Cutting edge, algal bio-sequestration, to be implemented at Bayswater, coal power station to convert effluent into biofuels

Algae Tec banner - Source Algae Tec


A world-first, biological, carbon capture plant is potentially on the horizon to clean up coal power station effluent.  This technology, if successful, could be a game changer for energy production: “clean” coal power coupled with renewable petrol production.  How close are we to fulfilling that dream?

Algae.Tec will provide the algae-based bioreactors; Bayswater Power Station will provide the Carbon Dioxide food to drive the reaction.  It’s a win-win, Algae.Tec primarily finance the project by creating renewable diesel or jet fuel, Bayswater benefit from reduced Carbon Tax liabilities.

Bayswater power station will see some of its carbon dioxide emissions captured on site and fed into sealed tanks packed with algae.

The algae – essentially a form of vegetable oil – will then be harvested and processed at a nearby facility into fuel for sale.


President Obama

President Obama claims algal bio-sequestration could potentially be one of the most productive ways to address our fuel needs as the price of gas continues to rise.

Jerry Ellis (Chairman of MBD Energy and former Chairman of BHP)

Jerry Ellis claims algal bio-sequestration is uneconomic, but could be useful in treating agricultural, domestic and industrial waste water.  It is still an unproven technology; a work-in-progress.


In summary, if the chairman of the main competitor to Algae. Tec and former Chairman of BHP, Jerry Ellis, doesn’t currently back this horse, it is probably a filly to look out for in the future, but be perhaps stabled in the present.


Detailed analysis…

The NSW government – Algae Tec. agreement

Bayswater Power Station Bayswater power station - ABC News

On Jul 2nd ‘13, it was announced that the development of an algal, biofuel farm at Macquarie Generation power station had been agreed by all concerned parties.  The plan has earned the backing of the federal and state governments, and Macquarie Generation, the NSW state-owned power generator that operates Bayswater.  The news of this AUD$140 million development has created some significant hype about the prospects of this burgeoning technology.  Should we be taking more than just an onlooker’s interest in this “sustainable”, biofuel source and waste management technology?

The deal involves Macquarie Generation providing land for the biofuels plant, an endless supply of water, CO2 and electricity, and the possibility of carbon abatement credits…  Algae.Tec will on-sell the processed fuel.

The first phase of the project between Algae.Tec and Mac Gen will be a 400-module facility, which is a large scale up from Algae.Tec’s one-module, proof-of-concept facility in Nowra.   The current, project cost for Phase 1 is estimated at A$140 million and construction is slated to begin next year.  Each module is a bioreactor tank, about the size of shipping containers, which are designed to grow non-GMO algae on an industrial scale for biofuel production to replace fossil fuels.  A major goal of the algal farming industry is to successfully achieve algal bioremediation of industrial emissions, for environmental gain and the sustainable production of valuable products.  Bioremediation is the use of micro-organisms, in this case, algae, to metabolise and thus neutralise pollutants.  Of particular interest to Algae.Tec and Mac Gen are the removal of pollutants from the effluent water and the reduction of gas, flue emissions, specifically CO2 sequestration.

Bayswater now pumps out about 19 million tonnes of carbon dioxide gas a year; the project (Phase 1) will purportedly capture about 270,000 tonnes of that CO2.  Bayswater’s owner Macquarie Generation said that a successful algae fuel plant would help to reduce a carbon tax bill expected to top $500million this year (270M, CO2 tonnes x $24.15 Carbon price = $6MM tax abatement).

The project is particularly valuable to Mac Gen as it reduces their Carbon Tax liability and cleans up their ash dam, effluent water.  But, it is also valuable to their partner, Algae.Tec, as the resulting algal oil, a form of vegetable oil, will be converted to biodiesel and hydrogenated to grade A jet fuel at a new biofuels production facility, while waste, vegetable, biomass matter will be converted into pellets for cattle feed.
 Algal biosequestration - AngloAmerican


The Hype

  • Algae.Tec says: “In what is said by Algae.Tec to be a world first, carbon dioxide emissions from the power station will be pumped into the facility where the algae will feed on it and convert it into algal oil.”
    • Partly right: eg MBD Energy have had an analogous, though test, project at Tarong since 2011.  In addition, as far back as 2009 the USA was thinking the same, but failed (see “GreenFuel Technologies”).


  • Russell Skelton, Macquarie Generation CEO, says: “[Algae.Tec] new technology is improving a traditional power plant. Carbon is now our single largest cost. This technology should reduce our carbon output, reduce our carbon bill, and at the same time improve our bottom line.”
    •  Partly right: this assumes a $24.15 a metric tonne carbon price still exists, which no longer is the case and is unlikely to return since both Political parties are against the Carbon Tax.


  • Roger Stroud, Algae.Tec executive chairman, says:
    • “At a time when all the petroleum refining capacity is closing down in NSW, this is the beginning of an era of renewable fuel which can be ‘grown’ in the state and can substitute imported petroleum products.”
    • “The Algae.Tec project will make a “small but measurable difference” to Bayswater’s greenhouse gas emissions” (“small” =  1.4% (270M / 19 MM tonnes) of CO2 emissions at a cost of $140MM)
    • “The Algae.Tec solution requires less than one-tenth the land footprint of pond growth options, while its enclosed module system is designed to deliver the highest yield of algae per hectare, and solves the problem of food-producing land being turned over for biofuel production”
    • “this deal reflects a genuine desire on the part of the NSW Government and the NSW power industry, to support solutions to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuelled power stations”


  • Chris Hartcher, NSW Energy Minister, says: “This deal is an innovative means of capturing and reusing carbon emissions and providing the Hunter region with a locally produced green fuel source,”
    • A win for NSW government:  “The deal is a win for the state government on several fronts. Carbon is now MacGen’s single largest cost, and its capture will reduce the group’s carbon bill and improve its bottom line. Petroleum refining capacity is declining in NSW following Caltex’s decision to shift towards fuel imports, and the biofuel produced at Bayswater can feed immediately into fuel demand from the industry-heavy Hunter region. The region has also seen the loss of many jobs over past years, and the Algae.Tec plant will create around 60 new jobs initially, rising into the hundreds as expansion plans are implemented. Finally, the NSW government has an opportunity to revive its “green” credentials.”


The Algae.Tec, algal, photosynthetic process

The heart of the algal, bioremediative process is the most important biochemical process in nature, photosynthesis.  Photosynthesis produces sugar: nature’s primary source of energy.  It converts the sun’s power in the form of light into a physical state that can be used as a source of energy for growth and repair.  It just happens it requires carbon dioxide (CO2) and water, and has oxygen as a by-product.  The Algae.Tec, algal, photosynthetic process is specifically interested in the CO2 requirement as this is a means of fixing carbon and thus preventing its emission as a gas into the atmosphere and thus minimises anthropogenic, CO2-based, Global Warming.  The Sugar is also useful to Algae.Tec as it can be harvested for economic gain to help fund the project.  In algae, as opposed to land-based crops, this simple sugar is often converted and stored as complex, high energy, lipid oils.  After tricky, algae “harvesting” (separation from water) these lipids can then be converted to Biodiesel + Jet Fuel + Ethanol (at a very reasonable, but controversial, $44/barrel according to Algae.Tec) and the left-over biomass can be used as animal feed.  The latter conversion involves “extraction” (extracting oil and other components from the algal biomass) and “refining” the ultimate products from those precursors (such as the transesterification of oils to produce biodiesel).



Photosynthesis - wiki


  • Light = very intense sunlight (can be problematic in intensive, algal farming)
  • C6H12O6 represents carbohydrates such as sugars, cellulose, and lignin, but in algae are often converted to lipid oils.
  • NB many other nutrients are found in coal, water effluent (eg macronutrients: nitrate, phosphate; micronutrients: trace metals) that are also needed for algal growth.


Project Financing

Algae.Tec will supply the algae production modules at an expected cost for the initial 400 of $140m.  The company expects to recoup costs within 3-4 years.  The plan thereafter is to increase the size of the facility to 2000 modules, with a goal of reaching 20,000 modules by 2020.  For initial funding, the company is currently anticipating a US bond issue and does not expect to require further equity raising at this stage.  Assisting the funding requirement is a 45 cents in the dollar tax rebate from the federal government on profits from biofuel production. The then NSW Energy Minister, Chris Hartcher, announced the deal, and the company is also hopeful of additional state government funding support.  Newspaper sources claim that Algae.Tec still needs to raise some funds to get the project underway.  The details of who’s actually paying what is not completely clear.

Algae.Tec has engaged energy services specialist Worley Parsons as contractor for construction of the facility.  Funding is expected to be secured within six to nine months at which point the requisite pre-feasibility study will be completed and permits secured.  Construction is expected to be completed by the June quarter 2014 with first biofuel production anticipated by end-2014.

Algae.Tec Share price

Algae.Tec started in 2007 and is listed on the Australian stock exchange.

Its shares have fallen from 30¢ at the start of the year to 17¢ last week, before rebounding to more than 22¢ this week.

Algae.Tec listed in 2011 on a 20cps offer price and peaked at over 60c in early 2012 on positive news flow. As is the fate of many innovative start-ups, early price jumps provided attractive exit levels for seed investors and initial newsflow gave way to quiet periods as new deals, such as Bayswater, underwent negotiations, leading to waning investor interest. The shares have since drifted back to 20c (a week after the Bayswater announcement) and by Feb’14 they have slipped to 15c.

Algae Tec share price - Commsec


Algal bioremediation is not a new concept and many other companies are also trying to push the lab concept into a viable, industrial-scaled development:

  • MBD Energy
  • MBD Energy are ahead in the algal, space race as they, since Jan 2013, actually have a “currently functioning”, pilot project downstream of a coal power plant, “Tarong Algal Synthesiser Display Plant Project”.  This is a collaboration with the plant’s owners, Stanwell Corp.  It also uses coal waste in the form of ash dam water and flue gas to grow algae that is then harvested, i.e. separated from the water, using OriginOil’s “Electro Water Separation” technique.  Algae are very small and thus light.  Gravity has little effect on them, centrifuges are largely ineffectual and a great deal of electricity is required to remove organics from their aqueous, growing environment.  The Tarong facility also aims to clean the ash dam water of its contaminants and self-fund through biofuel and animal feed production.
  • “From 2014, one or more of these Algal Synthesisers [only Tarong one was built, planned Eraring and Loy Yang pilot plants never happened] may then be progressively expanded to some thousands of hectares”.  MBD has considerable investment backing.  But, as of today, they have not gone to Phase 2 of their pilot project, in which they intended to expand their Display Project to a fully-fledged commercial facility at Tarong Power.
  • MBD claim they can bioremediate (i.e. remove pollutants) up to 50% of all CO2 emissions a coal power station.  This is limited to the fact that coal stations fire 24/7 whilst algae only grow during daylight.
  • MBD have had quite a lot of press (National Press Club, ABC News, Channel 7 News, Boardroom TV) and have their lead researcher, Dr Kirsten Heimann, at James Cook University, Townsville.  Lead investors include Anglo-American Coal and Sentient.  They are looking for Clean Energy Fund funding and have already received from the Australian government’s CRC a grant of $5.4MM.  They have spent a total of $30MM thus far in R&D.  They claim they, not Algae.Tec, are the first in Australia, but not world, to use algae bioremediation in combination with power plant effluent.
  • They claim 1MM tonnes of CO2 can produce $250MM of animal feed and biodiesel.


  • Pacific Reef Fisheries, Australia
    • Partnered with MBD, have a sea lettuce farm running off prawn farm effluent
  • SunEco Energy, USA
    • Fish farm based, test, open system, biodiesel reactor in Arkansas since 2011
  • Valcent Products, Canada
    • Closed system, test reactor in Vancouver
  • San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, USA
    • University scale, test reactor in Imperial Valley, California
  • Green Star Products, USA
    • In 2009, Planning a 90 reactor project with De Beers in S. Africa (not made still in 2013)
  • GreenFuel Technologies, USA
    • In 2009, the Harvard-MIT algae company winds down after spending millions and experiencing delays, technical difficulties.
    • GreenFuel Technologies, one of the earliest, best funded and most publicized algae companies, is shutting its doors
    • Getting the whole thing to run smoothly, though, was tougher than expected. GreenFuel could grow algae. The problem was controlling it. In 2007, a project to grow algae in an Arizona greenhouse went awry when the algae grew faster than they could be harvested and died off. The company also found its system would cost more than twice its target.
    • Power Station smokestack model
    • Had a test bioreactor at Redhawk Coal Power Station in California in 2007
  • Sapphire Energy, USA
    • Non-power station, open system
    • From 2012, $50 million grant from the Department of Energy and a $54.4 million dollar loan guarantee from the Department of Agriculture, providing security for a privately funded loan
    • “The world’s first commercial demonstration scale algae-to-energy farm, integrating the entire value chain of algae-based crude oil production, from cultivation, to production, to extraction of ready-to-refine Green Crude”



  • Jerry Ellis (Chairman of MBD Energy and former Chairman of BHP):
    • Uneconomic (NPV negative), but could be used to treat agricultural, domestic and industrial waste water.
    • Unproven technology, a work-in-progress.
  • Dr. Heimann (lead researcher for MBD Energy and at James Cook University):
    • System optimisation (esp. Harvesting) are limiting factors
    • Variety choice is crucial.  Algae must grow fast, have high lipid yield and be predator resistant
  • Stephen Mayfield  (PhD Chairman, Sapphire Energy and Director of San Diego Centre for Algae Biotechnology):
    • Currently, too expensive as a biofuel.  Needs to be 5x cheaper (at least) to compete with crude oil.
    • However, could be made economically viable, not purely as a biofuel, but co-harvesting for nutraceuticals (omega 3 fatty acids, antioxidants) and protein-based pharmaceuticals (normally made very expensively in bacteria)
  • Rex Tillerson (Chief Executive of Exxon Mobil):
    • An array of proposals is being developed around the globe (see “Competitors” below).  But few if any projects appear to have been commercially successful despite substantial research and development spending.
    • In March’13, Exxon Mobil chief executive said it might take 25 years to make algae biofuels commercially successful.
    • Weeks later, Exxon said it was going back to the “basic science” of algae after spending $100 million in four years without success.
  • Tim Liebert (lead process engineer at world’s largest biodiesel plant in Kuantan, Malaysia)
    • Biodiesel would have to sell for over $800 per barrel for a coal plant bioreactor to be economic
    • Calling it unproven technology understates its problems
    • There is no reasonable scenario that would cause either the capital cost or the efficiency of CO2 mitigation to significantly improve
    • The strong interest in CO2 to algae results from it alleged photosynthesis conversion efficiency of as much as 12%.  This is 120 x the average of all biomass; hence, the stampede of interest, research capital and press coverage. However, the only long term study conducted by NREL of algae farms resulted in an average efficiency of about 1.3%.
  • Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (which actively includes MBD Energy):
    • Bioreactors are used for the production of high-value products such as pharmaceuticals and enzymes (values >$100,000 per tonne). They are currently too expensive for the production of algal nutraceuticals such as astaxanthin(>$10,000 per tonne) and almost all experienced expert advice suggests that photo-bioreactors will not be cost-effective for the production of low-value biofuels (>$1000 per tonne) in the foreseeable future (as of Aug’12).
  • Mackinnon Lawrence (Of Counsel at Cleantech Law Partners):
    • The primary obstacle is Cost Parity with petroleum-based fuels, which can vary considerably across different production processes.  Algae holds great promise, but the break-even point is predicted to still be about five to fifteen years away.
    • Secondary obstacles include the energy balance related to produce algae fuel and over-hype, which can create unrealistic expectations among investors.

The pros and cons of algae as a biofuel


  • Compared to terrestrial crops such as corn, soy or even palm plants, algae are far more oil-rich and offer a higher yield of oil per unit of land in a year.  The main components of algae are carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids. Of particular interest are the lipids, which can be processed into valuable fuel products such as biodiesel (through transesterification), jet fuel, and even traditional gasoline and diesel depending on the species.  Lipids produced from algae contain saturated and polar lipids, which are suitable for use as a fuel feedstock and are contained in higher concentrations than other plants.  In some species, 50% of algae weight can be deemed high grade vegetable oil (no land plant can compete with this)
    • Estimated, Green Crude, Gallons, per acre, per year: 700 Palm Oil : 10,000 algae
    • Efficiencies of biosequestration by technology
  • Doesn’t need to use currently cultivated, good farming land or a clean, non-saline, water supply.
  • Synergy with current farms: eg dairy farmers effluent stream can be fed to algae that clean the water and can be harvested for cow feed / biofuel
  • Ultra-fast growing (can double weight in 24hrs) and 10x the CO2 sequestering efficiency (rate) compared to land-based plants
  • Many varieties with many harvestable products (in particular respect to biofuels, length of carbon chain in lipids)
  • Algae fuels are lipid-based and thus are generally considered “fungible” with petroleum (drop-in compatible) and can be used for the production of typical fuels without disruptive changes in processes or infrastructure.  Land plants (such as corn / sugar cane) produce hydrocarbon based biomass and thus must be fermented to water-rich ethanol.  This leads to engine rust, has a heavy CO2 budget and adds considerable cost to the manufacturing process.


  • Contaminant (eg predators such as the bacteria, protozoa or water fleas) prevention (esp. in open systems) is difficult and can expensively wipe out whole colonies (see GreenFuel Technologies bankruptcy)
  • Microalgae are very small.  Thus, gravity and centrifuging is largely ineffective in harvesting process.  More expensive technologies are required (see OriginOil’s “Electro Water Separation”)
  • Farming technologies are complicated, in developmental stage and hard to scale up.
  • Biomass waste used for animal feed has limited success as:
    • Animal feed, as animals soon refuse it as iodine is too high
    • Human food, as algae often feeds on contaminated, industrial/agricultural waste



In summary, if the chairman of the main competitor to Algae. Tec and former Chairman of BHP, Jerry Ellis, doesn’t currently back this horse, it is probably a filly to look out for in the future, but be perhaps stabled in the present.



Who is Algae.Tec?

Algae.Tec Ltd, founded in 2007, is an Australian, advanced, renewable oil from algae, company that has developed a high-yield enclosed algae growth and harvesting system, the “McConchie-Stroud” System.  The Company has offices in Atlanta, Georgia and Perth, Western Australia. The Algae.Tec bioreactor, an enclosed modular engineered technology, is designed to grow non-GMO algae on an industrial scale, and produce biofuels that replace predominantly imported fossil fuels. The Algae.Tec solution is less than one tenth the land footprint of pond growth options, while its enclosed module system is designed to deliver the highest yield of algae per hectare, and solves the problem of food-producing land being turned over for biofuel production.

They currently have a one-module, test facility in Nowra, NSW and proposed facilities in Holcim, Sri Lanka and possibly in China, Germany and USA.

Types of bioreactor: open vs. closed system

There are therefore many different photo-bioreactor designs in the literature. The strengths and weaknesses of each design:

Open system, ponds:

  • Large scale possible
  • Subject to contamination from predator algae strains
  • Subject to evaporative water and CO2 loss to the atmosphere
  • Difficult to control temperature (day vs. night, seasonal variations)
  • Small biomass concentration (1g/litre)
  • Require a large amount of nutrients

Closed system, photo-bioreactors:

  • Have no contamination and can cultivate a single algal species
  • Allow accurate control of nutrients and temperature
  • Allow a higher biomass concentration
  • Have larger energy consumption
  • Have higher capital costs, potentially doubling the final cost of algae product relative to open pond systems


“Essential Reading”

The Lowdown of the state-of-play in a couple of min. from the horses mouths:

By Jerry Ellis, Chairman of MBD Energy (and former Chairman of BHP) + Dr. Heimann (the lead researcher): 11min – 13min (end)

 Very eloquent science roundup: Algae Biofuels and Biotech

By Stephen Mayfield, UC San Diego

 How the Technology Works – algae to biofuels

By Algae.Tec, Australia

Posted in Biofuels | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Graphene – the material to transform battery technology

Graphene BannerInnovation in battery technology will (eventually) revolutionise Energy supply in the world.  Adding it to rooftop, solar, Photo Voltaic (PV) systems and providing a “clean”, firm, stable energy supply is just one small example of the potential of next Gen batteries.

To achieve cheap, high capacity, fast charge/discharge batteries (aka supercapacitors ) is the Holy Grail of energy supply.  Nothing new in that, true.

However, there may be real solution on the near horizon…

Graphene is the answer (it seems)

High-performance supercapacitors made of graphene can be now manufactured to store almost as much energy as the gold standard, lithium-ion battery. They can surpass Lithium in a number of crucial ways though.  They charge and discharge in seconds (not the current hours) and maintain all this over many tens of thousands of charging cycles.  Graphene is also derived from cheap as chips Graphite – not pricey Lithium metal.

So is Graphine just a pipe dream? Well, supposedly not:

  • “Graphene Supercapacitors Ready for Electric Vehicle Energy Storage, Say Korean Engineers” – MIT Technology Review
  • “Graphene supercapacitors created with ‘traditional paper making’ process, rivals lead-acid battery capacity” – ExtremeTech

Tech spec
Graphene is a two dimensional material consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb or chicken wire structure. It is the thinnest material known and yet is also one of the strongest. It conducts electricity as efficiently as copper and outperforms all other materials as a conductor of heat.Graphene 3D illustration

There are some real system security problems arising from large Solar PV (and Wind) penetration into the energy supply mix.  They produce “dirty”, volatile power.

These problems will largely be solved by firming up the Renewables-derived power – batteries (small in the case of PV systems, or large at a grid level) could be the answer?

Posted in Cost of Energy, Solar Panels | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Nervous System

What makes us tick?  Hopefully, there aren’t too many “nervous ticks” involved, but the nerves are central to who we are.  They are signal pathways and, when combined into interwoven bundles, are control centres.

A few days ago a gentleman, who was giving our company an interesting talk on the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol on performance, asked for a few details of the nervous system.  So, I thought a simplified summary of the whole nervous system (both Central and Peripheral) could be just the ticket…

The Nervous System

The Nervous System is your body’s decision and communication centre. The Central Nervous System (CNS) is made up of the brain and the spinal cord whereas the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) is made up of nerves (neurons). Together they control every part of your daily life, from breathing and blinking to helping you memorize facts for a test. Nerves reach from your brain to your face, ears, eyes, nose, and spinal cord… and from the spinal cord to the rest of your body. Sensory nerves gather information from the environment, send that info to the spinal cord, which then speed the message to the brain. The brain then makes sense of that message and fires off a response. Motor neurons deliver the instructions from the brain to the rest of your body. The spinal cord, made of a bundle of nerves running up and down the spine, is similar to a superhighway, speeding messages to and from the brain at every second.

Central Nervous System vs Peripheral Nervous System

Sources: Brain, Brain, Autonomic Sites, Nerves

Central Nervous System

This consists of 2 structures: the brain and spinal cord. Different sections of the brain regulate and control various regions of our bodies.  The main ones are:

  • Cerebrum (or brain) is divided into two regions, or “hemispheres”, that are connected by an information highway, the corpus callosum.  Often the right hemisphere is associated with creativity, whereas the left is associated with logic.
  • Cerebellum (or “little brain”) regulates the coordination of movement and balance.
  • Brain stem controls vital, life support, involuntary activities (breathing and heart rate).

– Each half of the Cerebrum is further divided into four different lobes:

  • Frontal lobe is the higher, control centre where consciousness lies and is involved in problem solving.
  • Parietal lobe perceives stimuli such as taste and somatosensory (touch) as well as aiding speech and reading.
  • Occipital lobe is devoted to the most information intensive sense of all, vision.
  • Temporal lobe controls hearing and speech, as well as being involved in the integration of 2 or more senses into a meaningful concept (Gestalt).

Peripheral Nervous System

This consists of sensory and motor nerves, whereby the sensory carry information to the CNS, whilst the motor carry information away from the CNS. It can be divided into the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and the Somatic System.  The former regulates involuntary, subconscious activities such smooth muscle tone, the heart rate and digestion, whilst the latter controls voluntary, skeletal, muscle movement. The Autonomic Nervous System can be further divided into the Sympathetic and the Parasympathetic systems.  These work in a complimentary manner and are 2 halves of control processes that maintain optimal, body conditions (homeostasis).

  • Sympathetic response prepares us for “fight or flight”, which is most commonly known for its increased heart rate, dilated bronchial muscles, increased blood pressure, and digestive slowdown.
  • Parasympathetic response is described as “rest and digest”, which  promotes energy conservation such as a slower heart rate, decreased blood pressure, and bronchial muscle and urinary bladder constriction.


Further Reading

Dustin Curtis is a neuroscientist turned graphic designer and his web site combines the best of both these worlds: interesting concepts of the brain and stunning visuals, Check it out.

Posted in Biology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster – Japan’s very own inevitable “Chernobyl”?

The Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant (Fukushima Dai-ichi in Japanese), is a nuclear power plant located on the Pacific facing, east side of Japan.  It was first commissioned in 1967, which means it is pretty old by nuclear power plant standards, on the verge of decommissioning.  Thus, design and safety standards would likely not be as high as modern nuclear plants.  With six separate generating units located on its site, it has a combined power of 4.7 GW.  This is big and makes Fukushima I one of the 15 largest nuclear power stations in the world.  By way of reference to other “green” energy projects, it provides the equivalent capacity of the ground-breaking Snowy Hydro Scheme in Australia that took 100,000 people 25 years to make.

Source: Model

The Japan earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit on March 11, 2011 was the fourth most powerful ever recorded with a magnitude of 9.1, twice more powerful than the initial estimate of 8.9.  The plant has suffered major damage from the quake disabling the reactor cooling systems and triggering a widespread evacuation surrounding the plant. Three others that were more powerful since the late 1800s when seismometers started measuring ground motions were in 9.5 in Chile in 1960, 9.2 in Alaska in 1964 and 9.1 in Sumatra in 2004.  However, this was still an extraordinarily large quake and resulting tsunami.  Neither of which the Fukushima power station was designed to withstand.  This may seem a bizarre design-limitation considering the locales geology and the major fault lines that surround the area.

Sources: Nuclear Plant locations, Fault lines, Satellite map

Unit 1 was designed for a quake’s peak ground acceleration of 1.7m/s2.  All units were inspected after the 1978 Miyagi earthquake when the ground acceleration was 1.2m/s2, but no damage to the critical parts of the reactor was discovered. However, this month’s Sendai earthquake recorded a ground acceleration of 3.43 m/s2 near the epicenter.  Though, the actual measure of ground acceleration at the Fukushima site is not yet known.  It is highly likely the earthquake exceeded Fukushima Daiichi’s design strength by a long margin.  It is also worth noting, that whether most of the damage was done by the quake or by the Tsunami still remains to be ascertained.

Sources: Satellite map

Japan has been subjected to one other significant nuclear power plant outage due to the vagaries of the Earth in the last 50 years.  This is hardly surprising due to the fact that it is situated on a very tectonically active zone.  On July 16 2007, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, which is on the opposite side of Japan, had to close 3 out of 7 reactors after a 6.8 magnitude quake caused a fire, minor radioactive leaks and dozens of other malfunctions.  It is interesting to note that both power stations were only designed to survive much smaller quakes.  Questions have to be asked whether Japan’s nuclear power stations have been systematically underspeced with regards to safety.  Are they robust enough to survive the somewhat inevitable quakes, and big ones at that?  In addition, the sea walls at Fukushima were seen to be grossly negligent with regards to tsunami, wave reflection.  They were incapable of withstanding the presumed, 15m wave.

Were the Fukushima and Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plants really designed to withstand the outliers in the geological, disaster distribution, a “1 in 1000 year” event?  That is rare, very rare, too rare to be reasonably accounted for?  Can our engineers be expected to account for them in their design and make a project economically viable?  That is a tough question to ask.  How long is a piece of string and how rare is unreasonably rare?  But, when you take the globe as a whole, these “1 in 1000 year” events occur somewhere quite often. Furthermore, quakes and tsunamis bigger that Fukushima’s have happened before even in Japan and they will happen again.  When designing a nuclear power station, should you not raise the bar to account for these seriously unlikely, but still plausible events?

Building nuclear power stations on the coast at a major fault line; Risky business?  Was this just a disaster waiting to happen?

Thus, should we ditch nuclear?

Nuclear has its dangers, we can add Fukushima to the 2 previous, famous disasters: Three Mile Island, which contrary to popular perception lead to no deaths, and Chernobyl, constructed in the low-tech, low-maintenance, Soviet era of the ‘70s.  All major industrial works are dangerous.  India’s Bhopal disaster, at the Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plan, which many of us have forgotten about, was way worse in both its short and long term consequences.  If you play with fire, you’ll eventually get burnt.  But, if Man never played with fire we would still be living in caves, not planning inter-stellar travel.  14% of the world’s energy comes from nuclear and, in the grand scheme of things, the safety, track record is exemplary and will only get better as designs become intrinsically safer and safer.  The Pros and Cons debate of nuclear as a leading, energy source is massive and I’ll leave that for a rainier day.  Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that however much Fukushima is a terrible disaster with a death toll of 14,000 and rising, these deaths were by the tsunami, not by the nuclear power station.  The co-incidence leads us to believe that there is a causality between the two.  This is misinformation.  The power station did not cause these deaths.  The wave (and/or quake) did destroy the power plant and this particular plant was particularly vulnerable, but that doesn’t mean the technology and concept itself is flawed.  You don’t have to paint the whole nuclear picture with the same brush.

Nuclear energy production has a large stigma attached to it, sometimes justified, but much of it is unfounded.  It abundantly provides relatively cheap, “green” energy and should not necessarily be disregarded due to often uninformed fears.

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If Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is not the main driver of global warming, what is? The well-documented, “Sun and Sea” Hypothesis may be a good place to start looking.

CO2 is the flavour of the month (err, last 20 years), but, in many ways, it’s hard to justify it as the dominate force driving our climate.  We just don’t have substantial evidence supporting it.  No, seriously, this is an oft-ignored point, I still await a single bit of evidence to convince me there is anything behind the CO2 argument.  Science, at the periphery of knowledge, is mostly shades of grey, and thankfully so, or it would be rather dull.  However, is there “Global Warming” (implicitly defined as CO2 driven), well give me one chart of reliable data, I’ll consider it willingly and put the grey back into a black-and-white issue.  Until we have this, can we explain, at least qualitatively, the alternative, major drivers that are leading to the current global warming?

Fortunately, the answer is “yes” and these forces, unlike CO2, do have substantial amounts of evidence supporting them.

What are the possible forces?  Well, plants absorb CO2, ice reflects sunlight, greenhouse gases absorb sunlight and clouds both absorb and reflect sunlight… These all influence the Greenhouse effect, which is an important temperature input.  But, are they primary drivers of Earth’s climate?  What really feeds the system its energy?  Well, it’s generally accepted as the sun and the sea.  In particular, we could be really looking at the cycles of Sunspots, which are flares of intense magnetic activity, and the ocean currents.  It is likely that global temperature is controlled by solar energy and then modulated by that phenomenal sump of energy that is the world’s oceans.  The solar and oceanic cycles sometimes offset and sometimes complement each other.  The many other influences, such as man-made CO2, are relatively minor and often offset each other.

The significance of sunspots and ocean currents in driving global temperatures has long been recognised and has stood the test of time. As far back as 1801, William Herschel noted an apparent connection between wheat prices and sunspot records.  The evidence for both sunspots and ocean currents being the primary drivers of climate change is considerable, so why have we suddenly put the finger of “blame” on CO2?  In addition, the current, gentle, warming they drive is far from catastrophic, it is beneficial.

The following video clip from the movie, “Church of Global Warming” shows the “sun and sea” hypothesis in action:


THE SUN (sunspots)

The sun’s Total Solar Irradiance (i.e. total energy output) does not vary, we believe, too significantly.  Thus, how does the sun so noticeably influence Earth’s temperature?  Well, if you concentrate instead on the intermittent spikes in intense magnetic activity, i.e. sunspots (or flares), then you have something to work with.  Sunspot activity is highly variable and could reasonably account for the drastic modulations in Earth’s weather.

Global Warming has been happening for 400 years (not just during the last century of industrialisation as the IPCC quite controversially suggest with their famous Hockey Stick evidence – video here).  In addition, it correlates well with sunspot levels, as seen by direct, observational data by astronomers.  Since the Maunder Minimum (virtually no sunspots) of the 1600s, both sunspot number and global temperature have risen with a strong, significant correlation:

400 years of sunspots


A sunspot in action – it’s affect on the Earth’s magnetic field (the Aurora Borealis is a frequently seen demonstration of its effects on our atmosphere’s chemistry):

Sunspot in action


THE SEA (ocean currents)

What are the “Pacific Decadal Oscillation” (PDO) and “El Niño / La Niña“?  And why are they important in climate change?

“El Nino / La Nina”, which are two sides of the same coin,  and the “Pacific Decadal Oscillation” (PDO) are both ocean currents.  They are both in the Pacific, the former being equatorial, the latter in the north.  Both oscillate between warming and cooling phases of sea surface temperature (SST), which are above or below long-term averages.  For “El Nino / La Nina”, El Nino is the negative, warming phase, La Nina is the positive, cooling phase.  Conversely, for the PDO, a warming phase is called “positive” and the cooling as “negative”.

In particular, El Nino refers to the extensive warming of the central and eastern Pacific that leads to a major shift in weather patterns across the Pacific.  This includes increased convection or cloudiness in the central tropical Pacific Ocean and weaker easterly, trade winds.  In eastern Australia, however, these events are associated with an increased probability of drier conditions.


Adapted from: BOM
During, a neutral or La Nina event surface temperatures are cool in the east Pacific Ocean.  Thus, Air travels to the low pressure in the west tropics (this process is known as the “trade winds”).  En route, the air warms and moistens, which leads to clouds in Australia that increase local rainfall, but noticeably decreases daytime temperatures.


Adapted from: BOM
During, an El Nino event surface temperatures are warm in the east Pacific Ocean.  This halts the easterly trade winds.  Pressure thus increases over Australia and less oceanic moisture is delivered there.  This reduces cloud cover and thus rainfall, but can increase daytime temperatures.

For more on El Nino / La Nina check here.


This is Roy Spencer’s (recognised, satellite data, analysis guru) take on the PDO and El Nino:

“The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) is an internal switch between two slightly different circulation patterns that occurs every 30 years or so in the North Pacific Ocean. It was originally described in 1997 in the context of salmon production. It has a positive (warm) phase that tends to warm the land masses of the Northern Hemisphere, as well as a negative (cool) phase.

Like the El Nino and La Nina oscillation of the tropical Pacific (also called the El Nino – Southern Oscillation, or ENSO), the PDO represents two different average circulation states that the ocean-atmosphere system seems to have a difficult time choosing between. But whereas ENSO changes every few years, the PDO changes every thirty years or so. This long time scale makes the PDO a potential key player in climate change.”

Why does the ocean surface temperature matter?

Ocean surface temperatures influence the air temperature above them and evaporation rates.  High temperatures lead to increased cloud cover, which can lead to warming or, bizarrely, cooling depending on the type of clouds formed and their altitude.  Even the IPCC, who like to blame it all on CO2, acknowledge this:

“…cloud feedbacks remain the largest source of uncertainty…”  (IPCC Report 2007)

“Ocean Conyevour Belt”

This is a note of clarification.  A lot is made of the PDO in the climate change debate and perhaps rightly so, however, this may be a debate bias because most of the oceanographic research comes out of the U.S.  The PDO is a significant part of the “Ocean Conyevour Belt” (the global, continuous, ocean current circuit), but we should remember that it is still only one part of it:



The main drivers of global temperature are probably the sunspot levels and the ocean current temperatures. There are other short-term, temperature drivers (such as CO2), but Global Warming alarmists chose to gloss over the well-known, long standing evidence.  The weight of this evidence indicates that it is the combination of the “sun and sea” that most likely drives global temperature.


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