Amazing Energy

While oil, coal, wind and solar power are well-known by the general public, the new trend has been to explore the resources of methane on our planet. Indeed the world’s methane reserves are more than all the coal, oil and gas reserves on our planet. Pakistan too is rich in methane deposits, which can be found in the form of a huge reservoir of methane hydrates above the ocean floor near the Makran coast.

The government should immediately ask our Chinese friends to undertake a detailed survey of these deposits and then set up production plants. Another huge resource of energy in Pakistan is that of shale oil and shale gas. Exploitation of shale for oil and gas is dramatically changing the energy scenario on our planet with the US leading the way in the technologies involved for production of shale oil.

Brazil and China have also developed technologies for commercial production of oil from shale. This is done by pyrolysis (high temperature treatment) of the organic matter present in the amorphous rocks, and leads to the production of synthetic oil and gas. After further refining, it can be used just like the oil that is used in car engines.

A recent report prepared for the US Department of Energy (April 2013) has revealed that Pakistan has a large deposit of shale oil and gas. It states: “Overall, ARI estimates a total of 496 Tcf of risked shale gas in-place for India/Pakistan, 290 Tcf in India and 206 Tcf in Pakistan, Table XII-1. The technically recoverable shale gas resource is estimated at 114 Tcf, with 63 Tcf in India and 51 Tcf in Pakistan. These estimates could increase with collection of additional reservoir information.”

The report contains geographical maps indicating precisely where these deposits are located. It is hoped that our government will urgently approach the US government or China to provide us with training and technical knowledge so that we can tap into these reserves ourselves rather than giving them away to a foreign company at dirt cheap prices.

There has been much interest in biofuels in recent years. These are fuels that can be produced from organic or food waste products by microorganisms. As the organic or food products from which they are produced are themselves derived through photosynthetic processes, they can be considered as an indirect product of solar energy. On Friday March 18, 2011 an exciting development took place in the field of aviation. An F-22 fighter jet aircraft flew using a 1:1 blend of conventional jet fuel and a biofuel. This biofuel was derived from a plant of the mustard family, ‘camelina’. The fighter aircraft flew at speeds greater than the speed of sound.

The flight illustrates the potential for further use of aviation biofuels. It will result in improved efficiency, reduce emissions from aviation and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. This was followed on October 6, 2011 by a Boeing 757-200 operated by Thomson Airways that carried 232 passengers from Birmingham Airport, UK to Arrecife, using a sustainable biofuels blend in an engine. Passenger airlines such as KLM and Japan Airlines have already used blends of the biofuel derived from camelina in their aircraft. The biofuel derived from camelina is about $70 per barrel compared to conventional fuels that are above $100 per barrel.

Termites have also been employed for biofuel production. While ethanol can be produced readily from molasses, this is more difficult to achieve if one wants to use cellulosic materials that are present in wood, leaves and grass. The difficulty has been due to the presence of lignin in the cell walls of the cellulosic biomass, which prevents ready access to the sugars present within the cells.

Dr Mike Scharf and co-workers at Purdue University have discovered that the enzymes present in certain organisms that live in the gut of termites, have the amazing property of breaking down the lignin. Once this is done, it allows the release of sugars present in the sawdust and other cellulosic biomass. These can in turn be fermented to provide ethanol.

We get our energy in the form of heat and light from our sun. This energy is produced in our sun and in other stars by nuclear fusion. This process involves two or more atomic nuclei (such as hydrogen) fusing together to give a heavier atom (such as helium) with the production of huge amounts of energy. It is through such nuclear fusion reactions in the sun that heat and light are produced that allow life to exist on it. Scientists have been trying to replicate this process on earth.

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility (NIF), US, are building a very large laser facility which is about the size of three football fields to try and fuse the two isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium). A huge laser beam will be split into 192 beams and focused in a concentrated manner over a tiny space that contains deuterium and tritium. The temperatures from these concentrated beams will be much hotter than those in our sun, reaching about 100 million degrees centigrade. The pressures will be extremely high, more than 100 billion atmospheres.

If the process works, sea water will become one of the major sources of energy (since deuterium is derived from it). In the future man may learn how to create mini-suns on earth, and such fusion reactions could supply a virtually unlimited source of energy, replacing the fossil fuels that are a major cause of environmental pollution.

The key task before the present government is to quickly produce energy at affordable cost. This is immediately possible if we convert all our oil-based energy producing plants to coal-based ones. Additionally we should use hydroelectric power and wind energy to meet our energy needs. We should completely ignore international pressures exerted by a hugely powerful oil lobby, and do what is in the interest of the nation. This must be done today, not tomorrow.

We should also follow the path that countries like Korea, China and Brazil have taken to establish knowledge-based economies. This would mean diverting our resources from other sectors to education. The previous government approved a policy to invest seven percent of GDP to education but did nothing. The present government too has committed to increase the government allocation to five percent of GDP. This commitment is, however, not yet visible in the budgetary allocation.