Sustaining the Wind Part 3 – Is Uranium Exhaustible?

A pilot plant for the extraction of uranium from seawater under construction in India. (From Rao , 2010)

A pilot plant for the extraction of uranium from seawater under construction in India. (From Rao [1] , 2010)

This is Part III of the “Sustaining the Wind” series of essays by NNadir. For Part I, click here. Part II is here.


In part 2 of this series[2], we discussed the claim of Udo Bardi, an academic “peak oiler” out of the University of Florence, that uranium supplies are subject to exhaustion, this because, according to Bardi, and a correspondent evoking, if not actually citing, him in this space, extracting meaningful amounts of uranium from seawater, where its mass vastly outstrips the quantities obtained from domestic ores, is too expensive in terms of energy and cost.   According to Bardi, we face “peak uranium” just as we face “peak oil,” the latter being Bardi’s main focus, although my cursory impression is that, many, if not most “peak oilers” are also “peak uranium” types.    As a practical matter, I am really neither of these.   I acknowledge that the world might run out of oil, but unlike most “peak oilers” as I understand them, I’m unconcerned about its consequences.  As far as I’m concerned, the sooner we run out of oil, the better.   In my opinion, the replacement of oil is straight forward, which is neither to say “easy” nor to say “cheap” but nonetheless, in the golden age of chemistry, clearly technically feasible, and clearly desirable.   My problem with petroleum has to do with the status of the main dump for its waste, this being the planetary atmosphere.    A secondary concern has to do with the diversion of oil to make weapons of mass destruction, a routine practice on this planet, as well as the hysteria about oil as a cause of wars of mass destruction, followed by a concern about oil terrorism, which among other things, lead to the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Part 2 of this series was all about “peak indium,” inasmuch as it is involved in so called “renewable energy,” which in some cases, indium in “CIGS” (copper indium gallium selenide) thin film solar being one, is running out of key materials before it has become a significant form of energy.   And let’s be clear:   After half a century of jawboning about the subject, and after the expenditure of trillions of dollars to try to make it work, so called “renewable energy,” excepting hydropower, is not a significant form of energy.

Although overall this series is entitled “Sustaining the Wind,” we will not be focusing very much in this part on wind energy itself, but rather on this fuel for nuclear energy, uranium, considering very dilute sources, one of which will be seawater.   Part 3 of this series is all about the concept of “peak uranium” as raised by Bardi and many others, including a vast segment of the population that knows nothing at all about nuclear energy, but hates it anyway.

There is good reason for doing this in a series on wind energy.   First, if one spends any amount of time looking into the claims of those who advocate for so called “renewable energy” one will quickly see that for many of the advocates for this expensive, and thus far essentially useless form of energy, are often less interested in replacing dangerous fossil fuels than they are in displacing nuclear energy.   (In Part 5 we will look at some prominent academics associated with this tragic anti-nuclear, pro-“renewable energy” rhetoric, focusing mainly on Mark Z. Jacobsen, Professor of Civil Engineering at Stanford University.)  Since nuclear energy remains, despite much caviling, the world’s largest, by far, source of climate change gas free primary energy, easily outstripping all others, we should suspect that these advocates are spectacularly uninterested in climate change and other forms of air pollution, which I assure you, are far more dire catastrophes than the reactor failures at Chernobyl and Fukushima that so obsess this sort.   Secondly, if nuclear energy is safe, clean, and infinitely or nearly infinitely sustainable, the rationale for constructing truly massive numbers of wind turbines collapses.   As we have seen in parts 1 and 2, wind turbine construction involves digging up huge amounts of increasingly rare elements, as well as vast quantities of elements that are not yet rare but nonetheless involve significant environmental impacts to refine.   Historically, as we shall see, uranium mining has been as problematic as the mining of other ores, probably not as odious as coal mining or petroleum mining, but, given that it occurred in an era – the last half of the 20th century – featuring a “once through,” waste mentality, nevertheless, leaving a scar on a future generation, specifically our generation.   Herein we will suggest approaches to healing this scar and preventing new such scars.

Opponents of nuclear energy often lump it with dangerous coal, and the other two dangerous fossil fuels, dangerous petroleum and dangerous natural gas.   While overall this is absurd, in one way it has a modicum of truth:   Like dangerous petroleum, dangerous natural gas, and dangerous coal, uranium and thorium are irreversibly consumed when used for the generation of primary nuclear energy, and on the surface however, it would seem, therefore, theoretically that there are limits to the sustainability of access to these fuels.

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Sustaining the Wind Part 2 – Indium and Beyond…

This is Part II of the “Sustaining the Wind” series of essays by David Jones. For Part I, click here.


At the conclusion of part 1[i] of this series, we saw that the putative demand for the element indium in order to build some 15,000,000 wind turbines (at a nominal peak capacity of roughly 900 MW) that would be required to produce annual outputs of 90 exajoules of energy, given the low capacity utilization associated with wind infrastructure, was on the order of 18,000 tons.  Although predictions about the total geological supply of any element or mineral are inherently fuzzy, we have also seen that if true, it is quite possible, that the indium demand for wind power alone, never mind the solar industry where it is a key constituent of “CIGS” (copper-indium-gallium-selenide) thin film solar cells, might well exceed the geologically available reserves of the element.   In this part we will look at indium as a surrogate for the many critical elements on which modern technology depends.   We noted in part 1 that a consideration demand for the elements and minerals required to construct so called “renewable energy” infrastructure is one to two orders of magnitude higher than the demand required to construct nuclear power plants.   Moreover we examined data connected with the Danish database of commissioned and decommissioned wind turbines to determine that historically wind turbines remain operational of a mean period of about 15 years – with some capacity lasting a little longer than 30 years, and some for less than two years – and thus efforts to expand wind capacity – which now produces less than 2 exajoules of the more than 560 exajoules of energy humanity consumes – will involve not only adding massive new infrastructure, but also regularly replacing worn out capacity.

As we look at indium, we will not assert that the wind industry is completely dependent on access to it.   It is always possible that replacements can be found for any material, as we will see, but we will nevertheless show that the game of “material musical chairs” if you will, is a profound challenge, and that often the hand waving and wishful thinking that surrounds issues in energy, especially where so called “renewable energy” is concerned, is at best glib, at worst misinformed to the point of delusion.    The fate of humanity is very much dependent on the decisions we will make in this century; possibly no generation has faced such a demand for clear thinking as the immediately coming generations will face, even as the current generation has failed the future miserably.

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Sustaining the Wind Part 1 – Is So Called “Renewable Energy” the Same as “Sustainable Energy?”

What follows on this blog over the next few weeks will be a series of five important essays on sustainable energy, by David Jones (who also blogs as NNadir on Daily Kos, bio here). A previous article on BNC by David, on world energy demand and uranium supply, can be read here.

Here is Part I.

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A lanthanide processing facility in China.  From Lim, Nature 520, 426–427 (23 April 2015)[1] 

A group calling itself “The FS-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate and Sustainable Energy Finance,” working out of the Frankfurt School, in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Program and the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Group has published study called “Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment,[2] according to which, in the period between 2004 and 2014, the world expenditure on so called “renewable energy” amounted to 1.801 trillion dollars (US).  Of this, 711 billion dollars was applied to developing wind energy, an amount exceeded only by the investment in solar energy, which was 875.1 billion dollars in that same period.

The total “investment” in so called “renewable energy” in the last ten years is greater than the annual GDP (2013) of 179 of 192 nations as recorded by the World Bank[3], only 75 billion dollars smaller than the GDP of India, a nation estimated to contain a population of 1.396 billion human beings as of 2015, roughly 20% of the human race.[4]  For the amount of money spent on so called “renewable energy” in the last decade we could have written a check for about $1,200 dollars to every man, woman and child in India, thus almost doubling the per capita income[5] of that country.  It is roughly comparable to the 2013 GDP of Canada, a few hundred billion dollars larger than the annual 2013 GDP of Australia.

Here is a graphic from the text[6] of the FS-UNEP report showing the trends:

We shall look in this series at what we have to show for this “investment,” and then discuss what is and is not “sustainable energy.”  For the record, though we need not agree, what the Frankfurt School defines as “Sustainable Energy,” is pretty much what one expects these days.   The definition includes solar, wind, biofuels, small hydro, geothermal and marine energy.

The Frankfurt School does not define nuclear energy or “large hydro” as “sustainable energy.”

I agree, by the way, with the latter omission, since, on our path to “sustainable energy” as we have designed that path, a path more or less officially endorsed by the powers that be, we have basically killed or nearly killed every major river system on the planet, and are well on our way to destroying the major mountain glacier systems on which many of these already dying major rivers depend.

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Techno-fixes for climate change

Last week I presented at the Australian Academy of Science on ‘techno-fixes for climate change’. This talk was part of an AAS series organised by Bryan Gaensler called “Science Fiction becomes Science Fact“.

My talk was vodcast, and goes for 38 min, followed up by about 17 min of Q&A with the audience at the Shine Dome in Canberra (Australia). In it, I discuss climate scenarios, the energy problem, advanced nuclear energy, plasma-arc torches, geo-engineering, vertical farms, desalination, synthetic fuels, and much more. I also introduce the paradigm of ecomodernism.

I hope you enjoy it.

It was also covered in a report on BuzzFeed.

Making sense of the Tesla Triumvirate – solar, batteries and electric vehicles

Guest Post by Graham Palmer. Graham recently published the book “Energy in Australia: Peak Oil, Solar Power, and Asia’s Economic Growth” (“Springer Briefs in Energy” series).


The Tesla Powerwall is promised as the critical third key to unlocking the Tesla Triumvirate – solar, batteries and electric vehicles. The Powerwall provides an opportunity to look at the opportunities and weaknesses of distributed power, and examine the long-run sustainability of such a system. To do this, we can turn to life-cycle assessments and the field of Energy Return on Investment (EROI).

EROI is the ratio of how much energy is gained from an energy production process compared to how much of that energy is required to extract, grow, or get a new unit of energy. Advocates of EROI believe that it offers insights about energy transitions in ways that markets can not. The availability of surplus energy has been one of the main drivers of economic and social development since the industrial revolution.

At the start of the 1990’s, Pimentel launched a debate that was to be long running, on the effectiveness of corn ethanol production in the United States. Pimentel drew attention to the energy intensity of the ethanol life cycle, including nitrogen fertilizer, irrigation, embodied energy of machinery, drying, on-farm diesel, processing, etc. Although not settled decisively, there is a consensus that the EROI of US corn ethanol is below the minimum useful threshold. Brazilian ethanol seems to be better, and there is hope that second generation biofuels will be better again.

The relative fraction of residential energy end-use in Australia helps to give a sense of the scale between our direct household energy use, and the total energy consumption in Australia – according to the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (table 3.4), residential energy consumption made up 11% of total energy consumption, with electricity a little under half of that. As a community, the vast majority of our energy footprint is embedded in the goods, food, products, and services that we consume.

We can also apply EROI principles to electricity production. However electricity is only valuable within the context of a system and isolating the EROI of individual components is more challenging. We can, however apply life-cycle inventories to individual components, including solar, batteries, and electric vehicles, and see how they perform. Life-cycle assessments measure the lifetime environmental impacts of greenhouse emissions, embodied energy, ozone depletion, particulates, water and marine toxicity and eutrophication, and other effects.

The UK-based Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership compared a range of low emission vehicle options in the UK. This considered the full life-cycle of the vehicle including production of the vehicle with a driving range of 150,000km. The conventional vehicle was based on the VW Golf, and the electric vehicle was based on the Nissan Leaf.

Based on the current European grid, it concluded that EVs generally have lower life-cycle emissions than an equivalent petrol vehicle, but the outcome is dependent on the electricity grid and other factors. The report also projected the analysis out to 2030, assuming improvements in energy and vehicle technologies. For the ‘typical 2030’ scenario, the emission intensity of the UK and European grid was assumed to drop to between 0.287 and 0.352 kg CO2-e/kWh (around a third of Australia’s current emission intensity).

Figure 1 – lifetime greenhouse emission based on “typical 2030” scenario

Figure 1 – lifetime greenhouse emission based on “typical 2030” scenario

The most important outcome of these life cycle assessments is that the embodied energy of the battery and the emission intensity of the grid are the crucial determinants of the emission intensity of EVs. The report assumed a battery capacity of 24 kWh for the EV, or less than a third of the Tesla Model S battery.

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