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.