WEFTEC 2011 – Day 2

Will Dalen Rice

The second in a series reporting on the Water Environment Federation’s annual technology conference. Part 1 here.

Day 2:

The second day of technical sessions started with lingering memories of the Hampton Road Sanitation District presentation. They do a lot of innovative stuff at HRSD and their progress in nutrient removal and use is cutting edge. Specifically, their pilot studies on source separation and collecting it were quite intriguing. In terms of treating wastewater, there are very different chemical and biological processes needed to treat “Number 1” which is entirely different than “Number 2.” During collection, they mix and can inhibit the breakdown and processing of each other, but in-system separation is not feasible. Source separation, on the other hand, means they leave your bathroom in separate pipes. In terms of urine, this can mean a rather simple set of steps to recover the Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and other salts. So that left the simple task of figuring out a way to separate the waste streams leaving the restroom and getting adoption by people. The guy speaking joked at how people originally looked at him as if he had two heads when he originally proposed the idea. It worked though. Now, they are collecting separated waste streams and creating separated quantities enough for doing further research on the nutrient removal and usage. He presented a really good story of questioning, innovating, and overcoming all kinds of obstacles for the sake of progress.

213: WEF/ WERF Hands on selection of the Best Combined Heat and Power System for your plant
Combined heat and power in the wastewater industry is the general presmise by which you use anerobic digesters to create methane (and break down organics). This methane is then used in some form to generate power. There are a few different ways to do this and depending on where you sit will determine what system you choose to use. The variables include: current pirce you pay for power, cleanliness of your gas stream, quantitiy of your gas, plans for utilization of power (how much waste heat do you need for plant use?), and how much extra resource do you have for running and mainteing a generation source. This workshop had plenty of attendees getting walked through this process. This was one of the most encouraging things to see. Although CHP is not a new concept, the newer technology and better understanding of it is making it more viable to a wider range of treatment plants, meaning less waste gas flairs and more renewable energy production. While the details are all a little technical, everyone can see the benefit of truly creating energy from what was thought to have previously no value.

209: Green Infrastructure: Beyond the Hype
This was another session where I had visions in my head that didn’t really come to fruition. In hindsight though, this session topic was exactly correct per the headline. The topic was actually stormwater. In terms of water, stormwater is something most people don’t think about until their house is flooding or they have driven their cars into a puddle they cant get out of. Like water treatment and wastewater, stormwater infrastructure is “out of sight, out of mind,” and only becomes noticed when it doesn’t work. The old imperative was to transport any precipitation off the land and away as fast as possible. The new paradigm, the “green” methodology, says maybe faster isn’t better. Maybe getting the water back into the ground or storing the water somewhere is better than runoff. This session gave a more practical and reality based approach to determining how green infrastructure works, how to maintain it, and presented equally the up and downsides of managing water instead of just trying to get rid of it. There was lots of talk about rain gardens. There was lots of talk about public perception, education, and interaction. Overall, there was a positive feel to the situation and it seems that progress is moving at the pace typical of massive infrastructure re-thinking. It won’t be done tomorrow, but its moving forward.

204: Wastewater Microbiology
The microscope people were still here on day 2. This was one of the only sessions that was repeated. I once again was unable to resist looking into a microscope to see the living world present in a single drop of water. Protists are cool, so don’t let anyone else tell you any different.

Next: Day 3. The conference really begins.

Categories: Environment, Water

The Charlevoix impact crater

Tim Sherry

Figure 1: Aerial radar of Charlevoix impact crater.

Special thanks to field trip leaders Alain Tremblay and Francine Robert

Last month the Canadian Tectonics Group (CTG) held their annual meeting at Charlevoix, Quebec, the site of a Devonian [Lemiux et al. 2003] impact structure. The field trip portion of the meeting centered around learning about and seeing impact structures in outcrop.

This post feature some impact structures we observed while cutting a transect (Figure 2) from the center of the impact crater (mylolisthenite) to the crater rim (normal fault with backthrusting).

Figure 2: Locations of impact structures. White dots outline approximate crater rim.

Setting and background

The impact structure, 54Km in diameter [“Charlevoix”], is approximately half-exposed. The other half is under the St. Laurent River (Figure 1,2,3). The crater straddles the cystalline Grenville province, the Cambrian-Ordovician sediments, and accreted Appalachian Orogen. Supra-crustal faults make up the impact cratering. Major fault systems trend Northwest and Northeast, consisting largely of normal faults. Polymictic breccias provide the best evidence form impact, though other impact related rock types are present (cataclastic gouge, pseudotachylite, shatter cones) [Lemiux et al. 2003].

Figure 3: Digital Elecation Model with epicenters Lamontagne et al. (2000)

The St. Laurence fault trends Northeast and is associated with Late Proterozoic early Paleozoic Lapetus Ocean rifting. The fault is relatively undeflected within the impact structure, suggesting post impact reactivation [Lemiux et al. 2003].

Impact Rocks

Shattercones. 19T 408942.00 m E, 5263137.00 m N

Figure 4: Shatter Cone. Lineaments point in the direction of impact.

At this stop we observed shattercones on many scales in limestone and mudstone. The lineations on a shatter cone point in the direction of impact. Basically a shock wave travels through the rock, creating a network of fine fractures, often arranged in a conical shape (Figure 4).

Along the railroad tracks, heading back to the parking lot, shattercones could be observed in coarser grained crystalline rock. This was a great opportunity to show how much better formed shattercones are in fine grained rock vs. coarse grained.

Mylolisthenite. 19T 407510.00 m E, 5260539.00 m N

Figure 5: Injecting mylolisthenite

What, you’ve never heard of mylolisthenite? The term mylolisthenite is used to distinguish a specific type of breccia. It is pale grey to green (Figure 5), fine grained, breccia contained various clasts within the non-fused matrix (differentiating it from pseudotachylite), even though melt fragments can be found within the rock [Rondot, 1989].

Here we are in the inner ring of the crater, beside the center peak. Our location during impact is within what is known as the transient bowl, just below the impact surface.

Soft-Sediment Deformation. 19T 409437.00 m E, 5267768.00 m N

Figure 6: Refolded sheath fold?

Here we saw some crazy sediment deformation on various scales (Figures 6, 7). This outcrop was previously interpreted as an undersea debris flow. I don’t think the group came to a consensus on whether this was from gravity slope slumping or a result of impact. We did agree that the formation was VERY wet during deformation.

Figure 7: Soft sediment deformation

Breccia. 19T 410858.00 m E, 5271299.00 m N

Figure 8: Breccia in crystalline basement.

This area is near a large open fold, presumably related to impact. This breccia could be of tectonic (St. Laurent fault) or impact origin (Figure 8).

Normal fault with backthrusting. 19T 414296.00 m E, 5275355.00 m N

Okay, I know that sounds crazy… but hear me out. First off, I tried to stitch together a panorama of this whole outcrop that I could annotate, but Photoshop was giving me trouble stitching it together. So instead he’s some pictures.

Figure 9: Drag folds, apparent normal motion

… and a bit to the right, along this outcrop…

Figure 10: Backthrust fault

… and just a bit further along the outcrop (please forgive the distortion)…

Figure 11: Backthrust (far-left side, behind bush) and open folds.

Two hypothesis were presented for this outcrop. The first being that these quartzite beds were thrust up onto the crystalline basement. The second being that these are drag folds (Figure 9) associated with normal motion of the crater collapse. I support the normal fault hypothesis, here’s why.

When a crater impacts, a transient bowl is created. This bowl then relaxes, collapsing downward, creating normal faults along the crater rim.

What about the backthrusting and folding? Typically when normal faults are observed, they are associated with an extensional stress regime, and are the result of accommodating this extension. Here though, we have a semi-sphere bounded area. Extension isn’t being accommodated, collapse is. So even though we have normal motion at our crater margins, there is local shortening as this material collapses into the crater (Figure 12), giving rise to the backthrust and open folds (Figures 9, 10, 11) observed at this outcrop.

Figure 12: VERY simplified cartoon (not to scale) demonstrating crater collapse with local shortening as material is transported into the bowl. Cartoon adapted from Figure 5c of Melosh (1999). Dashed line is crater rim prior to collapse. Blue line is final geometry of crater. Red lines and accompanying arrows are faults/material motion.


“Charlevoix.” Earth Impact Database. PASSC, n.d. Web. 8 Nov 2011. <http://goo.gl/qT2t3>.

Melosh, H. J., and B. A. Ivanov. “Impact Crater Collapse.” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences. 27.1 (1999): 385-415.

Lemiux, Yvon, Alain Tremblay, and Denis Lavoi. “Structural analysis of supracrustal faults in the Charlevoix area, Quebec: relation to impact cratering and the St-Laurent fault system.” Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences. 40.2 (2003): 221-235.

Rondot, Jehan. “Pseudotachylite and mylolisthenite.” Meteoritics. 24. (1989): p320.

Categories: planets, Rocks & minerals


Will Dalen Rice


Everyone has heard of Einstein’s E=MC2.  But what does this matter on a daily basis?  What difference does this make in terms of my power and water?  At WEFTEC in early October, the issues of power and water came together for 3 days of discussion.

WEFTEC is an annual conference put on by the Water Environment Federation (WEF) as a way to bring water, wastewater, and stormwater providers together to review the latest technology and scientific research in their fields.  With increasing maintenance cost due to aging infrastructure, stricter regulations for treatment requirements, and decreased budgets due to the recession, money has become an even larger concern.  Add that to the fact that most water-providing professionals work in the government non-profit sector, and you get the perfect storm of job difficulty.  Since one of the biggest operating expenses is power, and power costs money, technology that can reduce kilowatt-hour consumption or power demand is rapidly becoming of paramount importance.

While efficiency and use reduction help, there is nothing new about making better motors and peak shaving.  The really exciting new stuff is the nutrient and energy recovery work being done.  For the most part, water and wastewater treatment are processes designed to remove a mass of solids from water.  If energy and mass are equivalent, then that mass can be turned into energy.  So, in theory, if you get enough mass coming in with your water, you can turn that mass into energy that you can then use to remove the mass and create clean water.  This is the basic premise behind net-zero treatment plants.  It sounds like science fiction, but it is actually happening.  Furthermore, if you can treat drinking water and stormwater using less power as well, then there will be less power needed and less water needed to help make that power.  Welcome to the Energy-Water Nexus.  This is WEFTEC.

Day 1:

Before any of the exhibitors have opened their booths and before any keynote speakers have inspired us to care more than we already do, there are the technical sessions.  The first two unofficial days (Saturday and Sunday this year) were reserved for participants who paid extra to get 8-16 hours of specific training to do their work better.  I was able to pop in and out of 3 sessions on the first day.  Here is what I learned:

112: Wastewater as a Re-N-E-W-able Resource: Nutrients, Energy, and Water

Public perception is that wastewater is full of bad microorganisms, and once you “filter” them out or otherwise “clean” out all the bacteria, the water is good again.  It’s really much more than that though.  There are a lot of elements and compounds in wastewater than are useful in other settings.  We don’t want to be drinking them or putting them into our streams and lakes, but many of the materials are plenty useful for farmers.  Organic biosolids as well as specific nutrients isolated from treatment steps (such as Nitrogen and Phosphorous) are very good for adding to soil.  Furthermore, often the creation of these accessory products can create fuel substances as well, such as methane.  This can be refined and used in engines to generate power.  And while these aren’t new ideas, the way we are doing these traditional processes is undergoing some change.  New chemistries are being researched to see how the best way to capture this incoming mass, and use it more effectively in conversion to energy.  There were presentations about further accepting other waste products to be used as treatment aids, again creating greater quantity of valuable nutrients outputs while turning waste into energy-producing, in-process products.  The takeaway for this workshop was that we need to learn more chemistry.  The present and the future of nutrient, energy, and water are going to be all about the chemistry.

103: Wastewater Microbiology

We need to learn more microbiology too.  What the public doesn’t realize is that we aren’t cleaning the water ourselves.  We are just making the conditions right for tons of tiny “bugs” to clean the water for us.  This workshop was specifically designed for treatment operators, but the presenters did a good job of selling the idea that microbiology is interesting and important for everyone.  There were slide presentations about what the “bugs” looked like, what their presence or absence indicate to us in terms of the processes they were performing, and what they should be doing (mainly they should be eating).  Furthermore, there was hands-on use of microscopes to really see the bugs in action and get a feel for how to observe them.  Every high school guidance counselor should sit through one of these sessions to further plug not only the benefits of microbiology, but also the interesting aspects of what a microbiologist can do.  Ever wanted to lead an army of 1000’s of organisms that can fit under a microscope but yet do the most important work in our modern civilization?

113: What is Sustainable Design?

The third session I was sampling was all about what it means to be sustainable.  I interpreted it as a session where I would see all the cool new technology in the sustainability fight.  In actuality, it was a session about how to show and determine true measures of sustainability.  There were charts, data sets, and excel-based “tools” used to illustrate what a real “sustainable design” was.  It was the least sexy session I had been too, but even with my short in-and-out presence I could see that it was one of the most important.  Its importance lies in the fact that I previously stated:  money is one of the key drivers of the non-profit water service industry.  Innovation has to pan out on paper, and this session was about how to gather data, research, and information before and after a project to show that it meets or exceeds both financial requirements and physical performance goals.

Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.

Categories: Energy, Environment, Water

The Iron Ore of Bell Island, Conception Bay, Newfoundland

Tim Sherry

Figure 1: Fossil Hunting on Bell Island, Conception Bay, Newfoundland.

The most memorable stop (for me) on a recent McGill grad student trip that took us around the whole of Newfoundland was Bell Island, in Conception Bay. The discovery of iron ore in the late 1800s led to the an industry boom on the island that lasted until 1966 (Bell Island Mining History). We were fortunate enough to tour the Number 2 Mine (now a museum) and learn about the island’s history and geology. The thing that stuck with me the most was that the story of Bell Island’s mining history was one of pride and more or less, a happy story. This seemed unusual as most stories about mines in the news seem to usually involve accidents, death, or oppression of the mine workers. Our tour guide’s father, grandfather, and great grandfather all worked in the mine. Her tour was filled with pride and a conveyed the bravery of the miners.

Figure 2: Photo courtesy of VirtualMuseum.ca

The iron ore is found in a gently dipping Ordovician (Bhattacharrya and Kakimoto, 1982) sedimentary bed in the Wabana Fm. This bed was mined out floor to ceiling leaving 40% in the form of large support columns. This ore was mined across the island, following the bed down-dip until the miners hit the cliffs on the north side of the island. Then the miners did something remarkable. They mined vertically down, and then out and, following the bed beneath the bay for miles. Now that the mine was submarine, the ratio of ore mined to support columns was changed to 40% mined, 60% support.

Figure 3: Iron ore daylighting in the cliffs on the coast. Debris on the right of the photo is shales that were used to close up the mine shafts after the mine was decommissioned.

Figure 4: Iron ore bed daylighting.

Being geologists, we were all asking questions about the nature of the ore. Hand lens examination showed that the ore was made of iron-oxide ooids. This presented an interesting conundrum of imagining the paleoenvironment with conditions allowing the precipitation of iron around siliciclastic sand grains.

Figure 5: "Oolitic Hematite" ore from the Number 2 Mine. Card has chemical analysis. Iron 51.26% , Silica 11.46%, Phosphorus 0.88%, Sulphur 0.04%, Lime 3.13%, Alumma 4.93%, Manganese Oxide 0.17%, Magnesia 0.61%, Titanic Acid 0.37%, Carbon Dioxide 2.13%, Combinded water 2.52

We were all curious about how iron ore of this nature could form (especially on this scale). The papers we had on hand offered little explanation for the formation conditions. To add to the riddle I found a piece of ore down by the cliffs containing a shell fossil (Figure 6). Could this creature have been precipitating CaCO3 in an environment that was actively precipitating hematite?

Figure 6: Oolitic Hematite with fossilized shell.

There is little consensus about the formation of ironstone ooids. Explanations include crystalization-precipitation, a process not unlike modern day calcitic oods, and subaqueous diagenisis of Al-Si hydroxygel precipitates from detrital clay-Fe hydoxide colloid coagulates (Bhattacharrya and Kakimoto, 1982).

Bhattacharyya and Kakimoto [1982] conducted an SEM study of the fabric of ironstone ooids and concluded that the ooids formed from a dissolution and re-precipitation connected with mechanical accretion of suspended particles around a nucleus grain. Replacement of CaCO3 has also been proposed. Nothing I found was very conclusive.

Figure 6: Inside the mine.

The mine closed in 1966 when it could not economically compete with other iron mines whose ore was easier to process. The population of the island quickly shrunk from ~12,000 to less than 4,000 (Bell Island Mining History). The residents that remain on the island are some of the friendliest people we’ve ever met. For instance, we were camping on someone’s property and they drove up late at night. We thought they were going to kick us off. Instead they warned us to move one of our tents off of an ATV track, and then offered us wood. Bell Island has an amazing history, geology, and people. Our tour guide said that a little piece of Bell Island stays with everyone. She’s right. I can’t wait for the next time I can visit Bell Island.

Figure 7: Looking out over Conception Bay from our camp site.


“Bell Island Mining History.” Virtual Museum of Canada. Virtual Museum, n.d. Web. 9 Oct 2011. <http://goo.gl/ahSpk>.

Bhattacharyya, Deba P., and Paula K. Kakimoto. “Origin of Ferriferous Ooids: an SEM study of ironstone ooids and bauxite pisoids.” Journal of Sedimentary Petrology. 52.3 (1982): 0849-0857. Print.

Categories: Ore geology

From Erratics to an erratic


Having found my feet here, Chris @highlyallochthonous has kindly given me a space of my own on all-geo.org. I’ve a stack of posts ready to go, so posting will be less erratic. Hop on over and have a look.

At the time of writing the latest post is, aptly, about a glacial erratic and its place in Earth and human history.

Categories: Uncategorized

Accretionary wedge #35 – Porphyroblast


I like long words (I might even say I was egregiously polysyllabic in my discourse) and when Accretionary Wedge #35 asked me for my favourite geological word I knew it had to be one of those compound names based on dead languages: something like porphyroblast.

A porphyroblast is a mineral found in a metamorphic rock that has grown larger than the surrounding minerals. As we’ll see later, the growing bit is important.

Porphyroblasts of many minerals can be found, but the classic mineral that forms them is garnet. It’s always a visual treat; in hand-specimen  it forms handsome red lumps and in thin-section it goes dramatically black under crossed-polars. Yum.

Garnet is a keen participant in many metamorphic reactions and the mineral chemistry of garnets is such that the relative amounts of Calcium, Iron, Magnesium and Managnese it contains can vary throughout a single grain.  This means that garnet porphyroblasts can be little time-capsules: the way in which their composition varies shows how the conditions under which they formed changed over time. A typical example is where the garnet core formed under conditions of lower temperature and pressure compared with the rim. As the rock was buried and heated as part of, perhaps, an episode of mountain building, the garnet slowly grew, changing in composition over time. Studying the composition  across the grain now allows us to glimpse a part of the rock’s history that is otherwise lost.

Building mountains involves squashing rocks as well as heating them, which leads to another way in which porphyroblasts can be time-capsules; they can contain fossil fabrics.

Garnet in Irish schist. Note the early 'vertical' fabric in garnet that is now wrapped by later 'horizontal fabric'. White dot is a reminder that I should buy myself a proper scanner

The metamorphic reactions that form garnet typically involve the breakdown of minerals like feldspar and mica. As garnet grows at the expense of these minerals, it fills the space they used to fill. Sometimes the garnet grows around minerals that aren’t involved in the metamorphic reaction, such as quartz. The quartz grains end up as inclusions with the garnet. If the rock matrix the garnet grows in has a fabric then this is preserved within the garnet, even if the matrix outside has been destroyed or rotated. Sometimes this ‘fossil fabric’ is folded, or forms beautiful spiral patterns.

There is a long and sometimes heated scientific controversy about the exact meaning of these inclusion fabrics; some believe that the orientation of these fabrics doesn’t change and that the garnet has stayed fixed while the surrounding fabric has been rotated. Others disagree, but all agree that porphyroblasts provide an important window into the structural history of metamorphic rocks.

Sometimes porphyroblasts include non-tectonic fabrics, such as below:

Big staurolite porphyroblast in South African rock (single grain fills image). Rectangular areas are where staurolite fully replaced another mineral. Surrounding areas are a mixture, where the new mineral grew around the quartz

What a difference a letter makes

A close runner-up in my favourite geological word stakes is porphyroclast. This is also a mineral found in metamorphic rocks that is larger than the surrounding minerals. Unlike a porphyroblast which grew bigger in absolute terms, a porphyroclast is relatively bigger because all the surrounding grains have been made smaller.

The best place to find porphyroclasts is in mylonites, which are rocks that have been intensely deformed in a ductile fashion. Mylonites are found in places, like the bottom of thrust sheets, where huge amounts of deformation (aka strain) have taken place. This strain has been accommodated, not by faulting, but my ‘smearing out’ the rocks.  Smearing rocks means smearing individual grains and this process is associated with reduction in grain-size. The processes that allow smearing (various forms of creep) work at the level of the crystal lattice and so are highly dependent on the type of mineral.

So, if a quartz rich rock is highly deformed the quartz grains may deform relatively easily and end up as a fine-grained matrix. Consider a feldspar grain caught up in a shear-zone. It may be too cold for it to deform internally, in contrast its quartz neighbours. The quartz grains start being smeared out and reduce in size but a feldspar grain doesn’t and so becomes a porphyroclast.

Note the difference with porphyroblasts which grow bigger than their neighbours, instead porphyroclasts stay big while everything around them gets small, (a bit like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard).

Rotated porphyroclast, borrowed from http://shearsensibility.blogspot.com

Deformation in shear-zones is often asymmetrical (simple rather than pure shear), which means there is an element of rotation to the deformation. Sitting in the middle of this, porphyroclasts sometimes get rotated, which makes them useful shear-sense indicators.

Phenocryst, porphyroblast or porphyroclast? A case-study from my kitchen

In my kitchen I have a ‘granite’ worktop which contains large feldspar grains that are generally bigger than the surrounding minerals (not dramatically so, but bear with me). Ask the man who fitted it and he would tell you that he sold me some granite, which means that these large crystals must be phenocrysts, usually minerals that crystallise out from the magma first, making a porphyritic rock. If the phenocrysts clump together then the rock is glomeroporphyritic which is my second favourite geological word. Try saying glomeroporphyritic three times fast: good test of sobriety I reckon, if your tongue can cope with that you are safe to operate heavy machinery.

'Granite' from my kitchen. Big feldspar grain in centre of picture. Tip of garlic bulb top centre for scale

This may be granite to an architect but to a geologist it is not. It is not even a granitoid as it is a metamorphic rock, an orthogneiss of some sort. Its full of garnet, both as large grains and as inclusions with the feldspar. In places the feldspar shows evidence of multiple phases of growth. So, are these feldspars porphyroblasts perhaps?

Maybe, but rocks are three dimensional and I’ve only shown an image from the top of slab. What about the sides?

Side of slab showing intense metamorphic fabric with wrapped feldspar grains. Anthropomorphic toy train for scale

Well that’s a rather different picture. There is a fairly strong gneissic texture within these rocks; so these are porphyroclasts then?

These feldspars in my work surface, are they phenocrysts, porphyroblasts or porphyroclasts? On balance I think a bit of all three and therefore none of them. It seems likely to me that these were originally large feldspar grains within the original granite and so phenocrysts. There is evidence of recrystallisation which may have made them bigger, but not necessarily much bigger. Looking at the ends of the slab there are feldspar grains wrapped by the fabric so they’ve been deformed like porphyroclasts, but there’s been a some subsequent annealing so there isn’t a particularly dramatic contrast in grain size.

So try as I might, I can’t accurately use any of these lovely words to describe my work-top, but at least it’s still good to make pastry on.

Categories: Rocks & minerals

The Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference, Day 3: What would you say you do here?

Will Dalen Rice

The final part of a 3 part series on advanced biofuels. In the first part, I explained why I was attending a biofuels conference and summarized discussions about interactions between the government and the biofuels industry. In the second part, I explored the issues of funding. Now it’s time to talk about the state of the science and what this all means for the future.

The final day of the conference was all about being “feedstock agnostic” in terms of what you give to your genetically engineered, “proprietary organisms.” This was the really cool day where they all talked about what their companies actually did. Some companies were turning biomass into sugars (which I think then gets turned into oils, either by chemical rearrangement or possibly by feeding them to something else). Some companies were growing algae, which can then be turned into biofuel. And still other companies were going straight to oils, using special bacteria that would take a feedstock and secrete oil in response to it. It seemed like they all had bench-top proven technology. The devil was going to be how to make millions of gallons of their product on vastly larger scales. They all had plans and they all had pilot facilities in the making. It was very exciting and the anticipation for what the future will hold was high.

Although there is still significant future distance to travel, the technology had come a long way. The leader of the conference made some joking remarks about how the common technological aspects are glossed over as being something simple. “And as you see her on slide 6, we just took the bacteria and rearranged its genes so it would do what we want.” He wasn’t really exaggerating either, as it did seem like all the presentations had some words about genetic modification, but at the same time it was presented as if it was no big deal. Five years ago you wouldn’t have been able to just swap some genes here and there and have it work. The advances in cell-level and genetic modifications have flung open the gate for some enormous opportunity. My favorite presentation was by the group who have moved even further beyond genetic engineering. They had taken to selectively evolving their microbes by applying environmental pressures and then breeding generation upon generations. This blows my mind, and at the same time give me so much hope. Drilling for oil seems so antiquated in terms of what it takes. More difficult oil just takes more risk, more brute force, and more strength in terms of technology to combat the forces of physics. At what point do stop making things stronger and more complex, leading to greater dangers for rig workers? At what point do all the negatives outweigh the positives? After the Gulf oil spill, it seems like there is no limit to peril and damage, but then there was no other option. Now there I another choice, and making the oil ourselves is the new elegant solution, that will lead us into the future.

To wrap everything up, here is what I learned:

  1. Many advanced biofuels technologies have been proven on a small-scale. Some have been proven on a pilot scale. Full scale production is the next step.
  2. To get to full scale, further support in legislative policy (ex: RFS, EISA) need to be administered.
  3. Policy will help support monetary decisions, which require equally monumental financial creativity to get to the current cost-competitive point of oil.
  4. The policy, supported financial instruments, and technological development timeline need to be decoupled from oil volatility to achieve progress. Otherwise we will continue to pogo stick in place.
Categories: Energy

Chalk is weird


Sometimes you live with something and regard it as normal, dull, quotidian, jejune, blah or maybe just meh. Then one day you suddenly get a moment of clarity and realise that actually, it is really weird. Subtly weird perhaps, but still very odd and mysterious. For me, chalk is like this. I live in Southern England and chalk is all around me, but I only recently got thinking about it properly. Accretionary Wedge #34 and its call for weirdness got me writing about it.

Chalk is a weird rock-type

Piece of chalk. Weirdly dull and you can't even draw on a board with it . Image courtesy of Geological Society

Chalk is a very pure biogenic fine-grained limestone found across much of Western Europe. It is made up of marine dandruff, the hard bits of marine algae (coccolithophores) that have settled to the sea bed. Marine algae is nothing unusual of course, but chalk is made of nothing else. Really nothing, less than 3% of anything else, which makes a piece of chalk one of the dullest rock-types imaginable. No texture, no mineralogical variation, no structure, what a bore; when I moved ‘down South’ and first encountered it I was almost offended by its dullness. I’m a hard-rock man by preference, but even the Carboniferous sediments I grew up with have cross-bedding, variation in colour and other nice things that distract you from the fact that they are only sediments. Chalk is weirdly dull.

Flint is weird

On an outcrop scale chalk has some interest: it contains flint. Flint is chert that occurs in chalk, that is to say cryptocrystalline silica, black, shiny and with conchoidal fractures. It is extremely common, but no-one really knows how it forms. The silica doesn’t come from sand like in normal sediments, oh no, it is thought to come from sponge spicules, diatoms and other biological sources. It is formed somehow during diagenesis. Often it infills burrows or surrounds fossils, suggesting a role for micro-environments with unusual (weird?) chemistry that allow the silica to precipitate out as a gel. Sometimes soft-sediment deformation is seen to deform flints, so they are soft during early stages of diagenesis. Also flint sometimes infills early faults/fractures to form sheet flints. It can also directly replace chalk, rather than filling cavities. As a resistant erosional product, flint is ubiquitous in Southern England (it forms the gravel drive of my house) yet nobody really knows how it forms.

Flint is important in European archaeology. That conchoidal fracture means that hitting flints (knapping if you do it well) gives sharp edges: mammoth-killing sharp. Other rock-types with similar properties have a similar role elsewhere (e.g. obsidian in Central America). Flint tools are very important as they are common and easily preserved and so can be used to trace trade routes. Places such as Grimes Graves in Norfolk show how important they were 5000 years ago. Flint was so important that it was worth digging a 30ft vertical shaft with deer antlers down through the chalk to mine it.

Chalk is weirdly English

Chalk forms a distinctive landscape called downland that is the quintessential English green rolling landscape. Chalk is very homogeneous and so is a little like a blank slate on which other processes can act. Southern England was never glaciated, but was near the edge of the ice during glacial periods. It is therefore a good place to recognise periglacial landforms. One example is valleys within downland that don’t contain rivers (called ‘bottoms’) which are sometimes asymmetrical, with a shallow side and a steep side. The shallow side is usual the sunny side (South-facing) where more vigorous freeze-thaw broke-up the chalk and flattened the slope compared with the darker side.

Chalk Cliffs near Dover

During the dark days of World War Two, Britain’s fighting men’s morale was kept up by Dame Vera Lynn, the ‘Force’s sweetheart’, whose most famous song was “The White Cliffs of Dover”. The chalk cliffs of England’s south coast are an English icon. This is a bit odd however as they are at the far end of the country. Go to the wrong bit of Kent (the county Dover is in) and your mobile (cell) phone will pick up French base stations and connect you to a French mobile phone company. If you do actually move over the English Channel to France, what do you see? Large white chalk cliffs, which at the time Dame Vera was singing were covered with Nazis planning invasion. Incidentally, the nicest way to get to France from England is via the Channel Tunnel, which was drilled entirely through the chalk under the sea from England to France.

So how did white chalk cliffs become symbolic of England? Well, the song “The White Cliffs of Dover” was actually written by two Americans which might also explain why the song goes on about Bluebirds, which are not native to England.

Chalk downland has thin soils. If you strip off this soil you quickly get to chalk, brilliant white against the grass. This can be used to make large pictures on the slopes visible for miles. These images are generally very old and are often of horses but can be, er, other things.

White horse of Uffington

Cerne Abbas giant, the world's oldest and largest rude chalk drawing?

What is the origin or meaning of these figures? Nobody really knows.

Chalk is geologically weird

Chalk is the dominant rock-type of late Cretaceous Europe. The simple picture is that high sea-levels meant that the Europe was ‘drowned’ meaning that large areas were far from land. No land means no terrestrial sediment (sand or mud) so, debris from marine algae could slowly build up undiluted to great thicknesses (over 1km of chalk in the North Sea). The traditional picture was that chalk was chalk was chalk. Nothing happened, there was nothing to correlate stratigraphically and thicknesses were relatively constant. A recent paper by Rory Mortimore (in Volume 122, Issue 2 of the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association) gives a good overview of modern knowledge about the Chalk. Detailed correlation across a wide area is now established. A lot is based on bio-stratigraphy and the correlation of volcanic ash-bands (marls, in chalk terminology), which is familiar from many sedimentary sequences. However features such as a flint bands are also useful in correlating different sections. I can understand that the rapid evolution of bivalves or an unusually large eruption might create useful time markers, but why should bands of flint also do so? Weird.

The bulk of the paper makes a nice case for the importance of tectonics for controlling sedimentation. Since the rock is very uniform, evidence for this is subtle, but convincing. It is interesting that a rock-type associated with unusual eustatic conditions (an exceptionally high global sea-level during a period of high CO2 (greenhouse conditions)) should show extensive evidence for tectonic control.

The final weirdness is the question: why do large deposits of chalk exist only in Europe? To get chalk you need zero terrestrial sediment and a carbonate compensation depth that is not too shallow (or your marine dandruff gets dissolved before reaching the bottom). Terrestrial sediment is not there because of high sea-levels; these are globally high sea-levels, so why is chalk not a global phenomena? In particular why does the North American epicontinental seaway not contain lots of chalk? It was at a similar latitude, so there is unlikely to be any climatic difference to explain the lack of chalk. There is some chalk in Kansas, it seems, but nothing on the same scale as in Europe.  Was there just more mud and sand around, diluting the chalk and turning it into marls, or slightly calcareous sandstone?  I’d love to hear a knowledgeable answer to my question and what would be really weird is if none of you good folks could supply it.

Categories: Rocks & minerals, Uncategorized

The Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference, Day 2: We Need the Money

Will Dalen Rice

In the first part of this three part series, I explained why I was attending a biofuels conference and summarized discussions about interactions between the government and the biofuels industry.

Day 2: We need the money

The ALBC was more of a business conference than it was a technology conference. Many technologies have been able to prove viability in the laboratory. Step two, proving it can work at slightly sub-market scale, is being pursued through many pilot tests. The development of these technologies though takes massive amounts of money. Some might ask why taxpayers, bank customers, or anyone not directly invested in biofuels should have to share any of this cost burden. The easy answer is because we have done so in the past. The easy answer is because this technology is something we will all be using in the future. Any and all major technologies that we depend on took large amounts of money to develop. Without proof it was going to work, this was often a risk that couldn’t be justified by “free market” principles. Innovation is often too risky for any one entity to tackle, and since biofuels will have a vast effect once they are at scale, getting to the final payoff requires even more money.

The government can serve a few different roles. They can be the supporter through science grants (NSF does this a lot), they can nudge market support through tax incentives, or they can show figurative support through loan assurance, or something called Loan Guarantees (pledging backing to banks if the loans fall through). Also, if it has any usability on the battlefield, often a technology will be supported by the Department of Defense, which happens to have quite the research budget (a couple of the companies that were making jet fuel and diesel were getting support from the Navy, who is quite the financial partner to have).

With something like a loan guarantee though, you then need a lender. This is where private banks will come into play to actually finance the technology development. During Day Two of the conference, the phrase “creative financing” continued to arise. This is because it is rare to just have a bank loan or a government grant that covers everything. Often the final monetary package is a mixture of tax incentives, grants, loan guarantee, and private equity investment. I thought it was the technology side of things that was hard to figure out, but after spending a day talking about money, I now realize that getting the 10’s of millions of dollars to develop advanced biofuels is every bit of a hurdle that only accountant scientists can figure out.

Categories: Energy

The Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference: Summarized by a Newbie to the field (Part 1 of 3)

Will Dalen Rice

When looking at ways to reduce our energy dependence on foreign countries, biofuels are one solution. In an attempt to learn more about biofuels, I subscribe to and receive a daily newsletter about the biofuels industry. In early 2011, I found out about the Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference in April. I figured I would go to this conference and learn about what biofuels were. The scope of this conference ended up being way beyond the basics, spending most of its time over my head. So, hopefully I can condense and recount what was presented, despite a much less “advanced” understanding of the products and practices of the biofuels industry.

Day 1: Government and Biofuels

The very first panel at this conference was full of government employees working in the different sectors most affected by the idea of oil replacement. The USDA, DOE, DOD, and other D-groups were here at this conference to talk about what had to be done to get to where we needed to be. The first thing mentioned was the shortcomings of the current biofuel push. We are not currently developing at a fast enough rate to live up to the expectations of legislation that is supporting biofuels. Worse than that is the connotation that “biofuels” today means ethanol, resulting in a surging effort to replace only the gasoline fraction of the barrel of crude oil. While gas is important, a barrel of crude oil also is used to make diesel, higher end fuels, materials for plastic, chemicals, and a whole host of other things that are needed for our current way of life. From this point, more emphasis was made about how biofuels don’t just effect those of us using them, but additionally they are possible rural development boon. A domestic production of biofuels (growing feedstocks and providing other biofuel support services) could lead to a large amount of positive economic development. This lead into the topic of the “RFS,” or Renewable Fuel Standard. From there “EISA” was brought up (Energy Independence and Security Act). Everyone understood that both the RFS and EISA were partly responsible for the existence of this industry, and that for it to move forward, these would need to be two pieces of policy that needed updating and sustaining.

The last speaker in the early session was a military representative. He showed how the fuel issue is as much a security issue as well as a way of life concern. Our armed forces use a tremendous amount of fuel in many varying types. Aviation fuel is their big need, which is the opposite of the general need for transportation fuels in the commercial market. This being the case, and being as big an issue to them as it was, they had already begun to partner with some biofuel creators to test the capability of the fuels. For them, it wasn’t a question of matching commercial demand with quantity. They wanted to make sure the quality was there. Through some demonstrations, it seemed that a drop-in fuel replacement for fuel oil and diesel had been developed in partnership and they were able to get equivalent energy production out of this non-petroleum substitute. His parting thought were about the Navy “Green Fleet” goal of running an entire battle group off of renewable sources.

The big take away from the first part of the conference was the role of government in the biofuels industry. At this point you might feel you don’t want your tax dollars going to support some new industry. You might be thinking that the industry should stand on its own, and if it can’t, you don’t want it to happen. This flies in the face of the untold wealth of money that have been spent on technological innovation for the good of this country. The most obvious example was the government assistance with the massive infrastructure that currently exists to receive, refine, and distribute the petroleum products that our current society runs on.

One of the big points everyone agrees on is a need for consistency. As it stands now, biofuels and renewable energy related programs seem to fluctuate depending on 1) who is controlling the government and 2) the price of oil. Whether its grants, loan assistance, or even just loan guarantees, the biofuels industry just wants consistent ground to build with future sector predictability. The next panel (said to represent 90% of the current 200+ economic providers) echoed this sentiment. The plan is to make biofuels to replace dependency on foreign oil and to support rural development. They discussed how biofuels didn’t just mean algae or drop-ins or ethanol, but it was a larger picture of a larger sector. The question was how is it possible to work together as an industry to move forward? What were the commonalities? The biggest agreement was the on the importance of the RFS and a push to have policy that supports innovation and development. The technology needs to be adaptable to different feedstocks and able to make different final products, since we need all different types of technology to replace the “whole barrel.” The buzz-phrase of the day was “feedstock agnostic,” meaning you can put a wider range of materials in to get the desirable fuels out.

The next question was “How do we get building today?” The biofuels industry right now lacks stability and consistency from the government in terms of grant programs and R&D supported legislation. Yes, there was some repetition from session to session. To overcome this, there is a need for 10 companies with 7-8 ideas about funding/ finance each. Predictability of the future policy makes long term, large scale support possible, something that is desperately needed to move forward. It appears that oil credits/incentives have become permanently entrenched in the tax code, hampering competition. A similar behavior towards biofuels would give long term assistance, but creative financing options in the immediate term can partly substitute. Even solar and wind seem to have advantages in development, since they don’t have to qualify for the investment tax credit. There needs to be a technologically neutral footing. At this point the market is so entrenched in oil, that it will not fix itself and needs to be forced into change. As prices rise, this looks like it will get closer to reality, but price volatility derails consistent progress today. Long-term off-take contracts would go a long way to seeing this happen. The farmers in this process are adaptable. They just need the market to materialize and be stable.

Categories: Energy