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!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Bright coloured textiles

I love this hat. And without oil, I couldn't have one like it. Although there are natural dyes from plants that could possibly be produced on a commercial scale, they wouldn't give bright colours like this. The vibrant colours of the flowers are reduced to much more muted tones on fabric, and the volumes of berries and leaves you need to dye even a small amount of fabric are truly phenomenal.

Up until the industrial revolution, dyes were very expensive and only the rich could access brightly coloured fabric (see an interesting history of fabric dyeing here). Everyone else was clad largely in the varying tones of brown, perhaps with a few embroidered highlights in blue or red from yarn dyed with local berries. No wonder that the arrival of spring was greeted with such joy in the northern climes - it heralded a return of colour to the landscape along with warm weather, longer days and fresh produce.

This all changed significantly in the mid-nineteenth century when William Perkins synthesised mauveine, a purple dye that I remember from my childhood as the ink used in Banda machines, but which was initially used as a fabric dye. In common with all subsequent synthetic dyes, the chemicals from which it is made are ultimately derived from crude oil.

PS A fun link I found while researching this article tells you how to dye wool with Koolaid of all things! I haven't tried it as Koolaid isn't sold in New Zealand, but apparently it gives vivid and long-lasting colours and I'd love to hear from anyone who has experience with it!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Edible blood??!!!

I couldn't believe this when I saw it on TradeMe today!!!! Petroleum derived individual plastic sachets, vivid red food colouring, plus preservatives, flavourings and who knows what besides! And all that just so you could get a sugar hit in novel disguise... Is this really a good use of non-renewable resources????

If you really want a sugar hit, you could always go with a spoonful of sugar....

Synthetic fertiliser

All-purpose fertiliser with part of our vegie garden in the background

I've often wondered how this could be. Fertilisers are used to boost levels of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and various trace elements in the soil. Crude oil hardly seems like a good source of any of these - the air (for the nitrogen) and rocks seemed to make much more sense.

The answer is hydrogen. The nitrogen in fertiliser is generally present as urea. This is made from ammonia, which in turn is made from nitrogen and hydrogen gas. The nitrogen is purified out of the air (air being about 70% nitrogen anyway), and the hydrogen is made from fossil fuels using the steam reforming process. You see, we currently know of two ways to make hydrogen on an industrial scale - steam reforming and electrolysis of water. Steam reforming does use precious hydrocarbons, but it also uses much less energy than hydrolysis and so is much more widely used. [Which makes me wonder still more about hydrogen cars, but that's another story...]

I know that many environmentalists are in favour of organic agriculture, but I am definitely in favour of synthetic fertilisers. I think that they are much more benign than synthetic pesticides, which are responsible for untold thousands of deaths in India alone each year, but they can still poison waterways if overused. We use very little synthetic fertiliser in our garden at home, prefering our own compost and "blood and bone" fertiliser, but we do not depend on our garden for either our food or our livelihood.

If all of the world's food was grown using permaculture methods then much of our modern lifestyle would have to be given up - far more people would need to be involved in food production than is currently the case, so far fewer people would be available to work in manufacturing, IT, the sciences etc.

In addition, commercial agriculture by definition depletes the soil. On a domestic scale we can grow a cabbage, throw the inedible bits into the compost, eat the cabbage, collect our bodily wastes and compost them then put all the compost back in the vegie bed. (We don't, but we could!) The cycle is closed, and no nutrients are lost from the soil. All that is permanently extracted is the solar energy the plants gather (even the minerals in our own bodies could theoretically be returned to the soil at the end of our lives via. composting or scattering of ashes). It is, however, hard to imagine a commercial farm that could similarly collect its fair share of its customers' excretions and compost them, no matter how close to its client base it was situated.

On balance, I'm happy to live in a world with synthetic fertilisers, especially if care is taken to prevent their run-off and if all available waste biomass is worked back into the soil on the farms.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

My inspiration for this blog

These days people often talk about two problems associated with our use of crude oil: global warming and peak oil. This blog seeks to draw attention to one rarely-mentioned consequence of peak oil: the inability to manufacture many of the products we use in our daily lives once the oil runs out.

As an industrial chemist I have often thought that it is almost criminal the way we burn oil in our cars, trucks, planes and power stations. It's an amazing raw material - a precious resource that enables us to readily make both the polymers that make up almost all plastics and the incredibly useful molecules that we collectively describe as 'synthetics'. If it's 'man-made' it's highly likely that the 'man' (or woman) 'made' it in whole or in part from oil.

A new impetus came when I read in Without Hot Air that in the UK 14% of the oil they import or extract is used in manufacturing, rather than as fuel. I have never thought of the UK as a major manufacturer on the world stage, and my mind boggles to think of what proportion of crude oil globally goes into non-fuel applications. And what proportion in China, where so much is manufactured these days and where so few people use any form of oil-fueled transport. Does anyone know? I'd be very interested to find out.

Of course, I think our lives would be a lot happier and a lot less fraught if we did without much of this oil-based stuff. Especially as so much of it is built with obsolescence in mind. But some of the things we make from oil are things I'd definitely rather not live without, and it is partly to preserve access to them that I try to limit my fuel oil consumption. This blog aims to draw attention to some of those manufactured products which I believe oil is truly for.


I know it's not essential to life, but I love having the ability to laminate photos so that I can turn them into wipeable magnets that will look good on the fridge for years to come. Or to take the occasional piece of precious writing and turn it into something that I can read over and over again without it falling apart. I guess when the oil runs out then glass-fronted frames could replace this function, but they'd be much heavier, more fragile and generally incovenient.

I was recently delighted to discover that the photo printing service I use will laminate prints for you at very reasonable prices. For fridge magnets, though, I intend to continue with my old practise of covering the photo with clear parcel tape and glueing it onto one of the many unsolicited advertising magnets we have acquired over the years. Reduce, reuse, recycle!

Sunday, January 6, 2008


I'm not talking about fabric here. Cotton or bamboo are ever so much nicer than polyester or nylon. Even silk! But imagine having to do without the elastic...

Before the late 19th century, all kinds of elastic were unknown. Undergarments were simply tied on (e.g. loincloths) or held together by buttons or lacing. Then it was discovered that the latex of the South American rubber tree could be converted into a springy polymer by curing with sulfur. The availability of this new material led to the invention of many new products including jockstraps, although women's knickers didn't become widely available until the 1940s. These days, a much stronger and more durable mixture of oil-derived polymers known as spandex is used. And frankly, I have no desire to go back to the days of heavy wide natural rubber waistbands, tied on bloomers or knitted and buttoned unisex union suits (pictured)!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Pain relief

I have chronic fatigue syndrome, and one of the symptoms of this illness is chronic pain. I try to live with this most of the time, but at least every second day it gets bad enough that I can't rest properly and just lie in bed feeling miserable or crying quietly to myself. At this point my box of pills comes to the rescue - generally not taking the pain away, but taking the edge off so that I can rest and face the world again.

In addition, my mum works for medical aid abroad, and the most common request they have from developing countries isn't for complicated equipment for open heart surgery, it's for analgesics.

Ibuprofen and paracetamol (acetaminophen in the US) - the oil-derived analgesics that greatly improve my quality of life. Shame about the unneccessary oil-derived packaging, though...

Wednesday, January 2, 2008


Oil is for bristles. We've tried natural bristles in dish-brushes and back-scrubbers, but they don't scrub hard enough. Maybe some poor animal out there has marvelous bristles, but they must already be half-extinct since none of the brushes we can afford use them.

Today's post was inspired by our brush handle breaking. Wood would have been better for that part of the apparatus.