May 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

A recent report by Gal Luft suggests many measures for Europe to be less dependent on Russia for their natural gas. An intriguing one is that the International Energy Agency (IEA) creates and manages a strategic reserve of a liquid fuel that could be run in gas turbines in times of shortage. In effect it would be a strategic gas reserve in that it would guard against disruptions in the supply of gas. He suggests the liquid be an alcohol such as methanol.

Short term storage of methanol

The concept of methanol as a storage medium for subsequent combustion to generate electricity is not new. But these have all been for short term storage; the methanol to be consumed at the location it was generated. One elegant concept is tied to the “clean coal” technique of power generation known as Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC). Here coal is reacted with water to produce synthesis gas or syngas, which is a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Typically this is further “shifted” to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The CO2 is destined to be sequestered in some way and the hydrogen is burned for power.

All coal and nuclear plants face the problem that electricity generated at night is of little value and that during the day there can be peak demand periods in excess of 25% over baseline. Yet they cannot be turned on and off. IGCC plants offer the option to convert much of the syngas in the slack period to methanol. This is a simple chemical process. The crude “fuel grade” methanol could be stored and then burned in the specially modified gas turbines at any time. Peak load periods could be served running the stored methanol. The additional cost to convert syngas to methanol would be about USD 6 per million BTU (MMBTU), not much more than would have been to “shift” to hydrogen. However, this portion of the electricity generation would produce CO2 and in that way vitiate an objective of the IGCC. On the other hand this would be a clean burn not that different from natural gas.

Methanol storage tanks

Strategic storage of methanol

A strategic reserve of methanol in Europe, as suggested by Luft, would have somewhat different economic considerations than the example given above. In the case of the IGCC the plant would only have to consider the cost of production, not the market price. Also, they were using the higher cost fuel only during peak periods, when the electricity sales prices are high and can sustain a somewhat costlier fuel.

A strategic methanol reserve in Europe would have the following characteristics. The methanol could be raw methanol straight out of the reactor with impurities such as DME. The market price for methanol could be expected to be in the neighborhood of USD 25 per MMBTU. The cost would be lower for an impure product, likely discounting USD 4. This would compare against a nominal natural gas price of around USD 10 per MMBTU. But two other considerations could narrow the gap. Strategic reserves are owned by country governments. These entities could collectively own methanol production facilities that then delivered the fuel on a cost plus basis to each reserve. With USD 4 natural gas, this cost plus number could be expected to be in the vicinity of USD 14. It would be even lower when sourced from Qatar or Iran. The price on release could depend upon the situation. In any case releases would take place only in the event of a severe dip in supply, politically or otherwise driven. In that situation the actual market price would be higher than the nominal USD 10, thus narrowing the gap. Besides, the national energy security benefit and the correlated issues of keeping the traditional suppliers such as Russia in line, have value.

Having the IEA take the lead on a strategic gas reserve has precedent. All 28 member countries of the IEA are required by agreement to hold in reserve oil to the tune of 90 days of consumption in the previous year. Net exporting nations such as Norway are exempt from the requirement. Some countries by treaty support each other, such as the US commitment to support Israel with the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). The term “petroleum” is interesting because only oil is being stored and yet the term technically applies to all hydrocarbons ranging from oil to natural gas liquids (NGL’s) to methane. This is because the foregoing is part of a continuum in the conversion of organic matter to hydrocarbons. This is why one finds gas associated with oil (much of it being logistically stranded and hence flared) and liquids associated with gas. In the parlance, though, petroleum has become synonymous with oil. This does not prevent oil import/export statistics from counting NGL’s in the figures!

As we have discussed elsewhere, the concept of the SPR for the US is less compelling now. Domestic production is on a rapid rise and new shale oil wells can be drilled and produced in a matter of weeks. In a sense, the shale reservoirs are our reserve. Consequently, the US could offer arrangements to other countries similar to that with Israel. India is a possibility; their current reserve covers only two weeks of consumption. The US has a diplomatic hole to dig out of with the presumed new Prime Minister, having denied him a visa some time back. This could help.

A strategic reserve to guard against gas supply disruptions in Europe certainly has merit. Methanol appears to be the most viable fluid to keep in the reserve. While the storage mechanism is very straightforward compared to storing oil, the economics need to be worked out considering in particular the externalities.

Vikram Rao


November 30, 2012 § 4 Comments

Two senators recently weighed in on this issue at a Hill Policy Breakfast, Natural Gas and Energy Issues in the New Congress, sponsored by the American Natural Gas Alliance.  This organization name, abbreviated to ANGA, unfortunately, or perhaps deliberately, sounds like anger.  Not surprisingly the senators selected to speak, each from one side of the aisle, were largely pro-industry and yet balanced.  It was personally gratifying that both were women, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.

Just about all of the discussion centered on the advisability of exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG).  Murkowski was more strongly in favor with a bit of a caution on what it could do to domestic prices.  Landrieu was openly conflicted because her constituents were major producers and users.  Both were looking forward to the long awaited decision from the administration.

A representative from Dominion Oil, an applicant for LNG export, asked Murkowski whether rules may get made allowing Alaskan gas export but not in the Lower 48.  She essentially said it would not go down that way, possibly in an effort to not sound partisan.  Both senators gave the distinct impression of serving the nation not just their constituency.  This was refreshing given the recent history of congressional behavior.

The senator’s response notwithstanding, the idea of permitting just Alaska export is not without merit.  There are two principal arguments against LNG export.  One is that it could raise the price of domestic gas and thus reduce the advantage US chemical manufacturers currently enjoy with respect to European and Asian competition.  The other is that it makes more sense to convert the gas into chemicals and fuels and export those items.  The spread between the raw material price and the finished goods is so great that it just makes economic sense to export the high value items not the raw commodity.  That also results in the manufacturing jobs being retained in this country.

On the first point, there is considerable head room in the competitive advantage for US chemical manufacturers.  Today European prices are up to three times those in the US and Far East prices are as much as five times.  So even if LNG exports raised prices the US advantage would remain, albeit less strikingly.  Modeling could identify the upper limits of LNG exports to minimize the effect.  Natural gas pricing in the vicinity of $5 per MM BTU would be good for consumers and producers.  One could also make the point that at prices today under $4, dry gas prospects (those without appreciable high value natural gas liquids) are essentially uneconomical.  LNG needs dry gas and would constitute a robust destination for the commodity especially from currently distressed areas such as the Haynesville.  The fly in that particular ointment is that LNG plants take up to four years to construct and commission.  By that time other factors may advantage dry gas, such as methanol production in expansions of current capacity, displacement of coal for electricity production, use in transportation and so on.

The case for Alaska is different.  This is a situation where the gas is stranded with no destination especially now that the long debated gas pipeline to the Lower 48 makes no sense at all.  Since it is not a part of the supply equation, export from that source ought to have zero impact on N American pricing.  So, while the likes of Dominion may consider it unfair to single out that source, purely on the basis of national economics it makes sense.  As mentioned in my book, the preferred solution is to convert it into liquids and slug it down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which is running dangerously low in capacity.  But the LNG solution could find support.  The logical destination would be the Far East where the landed price is the highest in the world and so margins for the producer may well be better than for the liquids solution.  High prices in Japan may be sustained if the opposition to nuclear energy remains strong.

With respect to the other argument against LNG export, the US manufacture of high value products, the factor in favor is that many of these products are currently imported.  Principal among them is ammonia fertilizer, with imports accounting for nearly half the consumption.  The spread is also large; at current gas prices, it can be produced for well under $100 per metric ton, with selling prices north of $600.  The prospect of the US becoming a net exporter is not at all farfetched.

Vikram Rao

Can NC Profit from Shale Gas without producing it?

February 17, 2012 § 4 Comments

In the midst of the debate in this state on whether shale gas production is worth the environmental risk we posit a different notion.  We suggest that the state could create jobs and economic growth whether or not the gas was produced in state.  This proposition was discussed at the Breakfast Forum on February 16.

There are two underlying assumptions to this thesis.  One is that if shale gas continues to be produced in the Marcellus and Utica, we can expect copious quantities in neighboring states.  We can also expect prices to stay low for decades as modeled recently by Amy Jaffe and colleagues.  The second assumption hinges on the low price of gas.  If it stays really low as it is today, most of the shale gas production will be in the “wet” regions.  These are reservoirs with a high component of natural gas liquids (NGL’s) which have a much greater value than methane and so such wells are more profitable.  In a typical Marcellus wet gas well today the NGL component more than doubles the value of the methane. 

More than half of the NGL in the Marcellus is ethane.  A consequence of this shift to wet gas production will be an abundance of ethane.  Ethane is very easily “cracked” to ethylene in chemical plants known as crackers.  Ethylene is the raw material for a host of useful fabrics and plastics.  The alternative method of synthesizing ethylene is from an oil refinery derivative naptha. 

source:  Energy Information Administration

The figure shows EIA prices for all the relevant commodities.  On the vertical axis is plotted the price per million BTU.  This unit allows one to compare across different fluids.  Clearly ethane is priced well below the NGL composite, which is close to oil.  Ethylene derived from oil refining will therefore be more expensive than from cracking ethane.  Much of the world’s ethylene is from oil.  We could reasonably expect the US to be one of the lowest cost producers of this commodity.

At the Breakfast Forum there was pushback on this point.  It was suggested that demand could drive that price up.  While this is generally true of most commodities, one would expect the ethane supply to stay high due to the profit potential for the gas producer.  Also, from the figure we can see there is considerable head room between current prices and oil prices.

NC Opportunities:  Nitrogen fertilizers use methane as the feed stock.  90% of the cost of anhydrous ammonia is attributable to methane.   Cheap natural gas equates to cheap fertilizer.  At prices today, the raw material will cost about $100 and sell for between $600 and $800 a ton.  North Carolina has the opportunity to set up plants to make this conversion, most likely in areas just west of Charlotte.  A major pipeline comes in from the north in that vicinity.  The area is also currently suffering high unemployment.  These would be high paying jobs and lasting a long time.

There was discussion regarding explosive hazard and possibility of odor in proximity to the plants.  Anhydrous ammonia is not explosive but one final product ammonium nitrate is also used as an illicit explosive.  The suggestion is to produce only the first product and export.  Speaking of exports, if international exports are a possibility, rail lines to the coast are very accessible.  Also, the value created in this conversion of methane argues against exporting LNG.  Exporting ammonia makes more economic sense as we noted earlier in a post.  As to odor, obviously fugitive emissions of ammonia could be an issue.  But this should be a low probability event unlike the constant odor from some oil refineries.

Currently we import about half of our ammonia needs.  This capacity is returning to the US due to the forecasted low methane prices.  North Carolina would not be an obvious site for capacity so active steps would need to be taken to secure this. 

Ethane cracking in North Carolina does not make a lot of sense.  As noted by a discussant the ethane from the Marcellus is most likely to be shipped to the Gulf Coast because the vast majority of the capacity is there.  However, we take the view it should be done close to the production and the producing states are taking steps to accomplish that.  Shell has announced intent to build a cracker in one of the three states.  Where North Carolina could profit is at the next level.  Ethylene derivatives include a host of fabrics including polyester.  The state could profit from a detailed study examining residual competencies from the previously dominant fabric industry and the bridge to the ethylene derivative fibers.  North Carolina State excellence in this area should come in handy.  A return to textile roots would be immensely gratifying.

Cheap natural gas and associated ethane offer the opportunity for economic value creation whether or not we produce shale gas in the state.

Shale Gas

February 8, 2011 Comments Off on Shale Gas


This piece was written in the fall of 2010 and is dated in some respects.  For more current status of the issues read the relevant posts in the Directors Blog such as  .

The identification of economically recoverable shale gas is arguably the most significant fossil energy event in North America since the discovery of Alaskan oil.  It also comes at a time when natural gas is increasingly being proposed as a transitional fuel for carbon mitigation; even by Non-Government Organizations’ that in the past were firmly opposed to all fossil fuels.  RTEC has examined the underlying premise and concludes that it is well placed as an organization to play a significant role in informing on the policies that will drive the energy sector in this area.  We also believe that the Triangle region can be responsive to the research needs of this endeavor.

Natural gas can be expected to have an impact in two areas that to a large extent are separate:  electricity production and transport.  In North America, the truism applies that oil is about transportation, and gas is about power and petrochemicals. But more recently we have come to believe that natural gas can play a role in transportation as well.

Electricity Generation

The vast majority of electricity today is produced using coal as fuel.  Substitution with natural gas has lower capital cost, about half the carbon dioxide production and the avoidance of other coal externalities, such as fly ash disposal costs.  Today, natural gas is used primarily for peak demand.  The relatively low duty cycle causes the unit cost to be high, often two or three times the base load.

For natural gas to be used for base load, one would need to have assurance of supply with low to moderate cost.  The cost of electricity from natural gas can, as a rough rule of thumb, be estimated to be one cent per KWh for every dollar MMBTU.  So, at today’s natural gas price of about $4 per MMBTU, the cost is roughly 4.5 cents per KWh.  At $10 per MMBTU the cost would be about 9.5 cents per KWh.  In the last two decades, gas spot price has been above $12 for only four months, non-contiguous.

For a new coal fired plant, the fully loaded delivered cost is about 6 to 6.5 cents per KWh.  For post combustion capture to bring the carbon dioxide to natural gas levels, the cost is likely to be in the general vicinity of 3 to 3.5 cents per KWh.  So the fully loaded cost will be close to 10 cents.  This then is the breakeven comparison with natural gas for comparable emissions.

Shale Gas Considerations

Shale gas offers the promise of abundance and relatively low cost.  The abundance is no longer called into question.  The low cost is being grumbled about and debated, but big players are voting with their wallets.  This includes Exxon, the most fiscally conservative oil company.  They are paying significant premiums to acquire small operators.  If history is a guide, the cost of production of any new resource always drops over time.  In a short few years shale gas will be produced more cheaply than conventional gas.  So, what can one expect on pricing?  The low end, propped up by demand, will be about $4.  The high end is likely to be $8.  This is because of the unique aspects of shale gas prospects.  They are on land and relatively shallow.  An owned lease can get first production 90 to 180 days from the decision to drill.  That number is closer to 4 years or more for conventional offshore gas. (Also land assets are much less susceptible to weather disruption.)

Consequently, any upward trend in three month futures will be countered by more drilling.  Speculators, with this awareness, will stay out of the fray.  The price can be expected to range from $4 to $6, with excursions to $8.  This sort of stability is unprecedented and a great comfort to all users of natural gas.  Certainty stimulates investment.  Expect also for certain offshore chemical and plastics production operations to return home due to this.


Gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, in ascending order of energy density, are all derived from oil.  The energy security of net importing nations such as the US, India and China, depends upon finding substitutes for oil.  The most effective substitutes are drop-in fuels.  These are fuels with chemistry so similar as to permit mixing in any proportion with no change to the engines or the distribution infrastructure.  The two sources of greatest interest on this are biomass derived alkanes and solar fuels.  But natural gas can play both a direct and indirect role in oil replacement.  The indirect role comprises gas fueled electricity for electric vehicles.

The direct role is to simply burn it as fuel for an internal combustion engine.  Albeit with lower energy density, compressed natural gas (CNG), and in some cases, liquefied natural gas (LNG) can be used directly.  It is cleaner burning but pays a penalty of dead weight and has refueling infrastructure hurdles.  This is offset by the lower cost per unit of energy.

RTEC believes that oil will continue to rise in price.  Much of the belief is premised on the model that suggests a plateau in oil production some years out.  This combined with continued demand improvement, especially in the developing nations, will cause a supply imbalance in the out years.  At that point, oil price will go to sustained high levels.  If gas prices stay low, as postulated above, the disparity between the two on a calorific basis will widen.

Today, natural gas is one third the price of oil, with oil at $75 a barrel.  This is the key argument for using natural gas for transport.  As a practical matter, the only passenger vehicles likely to see the change are taxis and pickups.  The CNG tank occupies trunk space that the regular consumer will not easily countenance.  But buses and other manner of public transport are fair game, as they already are in Kuala Lampur and New Delhi to name just two.  Fleet vehicles could also be in play.  When long haul transport shifts to this fuel, the impact on imports will be huge.  The Pickens Plan posits this as viable, and China appears to have adopted it to some level.  Details will have to be worked out regarding distribution infrastructure.  But the key enabler here is stability of price and ample availability.  A comprehensive study of the relative economics of the three gas-based alternatives, electric cars, natural gas as fuel and GTL, is necessary.

Shale Gas Issues

Shale gas exploitation has been met with surprisingly heavy opposition from the bulk of the environmental community.  Surprising because the chief alternative for power, coal, is even more unacceptable to them.  In recognition of this, some NGO’s, such as the Sierra Club, are reluctantly supporting shale gas.  The issues facing shale gas are largely those common to all petroleum production activity.  They are getting magnified in the Marcellus exploitation regions because of the newness of such activity in the states of New York and Pennsylvania.  The latter was in fact the location of the first oil well in the US, but that is long lost in antiquity.  The placement of wells in farming areas raises special challenges.  On the plus side, the farmers get a new source of substantial revenue.

The most significant issues center on four matters:  fresh water withdrawals, flow back water and collateral issues, produced water handling and disposal, and fresh water aquifer contamination.  Of these, the last is the most contentious, even though it is the most tractable as well.  A recent award winning documentary “Gasland” has fanned these particular flames.  A summary of the issues and their potential resolution has recently been produced but is already a little bit dated at this point.  Halliburton and Baker Hughes are disclosing chemicals used and the former claims to have a product line that employs only material used in food preparation.  These notwithstanding other material issues remain.  In our view the environmental issues related to shale gas production can reasonably be addressed by a combination of technology, regulation, operator willingness to be transparent and public willingness to allow it to be informed.  The importance of this resource to national priorities such as energy security, a low carbon future and health of industry demands that all concerned collaborate to expeditiously understand and then deal with the issues.  RTEC proposes to lead a Triangle effort to help make this happen.

Next Steps for RTEC

We intend to hold a workshop early in the year (2011) not unlike one of the early ones we did for the solar fuels effort.  After a few presentations that set the stage, we will break into logical breakout groups to brainstorm potential areas for research.  We expect to have a mix of investigators from fields such as economics, behavioral sciences, chemistry, environmental sciences, policy and engineering.

Interesting Reads

June 21, 2010 § 1 Comment

June 17, 2020: Covid 19 Mortality Reduction Breakthrough

A recent study in Oxford, England, has concluded that a commonly available low cost steroid reduced mortality by a third in Covid-19 patients required to be placed on ventilators.

In a randomized control trial, 2104 patients received 6 mg of dexamethosone either orally or intravenously daily for ten days. The outcome was compared with 4321 patients receiving the standard of care. The 28-day mortality in the control group was 41% for those on ventilators and 25% on those simply on oxygen. Dexamethasone reduced the mortality in the ventilator group by 33% (p=0.0003), while the reduction was 25% (p=0.0021) in the group with just oxygen. No change was observed for the cohort with less severe outcomes. They are careful to note that the paper has not yet been peer reviewed. Some sensitivity on that point after two Covid-19 related papers were retracted a few days ago, one each in the prestigious Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine.

The statistics (low p numbers) are excellent, especially on the ventilator group. The takeaway is that a widely available and inexpensive (but still a prescription drug) steroid is having such a dramatic effect. There are no issues with needing Phase 1 clinical trials; this drug is in common use. Speaking of drugs in common use, the FDA has just retracted the emergency authorization for the off-label use of hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19 purposes. This is the antimalarial drug famously touted by President Trump and seemingly being taken by him prophylactically.

The scorecard stands as follows. The antiviral drug remdesivir, reduces the severity of the illness. This probably means fewer on ventilators and fewer on oxygen. Ten daily doses of an inexpensive steroid reduces the mortality by 33% for those that get to the ventilator stage. A different set of folks, the ones who need only oxygen, have 25% of deaths prevented. These are big numbers. Together, the two procedures ought to make dent in the mortality.

And more to come. Until there is a vaccine with high availability, our best bet is to reduce the severity.

May 21, 2020: Support for Covid-19 Vaccine Feasibility

A recent study demonstrated robust immune response in patients recovering from Covid-19 illness. An easier to read press report is here. The principal target of vaccines is the “spike protein” part of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which in turn is the name of the virus that causes the Covid-19 disease. The structure of the virus and the location of the spike are described in an earlier blog on this site. The spike sticks out beyond the lipid layer and is the part which joins with the ACE 2 receptor on the host human cell.

The study was on 20 patients who had recovered from the illness. CD8+ and CD4+ T cells specific to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein were found in 70% and 100%, respectively, of the patients. T cells are an immune response function. The two types kill infected cells (or cancer cells, for that matter) with different mechanisms, the CD8+ being more direct in the action of killing the cells. The presence of both types following recovery from the Covid-19 illness, with the CD4+ in abundance, is a very promising sign for vaccine development.

Professor Crotty, one of the lead investigators, also made a comment that addresses, and provides a measure of support for, the theory on herd immunity. Herd immunity is usually relied upon in conjunction with a vaccine program, but is currently being attempted by Sweden in a controversial public health move. Crotty said, “People were really worried that COVID-19 doesn’t induce immunity, and reports about people getting re-infected reinforced these concerns, but knowing now that the average person makes a solid immune response should largely put those concerns to rest.”

A further interesting, and encouraging, finding was that SARS-CoV-2−reactive CD4+ T cells were found in nearly 40 – 60% persons unexposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This suggests “cross-reactive” T cell recognition from other more benign coronaviruses such as the common cold. This could be another piece of the puzzle regarding the observation of lower incidences of the disease in some countries and sub-populations. The observation could also help in directions taken by vaccine development.

May 6, 2020: Should Schools Reopen Soon

A recent issue of the magazine Economist advocates the opening of schools as a valid and necessary direction to take. President Trump has advocated this as well, as have some states.  One of the key the points made in the article is that, unlike the common flu, children are not more susceptible to get this disease than adults.  Certainly, the severity is substantially less in children.  Nor is there evidence that children are transmitting agents, as they are for the common flu.  An excerpt on this point from the article is reproduced below.

Researchers in Iceland and the Netherlands have not found a single case in which a child brought the virus into their family. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the European Union’s public-health agency, said last week that child-to-adult transmission “appears to be uncommon”.

The criticism of this finding is obvious.  Schools closures were very prompt, so that avenue of transfer was damped down.  But other social contact persisted to some degree and the absoluteness of the Iceland and Dutch findings are interesting.

The article is a very good read.  It gets into the pros and cons of which age groups to open first and next.  Also discussed is the disproportionate negative impact of closures on the poor.  This ranges from limited remote access to school lunches and school-based vaccination programs.  Zoom learning has little meaning if you have limited or no Wi-Fi.  Nor is remote learning as effective for the youngest as it is for the older.

The article also causes us to muse on the more generic point that lifting of restrictions ought not to be all or nothing.  Staging can be important, as also the careful selection of the parts of the economy that can more safely be opened.  Informed risk is something we live with all the time.


Finally, some good news on the Covid 19 front. A National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (part of the NIH) clinical trial has preliminarily concluded that remdesivir, a Gilead Sciences antiviral drug was successful in decreasing the severity of the disease. 1063 hospitalized patients in the trial were given either the drug or a placebo.  Patients on remdesivir recovered in 11 days, compared to 15 days for those on the placebo and normal care.

Notably, the normally reticent Dr. Fauci labeled the results “highly significant”, although still cautioning the awaiting of fuller results from the study. Most interestingly, he characterized it as “the standard of care”, high praise indeed. The significance of that is not all that great, in my view, because in a fast-moving situation such as this, the standards are liable to shift. It just means that, in his view, this drug should be given automatically until another appears with more promise.

He continued, “The data shows (sic) that remdesivir has a clear-cut, significant, positive effect in diminishing the time to recovery.” He likened the event to a turning point in 1986 on the battle with HIV. No way he says all this unless he is reasonably convinced. This is important because two other smaller studies had mixed results, one in Europe and one in China.

The implications are certainly for hospital bed availability when recoveries are 31% faster. But there is also a hint of better outcomes on mortality. Fewer of those on the drug died than on the placebo, but direct causality to the drug could not be inferred. Until a vaccine comes into use, antivirals to reduce severity are our best bet. Gilead’s own testing (without controls) shows that 5 days of treatment may be enough instead of 10. If confirmed, available production will cover more patients.

On a local note, the drug originated in Dr. Ralph Baric’s group at the Gillings School of Public Health at UNC. Of further note is that the biomedical research community has been looking for broad spectrum drugs such as this since the emergence of Ebola and SARS. This is one reason that viable drugs are becoming available in such a short space of time. The same goes for vaccines in development.


The data are starting to collect on the risk factors for this disease. A recent story clarified the symptoms to include additional detail on pulmonary distress (not just shortness of breath). The story I am citing today is one on comorbidities. Earlier I had reported on the surprising statistic that asthma and even chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) were underrepresented in the severely ill population.

Now, there is a story on New York data on comorbidities most associated with hospital admissions.  The study only considered patients in serious enough condition requiring hospitalization. From a statistical standpoint, the 5700-patient group is relatively small. Yet, the figures are startling enough to take notice and possibly even be guided. This is going to be a constant refrain: small study published, with caveats, in order to get the information out. The results show that 94% of the patients admitted to a hospital had chronic health problems. Equally tellingly, 88% had two or more of these. The prominent comorbidities (other underlying disease) were hypertension (56.6%), obesity, defined as BMI >30 (41.7%) and diabetes (33.8%). The original paper published in the Journal of American Medical Association, cautions regarding the limited nature of the study, with patients from just the New York metropolitan area, for a period March 1 through April 4, 2020. The paper recognizes the possible effect on patients of ACE inhibitors (as we discussed in an earlier post in this column) but was unable to investigate that, likely because of limitations on how the data were acquired. An interesting additional observation was that nearly two thirds hospitalized presented without a fever. This adds to the list of diagnostics, short of a test for the virus, that have fallen short as useful for screening, say in airports.

An important takeaway from this and the earlier asthma observation is that these statistics apply only to the most severe conditions, hospitalizations in this one and mortality in the previous. Catching the disease appears to play no favorites, but severity does.


A recent piece in Science News sheds some light on why patients with heart disease are particularly vulnerable to extreme outcomes.  For some time, the underlying conditions for people at risk included age, respiratory ailments such as asthma, cardiovascular ailments, diabetes and immune compromised conditions.  The cited story points to hypertension as a major culprit for disease severity.  In Italy, in a cohort of 355 who died, 76% had hypertension.

As I had described in a previous blog, the virus enters the cell by first attaching to a receptor (for a more complete explanation see the linked blog).  This receptor is called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, or ACE2.  ACE2 is found on lung cells, but also on heart muscle and the cells that line blood vessels.  These are additional entry points for the virus beyond just the lungs. 

Unfortunately, the situation may be even worse for some patients with hypertension.  One of the treatments involves having the patient take ACE inhibitors to block an ACE protein different from ACE2.  The objective is to stop that ACE from helping make a protein that raises blood pressure in the arteries. Studies in animals suggest that ACE inhibitor drugs may lead to more ACE2 protein on heart cells.  No studies have been conducted on humans yet, nor are there statistics on the medication being taken by those who died.  But the worry is there and could explain observed disease severity.  Dr. Fauci, the foremost expert in the US, is quoted in the article as saying: “If you look at the mechanistic rationale for concern . . . . it’s there”, though it’s “an extrapolation”.  He suggests the need to get human data, fast.

On the good news side of the ledger, asthma appears to be getting something of a free pass.  Originally listed as a risk factor of concern, it is showing up as a minor comorbidity (existing underlying condition prior to contracting COVID 19).  In New York, the epicenter of the US pandemic, it is not listed in the top ten comorbidities associated with patient death.  A comment in the journal Lancet says, “. . .  it is striking that both diseases appear to be under-represented in the comorbidities reported for patients with COVID-19”.  The other disease they refer to in “both” is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).  They note that this was also the case with SARS, which, perhaps coincidentally, also has ACE2 as the receptor for cell entry.  As with all such information, it is subject to revision when more thorough studies are conducted.  But, as prevalent as is asthma in the population, the observations offer a measure of comfort to quite a few folks.

Vikram Rao


Recently, America’s Doctor Anthony Fauci referred to COVID 19 antibody testing and dropped hints regarding their utility.  A piece by Katarina Zimmer gives a balanced view of the potential of this technique (be warned, it is dense with facts).  A COVID 19 patient produces antibodies to fight the virus, and these usually remain in the bloodstream after the infection has been defeated.  In principle, therefore, the presence of these antibodies is proof that the infection had appeared at some point.  As an identifier of infection, it is definitive.  But the jury is still out on whether it protects against secondary infections.  In measles it certainly does, for years. 

The utility of the antibody testing begins at whether there is reason to believe that folks with antibodies are not likely to acquire the disease again.  Dr. Fauci said he’d be “willing to bet anything that people who recover are really protected against reinfection.”  If antibodies are reasonably predictive of a previous bout with the disease, then a “certificate of immunity”, an instrument sought by many as a route to economic normalcy, is more viable.  Data to date are comforting in this regard.  In a preprint of the study of 175 patients, almost all had detectable antibodies.  SARS behaved in this way, MERS did not.  Some experiments have shown that antibodies extracted from recovering COVID 19 patients were successful in preventing the virus from entering target cells.

The economy is being devastated.  Leaders of all nations are struggling with the public health versus economic collapse conundrum.  Any science that allows a more rapid return to a viable economy, even to a new normal one, should be on fast forward.  Also, risks may have to be taken to balance rewards.  Scientific certainty may have to take a backseat to informed hunches.  And then the data taken and followed closely for potential pivots.

Vikram Rao

April 16, 2020


A recent issue of the Economist has a story on the effect of the pandemic on startups, and unicorns in particular.  Unicorns are defined as privately held firms with valuations of over USD 1 billion (bn).  Their name derived from the belief that these species would be rare and wondrous.  Shortly after the coining of the term in 2013, every startup steed looked to grow a horn.  Success was measured in those terms in the bragging alleys of Silicon Valley.

Investors rewarded revenue growth, with profits in the distant future.  For a technology with the potential to be seminal, this made some sense, especially if patent protection was sparse.  Occupying space and mindshare deterred competition.  This required a high proportion of reinvestment at the expense of declaring profits.  Then startups without clear technological differentiation (don’t think Uber, it has a clever business model, but strongly technology enabled) attempted to emulate.  According to the Economist story they were headed for a fall anyway.  But the pandemic took care of it.

The “shelter at home” that pervaded most countries put paid to the hopes of outfits that looked for people to be on the move.  One such was Lime, a scooter rental company worth USD 2.4bn which halted services in Europe and America.  On the other hand, companies such as DoorDash, a USD 13bn food delivery company saw its market expand from couch potatoes to Michelin star habitués.  But those that relied on growth were inflicted with a Covid 19 conjured depression.  The revenue treadmill ground to a near-halt.  Only the deepest of pockets could sustain businesses relying on steady growth to not go backwards.  In the opinion of the Economist writer, many will not make it. More importantly, the allure of the “gospel of growth” may take a back seat to the more traditional “path to profitability”.  The implication is that the pandemic merely accelerated an already sure outcome.

A potentially interesting takeaway from the situation is that certain businesses, which thrive in this constrained world, may continue to grow in a post-Covid future.  Innovators would do well to embrace enablers for these areas, although crystal balls will need polishing.  Any that succeed may well take on the form of another mythical creature, this one rising from the ashes of a pandemic’s scourge.  Each will be known as a phoenix.

Vikram Rao

April 11, 2020 

PS Interesting Reads is back after a long slumber!

May 3, 2015: Fish Food

In the April 25 issue of the Economist is a fish tale, but not about one that got away, at least not yet. A company in California is attempting to commercialize a fish food derived from bacteria that consume methane. These are in the class known as methanotrophs. That bacteria exist which consume hydrocarbons is well known. Apparently the Norwegian oil company Statoil invented the concept of using them as fish food. These would replace fish-meal made currently from more valuable ingredient. The bacteria chomp on the methane in reactors with nitrogen present in the form of ammonia, which allows the formation of amino acids which are precursors of protein. The protein is then the fish food.
Of interest is that they chose not to use genetically engineered bacteria for fear of public backlash, reasonable or not. But in my lay opinion this would largely have been unnecessary anyway. Turns out that most species of such bacteria very easily and by choice consume the smaller molecules in the hydrocarbon chain. In fact when there is an oil spill in the ocean, or when there are oil seeps on the ocean floor, the hydrocarbons making it to shore are the big molecules. This is why the beaches will have tar balls, stuff bacteria preferentially eschew. The converse is that they love little molecules such as methane and ethane.

January 23, 2014: Natural gas locomotives may prove cheaper, cleaner

A recent story discusses the possibility of diesel displacement in trains by natural gas.  The basic premise is cost reduction, even though the emissions benefits are mentioned.  We could expect that gas at $4 per MMBTU will convert to LNG for a net cost in the neighborhood of $7 to 8.

LNG locomotive GE   Experimental GE locomotive utilizing LNG

A key hurdle is that LNG has a use it or lose it aspect; it is kept cold by evaporative cooling.  Long distance transport at -161 C is not economical.  But a number of major outfits including GE, Shell and Linde are reported close to delivering mini LNG production units and 100 times smaller than conventional units.  These can be close to refueling locations.

One feature of gas use is that it needs spark ignition, which reduces efficiency.  They refer to this in the story and suggest “diesel can provide the spark needed to ignite natural gas”.  They may be referring to a Westport innovation where diesel is compression ignited to then burn the natural gas, which is the bulk of the fuel.  This allows the efficient high compression diesel type engine to be used.  But I am led to believe this concept is encountering teething problems.

September 4, 2013: Regional Variations in the Benefits of Renewable Energy

The August issue of the journal Science draws attention to an interesting paper recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  It posits the notion that renewable energy ought to be produced in areas which maximize the social and environmental benefits.  This very much means not automatically putting solar where the sun shines longer or wind energy where it blows more often.  An interesting policy suggestion is to have the tax subsidies variable with the appropriateness of the region.  A more detailed, and yet approachable, summary of the paper can be found here.

Solar and wind illustration from Science

August 26, 2013: Now the Church of England joins the Fracking Fray

The UK is in the midst of a serious debate on the merits of shale gas exploitation. The country has some time back taken a position of displacing coal with natural gas. This had been with an expectation of massive north sea reserves, which never quite materialized. So it became a net importer of gas after having been self sufficient in the coal alternative. So, when shale gas was discovered by Cuadrilla Resources, people started taking sides. Prime Minister Cameron somewhat surprisingly has come out in full support and the Treasury is offering significant incentives.

Sussex fracking protest

Now the Church of England is reported to be in full support of shale gas.  Their message is a measured one, suggesting a careful examination of the prospects while respecting the public interest.  Nevertheless, it is interesting to see a church enter the fray.  In one sense it is appropriate.  The Church must consider all elements that affect the wellbeing of their members.  Individual parishes will no doubt break ranks, as already appears to be happening.

July 31, 2013: As Goes the F-150 So Goes the Country (or at least Texas!)

The most popular pickup truck in the country is going semi-green. The Ford F-150 will be offered with a compressed natural gas (CNG) option starting with the 2014 model year, which essentially means now. The announcement is important as a leadership stance.  They report that on a gallon equivalent basis CNG will cost between $1 and $2 per gallon, as compared to well over $3.50 for regular gasoline.

F150 with CNG

One of these days when CNG is used in high compression engines, the comparison will be with premium gasoline, priced even higher.  The roughly $10,000 extra cost is expected to pay back in less than three years.  Research in innovative storage of CNG ought to reduce the cost of storing and also of filling the gas.  And, oh by the way, the emissions are dramatically less.  Cheaper and better for the environment.  That’s an aisle crosser if ever there was one.

July 29, 2013: The Methane Leak Saga Goes On

The EPA recently reported on methane emissions in general, and leaks from natural gas production and distribution in particular.  Not surprisingly this has caused a lot of controversy.  Their report indicates that industry has taken measures to improve the situation recently.  Nevertheless, people like Cornell professor Howarth simply disagree with the EPA.  Seems like nobody wants to wait for the definitive study sponsored by EDF, preliminary results from which ought to be out any month now.  EPA regulations forbidding flaring or release at rigs will kick in January 2015.  In a recent NY Times op ed, a Howarth colleague does not believe this will do any good.  And so it goes.  Lots of ink unencumbered by too much new data.  We will have to wait for the EDF report to get that.

April 2, 2012: Volunteer Opportunity!

The NC School of Science and Math (a UNC institution) has started a course in renewable energy. This renewable energy program at NCSSM ties in nicely with RTEC’s efforts to build an Energy Engineering program at the local universities. NCSSM houses some of the top science and mathematics students in our state, and the students from this program may be among the first to enroll in En E.

The school is actively looking for scientists and engineers who might be interested in giving a renewable energy-related presentation at NCSSM, and/or is willing to serve as mentors for students in the field of renewable energy. We are looking for a speaker on wind energy, and I have one student who would strongly like to assist in any capacity with solar cell research. If you know of anyone who might be interested within or outside RTEC, please forward them this email. All interested parties can email Ms. Dahl Winters at

March 19, 2012: A Different Take on the Resource Curse

A recent issue of the Economist has a discussion of the so-called Resource Curse.  A 1995 paper by Harvard economists Sachs and Warner is credited with first underlining this problem.  The original premise roughly was that countries with bountiful natural resources misused them to the general detriment of economic growth.  This latest commentary on the issue suggests a variant.  Two Swiss economists draw a distinction between abundance (having lots of energy or minerals) and dependence (having these be a major component of trade).  They demonstrate that countries with good management translate the abundance into a balanced portfolio and so do not suffer the curse of reduced rate of economic growth.  Texas and the city of Houston in particular, were heavily dependent on energy in the eighties and suffered during the oil downturn.  In the case of Houston, the growth of the health and space industries was important to dampen the petroleum swings.  Texas as a whole is now 9% dependent on oil and gas, compared to 20% in the eighties.  Strong institutions rich in resources keep the Curse at bay.

February 20, 2012: The death of Ethanol Subsidies

It came without any fanfare.  The tariffs and subsidies associated with ethanol simply died on December 31, 2011.  The Brazilians noticed.  The combination of these two policy instruments had put their product at about a dollar a gallon disadvantage for export to the US.  A recent story in the Economist discusses the consequences.  Aside from saving the US tax payer $6 billion annually, the reversal, or really the non continuance of the policy could have a significant effect on the Brazilian sugar industry.  The story however does not discuss another element that likely comes into play.  If Brazilian sugar is similarly not subject to tariffs, this could accelerate US efforts to produce drop in fuels using sugar as a starting point, as we discussed earlier.  These fuels overcome the calorific disadvantage of ethanol.

September 14, 2011: Can we expect natural gas pricing to be stable?
A recent post by Greentech Media discusses the issue of natural gas replacing various current fuels.  They quote our Director in this article but neglect to mention a piece that he wrote recently which directly addresses the questions: Can we expect natural gas pricing to be stable?  The American Oil and Gas Reporter article discusses the economic viability of coal substitution.  But the part germane to the Greentech Media post is the prediction of shale gas-enabled stable and moderate pricing for a long time.

July 5, 2011: Energy Consumption on the Rise
In a recent issue of the Economist, it discusses BP’s energy report.  Unsurprising is the fact that energy consumption went up in 2010.  But the rate of increase of 5.6% is the largest since 1973.  Again, not hugely surprising because of the depth of the recession out of which we bounced.  But of note is that it outpaced the global GDP rise of 4.9% in the same period.

Oil production increased 2.2% and the consumption went up 3.1%.  We have discussed our belief of demand crossing over supply in 8 to 10 years.  The data from last year appear to be putting us firmly on that path.  This will be abetted by new-found prosperity in the populations of India and China, leading to more car ownership and use.

July 1, 2011: A Harvard Take on Energy Alternatives
A recent piece from a Harvard source is worth reading.  It covers a lot of ground all the way from the imperative to reducing imported oil to the viability of electric cars.  Many of the points are in general accord with views expressed in our Breakfast Forums as well as those posted by me.  This is about as comprehensive a short piece as I have seen, so I am drawing attention to it.

One aspect that the author gets into re EV’s is the inherent efficiency.  He mentions only the direct efficiency of the motor in comparison with internal combustion engines.  We will shortly post a blog detailing a full calculation of essentially “a well to wheel” analysis.  We are finding that an electric vehicle uses about half the energy of a conventional vehicle.  That is so striking that the math is being re-examined!

At our last Breakfast Forum we discussed this question.  Much of the issue centers on Range Anxiety, roughly defined as the fear of running out of juice

Chevy Volt from June 2011 breakfast forum

while on the road.  This applies primarily to the all electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf, because the Chevy Volt and like vehicles have back up gasoline engines.  Incidentally, we had all assumed this backup was just to charge the generators and that electric drive still turned the wheels.  This is known in the parlance as serial drive.  Earlier this year GM dribbled out the news that in some circumstances it went into parallel drive: the gasoline engine was turning the wheels.

The significance of the foregoing is that a serial drive is a simpler machine.  No gear box for one.  Also, the gasoline engine to charge the battery is necessarily smaller than one needed to put torque directly on wheels.  Ultimately, the all electric is the simplest device, but does have issue with range anxiety.

An interesting read from The Shelton Group opine that people given free choice will charge whenever they please and this could cause chaos on the grid.  While that is a possible, the best way to avoid this is through the pocketbook.  Many states, including ours, already have time of day pricing.  So if nighttime price is a third or fourth of peak daytime price, very few people will do what was cited in the blog post mentioned.

In the last few weeks, the debate around shale gas has heated up.  Much of the rhetoric was occasioned by a paper by Vengosh and Jackson at Duke on evidence for methane contamination of drinking water.   The latest is a Wall Street Journal editorial in defense of the industry that has its facts somewhat right but completely misses some key environmental issues.  The missed points center on the freshwater withdrawals and the potential for pollution, if the flow-back water is disposed of improperly.  Both these issues have previously been discussed in my earlier blogs.

May 2, 2011: The Real Cost of Gasoline
Many of us have been aware that the externalities connected with oil imports adds to the real cost of oil derivatives such as gasoline and diesel.  The Cato Institute among others has written about this.  For the first time, an easy to understand computation of the real cost of gasoline has been done by our own Research Triangle Solar Fuels Institute at RTI International. In most states today that cost is in the vicinity of $10.  Do something about this.

Reducing consumption of oil is a start.  Do you still idle your engine when waiting to pick someone up?  Be aware that for many years now the engine design does not extract a penalty for on/off cycling.  Kill that engine even if you are waiting just fifteen seconds.  One reason for the fuel efficiency of hybrid cars is that they do that automatically even at traffic stops.

April 28, 2011: Spent Fuel Storage
A recent report from MIT is worth reading.  A New York Times summary indicates that the report suggest storage rather than fuel reprocessing.  We have opined in our blog entitled Fukushima and Beyond that the Fukushima Daiichi disaster was largely driven by the failure of cooling water, in turn due to power failure.  We believe that the severely overloaded distributed repositories of spent fuel could suffer the same fate if not managed.  The MIT report’s conclusions are generally in keeping with this.  They also suggest dry storage as an alternative.  They agree this can only be contemplated after the spent fuel is less hot, around five years after wet storage.  But all of this underlines our own previous conclusions:  the Fukushima disaster is a wake-up call with regard to spent fuel storage.  We desperately need a national policy on this matter.

April 15, 2011: Electric Vehicle Battery Advance
A recent story in the Economist details a paper in Nature Nanotechnology by Paul Braun and colleagues at University of Illinois.  As we have discussed before, electric vehicle batteries need advances in three areas:  higher capacity, lower cost per kWh and faster charging.  The last gives you fast discharge as well, which translates into high acceleration without a penalty on battery life.

In the area of cost, we need the current estimated cost of $500 per kWh to come down below about $200.  There is good reason to believe that this will happen.  Currently, this is the single biggest hurdle to wide adoption because at current economics, the cost of a battery for a Nissan Leaf is the same order as the rest of the car.  Higher capacity for roughly the same weight and volume targets the consumer proclivity known as “range anxiety”: the fear of running out of juice.

The fast charge/discharge is the most technically challenging.  The recent work by Brown and colleagues attacks the problem in the usual way:  move ions rapidly in and out of the cathode material.  An earlier Interesting Read cited work where the cathode was manufactured in a non-stoichiometric composition, allowing for an outside layer crystallizing separately.  This outside layer acted as a sponge for ions both in and out bound.  Yet, another Interesting Read citation was for work done at MIT using carbon nanotubes on the surface of the cathode to achieve the same general objective.

The work cited today approaches the problem in an innovative but likely expensive way.  They create a lattice of nickel with interconnected porosity by first creating a mold, if you will, of a low melting polymer.  After the nickel is infused, the polymer is melted out, leaving the nickel lattice as the host for the cathodic lithium compound.  This has similarities to the age-old investment casting process for making complex metal shapes in a casting, also known as the Lost Wax process.  It is a favorite of artistically inclined jewelers.

March 15, 2011: High Oil Prices Impact More than Just the Gas Pump
The recent article in the Economist points to a small but important market segment affected by high oil prices: propylene.  This is the basic building block of many consumer goods, most prominently polypropylene.  This material is ubiquitous in the home – roofing, carpets, and squeeze bottles to name a few.  Today, the price of oil is roughly four times that of natural gas on the basis of energy content.  Propylene is usually a bi-product of ethylene production from oil refining.  With gas so cheap, ethylene is being made from gas, unfortunately this process yields little propylene.  Supply drops and prices go up more than double in two years.  Expect more fuel switching when feasible.  We believe that the oil/gas price ratio will get worse over the years, causing a secular shift from oil to natural gas.

December 7, 2010: The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recently issued a report to the President suggesting a number of measures to improve US competitiveness in energy.  Among the  recommendations:

  • A Quadrennial Energy Review, an analog to the Quadrennial Defense Review that has been very successful
  • A substantial increase in research and development funding, with associated models for revenue generation to fund it
  • Steps to develop a workforce uniquely suited to the energy industry
  • A suggestion to step up social science research in support of energy initiatives

The last two are an excellent fit with recent RTEC thinking as evidenced in our blog on Energy Engineering and the need for social science research in support of clean energy.

December 6, 2010: A recent announcement by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) addresses one of main shortcomings of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, the efficiency to capture energy from the sun.  Today the economics of PV for bulk production of electricity needs at least a factor of two in cost reduction.  Depending on how this translates into commerce, this could be an important step forward.  This technology will also apply to the Research Triangle Solar Fuels Institute (RTSFI) research in producing transport fuel from sunlight.

November 18, 2010: A recent report from the American Physical Society is pessimistic regarding the ability of the grid to handle power from renewable sources.  The principal premise is the variability of the sources and the inability of the grid to handle the ups and downs.  They caution that renewable portfolio standards will not be effective without major modifications to the grid.  They discuss the options, including improved transmission means and storage.  There is a fair bit of detail on both.  We see storage as a key.  A phased introduction of the Smart Grid is also an important measure.

November 16, 2010: According to a review in Science, a recent book by Roger Pielke is worth reading.  It is entitled The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming. Our reason to cite it here is not to recommend it per se, but the subject relates to our upcoming Breakfast Forum.  The provocative title notwithstanding, most of the book addresses what the author refers to as the “iron law”.  To quote him, “When policies focused on economic growth confront policies focused on emissions reduction, it is economic growth that will win out every time”.  Today, with a shift to the right in Congress, this likely is more prevalent than even before.  Thus, climate change impacts will largely need to be an outcome of innovation targeting economics and growth.  An example is improving the efficiency of fossil fuel consuming vehicles.  This provides the triple play benefit of reduced cost to the consumer, decreased reliance on foreign oil and fewer emissions per mile driven.  The book advocates this sort of thing as well, but is a bit short on solutions, according to the review.  Incidentally, electric vehicles fall squarely into the aforementioned example.  They are about 40% more efficient than internal combustion engines in a well (or mine)-to-wheel analysis.  The reduced cost to the consumer is a work in progress on capital cost but is immediate on operating cost.

November 15, 2010: A recent issue of Science comments on the most current predictions regarding energy by the International Energy Association (IEA).  Embedded in the story is the link to the full report by the IEA.  The findings are generally consistent with some of the positions taken in the Directors Blog over the last year or so.  Most importantly, it supports the notion of an upcoming plateau in oil production.  This will inevitably lead to sustained price increases driven by the supply/demand imbalance.  A fundamental change in transportation is needed to reduce dependence on oil.  We have discussed this in our Breakfast Forum as also in our blogs.  The IEA forecasts electric based vehicles to number 75% in 3035, if the carbon mitigation plan is followed.  In general, the annual report from this respected body is much anticipated and worth a read.

October 14, 2010: The announcement of Google’s intent to invest in an offshore power line is welcome news.  Offshore wind is generally stronger and more constant than that on land.  However, it too has been the victim of pushback from coastal residents fearing “visual pollution”.  Wind farms out of sight from land are hampered by the lack of infrastructure to deliver the electricity.  Projects such as these overcome that obstacle.  A Sierra Club spokesman, while positive regarding the news, hoped that the line would not be used to distribute “electricity from dirty coal”.  This comment falls in the class of no good deed going unpunished.  Sure, the line could get used to alleviate the overcrowded eastern grid before the wind farms come on line. It will improve reliability and reduce cost to the consumer. That is a good thing.  In of itself this will do nothing to encourage a higher mix of coal based generation.

October 2, 2010: This announcement is welcome, albeit late.  The $500 million pot for research in estimating the impact of spills and ameliorating them is a good  move.  The regional politics that delayed the awards is not.  Arguably the region is rich in research capability and the limitation of awards to entities from that area is not hugely limiting.  But the impact is national and needs the best effort no matter from whence.  One can only hope that the original intent to have peer reviewed science will not also be compromised.

September 30, 2010: Bacteria have always carried a negative connotation.  Salmonella and e-coli raise the specter of disease.  Antibiotic resistance has been in the news for  years.  Then along came a report we blogged on earlier on cold loving oil eating bacteria that might well save the Gulf of Mexico.  Now there is a story in the Economist with the finding that certain forms of carbon sequestering bacteria may be far more prevalent in the oceans than previously realized.  The bacterial action results in compounds that are stable and no living creature can cause the release of the carbon dioxide.

Now we need to figure out whether they can be multiplied without collateral damage.  If so, this could be a massive new weapon against climate change.

September 29, 2010: We are grateful to our regular site visitor Colleen Mcguire for drawing our attention to this scientific advance right here in our backyard.  The report in ScienceDaily reviews a paper by NC State’s Dr. Orlin Velev and co-authors in the Journal of Materials Chemistry.  Described is an interesting “Artificial Leaf” which produces electricity.  In nature, leaves use photon energy to break down water to hydrogen and then combine it with carbon dioxide in the air to make plant sugars.  In this work, Dr. Velev and co-workers mimic this action but with the purpose of generating electricity.  Not surprisingly, the efficiencies are very low, but the authors are careful not to offer too much promise.

Another approach, that of using photons to split water and then reacting the hydrogen with waste carbon dioxide to form hydrocarbons, is the focus of the Solar Fuels Institute here in RTP.

August 26, 2010: This story in the Wall Street Journal gives a bit more detail on the decisions taking place on that fateful day in April.  The description of the type of testing, and the accompanying illustration, are substantially accurate.  A key inference is that the annular blow out preventer was functioning.  Without that, the pressure test could not have been conducted.

This flies in the face of the widely publicized early testimony that a rig operator had reported chunks of rubber days before and been ignored.  He surmised that the annular preventer had been damaged (the main sealing elements are elastomeric), but this is ruled out on the basis of this report.

Although dramatic effect is in abundance, this is a good read and adds to the body of knowledge on the matter.

July 8, 2010: A recent opinion Nature piece, “How to Defend Against Future Oil Spills,” details various oil spills that occurred offshore over the last four decades.  Of interest is the last major blow out prior to the current BP oil spill, happened 30 years ago at Ixtoc 1 in Mexico.

In the intervening period, there have been 10 tanker accidents and the worst three spilled nearly half as much as the Ixtoc blow out.  The significance of this statistic suggests that if offshore development in the Gulf of Mexico were to be curtailed, more tanker traffic would result.  This reiterates the belief that our addiction to oil is likely to continue unchecked.

Also interesting is the author’s observation that the frequency of pipeline ruptures is on a progressive rise.  These findings places the BP oil spill in some perspective.

June 30, 2010: In their report entitled Abundant Shale Gas Resources: Some Implications for Energy Policy Brown et al discuss the implications of the recent realization that the US will be self sufficient in natural gas.  The critical driver for this has been exploitation of shale gas resources.  The report discusses the impact of this abundance on the environment and economy.  They run five different scenarios and generally draw attention to the need for appropriate policy.

Natural gas is the single fossil fuel with the broadest impact on industry, ranging from fertilizers to fabrics to polypropylene.  In fact, during the days of sustained high gas prices a few years ago, some manufacturing was driven offshore due to the high raw material price.  Abundance will generally connote with lower prices and is fundamentally good for industrial health.  The report concludes that gas substitution of coal is viable as a transitional strategy for carbon mitigation only if low –carbon policies are in place.

June 21, 2010: The article in Nature Nanotechnology by Seung Woo Lee et al addresses an important shortcoming of Lithium Ion batteries for high power applications such as electric cars and power tools.  Currently the cathode is the rate limiting element for fast charge or discharge.  The Lithium ion mobility in and out of the cathode is not high.  Consequently, charging rates are relatively slow (an all-electric such as a Nissan Leaf will take several hours to charge even with a 240 volt system).

One remedy is to use batteries in combination with supercapacitors aka ultracapacitors.  These last are electrochemical devices which have the high rate charge/discharge of capacitors and yet with modest capacity.  The batteries are used for range and the capacitors for acceleration.  The initial tranche of electric cars will not have this ability, but expect it in the future.

The cited paper reports on the use of carbon nanotubes to increase capacity but also to vastly improve charge/discharge times.  In some ways this is a cathode that combines the attributes of the regular cathode and a capacitor. [Using carbon nanotubes in lithium batteries: New method produced up to ten fold increase in power]

June 21, 2010: Biofuels are no longer the darlings of the renewable energy world.  In particular, ethanol derived from any food crop other than sugar cane has been called into question.  But fuel from non-food crops, especially if drought tolerant, has currency.  Note, though, that drought tolerant crops do love water, and do better with more.  So water conservation may not necessarily result.  This article in Science reviews many of the issues and is a good read.  It is also an eye-opener with regard to water usage by different sources of fuel.  Note also the differences between open and closed loop systems. [Another Biofuels Drawback: The Demand for Irrigation]

June 10, 2010: The greatest gains for society in the realm of sustainable energy are going to come from simply using less.  Significant technical advances have been made to accomplish this, and there are more to come.  The Smart Grid will be an important avenue.  A less studied avenue is that of persuading the public to use these technologies to advantage.  Behavioral economics approaches are needed to inform on enabling policy.  These methods may also be used to nudge people to do the right thing.  This article by Mullainathan and Alcott discusses the matter.  They are thought leaders in this arena. [Behavior and Energy Policy]

June 10, 2010: If you liked the Alcott and Mullainathan review in Science, then you may be persuaded to read Libertarian Paternalism by Richard Thaler out of the Booth School at University of  Chicago.  I consider him to be one of the founders of Behavioral Economics.  He also appears to have had a profound influence on Alcott and Mullainathan.  This paper has an oxymoronic title, is published in the premier journal in economics, but is an easy read.  It is chronologically old, but completely relevant today.  His book Nudge is also a good read, but all the precepts are right here in these few pages. [Libertarian Paternalism]

June 3, 2010: In the quest for sustainable energy substitutes most of the attention has been to carbon mitigation.  The paper by Mulder et al underlines the importance of the efficiency of water usage.  They have reviewed the literature and computed the efficiency of water usage per unit of energy produced.  They have done so for every major source of alternative energy with the glaring exclusion of hydroelectric power.  The most interesting findings center on the low efficiency of water usage by biomass derived fuels when compared against fossil fuel.  The factor of two to three difference between diesel and bio-diesel from soy beans is striking. [Efficiency of Water Usage in Energy Production]

December 8, 2008 In a recent story, the Washington Post reported on the failed policy with regard to Flex Fuel vehicles and the associated use of E85 gasoline blend.  The underlying science that vitiates the policy is that ethanol has about 33% fewer calories per gallon than does gasoline.  This results in a mileage penalty of about 28% with the use of E85.  This then was the basis of the “fairy tale” which is linked here for your amusement and modest edification.

Previous Breakfast Forum Topics

June 17, 2010 Comments Off on Previous Breakfast Forum Topics

The RTEC Breakfast Forums were held on the third Thursday  of each month, commencing in November 2009.  In May, 2010 we switched to holding on the third Tuesday.  In November 2010, forums have been moved back to the third Thursday of each month. The following topics have been discussed in chronological order.  The topics are typically made known about two weeks prior to the meeting.

Energy Independence: Is it just smoke? The talk of energy independence has grown in recent times.  Certainly the US is awash in natural gas.  Light shale oil is being produced in leaps and bounds, displacing imported oil.  The spread in price between natural gas and oil will undoubtedly cause gas sourced transport fuel and chemicals that ordinarily were produced from oil.  That oil imports will drop is not in doubt.  But how does this connect with the notion of energy independence?  In fact in an increasingly interdependent world economy, what is the desirability of such a concept?  Independence has a ring to it that grabs attention.  Perhaps the notion ought to be lack of dependence.  Or perhaps dependence only on friendlies.  What then is the role of renewables in reducing oil imports and how does that play against the backdrop of cheap gas?

Electric Vehicles Revisited: Two years ago we discussed electric vehicles (EV’s) in this forum and we were very bullish.  We believed that battery costs would need to be well under $250 per kWh for favorable economics and progress was being made.  But lately the mood has soured, with weak sales and seeming flattening of progress on battery costs.  The Boeing Dreamliner snafu has not helped.  But the biggest challenge to a rapid transition to electric drives could well be from alternative fuels.  Five years ago the perceived solution to reducing dependency on foreign oil was a combination of EV’s and biofuels.  Now with cheap natural gas for the next couple of decades one is forced to examine that simple premise.  Even an “all of the above” approach will invite comparisons.  So how do EV’s stack up against CNG, LNG, methanol and dimethyl ether on pure economics?  And what of the comparative benefits to the environment and public health?  There is also the matter of fuel tax.  The NC legislature is proposing a flat tax of $100 at the time of registration to make up for the fact that a fuel tax is not paid for charging an EV.  Is this fair, and if not, what is?  Same goes for CNG.

Energy/ Agricultural Nexus: Feeding the worlds people is a well-recognized challenge. But hidden in the fine print are two recent realities. The developing nations have growing economies which we have previously discussed relevant to increased need for transport fuel. But per capita GDP growth also has a straight line correlation with increased consumption of meat, the most energetically inefficient source of food. Also, increased relative affluence causes a shift from human and animal labor on farms to the use of fossil fuels. Some of these trends can be mitigated. The NC Public Utilities Commission has seen a significant increase in permits for solar installations of 20 to 30MW for farms. Distributed generation of fuel, inclusive of methane from refuse and liquid fuel from cellulose or lignin, are options. Optimizing yields of plants and animals are targets already sought. Is the farm to fork movement energetically favored? Come discuss.

Whither North Carolina Biomass Conversation: North Carolina appears to be very well positioned to convert biomass to fuel.  Woody biomass is a major resource and if exploited could create jobs in currently economically depressed areas.  Cellulosic crops appear to be particularly  advantaged by co-location with hog waste spray fields, an inexpensive source of nitrogen.  But challenges have cropped up for some of these avenues.  Not the least is the fact that natural gas is cheap and predicted to remain cheap for decades.  Some of the biomass conversion means are affected by this competition, but not all.  The most promising cellulosic crop is being objected to by some as being potentially invasive.  All logging residue, slash, is not readily accessible.  On balance the positives come out on top, not the least due to innovative processes.

The Cases for Hydrogen and Gas as Natural Transport Fuels: The Hydrogen Highway was a Bush era concept.  Some of the shortcomings as a transport fuel, such as low calorific density, were addressed over the years in national labs, among other places.  More recently direct use of natural gas in transport has had greater momentum.  In an interesting twist, natural gas use may be enabled by research conducted for hydrogen storage.  A significant advantage of hydrogen, that of zero carbon emissions, is hamstrung by absence of a price on carbon.  But electric cars are taking a hold, albeit more slowly than expected.  They will be agnostic regarding the electricity source, which could be a hydrogen fuel cell.  But all of hydrogen today is produced from fossil fuels.  Is other sourcing realistic?  Come discuss.

Feeding our Oil Habit: Difficult Choices: The Keystone XL papers are on the President’s desk.  The Sundance Kid blogs in the Huff Post that Canadian oil is “dirty” and must not sully our land. So, how “dirty” is Canadian oil and what are our alternatives?  We have discussed the undeniably admirable goal of substitution of oil based fuel with more sustainably sourced alternatives.  But most recognize that cold turkey is not an option.  Our domestic production increasingly relies on shale oil, the process for extraction of which has its own opponents.  If the Keystone XL is not sanctioned the slack will almost certainly be picked up by Venezuelan oil.  How clean is that?  Are Middle East alternatives the most preferable?  Should the national priority shift to simply using less, and how practical is that?  Aside from policy implications, we will also discuss technologies to address the concerns with each alternative.

Can North Carolina Profit from Shale Gas without drilling for it? The prospect of shale gas driven prosperity in NC is creating deep divisions fueled by environmental concerns.  We present for discussion the proposition that the state could get the gain without a risk of the pain.  Firstly there is reason to believe that NC gas may not be attractive to producers because of its nature.  But whether we produce in this state or not, we can effectively use it and create jobs with this use.  Cheap natural gas and associated ethane are luring back to our shores chemical industry that had fled earlier in the last decade due to high and uncertain gas prices.  We should consider enabling the construction of processing plants in this state.  The US already is one of the lowest cost producers of ammonia based fertilizer because 90% of the cost is in the gas.  We will discuss the value add economics of conversion and what it could do to prosperity for the state.  Export would not be out of the question and the Wilmington area already has some of the right worker competencies and a port.  This and other means for capitalizing on cheap shale gas will be discoursed upon.

Solar Energy: Current Realities: Solar energy is entering an interesting phase.  The key take away from the Solyndra debacle is not the wisdom of the DOE investment, but the plummeting of solar panel prices that caused it.  India, with significant areas with over 300 days of sunlight is capitalizing on this with a current government forecast of 20 GW by 2022.  It increasingly appears that the opportunities for innovation and business creation lie downstream of the panel manufacture.  An interesting piece in the NY Times discusses some of these considerations, especially that of solar thermal based storage and how that may allow expensive natural gas peakers to be deemphasized.  We will discuss the facets of technology, relevance of off-grid generation, implications to energy cost and appropriate policy to capitalize on the tail wind behind solar energy.

Strategies for Using Less Energy: International Energy Agency modeling shows that any reasonable target for atmospheric carbon dioxide in 2050 will require that over 40% of the mitigation be from simply using less energy.  Sequestration will help but will not be nearly enough.  Using less can be from two distinct buckets: conservation and energy efficiency.  There is more of a behavioral element to the first, although the latter also could require changes in consumption habits.  Conservation causes us to examine the issue of personal versus public good.  It also means doing without something which is currently the norm in consumption.  Energy efficiency, on the other hand, could largely be addressed by technology such as low wattage devices, more efficient vehicles and smart grid enabled devices.  These concepts and others will be discussed in the contexts of electricity production and use and the transportation sector.  Of interest to the latter are strategies for simply using less energy per mile driven with or without loss of features.

Security of Energy Supply: Factoring in Cyber Attacks: Cyber attacks on mainstream activities got seeming legitimacy with the report that the President authorized such attacks on Iranian nuclear installations.  How real, therefore, is the vulnerability of our own energy infrastructure to such attacks. An expert guest will give us background for the discussion.  Certainly our energy system is becoming increasingly reliant on networked information technology.  The Smart Grid, or variants thereof, will make this increasingly so.  Nuclear fusion would concentrate US production in two to four installations.  Distributed power, including solar installations, would by definition be less susceptible. In something of a departure in format, we will have an expert present who will be a resource on the issue.  It will still be a moderated discussion, but we may have more traffic through the expert than is our norm.

Water Strategies in Energy: Nearly a billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, drought incidence is seemingly on the increase (global warming?) and energy production can be a water hog.  Water usage per unit of energy produced varies by four orders of magnitude depending on the source of energy.  Depending on location this water usage competes with agriculture.  Energy strategies must include considerations of water.  Most agriculture, including that for biofuels, needs under 1,000 ppm salinity.  More salt tolerance will ease the situation.  Similarly, salt tolerance in petroleum production is feasible.  Technology breakthroughs in desalination should likely be a policy priority.  We will discuss whether water strategies should be integral to energy strategies, at state and national levels.

Biomass Conversion: Current Realities: Conversion of biomass to fuel for electricity and transportation is a challenging yet worthwhile objective.  The use of grain, seed and the like have issues with water usage and associated NOx emissions.  Biomass is less challenged in these areas and can also be a waste product, as in the case of corn stover and bagasse.  Federal targets for “second generation” biofuels have been reduced, in apparent recognition of the techno-economic difficulty.  We will discuss the various options for conversion, including pyrolysis to produce drop-in fuels and recent advances in densification of biomass, allowing for transport.  The discussion will juxtapose biomass for electricity and transport fuel, and the current economic drivers for each.

Will Energy Efficiency Provide a Net Gain for the Environment? We all take it as a given that energy efficiency will benefit the environment.  The Jevons Paradox gives us something to discuss.  It basically suggests that as a device becomes more energy efficient we will simply use it more, negating much of the benefit.  The miles per gallon of automobiles have increased over the years; what has it done for consumption?  Turns out the news is not so good on that front.  Electric Vehicles are about 60% more efficient than conventional ones.  Will they really be a net gain for the environment?  What about lighting: is it similarly encumbered?  Even assuming Jevons is right, efficiency accompanied by policy actions could net improvements in the environment.  We will discuss the Paradox and the measures one may take to ameliorate it.

Can Electric Vehicles Make a Real Difference? On July 18-21, the PlugIn 2011 conference will be held in Raleigh, N.C., for the first time ever outside of California.  It is appropriate therefore, for us to have this session devoted to the promise of electric vehicles.  Some argue that an electric vehicle is only as clean as the source of electricity.  Others wonder whether how long it would be to have a material impact.  When will EV’s be cost-competitive with regular cars, and what technologies will get us there?  Can business models overcome some of the hurdles such as range anxiety?  While the purpose of the conference is in fact to shed light on all of these issues, we could get a head start with our discussions.

Wind Needs a Lift The imperative for wind as a base load source just went way up.  The Fukushima Daiichi disaster is clearly putting a damper on nuclear, both on permit extensions of useful life (as in Germany) and in new plants (as already in southern Texas).  Nuclear was an important element in a low carbon future.  Its replacement with natural gas will create a carbon deficit.  Wind is the only large scale solution close to economic parity with conventional sources.  Offshore wind is more continuous than that on land.  But it has other issues, not the least being infrastructure for delivery.  Land wind has opposition too.  In general, wind also needs a smarter grid and storage mechanisms.  But it is scaleable; so lead time to initial delivery is short, in base load terms.  We will discuss the hurdles and solutions, as well as the recent North Carolina legislation and implications.

Fukushima Fallout: Whither U.S. Nuclear Future? Our Breakfast regular Alan Rominger will kick this off with an informed view of what likely happened and the considerations in any public debate, including the treatment of low probability events in nuclear safety.  We will then discuss the various implications.  The nuclear option was already burdened with high capital costs and long lead times.  Assuming at least a short term slow down, which sector benefits?  Will clean coal get new life, cheap natural gas swamp the power market, wind get a major lift?  Every option has down sides and associated detractors.  Once the dust has settled some on Fukushima, a coherent national energy policy may be more critical than ever.

Turning Oil into Salt
At a recent conference in Raleigh on Energy Security, Anne Korin discussed the concept of energy independence through fuel choice.  Until early last century, salt was a strategic commodity because it was a key to food preservation.  Economic security required it, and by extension, so did military security resulting in wars over salt.  Technology in the form of canning and refrigeration changed all that.  And oil is the salt of today.  We will discuss the means by which technology and policy could possibly reduce oil to a useful, but no longer strategic commodity.  Korin suggests in her book of the same title as our topic, that one way would be to make all vehicles fuel agnostic, opening the way for cost-competitive substitute fuels.  Her favorite is methanol, which is currently priced at around a dollar a gallon.

Energy Security:  What Does it Mean For Us?: The International Energy Agency  (IEA) defines Energy Security as “uninterrupted physical availability of energy at affordable prices, while respecting the environment”.  We will discuss this in the context of the nation and of the state of North Carolina.  Also, some of us may feel this definition is too limiting.  Certainly in the past, a threat to energy supply has led to armed conflict and the support of governments with debatable records. In the post-election climate, energy security will resonate better than climate change,  yet certain measures will in fact address both.  The discussion, as always, will include elements of technology, economics and enabling policy.

Implications of New State and Federal Leadership on Clean Energy Enterprise: The dramatic shift in political balance in the state legislature and the U.S. Congress is bound to have an effect on clean energy enterprise.  There is little doubt that national carbon “tax” legislation will be put off for a long time.  This will remove an economic incentive for cleaner energy.  Is IGCC a dying duck?  More broadly, how will carbon sequestration technology shift in response?   Other policies could still have a positive effect.  Energy efficiency makes sense even without the low carbon imperative.  Maybe states should take more of a lead in this and not wait on national energy policy.  Replacing oil for transportation has stand alone implications to national security.  Also, what are the potential positive implications to businesses through more Republican driven philosophy?  We will discuss these possibilities.

Transforming Transportation:  Needed for a Sustainable Energy Future: Transportation is by far the single biggest user of oil.  History has shown that with per capita income growth comes increased ownership of vehicles.  India and China show no signs of slowing in this area, so demand will inexorably power up.  This, combined with an upcoming plateau in oil production, will result in sustained higher oil prices.  Transportation needs a transformative change that ultimately results in drastic reduction in the use of oil.  Obviously, the benefits of this extend to a reduced carbon footprint and the energy security of net importing nations, which numbers India and China among them.  We will discuss the means to accomplish this, including fuel substitution, electric vehicles, vehicle efficiency, urban planning and the economics and policy drivers for all these and more.

Energy Storage: Key to a Sustainable Energy Future: A sustainable energy future will involve low carbon sources of electricity, an intelligent grid and measures to reduce oil usage.  First, there are wind, solar and small scale hydroelectricity.  Then there are biofuels, alternative transport fuels and more fuel efficient cars, including electric cars.  All of the foregoing either require, or are significantly advantaged by chemical and electrochemical storage.  Also not be ignored is the effective use of storage in the form of dams.  We will discuss the future of storage from the standpoint of technical feasibility, economics and associated policy.

The Energy/Water Nexus: Shale gas is a newly discovered resource that has the potential for rendering the U.S. self-sufficient for a very long time while allowing the use of natural gas as a transitional fuel to replace coal and reducing carbon energy production.  High use of fresh water and the salinity of associated with production are hotly debated as limiting the potential of this resource.  Some biofuels are now being reported as having heavy water footprints, as much as two to three orders of magnitude greater than that of fossil fuel based diesel.

Energy Landscape Following Installation of the New Administration: The topic this time is as shown above and could cover both likely policy changes and the containment of the recession, with knock on effects on demand, investment climate and the like, with further effect on alternative energy and climate change objectives.  Future topics are likely to be more focused on specific challenges.

Future of Biofuels in an Uncertain Economy: We intend this time to discuss the topic indicated, with likely emphasis on the recession, and its possible impact on biofuels.  Issues discussed  may include:  likelihood of continued low prices of gasoline and diesel and impact thereof, high cost of processing plants especially in the face of limited capital availability, offset by falling prices on steel and other structural commodities, and possible actions by the new administration.

Can Photovoltaics Provide >10% of World’s Electricity?: This time we will have a short presentation by Bob Conner introducing the topic and setting the stage for discussion.  Attached is some material he put together for your perusal prior to arrival, and we will also have hard copies available.

Will Electric Vehicles Make a Real Difference?: This topic relates to the RTEC conference on May 27, entitled Electrifying Transportation: a Route to Energy Security.  We will discuss the hurdles to wide scale adoption and the desirability thereof, from the standpoint both of energy security and mitigation of carbon dioxide.

Carbon Sequestration: Techno-economic Viability and Impact on Energy Industry:

The Smart Grid: Implications to the Energy Landscape: We shall describe the essential elements of the Smart Grid and then discuss the impact on a variety of energy related issues.  These include: enabling variable output electricity sources such as wind and solar, leveling the load to optimize delivery and enable cost effective charging of electric cars, grid segmentation for less down time, and potential for energy conservation by consumers.  Also, who will pay for the Smart Grid, and what can be achieved sooner with a semi-smart grid?

Public Acceptance of Green Goods and Services: As a prelude to our conference Electrifying Transportation:  a Road to Energy Security on May 27 ( we will discuss the public drivers to accept or choose green goods and services.  The discussion will be in the context of alternative energies, lowering the carbon footprint of consumer and industry articles of usage and all other manner in which society is affected by the climate change initiatives.  The softer, non financial, drivers such as conformance to societal norms, will be discussed as to their materiality, and how these may inform on public policy and on investment in green industries.

Wind Energy:  the Opportunities and Challenges: Wind energy has much to recommend itself, including the capability for distributed power and modular designs allowing for early output in the investment cycle, unlike many base load generators. We will discuss technical and policy challenges and solutions including: intermittency; bird and bat effects; as well as permitting and incentive regimes.

Sustainable Buildings: the Promise and the Practicality: According to the Energy Secretary, buildings consume 40% of our energy budget.  Some experts believe that buildings can be designed to use a third to half less energy for little or not added cost (see We will discuss the realities we face in addressing claims such as these, including needed technology and policies, and enabling factors such as modified building codes and changing the perception of people.

Biofuels: Technical and Economic Considerations of Alternatives: Biofuels can run the gamut from gasoline and diesel for transportation, to syngas for power production, to ammonia for fertilizer, to name a few.  The feedstock of increasing favor is some form of biomass as opposed to crops competing with agriculture.  ExxonMobil, a powerhouse, has stayed on the sidelines until the recent announcement of $600 million investment in a biochemical approach to fuel from algae. We will discuss the biochemical and thermochemical methods, the differences and similarities in the end products, and the likely economics of these approaches.

Is Clean Energy the Next Growth Industry?: One can reasonably posit that carbon mitigation and energy independence goals will not be met without substantial industrial initiative, and this in turn will require sound economic fundamentals.  In other words clean energy has to produce a profit.  Many state that a necessary condition is a price on carbon.  Some believe that this may even be a sufficient condition as well; that American entrepreneurism will in the normal course of events make this a growth industry.  We will debate this premise in addition to discussing the viability of even the first taking place, to wit the Senate fate of a Waxman-Markey variant.  We will also touch on the possibility of American competitiveness being damaged if other countries are able to make this happen.

Natural Gas: Viable Transitional Strategy for Carbon Mitigation?: The recent Federal award of $2.4 billion in stimulus money to electric car related endeavors has raised several voices, including those complaining that “dirty” coal will power these vehicles.  If one allows that electric cars provide a net benefit to the environment (and we can debate this as well), one must face the issue that the carbon mitigation burden merely shifts to the power plant.  At least one powerful NGO is suggesting that natural gas fueled electricity is a viable transitional strategy.  We will debate this against the back drop of the practical realities of clean coal in the medium term, the availability and cost of natural gas, the environmental impact of increased natural gas production and the impact of upcoming carbon mitigation policies on the various elements including green electricity alternatives.

How Green is Nuclear Energy?  How Green could it be?: Many see nuclear energy as an essential component of a sustainable energy future.  However, there are issues which give pause, such as fission product disposal and associated national security and policy issues.  These will be discussed, particularly newer technologies that ameliorate the problems, including “nuclear batteries”.  Will nuclear fission, and the grand experiment in France, finally deliver?

Energy Efficiency:  How can Society be persuaded to Use Materially Less Energy?: The International Energy Agency has estimated that to achieve reasonable carbon dioxide goals by 2050, 40 percent of the contribution to mitigation must come from simply using less energy.  For this discussion we will leave aside the gains from efficient buildings, a topic of a previous forum.  We will discuss the other walks of life in which gains can be made, first from the standpoint of technologies to provide the same gratification with less energy, including also the business potential of this avenue. Then we will discuss the viability of behavior changes and the means by which these may be achieved.

Technologies for a Low Carbon Future:  Evolution or Revolution?: There is currently a general air of pessimism regarding the materiality of impact of low carbon technologies in the twenty year time frame (see Wall Street Journal, Feb 22, R1), with many positing that penetration of over 20% is not likely.  The Department of Energy believes incremental methods are not going to do it and is funding three Innovation Hubs to revolutionize the identified sectors.  Industry has produced dramatic behavior modifying technologies in other fields with known methods of development and venture funding, in some cases with great speed.  What makes energy different?  We will discuss this against the backdrop of alternative energy technologies, their needs, the role of policy in facilitating the goals and the like.

DO INHERENT SUBSIDIES TO FOSSIL FUEL HURT RENEWABLES?: Fossil fuels today carry inherent subsidies by not being taxed on the basis of societal impact.  They are not alone in this.  Cigarettes for a long time, and today the examples include dairy farming and beef.  The latter are for non recognition of the methane (60 times carbon dioxide as a GHG) released and the former for health consequences to society.  We will examine first the fossil fuel related hidden subsidies and possible remedies.  We may broaden the discussion into non fuel areas to the extent that the remedies may inform on possible policies in the energy sector.

In the News

June 15, 2010 Comments Off on In the News

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July 5, 2013: Executive Director Vikram Rao is cited in the The Energy Collective, an energy and climate think tank.  Check it out here.

Photo taken from News & Observer

May 3, 2013: The News & Observer mentions Dr. Rao in “Fracking chemical rule sent back for revisions.” Dr. Rao currently serves on the N.C. Mining & Energy Commission.

March 7, 2013: In NC fracking panel suggests wastewater could be used for irrigation, the News & Observer cites Dr. Rao in the current debate of the uses of wastewater.

March 3, 2013: Dr. Rao is quoted as an authority in the recent N&O article, Tracers may ease public’s fracking fears.

February 8, 2013: BusinessWire refers to Dr. Rao’s book, Shale Gas: The Promise and the Peril, as an indicator of future gas prices.

January 18, 2013: Dr. Rao is interviewed on his book by the Carolina Journal.  Rao discusses hydraulic fracturing for shale gas during a conversation with Mitch Kokai.

October 2012: Dr. Rao is featured in the Journal of Petroleum Technology. He writes a guest blog entitled Getting Beyond Gasland.

August 30, 2012: Natural Gas Europe features Dr. Rao’s editorial Sustainable Shale Gas Production is feasible on their website.

August 27, 2012: In N&O article, Chemical trade group predicts 15,000 jobs in NC from natural gas, Dr. Rao is quoted.

July 20, 2012: Executive Director Vikram Rao is interviewed for the release of his latest publication  Shale Gas: the Promise and the Peril.  The video of the interview is linked below.

Shale gas has the potential to transform the U.S. energy-based economy in the electricity, transportation, and chemical sectors. In a book published by RTI Press, Vikram Rao addresses the issues surrounding shale gas in a balanced fashion. Tailored for a nontechnical audience—with technical chemistry and geology information couched in sidebars—the book culminates in suggestions for research and guidance for policymaking.

More information on the book. 

Video Link

Conference Flyer.

March 27, 2012: Executive Director Vikram Rao, speaks on a Natural Gas and the Transportation Sector Panel at the Methanol Policy Forum in Washington D.C.   The Methanol Policy Forum 2012 is a first-of-its-kind conference in Washington, D.C. bringing together industry leaders, energy policy experts, executive branch staff, Members of Congress, academics and the media to share information about methanol’s potential as a liquid transportation fuel.  The conference will highlight: market trends and pricing; the potential of natural gas, coal, renewable, and other resources to serve as methanol feedstocks; global vehicle technology and methanol fuel deployment; and public policy drivers. Check out Dr. Rao speaking on the panel here!

March 22, 2012: News & Observer quotes Dr. Rao in “Fracking: focus on the water

September 13, 2011: Greentech Media quotes Dr. Rao in “Natural Gas: Boom or Bust.” 

June 21, 2011: Hydrofracking in North Carolina” aired on Open/Net featuring Dr. Rao as a panelist together with Prof. Rob Jackson of Duke University and Dr. Ken Taylor of Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

June 2011: Dr. Rao contributes an article to The American Oil & Gas Reporter, “Gas Positioned To Displace Coal Plants.”

May 11, 2011: “Despite the dangers of fracking, North Carolina lawmakers want to legalize it,” from the Independent Weekly features Dr. Rao’s views on  fracking.

March 18, 2011: Executive Director Vik Rao recently quoted in Charlotte, N.C. based, North Carolina Lawyers Weekly, about fracking.

February 26th, 2011: The Science Show aired by ABC Radio of Australia interviews our executive director, Vik Rao, during the AAAS Annual Meeting.

February 6th, 2011: Executive Director Vik Rao quoted in The Desert Sun regarding the Clean-Tech Investor Summit.

February 2nd, 2011: Greentech Media quotes Executive Director Rao about shale gas.

January 27th, 2011: Executive Director Rao quoted in Greentech Media discussing natural gas and renewables.

October 7th, 2010: Barbara Entwisle, director of the Carolina Population Center and Kenan Distinguished Professor of Sociology at UNC- Chapel Hill joins RTEC’s Board of Governors.

June 9th, 2010: Director Vikram Rao was invited by Hart’s E&P to write for Ax to Grind, a column where guests give their opinions on Oil and Gas issues.  Dr. Rao suggests that joint industry action is the best form of defense.  Read the full post here: [Deepwater wells need one more line of defense]

June 3, 2010: The North Carolina Solar Center at NC State University awarded money to reduce transportation-related emissions in North Carolina counties that do not meet ambient air quality standards. [Funding Set to Reduce Transportation Emissions]

March 30, 2010: Nissan Delivers Affordable Solutions for Purchase, Lease of All-Electric Nissan LEAF [Read Press Release Here]

March 5th, 2010: See Executive Director, Vikram Rao, speaking at the Raleigh Grand Challenge on Energy Issues. [here]

January 11, 2010: Nissan North America Selects AeroVironment to Install Home-Charging Stations for Nissan LEAF [Read Press Release Here]

May 21st, 2009: Chevy Volt to come to Raleigh at expo sponsored by RTEC. [Forget Prius.  Volt is coming to Raleigh]

January 9th, 2009: From the Triangle Business Journal: NCSU, UNC, Duke, RTI unite to tackle energy challenge

September 30, 2008: Former Halliburton CTO Dr. Vikram Rao Joins Research Triangle Energy Consortium as Executive Director

Rao will lead efforts to further strengthen RTEC, an organization which integrates existing energy research programs at Duke University, NC State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and RTI International, and develops new multi-unit initiatives.

December 12, 2007: New Research Seeks to Develop Low-Cost Ethanol from Biomass, Organic Materials

Researchers at RTI International, North Carolina State University and the University of Utah are seeking to scale up proven laboratory technology that they believe will produce low-cost ethanol fuel through the gasification of biomass and other organic waste products. The project, funded by a $2 million cost-shared contract with the U.S. Department of Energy, seeks to develop non-food-based ethanol that costs less than $1.10 per gallon produced from lignocellulosic biomass feedstocks.

December 4, 2007: RTI-Lead Team Receives Up to $2M for Biofuels Project

Researchers at RTI International will receive up to $2 million from the U.S. Department of Energy for a new biofuels project that its backers believe could be a breakthrough on multiple fronts in developing alternative fuels. Working with North Carolina State University and Utah University, the RTI research team aims to further refine technology that turns biomass into ethanol.

November 15, 2007: New Triangle Consortium to Focus on Energy

Researchers at three Triangle universities and RTI International are pooling resources for energy research ranging from new sources to improved efficiency and lessen environmental impact. The Research Triangle Energy Consortium, or RTEC, includes Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State as well as RTI.

November 13, 2007:
Triangle Universities, RTI International Join to Form Energy Consortium

Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, and RTI International have joined to form the Research Triangle Energy Consortium (RTEC), combining their research strengths to focus on “solving the technical, environmental, economic, societal, and public policy problems related to the use of energy,” according to the operating agreement.

“We can do things together that we cannot do individually,” said David Myers, vice president of engineering and technology at RTI International. “By combining our strengths in energy research, we can tackle the most complex energy problems.”

Past Events

June 3, 2010 Comments Off on Past Events

  • Dec. 16, 2011: Hydraulic Fracturing SymposiumWith the potential for extracting North Carolina’s natural gas reserves being discussed at the policy level in the General Assembly, the North Carolina League of Municipalities hosted a symposium to discuss hydraulic fracturing in downtown Raleigh’s Quorum Center. Speakers representing extremely diverse views on fracking, including Executive Director Vikram Rao, presented to a select group of municipal representatives, with a question and answer period following the presentations. Perspectives from environmental advocates, industry representatives and members of the academic community were presented in order to foster an open dialogue.

  • Nov. 15, 2011 – TISS/NCSU Energy and Security Initiative presents David Albright, ISIS “The Nuclear Black Market”
    NC State, Raleigh, NC
  • July 18-21, 2011 – Plug-In 2011
    Raleigh Convention Center, Raleigh, NC

Watch Dr. Rao’s keynote speech and follow along with the presentation slides

  • Feb. 19, 2011 — American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting
    Washington, DC
  • Jan, 19, 2011 —  2011 Clean-Tech Investor Summit
    Palm Springs, CA
  • Guest Lecture on Dec. 1, 2010 at UNC-Chapel Hill, Peabody 306
    Course: 4E’s – Energy, Economy, Engineering, and Environment
    Topic: “Practical Next Steps”
  • Guest Lecture: Oct. 20 at UNC-Chapel Hill, Peabody 306
    Course: 4E’s – Energy, Economy, Engineering, and Environment
    Topic: “Energy Sources: Hydrocarbons”
  • Guest Speak at DLA Piper Global Technology Leaders Summit
    Palo Alto, CA
    October 12, 2010
  • Duke University study
    Completion of a Duke study regarding the economics of carbon capture and storage by power plants in the U.S., striving to address the single most cited reason for recalcitrance on clean coal investment. A symposium was held in the third quarter to disseminate the results of the work and discuss the implications.
  • Kicked off the production of the definitive report on the Future of Biofuels. Currently there is considerable uncertainty regarding the economics and the net environmental and societal impact of biofuel alternatives. Interested parties include petroleum companies, coal producers, grain companies and the investment community, for all of whom the lack of clarity represents a barrier to a long term strategy in a field where the expected capital investments are high and first fuel production is several years removed from the decision to invest.
  • Supported of the major NC State led NSF-sponsored program on Smart Grids. A May 27, 2009 symposium, titled Electrifying Transportation which had a heavy emphasis on Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles (PHEV’s), other electric vehicles, and the grid systems required to optimize their utilization. Significant load-leveling and reduction of oil importation are potential outcomes. Included were  the techno-economic and societal barriers for EV’s, including longer range and cheaper batteries and capacitive systems, innovative business models to encourage consumer acceptance, and the economic sourcing of the essential element lithium.
  • Sponsored the UNC led symposium on Advanced Photovoltaics and Solar Fuels on January 15, 16, 2009. UNC is a leader in the relatively new field of solar fuels, which offers the promise of using photons to create liquid fuels.


June 2, 2010 Comments Off on Events

Research Triangle Energy Consortium (RTEC) Breakfast Energy Forum

The RTEC Breakfast Energy Forum Series facilitates the Triangle’s players in the field of energy getting to know each other and to get acquainted with what’s happening locally in this dynamic field.  It is held on every third Thursday of the month and the topics are distributed two weeks ahead.  Attendance is by invitation, but current invitees may nominate others.  After a brief introduction of the topic by the Director, a moderated discussion ensues.  Peer to peer learning is the primary mechanism.

Next month’s topic:

Date:               Thursday, February 15, 2018

Time:              7.30 – 8.30 AM

Location:        Advanced Technology Building, 3021 E Cornwallis Road

Cost:               None.  RTEC will cover expenses

Topic:  IS TRUMP’S “CLEAN COAL” AN OXYMORON?  You may be wrong, but you may be right, from “You may be right” by Billy Joel, 1980, written by Billy Joel

What the President meant by the term in his SOTU speech is anybody’s guess.  But we can look at it in many ways, with two broad features: airborne hazardous species and CO2.  And we can consider two principal industrial sources: electricity production and coal to liquids.  A significant example of the latter is coal to methanol, with the methanol in particular targeting gasoline and diesel displacement.  The Chinese are doing this in a big way, and India is expected to follow.  The airborne species are only as a result of direct combustion.  But all methods lead to CO2 production.  Avoidance of direct combustion will make coal cleaner.  What of the CO2?  It certainly can be put away in the ground in some places.  The highest cost component of sequestration has always been capture, not storage.  It could also be used for tertiary recovery of oil.  Co-locate sinks and sources?  Then there is the more research stage CO2 conversion to useful stuff.  Even electric vehicles are implicated: cleanliness of the electricity.  Finally, we could even discuss the consequences of Presidential utterances on this.

Breakfast is by Invitation Only.  Please send additional requests to

Guest Lectures

Our Executive Director Dr. Vikram Rao,  speaks at various events in the Triangle and the nation.

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