Friday, August 21, 2009

Oranges are for oil

I'm very interested in how we can continue to manufacture the synthetic substances on which our civilization depends when oil runs out. I've long been aware of the possibilities of algae, lignin and lanolin and hope to write about them one day. Yesterday while reading Alistair Cooke's American Jouney I came across a new one:

That's right: oranges.

During World War II Florida chemist W. H. Schulz figured out so many uses for the detritus of juice production that the juice itself became almost a by-product.

Carotene to produce vitamin A and terpenes to make waterproof paint for battleships were extracted from the zest. The pith yielded pectin which was used as a gelling agent in the treatment of deep wounds. From the pulp they extracted cellulose which was converted into cellophane and ethanol. The cellophane was ued to make sturdy waterproof containers (some of which were then used to transport orange juice concentrate!). Some of the ethanol was used for fuel and the remainder was converted to butadiene and thence to synthetic rubber. Oil for margarine was extracted from the seeds and everything that was left was burnt to produce activated charcoal for gas mask filters.

Schulz's company is still trading, mainly producing the active ingredient in orange-oil based cleaning products.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

MRI Scanning

MRI (or CT) scanning is a medical imaging technique that takes pictures of internal organs. I've had MRI scans to investigate migraines and severe back pain and, more seriously, I've had relatives who've been scanned to enable their surgeons to plan operations to remove cancerous tumours. All in all, I'd be very disappointed if we couldn't have MRI scans any more.

(MRI brain images, taken from here)

However, MRI scanning is crucially dependent on fossil fuels - more specifically, on natural gas.

The guts of the scanner is a very strong magnet whicht only works when it's very cold - around minus 270 degrees Celsius. The only way to keep it that way is to suspend the magnet in a special thermos filled with liquid helium. And, despite the thermos, the helium steadily evaporates away and usually has to get topped up every week or so. Similar superconducting magnets are used in the Large Hadron Collider and in the NMR machines widely used in molecular analysis by chemists and biologists, so helium is crucial there, too.

Helium is better known as the gas in lighter than air party balloons, but it is also used as an inert gas for overhead welding and in the manufacture of solar panels, in the helium neon lasers used in many barcode scanners, mixed with oxygen in the gas cylinders used by deep-sea divers and as a coolant in both industrial refrigeration systems and nuclear reactors. In the future it may even be used in commercial modern, safer versions of Zeppelin-style airships.

However, that's assuming there's any left. Helium, despite its low profile, is so important to our civilisation that the US until recently maintained a national helium reserve alongside of their strategic petroleum reserve. But, just like petroleum, it is a finite resource and it is running out.

So what is the connection between helium and oil?

Helium is found naturally in the air we breathe, but only at a concentration of 0.0005%, and it takes a lot of energy to separate it out. The only other terrestrial source of helium is in natural gas deposits, which are mostly made up of methane but can also contain up to 8% helium. You can find out why here. Because you can't take one out of the ground without the other, running out of natural gas in the ground is the same as running out of helium.

However, not all natural gas extraction facilities have the equipment to separate out the helium, so a lot of it is simply wasted, dispersing to the atmosphere as the methane is burned. On the other hand, while you can make natural gas out of waste plant and animal matter (so-called 'biogas' or 'landfill gas'), alternate sourcing of helium involves the either the highly energy-intensive process of concentrating it out of the air or such sci-fi technologies as nuclear fusion and mining the sun.

So maybe we should start thinking of natural gas wells as sources of helium (with methane as a useful byproduct) rather than the other way around, and make most of the methane we want for energy out of biological waste. That's what we're keen to do and, as we couldn't find a domestic biogas supplier near us, this summer we're going to have a go at making our own from kitchen scraps just like these people here:

(Participants in the marvellous domestic biogas programme of ARTI India in Pune)

Friday, June 6, 2008

Oil and what we do with it

There was a great interview (9.7MB) on National Radio in NZ here this morning about oil and it's uses. Much of the interview was about the oil industry itself, but there were also fascinating comments on what else we use oil for (other than fuel) and how much oil it takes to make such ubiquitous items as cellphones.

The interview will stay on the National Radio website for four weeks. Should you be looking at this post after that period then feel free to contact me via. the comments field and I will email you a copy.

Apologies for the lack of posts in recent months. I have plenty of ideas but I have not been very well recently and have decided to use my limited energies on things of greater personal importance. I hope to return to posting later this month, DV!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Bubble Wrap

Oil is NOT for bubble wrap!

As I am largely housebound due to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I do a lot of my shopping online and receive many packages through the mail. I also sell online, but nevertheless receive far more bubble wrap than I can reuse.

Whilst bubble wrap is recyclable, at least in the US and Germany, it is so unnecessary! For almost every application, screwed up or shredded paper (preferably old newspapers, although I accept that that wouldn't work for most commercial businesses who ship large numbers of parcels) works just as well. In addition, unlike bubble wrap, newspaper requires minimal energy to produce, comes from a renewable source, and is fully recyclable.

For those few applications where nothing else will do, look for PLA bubblewrap, although no one seems to be producing it commercially yet. Poly lactic acid (PLA) is derived not from oil but from starchy crops like corn and sugarbeet. Of course, producing plastic from these crops does compete with their use as foods, so even PLA bubblewrap should be used sparingly.

And, if the idea of never being able to pop bubblewrap again fills your heart with despair then fear not! The Japanese have produced the Mugen Puchipuchi key chain, designed to mimic the sound and feel of popping bubble wrap with eight bubble cells you carry around with you. It even makes additional noises every 100 pops! Although it is made of plastic, but it'll keep you occupied much longer than the same weight of plastic as normal bubble wrap :-) And whilst you're busy sourcing your key chain you can also check out this bubble-popping game from the manufacturers of the original bubblewrap, Sealed Air.

Have fun popping away!

Sunday, February 24, 2008


Oil is NOT for lubricants. Or is it?

Lubricants are substances that are applied between two moving surfaces to prevent them rubbing against each other and wearing down. They can be grouped into three classes: liquid lubricants (e.g. engine oil or WD40), grease and solid lubricants (e.g. graphite). Somewhat to my surprise, when researching this post it initially appeared to me that there were good non-petroleum alternatives currently available for all three.

Liquid lubricants

Even in a world where personal motor vehicles were a thing of the past, oils would still be important both for whichever vehicles were being used to transport people and goods and to keep all kinds of machinery from sewing machines to hydroelectric turbines in good working order.

Liquid lubricants are grouped by the American Petroleum Institute into five groups, where groups I - III are petroleum fractions and groups IV and V are synthetic oils made of poly-alpha olephins (PAOs) and synthetic esters respectively. Aha! I thought. Maybe we can replace all lubricating oils with group IV and V lubricants and leave petroleum-based oils behind. After all, these synthetic oils are more expensive than petroleum-based oils, but perform better, remaining effective over a higher temperature range and lasting longer before needing to be changed.

However, despite the fact that these were initially developed in response to declining oil base stocks in the 1960s, synthetic oils turn out to be ultimately synthesised from oil. The PAOs are polymerised alkenes such as 1-hexene and 1-octene. These are currently most commonly made from ethylene, although 1-octene can also be made from butadiene. Further digging confirmed that both ethylene and butadiene are produced from oil - ethylene, indeed, being the most common industrial chemical obtained from oil. It is a similar story with the synthetic esters in group V.

Thus synthetic oils are currently synthesised from oil.

This need not be the case, though. Butadiene is currently manufactured from ethanol in much of Eastern Europe and the developing world, and 1-hexene is also manufactured commerically from carbon monoxide and hydrogen using the Fischer-Tropsch process. Unfortunately, as discussed earlier, although these substances need not be sourced from petroleum most commercial hydrogen also traces back to oil. So too does carbon monoxide, although this could be generated from landfill gas. The negative impact of bioethanol on human food availability has been widely discussed elsewhere.

Are there other alternatives, then, outside the API classification system? As far as I can tell there are two further types of liquid lubricants, neither of which seem to provide a magic bullet. The first are made from agricultural products; either tallow (beef fat) or palm kernels. These oils will compete with the food supply in the same way that bioethanol does, although, as lubricating oils are not consumed at the rate that fuels are, this may not be a big issue.

The second is what we used before we had petroleum: spermaceti oil from sperm whales, or similar oils from other cold-water marine species such as orange roughy or royal penguins (1/2 litre per penguin!). Apparently wonderful lubricants, but not something I can see people going for in a big way today.


Greases are lubricants that are thick, viscous liquids. They are used where liquid lubricants are unsuitable - i.e. in high-pressure applications or where, as is the case with bicycle chains, a liquid oil would simply drip off. The earliest greases were pure animal fats, but most greases we buy today are emulsions of a jelly-like soap thinned down with a lubricating oil of the type described above. They are then spiked with various additives (usually heavy metal and/or petroleum-based) depending on the intended use. Obviously, if petroleum is needed to make lubricating oils, then it is also needed for these greases which include lubricating oils in their manufacture.

The only real exceptions are highly specialised greases, designed to function under extreme temperatures and pressures or around highly corrosive chemicals. These include fluoroether greases such as Krytox (used widely in the aerospace industry) and a variety of silicone greases (which are primarily used in semiconductors and in chemical laboratories, but have a myriad other uses). Unfortunately fluoroether greases are, chemically speaking, modified plastic, and as such are derived from petroleum. The case of silicone greases is more complex, as the silica that is their main constituent comes from rocks not petroleum, but the process of turning that rock into a liquid involves reacting it with oil-derived compounds. Back we come to petroleum. Without it, we'd either be greasing everything from bicycle chains to heavy machinery with animal fats or starting from scratch and making our greases from hydrolysed water and landfill gas in a mind-boggling number of costly and energy-intensive steps!

Solid lubricants

There are two quite distinct types of solid lubricants - teflon (the same teflon that coats non-stick cookware) and fine powders technically known as layered inorganic compounds, of which the most common is graphite.

Teflon, chemically speaking, is identical to the plastic used for plastic shopping bags, except that the hydrogen atoms in its structure have been replaced with fluorine atoms. Oil again...

The layered inorganic compounds are, at a microscopic level, composed of thin, smooth sheets that slide freely against each other, making them excellent lubricants. Many of these, including graphite, are mined and need only minimal processing to obtain a useful lubricant. As naturally occuring minerals they are a non-renewable resource, but their availability is not dependent on oil. Aside from graphite, the next most common is molybdenum disulfide (mined as the mineral molybdenite) followed by tungsten disulfide (mined as tungstenite). The remaining layered compounds are refered to as 'ceramics' and are synthetic, although their synthesis, whilst generally very energy-intensive, need not involve oil. By far the most common of these is boron nitride.

All of these layered inorganic compounds are excellent lubricants, able to function well at extremely high temperatures and pressures. They are currently only used in such extreme environments as their high price prohibits wider application, but they would be eminently suited to use in more everyday contexts as well. I am not alone in suggesting that they would be the lubricant of choice in a world of depleted oil reserves.

In summary, without oil, the readily applied liquid lubricants and greases with which we are familiar would become a thing of the past, unless we were prepared to again slaughter animals to obtain lubricants from their fat. We would, however, still be able to lubricate our machinery with slippery powders, although probably much of that machinery would need to be redesigned to accomodate this change and ball bearings in races may become more common.

As my husband has frequently said as I have been researching and writing this:

"OIL is for lubricants:
save the WHALES!"

Thursday, February 21, 2008


These are the adhesives I use most often - masking tape for temporary labels on anything from jars of preserves and dry goods to trays of seeds I'm sprouting for the garden; clear parcel tape for sealing parcels and laminating pictures; my glue stick and PVA glue for cardmaking and araldite for a myriad household tasks. I could relatively easily substitute flour paste for the masking tape and glue stick or use iceblock sticks to label my seedlings, but I'm a bit stuck for good alternatives to the others.

Without oil, we'd probably be thrown back on half-forgotten crafts - tongue and groove joins where nails were unsuitable or stitching book pages together and to their binding. We might even have to use less plastic (an oil-based product itself anyway) and revert to materials that could be welded, soldered or nailed together. I'd also be stuck when it came to repairing household goods without my trusty tubes of araldite. I have a lovely huge pasta bowl that broke into three enormous pieces nearly three years ago. A smear of araldite over the edges, a bracing with masking tape whilst I waited for the glue to set, and it was as functional (if not as attractive) as new. It would have been such a shame to have to throw it out.

We may find some if we had to, but currently very few non-petroleum adhesives are known - just the traditional starch-pastes (e.g. flour-and-water glue) which are only suitable for light tasks like making paper mache; and glues made from the collagen obtained by boiling animal hoof, horn or hide. Not good!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Classic Kiwiana

For Waitangi Day [NB - this really was written on Waitangi Day, Feb. 6, but Blogger appears to have me in the wrong time zone], here are a few Kiwi classics that rely on oil. In many cases, the oil could be avoided with minimal effort, but for the moment oil is essential to the production of:

Pineapple lumps - and not just the plastic bag. The yellow pigment is tartrazine, an azo dye synthesized from coal tar (not strictly oil, but still a fossil fuel).

The All Blacks - from the fabric and pigments of their uniforms to the spikes of their boots and the polyester in the balls, oil is all through rugby. And that's before we get onto fuel for transport and all the oil involved in the infrastructure of marketing, stadia, broadcasting etc.

Jaffas - use the same tartrazine as pineapple lumps as well as another yellow, sunset yellow, and Ponceau 4R, all of which are made from coal tar.

Jandals - typically made of EVA rubber mix, where the rubber may come from rubber trees but the EVA refers to ethylene/vinyl acetate copolymer.

gumboots - in the colours and the PVC

Buzzy bees - the colours and the shiny finish, plus the wings and wheels are quite often made of plastic.

Edmonds Cookbook - the ink, the shiny finish on the cover and the plastic coating to the wire spiral binding

Chocolate fish - the pink colour is the azo dye azorubine although I was surprised to find that the emulsifier used (sorbitan stearate) is derived from sugar and natural fats, rather than oil as I expected.

Black wool singlets - dyed with an oil-derived sulfide dye

hokey pokey icecream - sunset yellow and tartrazine give the hokey pokey bits their yellow colouring.

Ah well, at least we can still have pavlova, number 8 wire, kiwifruit, meat pies and fish 'n chips!