This Tiny Moon Has More Oil & Gas Than Earth

Imagine a place with hundreds of times more natural gases and other liquid hydrocarbons than all of the known oil and gas reserves on our bountiful planet. As it turns out, that place is a comparatively small, smoggy and perpetually drizzly moon in our very own solar system, happily orbiting around Saturn.

On Titan, the largest of Saturn’s 62 moons, hydrocarbons naturally rain down from the skies in a “dreary drizzle” and collect in the form of vast lakes and dunes. This has long been known or at least surmised, but now we have proof and quantitative data thanks to NASA’s Cassinispacecraft.

Whereas the majority of the earth’s surface is covered in water, the greater part of Titan is covered in lakes, seas, and flooded river valleys full of liquid methane and ethane, while the dunes are made up of not sand, but likely of tholins, a category of organic materials formed by carbon-containing compounds (CO2, methane, ethane, and more) and solar ultraviolet irradiation or other cosmic rays. These materials do not form naturally on earth, but they’re carbon-rich treasure troves of carbon-based organic matter that can explode into prebiotic life in the presence of water. In fact, tholins likely played a role in the origin of life on Earth.

Scientists can surmise the depth and volume of Titan’s lakes based on their pitch-black appearance on radar and by comparing with depth averages exported from our own planets statistics. These observations are based on findings in the northern polar regions of Saturn’s largest moon. Cassini has only viewed the southern reaches of Titan once with their radar technology, but few lakes were immediately visible.

NASA’s Cassini craft has used radar to map about 20 percent of Titan’s carbon-rich surface. Just within this fraction of the moon’s surface, NASA has been able to observe hundreds of lakes and seas, several dozen of which are estimated to contain more liquid hydrocarbons than all of Earth’s oil and gas reserves combined in each lake in and of itself. And those tholin-filled dunes? Those likely contain enough carbon-based organics to amount to hundreds of times the quantity of the Earth’s dwindling coal reserves.

These numbers are pretty astounding, especially when you consider that Earth’s natural gas reserves, dwarfed by Titan’s, are not too shabby either. On our humble planet there are proven reserves totally 130 billion tons, enough to provide 300 times the amount of energy the entire United States uses annually for residential heating, cooling and lighting. But this is nothing compared to what we’re seeing on Titan–dozens of Titans’ hundreds if not thousands of lakes each individually contain at least this much energy potential, all pooled, cooled, and ready in the form of liquid ethane and methane.

What Titan lacks in oxygen it makes up for in a swirling orange chemical haze surmised to be just one element (that would be sulfur) short of crude oil. So now the question is–is all that potential energy something that we’ll be able to harness before our own supplies begin to run dry? Is it worth battling the freakishly cold temperatures of Titan’s unprecedented polar vortex, thick clouds of noxious chemicals and, well, getting all the way to Saturn?

Only time will tell. But in the meantime, scientists will be looking closely at all the readings coming out of the Cassini spacecraft, as it continues to provide surprising revelations about our own carbon-based existence, not the least of which is the moon’s very own model of climate change. Methane is one of the Earth’s most potent greenhouse gases, and watching the impacts of such a methane-heavy atmosphere on Titan could teach us a whole lot about living in a world with changing temperatures and a growing dependence on natural gases.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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Thanksgiving Travelers Smash Records

As we all know from the personal experience of enduring long lines at the airport and inching along frosty highways in bumper-to-bumper holiday traffic, Thanksgiving week is unquestionably one of the busiest long-distance travel periods of the year. Long-distance trips increase by 54 percent around Thanksgiving, a huge number, especially when considering that the increase for Christmas is just 23 percent compared to the average for the rest of the year. The average mileage for these long-distance Turkey Day trips (classified by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics as to and from a ­destination 50 miles or more away) is a whopping 214 miles.

Unfortunately, it’s looking like all of those miles are going to add up to hefty tabs at the pumps this year. Thanksgiving travelers can expect to spend more on gas this year than on other holiday road trips in the last few years. According to analysis by GasBuddy.com, gas prices across the United States are nearly 40 cents higher per gallon than they were at this time last year, and that number could grow by Thanksgiving week. As of last week, the national gas price range spanned from $2.21 per gallon to $3.22 per gallon according to numbers collected by AAA.

On the bright side, all that fuel money –or almost all of it–will be staying in the U.S., as, perhaps unsurprisingly, over 99 percent of the long-distance trips over Thanksgiving week are to destinations within the country’s borders. The price, of course, depends on where you’re situated in the United States, with the cheapest prices in Texas, the Midwest (including Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Virginia and Oklahoma) and the Southeast (the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia). The highest gas prices this Thanksgiving will be found closer to the Pacific Northwest, topped only by California.

Experts are saying that in addition to the normal global flux in fuel prices, we can thank this year’s unprecedented hurricane season for the hefty price tags at fueling stations. Hurricane Harvey in particular was one factor that lead this Thanksgiving to have the highest gasoline prices in two years. The nation’s highest gas rates of 2017 were recorded in August, just after Harvey hit the Gulf Coast, the oil refining powerhouse of the nation.

Interestingly, the brunt of these travel expenses will be borne by–yes, that omnipresent buzz-demographic– millennials. Statistics show that those who travel during the holiday season are younger on average than those travelling long distances for the rest of the year. The average age of the Thanksgiving traveler, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, is just under 34 years and slightly above 36 years. It makes sense, as younger family members will be flocking to the houses of long-established Thanksgiving hosts–parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and the like.

Online marketplace platform LendEDU polled 1,000 American consumers ages 18 and up on their anticipated expenditures for Thanksgiving 2017 and found that the average anticipated cost is about $165.14 per person for Turkey Day this year. 40.93 percent of this total is expected to be spent on travel alone (including the price of plane tickets, gas money, bus tickets, hotel expenses, etc.), amounting to $67.59 in average travel expenses for each consumer.

All the same, driving remains the most popular mode of travel for Thanksgiving. More than 90 percent of travelers will be making their way toward the turkey from behind the wheel of an automobile. Last year 43.5 million people in the U.S. hit the road for the occasion, compared to just 1.44 million people who used other modes of transport. This year, the AAA predicts that over 50 million Americans will be traveling to celebrate the holiday – a 3.3 percent increase over last year, and the highest number in the past 12 years.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

Is U.S. Biofuel In Jeopardy?

Last week, DuPont Industrial Biosciences announced that they shut down operations at an Iowa ethanol plant just two years after it opened. As the plant closed its doors, 90 employees were told they had just 45 minutes to evacuate the premises, and any stragglers would be escorted out by the local police. A small skeleton crew remains to maintain the facility until DuPont is able to sell it.

DuPont, a branch of DowDuPont Inc, made this decision to shy away from producing ethanol from corn waste at the same time a politics are shifting from biofuels and renewables in the U.S.  While DuPont said that the Iowa plant closure has more to do with their merger with Dow than anything else, local organization Iowa Renewable Fuels said it’s clearly a symptom of low government support and lack of tax credits.

Under the new management brought on by the Trump administration, The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made a major effort this year to cut down the required quantity of cellulosic biofuels to be mixed into the nation’s fuels, walking back a Bush-era mandate. The EPA argues that the industry has not produced enough of these cellulosic biofuels to keep the policy realistic. Cellulosic biofuels are fuels created from inedible plant waste like husks and stems, as well as non-food plants such as grasses and seaweed.

When the DuPont plant was opened in 2015 at a construction cost of $225 million, it was widely publicized as the world’s largest cellulosic ethanol plant. The facility utilized corn stalks and stems (a resource more than plentiful in Iowa) to make ethanol, with a production capacity of 30 million gallons per year, to be blended with gasoline to aid refineries’ compliance of the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard, instated in 2005 and expanded in 2007.

When the ethanol-blending portion of the mandate was passed in 2007, with the hope of reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, the EPA predicted that by 2020 domestic ethanol production would be at one billion gallons per year. It’s become evident that this won’t be the case. Output for 2017 is expected to be around 7 million gallons. That’s a far cry from those original, optimistic numbers, thanks to high production costs and still-evolving technologies.

Now, in an ironic twist, the government’s response to insufficient biofuel production will cause the nation to have even less. The EPA made their proposal to cut biofuel blending requirements in July, with the goal to slash this year’s 311 million gallons to 238 million gallons in 2018, reversing the previous requirement to increase the ethanol blend each year.

Inside the oil industry, however, there are many that feel the Trump administration and the EPA have not done enough to overhaul biofuel requirements and “drain the swamp.” Notably, just one day before DuPont shuttered its ethanol plant, the chief executive of Icahn refinery CVR Energy accused Trump of caving in to corn-state fuel refiners by failing to completely overhaul the federal biofuel agenda. Icahn was previously a special adviser to Trump on regulations, but left the unpaid position amidst criticism that he stood to make a lot of money off of his proposed policy changes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, DuPont is not the first company to start unloading its biofuel facilities. DuPont’s competition, Abengoa, sold its 25-million-gallon Kansas facility almost a year ago. DuPont itself has been showing signs of trouble since last year, when they stopped collecting corn stocks from local farmers because they’d run out of storage. DuPont said that they don’t intend to move away from biofuels completely, but shuttering the world’s largest cellulosic plant just two years after its lauded opening doesn’t bode well for the sector’s future.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

The Boy Genius Tackling Energy’s Toughest Problem

In the past year or so an unorthodox think-tank called Helena has been quietly bringing together an eclectic cross-section of brilliant individuals (mostly bright-eyed millennials) with ambitious goals. They’re focusing on the world’s biggest and most insurmountable problems: climate change and global security issues such as artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies, and nuclear proliferation. The elite and edgy group includes Nobel laureates, Hollywood stars, technology entrepreneurs, human rights activists, Fortune-list executives, a North Korean refugee, and more, but one of Helena’s most unique members is undoubtedly the 23-year old nuclear physicist Taylor Wilson, once known as “the boy who played with fusion”.

Taylor Wilson garnered international attention from the science world in 2008 when he became the youngest person in history to produce nuclear fusion at just 14 years old, building a reactor capable of smashing atoms in a plasma core at over 500 million degrees Fahrenheit—40 times hotter than the core of the sun—in his parents’ garage. And this all happened after he built a bomb at the age of 10. As a child in Texarkana, Arkansas, Taylor became infatuated with nuclear science after trysts with biology, genetics and chemistry. At age 11, while his classmates were playing with Easy-Bake Ovens, Wilson was taking his crack at building a particle accelerator in an effort to makes homemade radioisotopes.

Soon after he created a mini-sun in his garage, the wunderkind won $50,000 at a science fair for building a counterterrorism device that has the ability to detect nuclear materials in cargo containers, an invention which he later presented to Barack Obama in another science fair, this one sponsored by the White House.

In addition to counterterrorism and nuclear fusion, Wilson has also focused his optimistic virtuosity on solving some of the major shortcomings of our health industry. In his teenage years, Wilson also created a production system for medical isotopes that can be injected into patients and used to diagnose and treat cancer. His design costs less than $100,000 and can be wheeled directly into a hospital room, with the hope to replace multimillion-dollar, warehouse-size facilities that serve the same function.

Before he was even legally able to drink a beer, Wilson had already racked up 4 million views between his two (yes, two) TED Talks (Yup, I Built A Nuclear Fusion Reactor and My Radical Plan For Small Nuclear Fission Reactors). He has a published biography written by author Tom Clynes as well as biopic in development to be directed by Jeff Nichols.

At 18, technically no longer a boy wonder but a legally-adult genius, Wilson skipped collegeand, armed with a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship, went straight to work trying to solve the same seemingly insurmountable problem that has had nuclear scientists scratching their heads for generation: how to translate the awesome power of nuclear fusion into harnessable energy that would change the future of this planet.

Wilson has said that despite this —or perhaps because of this—assimilating into the science community was no cakewalk. In a profile for the Atlantic in 2012, Wilson said, “These days, the scientific community accepts me. But getting to that point was tremendously hard… when people have dedicated their lives to something—and spent eight years in college—they just expect that a kid wouldn’t be up to doing it.” However, Wilson thinks his greenness is exactly what makes him a forward-thinker and therefore a great scientist. “Kids have a certain predisposition to do things differently and see the world differently, and that’s helpful… I think that we get a lot of scientists now who are bent into a system, and we lose some of their boldness.”

It’s exactly this young, optimistic, and daring energy that likely brought Wilson to the Helena think tank this year. In this meeting of the millennial minds, from backgrounds as diverse as Texarkana and Pyongyang, from disciplines as far-flung as nuclear fusion and human rights activism, and a whole lot of hopeful energy, it’s hard to think that something incredible won’t come out of it.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

Is Infinite Clean Energy Near?

After decades of research and planning, a group of scientists in France are attempting to achieve the impossible: harnessing the heavens.

They are building a tokamak, a donut-shaped, man-made, artificial star that has the potential to bring the universe down to earth and provide millions of years of clean energy. Is this the dawn of a new era, in which we dominate nuclear fusion and solve the energy dilemma for millennia, or is it just a crackpot pipe dream? Every year we seem to be getting closer to the former.

While it once seemed impossible that we would be able to create, control, and confine plasma hotter than the sun, the development of tokamaks has created, for the first time, a viable avenue for nuclear fusion. Scientists have already been able to create plasma at the necessary ultra hot temperatures necessary. Now they just need to refine the process until they can create more energy than is consumed by the process to create the reactions—something that has never yet been achieved, but is growing closer to becoming a reality each year, thanks to international projects like the one currently taking place in France.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the massive tokamak fusion reactor under construction in Southern France, has been internationally funded with $14 Billion dollars (a number that will continue to rise) in capital. It’s a combined effort by many nations in the European Union along with the United States, Russia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea. The scientists involved anticipate that the groundbreaking machine will make its inaugural run in 2025, 40 years after its inception, which was initiated after a fateful handshake between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985.

There is a concern, however, that with the new administration in the United States, their annual $400 million contribution may be slashed or stopped altogether thanks to budget cuts and an aversion to investing in renewables. The Energy Collective has reported that President Trump has allotted $63 million for ITER, however, the Senate’s official budget does not publicly account for ITER funding at all.

Despite a new reluctance from the federal government, under past administrations the U.S. has been on the cutting edge of the technology that could help make the tokamak-based nuclear fusion a reality. Just this month the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have completed new simulations to study the behavior of these plasma bubbles and blobs, giving us a great understanding of how the heat moves and changes within the tokamak.

In order to fuse hydrogen atoms into helium, tokamaks must maintain the astronomical level of heat of the plasma (the hottest state of matter) they control. This is a particular challenge due to the percolating bubbles that arise and release this vital heat (think of boiling water). In order to function, a tokamak needs to maintain a temperature of around 100 million degrees Celsius.

In future simulations, the PPPL also plans to study how this behavior changes according to the shape of the tokamak, as well as the effects of density, temperature, and electromagnetic force affect the behavior of the blobs, crucial information in the development of the ITER.

The UK is also gunning to be a major player in the development of nuclear fusion, and is currently working on designs for their own nuclear fusion power plant. Just this month it was announced that Atkins will partner with Tokamak Energy to create what they hope will be the world’s first fusion facility (although it will be completed more or less at the same time as France’s internationally-funded model) that generates more energy than it consumes. They aim to generate the first electricity by 2025 (the same year as ITER) and commercially viable fusion power by 2030.

Despite our tricky history with nuclear power, fusion holds the most promising (if not the only) viable future for clean and renewable energy worldwide. Despite popular belief, fusion actually holds little danger relative to traditional nuclear power, producing no long-lasting radioactive waste. Working as a complement to wind and solar, nuclear fusion would bring us much, much closer to creating a carbon-neutral planet, a goal that has never been more urgent.

Originally written for Oilprice.com

New Tech Could Turn Seaweed Into Biofuel

In the future, we may not look up to the sun for energy, but down into the ocean’s depths.

This month the U.S. Department of Energy announced an investment of nearly $1.5 million in projects to develop renewable energy from Hawaiian seaweed, following large investments in other parts of the nation in a new push toward the potentially groundbreaking development of seaweed-based biofuels.

The $1.5 million will go toward establishing two large-scale offshore seaweed farms for development and production of biofuels. Of this hefty sum, $995,978 goes to Honolulu’s Makai Ocean Engineering for the development of an ocean simulating model to facilitate offshore seaweed farm design, Kailua-Kona’s Kampachi Farms receives $500,000 to develop an offshore macroalgae farm and test out different seaweed harvesting methods in search of the most efficient model.

The recent investments in Hawaii are just one part of a recent energy trend toward biofuels. The DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program is developing nationwide projects to establish a large-scale macroalgae agricultural industry under the under the Macroalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources (MARINER) program.

In Massachusetts, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) was awarded a whopping $5.7 million from ARPA-E to fund two projects to further advance mass cultivation of seaweed on an industrial scale. $3.7 million of this will go toward the development of a breeding program for sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima), utilizing cutting-edge gene sequencing and genomic resources for the most accurate and efficient selective breeding possible, resulting in a 20 to 30 percent improvement over wild plants. For this endeavor, WHOI will work in conjunction with  the University of Alaska Fairbanks, another MARINER project funding recipient that is currently developing scale model seaweed farms capable of producing sugar kelp for less than $100 per dry metric ton.

The other $2 million given to WHOI goes toward developing a self-sufficient underwater observation system to monitor these large-scale seaweed farms for long periods of time without human intervention. This revolutionary technology is being created by a team from the Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering department.

This huge push in funding and biofuel investments comes in the hope that seaweed could soon be used to power our homes and vehicles. According to ARPA-E, the U.S. could potentially produce 300 million dry metric tons of combined brown and red seaweed per year. Converted to biofuel, this yield could supply 10 percent of the nation’s annual transportation energy demand—a game-changing amount.

Up to this point, domestic cultivation of macroalgae has exclusively been for human consumption, and the majority of seaweed consumed by humans and animals in the U.S. is sourced from wild harvests or imported from other countries with seaweed-farming operations already underway. The ramping-up of local production isn’t just an amazing innovation for domestic biofuel sources, but it’s also a huge relief for wild seaweed beds being over-harvested for local consumption. The seaweed push would also create new jobs, boosting the economic health of many working waterfronts.

With the recent cash influx to create the necessary technology and infrastructure, seaweed—never before farmed in large scales in the U.S.—could quickly replace corn as the country’s primary source of biofuel. This would be a welcome change, as seaweed farms require none of the synthetic fertilizers, huge swaths of land and vast quantities of freshwater that corn cultivation needs.

Like oil and gas, biofuels are also generally composed of hydrocarbons, however, they’re ultimately much closer to the carbon-neutral line because they naturally consume carbon dioxide as they grow. Seaweed is especially efficient in this regard, as it grows significantly faster than terrestrial plants and is able to store large amounts of CO2 in its structure.

The underwater future of energy is well underway. Expect to see cleaner, greener, seaweed-based biofuels in the U.S. marketplace in the next few years.

Originally written for Oilprice.com

Oil Price Rally Accelerates Shale Boom In Argentina

The Argentinian energy and mining minister Juan Jose Aranguren has announced that the South American nation will be suspending its system of set domestic fuel prices next month, allowing local pricing to be ruled once again by the free market. The decision comes in response to the recent global uptick in oil prices, and is part of a continuing effort to woo international drilling interest and investment in Argentina.

The Argentinian government, in tandem with domestic oil producers and refineries, had been setting quarterly fuel prices within the country over the last year and a half to sustain investment in domestic drilling, despite a years-long global glut and low prices. The system was imposed last January in a treatise succinctly called the Agreement for the Transition to International Prices of the Argentine Hydrocarbons Industry. However, the system was not 100% controlled – it had previously allowed for some degree of market influence when prices are deemed to be high enough to allow free market input.

Now, as prices around the world recover and show significant promise of continued recovery, Argentina plans to turn over liquid fuel pricing entirely to the free market starting in October. This decision, however, could be easily and instantaneously overturned if oil pricing drops back to previous numbers, and the government remains in negotiations with the nation’s major fuel companies.

This being said, it’s looking hopeful that we won’t soon be seeing a significant downturn in fuel prices. This week American crude exports broke records thanks to strong demand, and national prices are rising steadily thanks to a decline in the previously exaggerated inventory in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The developments in the U.S. are working in tandem with worldwide trends as OPEC applies strict caps on supply (partially in response to overproduction in U.S. shale) and even Russia is following the rules, bringing global prices to a two-year high.

Despite the Argentinian policy change and the global price swell, however, officials have warned that Argentinians should not expect to see an immediate rise in fuel prices. The best guesses suggest that the first major price differences will be seen toward the end of October, following domestic legislative elections.

Experts see this transition as part of a larger trend of rising prices and potentially lucrative investment opportunities in Latin America. In Argentina there’s been a major rush to develop the Vaca Muerta shale play (a massive area the size of Belgium) including heavy investment from supermajors. Argentinian president Mauricio Macri is a decidedly business-friendly leader, and attracting international investment has been a priority for the regime, leading to the aforementioned price-setting policies and other efforts to grow domestic energy production in order to minimize costly fuel imports.

It’s working. Last year Exxon said they may invest over $10 billion in Vaca Muerta shale projects over the next few decades. While the supermajors are focused on Vaca Muerte, however, there are other oil- and gas-rich regions of the vast country lying in wait and Argentina would only be too happy to see them developed as well. A few companies are already taking advantage of the opportunity. As an example, Canada’s PentaNova, also heavily involved in Colombia, has recently opened a Buenos Aires office and acquired Alianza Petrolera S.A., giving them 29 percenta working interest in the Llancanelo heavy oil block and 10% in Llancanelo.

Other companies that operate refineries in Argentina include state-owned YPF SA, and private firms Axion Energy Argentina SA, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Pampa Energia SA. If and when fuel prices take a turn for the worst, these companies have influence in whether the Agreement for the Transition to International Prices of the Argentine Hydrocarbons Industry is reinstated, purposefully making Argentina an especially low-risk investment opportunity. With global prices going strong and vast untapped reserves patiently waiting for development, Argentina is poised to make oil boom headlines any day now.

Originally written for Oilprice.com