Griffith Hack Clean & Sustainable Technologies

Only 40 years of plenty-to-eat left? by Justin Blows

I found this rather disturbing opinion piece at ABC online, by Julian Cribb, which links fossil fuel scarcity, particularly natural gas, with a decline in agricultural output.  A lot of emphasis has been placed on substituting natural gas for coal because it is a cleaner fuel with lower carbon emissions, but are we burning our agricultural future?  This is an area we definitely need some cleanip! – Justin Blows

In all the debate over the Gorgon gas deal with China there has been not a whisper of discussion of the issue most vital to Australia’s – and the entire world’s – future.

Nowadays not many people seem aware that nearly everything they eat and most of what they drink is produced using nitrogen fertilisers. And nitrogen fertilisers are almost entirely made using natural gas.

Indeed half the world’s people would not be here today were it not for the tripling in global food production achieved largely through the use of this invaluable petrochemical byproduct. Admirers of Brillat-Savarin might plausibly contend the present human race is mostly made of gas.

Today’s high-yielding food crops, to a very great degree, depend on high levels of applied nitrogen: without it, yields collapse. Since the Green Revolution the entire world food supply has become more and more critically reliant on this input.

However, worldwide, natural gas reserves are running out just as quickly as oil which, presumably, is why China wishes to secure such a long term contract for gas from Australia and no doubt many other suppliers.

Last month the International Energy Agency’s chief economist Dr Fatih Birol told Britain’s The Independent newspaper that world oil production will peak within 10 years. The average rate of decline in the world’s 800 major oilfields is now 6.7 per cent a year – almost double what it was two years ago. “One day we will run out of oil. It will not be today or tomorrow, but one day we will run out of oil and we have to leave oil before oil leaves us. We have to prepare ourselves for that day,” he said.

A similar story, though far less well advertised, applies to natural gas which, within a few years of oil, will also reach its peak and start to decline. According to the International Fertilizer Industry Association, natural gas currently furnishes feedstock for 97 per cent of the world’s ammonia-based fertilisers. As gas output dwindles these will become increasingly scarce and unaffordable to most farmers, Australia’s included.

Unless an inexpensive replacement source of ammonia (or hydrogen) for making fertiliser is found, then quite simply, global food output will progressively revert towards what it was in the 1960s, around a third of what we enjoy today. Those who are tempted to deride this statement can easily test the proposition in the privacy of their own back yard or balcony by growing one lettuce or tomato plant in plain sand with a standard N fertiliser, and one without.

In the 1960s we only had three billion mouths to feed (one billion of them actually starving). By the time the gas runs low and global food supplies start their downward plummet, there will be eight billion humans on the planet. According to UN population forecasts this number will be reached in 2025.

Furthermore about five billion of these people will live in cities. Unlike the 1960s, most will have not the slightest capacity or knowledge of how to produce their own food.

A compounding factor is that more and more of the world’s nitrogen fertilisers are already being used to grow biofuels of various kinds – from grain ethanol through to specialist diesel crops and even algae. Biofuels, however green they may be depicted, often use quite high inputs of dwindling fossil energy – and compete against food crops for these. In other words the more crop biofuels we burn in vehicles, the quicker we will exhaust the world’s nitrogen fertiliser supplies, and the faster will food crop yields decline.

Added to these problems is the fact that artificial fertilisers are gradually and, in some cases irreversibly, polluting and changing the biosphere. Human activity currently injects around 150 million tonnes more nitrogen and 10 million tonnes more phosphorus into water and soil than a century ago, significantly disrupting the natural global cycles of these two elements. There is mounting evidence that both aquatic and terrestrial systems are becoming seriously damaged – the plainest sign being the conversion of rivers, lakes and seas from clear to turbid systems, favouring algae over all other forms of life. Scientists consider that over-pollution by nutrients led to the anoxic conditions which resulted in mass ocean extinctions in the past.

There are alternatives to natural gas, of course. Recycling sewage and urban organic waste is one option. Increasing legume rotations, manuring or genetically engineering crops which fix nitrogen from the air are others. But they are either much more expensive, riskier from a health perspective, unproven or else produce far less food than the current gas-based N fertiliser system. Many of them, indeed, are the same systems our great grandparents used to grow food over a hundred years ago when there were fewer than a billion people to feed.

Today’s governments are a long, long way from even asking themselves how they are going to replace the missing fertilisers on a scale sufficient to nourish the human race. One suspects the matter has not even entered their heads.

Except perhaps in China. There the spectre of past famine still haunts and the ageing rulers are uneasily mindful of the consequences both for their people – and for themselves. Clearly anticipating shortages, the Chinese have been chasing natural gas import contracts as far as 40 and 50 years into the future. Sure, they need the natural gas for industry. But they also need it for food – and there is unlikely to be much argument over which comes first.

In the coming 40 years the issue of nutrient availability will be one of the principle determinants of the fate of the human race in this century. It is high time we started thinking about it.

A couple of decades from now Australians will wake up to find that, besides selling a heap of gas, we have also sold the primary means of food production, both our own and the world’s.

Makes you wonder who China will feed first.


Free pollution permits a wasted opportunity by Justin Blows
September 9, 2009, 9:19 am
Filed under: Feature | Tags: , , ,

According this report, Prof. Ross Garnaut, the author of the Garnaut Report on the economics of climate change in Australia believes that giving away free pollution permits to heavy polluters will steal away the support for innovation in clean and sustainable energy technologies:

The biggest disappointment for the public interest has been the potential revenue from the sale of permits has been heavily committed to compensation of various interests and it hasn’t left space for large support for research, development and commercialisation of the new technologies

I think we may already be seeing the effects of the government’s weak position on cap & trade with events like the recent move of the Australian company Solar Systems in voluntary administration.  In our solar report, this company was ranked as Australia’s most innovative solar company.

The question must be asked:  Is the Australian government’s support for clean energy innovation sufficient to support Australia’s interests? 

Justin Blows


Methane calthrate, anyone? by Justin Blows

There was an article on methane calthrate – ice containing methane – in a new scientist article a couple of months ago.

burning ice

Apparently there are vast reserves of this fossil fuel and it could be a significant component of the energy mix in the future.

There is concern that rising temperatures from global warming will release much of the methane locked up in the ice crystals – a so called tipping point for climate change. Given this, it is hard to know whether it is in the global interest to burn this fossil fuel – is it adding to global warming or is the methane just going to leak away and be an even more potent green house gas?

I guess it depends on the particular reserve being considered and whether it will be affected by global warming.

I wonder what technology is available to extract this resource? It is obviously a different challenge then oil / coal extraction. There may be a lot of innovation required and new machines and methods for extraction. This presents a great opportunity for innovators in this area – if an innovator invents the means to commercially extract this resource, and patent it, the innovator could gain a significant advantage in controlling the extraction of the resource and thus the commercial outcomes from extraction.

Justin Blows

Hate cleantech patents? Look here! by Justin Blows
August 18, 2009, 4:41 pm
Filed under: News | Tags: , ,

Not all commentators are fans of the patent system when applied to clean technologies.

Some people like the free software guru Richard Stallman don't like patents

Some people, like the free software guru Richard Stallman, don't like patents

This article contains various opinions as to why the patent system should be changed (or side lined) when it comes to clean and sustainable technologies.

Is it just me or are the views of these academics disconnected from our world –  were it is free enterprise that is charged with developing climate change mitigation technologies?

Justin Blows

Hopes high for Australian Renewable energy bill by Justin Blows

I found this article which talks about who will benefit from the Renewable Energy Bill.

Justin Blows

Australia to fast tack cleantech patent applications by Justin Blows
July 9, 2009, 11:55 am
Filed under: News | Tags: , , ,

I previously blogged on why patent applications for clean and sustainable technologies should be fast tracked through the Australian Patent Office.

I am pleased to say that in response to my request of them, the Australian Patent Office will now fast track any cleantech patent application on request.   The email I received from the office confirming this is copied below.

Australia will fast track cleantech patent applications

Australia will fast track cleantech patent applications

Justin Blows

Dear Dr Justin,

Thankyou for your email enquiry regarding the fast tracking of climate change mitigation technology, 11 June 2009. I understand that you have been advised that expedited examination under Regulation 3.17(2) is available to your clients for “fast tracking” applications by one of my colleagues and that I would be contacting you as well.
IP Australia has decided to make a formal notification on our Web page to this effect. You will see this notification in the information banner at in the coming weeks.

As you no doubt realise expedited examination is not unique to climate change mitigation technology however under this regulation if the Commissioner is satisfied that the expedited examination is either in the public interest or there are special circumstances that make it desirable it will be expedited.

In line with your request it is the opinion of the Commissioner that an application for climate change mitigation technology would satisfy the requirements of being in the public interest and hence such a request would be suitable. It is expected that in most technologies (depending on the current workload) that expedited examination request would be considered within around 4-8 weeks.

Yours Sincerely

Victor Portelli
General Manager
Patents and Plant Breeders Rights Group
IP Australia

Chinese company protects waste heat recovery process by Justin Blows

In yet another sign that the Peoples Republic of China is taking clean and sustainable technologies seriously, according to this report, the growth rate of cleantech patent registrations in emerging market economies, particularly China, is 545%.  The growth rate is measured for registrations over the period 2004-2007 compared to 1998-2001.  The world wide growth rate, for comparison, is 120%.

A great example is China Energy Recovery, Inc.  Its expertise is industrial waste heat recovery, otherwise known as energy recycling.  As reported here, it has protected a waste heat recovery process for the cement manufacturing industry.  With its massive growth and levels of construction, cement manufacture is a major industry in China.

Cement manufacturing uses huge amounts of energy and is a major source of green house gases. About 2% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions have been attributed to burning fossil fuels for the manufacture of cement.  Cement is made by heating limestone with small quantities of other materials (such as clay) to 1450°C in a kiln.  That’s a very high temperature – more than enough to make large amounts of steam for a steam turbine generator or for use in another industrial process.

The waste heat captured by, for example, China Energy Recovery’s technology can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase energy efficiency.

View of the interior of a cement kiln

View of the interior of a cement kiln

Waste heat recovery is a big deal.  Apparently, it is estimated that if all the energy currently wasted by all the U.S. industrial facilities could be recovered, it could produce power equivalent to 20% of the U.S. electricity generation capacity.  As such, it represents one of the ‘low hanging fruit’ in the quest for carbon abatement, and a massive opportunity for those that have protected their technology.

Justin Blows