I like to think I know a lot about various energy issues, but I just ran across a podcast guest who has challenged a lot of things I thought I knew. Chris Keefer’s latest interviewee on the very popular Decouple podcast is B. F. Randall. He’s an environmental lawyer whose job is making complicated industrial information understandable for legal documents and procedures. He came to Keefer’s attention by writing some Twitter threads that’ve been racking up huge numbers of views. The first was one on copper mining that goes into great detail.

The main thrust of the podcast is on the importance of diesel fuel and how industrial process heat from nuclear power should be used in making it. Diesel is clearly essential to our civilization and is not going away any time soon. Fossil hydrocarbon fuels are chains of carbon atoms with attached hydrogen atoms. They come in a spectrum of lengths, methane (CH4) being the shortest and spanning upwards through propane, butane and progressively longer chains that make up gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, bunker fuel for ships to very long chains in asphalt. All this can be separated out of crude oil. Oil rich in shorter chains used for gasoline is known as light sweet crude and I always thought this was the most valuable kind. Randall says gasoline is actually more of a byproduct made from leftover fractions. He says it’s actually a nuisance for refiners to make. I suspect this has to do with getting the right mix for a good octane rating. He says the really valuable crude is the heavy stuff you make diesel with.

He ranks Rudolph Diesel right up there with Edison and Tesla in importance to civilization. he describes the diesel as an optimal engine which is the main driver of industrial civilization. He says electric replacements require too much material, which must be mined with diesel machines. He absolutely cackles at an electric machine produced by CAT (at one hour in). He dismisses it as ESG greenwashing. He laments that because of our horrible energy policies the US is swimming in light crude and is down to a 30 day supply of diesel.

How does nuclear power come in? The most widely used nuclear reactors are light water reactors. Michael Shellenberger has argued persuasively that these are the most cost effective, time proven designs for producing electricity. Randall’s take is that light water reactors are inefficient because of their low operating temperatures. Also, all this fuss about how best to generate electricity is misplaced because electricity is only about 15% of energy use. Any change in electricity generation involves more use of diesel for mining and such. He argues that the main potential for nuclear energy is in process heat, which BTW is used for refining diesel. In fact the petroleum industry is the largest user of process heat. But this heat can also be used for employing the Fischer-Tropsch process for making diesel fuel from feedstocks other than crude oil. This could be fracked gas, flue gases or carbonic acid from sea water.

Randall is understandably getting some pushback, most notably from Bloomberg contributor Michael Liebreich. Randall impresses me as having a better understanding of the numbers involved. His Twitter handle is @Mining_Atoms. Here’s the astounding interview:

On a related note, Tesla claims it will be delivering the first of its long promised but yet to be delivered semis to Pepsi in December. The best criticism I’ve seen of it is by a YouTuber called Thunderf00t. In this video he makes the claim that Tesla’s semi will haul only 5 tons of cargo while a conventional diesel can haul 20 tons. He does his calculations starting about six and a half minutes in.

25 Comments

  1. Thanks Mike – that was an interesting listen. And I picked up a mention of John Constable appearing on a previous edition, so will have to listen to that too.

    Did I mishear, or did Randall refer to global primary energy as 600 GJ? Maybe he meant exajoules, or else I misheard – not actually sure what the number is.

    I like the idea of synfuel but not if it’s going to extracted from the air at 400 ppm. The flue gas seems a better choice, but then you can’t argue that it’s circular. It’s a pity that engines in Europe and the UK are going to be banned, so if there is potential here, we’re squandering the chance of it, plus whatever expertise we have (I mean Germany) in ICE. That said you do wonder how many multiples of energy will be lost in the synthesis stage. Don’t know, but it sounds like it has more potential by far than batteries (simply because of the greater energy density of a liquid fuel).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks JIT. I’m sure he means exajoules. From the late great Max Anacker:

    https://judithcurry.com/2013/04/13/open-thread-weekend-13/#comment-312344

    This one’s for Beth

    I’m a Joule.

    My name’s “Judy” (the jolly Joule). I share a name with a very famous person.

    I’m a little bitty thing.

    In fact, I’m so small you can hardly see me – sort of like a “no-see-um”.

    (But I’m much nicer.)

    It takes gadzillions of Joules like me before you can even tell we’re there.

    Can you imagine?

    To heat the atmosphere by just 0.1°C (which you wouldn’t even notice) would take over 500,000 million*million of us.

    But that’s nothing.

    To heat the upper 700m of ocean, which those nice ARGO floats are measuring now, by just 0.01°C (which none of the little fishies would EVER notice) would take over 500 million*million*million of us.

    And to heat the whole ocean, which NObody can measure, by only a teeny-weeny 0.001°C would take over 300 million*million*million of us.

    And that’s why I’ve suddenly become VERY important (along with my other Joules).

    I’ve even been called “a jewel”!

    Climate scientists need BIG numbers to show just how bad this global warming crisis REALLY is, and that’s where I come in.

    So, instead of telling the world that the upper ocean has warmed by 0.003°C over the past 10 years since ARGO started measuring (which would put everybody to sleep) the scientists can alert the world that it has warmed by 140 million million million Joules!

    Isn’t that nifty?

    I’m proud of my role in helping fight the war on global warming.

    It’s REALLY nice to be appreciated.

    Judy (the jolly Joule)

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  3. Thanks very much for this Mike.

    He ranks Rudolph Diesel right up there with Edison and Tesla in importance to civilization. he describes the diesel as an optimal engine which is the main driver of industrial civilization. He says electric replacements require too much material, which must be mined with diesel machines.

    I’ve not listened to the podcast (yet) but I did read one of Randall’s tweet threads last week, because of this from Matt Ridley

    Matt’s How Innovation Works – still recommended – emphases the importance of diesel but does not tease out all these very interesting and controversial implications.

    I was most impressed with the guy’s line of argument. Will watch.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I will watch but I didn’t get far in the noisy pub where the Spurs game was being broadcast! Instead, I tried to explore what BFR has been up to in creating such a stir on Twitter. I find it the most exciting set of ideas and engineering proposals that have been raised on Cliscep since June 2015. And the biggest impact on me personally is the idealism of Randall and Cal Abel (of whom more below):

    That doesn’t mean the energy engineering and economics are great too but my hunch is this is a case where the two do go together. And Randall points to important precedent:

    And this leads him straight to Mr Abel and his forgoing of potentially massive economic reward:

    Cal Abel’s latest thread, written at Randall’s request, starts here

    And people are also working for free in making their ideas more joined up and widely available

    And then no doubt questioned and criticised at all kinds of levels. Quite rightly.

    Enjoyable.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. There’s lot’s of good stuff here, but the key take away for me was this sentence:

    Also, all this fuss about how best to generate electricity is misplaced because electricity is only about 15% of energy use.

    After decades and $£trillions, the developed world (never mind the rest of the world) has managed to reach the stage where perhaps, in those few countries where “renewables” are most entrenched, 40% of electricity, representing 15% of energy demand, is intermittently and expensively (because requiring gas back-up) produced by renewables. So, another 94% to go, and close to 100% in many countries. The low-hanging fruit has all been picked. Net zero gets a lot harder (and more expensive, and less convenient) from here.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Mark, as I’m sure you’ve picked up, in the designs of Randall and Abel the heat generated by nuclear can be used, among other things, to synthesize replacement fuels for diesel, which will keep our supertankers, steel furnaces etc. going without the need for any additional mining or CO2 emissions. It’s bound to be controversial (and embarrassing) to say we’ve been missing such a basic trick. Perhaps the old experts really weren’t. But it’s only right that they fight their corner, for the good of humanity

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Richard,

    Mea culpa. I have been away all day, have just read Mike’s piece, and haven’t yet watched the video. That’ll teach me to jump in with both feet!

    Like

  8. How odd when I worked for oil companies it was my belief that the jewels were natural gas (with loads of heavier hydrocarbons) or light, sweet gasolines, and not diesels. Both could be refined and processed easily, both had ready demands. Is my memory playing tricks with me ?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Yes Mike… a little matter of Civilisation.

    Thanks for the reference to exajoules and the wonderful Manacker, – and kim. Back in 2013 we could still be light hearted about the Climate Debate. Like Paris in Spring 1939, thought the barbarians were still outside the gate, – or the Maginot Line.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. What’s in a name? – Diesel or A(c)kroyd or Stuart?

    I had been investigating the relative working pressures of electrical machines and internal combustion engines when I chanced upon this story of a man from Halifax who probably deserves to be far better known …

    Perusing my copy of Rogers & Mayhew, “Engineering Thermodynamics” (4th edition) I came across a footnote on page 264 which says, “The name [i.e. Diesel] is strictly speaking a misnomer, because Diesel’s efforts were originally directed towards building an engine which would have the Carnot cycle as its equivalent air-standard cycle. Ackroyd Stuart was the first to build a successful engine working on the so-called Diesel cycle.”

    The History Press (https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/it-s-an-akroyd-not-a-diesel/) seems to agree, and even quotes the number of the seminal patent in 1890. However, there seems to be some disagreement as to whether the name Ackroyd is spelt with or without a ‘c’.

    Regards,
    John.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Alan,
    It seems that diesel is important, less on the production side and more on the number of uses it is put to that are vitally important to our curent societies.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Thanks, John. As The History Press article puts it

    It is time this English engineering genius is finally credited with the invention of what we have all come to refer to as the ‘diesel’ engine. It is not the ‘diesel’ engine, it is the Hornsby-Akroyd engine. And overall Herbert Akroyd Stuart was a genius of an engineer easily ranking alongside Sir Frank Whittle, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, George & Robert Stephenson and other such giants in the Hall of Fame of British technology. It is time we recognised his contribution to society.

    This kind of dispute about who invented what and who innovated what is very common in history. (I accept Ridley’s distinction between the two, and his claim that innovators should be more celebrated than they are, as those who make inventions practical, ultimately for the ordinary person.) The salient point today is that diesel engines run the modern world, especially world trade, and are needed for *mining* the scarce materials required by an “all-electric” future – meaning that future is an oxymoron!

    This is one of the key insights of Randall. Diesel, as things stand, we should be very careful to preserve. But the Natrium reactor, using molten salt as energy storage, based on Cal Abel’s unpatented designs, points the way to a much better future.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Thanks for that John. Never underestimate the importance of self promotion. I’ve recently been finding Thunderf00t’s videos on Elon Musk to be quite a revelation. You don’t get to be the richest guy in the world by being polite and self-effacing. Bill Gates is an interesting case. He’s a smart guy to be sure (and will probably get the credit if the Natrium catches on) but how did he get his start? He made a deal with IBM to produce an operating system and bought what would become DOS from someone else. He’s then known for copying Windows from Steve Job’s Macintosh which he copied from Xerox. Bill Gates is not so much the brilliant computer innovator as he is JR Ewing with a pocket protector.

    Like

  14. Gates didn’t do himself any favours in this interview on PBS last year.

    But one’s concern isn’t for the feelings of the multi-billionaire but those much more vulnerable.

    Like

  15. Alan K: “How odd when I worked for oil companies it was my belief that the jewels were natural gas (with loads of heavier hydrocarbons) or light, sweet gasolines, and not diesels. Both could be refined and processed easily, both had ready demands. Is my memory playing tricks with me ?”

    I have similar memories from my days studying ChemEng and a few years in the petrochem game. N.sea oil was likened to Golden Syrup and was said to be easier to extract, transport and refine.
    Also I would expect the demand for heavier crudes to have declined proportionately over the years with the abandonment of oil for power generation and heating and the recent switch away from diesel cars.
    However it is an extremely complex topic. Aiui, one of the causes of the possible diesel shortage in the US is simply a lack of refining capacity. No new refineries have been built for decades, some older units have closed, others have switched to different products (biofuels).

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Mikehig:

    Also I would expect the demand for heavier crudes to have declined proportionately over the years with the abandonment of oil for power generation and heating and the recent switch away from diesel cars.
    However it is an extremely complex topic.

    Hopefully I’m not labouring the point but the diesel engine (with apologies to Hornsby-Akroyd) and the jet engine are the key reasons for the ongoing demand for heavy crudes. The diesel engine generates much higher torque at lower rpm than the typical ICE and this is what sets it apart, whether in powering a supertanker or breaking and moving rock for Kennecott outside Salt Lake City. (I did a demo of a new software system at a global conference for Rio Tinto exploration geologists in 1991 in the Utah capital and was proudly taken to see the largest man-made excavation, and deepest open-pit copper mine in the world. It really wasn’t pretty but I was told it was one of the few man-made objects visible from space.)

    So much we take for granted in ‘civilisation’ can’t be produced without the diesel engine. This is what creates the bottleneck Randall is concerned about. At the end of the video Mike pointed to he asks for help from someone who knows about production of synthetic fuels. That might be a bit of a amber flag for his whole programme. But I’m grateful for what feels like a new and optimistic panorama of the energy/mining worlds.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Here’s a puff-piece about the Natrium project from someone who cares about the Wyoming economy, just like Randall, but doesn’t sound quite as clever!

    But sadly it’s been reported that Warren Buffett no longer even talks to Gates, after Melinda divorced him, due in no small measure to Gates not being up front about his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. Certainly Gates was removed from the board of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway in March 2020 (BBC) as various parts of the scandal had begun to break. More came out last year. This thread gives some of the grimy details.

    None of this of course means that Cal Abel’s designs used by Natrium aren’t every bit as much of a breakthrough for humanity as Randall and others think they are. Randall points to this explainer by Professor David Ruzik of the University of Illinois, which I found very helpful:

    And back to the money side, the cost of what is in effect a ‘prototype’ for fast fission combined with novel grid storage in the form of heat is a mere $1 billion, with the plant expected to ‘go live’ before 2030. And the US government has made a substantial contribution. That’s something it doesn’t tend to do for climate sceptics. Yet what would you call Dr Abel based on these tweets from Thursday?

    So in 2010 he spotted one of those ‘missing facts’ I have also been keen to identify in the Gore-Attenborough climate narrative. He then quotes my physics hero from Weston-super-Mare in explaining the basic constraints:

    By 1pm he is saying this about VRE (Variable Renewable Energy) – meaning wind and solar:

    I think we’d count him as one of our own by now.

    But the US government is helping to fund Natrium.

    Is it really that good? My hopes are higher than normal!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. One correction to my last comment. The $1 billion per Natrium plant is the final cost, after having created quite a few. What they call the ‘steady state’ price per reactor. The first one will be significantly more, making the US government help at this stage all the more important.

    Like

  19. Another note on the delivery of Tesla semis to Pepsi:

    I’ve noted that Thunderf00t has made claims that the Tesla semi will have a low weight hauling capability and cartons of Pepsi are pretty heavy. How can these claims be reconciled? I just found a tweet by Pepsico at 6 minutes into a YouTube video made by a couple Tesla fanboys.

    Frito-Lay is a company I normally associate with potato chip type snacks. Cartons of potato or corn chips are going to be mostly air (actually nitrogen to keep the snacks fresh). Of course I’m making some assumptions here, but it would explain a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. That’s a credible interpretation for me Mike. Is Elon Musk a willing party to such marketing puffery? I certainly wouldn’t rule that out. (Which is saying nothing against his genuine achievements, including in rocketry.) Business is business. But the unique properties of the diesel engine are not yet proven to have been superseded, to put it mildly. And that matters, looking forward.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Richard, I think on the basis of pure efficiency and torque, an electric motor is better than a diesel engine, hence we have trolley cars (where electric lines are practical) and diesel train locomotives actually use generators and electric motors. On a semi, it’s most likely a matter of the extra weight and expense (and probably other factors) of the battery. The diesel is for getting the optimal Carnot efficiency out of hydro carbon fuel.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. I tweeted to B. F. Randall and commented on his Substack about Herbert Akroyd Stuart. So John Cullen’s comment is almost certainly indirectly responsible for Randall’s interest.

    Liked by 1 person

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