Monday, January 29, 2007

The Limits to Lithium

Lithium-ion batteries have become a major focus of the effort to build electric or plug in hybrid cars. With General Motors' launch of its Volt plug-in hybrid prototype, lithium-ion batteries have become what USA Today called "the holy grail" of battery technology.

But a report by William Tahil, research director with Meridian International Research in France analyzed the world supply of lithium and concluded that replacing gasoline powered cars with lithium-hybrid cars would result in "even tighter resource constraints than we face today with oil."

Most lithium comes from a limited number of salt pans and salt lake deposits around the world, particularly in South America. Bolivia is believed to hold nearly half of the global lithium reserves. Switching the world's production of cars to lithium based cars would require six times the current production of lithium--and this doesn't include present production of lithium-ion batteries for portable electronic devices.

Tahil argues for more resources to be spent on new battery technologies that use common metals such as nickel or zinc. Examples of this are the sodium nickel choride or "Zebra" batteries and zinc air batteries. Zebra batteries have found some poularity in Europe and a Canadian company is considering licensing the technology to begin production in Canada.

Zebra batteries, Tahil argues, could be the dark horse battery technology of the future. Unfortunately, the buzz around lithium-ion batteries has been making it hard to get the investment to get Zebras off the ground.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Biofuels and the Limits of Growth

Biofuels are all the rage lately--our ticket to oil independence. But in a world that is struggling to provide enough food for its population and, lately, losing the struggle, any significant biofuel prorgram will have to compete for resources with other agricultural pursuits. Already some of the more fragile ecosystems are being destroyed by the rush into biofuels.

In West Africa the biggest new cause of deforestation in many regions is the conversion of land into biofuel crop production. The land rush to establish biofuel plantations in developing nations is one of the most intense the world has ever seen. Millions of square miles could be turned into biofuel plantations in the tropics, and the impact this will have on global rainfall and global temperatures is incalculable.

Deforestation and drought are causing a steady advance of deserts in northern Africa. There is a clear link between deforestation and drought, particularly in West Africa, as cited in the MIT study “Desertification, Deforestation and Drought,” where they demonstrate that deforestation along the southern coast of West Africa (e.g., in Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast) may result in complete collapse of monsoon circulation, and a significant reduction of regional rainfall. Connections between deforestation and drought are well established throughout the tropics.

Moreover, the rush to deforest the tropics to grow biofuel - cassava in Nigeria, sugar cane in Brazil, oil palms in Indonesia - is a form of neocolonialism that Greens should find horrifying. Tariff barriers are being streamlined to allow tropical developing nations to export biofuel to the industrial north, food crops are being crowded out, small farmers are unable to participate, and in 100 square mile increments, land ownership passes into the hands of energy multinationals. And weather patterns take a turn for the worse.

The limits of growth are real and unavoidable; and now it would seem that the international economic market--that has no way to quantify things like the environment or, more importantly, the future, is pursuing renewable energy in possibly the most self destructive manner possible.

Ultimately we must reconcile ourselves to the reality of a low energy future.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Global Warming Smoking Gun

Yhe Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release a report next week that is said to feature an "explosion of new data" on observations of current global warming.

U.S. climate scientist Jerry Mahlman, who reviewed all 1,600 pages of the first segment of a giant four-part report called the results "compelling."

Global warming is "happening now, it's very obvious," said Mahlman, a former director of NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab who lives in Boulder, Colo. "When you look at the temperature of the Earth, it's pretty much a no-brainer."

The February report will have "much stronger evidence now of human actions on the change in climate that's taken place," Rajendra K. Pachauri told the AP in November. Pachauri, an Indian climatologist, is the head of the international climate change panel.

In spite of this, the Democratic congress faces an uphill battle to pass any global warming legislation. Carbon-reliant industries including coal, oil, agriculture and manufacturing will resist any strong legislation, a position that will pose serious dilemmas for Democrats in districts where those industries and their unions hold sway. Some representatives of low-income minority districts are also concerned that a climate bill would slap heavy energy costs on their constituents.

Even if Pelosi manages to finagle a bill through the House, there is the problem of the Senate, where global-warming skeptic James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) has lost his chairmanship to climate-conscious Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) but has threatened a filibuster. And President Bush seems unlikely to sign anything too far-reaching.

That is why some environmentalists want Pelosi to delay until she can send a bill to a more sympathetic president in 2009, and why some Democrats want her to delay so they can use the issue against Republicans in 2008.

Bu, with the tipping point looming ever closer, there may not be that much time to spare.