Friday, September 25, 2009

Technical Innovation - a gentle cough at Scientific American

There are certain snags to staying in foreign hotels where one does not understand the customs – internet access that is available, but only at the end of the corridor; rooms that get cleaned every other day – minor details that make it difficult to order the productive use of time. (And these are offered as an excuse for the irregular timing of these posts) But this trip is coming to an end, we will tour the mine in the morning and then move to Kracow and the flight back home.

I gave a second talk today amid others that also talked of the need that the mining industry now faces to make their machines and processes more efficient. Bear in mind that as the resources get harder to find, that one must look deeper (as in the deep water Gulf of Mexico to give but one example). And so it is with the minerals that come from the Earth. As the shallower deposits are mined out, so the mines must go deeper, and that imposes additional problems. First there is the heat – which is reaching temperatures (60+ deg C) that reduce effective working time, or call for air conditioning that becomes increasingly expensive as one moves from cooling only the cabs of mining machines, to the individuals working in small enclosable spaces, to cooling entire districts of the mine. One comment today was that it will take 7 tons of air to produce 1 ton of ore. Fan sizes start being quoted in the megawatt range, and it will only be the increasing price of these commodities that makes the entire mining operation feasible.

The Conference is, in part, directed at helping to identify the innovative ideas that the industry needs to remain viable into the future. This changing circumstance calls for new and innovative approaches to getting the valuable resources that we need, and yet, as I sat through the proceedings (“helped” by simultaneous translation) it was disappointing to hear ideas being proposed for new mining machines that were tried in an earlier generation. I suppose that none of us are willing to write about our failures, and so the experiments that were carried out with some of this technology, the last time it was tried, and that showed that the ideas would not work in the long term (for reasons such as that they induced early fatigue and massive failures within the machines) did not get into the scientific literature – it was only those that followed (or were involved in) the tests on an informal nature that heard why “the wonder machine” was not talked of any longer.

And so the concepts are resurrected – “technology will save the day.” I have written about the foolishness of this perception in the past (and yes it is again late enough that I beg the excuse of other business to forego references) and to refer back to the debate on he reality of Peak Oil, let me just answer the comment on Scientific American about “new technologies", that Gail referred to today. Some of these ideas are in areas where I have spent my professional life – some of them I may even be working on – but there is this perception that, once an idea has been formulated, that the technology transfer to a fully viable production tool will happen overnight.

Oh how I wish that were true. In one project that I am aware of, a relatively minor design concern (as was thought) has so far delayed progress for over a year as alternate approaches have failed to solve this “slight problem.” And sometimes (but not always) solving one problem only helps create another. Experimental results do not always follow predictable paths (as I am reminded on regular occasion, where theoretical predictions of performance prove wrong – in either direction). Stating that technology can produce more oil from a reservoir is true. But as I point out in the post on reservoir production there has to be a pressure difference between the oil in the surrounding ground and the well for the oil to move. Without that difference nothing happens – no oil or gas comes out of the well. And even when there is a pressure difference the well can draw in water or gas, rather than oil. Gail has explained some of the unreality of the current MSM comments and on the position that they have taken. But a quick review of the draft of the article makes me feel more resigned to the inanity (the writer is after all a Corporate VP for Planning for ENI – the Italian Energy Company).

Working on a technology, and seeing good results in the lab does not give an immediate pass to fantastic wealth. It takes time to prove and scale up the idea, through a series of stages, that become further apart and more expensive (often because of permitting and regulation) as the scale of an operation approached the level where it might have significant impact. So that, even if some of these ideas really do work well (and some really might) they won’t have significant impact in less than 5 years, and more likely will take at least ten, and that is just too late to have any impact on the coming shortage.

Well, enough dark thoughts – the morning trip to the mine will come earlier than I might like to think, so I'd better sign off for now.

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