From The Erbo Files
Friday, March 30, 2012

Over on Facebook, this little bit of feel-good liberal wankery is circulating: (transcribed)

Don't pump gas on April, 15 2012 [sic]

KEEP SENDING THIS Lets [sic] all try this, wonderful if it helps.

Il [sic] do it! If running low, just get your gas the day before on April 14 or the day after on April 16. Every little bit helps.

In April 1997, there was a "gas out" conducted nationwide in protest of gas prices. Gasoline prices dropped 30 cents a gallon overnight.

On April 15th 2011, all internet users are to not go to a gas station in protest of high gas prices. Gas is now over $1.20 a liter/$3.87 in most places.

If all users did not go to the pump on the 15th, it would take $2,292,000,000.00 (that's almost 3 BILLION) out of the oil companies [sic] pockets for just one day, so please do not go to the gas station on April 15th and let's try to put a dent in the Middle Eastern oil industry for at least one day.

How quaint...a boycott of gasoline, on Tax Day (or, for some, Buy a Gun Day), no less. Of course, if you do as they say and tank up on the 14th or the 16th, the oil companies will still get their money, as this MSNBC article debunking the whole concept tells us. The article's author points out that Department of Energy statistics show no evidence for the massive drop in gas prices in 1997 the aforementioned spam claims. (Given MSNBC's well-known liberal bias, the fact that they'd run this article is telling.)

As for myself...well, I only generally fill up once a week, so there's a 86% chance I won't be buying gas on April 15th, "boycott" or no. But, if I have to fill up that day, I won't let some anonymously-circulated, semiliterate piece of liberal propaganda stand in the way of my having a working car. Funny how, you know, having an actual job that you have to get to on a daily basis changes your perspective on this, now, doesn't it?

Now, if the liberals are reading this, they would probably say something like, "Well, why don't you just take the bus/light rail/bicycle to work?" Sure, I could do that...except that any of those solutions would take at least twice as long, and maybe three times as long or longer, as driving myself. My time is a valuable resource, too, you know! I have chosen one of the classic tradeoffs of money (in the form of gas) for time here...and if you know anything about engineering, you'll know it's all about tradeoffs.

(Speaking to bicycling in particular, I have hard numbers on this from Google Maps. My home to IQNavigator is 7.3 miles over surface streets, i.e., not on I-25. They time that route as 20 minutes by car...and 54 minutes by bicycle. I'd be spending over an hour a day extra if I tried to commute by that route...a full 1/24th of my precious life's hours. Remember, folks, you can frequently make more money, but, no matter how rich you are, there are still only 24 hours per day. Puts it in perspective, doesn't it?)

. . .

There's one aspect of that little missive that does potentially have a point...the point about the "Middle Eastern oil industry."

Why do we bring in all that oil from the Middle East, anyway? Could it be because the liberal envirowackos--the same kind of well-meaning fools who are circulating the "Don't Pump Gas" screed--have, through their wholly-owned subsidiary the National Socialist Democrat Workers' Party, made it damn near impossible to drill for oil in this country? Colorado, for instance, has an awful lot of oil shale out on the Western Slope...and, if it were allowed to be extracted, not only would it keep us from having to import as much oil from overseas, the royalties from oil production would go a long way towards shoring up the state's budget woes. (Not that we want to encourage the clown car we call "the General Assembly" to spend more money, mind you...)

Instead, we trade off drilling here for drilling there...and any environmental damage that might happen as a result happens to "the little brown people" in Saudi Arabia, etc., not us. And they get the money, too...which they, in turn, spend on terrorist groups that would like to see us wiped off the face of the Earth.


. . .

But it doesn't have to be this way...and, if you read Karl Denninger (and if you don't, why the hell not?!?), you'll know there's a way forward.

Did you know that the United States has even more in the way of coal reserves than we do in oil? And did you know that one of the primary impurities in coal is thorium? And did you know that thorium can be used as fuel in nuclear reactors--reactors of a vastly different type than we have now?

Liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs) are not new; the technology behind them was successfully demonstrated at Oak Ridge Laboratories in the 1960's. The only reason we didn't pursue them back then was that they breed fuel very slowly, and the fuel they produce is very difficult to extract for making nuclear weapons. Sounds like a big plus in this day and age, doesn't it?

LFTRs are also inherently safer than other nuclear reactors. The reactor does not require high pressure; the fluid it uses is a liquid at atmospheric pressure and its normal operating temperature. The reactor literally cannot suffer a Fukushima-type meltdown, as there are no fuel rods to melt down; the fuel and the coolant are the same fluid, circulating through the fixed moderators in the reactor core vessel. This fluid is kept in the reactor by an actively-cooled "freeze plug"; if the reactor loses power, the plug melts, and the fluid drains out of the core into holding tanks below, where it cools and solidifies, as it cannot maintain criticality outside the reactor vessel. They tested this safety feature of LFTRs at Oak Ridge, too--they literally turned off the power and went home for the weekend!

LFTRs also operate at a much higher temperature than regular reactors, around 650 degrees Fahrenheit. This has several advantages; for one, we can use air-cooled combined-cycle generating turbines, for instance, instead of water-cooled Rankine-cycle turbines that require access to large amounts of water. But the big advantage is that we can tap that process heat directly--and use it to run the Fischer-Tropsch process, to convert the coal we extracted the thorium fuel from into synthetic petroleum. This is also not new technology; the Germans were using it in World War II, and the process has been refined (no pun intended) somewhat since then.

By many estimates, the potential energy in the thorium impurities in coal amounts to thirteen times the amount of energy we could get from just burning the coal. So why do we still burn it?

Instead, we could take that coal, extract the thorium, use it to run LFTRs, and use the heat generated by the LFTRs both to run turbines to generate electricity, and to run the Fischer-Tropsch process to convert the remaining coal into petroleum. We could literally replace all our gasoline and diesel fuel requirements this way, ending imports of foreign oil. A second-order effect of this is that we could shrink our military expenditures, as a large portion of our military power goes into making sure we have access to foreign oil. We might be able to cut the amount we need to spend on the military in half this way.

In addition, this way, we don't have to replace our fleet of cars and trucks with hybrids, electric cars, cars that run on hydrogen and/or ethanol, etc. Despite any faults, liquid hydrocarbons are still the most effective fuel for mobile use that we have, both in terms of energy density (both per-unit mass and per-unit volume) and in terms of the energy and expenditures required to make the propulsion systems (internal-combustion engines vs. battery packs, etc.). But, though we're still "burning" our coal, in the form of synthetic petroleum, we're not burning the oil we would have imported but aren't any longer! So we're getting both electricity and transportation, but we're doing it with only half the carbon emissions as before (approximately). Put it that way, and I don't see why the Glowbull Wormening fanatics aren't all over this plan!* (Nuclear waste, you say? LFTRs produce a hell of a lot less waste than other nuclear reactors...they tend to "burn up" their own waste over time, and the fuel/coolant mix can be continuously reprocessed without producing weaponizable byproducts.)

We also wind up with dramatically more electrical power than we would have had by burning the coal--and that's after taking into account the energy expenditures required to produce the synthetic petroleum. So there'd be plenty of energy available to charge up electric cars, or electrolyze water into hydrogen, if you still wanted an electric or hydrogen car for some reason. More energy available equals more economic output...equals more prosperity.

How long could we sustain this, with our proven coal reserves? At least two centuries, even accounting for population growth and assuming no drop in per-capita energy use. At our rate of technological progress, we'll have figured out hydrogen fusion in far less time. (Hell, Star Trek: Enterprise posits that we'll have warp drive before then. I wouldn't go that far, but we're certainly not just going to stand still.)

There are engineering challenges to be solved along this path, to be sure. But no breakthroughs of technology are required, just refinements on what we already know. We can make this work, and do so at a reasonably-competitive price. We can have vastly more energy, keep our cars, and go tell the "weird beards" of the Middle East that they can damned well drink their oil...but, if they try any more shenanigans with us, the retribution that will follow will rank among the great retributions of human history.

What's the tradeoff? Mostly, we have to have the political will to do it...and that means potentially pissing off not only the aforementioned envirowacko contingent, but those companies that are already making comfortable money off the existing energy non-policy. (I'd say, get them on the same side by letting them run the reactors...there'd be profit to be made there.)

Unfortunately, that's a tradeoff our spineless, gutless politicians on both sides of the aisle are unwilling to make.

(Go search Denninger's site for "thorium," "LFTR," or "energy." He's written a lot more about this, that defies easy summary.)

* - Actually, I do.  This plan doesn't allow them to redistribute the wealth of the world from "evil" countries like the United States to all those "deserving poor" elsewhere, while skimming off any amount they like to enrich themselves, and exercising all the political power that goes with it.  But that's kind of beside the point.

Copyright © 2012 Eric J. Bowersox, All Rights Reserved.
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