About Paul

Paul Bernhard has been actively involved with the Museum’s Wiess Energy Hall for fifteen years, but he still doesn’t know how to assess the influence of the Boycott effect on drilling mud flow, or even how to calculate the Gibbs free energy of PEMFP fuel cells. Nonetheless, due to sheer longevity, Bernhard has become the spokesman for all things energy-related at the Museum. His blog will reflect this.

Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution

Our new exhibition Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution is opening this Friday, and we know you have questions! In today’s post, Paul Bernhard answers some of the most frequent and important questions about our new fossil.

 See the Archaeopteryx fossil, on display at HMNS
April 23, 2010.

What is the highlight of the exhibition and why? 
The nearly perfect fossil of Archaeopteryx, with the imprint of a body completely covered with feathers, providing a strong link between dinosaurs and modern birds. To date, ten skeletons have been found, among which, the Thermopolis specimen coming to Houston is considered  in many regards as the world’s finest, rivaled only by the Berlin specimen.

What else can you see in the exhibition?
More than a hundred other 150-million-year-old fossils from the world-famous Solnhofen quarries of Bavaria, including fish, turtles, insects, lizards and pterodactyls.

Why is Archaeopteryx important to science?
Archaeopteryx, classified as the world’s earliest bird and regarded by many experts as the “world’s most important fossil” (take THAT, Lucy!), provides compelling evidence that modern birds are direct descendants of the dinosaurs.

Is there any debate on how this fossil relates to birds?
Although the evidence linking Archaeopteryx to birds is pretty persuasive, a spirited controversy amongst scientists will likely rage for some time to come. Detailed anatomical analysis, made possible by the stunning, near-perfect condition of fossils such as the Thermopolis specimen, make the conclusion all but irrefutable.

Where was the fossil found?
The Thermopolis specimen was found in the world-renowned stone quarries of Solnhofen, Germany. The celebrated quarries are known around the world for high quality “lithographic limestone,” the original–and still optimum–source of rock plates for the world’s first lithographic printing. Before the smooth, warm-hued limestone quarried at Solnhofen was used in lithography, it was prized for its beauty and durability as a carving and building stone. But perhaps most significantly, the Solnhofen limestone is among the world’s most prolific sources of superb fossils of animals and plants that lived 150 million years ago.

What makes this exhibition important?
I think the answer to that question can be best answered by Joel Bartsch, President of HMNS. “The discovery of a single fossilized feather in the stone quarries of Solnhofen, Germany in 1861 led to the discovery of  a lizard-like creature, whose near-perfect fossil showed clearly that it was completely covered with feathers. Dubbed Archaeopteryx, and now considered the world’s earliest bird, this renowned fossil will be displayed in Houston for the first time ever. This is a rare opportunity to witness for yourself the direct link between dinosaurs and modern birds.”

What is the condition of the fossil – can you see the feathers clearly? Is there a certain pattern to the feathers?
There are only ten fossil Archaeopteryxin the entire world, and the Thermopolis specimen on display in Houston is in many ways the most complete of all of them. You can clearly see the imprint of feathers on the bird’s extremities.

How big is the fossil? 
In size,  the Thermopolis specimen of Archeopteryx is about the size of a crow.

We know you have more questions. Please email them to us at blogadmin@hmns.org. Come learn the answers for yourself by visiting our new exhibition Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution, opening this Friday.

Measure for Measure…How much energy is there?

How much energy is there?  How much is the world using? You can spend hours and hours investigating the finer points of that topic—and plenty of people spend their whole lives on it. Does that sound like fun, or what? Before you jump in, a few basics are in order.

back alley
Creative Commons License photo credit: tvol

A barrel is 42 gallons of oil. Although the actual familiar steel drum is used less and less these days, the somewhat arbitrary 42 gallons remains the worldwide definition of a barrel.

Natural gas is normally measured in cubic feet. Because the volume of a gas changes based on its pressure and temperature, different groups have different standard conditions, resulting in slightly different amounts of natural gas per cubic foot.
 
To get some kind of grand total that makes any sense, we need a standardized unit of measurement for gases, liquids and all other forms of energy. Since all forms of energy can be converted to heat, one approach is to use heat as the basis for measuring energy.  We can measure that heat in British Thermal Units, or BTU. One BTU is the amount of heat energy needed to raise the temperature of one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit, which happens to be just about equal to the energy of a burning match.

When we are trying to measure huge quantities of energy on a global level, we can convert everything (barrels of oil, cubic feet of natural gas) to BTU, resulting in amounts that are in the thousands of trillions of BTU—or quadrillions—10 raised to the 15th exponential power, which is a 1 with 15 zeros after it (1,000,000,000,000,000). To simplify things, we refer to one quadrillion BTU as a “quad.”

But sometimes people measure energy in kilowatt-hours (as on your electric bill), or maybe in joules. The conversions for those are as follows:

1 kilowatt-hour = 3,412 BTU = 3,600,000 joules

(Thus, as you can see, a BTU is roughly about 1,000 joules.)

Taladro-H104-OilDriller
Creative Commons License photo credit: nestor galina

There are plenty of statistical mavens who prefer to use the “oil-equivalent” approach, which converts everything to the equivalent of almighty oil, either in “barrels oil equivalent” (BOE), or tonnes (the metric ones) oil equivalent (TOE). As in the previous examples, the numbers being compared are generally quite large, so we usually see MBOE or MTOE, the “M” signifying millions.

1 MTOE =  0.0397 quad = 6.75 MBOE

Practically all your quantitative conversionary questions can be answered at this handy site, which can calculate between just about any units you can imagine:

In 2005, the world consumed somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 x 1018 joules, or about 474 quads, or 139 x 1012 kilowatt-hours of energy from all sources. About 80% of that amount came from fossil fuels, with the rest from nuclear energy, alternative fuels and renewables. BP releases a nifty little study on the state of global energy every year.

The remaining recoverable fossil fuel energy worldwide is estimated by “Wikipedia sources” at about 379,000 quads (huge amounts of energy are locked in “unconventional” sources such as gas hydrates).

In The Sun
Creative Commons License photo credit: krisdecurtis

Another 2.37 million quads from uranium (nuclear power) remain. Both these sums are dwarfed by just one year of the total amount of solar energy that hits the earth, a whopping 3.6 million quads annually.  However you want to measure it, there’s a LOT of energy out there

…or then again, maybe the whole universe could have a sum total of no energy at all .

Chew on that for a little bit and get back to me.

Shall All Hail the Shale? (Shertain Shources Shay Yesh!)

With no end to record-high energy prices in sight, those in the business of supplying our country with fuel are looking with increased enthusiasm to a variety of “unconventional” sources for oil and natural gas. Once deemed too expensive to produce economically, these reservoirs of nonstandard hydrocarbon energy are moving closer to center stage and taking a role in the transition to more renewable resources.  Leading the way among these sources in the U.S. are the natural gas shales, which occur beneath the surface of large swaths of the country.

One of the busiest of these “shale plays” today is the Barnett Shale right here in Texas, a vast layer of sedimentary rock that stretches from Dallas to Fort Worth, beneath 21 counties. The shale originated during the Mississippian Period, about 325 to 350 million years ago. It is now buried beneath layers of sedimentary rock at depths from about 5,000 to 9,000 feet, with a thickness varying from about 50 feet to 1,000 feet. When a geological survey in the early 20th century found rich, organic black shale rock in an outcrop near the Barnett Stream, geologists named it the Barnett Shale. The Barnett Stream was named for John W. Barnett, a late 19th century settler.

The Barnett Shale has huge amounts of natural gas locked up inside it—as much as 250 trillion cubic feet. That amount could fill a cube almost 12 miles on each edge, enough to provide all the natural gas needed in the U.S. for ten years.

Azerbaijan OIlfields
Creative Commons License photo credit: indigoprime

Why are we just now getting this natural gas out?
In regular natural gas wells, once a driller reaches the gas reservoir, the gas flows naturally to the well through tiny pathways in the porous and permeable reservoir rock. The gas in the Barnett Shale is locked in tinier pores with no pathways to let it flow. If you just drill a well to it, the gas won’t budge.

Up until the last few decades, there was no economical way to get the gas out of the shale. Recently, we have solved that problem with new technology. 3D seismic imaging has made it possible to get accurate pictures of the underground layers so engineers can better plan well pathways to avoid obstacles like faults and water zones. Horizontal drilling lets us avoid sensitive areas on the surface like parks or schools, and put more of the well into the shale by going sideways rather than straight down.  Finally, better hydraulic fracture methods allow us to inject high-pressure water into the rock to make millions of tiny cracks in the shale so the gas flows to the well. These procedures have made the Barnett Shale a very popular place for drilling.

The success of the Barnett Shale has renewed interest in other major shale formations in North America that were previously too tricky to drill and produce, including the Haynesville Shale on the Texas borders with Arkansas and Louisiana, the Marcellus and New Albany Shales in the Northeast, and numerous others. Some projections indicate that the Marcellus Shale may end up being more than twice the size of the Barnett. And then there are the Canadian gas shales, which have been estimated as high as one quadrillion cubic feet, a hundred times Canada’s current existing reserves. In comparison, the major Alaskan reservoirs of Prudhoe Bay and Point Thomson contain combined estimated total reserves of 35 trillion cubic feet.

Chelmsford Gas Works
Creative Commons License photo credit: sludgegulper

Of course, everyone knows that statistics can always be manipulated to suit the purposes of the statistics spewer, and the real numbers of petroleum reserves are a constant source of agitated discussion by legions of petro-pundits, and no one can be too sure of exactly how much gas might be out there, but we do know—however you measure it—that there are significant amounts of recoverable gas locked up in shale, and if we use those reserves wisely, in combination with other unconventional fossil fuels and the right mix of renewable resources, we just might come out smelling like a rose—or possibly, due to the sulfur compounds called mercaptans added to consumer-ready natural gas to give it a detectable odor, like a rotten egg.

Paul’s Fourth of July Picnic Piñata

A Smörgåsbord of Alternative Energy Treats à la Carte Sure to Set Off Some Fireworks!

Algae
Creative Commons License photo credit: Sarah Camp

Independence Day is here, and it’s time to fire up the grill with a few tasty bites from the overflowing pantry of alternative energy. For an appetizer, dig into some ocean algae that may one day soon be a superior producer of biofuels, at least according to researchers from Kansas State University. Well, don’t actually eat them, because they are probably not too tasty, and that’s good news, because using algae to make fuel could leave more corn (that would otherwise be used for biofuels) on the market for much-needed food supplies.

Another way to use tiny living things to make energy for us is to let microbes turn hard-to-reach oil into easier-to-extract natural gas. That is the goal of a group of Canadian and British scientists. If their research goes well, injecting microorganisms into wells formerly deemed depleted could renew production. And when will this exciting development get those gasoline prices below $4 a gallon again? Well, let’s see, the original biological process took tens of millions of years, so….

previous ms
Creative Commons License photo credit: atomic0x

What better way to have fun in the sun on Independence Day than with a solar powered car. A group of students from Iowa State University are planning to compete in 2,400-mile race from Texas to Canada in a $400,000 sun-powered vehicle that looks like a souped-up ping-pong table-but hey, that’s a zero emissions ping-pong table that can cruise at over 30 miles per hour. More (solar) power to them!

You may one day declare your independence from less efficient chemical batteries to power your stuff as fuel cells become more efficient. Researchers in Germany are working with carbon nanotubes to make components for fuels cells that are ten times lighter and weight far less than conventional amorphous carbon structures used now. Even more impressive, these tiny-only several atoms thick-tubes boast 1000 times the electrical conductivity of their conventional counterparts.

For something a little more practical for you, the average American celebrating the quintessential summer holiday, you can get your very own fuel-cell-powered car and its solar-powered hydrogen production plant (which makes fresh fuel for the fuel cell)-and the whole package is only $99.99! Well, the model car is only about six inches long, but the science is real-and very cool. You’re sure to be the hit of the picnic.

PICT1015
Creative Commons License photo credit: s2art

As the warm July breezes whisk away your paper plates and blow that BBQ smoke right back in your face, rather than complain about the weather, celebrate the fact that Texas has the fastest-growing wind power industry in the USA. An ultra-clean, and only somewhat noisy, wind turbine-or a whole farm of them-may soon be coming to a desolate hilltop near you. The question is, “What’s the next big thing in Texas energy?” and the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. Big time oilman T. Boone Pickens is betting $10 billion on that.

Another hot topic (aren’t they all?) for this hot month is geothermal energy-producing steam with the natural heat from the earth’s interior. I just got back from Iceland, where that clean and renewable source provides 90% of home heating energy-and allows for really long hot showers. Here in the US, we could supply the electrical needs for over 260 million Americans if we tapped in to only 5% of the geothermal potential available in our own underground. There are plenty of challenges to make this work, but you can bet that as hydrocarbon prices soar, those obstacles won’t seem quite so big.

As that sweet smelling smoke from the wieners and burgers on the grill wafts into the upper atmosphere, don’t overlook the contribution that it adds to your carbon footprint, and how that footprint contributes to global warming and climate change. Scientists are realizing just how hard it is for individuals to influence those numbers significantly-even the austere lifestyle of a Buddhist monk produces about 1/3 the carbon emissions of a typical energy-hungry American. So do we just give up? Of course not-we need to think more about alternatives already mentioned here-and walk more. The person who comes up with the carbon-free barbecue that still delivers that smoky flavor might be up for a Nobel Prize, at least in my book.

When you finally get back to the crib, your belly full of beef (or veggie burgers) and your eyes glazed from too many red, white and blue exploding chrysanthemums and Catherine wheels, you can settle back into your chair and read up on more energy topics the old-fashioned way-by the cozy glow of a zero-emissions gravity-powered lamp. Now, that’s a down-to-earth solution!

Happy Fourth of July!