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Mirrors but very little smoke

Using less fossil fuels, being more efficient with energy use, finding more and different energy sources all coupled with what the human race is very good at in a crisis, plain, simple innovation may just be able to cope with global energy needs. Sometimes mixing technologies can provide an answer.

In October 2011, a division of energy giant Chevron USA Inc, Chevron Technology Ventures said that it had launched a demonstration project to test if solar energy is viable to produce oil. “Through this demonstration, we want to determine the feasibility of using solar power for enhanced oil recovery,” said Desmond King, Chevron Technology’s president in a statement. “This technology has the potential to augment gas-powered steam generation and may provide an additional resource in areas of the world where natural gas is expensive or not readily available.” Chevron Technology says that the solar project uses more than 7600 mirrors to focus the energy of the sun onto a solar boiler where the resultant steam is injected into oil reservoirs to get the oil flowing better and thus increase production. The company says that the demonstration project is currently the largest of its kind in the world.

The target for the new technology is actually one of the US’ oldest oil fields, the Coalinga Field in California, which the company says began operations during the 1890s. Heavy crude oil does not flow easily and steam injection is a common method to reduce its viscosity and thus increase the flow rate. The new solar array and boiler generates around the same amount of steam that is used by one gas-fired steam generator. BrightSource Energy has been appointed as the engineering, procurement and construction provider for the project, while the project itself will be operated by Chevron Technology. “Our region has a long history of pioneering innovative technologies,” said Bruce Johnson, vice president of Chevron’s San Joaquin Valley business unit in a statement. “The work we are doing at Coalinga continues that tradition, enabling us to examine a new technology that could have significant implications for heavy-oil production.”

The company says that the solar mirror array covers an area of around 65 acres with support facilities taking another 35 acres. At 100 acres of ground to replace one gas-fired steam generator, the footprint may not be suitable for all heavy oil wells but the technology seems promising for the future especially for areas where natural gas infrastructure is not readily available and land is not an issue.

From aviation to steel sectors

The aviation industry and military air forces have long-ridden the up-and-down roller coaster of cyclical high and low oil prices with end lowest prices often ending a little bit higher each time. Oil looks like it may have peaked during its latest cycle and looks to be falling again. Nevertheless, few bookmakers would take a bet that oil prices would never surge upward dramatically again. With that nightmare cost scenario in mind it is little wonder that innovation is taking place that could dramatically change aviation fuel in the future. Military departments, such as the US Department of Defence (DOD) are actively looking to use biofuels for aircraft and also for other military vehicles and uses, both to cut costs and to reduce its dependency on foreign and often uncontrollable sources. While in the civil aviation sector cost and fuel independence are prime drivers too.

In October 2011, Virgin Atlantic (Virgin) revealed that it had developed the first low-carbon aviation fuel with only 50% of a standard fossil fuel alternative. The company says that it has set up a partnership with LanzaTech to convert captured waste gases from industrial steel production that are then fermented and chemically changed by Swedish Biofuels technology to a product that can be used as aviation fuel. Ordinarily, the waste gases would be burnt off into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2).

Virgin says that it expects to run flights with the new fuel within one to three years on routes between Shanghai and Delhi to London Heathrow as LanzaTech and its partners develop facilities in China and India. Right now, Virgin says that the technology is being piloted in New Zealand with a larger demonstration expected in Shanghai later in 2011 and the first commercial operation set to be in place in China by 2014. If everything works out well Virgin said that a wider roll-out of the fuel could include the UK and other operations worldwide. “We were the first commercial airline to test a bio-fuel flight and we continue to lead the airline industry as the pioneer of sustainable aviation. This partnership to produce a next generation, low-carbon aviation fuel is a major step towards radically reducing our carbon footprint, and we are excited about the savings that this technology could help us achieve,” said Virgin Atlantic’s President, Sir Richard Branson, announcing the partnership between Virgin and LanzaTech. “With oil running out, it is important that new fuel solutions are sustainable, and with the steel industry alone able to deliver over 15 billion gallons of jet fuel annually, the potential is very exciting. This new technology is scalable, sustainable and can be commercially produced at a cost comparable to conventional jet fuel.” LanzaTech estimates that its process can be applied to 65% of the world’s steel mills and may also be applied to metals processing and chemical industries thus increasing its potential.

It is said that Thomas Edison’s motivation for his development of a version of electric light was because of his dissatisfaction with and his desire to compete with the dominant gas companies of his day.

Today, the innovator’s will for alternatives and major efficiencies is driven by often unpredictable fossil fuel prices helping to cause economic chaos in a very different see-sawing economy. It may be a myth, but perhaps in our global economy where growth is now stalling and could yet recede negatively perhaps through innovations and the help of mirrors and very little smoke, oil and gas markets may yet stabilise to within a liveable price band for everyone.

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