Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Wed 30th Aug, 2006

Peak Caps?

No doubt everyone now has heard of the "Peak Oil" phenomenon. I found myself thinking this morning, "What about Peak Coal? Or Peak Iron Ore? Or Peak Wheat[1]?" Because every resource on the planet is finite - bar throwing a small amount of lighter gases into space through atmospheric leakage and a few satellites through even more improbable means, everything that we mine or use stays here.

This is good, in a way: it means that as long as we have energy pouring onto the planet from the sun and we develop sufficiently advanced technology to convert one thing to another, we need never run out of resources. They may be a little spread out and some things are scarcer than others, but pretty much all of the elements that were here a million years ago are still here.

Aside: I'm discounting someone finding that they need half a tonne of Eka-lead for some reason, and I don't think we're going to get to transmutation any time soon.

But the problem is that we keep tying things up in hard-to-undo packages. I was looking at my three-inch stack of CD coasters yesterday and wondered if there was any way to recycle them. Yes, there is, but you need to be in Sydney for it - no-one in Canberra takes CDs and recycles them. Business opportunity right there, I thought. But the polycarbonate is bloody tough stuff - the only way CDs are recycled is to melt them down into even harder plastics. You can't 'unbind' the oil used to produce those CDs - yet; someone's made a device for turning car tyres back into oil, so plastics can't be too far away. But people still throw out heaps of CDs, so we need to get to recycling them first.

My prediction: in less than twenty years we'll see mining devices specifically designed to chomp through landfills and pick up as much of the recyclable waste in there as possible.

A few facts:

This is why I maintain my stance that we need to move toward nuclear power. Not because it's as safe as coal, hydro or solar, but because fossil fuels are running out, and the last two just can't supply our requirement for energy at anything like the amount we use. We've come a long way since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl: Designs like the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor and others are completely fault-tolerant - if you switch all the pumps off and pull out all the control rods, the reactor sits there doing nothing more dangerous than producing heat. They've tested this, and it works. No radiation leaks, no steam explosions, and when the fuel is expended it's already in a safe container for either storage or processing.

I'd love the whole planet to be running on solar and maybe hydro power. But I don't think that'll happen in my lifetime. Until then we need nuclear power to stop the incredible drain on our fossil fuels. In addition, you can run countries on solar power but, until ships are fitted with sails again (something I know has been talked about but I can't find a reference to), you can't run a ship on solar power[2]. A ship uses around 3.5 tonnes of fuel oil per hour[3], so running it on nuclear power is going to save a lot of oil. A pity that most of the trials of nuclear-powered cargo vessels were set up to fail.

And that wraps up another long-winded, vaguely researched opinion piece by your conservation commentator.

[1]: Peak wheat, I hear you cry? Well, aren't the minerals and elements and nutrients that make wheat grow exhaustible? Farmers pour lots of nutrients on the soil and have fallow fields in order to get these ingredients back into the soil. We only have a limited amount of wheat-producing area on the planet, and that's being used up as salinity, aridity and population take over formerly viable crop areas. I don't have figures to back this speculation up, but I think we have to look at the production of all resources, natural or man-made, on the planet as, at the very least, having a fixed upper bound. Try telling this to the stock market, however, where any company that doesn't grow faster than it has before has investors selling off its stock.

[2]: An average container ship has a deck area of around 281 * 32 metres = 8992 square metres. The total solar energy falling on the earth's surface is 1367 watts per metre in all bands, so a ship is exposed to 12,292,064 Watts of energy; but even with 100% efficient solar panels this is not enough to power a ship that has 20,000,000 watt engines. And that's a small engine - the Shanghai Express has 68,640 kilowatt engines, but its deck area only receives 18,809 kilowatts of solar radiation.

[3]: An average cargo ship uses 3.5 tonnes of fuel oil per hour, which at a density of near water is around 924,602 gallons or 22,014 barrels per hour. At a price of around $3 per gallon, that's $2.77 million US dollars per hour. Yet according to the Shanghai Express page that's less than 1% of the cost of the goods. So my maths is probably wrong somewhere.

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