Making Oil Unnecessary
Chemistry and advanced materials play a huge part in the affluent lifestyle enjoyed by most people in the more advanced world. With recent advances in biotech and nanotech, we are beginning to see the dawn of the age of the “impossible.” Such as making oil unnecessary.
We have already seen oil in relative oversupply recently, and as the chemical, nanotech, and biotech revolutions roll on, we are likely to see more and more of the demand for oil shifting to substitute forms of energy — catalysed from cheap and abundant natural gas. Here is how the San Francisco startup Siluria is working the miracle:
Early on in Siluria’s history Bybee was talking their catalyst breakthrough with a senior exec of an engineering company. “His response was, ‘That’s not possible; I’ve had a team working on this for a decade.’ But now they’re one of our commercial partners.”
The catalyst breakthrough originated in the M.I.T. and University of Texas laboratories of Angela Belcher. She had no background at all in catalysts, but was fascinated by how molluscs like the abalone had evolved the ability to create proteins that selectively binded with inorganic minerals dissolved in seawater to help form amazingly strong shells. Wondering how humans could somehow mimic that miraculous manufacturing process, Belcher discovered that some bacteriophages — viruses that infect bacteria — also had a tendency to attach themselves to inorganic materials. She placed viruses in a solution with a variety of materials. She found one that liked to grab onto cobalt oxide. Another that preferred carbon nanotubes. To make more of these viruses, she simply gave them a bunch of bacteria to infect so they could reproduce. Belcher found that if she put enough such viruses together with sufficient material to grab onto, they would assemble the material into long strings, dubbed nanowires.
The application to catalysis wasn’t obvious when Bybee and Arch licensed Belcher’s technology from M.I.T. and the University of Texas. “It was good at making nanostructures that you couldn’t make in any other way,” says Bybee, who first leveraged the tech to launch a company called Cambrios, which uses it to make a silver nanowire “ink” solution now used in electronic touch screens and “e-paper.”
It turns out these virus-assembled nanowires are a big help in building catalysts because ounce for ounce they provide so much more surface area for reactions to occur. “A lot of chemistry happens in that catalyst,” says Dineen.
To further perfect their catalyst, Siluria’s engineers have employed the kind of high-throughput testing utilized in pharmaceutical discovery to so far test 70,000 unique formulations. Dineen explains that the catalyst they now use is “not some exotic metal” but is a modified form of the mineral zeolite. “The art is more in the nanowire construction, and the doping with other elements.” __ Siluria Technologies Making Oil Unnecessary
Siluria is learning to make high value products from natural gas in an economic manner. Products that have always been made from oil previously. Fuels, lubricants, fertilisers, fabrics, plastics, and so on . . . The more substitutes for oil, the less demand for oil, and the lower the price of oil on world markets. This trend has barely begun — but it is very bad news for backward nations such as Venezuela, Iran, Russia, and the African oil states — nations that must buy their technology and expertise from abroad, using scarce hard currency.
Massive quantities of oil, gas, coal, kerogens, bitumens, and gas hydrates lie scattered through the Earth’s crust — both unexploited and undiscovered. As new ways are devised for converting cheaper natural gas, coal, bitumens, and kerogens into valuable commercial products — which once required oil — the demand for oil will steadily decline, along with the price of oil.
Perhaps the largest individual hydrocarbon resource is frozen gas hydrates — natural gas trapped in frozen clathrate form. This resource poses a significant technological challenge, but not an impossible one. Fortunately, humans have several decades before they will actually need to begin using the gas hydrate resource.
The graphic above illustrates the estimates of petroleum engineer Gary Swindell, for Earth’s total hydrocarbon complement. Most of these resources will never be used — for several reasons. First, other forms of energy will become more economical — such as advanced fission, fusion, and other forms of nuclear and atomic energy production. Further, as humans become more advanced technologically, they will be more interested in preserving and enhancing the natural beauty of Earth as a living planet. As the more ambitious and resourceful humans spread out across the solar system and beyond, they will want to know that the home planet is being kept as a safe haven for as wide a range of biodiversity as possible. That means that destructive forms of energy — such as big wind and big solar — are not utilised. And it means that unsightly forms of mining for coal and other resources will be phased out, or kept to a minimum — with rapid reclamation after mines are abandoned.
High temperature nuclear reactors will provide cheap industrial process heat for converting oil substitutes into high value plastics, fabrics, lubricants, fertilisers, fuels, and more. As mentioned above, the high volume substitution of cheap materials in place of more expensive oil has just begun.
More stories on catalysts in energy research from Al Fin Energy
As much as 500 billion untapped barrels (!) of bitumen carbonate underneath the Canadian oil sands
If we are to head off the coming ice age, we will need to burn as much carbon as possible — at least until we perfect the extraction of clean abundant energy from safe advanced nuclear energy. 😉
Remember: Doomers are a dime a dozen. Problem-solvers always seem to be in scarce supply. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. It is never too late to have a Dangerous Childhood.