Saturday, February 12, 2011

"How-To" for Ethanol and Blend Vehicles

Update 10-6-15:

For an E-85-type ethanol conversion,  there are 3 things you must address:  (1) mixture ratio at all power settings,  (2) extra timing advance,  on the order of 15 extra crankshaft degrees,  and (3) quite a bit of extra intake heat to promote adequate vaporization.

If you plan on burning something more concentrated than E-85,  there is a fourth item:  (4) you will need a start fuel canister of some kind.  Otherwise starting at ambient temperatures below 50 F becomes essentially impossible.

For a stiff blend up to E-35,  there is no conversion at all!  It is just a drop-in fuel.  And ethanol splash-blends with gasoline in the tank,  so stratification isn't an issue at all.  With today's E-10 for unleaded regular grade,  use no more than 1/3 E-85 by volume,  no less than 2/3 regular by volume,  and your mixture will be no stronger than E-35.  If it takes 12 gallons to fill up,  no more than 4 of those should be E-85,  no less than 8 of those should be unleaded regular.

Full E-85 conversions:  Mixture Ratio -- With carburetors,  increase main jet and idle jet sizes by roughly about factor 1.2 on diameter.  You have to sneak up on the right value,  it is different for every car.  For fuel injection,  replace the fuel rail pressure regulator with an adjustable aftermarket unit and set it about factor 1.5 higher pressure,  and do not tell the electronics you did anything at all.

Full E-85 conversions: Extra Timing Advance  -- First thing to try is +15 crankshaft degrees from gasoline stock.  Ethanol's burn speed is similar to gasoline,  but its ignition delay is longer so you must start earlier with your spark.  What you want to end up with is peak cylinder pressure 1-2 crankshaft degrees before top dead center,  no more,  no less.  This issue is extremely serious with a modern over-square,  short-stroke,  high-rev automotive engine.  With very old under-square,  long-stroke,  slow-rev technology,  this issue makes almost no difference at all.

Full E-85 conversions:  Extra Intake Heat -- it is impractical to modify the intake manifold hot spot in most engines.  The only viable alternative is hotter intake air.  It needs to be above about 70-80 F minimum,  before fuel is introduced.  90 F is even better.

Original Article:

Some folks have contacted me for help do-it-yourself converting cars to E-85 or for using "stiff" gasohol blends in unmodified cars. Here's what I know works ----

"Ethanol VW"

My "ethanol VW" was a 1973 beetle with an essentially-stock 1600 cc case, jugs, and crank. It was a dual-port head engine, stock valves, stock rockers, no modifications at all. I had long ago replaced the worn-out combination distributor with an aftermarket Bosch 009 all-mechanical unit. (I had also long ago undone the idiot 15-degrees-retarded timing setting, that the factory used in 1973 to try to meet EPA emission standards. This took me from 5 degrees late (mark on pulley) to 10 degrees before top dead center, static timing.)

After I got the Bosch-009, what worked best for ignition timing was a very simple 30 degrees all-in (about 2500+ rpm) by strobe, on gasoline. I used this setting successfully for decades. I decreased the valve lash setting and oil change intervals to 2000 miles from the factory-recommended 3000 miles, and changed from the recommended lash of 0.006 inches intake and exhaust to 0.006 inch intake and 0.008 inch exhaust. These changes enabled me to avoid valve-burning and excess bearing wear problems in the Texas heat. By switching to aviation-grade oil in the 1980’s, I was able to increase the oil change interval to 4000 miles. After the advent of SF-or-better grade auto oils in the mid 1990’s, I was able to return to using auto oils at the longer 4000 mile interval.

The original carburetor was a Solex 34 PICT-3. I went through a couple of them; they wear around the shaft of the throttle plate, and leak air. It upsets the off-idle transition very badly. I had finally replaced it with an aftermarket Solex 30/31 with the adapter plate for the 34 mm manifold. That worked fine for many years, but finally wore out the same way as the 34 PICT-3. I also had available, but had never used, a not-worn-out Solex 30-PICT-2, off a single port head 1600 cc Bus engine.

I went through several combinations of jet sizes with both the 34 PICT-3 and the 30 PICT-2 carburetors, before I settled on the 30 PICT-2, because it did not leak air around the throttle butterfly shaft. I had to use the adapter for the 30/31 to make it fit, and the accelerator pump cover off the 30/31, to find an accelerator pump link bar that would fit. I never even tried the 30/31 with ethanol, because it has idle circuitry that I never really understood: it uses two idle jets of different sizes.

The Converted 30 PICT-2
On the 30 PICT-2 the stock main jet was a "116.0", which is 1.160 mm dia (.045"). On E-85, I settled on a "137.5" from another aftermarket Solex-Brazil carburetor, which is 1.375 mm dia (.054") for good driveability at speed. The stock idle jet was a g55, which is 0.055 mm dia (.022"). I drilled that out to .762 mm (.030") before I was satisfied with idle settings. If the idle jet is too small, you will suck the idle well dry with too much idle circuit air flow, because the idle screw is open too wide. It's a transient effect, with a time constant somewhere around 15-30 seconds. The stock accelerator discharge nozzle is right at .50 mm dia (.020"). I drilled that out to .712 mm dia (.028") before I was satisfied with the off-idle transition.

Ignition Timing Changes
None of this works at all, if you don't first revise the timing. I found that out the hard way. On gasoline with my aftermarket distributor, timing was +30 BTDC all-in at about 2500+ rpm. I set that with a strobe as the most repeatable way. I had to add 15 degrees to that setting, before it showed the same coast-down vacuum curve on E-85. On E-85, the revised timing spec was thus +45 degrees BTDC, all-in at 2500+ rpm. In other words, you need to add right about 15 crankshaft degrees to whatever timing setting you are using on gasoline. Use the minimum that recreates your old gasoline vacuum coastdown curve.

The Converted 34 PICT-3

You may still have a 34 PICT-3 carburetor. If so, here are the best jet combinations I found, before I gave up on it due to the shaft air leak. Stock main is a "127.5", which is 1.275 mm dia (.050"). On E-85, I used a drilled-out 1.57 mm dia (.062"). Stock idle was a "g55", which is 0.55 mm dia (.022"). On E-85, I drilled that out to .965 mm dia (.038"). Stock accelerator discharge was 0.50 mm dia (.020"). On E-85, I drilled that out to .965 mm dia (.038"). I give both metric and US sizes, because it's a metric car, but all I had to work with was a set of the tiny US-sized bits one uses to clean out oxyacetylene torch tips.

Heated Intake Air

The only other thing I had to do (which you might not if it never gets cold where you are) was to fool the intake air into thinking it was always summer. Any time the outside air temperature was under 70 F, I sucked my intake combustion air from a partial sheet metal glove around the muffler, made from scrap metal roofing trim. Above 70F, ambient air works fine. If you don't do this, both driveability and mileage suffer whenever it is cold. This rig worked all the way down to 15 F for me. I did it with a tee made of scrap plastic bottles on the air cleaner intake. I just plugged-up the cold inlet in cold weather, and let it draw from both inlets in warm weather. My hot source was connected to the side inlet of the tee, which has just a tad more flow resistance. Thus it favored cold air with both inlets open.

How It Should Perform
Have fun running your late-model 1600 VW beetle (or bus) on E-85. If you do it right, you should get about 80% of your former gasoline mileage, not the 70% that the fuel energy per gallon says you should get. Ethanol simply burns more efficiently than gasoline in a piston engine. This partially offsets the lower energy per gallon of the ethanol. Tailpipe soot should gradually disappear. Your spark plugs will start looking pristine-clean, too. So also will the carburetor casting look much cleaner, inside and out. It's really amazing how much cleaner E-85 is than gasoline, in so many different ways.

Minor-to-Moderate Compression Troubles, and How to Cope

If you smell ethanol in your motor oil (it'll smell different, anyway, so I am talking about detecting really serious odor here), your rings are leaking. This will show up as uneven (by around 15 psi) or generally somewhat-low (by about 15 psi) dry compression test readings. If your readings are worse than that, you really need to do the overhaul work first. Add about 10 or 20% Lucas Oil Stabilizer to your crankcase oil, and that modest compression defect will correct itself, and the fuel smell in the oil will go away.

Use the "finger test" to reset your oil change interval, it'll get substantially longer with synthetic in the mix like that (mine pretty much doubled from 4000 to at least 8000 miles, on modern SM-rated oils in an 80-20 blend). The Lucas additive really does a good job arresting cold start wear. Before the advent of SF-grade oils, I could not get even 3000 miles without seriously failing the finger test, so I used aviation-grade oils instead. Nowadays, the SM-grade(same as ILSAC-4, by the way) is way better than the aviation grade oil.

If you don’t understand how to run the “finger test”, you better ask me, or a professional mechanic. It’ll tell you everything a lab test can tell, except for a numerical particle identity and count. But, if you see visible metal wear particles, that’s all you need to know anyway (time to overhaul completely).

Carbureted “Flex-Fuel”?
My 1973 VW beetle is going back into mothballs. Before I was done with it, I reset the carburetor back to gasoline settings by installing a screw on the enlarged main jet, reset the timing back to gasoline-suitable, and undid the heated intake air. I didn’t change the enlarged idle or accelerator discharge. I just reset the idle speed and mixture screw settings as needed, to make it run just fine on gasoline. Then I ran progressively-stiffer gasohol blends until I saw the late timing problem kick-in about E-45-ish on blend strength. The car ran just fine testing blends all the way to E-57 like that. I got the same story (late timing above about E-45) from fuel mileage figures in my fuel-injected unmodified 1995 F-150, and subjectively from my fuel-injected, unmodified 1998 Nissan Sentra.

I did have to reset the VW carburetor screws a little for the blends above about E-40. The fuel-injected Ford and Nissan needed nothing at all, all the way to E-50-something (because closed-loop injection compensates mixture strength automatically, within system flow rate limits).

The requirement for the extra 15 degrees of timing advance (and presumably the warmed intake air) seems to kick-in like a light switch, right about at E-45-ish. If you don’t make these changes, then above E-45-ish, you run weak, smooth, and fuel-consumptive, with a little less intake vacuum on coastdown. That's symptomatic of late timing.

Blend Limits for Unmodified Engines
Cold-weather start "irritations" limited me to E-30 to E-35 max in the unmodified fuel-injected cars. These take the form of starting but dying quickly. A second start then usually works just fine. The problems kick in about freezing. I have tested down to about 10 F here in Texas. This is not serious, just irritating. I have a very old carbureted VW beetle (1960 model) that is running totally unmodified on E-34, and it seems to be doing OK, too. All my completely-unmodifiable lawn and garden equipment runs just fine on E-34, and has for 4 years now.

E-85 is nominally 85% by volume ethanol and 15% gasoline. Its nominal volume fraction ethanol is thus 0.85. These days, unleaded regular gasoline is nominally 10% by volume ethanol and 90% gasoline. Its nominal volume fraction ethanol is thus 0.10. If you know how many gallons of fuel it takes to fill your tank or fuel can (V), and what blend fraction ethanol you want (R), you can use these figures to compute how many of the fill gallons should be E-85 (X):

X = V / [1 + (0.85 – R) / (R – 0.10)]

Examples: for a desired E-35 blend, R = 0.35. Thus X = V/[1 + .50/.25] = V/3.00. Similarly, for R = 0.30, X = V/3.75. For R = 0.25, X = V/5.00. For R = 0.20, X = V/7.50.

Assuming the tank is burned down pretty low (or the can is nearly empty), the residuals will combine with your fill blend pretty close to the R you selected for the fill. In the case of a vehicle fuel tank, this presumes that you have calibrated your fuel gage for gallons-to-fill versus marks on the gage.

This stuff “splash-blends” right in the tank or fuel can. No mixing is required. Just put in your “X” gallons of E-85, and top-off “to the mark” with gasoline. Total gasoline added should come out very close to “V – X” if you did it right.

Calibrating a Fuel Gage

Keep a mileage log over at least three tankfuls of fuel. Record as a minimum the odometer reading and the gallons-to-fill at each fill-up. Fill the tank to exactly the same mark each time. The average mileage between fill-ups is the difference in odometer readings divided by the gallons-to-fill.

While driving on each tank of fuel, as the gage’s needle reaches each mark on the gage, record that odometer reading. The differences in these recorded readings give you miles-between-marks for that tank of fuel. Dividing those by the average mileage for that tank gives you gallons-between-marks. These you average over the multiple tanks of fuel. Listing the averaged gallons-between-marks in a cumulative fashion gives you gallons-to-fill (V) for each gage mark.

Checking Blend Strengths Experimentally

I do this with a simple added-water phase separation test. This requires lab-grade glassware, those being a graduated cylinder of 100 cc capacity for the fuel sample, and a graduated cylinder of about 30 to 50 cc capacity for the added water. You must “abuse” standard laboratory practice and read these to the nearest quarter-division instead of the standard-practice nearest half-division. If you do it this way, your results will come out pretty close to plus or minus 1 or 2 percentage points on blend strength (plus or minus 1 or 2 E-number points). Smaller sample sizes do not work out accurate enough to be useful. I draw my samples from the Schrader fitting located on the fuel rail in most fuel-injected vehicles.

Draw a fuel sample between 58 and 68 cc in volume into the larger cylinder and measure it precisely (bottom of meniscus, or BOM). Compute 1/3 of this volume for the water, put about that much into the smaller test cylinder, and measure what you have precisely (BOM). Record these numbers. Then add the water to the fuel, which will begin to phase-separate immediately. Let this stand 2-4 minutes until all the air bubbles quit decanting. Then measure the total liquid volume (BOM), and the volume below the interface between the separated layers (there is no meniscus, this is a flat plane).

Now, all the water and the ethanol go to the bottom layer, which may grade from cloudy white below to clear right at the interface. The hydrocarbon will all go to the top layer, which is a clear straw-colored liquid. You cannot use the water-plus-ethanol volume directly, because mixed ethanol and water volumes are not conserved, while mixed ethanol and hydrocarbon volumes are conserved.

Subtract the wet ethanol layer volume from the total separated sample volume to determine the hydrocarbon volume floating on top, and record it. Subtract this hydrocarbon volume from the original fuel sample volume, to determine the wet ethanol volume present in the original fuel sample, and record it. Dividing this wet ethanol volume by the fuel sample volume determines the wet ethanol fraction in the original fuel, which in percentage format is a really good estimate of the blend E-number.

I typically find the E-10 “gasoline” to be really closer to E-8; indeed, the placard on the pump usually says “up to 10% ethanol”, not “exactly 10% ethanol”. E-85 typically tests as E-87, which means there is most likely about 1-2% water in the mix. That’s not surprising, as moisture from the air readily absorbs into the ethanol in the fuel. 1 or 2% water is not a problem.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Oil Prices, Recessions, and the War

Update 3-28-16:  I am surprised at the readership of this article recently.  I have not seen any curves recently to illustrate the impact of fracking upon oil recovery in the classic Hubbert curve illustrations below that I got from "Science" magazine,  but it does seem to be about as significant as the Alaskan oil "bump",  or perhaps even larger.

The recent spate of low oil prices is only partially due to US fracking.  The rest is mostly OPEC leaving their production rates high to deliberately force oil prices low.  The motivation is two-fold:  (1) trying to force US frackers out of the business with prices too low to support that activity,  and (2) fear of losing market share as an individual country,  if any of them do cut back.

I was surprised and pleased to learn that there really was shale oil producible by fracking.  What they appear to be recovering is a "light sweet crude" that actually resembles diesel fuel in its physical properties.  This is unlike most crudes,  which are much thicker and less mobile,  and far less volatile.  That volatility is the source of the dangers experienced while shipping this stuff by rail,  because there aren't enough of the safer pipelines.

The shales in south Texas are producing this kind of crude,  and also the Williston basin formations,  most notably in Wyoming.  I have seen no figures on what percentage of the hydrocarbons in the rock pores are being recovered,  but I'd still bet it's single digit,  or not much better.  It's just a rich enough set of resources to make recovery feasible,  as long as prices are not too low.

The fundamental side effect we are incurring is used frack water.  It comes back as a concentrated brine contaminated with heavy metals,  other mineral poisons (like arsenic),  leftover cancer-causing hydrocarbons (like benzene) from the frack fluid additives,  and radioactivity leached from the deep rocks.

No one is re-using this fluid,  and there is really not enough fresh water around to fill the demand.  Plus,  deep well injection disposal is causing earthquakes in north Texas and in Oklahoma,  at least.  Long term,  the solution is obviously re-using frack water (reducing demand on limited supplies of fresh water,  and greatly reducing the disposal quantities).  That will require developing an additive package that works in brine (which makes sea water feasible as a feedstock source).  I can think of nothing that should not be higher on DOE's R&D list.

There are still strong conflicts over whether fracking pollutes ground water.  My hunch is that they'd better look closer at the geology in which they frack,  and also at well casing quality.  Eliminate cheap leaky well casings,  and the only other way for natural gas to surface (besides the well) is directly through the rocks.  Rock layers that are relatively unfolded and unbroken won't leak very badly.  Fractured,  folded rocks in mountainous zones will leak very badly.  It may well be that simple.

---  GW

Update 1-3-15 at bottom in black.

Updates 2-4-14 below in blue.

Update 6-5-2016 in purple:

I went and looked up a US oil production history curve similar to the one I saw from the 2009 "Science" article used in the article below.  I inserted it below adjacent to the older plot for easy comparison.  With another 5 years' of history,  it is pretty easy to see the Hubbert curve shape in the conventional oil recovery history of US production up to about 2011,  and that the Alaska "bump" is actually a fairly small effect.  

The fracking technology is a larger effect than I believed at the time.  It is a fundamentally new and different production technology,  which makes both new shale resources available,  and more recovery feasible from older depleted fields.  This is a very steep rise ion production,  with very little time history yet to interpret trends.  It is premature to judge yet,  but the steep rise does suggest the narrower Hubbert curve shape of a smaller volume to be recovered.  

The Saudis more-or-less lead OPEC in production quotas and prices,  but are adversarial with Iran,  who is reentering the mass market.  All the OPEC countries are afraid of losing market share if they cut back,  but are being hurt by lower prices.  Yet if they continue to hold prices down by over-production,  they may cut off the US fracking boom,  which is a fundamentally more expensive technique.  We'll see,  but the verdict won't come for some years yet.  

By putting together facts from different sources, adding in some events from recent history, and a little common sense, one can draw some startling conclusions. These should make you as mad as they do me. It’s hard to argue with factual data. My conclusions are my own opinions. You draw conclusions for yourself, and form your own opinions.

I start with a graph of US regular gasoline price history from about 1970 to the present, adjusted for inflation, as January 2011-dollar equivalent. I got this from “”, which has quite the variety of both facts and opinions. Price history is fact, not opinion, however.

To this time history graph, I added several historical events, a line representing the current equivalent of 1958’s 25 cent/gallon gasoline, and a second line representing a conclusion I drew from all this data regarding recessions. That modified chart is complicated and takes a while to digest, but here it is:

I was able to discern several connections between this price history and contemporary events, as well as linkages between fuel prices and recessionary events. These are listed in bullet form on the next graphic. The most important one is in capital letters. It makes liars out of most US politicians running for office, from either party. The notion of an enormous monopoly-cartel pricing effect superposed on top of a basic supply-demand price level, makes liars out of those who claim the international oil market is nothing but a “free market”, for it most clearly is not. There is also a price speculation effect superposed on top of supply-and-demand effects.  The scariest bullet is the very last one, however.

That brings up the question of oil supplies available. Here’s the US production history (actual data):

M. King Hubbert was the geologist who used an empirical curve fit to predict a US production peak in 1965 or 1970, back in 1956. His model takes advantage of a convenient mathematical curve shape, with no scientific causality built in, but was surprisingly accurate. He did this long before oil was discovered in Alaska. The effect of the new oil boom in "the Bakken" is another,  larger hump (not shown) on the otherwise-decreasing overall trend.  Its effects have temporarily reversed US production to a rise,  but it is only temporary.  The area under a Hubbert bell curve is proportional to the volume of the resource it models. Here is what that production history looks like with some Hubbert curves superimposed:

My conclusions follow:

Update 6-5-2016:  Later version of US production history from US EIA website,  with Hubbert curve fit sketched upon it by me.

Note how different the fracking trend is,  reflecting how fundamentally-different that recovery technology really is.  Note also how the sharp rise suddenly cuts off right at the end of the data.  The meaning of this is unclear at best.  A logical question:  how long will this boom last?  Hubbert curves for smaller resource volumes tend to be narrower in time,  looking "peaky".  


In my opinion this makes (1) liars out of the US politicians running for office who told us we could drill our way out of dependence on foreign oil, and (2) fools out of those who believed them.  The new oil boom has reversed this,  but remember,  that will be temporary!

The depletion of US oil reserves brings up the question of world oil depletion, and its effect on the basic supply-demand pricing level underneath the monopoly cartel pricing effects. The Saudis have not exceeded their own 2004 production levels. They sit on the 3 largest known remaining oil reserves left on the planet. It isn’t pretty:

But wait, some say we have tremendous reserves here at home. I see this claim quite a lot in email forwards about “the Bakken”, and some other names. These forwards always claim we have “cheap oil” in quantities exceeding Saudi Arabia, it’s just that the political opposition and/or environmentalists “won’t let us drill it”. These are just politically-motivated hit pieces. They mix facts with egregious lies and very slanted rhetoric. The truth is quite different. Bulletized list follows. I might add that the cleanup costs for the wastewater generated by the Alberta tar sands products we buy, are not in the product prices we pay, because they are as yet unknown. The volume of wastewater impounded under armed guard now exceeds Lake Erie. No one knows how to clean it up. That bill will come due. Soon.

Update:  3-5-13:  Not long after I wrote this came word of a regional oil boom in the Williston Basin.  They are using fracking in a thin dolomite layer sandwiched between Bakken shales to get a light crude.  I documented this in a later article.  Go see 9-5-11 "Surprise Surprise:  Oil Boom in the Williston Basin (the "Bakken")".  It's a small resource compared to the shales,  which still refuse to yield oil.   

Update 6-5-2016:  the new fracking technology includes shale oil from "the Bakken",  the south Texas oil shales,  and more.  See updated production history plot above.  

So, as long as we use oil for fuel, we’re stuck with importing it. Most of those imports come from OPEC, dominated by middle eastern countries, some of whom are downright hostile. What do they do with all that money we have paid them for oil, for the past half century? You won’t like the answer:

We’ve been paying them to kill us. For decades. That does bring up good questions about treason.

There are a lot of entrenched interests long opposed to the implementation of alternative liquid transportation fuels, for a lot of “good-sounding” reasons. Yet there only three types of fuel to worry about, and three good drop-in alternatives available at one level or another, right now.

Gasoline can be stretched quite a bit further by blending-in significant ethanol, without any vehicle or infrastructure modifications (steel and neoprene are as good with ethanol as they are with gasoline). The only relevant questions are what source(s) do we use, and how much is available?

One of the specious arguments against ethanol is the effect of corn diversion from food use to fuel production. Many claim that the upsurge in food prices in 2009 was due to ethanol production. If you look at the actual facts, you find this claim is a lie.

To use ethanol successfully, we need the cellulosic technology that is just now being scaled-up and industrialized. This was originally made possible by grants from NREL, the alternative energy lab that has been part of DOE since Jimmy Carter’s time as president. Those first NREL grants made the industrial R&D possible, that in turn has recently led to pilot plant production of cellulosic ethanol at prices similar to gasoline, or cheaper. (That NREL/DOE story makes liars out of the authors of popular e-mail forwards claiming DOE has been a worthless waste, does it not?)

The situation is similar for using biodiesels in diesel fuel and jet fuel. The algae technology needs its development finished, so it can also be scaled up and industrialized. There’s more of it available.

OK, given that we finish the development, scale-up, and deployment of cellulosic ethanol and algae oils, what could we do with them? Remember, blend fuel products based on these materials are drop-in fuels, suitable even for the legacy fleets of old cars, old trucks, and old airplanes.

Answer: displace as much as possible of that imported oil we get from generally-hostile and financially-predatory OPEC.  That picture still obtains,  once the new oil boom fades.

If we go for E-33 and B-33 blend levels in the three fuels, this is what could happen:

The US could zero-out the imports it needs from OPEC! Wow!

If the US eliminates its dependence on OPEC oil, that is a major blow to the money OPEC funnels to the terrorists and proxy armies we fight, the US being their single largest customer by far. That has the added benefit of dropping oil prices via the supply-demand mechanism, compounding the denial of funds to the enemy.  The rise of demand from rapidly-industrializing China and India has offset this;  won't really happen.

If the rest of the western world followed suit, they and we together could dry up virtually all income to the Arab states of OPEC. Since those states have no other source of revenue (they have no other export the world wants), they would have to civilize themselves and join modern society as responsible members, or else go back to the stone age. And they know that (it is their greatest fear)!  These nations can still be hurt if everybody just buys much less of their oil.  Stretching fuel supplies with alternatives makes that happen,  "Bakken" oil boom or not.  

In other words, we could win this war economically, with no more invasions or armies. And, start making our economies proof against any more oil price-induced recessions, to boot.

Update 1-3-15:

The recent explosion of US “fracking” technology (hydraulic fracturing plus horizontal-turn drilling) has modified the picture of oil prices versus recessions.  Unexpectedly,  the US has become a leading producer of crude oils for the world market.  Plus,  there has been an associated massive production increase and price drop in natural gas.

OPEC has chosen to take the income “hit” and not cut back their production in response.  Their reasoning is twofold:  (1) fear of loss of market share,  and (2) hope that low oil prices will curtail US “fracking” recoveries.  We will see how that plays-out.

Oil prices are now such (at around $55/barrel) that US regular gasoline prices are nearing $2.00/gal for the first time in a very long time.  This is very close to the price one would expect for a truly competitive commodity,  based on 1958 gasoline prices in the US,  and the inflation factor since then. 

It is no coincidence that the exceedingly-weak US “Great Recession” recovery has suddenly picked up steam.  The timing of the acceleration in our economic recovery versus the precipitous drop in oil prices is quite damning.  There can be no doubt that higher-than-competitive-commodity oil prices damage economies.  Oil prices are a superposition of the competitive commodity price,  overlain by an erratic increase from speculation,  and further overlain quite often by punitive price levels when OPEC is politically unhappy with the west.  That’s been the history. 

This economic improvement we are experiencing will persist as long as oil,  gas,  and fuel prices remain low.  (Government policies have almost nothing to do with this,  from either party.)  How long that improvement continues depends in part upon US “fracking” and in part upon OPEC.  Continued US “fracking” in the short term may depend upon adequate prices.  In the long term,  we need some solutions to some rather intractable problems to continue our big-time “fracking” activities. 

The long-term problems with “fracking” have to do with (1) contamination of groundwater with combustible natural gas,  (2) induced earthquake activity,  (3) lack of suitable freshwater supply to support the demand for “fracking”,  and (4) safety problems with the transport of the volatile crude that “fracking” inherently produces. 

Groundwater Contamination

Groundwater contamination is geology-dependent.  In Texas,  the rock layers lie relatively flat,  and are relatively undistorted and unfractured.  This is because the rocks are largely old sea bottom that was never subjected to mountain-building.  We Texans haven’t seen any significant contamination of ground water by methane freed from shale.  The exceptions trace to improperly-built wells whose casings leak.

This isn’t true in the shales being tapped in the Appalachians,  or in the shales being tapped in the eastern Rockies.  There the freed gas has multiple paths to reach the surface besides the well,  no matter how well-built it might have been.  Those paths are the vast multitudes of fractures in the highly-contorted rocks that subject to mountain-building in eons past.  That mountain-building may have ceased long ago,  but those cracks last forever. 

This is why there are persistent reports of kitchen water taps bursting into flames or exploding,  from those very same regions of the country.   It’s very unwise to “frack” for gas in that kind of geology.

Induced Earthquake Activity

This does not seem to trace to the original “fracking” activity.  Instead it traces rather reliably to massive injections of “fracking” wastewater down disposal wells.  Wherever the injection quantities are large in a given well,  the frequent earthquakes cluster in that same region.  Most are pretty weak,  under Richter magnitude 3,  some have approached magnitude 4. 

There is nothing in our experience to suggest that magnitude 4 is the maximum we will see.  No one can rule out large quakes.   The risk is with us as long as there are massive amounts of “fracking” wastewater to dispose of,  in these wells.  As long as we never re-use “frack” water,  we will have this massive disposal problem,  and it will induce earthquakes. 

Lack of Freshwater Supply to Support “Fracking”

It takes immense amounts of fresh water to “frack” a single well.  None of this is ever re-used,  nor it is technologically-possible to decontaminate water used in that way.  The additives vary from company to company,  but all use either sand or glass beads,  and usually a little diesel fuel.  Used “frack” water comes back at near 10 times the salinity of sea water,  and is contaminated by heavy metals,  and by radioactive minerals,  in addition to the additives.  Only the sand or glass beads get left behind:  they hold the newly-fractured cracks in the rocks open,  so that natural gas and volatile crudes can percolate out. 

The problem is lack of enough freshwater supplies.  In most areas of interest,  there is not enough fresh water available to support both people and “fracking”,  especially with the drought in recent years.  This assessment completely excludes the demand increases due to population growth.  That’s even worse.

This problem will persist as long as fresh water is used for “fracking”,  and will be much,  much worse as long as “frack” water is not reused.  The solution is to start with sea water,  not fresh water,  and then to re-use it.  This will require some R&D to develop a new additive package that works in salty water to carry sand or glass beads,  even in brines 10 times more salty than sea water. 

Nobody wants to pay for that R&D. 

Transport Safety with Volatile “Frack” Crudes

What “fracking” frees best from shales is natural gas,  which is inherently very mobile.  Some shales (by no means all of them) contain condensed-phase hydrocarbons volatile enough to percolate out after hydraulic fracturing,  albeit more slowly than natural gas.  Typically,  these resemble a light,  runny winter diesel fuel,  or even a kerosene,  in physical properties.  More commonly,  shale contains very immobile condensed hydrocarbons resembling tar.  These cannot be recovered by “fracking” at all. 

The shales in south Texas,  and some of the shales and adjacent dolomites in the Wyoming region actually do yield light,  volatile crudes.  The problem is what to transport them in.  There are not enough pipelines to do that job.  Pipelines are safer than rail transport,  all the spills and fires notwithstanding. 

The problem is that we are transporting these relatively-volatile materials in rail tank cars intended for normal (heavy) crude oils,  specifically DOT 111 tank cars.  Normal crudes are relatively-nonvolatile and rather hard to ignite in accidents.  DOT 111 cars puncture or leak frequently in derail accidents,  but this isn’t that serious a problem as long as the contents are non-volatile.  These shale-“frack” light crude materials resemble nothing so much as No. 1 winter diesel,  which is illegal to ship in DOT 111 cars,  precisely since it is too volatile. 

The problem is that no one wants to pay for expanding the fleet of tougher-rated tank cars.  So,  many outfits routinely mis-classify “frack” light crudes as non-volatile crudes,  in order to “legally” use the abundant but inadequate DOT-111 cars.  We’ve already seen the result of this kind of bottom line-only thinking,  in a series of rather serious rail fire-and-explosion disasters,  the most deadly (so far) in Lac Megantic,  Quebec. 

Volatile shale-“fracked” crudes simply should not be shipped in vulnerable DOT 111 cars,  period.  It is demonstrably too dangerous. 


“Fracking” shales for natural gas and light crudes has had a very beneficial effect on the US economy and its export-import picture.  We should continue this activity as a reliable bridge to things in the near future that are even better. 

But,  we must address the four problem areas I just outlined.  And I also just told you what the solutions are.  The problem is,  as always,  who pays.   What is the value of a human life?  What is the value of a livable environment?  It’s not an either-or decision,  it’s striking the appropriate balance!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

How to Drive on Icy Roads

Roads tend to get beaten "clean" in ruts, especially in the southlands. Drive in those ruts, there's better traction there. Just slow down until you feel no hint of fishtail instability, and then another 5 or 10 mph slower. It's that simple.

Your enemy is bridges and big culverts. These tend to accumulate more and slicker ice, and they ice-up first. The sand (if any) helps only for a little while, then the wetted sand and slush re-freezes into a new and harder coating that is just as slick as plain ice, and a whole lot harder to pound loose by the passage of traffic. Never, ever assume a bridge is safe! Turn your flasher on to warn the folks behind you, that you are doing something they don't expect, and slow way down before you reach the bridge. Most cars have a maximum controllable speed on slick ice in the neighborhood of 20 mph. You need to be moving at least that slow as you reach the bridge, so you can see what's really on it, in time to respond. Plain and simple.

If the bridge has clean ruts or is clean and dry, speed back up and cross. Stay within the ruts. If the bridge is icy, stay under that 20 mph. Steer to cross the bridge in a straight line, get off the gas and brake (and stay off them) and make no steering changes while you coast across. You will come out just fine on the other side, if you do these things. You will not come out fine, if you accelerate, brake, or turn, in the slightest. For long bridges, modify this as absolutely-constant speed driving, no braking, no turning, at substantially less than 20 mph. I recommend about 10-15 mph for most cars.

For roads with paved shoulders, there is usually gravel on the shoulder and a few inches beyond. If you start fishtailing before you can slow, put two wheels into that grass and gravel right at the edge of the shoulder. Your fishtailing will stop. But, don't stay there, decelerate by coasting, and put it back onto the road, before you get stuck. Don't do this on a farm-to-market road, there are no shoulders, and the ground off the pavement is generally too soft (because of the precipitation). Just drive much slower on those roads, so that you never fishtail.

Pickup trucks and front-engine, rear-drive cars are extremely prone to rear-end-breakaway skids, because the weight distribution is very bad for all-wheel traction. You need to go much slower than a ordinary car, because once it breaks away, you are out of control, and you won't get it back until you come pretty much to rest (which might entail fetching up against something really solid). It'll warn you by feeling very unsteady, by wanting to fishtail. Find the fishtail speed for your vehicle (not in traffic, please!), and then drop at least 10 mph below that. Be aware that this speed changes as conditions change.

SUV's are famous for being able to "go" when other vehicles won't, especially the 4-wheel-drive ones. But, they do not stop any better than the worst of the conventional cars, and they are far more unstable due to the high center of gravity. I've seen more SUV's upside down in medians and bar ditches, than any other type of vehicle. Slow way down!

The vehicles with more even weight distributions front-to-back can suffer from the other type of skid: front end breakaway. That's when you crank the steering wheel to turn and nothing happens. Why? You are going too fast. Steer straight and miss the turn, coast down, and drive a lot slower. The problem will go away if you slow down. If this happens on a curve, the only thing you can try is a shallower turn. Do not brake (you will spin out), do not accelerate (same result). Very gentle steering inputs will sometimes work when a big input fails. Trouble is, most of the time, you don't have room for that. So, I recommend you try your vehicle out turning on the ice in an empty parking lot. Look for the speed at which it breaks away, and back off at least 10 mph below that. Use that reduced speed figure as your maneuvering speed out there on the icy road.

Some folks put chains on. They work, but rarely are they rated for driving more than 10 or 15 mph. You can pretty much do just as well without them, at those low speeds. Drive too fast, and they come apart. The flying fragments are steel shrapnel. They will damage your car, and they will hurt innocent bystanders. I haven't owned chains in decades. No need.

Don't forget to turn on your lights. This is as much to be seen by others, as it is for you to see better. In the fog, mist, and snow, all colors are "stealth", even reds and yellows.

And don't forget to wear your seat belts. If you don't know what you're doing, or have little practice, driving on ice, chances are actually very high you will have at least a minor accident. Could easily be a major accident. Belts make the difference between a bruised ego and a hospital stay. Or death.

If you get stuck, and you can almost but not quite "rock" your way out using forward and reverse, then try using the vehicle's floor mats. Put one, textured rubber side up, under each drive wheel. For marginal cases, that's often just enough extra traction to get free. Better to get tire tread marks and dirt on your mats, than to freeze while waiting for rescue.

Finally, dress for it! Dress like you have to walk miles in the snow and wind and cold. You very well might have to.