for CO2, as outlined above; air capture won’t pay enough. However, any point source will do provided it is not too far away.

    As a last small point, clearly there is substantial pumping to be done at an algae farm/CCGT combination. But the pumping might largely take place just when the sun shines or the wind blows, consuming little of the electrical power from the CCGT.

  18. In a document entitled
    Natural Gas Combined Natural Gas Combined–cycle Gas Turbine Power Plants
    [Pacific] Northwest Power Planning Council and dated Aug 8, 2002 the estimated costs based on GE FA units was about $0.60/W total constructiion costs. So a current estimate of US$2/W for a GE H frame doesn’t seem that far wrong.

  19. @John Newlands … The reason you haven’t heard of this is because it’s a pain in the butt when dealing with thermal plants that run on *steam*. It can be done and in fact CCGTs use a form of this to bypass the steam turbine and run the steam directly to the condenser. I would suppose that the same steam could be run to a desal by simply piping it to the destillary, in fact you’d probably save on cooling water effluent this way.

    The process I described with the LFTR is far more flexible with a Brayton gas turbine rather than a Rankine steam turbine.


  20. This is a really sad, tendentious post.

    More than a few facts were left out which affect the balance of the argument. For example, if you burn methane you get per mole carbon (or carbon dioxide) about 800 kJ, which is a lot better than any other hydrocarbon (butane is ~664KJ) or coal (~394 kJ). Because you can run natural gas directly in a combined cycle turbine with cogeneration, you can reach almost 80% total thermal efficiency from natural gas.

    Natural gas is a decent replacement for coal. It has other advantages, transport can be run directly from LNG, soot production from natural gas is low and relatively easy to eliminate. As the price of natural gas has risen, more and more of the gas emitted from oil wells as a byproduct is being captured, and this should be encouraged.

    Ammonia is nasty stuff if it gets loose. We run processes with ammonia and are continually worrying about what happens if there are leaks. Although still used in large commercial refrigeration plants, one of the main reasons that freons caught on was that the risks associated with leaks from smaller ammonia systems were a worry. As someone who uses both, I would much rather ride around on a tank of hydrogen than on a tank of ammonia.

    FWIW ammonia fertilizers are salts and solutions derived from ammonia, ammonia is not used directly. However, it should be recognized that the low cost route to hydrogen used to make ammonia today is stem on natural gas via the water shift reaction.

    David Benson is correct about the CO2 content, which varies wildly by field, but this has become the commercial source of CO2 @ $25/ton near the well heads, and increasingly the CO2 is being re-injected into the field to force out more of the hydrocarbons.

    One could go on, but better balance is certainly needed

  21. This company has an elegant local solution for cellulosic Ammonia and Biochar;

    All political persuasions agree, building soil carbon is GOOD.
    To Hard bitten Farmers, wary of carbon regulations that only increase their costs, Building soil carbon is a savory bone, to do well while doing good.

    Biochar provides the tool powerful enough to cover Farming’s carbon foot print while lowering cost simultaneously.

    Another significant aspect of bichar is removal of BC aerosols by low cost ($3) Biomass cook stoves that produce char but no respiratory disease emissions. At Scale, replacing “Three Stone” stoves the health benefits would equal eradication of Malaria.
    http://terrapretapot.org/ and village level systems http://biocharfund.org/
    The Congo Basin Forest Fund (CBFF).recently funded The Biochar Fund $300K for these systems citing these priorities;
    (1) Hunger amongst the world’s poorest people, the subsistence farmers of Sub-Saharan Africa,
    (2) Deforestation resulting from a reliance on slash-and-burn farming,
    (3) Energy poverty and a lack of access to clean, renewable energy, and
    (4) Climate change.

    The Biochar Fund :
    Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon
    The broad smiles of 1500 subsistence farmers say it all ( that , and the size of the Biochar corn root balls )

    Mark my words; Given the potential for Laurens Rademaker’s programs to grow exponentially, only a short time lies between This man’s nomination for a Noble Prize.

    This authoritative PNAS article should cause the recent Royal Society Report to rethink their criticism of Biochar systems of Soil carbon sequestration;

    Reducing abrupt climate change risk using
    the Montreal Protocol and other regulatory
    actions to complement cuts in CO2 emissions

    There are dozens soil researchers on the subject now at USDA-ARS.
    and many studies at ASA-CSSA-SSSA joint meeting;

    The Clean Energy Partnerships Act of 2009
    The bill is designed to ensure that any US domestic cap-and-trade bill provides maximum incentives and opportunities for the US agricultural and forestry sectors to provide high-quality offsets and GHG emissions reductions for credit or financial incentives. Carbon offsets play a critical role in keeping the costs of a cap-and-trade program low for society as well as for capped sectors and entities, while providing valuable emissions reductions and income generation opportunities for the agricultural sector. The bill specifically identifies biochar production and use as eligible for offset credits, and identifies biochar as a high priority for USDA R&D, with funding authorized by the bill.
    To read the full text of the bill, go to: http://www.biochar-international.org/sites/default/files/END09F94.pdf.

    Senator Baucus is co-sponsoring a bill along with Senator Tester (D-MT) called WE CHAR. Water Efficiency via Carbon Harvesting and Restoration Act! It focuses on promoting biochar technology to address invasive species and forest biomass. It includes grants and loans for biochar market research and development, biochar characterization and environmental analyses. It directs USDI and USDA to provide loan guarantees for biochar technologies and on-the-ground production with an emphasis on biomass from public lands. And the USGS is to do biomas availability assessments.
    WashingtonWatch.com – S. 1713, The Water Efficiency via Carbon Harvesting and Restoration (WECHAR) Act of 2009

    Individual and groups can show support for WECHAR by signing online at:

    Congressional Research Service report (by analyst Kelsi Bracmort) is the best short summary I have seen so far – both technical and policy oriented.
    http://assets.opencrs.com/rpts/R40186_20090203.pdf .

    United Nations Environment Programme, Climate Change Science Compendium 2009

    Al Gore got the CO2 absorption thing wrong, ( at NABC Vilsack did same), but his focus on Soil Carbon is right on;


    The Ozzie’s for 5 years now in field studies
    The future of biochar – Project Rainbow Bee Eater

    The Japanese have been at it dacades:
    Japan Biochar Association ;

    UK Biochar Research Centre

    Nikolaus has been at it 4 years. Nikolaus Foidl,
    His current work with aspirin is Amazing in Maize, 250% yield gains, 15 cobs per plant;

    My 09 field trials with the Rodale Institute & JMU ;
    Alterna Biocarbon and Cowboy Charcoal Virginia field trials ’09 http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/node/1408

    Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

  22. This is all very nice, but the fact is that we need to have a real experimental MSR with positive breeding ratios. And remember the IFR was largely based off of experimental evidence from the EBR 2. While I agree that we as a world need to quickly move to nuclear power, not because of global warming but because of safer, cheaper, and more controllable energy. I do understand the materials testing was half assed thanks to budget cuts, the engineering was not fully developed and control systems have not been developed for this sector. Not to mention we need to build out the infrastructure and bring in investment into manufacturing and mining the components. An energy crisis is not something far into the future, but something the world is currently dealing with.
    I work for an oil company in exploration and production of unconventional natural gas and I can tell you there is plenty of natural gas to feed humanity. But what good is it to consume it for power when we can use it to replace oil as a feedstock for many of our chemicals since natural gas is much easier to work with.

    We are pissing away our resource endowment for the present while ignoring the one energy source that is almost too good to be true. Except nuclear power and nuclear medicine are the real thing and can help save our lives and prolong the life expectancy of industrial civilization.

  23. Eli, just because natural gas releases less carbon into the atmosphere than other hydrocarbons doesn’t mean we should keep using it. This is precisely the point: If we’re serious about solving the climate change problem we have to leave fossil fuels in the ground, including methane. If that opinion is unbalanced, then I plead guilty. It’s high time people stopped cheerleading for natural gas just because it’s the lesser of various evils. If we don’t make plans to eliminate fossil fuel use, our kids and their kids are toast. I consider that unacceptable, and woefully shortsighted.

    I realize that ammonia is still a hazardous substance and would much prefer to use something as benign as boron, but the fact remains that we can use ammonia now at least for big trucks, and we certainly know how to handle it. Yes, you can make liquid fuels from syngas (such as from plasma converters) but the volume we need to displace fossil fuels is a great challenge to provide from non-fossil fuel sources. I would hope that someone will decide to work on engineering boron engines in the near future.

    I’m working on rounding up the cost data to find out what price electricity would have to be to make it competitive with ammonia produced by natural gas at current gas prices, or alternatively what the price on carbon would have to be to make the electrolysis method competitive. Even if we don’t end up using it as a vehicle fuel, we certainly could still use our intermittent energy sources (and excess electricity from nuclear plants) to make ammonia for agricultural uses.

    “Better than coal” is not good enough.

  24. Eli Rabett, You claim, “Natural gas is a decent replacement for coal.” This is a myth being promoted by the natural gas industry. In fact, while emitting less CO2, than coal, natural gas technologies still emit CO2. When power plant costs are calculated the cost of carbon abatement with natural gas is higher than the cost of carbon abatement with nuclear. A serious carbon tax will destroy the natural gas myth. You point to the high thermal efficiency of combined cycle generators (70%) is more in line with what I read), but simple gas powered turbines are preferred for renewables back up, and they are much less efficient. In addition the renewables back up role, increases the greenhouse gas emission problems of natural gas generators.

  25. Eli: Hansen argued back in his 2007 “Climate Change and Trace Gases”
    paper, that if you burn all the known oil+gas and not much else, then
    we get to 450-475 ppm. If the goal is 350, then the “not much else” and
    plenty of gas has to be left in the ground.

  26. re 40890 G.R.L Cowan

    You refer to the advantages of carbon capture by accelerated weathering of rock. I understand that Portland cement production accounts for over 10% of global CO2 emissions. Could you comment on the possible practicality of using alternative cementitious materials (eg magnesium cement) which would be carbon negative? It seems that, this way, you’d get something back for your money. I am not suggesting that air capture for its own sake might not, in the future, be necessary.

  27. The highest efficiency that I’m aware of for a a CCGT is 60% achieved by the GE “H” Frame GTs. This is under perfect weather conditions and at sea level. There are about 5 or 6 of them built: Wales, Bakersfield, CA and I think Japan. I believe the average actual efficiency is 54%. The much more popular ‘F’ designs run as CC unites average between 40 and 51%.

    Efficiency is only important when compared to other hyrdo-carbon fuels.

  28. Douglas, the global figure for cement production is closer to 5%, much of that from the coal that’s used to heat it during production. In this article they mention carbon-neutral and carbon-negative cements that they’ve written about earlier, so I do believe cement needn’t be a big issue, especially if we used electricity or process heat from clean sources for the heat to displace the coal.

  29. Re. cement, check out this article.. The process heat for making the new carbon-negative cement is nearly the same as the output temperature of fast reactors, which opens up an intriguing possibility if the cement turns out to be a practical replacement for Portland cement. With the amount of cement used worldwide and the high amount of carbon that this cement could absorb, this could be quite a passive carbon sink that would only increase in effectiveness as development progresses around the world. As an American I can tell you that many of my countrymen don’t realize the ubiquity of cement use for home construction in most of the world, since while we build our foundations of cement here most homes are built with wood. When we consider the developing countries and the vast quantities of cement that will be employed as people graduate from the equivalent of shacks to cement homes, the amounts of cement in use globally will certainly increase. This is a very encouraging development.

  30. Those who advocate a shift to gas fired electrical generation should prepare a 20 year plan showing how the gas ‘pie’ will be divided. There’s export, ammonia based fertiliser production, industrial process heat, heating for homes and offices, gas for cooking and water heating, peaking electrical power to balance 20% renewables and now transport. That won’t leave a lot for base or intermediate load generation. The difference between liquid, compressed and adsorbed natural gas transport fuel is explained here and here.

    Within a decade thousands of trucks, buses, utes and maybe trains, coastal ships and farm tractors could be running on gas if diesel becomes prohibitive. The LNG ships that take gas away from our shores already run on vapour from the cryogenic tanks. When transport demand for NG becomes apparent I suspect we’ll just make more excuses to keep burning coal.

  31. Interesting idea.

    Since we are talking about Gen 4 nuclear plant that will take some 5 to 10 years to materialize, we should look at where solar/wind will be in 5 to 10 years.

    It is very difficult to say with any certainty what the economics of a fairly well developed pv/wind + storage will be by the time V1 gen 4 nuclear plants are a reality. There are dozens of new batteries for eg. that are in various stages of reasearch or commercialization. Any one of them could make solar/wind + storage much more economical that a V1 Gen 4 plant.

    We should never assume our pet technology will bloom in a decade where as others will be stand still.

  32. I don’t actually assume anything. Right now we are up against a “uranium industrial complex” that has no financial interest in exploring alternative fuels. Thank the gods for India. The future of LFTR, and probably IFR as well is 100% political, not technical. My dates of say 15 years out is based on “If got funding today”. that’s the problem.

    Well, elseware on this Blog are reasons why wind and solar may not be the best choice, vs, say, Gen III reactors. If I were to be completely honest, I’d say I’d do *exactly* as the Chinese are doing: investing in everything (I wish the would invest in LFTR) almost, almost everything and go ‘Balls to the Wall” which is what they are doing with what they do invest in. I’d be very happy if every nation on the planet did that. Australia and the US.


  33. Since we are talking about Gen 4 nuclear plant that will take some 5 to 10 years to materialize, we should look at where solar/wind will be in 5 to 10 years.

    Ten years from now the same feeble amount of sunlight will fall on each square meter of the earth’s surface as falls there now, and fissioned uranium will still produce vast amounts of power from a tiny amount of uranium (about 160 times as much as today once we begin using IFRs). That won’t change, and that makes all the difference, and will continue to do so. Even when wind and solar reach their maximum theoretical efficiencies they still won’t hold a candle to nuclear, especially fast reactors. You just can’t beat E=mc2 (can anybody school me in the html art of superscript?)

  34. If you wonder about American hyper-optimism (blindness to reality) and it’s consequences then read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America”:

    Blind optimism has made many American’s deluded and causes them to dismiss “negative” thoughts about things like dot.com companies, real estate bubbles and now wind & solar “solutions” to our climate problems.

    Motivational speakers, life coaches, preachers and positive psychologists are brainwashing people to only think “positive” thoughts. Besides Barbara’s book, here is a link to a paper on the negative side to positive psychology:


  35. evnow wrote, “Since we are talking about Gen 4 nuclear plant that will take some 5 to 10 years to materialize, we should look at where solar/wind will be in 5 to 10 years.
    It is very difficult to say with any certainty what the economics of a fairly well developed pv/wind + storage will be by the time V1 gen 4 nuclear plants are a reality. There are dozens of new batteries for eg. that are in various stages of reasearch or commercialization. Any one of them could make solar/wind + storage much more economical that a V1 Gen 4 plant.
    We should never assume our pet technology will bloom in a decade where as others will be stand still.”

    Yes evnow, but what if your pet technologies do not progress the way you expect them too? If there is no Plan B, and renewables do not pan out economically, where will we be?

  36. Nuclear power ammonia production is already an economically viable option even without generation 4 technology. See William L. Kubic, Jr. of the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s poster on this subject ‘Nuclear-Power Ammonia Nuclear-Power Ammonia

    If you can’t find a copy of this online then you can email me at newpapyrus@yahoo.com to get a pdf copy of this excellent analysis on the economics of nuclear ammonia production relative to ammonia production from natural gas, coal, and even wind.

  37. Thanks, Marcel. I believe I found the thing you’re referring to here. The study assumes a cost for an LWR of over $2 billion/GW. At that, comparing a nuclear-powered ammonia plant to a gas plant of today (without CCS or a price on carbon), it would take about 35 years for the nuclear plant to catch up with the gas plant in terms of cost (much higher capital cost up front but less operating cost for the nuclear plant). However, if you can build nuclear plants for half that cost (as we expect to see proven in China within a few years) and add a tax on carbon (as we can almost certainly expect to see quite widespread within a few years), it seems that nuclear-powered ammonia plants will end up quite competitive with natural gas, even if we don’t develop HTGRs (High Temperature Gas Reactors), which allegedly will be cheaper to build and run.

    As I said in the article, the economics of doing this with wind and solar are another story. As with electricity production in general, I don’t believe either wind or solar will be able to compete with nuclear once the price of nuclear power is brought into line with what Japan paid for their 90s-era ABWRs or what China is building LWRs for now. But as long as we’re building wind and solar production facilities, we might as well use them for ammonia production to avoid the many problems associated with integrating them into the grid. I highly recommend a look at that document that Marcel kindly suggested if you’re interested in the relative economics.

  38. Interestingly Western Australia is into N-fertiliser production in a big way. The 760,000 tpa Burrup Fertlisers http://www.burrupfertilisers.com/ plant uses natural gas as feed stock. It would be interesting to know the water and gas input and emissions of CO2 and N20 both onsite and as the product decays in the fields. Geoff W note the major shareholding family also run vegetarian restaurants. Since uncarbon taxed coal is even cheaper than NG there is talk of a coal based urea plant in the south of WA at Collie. http://www.stamicarbon.com/news/Stamicarbon-urea-melt-and-granulation-technologies-selected-for-Collie-Urea-Project-Australia.html See the factbox on urea.

  39. * The New London School explosion occurred on March 18, 1937, when a natural gas leak caused an explosion, destroying the New London School of the city of New London, Texas. The disaster killed three hundred students and teachers.

    * The Cleveland East Ohio Gas Explosion occurred on the afternoon of Friday, October 20, 1944. The resulting gas leak, explosion and fires killed 130 people and destroyed a one square mile area on Cleveland, Ohio’s east side.

    * The Richmond, Indiana explosion, on Saturday, April 6, 1968. Two explosions occur in mid-afternoon, in the middle of downtown Richmond, Indiana. The first is caused by a natural gas leak, and the second, by gunpowder and ammunition inside a sporting goods store. 41 people are killed and more than 150 injured. Four square blocks of downtown Richmond, Indiana are heavily damaged by the explosion or subsequent fire.

    * Ronan Point was a 23-story council tower block in Newham, East London. On 16 May 1968 a gas explosion caused the collapse of a whole corner of the building. Four people were killed in the collapse, with one dying later of injuries.

    * 23 May 1984 Abbeystead natural gas explosion resulting in 16 deaths and 22 injured from Methane entering waterwork pipes.

    * 24 March 1986 Loscoe gas explosion – no fatalities but extensive property destruction, this caused the UK Government to legislate on landfill sites and building practices with regard to landfill gas migration.

    * In July 1988, 167 people died when Occidental Petroleum’s Alpha offshore production platform, on the Piper field in the North Sea, exploded after a gas leak.

    * The 1992 explosion in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, took place on April 22, 1992 in the downtown district of Analco. Numerous gasoline explosions in the sewer system over four hours destroyed kilometers of streets. Officially, 206 people were killed, nearly 500 injured and 15,000 were left homeless.

    * The Humberto Vidal Explosion (sometimes also referred to as the Río Piedras Explosion) was a gas explosion that occurred on November 21, 1996 on the Humberto Vidal shoe store located in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, United States. The explosion killed 33 and wounded 69 others when the building collapsed. It is considered one of the deadliest disasters to have occurred on the island.

    * On December 11, 1998, there was a gas explosion in St. Cloud, Minnesota, which killed four people.

    * On January 17, 2001, natural gas stored underground in Hutchinson, Kansas leaked into empty brine caverns. Two explosions resulted from the leak. One destroyed two businesses and damaged 26 others. Another destroyed a trailer park killing two people. Sinkholes and gas leaks formed all around the city and the gas had to be slowly burned off.

    * Arkhangelsk explosion of 2004: In Arkhangelsk, Russia, on March 16, 2004, a gas explosion in an apartment killed 58 people. Reportedly, a former gas technician caused the explosion due to a dispute with his former employers.

    * On May 11, 2004, the Stockline Plastics Factory in the Maryhill area of Glasgow was destroyed by a gas explosion. The cause was found by a Health and Safety Executive report to be the ignition of gas from a ruptured pipe. Nine people were killed and 37 were injured, 15 seriously.

    Yet natural gas is being touted as the safe alternative to nuclear energy

  40. David, if nothing else zone heating. There are claims of up to 89% efficiency with cogeneration. Eli was being conservative

    Heat is valuable for industrial processes, and heating purposes.

    Reducing CO2 emissions by a factor of two over coal per unit energy produced and by more than that when efficiencies are taken into account is no small step and it is difficult to take seriously anyone who pooh poohs that.

    DV, before ~1960 those explosions were from town gas, a mixture of CO and H2, which is why people put their heads into unlit ovens to kill themselves and yes, Virginia, there are nasty outcomes to energy generation technologies. Your list is about as impressive as bird kill numbers that folk parade out to diss wind energy.

  41. Reducing CO2 emissions by a factor of two over coal per unit energy produced and by more than that when efficiencies are taken into account is no small step and it is difficult to take seriously anyone who pooh poohs that.

    Nobody is arguing that gas isn’t better than coal. The point is that methane is still contributing an enormous amount to GHG emissions and that methane too has to be eliminated. If it was impossible to do away with both then you’d have something to keep harping about, but the fact is that we could easily dispose of both gas and coal (coal first, of course) within a very reasonable period of time if we’d get our act together with advanced nuclear power systems. Get over the gas, it is not your friend.

  42. Here’s the link to the Los Alamos study that Marcel originally mentioned. It compares the price of producing ammonia using various nuclear options (some already extant, some in development), current systems (coal and natural gas, both with and without CCS), and wind. Sorry to say (but not surprising), it doesn’t look like wind can hold a candle to the rest. But then, when all the parameters are taken into account (intermittency, capacity factor, construction materials, storage, etc) wind has a hard time holding up anyway. It still doesn’t seem like it’s worth building a smart grid just so that wind and solar can join the system when they’re perfectly capable of producing hydrogen unconnected to the grid.

    Thanks, Marcel.

  43. Natural gas plants in the US are currently running at about 40% capacity. If the price of natural gas were to become more competitive with coal (due to greater NG supply, or a price on carbon), it would immediately displace coal with little investment.

  44. Eli Rabett – So naturally you can supply a list of disasters and death for nuclear energy that compares.

    The point I was trying to make is that any claims that nuclear energy is a more dangerous mode of suppling energy has to be compared with the body-count from other modesd.

    And by the way, I find your discounting the loss of human life by comparing that loss dismissively with bird strikes breathtaking. Again no supporter of nuclear energy would dare write off scores of deaths with that sort of indifference.

  45. My own information on some of the topics that were raised is the following:

    – Hydrogen is a desirable green synthetic fuel to replace oil and natgas when they become depleted. Oil and gas field exhaustions are estimated to happen by about mid-century but will become noticeable after 2025. Nuclear power plants can economically provide energy for both electricity (for future fleets of plug-in cars) and for manufacture of synfuels to replace transportation energy (40% of all energy consumption). In the US, 200 additional nukes (besides the exisiting 104 plants) can provide all needed electricity or heat for electrolysis or chemical cracking of water (H2O) to produce needed H2. The nuclear engineering community has had designs and process analyses for such dual purpose plants (also desalinization) since the 1970s. However because of prior anti-nuclear administrations, all R&D was halted. However, ……..an immovable road-block to a pure hydrogen economy is transportation and distribution of hydrogen; H2 is too voluminous and leaks though many materials. The solution: ……. compress hydrogen with air to form liquid ammonia (NH3) at moderate temperatures and pressures by the Haber-Bosch process. This is cheaper (takes less energy) than liquifying H2 or compressing it to 3000 psi for use in reasonably sized fuel tanks. For the same combusion energy delivery, the volume of a liquid ammonia tank would be 2.5 times that of a gasoline tank, so its linear dimensions must be 36% larger. This is much better than trying to compact H2 (or CH4) into twelve (three) high-pressure tanks at several thousand psis with the same volume.

    – NH3 can fuel both future fuel-cell engines as well as the well-developed combustion engine. Clean ammonia-burning combustion engines were researched in the 1970s & 1980s and are now in production by a US manufacturer in Iowa. Ammonia-burning fuel-cells have also been built but are still in the research stage.

    – Regarding safety of NH3. NH3 has a higher ignition temperature in air than H2 or CH4 (methane).
    An ammonia leak is easily detected because of its pungent smell. In case of a car collision, the lighter-than-air ammonia emitted from a ruptured fuel tank will escape into the air (99% probability) without igniting like gasoline does. NH3 is also much safer than H2 which can burst into flames when sparked. Possession of H2 by private parties in most cities of the USA is prohibited by fire departments unless a permit is obtained.

    — To synthesize CH4 from H2O and CO2 from the air using nuclear power, has been investigated by the US Navy. Because there is only 0.03% CO2 in the atmosphere, for each 100 MWe nuclear plant devoted to empowering CH4 synthesis, it would take seven additional 100 MWe nuclear power plants to provide electric energy needed for the pumps to collect, condense, and liquify CO2 from the air before its introduction to a Sabatier or other reaction vessel.

    – I agree totally with Cyrill Landau’s vision for the future. CH4 and coal must be preserved for making organics for future generations. It should not all be burnt and dispersed through the atmosphere.

    – Bio-char is nothing but a form of charcoal and has been used for centuries in Indonesia where I grew up. I am constantly amazed how many times the wheel is re-invented.

    – Nuclear power is a million times more concentrated than any other terrestrial energy source. Modern nuclear power plants are easily controlled, they are fail-safe, and uranium and thorium resources are sufficient to provide all needed energy worldwide for more than 3000 years. What are we waiting for! Tom Blees has it absolutely right. For technical details read the second edition of my book “The Nuclear Imperative – A Critical Look at the Approaching Energy Crisis (More physics for presidents)” published by Springer. Many issues raised in previous comments are addressed there in detail.

    Jeff Eerkens,
    Adjunct Research Professor,
    Nuclear Science and Engineering Institute,
    U of Missouri, Columbia

  46. Using Solar/Wind power to make Hydrogen and then use that hydrogen for synthesis of Ammonia or other synthetic fuel sounds good, however, it is not so easy to apply in practice.
    Electrolyzers for water are expensive for the amount of hydrogen they produce and they must run with low over voltage potential to be efficient. This fact drives you into the same dilemma as you face with the electric grid. Electrolyzers would have to be built to maximum output of alternative energy output to be efficient, hence most of the electrolyzer capacity and your investment would sit idle most of the time. Of course, electrolyzers can be run harder with cell over voltage potential but with the expense of cell efficiency. It would be foolish to produce expensive electricity from solar or wind and then waste it in inefficient electrolyzers designed for anything less than optimal efficiency.
    Any chemical synthesis plant is extremely sensitive for feedstock flow. Any variation in feedstock flow upsets the syn plant operation. Most catalysts require specific space velocity, meaning that gas flow over catalyst bed must be within certain limit. Variable feedstock flow from unreliable source such as produced from wind or solar power is worse than a nightmare for synthetic plant engineer. In the end you would have to have some hydrogen storage to make the gas flow in synthesis plant constant.
    Electrical energy to drive the synthetic plant must be very reliable and always available at needed amount to drive compressor and other key machinery in the plant. Simply, you cannot have a variable source of electricity to drive any synthetic plant. So, once again you would need some sort of electric storage or fossil fueled back up.
    In other words, using solar or wind power to drive a synthesis plant from a feedstock point of view and from driving energy point of view is totally useless.

    Only nuclear power, hydro power or fossil fuel is capable to deliver what any synthetic plant needs, a constant feedstock gas flow and constant driving energy needs. Economy of scale is very important in synthesis plants to be economic. This is why today’s synthetic plants are build with thousands tons of product per day output.
    Believing that solar and wind power will produce low cost Ammonia or any other product for cheap price in small synthetic plants is just not going to happen.
    One can summarize the whole reality in few words. THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR NUCLEAR POWER.
    Solar and wind proponents can go on dreaming, however there are only two aces in the energy world capable to drive synthetic plants and the whole future at reasonable cost. Those two energy aces are called IFR (Integral Fast Reactor) and LFTR (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor)
    Existing nuclear plants are just a stepping stone in the quest for affordable energy. India has a reasonable hybrid approach to utilize Plutonium driver to breed fuel from Thorium, hence this technology is somewhat similar to LFTR where thorium is used as fertile material to breed U233 fuel. Nevertheless, Indian approach is more complex than LFTR, however, it is better than no action at all.

  47. DV, before ~1960 those explosions were from town gas, a mixture of CO and H2, which is why people put their heads into unlit ovens to kill themselves and yes, Virginia, there are nasty outcomes to energy generation technologies. Your list is about as impressive as bird kill numbers that folk parade out to diss wind energy.

    This witness is clearly friendly to natural gas. Trying to exonerate it in the New London schoolhouse explosion on the grounds that it wasn’t what blew up there, when of course it was, is contemptible. See my above remarks about ideology that burns blue. He mentions only bird-kill numbers for wind turbines, and not the very large — per TWh — human-kill numbers, and this fits with the hypothesis of natgas interest on his part because it and wind turbines are a package deal.

    To synthesize CH4 from H2O and CO2 from the air using nuclear power, has been investigated by the US Navy. Because there is only 0.03% CO2 in the atmosphere, for each 100 MWe nuclear plant devoted to empowering CH4 synthesis, it would take seven additional 100 MWe nuclear power plants to provide electric energy needed for the pumps to collect, condense, and liquify CO2 from the air

    Calcining minerals such as limestone, dolomite, or magnesite yields CO2-hungry alkaline earths CaO, CaO·MgO, or MgO. Strewing low-rent hectares with MgO and occasionally taking it up and recalcining it would be very much less energy-intensive than Eerkens’ above demonstration of engineering-to-fail.

    (How fire can be domesticated)

  48. To get relatively pure CO2 from biomass I suggest the best method may to be burn charcoal in the O2 normally vented in water electrolysis. This parallels the ‘oxy-firing’ approach suggested for CCS where the carbon is fossil. That CO2 should have no nitrogen, sulphur or VOC contamination and can be reacted with hydrogen in the next step. It means that the economics of hydrogenated synfuel is determined largely by the cost of hydrogen production.

    Given that fuel cells or battery technology are unlikely anytime soon to power the world’s 500m or however many cars we should conserve natural hydrocarbons for as long as possible. The natural processes that created oil and gas may well have been inefficient but they had 400m years to get a result. Soon we will be faced with the need to create synthetic hydrocarbons on demand in real time. Therefore we should not squander natural gas on electrical generation if other means are available.

    I mention again that Australia’s energy minister Martin Ferguson visited an outback geothermal experiment and declared it would soon generate lots of baseload power. Next day he flew to China to sign a massive deal virtually giving away decades worth of LNG. Wrong and wrong.

  49. The United States produces enough urban and rural bio-waste (no need to raise crops for ethanol production) to completely replace petroleum in the US– if wasted CO2 from biomass conversion into fuel is also converted into fuel by the addition of hydrogen from nuclear power plants. However, if we utilized emerging mechanical tree technologies to extract CO2 from the atmosphere, then there would be no limit to the amount of carbon neutral synthetic fuels we could produce if we utilized nuclear energy to power such an synthetic fuel economy.







  50. Not unexpectedly the French are already building a hydrogenated synfuel facility
    The project co-ordinator is the new Atomic and Alternative Energy Commission. Hydrogen will initially be shipped to the site. The implication seems to be that hydrogen will eventually be generated onsite if the economics work out. No point in bringing in hydrogen if it derives from steam reforming of NG with CO2 emissions.

    Down the track there may be the usual capital cost vs fuel cost tradeoff. Methanol fuel may be cheap but the fuel cell engine will be expensive. Probably vice versa for dimethyl ether in a piston engine.

    I wonder if variable load splitting for NPPs will become routine. Output surplus to grid needs can be used for desalination or hydrogen production.

  51. What many of us foresaw and wrote about has clearly come true: Natural Gas is the New Green. Rod Adams has been charting the growth of NG as the favorite mixer for the energy-starvation advocates in the Green movement for years on his blog. CO2 from NG is only ‘half’ better (er, half worse) than coal. I’d hate to be invested in NG generation and in 2 or 3 years see prices triple or more. Alas, few utilities think in these terms…especially if they can pass the cost on to the consumer.

    Hydrogen. Finally, finally, finally, I found agreement with Joe Romm on something. He’s recently attacked H2 in his latest or near latest blog post (he turns out 2 or 3 a day it seems). I agree. I used to advocate LFTR produced H2 but it’s silly at this point as a fuel substitute based on the total lack of infrastructure and ability to *seriously* store the stuff. However…

    As a feedstock for syn fuels it makes a lot more sense. This I’m in favor of.


  52. One thing we are not taking into account here is that natural gas is a vital feedstock for all sorts of chemical synthesis other than just NH3, methanol and several other primary components used in plastics and other products depend on inexpensive NG inputs – burning it may not be the wisest use for this product.

  53. Frank, your points about the ammonia production plant being incompatible with wind and solar are well taken. As I suggest in my article, though, they could be used to make hydrogen and the hydrogen could be trucked or piped to ammonia plants. I grant you that producing hydrogen from these sources isn’t exactly efficient, though many proponents of wind and solar have suggested electrolysis and later burning of hydrogen as a storage system, which never did sound realistic.

    My point in suggesting hydrogen production instead of grid integration is that we could avoid the staggering cost of building the smart grid that’s seen as being necessary to integrate wind and solar into our electricity infrastructure. Smart grids aren’t magic, after all. It’s not like they’d solve all the integration problems, not by a long shot.

    If you look at that study I linked to previously, it shows the relative cost of ammonia production using wind, natural gas, nuclear, etc. (on page 31) Disregarding the capital cost, which for wind is totally out of the ballpark, the actual production cost would give wind a very slight advantage over natural gas. As long as governments insist on subsidizing wind turbines, we might as well use them to make hydrogen to supplant the natural gas that would otherwise be used in ammonia production. The capital cost, in other words, is immaterial as long as the economically indefensible decision has been made, for political reasons, to build them. Better not to throw good money after bad by then rationalizing the need for a costly smart grid in order to use the windmills and solar farms. If the operating costs to make hydrogen are, as the Los Alamos study claims, slightly better than using natural gas when the capital cost is taken out of the equation, then by all means let’s use them that way.

  54. Jeff Eerkens raises a number of interesting questions.

    Eli would like to point out that there is a significant materials problem associated with using ammonia as a fuel. The end products would be water vapor and nitrogen. Water vapor and ammonia on metals react to produce nitric acid, which chews most things up. Maybe ceramics survive, but there are no ceramic bearings, which is why something pumping ammonia has a relatively short lifetime.

    Also, there are more efficient ways of trapping CO2 out from air than condensation, and, there are also CO2 rich natural gas streams that could be used at a cost of ~$25/ton or so (current lowest cost CO2)

  55. Small points:

    Reply to David B. Benson: Biogas typically seems to be approximately 50-65% methane, remainder mostly CO2. Not pure methane.

    Eli Rabett: I have seen (30-45 years ago?) a tractor with a tank that I was told held pressurized ammonia gas (maybe pressurized enough to be liquid?) which was going to be directly injected into the ground as fertilizer (rather than ammonium salts you mentioned). Perhaps this is not done currently.

    Larger point:

    “Natural Gas” production has negative environmental impacts, which however may not be as bad as mountain-destruction coal-mining. Some of the methods for “enhanced” production of methane by underground fracturing have apparently caused permanent groundwater pollution problems. Note that Exxon just spent $41B to buy XTO Energy, which has apparently been developing such techniques.

    Separate point:

    To reduce the chances of disastrous global warming, we need to invest in various sources of energy which do not increase atmospheric carbon dioxide. One trade magazine I read recently had an estimate that in some sunny areas, solar power would achieve grid parity by 2015. Certainly solar power peak output pretty well matches peak summer power consumption, especially for areas where air conditioning is used.

  56. I do not know of any place in the United States where summer peak matches peak isolation. Peaks are, 90% of the time, well after solar peak, usually by 5 hours at least. Not always, but usually.

    There is a mid-afternoon peak, the ‘hump on the mouse’ so to speak that expensive solar could contribute too. But will available nuclear, what would be the point?

    The issue here is natural gas. Natural gas see nuclear as it’s chief competitor…and vis-a-versa. While even a robust, say American, nuclear grid should it really develop will also see decades of gas peaker power, well into the life of the Gen III reactors we should see various strains of rapid-load changing nuclear plants as well, thus eliminating the need, ever, for gas fired peaker units.


  57. A point on load changing. We’ve actually covered on BNC in the recent past.

    Nuclear can handle load changing. It depends on what kind of load changing: dispatchable load changing, emergency peaking load, scheduled 10 minute, hourly and 24 hour load changing, load following, etc. etc. There are a variety.

    Right now, only because of the deals cut to deploy nuclear is is “based load”, in this case meaning the opposite of ‘base load’, that is, they are paid to run flat out. They can be paid *not* be run flat out as well, as the French regularly do with their Gen II units. It’s more a function of the financing.

    I advocate the flexible scheduling of future new NPPs in the U.S. where they can be paid for ancillary services such as load changing. The revenue garnared from nuclear is enough to allow such flexibility.

    CCGTs are not paid for only when the run. Depending on the contract, they are all paid NOT TO RUN, or, rather, paid to be on stand by.


  58. AIC, on December 28th, 2009 at 11.01 — Yes, the result of anaerobic digestion is biogas with typical composition as you state. One can either just burn the biogas or else refine it using the same techniques and processes as are used to refine natural gas into natgas and other streams. The only new aspect in refining biogas into biomethane of high enough quality to go into the natgas supply system is to remove all the micro-organisms present in the biogas; not a problem with natural gas.

  59. I notice that South Korea’s Doosan, one of the contractors to build 4 NPPs in the UAE, has both desalination and nuclear component experience. The all up price is $US40m, about what Australia will pay for optic fibre cable to every home.

    SInce I believe the UAE is already a gas exporter and uses gas for desalination perhaps the Aussie politicians should tell them where they’ve gone wrong.

  60. There is a mid-afternoon peak, the ‘hump on the mouse’ so to speak that expensive solar could contribute too. But [with] available nuclear, what would be the point?

    Careful, DW. You’re getting perilously close there to the truth that dare not speak its name: That if we build enough NPPs to provide 100% backup for intermittent renewables, then they’ll be only an expensive redundancy.

    And that’s quite a price disparity that Jade and John are talking about. Judging by China’s price targets, it sounds like the UAE’s not exactly getting a great deal, in either case.

  61. $20 billion for 5.5 GW is $3,600/kW which is okay, given that it covers the reactors, turbines, and other balance of plant facilities — the whole kaboodle. Of course the Chinese are doing it for half this as a replicated build of AP1000s, but the risk for Korea going out of country is obviously moderately high, and it’s a first-of-a-kind for the UAE so these extra costs are also understandable. Overall, I think it’s a pretty fair price.

    What do I find most interesting about this? Easy. The UAE chose to build 4 x APR-1400 reactors rather than 220+ Andasol-1 solar thermal power plants. If nuclear were so uneconomic, and solar thermal such an obvious choice, I wonder why that would be? It’s not as though the UAE lacks the solar resource — there is a hot desert right on their doorstep, unlike most nations (so long transmissions lines are less of a concern). To me, this speaks volumes about the relative economic uncompetitiveness of unsubsidised renewables. Welcome to the real world.

  62. This analysis of *what can be done* from the perspective of physics is quite interesting.. But there is also the political question.. The reason why we’re using oil and natural gas have less to do with physics, than with politics..

    There are huge pressures in the market for ever-increasing use of oil & natural gas. Once oil has been crowned the king of our energy supply, political infrastructure has been established to exert controls on oil supply and thereby draw various geopolitical and economic favours. Any decrease in the use of oil will destabilize this infrastructure and make it useless. So any such effort to reduce oil consumption will be resisted fiercely..

    Oil prices have a direct bearing on the commodity prices (as we’ve discovered once again last year during the oil crisis). These oil prices are dictated not only by supply and demand, but also by the critical relation they have with the strength of the US dollar. The international oil bourses located in London and New York always quote the oil prices in US dollars. All international oil exports are conducted through these bourses. If the value of the US dollar falls down, for example, through overspending by the US government or by spiralling debt (which may happen due to warfare activity, such as in Iraq), the oil prices automatically go up.. This relationship between oil and dollar is highly useful for the US government, as it acts as a lever which restores the strength of the US dollar against other currencies in the global market. The oil shocks are suffered by all the world, not just the US.. As long as any country needs oil exports, US retains the ultimate say over its trade and political ambitions. Retaining control on how the oil & natural gas exports are done between different countries is the most important element of US foreign policy. This control can be about handwringing oil-exporter countries (OPEC), or on military policing over natural gas pipelines etc..

    Thus, oil is a crucial channel through which global geopolitics are conducted. Any reduction in oil consumption would make this geopolitical control less useful. This is the reason why oil & natural gas lobbyists have percolated so efficiently inside all political parties of the USA. Whether any politician argues for right-wing or left-wing, the ball shall ultimately remain in the oil & natural guys’ court !

    Any technology will be tolerated as long as it doesn’t damage the pre-eminence enjoyed by oil and natural gas. It is true whether that technology be coal, nuclear, wind, solar etc.. What Tom has mentioned in this article is about using wind to reduce natural gas consumption. Fat chance of that happening with the current political establishment.

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  64. Some memo points for Australian politicians about the UAE contract
    - UAE used to have lots of gas, soon they won’t
    - UAE has no uranium
    - they are prepared to wait 10 years for results
    - they don’t rabbit on about CCS and geothermal
    - desalination is crucial to their water supply.

  65. Well frankly, vakibs, the amount of natural gas that wind and solar would displace is so miniscule in comparison to its global production and use that I doubt there’d be much of a problem. Whatever natural gas consumption is lost that way could be more than offset by the increased use of natural gas for electricity production as it can displace coal in that process. There’s enough animosity toward coal now, and growing awareness of coal’s crippling effect on the environment, that it’s a ripe target for energy systems that are looking to displace it. Yes, it’s still cheap, but as carbon gets taxed more and more (as seems inevitable) gas will be waiting in the wings. I don’t think wind and solar’s potential to reduce gas use will be an issue.

    Nuclear, however, is a whole other matter. That’s what really represents the threat to the oil and gas (and coal, of course) status quo. That’s why it’s so frustrating to have to fight environmental groups and wind and solar advocates over nuclear power, since they represent just the first wave of resistance to a global nuclear power deployment that has any hope of overturning the dominant energy sources. It’s doubly ironic in that those same groups are so antagonistic toward the fossil fuel interests, yet by resisting the deployment of nuclear power they are playing into their hands in a truly Faustian bargain that is rarely acknowledged or even recognized. This irony is probably nowhere as clearly and ludicrously demonstrated as in the case of T. Boone Pickens, which is why I pointed it out in the article.

  66. Tom Blees

    I understand you mentioned trucking or piping the hydrogen to remote Ammonia plants, nevertheless, it still does not solve the problem with feedstock flow as I outlined in my previous comment. The hydrogen output would be still variable according to power availability even if you would truck it or pipe it from wind farm production site.
    Transport by truck requires high hydrogen compression or liquefaction, both requiring large amount of energy to accomplish. Hydrogen does not store well because of it’s low density. It occupies a lot of space, even in liquid state.
    Economics of this whole scheme does not fit any practical portfolio of private enterprise.
    As a matter of fact we looked into trucking hydrogen for our used vegetable oil hydrogenation plant to diesel fuel. It turned out that cost of hydrogen delivered by truck was nearly twice as expensive per energy unit as the selling price of diesel fuel. Adding a storage vessel on site increased the cost projection into extreme expense. Safety regulations for storing hydrogen are driving the cost even higher. Our solution was to install skid mounted natural gas reformer right on site. Such small reformers are now commercially available from Haldor Topsoe, Prax Air, Air Liquide and other suppliers. Hence, once again, we are forced down to practical level and use natural gas.
    If we could buy nuclear generated electricity for 2 cents/kwh and get water electrolyzer for a reasonable price it would be economic to use water electrolyses for our process, especially if byproduct Oxygen could be sold. In practical world neither exists for affordable price.
    Hydrogen generation from alternate energy is very impractical from technical and economic point of view. Of course it could be done if mega money is thrown at it but the economics will remain bad.
    Economics of solar/wind power is very bad. It prompted United Arab Emirate (UAE) to go nuclear. Four reactor contract was just awarded to South Korean Consortium. Despite having one of the best conditions for solar power, UAE decided to use nuclear power instead because of much better economics and power availability for industries they are planning. When all considered, this is the best decision how to invest national financial resources and get things done.
    By the way, the electricity production cost of these 4 reactors will be about 1.6cents/kwh when 40 billion is spread over 60 years and 90% power plant availability factor. I calculate $20 billion for construction cost and $20 billion for operation for 60 year period, no interest on finances is counted into calculation. This is what I call economics! It makes alternate energy cost look very sick in comparison.

  67. Frank, I realize that the economics are lousy. As you point out, they’re lousy any way you slice it. Given the political decision to encourage the building of wind and solar generation, though, which many would argue flies in the face of rational economic analysis, we’re in a position to try to figure out the least economically negative way of using them. Spending a trillion or more on a smart grid that even in our fondest dreams would still not solve all the problems seems worse than utilizing them for hydrogen/ammonia production, which the Los Alamos study previously cited claims a slight cost advantage for wind-produced ammonia, if you disregard the deal-breaking capital cost, which is a political decision that seems to have been made far and wide.

  68. Frank, you said “if you could buy nuclear electricity at 2 cents per kWhr …” You actually can. The NEI quoted 1.71 c/kWhr in 2005 for nuclear (in the US) which of course must now be adjusted for inflation to a 2010 figure. But it should not be far off. You yourself calculated 1.6c/kWhr for the UEA plants. I don’t know off-hand about electrolyzers but they should come down in price if more are going to be manufactured. I read that Great Brittain produced large quantities of hydrogen electrolytically for decades before cracking natural gas (CH4) became preferred.

    In 2004 I already convinced myself that manufacture of ammonia from water and air, carried out by a 500 MWe (or bigger) chemo-nuclear power plant , should be commercially viable (see my book “The Nuclear Imperative”). Whether it is practical for small-scale wind- and solar-energy storage is questionable. But like Tom says, given that fuzz-head politicians are going to throw money at building some gigawatt wind and solar monstrosities in our prairies (economics and eco-system destruction be damned !), one might consider making on-site electrolytic hydrogen. On-site Haber-Bosch conversion to ammonia might also be thrown in if money is no object. I wonder how that would compare with pumping water to an elevated storage basin and retrieving the energy by hydroelectric turbines when needed, as has been proposed.

  69. All…I think this 1.6 cents for kwHr is simply silly. I don’t agree with this. At best that is production costs, maybe and we don’t know what EPR down through APR-1400 production costs are going to be. Secondly, costs for electricity are never this low. the only one’s I know that approach or are below this number is the Federal hydro systems contracts with aluminum companies in the US Pacifica NW coming off the Columbia River valley hydro set up.

    We do not know the single most significant aspect of this plants finances: the discount price for the money to build the plants. We find that out and we will have a better shot at figuring out the costs over the lifetime of the plant based on a standard 10 to 20 years amortized loan.


  70. Actually it’s not unrealistic to talk about production costs of under two cents once the plant is paid for. I believe the latest figures for paid-off nuclear plants in the USA is about 1.68 cents/kWh. So if you build a NPP and amortize it over a 40-year life and then recertify it for another 20 years, you get the situation we have today where the plants are cash cows. If the calculations for the UAE mentioned above are taking into account all costs including capital costs, that would be quite impressive considering that the price the UAE is expecting to pay is substantially more than China expects to be building these things for.

    Clearly we’ll have a lot firmer ground to stand on once a couple of the newest Gen III+ plants have been up and running for a couple years and their successors are starting to be mass-produced. Until then any of our figures will be a bit hazy, though not so much that we can’t make some pretty good guesses.

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