home about projects publications teaching tools
about projects writing teaching
about projects teaching writing

August 2010 Archives

athabascan tar sands = "energy insanity"

Classes started today. Began my return to academia in what I'm told was true doctoral student fashion -- I missed my first class because I was on a conference call about a potential project :). It was completely worth it. Its fun to glean and interact [even minimally, at this point] with brilliant, engaged folks.

I made it to the second class, in a big theater filled to the brim with an eclectic smattering of students - undergrads, masters, doctoral, the works, from every discipline across the board. The class is out of the Energy & Resources Group and is titled "Energy and Society." Its going to be awesome and cover a breadth of topics pretty quickly.

We concluded today's lecture with a brief discussion of fossil fuel stores, much of which was enlightening to me. I knew about some of the general environmental issues surrounding tar sands and the rampant destruction producing crude from tar sands entails; I had little clue about the complete energy inefficiency of the process. The prof noted that if we include shale and oil/tar sands in our peak oil calculations, the notion that we've hit 50% capacity becomes moot -- we've hit something like 2.5% capacity. That said, he mentioned that if we assume sweet crude to require environmental/energy inputs equal to 1, tar sands is 30 or 40% higher. The process for refining tar sands [which i'll revisit as I learn more] goes something like the following:

Dig a deep-ass pit. Around 100m down, you'll hit tar sands, or as the Canadians like to call it, oil sands. Mix with water and separate the oil. There's a lot of sulfur in tar sands, and we don't like sulfur. So we take CH4, strip the carbon off, and bubble this hydrogen through the tar sand slurry. This'll form H2S. Precipitate the elemental sulfur in an ice bath, release the hydrogen into the atmosphere. You waste natural gas, you throw hydrogen away, and you get all of this goodness:

Sulfur Stockpile

Apparently there's a glut of sulfur in the market, so that just sits there in all its inimitable yellowness. Piles upon piles of sulfur cakes.

This process above is over-simplified, but that doesn't change the fact that its completely f-ing insane. The size of the Athabascan tar sands hellhole is equivalent to Saudi Arabia's oil field before it was pilfered. The government of Alberta thinks it can push production beyond 3 million barrels per day. Hard to imagine a world in which we're not reliant on oil when we keep finding ways to extract it.