Vietnam's economy has expanded rapidly in recent years, with its real gross domestic product (GDP) growing 7.7% in 2004 and 8.4% in 2005. Growth is forecast at 8.0% in 2006. Vietnam has had Normal Trade Relations status with the United States since late 2001, with 2002 marking the first time Vietnam shipped more goods to the United States than to Japan. Despite rising exports, Vietnam currently runs a slight trade deficit, but is projected to begin having trade surpluses by 2007.

Much of Vietnam's large rural population relies heavily on non-commercial biomass energy sources such as wood, dung, and rice husks. As a result, Vietnam's per capita commercial energy consumption ranks among the lowest in Asia. The country's commercial energy consumption is predicted to rise in coming years, primarily due to increases in the use of natural gas.

Vietnam claims ownership of a portion of the potentially hydrocarbon-rich Spratly Islands, as do the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, China, and Taiwan. Vietnam, China, and the Philippines agreed in March 2005 to conduct a joint seismic survey for potential oil and natural gas reserves in a portion of the disputed area. Vietnam also claims the Paracel Islands, which China first occupied in 1974.


Vietnam's Oil Production and Consumption, 1980-2005. (Source: EIA, International Energy Annual 2003, internal EIA estimates.).


Vietnam's Oil Production and Consumption, 1980-2005. (Source: EIA, International Energy Annual 2003, internal EIA estimates.)

Vietnam has 600 million barrels of proven oil reserves, according to data from Oil and Gas Journal, but that total is likely to increase as exploration continues. Crude oil production averaged 370,000 barrels per day (bbl/d) in 2005, down somewhat from the 403,000 bbl/d level achieved in 2004. Bach Ho (White Tiger), Rang Dong (Dawn), Hang Ngoc, Dai Hung (Big Bear), and Su Tu Den (Ruby) are the largest oil producing fields in the country. Although it is a significant oil producer, Vietnam remains reliant on imports of petroleum products due to a lack of refining capacity. Overall, Vietnam had net exports of 111,000 bbl/d of oil in 2005. Most of Vietnam's crude oil is exported to refiners in Japan, Singapore, and South Korea.

Vietnam's largest oil producer is Vietsovpetro (VSP), a joint venture (JV) between PetroVietnam and Zarubezhneft of Russia. VSP operates Vietnam's largest oil field, Bach Ho. Other foreign partners include ConocoPhillips, BP, Petronas, and Talisman Energy.

Following the October 2003 commencement of drilling operations in the Su Tu Den (Black Lion) crude field, PetroVietnam reported increasing production volumes. PetroVietnam's April 2003 discovery of an oil deposit in Dai Hung, estimated to have a capacity of 6,300 bbl/d, was expected to further increase Vietnamese production. The decline in production overall from 2004 to 2005 was primarily the result of declining production at the Bach Ho field.

The planned development of several new oil fields in coming years is expected to increase Vietnamese production. A new well at Block 15-1's Su Tu Trang (White Lion) field flowed 8,682 bbl/d in early 2004 and is scheduled to be developed by 2008. In October 2004, Japanese oil companies Nippon Oil Exploration (35 percent interest), Idemitsu Kosan (35 percent), and Teikoku Oil (30 percent) announced plans to fund the development of Blocks 05.1b and 05.1c in the Nam Con Son Basin. Two months later, the Korean National Oil Corporation (KNOC), along with several Korean partners, finalized terms for the $300 million development of Block 11-2, which includes the Flying Orchid Field. PetroVietnam has a 25 percent interest in the joint venture.

Exploration in Vietnam continues to yield new discoveries. In 2002, large oil and gas deposits were discovered in the Ca Ngu Vang (Golden Tuna) and Voi Trang (White Elephant) fields. SOCO Vietnam estimates that its Ca Ngu Vang well may contain up to 250 million barrels of oil. In July 2004, VSP discovered new stocks of oil in its Dragon field. Three months later, a joint venture comprised of American Technologies, Petronas, Singapore Petroleum, and PetroVietnam announced a 100-million-barrel oil discovery off Vietnam's northeast coast.

In September 2004, the Vietnamese government offered nine exploration blocks in the Phu Khanh basin off its southern coast. In November 2004, Japanese oil companies Nippon Oil Exploration, Idemitsu Kosan, and Teikoku Oil signed an agreement to explore in two offshore blocks southeast of Ho Chi Minh City. They plan to drill a test well in 2006 and complete exploration by 2007. In December 2004, Talisman Energy was awarded the right to conduct exploration in the Cuu Long Basin, and received additional acreage in an adjacent area in April 2005. ONGC of India was awarded drilling rights in the deepwater Block 127 in the Phu Khanh Basinoff Vietnam's central coast in October 2005. ChevronTexaco also received acreage in the Phu Khanh Basin in the most recent round of awards, with an award for Block 122 in October 2005.

PetroVietnam's storage and transportation division, Petrolimex, recently completed a new oil storage facility in the central Khanh Hoa province. The depot is largest in the country, with a total storage capacity of 3.68 million barrels.


Vietnam is in the process of building its first refinery. The $1.5 billion Dung Quat Refinery, located in Quang Ngai province, will have a crude distillation capacity of approximately 140,000 bbl/d. After several years of delays in financing the project, construction finally began in November 2005. Commercial operation of the refinery is expected to begin in early 2009. Vietnam's distribution infrastructure is discontinuous, with the north and south of the country functioning largely as separate markets. Completion of the Dung Quat Refinery, located in the center of the country, should lead to greater interaction between the regions.

A second refinery project is under consideration at Nghi Son, north of Hanoi in the Thanh Hoa province. The Vietnamese government has estimated the 150,000 bbl/d plant will cost $3 billion. In August 2004, Mitsubishi Corporation agreed to participate in building Nghi Son for completion in 2010. In December 2004, Vietnam contracted the International Business Company (IBC) of the British Virgin Islands to conduct a feasibility study for a third oil refinery, to be located at Vung Ro in the southern Phu Yen province. The Vietnamese government hopes to complete the refinery within 12 years.

Natural Gas:

Vietnam's Oil Production and Consumption, 1980-2005. (Source: EIA, International Energy Annual 2003.).


Vietnam's Oil Production and Consumption, 1980-2005. (Source: EIA, International Energy Annual 2003.).

Vietnam has proven gas reserves of 6.8 trillion cubic feet (Tcf), according to Oil and Gas Journal. Vietnam's natural gas production and consumption have been rising rapidly since the late 1990s, with further increases expected as additional fields come onstream. Natural gas is currently produced entirely for domestic consumption. The Cuu Long basin offshore from the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, a source of associated gas from oil production, is the largest Vietnamese natural gas production area.

Only two fields in Vietnam have been developed specifically for their natural gas potential: Tien Hai, with a potential output of 1.76 million cubic feet per day (Mmcf/d); and Lan Tay/Lan Do of Nam Con Son, which began producing over 5 Mmcf/d in 2002. In the Nam Con Son Basin, a $565 million, 230-mile pipeline was completed in June 2002 connecting the Lan Tay and Lan Do fields to the mainland at Vung Tau. The Nam Con Son project consists of five subsea wells linked to a production platform and a pipeline leading to an onshore treatment plant. Gas is piped to three generating plants at the Phu My industrial complex, where electricity is provided primarily to areas surrounding Ho Chi Minh City. In December 2004, the Vietnamese government announced that output from Nam Con Son was expected to reach 88 billion cubic feet (Bcf), exceeding planned production by 90%. The project currently supplies the Phu My 1, Phu My 3, Phu My 2.1 power plants and the extended Phu My 2.1 plant. Phu My 2.2 will begin using output from the field soon thereafter.

In December 2002, a consortium headed by Korea National Oil Corporation (KNOC) signed an agreement to install facilities to pump and supply 130 Mmcf/d of natural gas to Vietnam. The natural gas, located in the Rong Doi and Rong Doi Tay fields on Block 11-2 of the Nam Con Son Basin, is sold to PetroVietnam under a 23-year contract. PetroVietnam resells most this volume to Electricity of Vietnam (EVN). Production at the fields began in mid-2005. In December 2004, KNOC and PetroVietnam signed agreements to further exploit natural gas in both Blocks 11 and 12. Construction of an additional pipeline to bring ashore natural gas from block 11 began in October 2005, and is scheduled for completion in October 2006.

The Su Tu Den and Rang Dong oil fields, both of which have considerable Vietnamese reserves of associated natural gas, are located near the 62-mile pipeline from the Bach Ho field. An estimated 60 Mmcf/d of gas from the fields is earmarked for consumption in power plants in southern Vietnam.

Both TotalFinaElf and ChevronTexaco (originally Unocal) have found natural gas in exploratory drilling of the Malay basin. Additionally, Talisman Energy has found natural gas at the Cai Nuoc field in block 46. The discovery is close to block PM-3-CAA, which straddles the maritime border with Malaysia, and is expected to contain up to 100 Bcf of recoverable gas reserves.

A contract was awarded to McDermott International in March 2006 for construction of a 200-mile pipeline, which will transport natural gas from the PM3-CAA block to Ca Mau province in southern Vietnam. It is scheduled for completion in 2007.

In December 2004, PetroVietnam announced that it was reconsidering the $70 million Phu My gas pipeline project from Phu My to Nhon Trach due to increased expenses associated with land costs in compensation areas. The pipeline was initially planned to transport associated gas from the Bach Ho and Rong fields for power generation.


Vietnam contains coal reserves estimated at 165 million short tons (Mmst), the majority of which is anthracite. Production has increased dramatically over the last decade, with Vietnam producing over 18 Mmst in 2003. As a result, Vietnam exported a record 7 Mmst of coal, primarily to Japan and China, in 2003. Although Vietnam has historically relied on hydropower for electricity, it has recently promoted the construction of coal-fired power plants. Vinocoal plans to build eight coal-fueled thermal power plants with a total capacity of 2,900 megawatts (MW) by 2010. Six are currently in various stages of planning and construction. In December 2004, the Vietnamese government approved Vinacoal's proposal to invest in a 200-MW, coal-fired thermal power plant in the Son Dong district. The plant is scheduled to begin operation in 2007. Coal-fired power plants are expected to eventually account for 25% of Vietnam's total electricity production. The Vietnamese government estimates that 10.2 Mmst of coal is needed per year to meet increasing domestic demand, projected at 20,000 MW by 2010.

Vietnam continues to exploit new coal reserves within its borders. In March 2003, a significant coal bed was discovered in the Red River Delta region of northern Vietnam. Vinacoal plans to use the reserve for thermal power plants. In October 2004, Vinacoal entered talks with China's Fujian Province Coal Industry Corporation to jointly exploit the Bac Coc Sau mine in the Quang Ninh province.


Vietnam's Electricity Generation, 1980-2003. (Source: EIA, International Energy Annual 2003.).


Vietnam's Electricity Generation, 1980-2003. (Source: EIA, International Energy Annual 2003.).

Although Vietnam's per capita electricity consumption is among the lowest in Asia, demand has risen in recent years, straining the country's limited generating capacity. Rapid commercial sector growth, population migration to major cities, and elevated living standards have all contributed to a growing demand for electricity. In 2003, Vietnam had a total electric generating capacity of 8.8 gigawatts (GW) and generated 39.7 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity, of which 52 percent was hydropower.

Electricity demand in Vietnam is forecast to grow 15 percent per year until 2010. Vietnam currently buys power from China to prevent shortages in the north, and plans to begin purchasing from Laos in 2008.

The majority of thermal electricity generation in Vietnam depends on coal-fired plants, though natural gas use is expanding. EVN's Pha Lai is the largest coal-fired power project in Vietnam, with the second of two 300-MW units coming into service in 2003. In order to meet increased demand, construction or expansion is planned for 32 power stations (7,547 MW) before 2010. The state power company, Eléctricité of Vietnam (EVN), plans to commission 16 hydropower plants by 2010 and increased capacity at the Uong Bi coal-fired plant to 400 MW in 2005. Vinacoal also has plans to construct eight additional coal-fired power plants.

Vietnam currently has five hydroelectric expansions underway. The country's Son La project, which began construction in late 2005, is anticipated to have a generating capacity of 2,400 megawatts (MW) by 2012, will be the largest hydroelectric project in Vietnam when completed. In September 2004, construction began on the Ban Ve hydroelectric power plant, expected to begin operations in 2008. EVN began work on four additional hydroelectric projects in late 2004. The Dong Nai 3 and Dong Nai 4, both located in the Central Highlands region, are expected to be completed within four years and to provide approximately 520 MW of generating capacity. In December 2004, EVN began construction of the Se San 4 hydropower plant in the central highlands provinces of Gia Lai and Kon Tum. The plant is anticipated to have a capacity of 330 MW and to generate 1,390 million kWh per year. Vietnam also plans to build three additional plants in the region before 2010.

In March 2004, EVN announced plans to spend $1.3 billion to build and refurbish power plants with a combined capacity of 1,510 MW. The projects include the combined cycle power plant Phu My 2.1, the hydroelectric facility Can Don, the Phu My 3 and Phu My 4 thermal plants, and Na Duong. Additional projects include the Song Ba Ha, Bac Binh, Se San 4, Dong Nai 3 and Dong Nai 4 hydrostations, the Quang Ninh, Ninh Binh extension, and the O Mon 600-MW thermal plant.

The development of natural gas-fired plants in the Phu My complex of the Ba Ria-Vung Tau province has helped to offset Vietnam's heavy reliance on hydropower, which can be vulnerable to disruption when monsoon rainfall is unusually low. In March 2003, the 720-MW Phu My 3 power plant commenced operations. The $450 million plant, owned by a consortium led by UK's BP, was Vietnam's first foreign-invested, build-operate-transfer (BOT) project. EVN has contracted to purchase the output under a 20-year power purchase agreement. Mitsubishi received an award in February 2006 for the construction of a 330-MW natural gas-fired power plant in the southern Mekong delta. The plant will come online in early 2009, running initially on fuel oil, and switching to natural gas when pipeline infrastructure is completed.

More foreign companies are beginning to enter the growing Vietnamese power market in the form of Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) projects. EVN and a consortium including Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), Sumitomo, and Eléctricité de France (EdF) began BOT construction of the Mekong Delta's 715-MW Phu My 2-2 in January 2003. The plant is fueled by gas from Nam Con Son Basin.

EVN plans to develop a national electricity grid by 2020 by patching together several regional grids. The country's distribution infrastructure is poorly maintained, but has benefited from recent improvements. A North-South power cable transmits electricity from Vietnam's largest generator, the Hoa Binh hydropower plant in the North, to large population centers in the South, linking the country into one electricity grid and helping alleviate electricity shortages in Ho Chi Minh City. The $56 million project was funded by the World Bank. Vietnam is considering the construction of a 500-KV, 188-mile power line from Pleiku to Danang city at a cost of $130 million. The Vietnamese government has estimated that an additional 9,300 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 173,600 miles of medium- and low-voltage transmission lines will be necessary to accommodate new capacity by 2010. In September 2004, EVN announced plans to invest $330 million over five years to upgrade transmission lines surrounding Hanoi.

Vietnam plans to complete its first nuclear power plant by 2020 as an alternate means on meeting demand. In December 2004, the Vietnamese Ministry of Science and Technology submitted a pre-feasibility study for the 2,000-megawatt (MW) nuclear plant to the National Assembly.

Fossil Fuels - Coal, Oil and Natural Gas:

Where Fossil Fuels Come From:

There are three major forms of fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. All three were formed many hundreds of millions of years ago before the time of the dinosaurs - hence the name fossil fuels. The age they were formed is called the Carboniferous Period. It was part of the Paleozoic Era. "Carboniferous" gets its name from carbon, the basic element in coal and other fossil fuels.

The Carboniferous Period occurred from about 360 to 286 million years ago. At the time, the land was covered with swamps filled with huge trees, ferns and other large leafy plants, similar to the picture above. The water and seas were filled with algae - the green stuff that forms on a stagnant pool of water. Algae is actually millions of very small plants.

Some deposits of coal can be found during the time of the dinosaurs. For example, thin carbon layers can be found during the late Cretaceous Period (65 million years ago) - the time of Tyrannosaurus Rex. But the main deposits of fossil fuels are from the Carboniferous Period. For more about the various geologic eras, go to

As the trees and plants died, they sank to the bottom of the swamps of oceans. They formed layers of a spongy material called peat. Over many hundreds of years, the peat was covered by sand and clay and other minerals, which turned into a type of rock called sedimentary.

More and more rock piled on top of more rock, and it weighed more and more. It began to press down on the peat. The peat was squeezed and squeezed until the water came out of it and it eventually, over millions of years, it turned into coal, oil or petroleum, and natural gas.


Coal is a hard, black colored rock-like substance. It is made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and varying amounts of sulphur. There are three main types of coal - anthracite, bituminous and lignite. Anthracite coal is the hardest and has more carbon, which gives it a higher energy content. Lignite is the softest and is low in carbon but high in hydrogen and oxygen content. Bituminous is in between. Today, the precursor to coal - peat - is still found in many countries and is also used as an energy source.

The earliest known use of coal was in China. Coal from the Fu-shun mine in northeastern China may have been used to smelt copper as early as 3,000 years ago. The Chinese thought coal was a stone that could burn.

Coal is found in many of the lower 48 states of U.S. and throughout the rest of the world. Coal is mined out of the ground using various methods. Some coal mines are dug by sinking vertical or horizontal shafts deep under ground, and coal miners travel by elevators or trains deep under ground to dig the coal. Other coal is mined in strip mines where huge steam shovels strip away the top layers above the coal. The layers are then restored after the coal is taken away.

The coal is then shipped by train and boats and even in pipelines. In pipelines, the coal is ground up and mixed with water to make what's called a slurry. This is then pumped many miles through pipelines. At the other end, the coal is used to fuel power plants and other factories.

Oil or Petroleum:

Oil is another fossil fuel. It was also formed more than 300 million years ago. Some scientists say that tiny diatoms are the source of oil. Diatoms are sea creatures the Picture of oil formationsize of a pin head. They do one thing just like plants; they can convert sunlight directly into stored energy.

Oil has been used for more than 5,000-6,000 years. The ancient Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians used crude oil and asphalt ("pitch") collected from large seeps at Tuttul (modern-day Hit) on the Euphrates River. A seep is a place on the ground where the oil leaks up from below ground. The ancient Egyptians, used liquid oil as a medicine for wounds, and oil has been used in lamps to provide light.

The Dead Sea, near the modern Country of Israel, used to be called Lake Asphaltites. The word asphalt was derived is from that term because of the lumps of gooey petroleum that were washed up on the lake shores from underwater seeps.

In North America, Native Americans used blankets to skim oil off the surface of streams and lakes. They used oil as medicine and to make canoes water-proof. During the Revolutionary War, Native Americans taught George Washington's troops how to treat frostbite with oil.

As our country grew, the demand for oil continued to increase as a fuel for lamps. Petroleum oil began to replace whale oil in lamps because the price for whale oil was very high. During this time, most petroleum oil came from distilling coal into a liquid or by skimming it off of lakes - just as the Native Americans did.

Then on August 27, 1859, Edwin L. Drake (the man standing on the right in the black and white picture to the right), struck liquid oil at his well near Titusville, Pennsylvania. He found oil under ground and a way that could pump it to the surface. The well pumped the oil into barrels made out of wood. This method of drilling for oil is still being used today all over the world in areas where oil can be found below the surface.

Oil and natural gas are found under ground between folds of rock and in areas of rock that are porous and contain the oils within the rock itself. The folds of rock were formed as the earth shifts and moves. It's similar to how a small, throw carpet will bunch up in places on the floor.

To find oil and natural gas, companies drill through the earth to the deposits deep below the surface. The oil and natural gas are then pumped from below the ground by oil rigs (like in the picture). They then usually travel through pipelines or by ship.

Oil is found in 18 of the 58 counties in California. Kern County, the County where Bakersfield is found, is one of the largest oil production places in the country. But we only get one-half of our oil from California wells. The rest comes from Alaska, and an increasing amount comes from other countries. In the entire U.S., more than 50 percent of all the oil we use comes from outside the country...most of it from the Middle East.

Oil is brought to California by large tanker ships. The petroleum or crude oil must be changed or refined into other products before it can be used.


Oil is stored in large tanks until it is sent to various places to be used. At oil refineries, crude oil is split into various types of products by heating the thick black oil.

Oil is made into many different products - fertilizers for farms, the clothes you wear, the toothbrush you use, the plastic bottle that holds your milk, the plastic pen that you write with. They all came from oil. There are thousands of other products that come from oil. Almost all plastic comes originally from oil. Can you think of some other things made from oil?

The products include gasoline, diesel fuel, aviation or jet fuel, home heating oil, oil for ships and oil to burn in power plants to make electricity. Here's what a barrel of crude oil can make.

In California, 74 percent of our oil is used for transportation -- cars, planes, trucks, buses and motorcycles. We'll learn more about transportation energy in Chapter 18.

Natural Gas:

Sometime between 6,000 to 2,000 years BCE (Before the Common Era), the first discoveries of natural gas seeps were made in Iran. Many early writers described the natural petroleum seeps in the Middle East, especially in the Baku region of what is now Azerbaijan. The gas seeps, probably first ignited by lightning, provided the fuel for the "eternal fires" of the fire-worshiping religion of the ancient Persians.

Natural gas is lighter than air. Natural gas is mostly made up of a gas called methane. Methane is a simple chemical compound that is made up of carbon and hydrogen atoms. It's chemical formula is CH4 - one atom of carbon along with four atoms hydrogen. This gas is highly flammable.

Natural gas is usually found near petroleum underground. It is pumped from below ground and travels in pipelines to storage areas. The next chapter looks at that pipeline system. Natural gas usually has no odor and you can't see it. Before it is sent to the pipelines and storage tanks, it is mixed with a chemical that gives a strong odor. The odor smells almost like rotten eggs. The odor makes it easy to smell if there is a leak.

Energy Safety Note! If you smell that rotten egg smell in your house, tell your folks and get out of the house quickly. Don't turn on any lights or other electrical devices. A spark from a light switch can ignite the gas very easily. Go to a neighbor's house and call 9-1-1 for emergency help.

Saving Fossil Fuels:

Fossil fuels take millions of years to make. We are using up the fuels that were made more than 300 million years ago before the time of the dinosaurs. Once they are gone they are gone. So, it's best to not waste fossil fuels. They are not renewable; they can't really be made again. We can save fossil fuels by conserving energy.

Natural Gas Distribution System:

We learned in Chapter 8 that natural gas is a fossil fuel. It is a gaseous molecule that's made up of two atoms - one carbon atom combined with four hydrogen atom. It's chemical formula is CH4. The picture on the right is a model of what the molecule could look like. Don't confuse natural gas with "gasoline," which we call "gas" for short. Like oil, natural gas is found under ground and under the ocean floor. Wells are drilled to tap into natural gas reservoirs just like drilling for oil. Once a drill has hit an area that contains natural gas, it can be brought to the surface through pipes. The natural gas has to get from the wells to us. To do that, there is a huge network of pipelines that brings natural gas from the gas fields to us. Some of these pipes are two feet wide. Natural gas is sent in larger pipelines to power plants to make electricity or to factories because they use lots of gas. Bakeries use natural gas to heat ovens to bake bread, pies, pastries and cookies. Other businesses use natural gas for heating their buildings or heating water.

From larger pipelines, the gas goes through smaller and smaller pipes to your neighborhood.

In businesses and in your home, the natural gas must first pass through a meter, which measures the amount of fuel going into the building. A gas company worker reads the meter and the company will charge you for the amount of natural gas you used. In some homes, natural gas is used for cooking, heating water and heating the house in a furnace. In rural areas, where there are no natural gas pipelines, propane (another form of gas that's often made when oil is refined) or bottled gas is used instead of natural gas. Propane is also called LPG, or liquefied petroleum gas, is made up of methane and a mixture with other gases like butane. Propane turns to a liquid when it is placed under slight pressure. For regular natural gas to turn into a liquid, it has to be made very, very cold. Cars and trucks can also use natural gas as a transportation fuel, but they must carry special cylinder-like tanks to hold the fuel.

When natural gas is burned to make heat or burned in a car's engine, it burns very cleanly. When you combine natural gas with oxygen (the process of combustion), you produce carbon dioxide and water vapor; plus the energy that's released in heat and light. Some impurities are contained in all natural gas. These include sulphur and butane and other chemicals. When burned, those impurities can create air pollution. The amount of pollution from natural gas is less than burning a more "complex" fuel like gasoline. Natural gas-powered cars are more than 90 percent cleaner than a gasoline-powered car.

That's why many people feel natural gas would be a good fuel for cars because it burns cleanly.

Biomass Energy:

Biomass is matter usually thought of as garbage. Some of it is just stuff lying around -- dead trees, tree branches, yard clippings, left-over crops, wood chips (like in the picture to the right), and bark and sawdust from lumber mills. It can even include used tires and livestock manure.

Your trash, paper products that can't be recycled into other paper products, and other household waste are normally sent to the dump. Your trash contains some types of biomass that can be reused. Recycling biomass for fuel and other uses cuts down on the need for "landfills" to hold garbage. This stuff nobody seems to want can be used to produce electricity, heat, compost material or fuels. Composting material is decayed plant or food products mixed together in a compost pile and spread to help plants grow.

California produces more than 60 million bone dry tons of biomass each year. Of this total, five million bone dry tons is now burned to make electricity. This is biomass from lumber mill wastes, urban wood waste, forest and agricultural residues and other feed stocks.

If all of it was used, the 60 million tons of biomass in California could make close to 2,000 megawatts of electricity for California's growing population and economy. That's enough energy to make electricity for about two million homes!

How biomass works is very simple. The waste wood, tree branches and other scraps are gathered together in big trucks. The trucks bring the waste from factories and from farms to a biomass power plant. Here the biomass is dumped into huge hoppers. This is then fed into a furnace where it is burned. The heat is used to boil water in the boiler, and the energy in the steam is used to turn turbines and generators .

Biomass can also be tapped right at the landfill with burning waster products. When garbage decomposes, it gives off methane gas. You'll remember in chapters 8 and 9 that natural gas is made up of methane. Pipelines are put into the landfills and the methane gas can be collected. It is then used in power plants to make electricity. This type of biomass is called landfill gas.

A similar thing can be done at animal feed lots. In places where lots of animals are raised, the animals - like cattle, cows and even chickens - produce manure. When manure decomposes, it also gives off methane gas similar to garbage. This gas can be burned right at the farm to make energy to run the farm.

Using biomass can help reduce global warming compared to a fossil fuel-powered plant. Plants use and store carbon dioxide (CO2) when they grow. CO2 stored in the plant is released when the plant material is burned or decays. By replanting the crops, the new plants can use the CO2 produced by the burned plants. So using biomass and replanting helps close the carbon dioxide cycle. However, if the crops are not replanted, then biomass can emit carbon dioxide that will contribute toward global warming.

So, the use of biomass can be environmentally friendly because the biomass is reduced, recycled and then reused. It is also a renewable resource because plants to make biomass can be grown over and over.

Today, new ways of using biomass are still being discovered. One way is to produce ethanol, a liquid alcohol fuel. Ethanol can be used in special types of cars that are made for using alcohol fuel instead of gasoline. The alcohol can also be combined with gasoline. This reduces our dependence on oil - a non-renewable fossil fuel.

Geothermal Energy:

Geothermal Energy has been around for as long as the Earth has existed. "Geo" means earth, and "thermal" means heat. So, geothermal means earth-heat. Have you ever cut a boiled egg in half? The egg is similar to how the earth looks like inside. The yellow yolk of the egg is like the core of the earth. The white part is the mantle of the earth. And the thin shell of the egg, that would have surrounded the boiled egg if you didn't peel it off, is like the earth's crust. Below the crust of the earth, the top layer of the mantle is a hot liquid rock called magma. The crust of the earth floats on this liquid magma mantle. When magma breaks [Earth's crust]through the surface of the earth in a volcano, it is called lava.

For every 100 meters you go below ground, the temperature of the rock increases about 3 degrees Celsius. Or for every 328 feet below ground, the temperature increases 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit. So, if you went about 10,000 feet below ground, the temperature of the rock would be hot enough to boil water. Deep under the surface, water sometimes makes its way close to the hot rock and turns into boiling hot water or into steam. The hot water can reach temperatures of more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit (148 degrees Celsius). This is hotter than boiling water (212 degrees F / 100 degrees C). It doesn't turn into steam because it is not in contact with the air.

When this hot water comes up through a crack in the earth, we call it a hot spring, like Emerald Pool at Yellowstone National Park pictured on the left. Or, it sometimes explodes into the air as a geyser, like Old Faithful Geyser pictured on the right.

About 10,000 years ago, Paleo-Indians used hot springs in North American for cooking. Areas around hot springs were neutral zones. Warriors of fighting tribes would bathe together in peace. Every major hot spring in the United States can be associated with Native American tribes. California hot springs, like at the Geysers in the Napa area, were important and sacred areas to tribes from that area.

In other places around the world, people used hot springs for rest and relaxation. The ancient Romans built elaborate buildings to enjoy hot baths, and the Japanese have enjoyed natural hot springs for centuries.

Geothermal Today:

Today, people use the geothermally heated hot water in swimming pools and in health spas. Or, the hot water from below the ground can warm buildings for growing plants, like in the green house on the right.

In San Bernardino, in Southern California, hot water from below ground is used to heat buildings during the winter. The hot water runs through miles of insulated pipes to dozens of public buildings. The City Hall, animal shelters, retirement homes, state agencies, a hotel and convention center are some of the buildings which are heated this way.

In the Country of Iceland, many of the buildings and even swimming pools in the capital of Reykjavik (RECK-yah-vick) and elsewhere are heated with geothermal hot water. The country has at least 25 active volcanoes and many hot springs and geysers.

Geothermal Electricity:

Hot water or steam from below ground can also be used to make electricity in a geothermal power plant.

In California, there are 14 areas where we use geothermal energy to make electricity. The red areas on the map show where there are known geothermal areas. Some are not used yet because the resource is too small, too isolated or the water temperatures are not hot enough to make electricity.

The main spots are:

  • The Geysers area north of San Francisco.
  • In the northwest corner of the state near Lassen Volcanic National Park.
  • In the Mammoth Lakes area - the site of a huge ancient volcano.
  • In the Coso Hot Springs area in Inyo County.
  • In the Imperial Valley in Southern California.

Some of the areas have so much steam and hot water that it can be used to generate electricity. Holes are drilled into the ground and pipes lowered into the hot water, like a drinking straw in a soda. The hot steam or water comes up through these pipes from below ground.

You can see the pipes running in front of the geothermal power plant in the picture. This power plant is Geysers Unit # 18 located in the Geysers Geothermal area of California.

A geothermal power plant is like in a regular power plant except that no fuel is burned to heat water into steam. The steam or hot water in a geothermal power plant is heated by the earth. It goes into a special turbine. The turbine blades spin and the shaft from the turbine is connected to a generator to make electricity. The steam then gets cooled off in a cooling tower.

The white "smoke" rising from the plants in the photograph above is not smoke. It is steam given off in the cooling process. The cooled water can then be pumped back below ground to be reheated by the earth.

Here's a cut-away showing the inside of the power plant. The hot water flows into turbine and out of the turbine. The turn turns the generator, and the electricity goes out to the transformer and then to the huge transmission wires that link the power plants to our homes, school and businesses. We learned about transmission lines .

Hydrogen and Future Energy Sources:

We learned in Chapter 8 that fossil fuels were formed before and during the time of the dinosaurs - when plants and animals died. Their decomposed remains gradually changed over the years to form coal, oil and natural gas. Fossil fuels took millions of years to make. We are using up the fuels formed more than 65 million years ago. They can't be renewed; they can't be made again. We can save fossil fuels by conserving and finding ways to harness energy from seemingly "endless sources," like the sun and the wind.

We can't use fossil fuels forever as they are a non-renewable and finite resource. Some people suggest that we should start using hydrogen.

Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless gas that accounts for 75 percent of the entire universe's mass. Hydrogen is found on Earth only in combination with other elements such as oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. To use hydrogen, it must be separated from these other elements.

Today, hydrogen is used primarily in ammonia manufacturing, petroleum refining and synthesis of methanol. It's also used in NASA's space program as fuel for the space shuttles, and in fuel cells that provide heat, electricity and drinking water for astronauts. Fuel cells are devices that directly convert hydrogen into electricity. In the future, hydrogen could be used to fuel vehicles (such as the DaimlerChrysler NeCar 4 shown in the picture to the right) and aircraft, and provide power for our homes and offices.

Hydrogen can be made from molecules called hydrocarbons by applying heat, a process known as "reforming" hydrogen. This process makes hydrogen from natural gas. An electrical current can also be used to separate water into its components of oxygen and hydrogen in a process called electrolysis. Some algae and bacteria, using sunlight as their energy source, give off hydrogen under certain conditions.

Hydrogen as a fuel is high in energy, yet a machine that burns pure hydrogen produces almost zero pollution. NASA has used liquid hydrogen since the 1970s to propel rockets and now the space shuttle into orbit. Hydrogen fuel cells power the shuttle's electrical systems, producing a clean by-product - pure water, which the crew drinks.

You can think of a fuel cell as a battery that is constantly replenished by adding fuel to it - it never loses its charge.

To view a FLASH video of how a fuel cell works, go to the Ballard Power Systems website.

Fuel Cell Uses:

Fuel cells are a promising technology for use as a source of heat and electricity in buildings, and as an electrical power source for vehicles.

Auto companies are working on building cars and trucks that use fuel cells. In a fuel cell vehicle, an electrochemical device converts hydrogen (stored on board) and oxygen from the air into electricity, to drive an electric motor and power the vehicle.

Although these applications would ideally run off pure hydrogen, in the near term they are likely to be fueled with natural gas, methanol or even gasoline. Reforming these fuels to create hydrogen will allow the use of much of our current energy infrastructure - gas stations, natural gas pipelines, etc. - while fuel cells are phased in.

In the future, hydrogen could also join electricity as an important energy carrier. An energy carrier stores, moves and delivers energy in a usable form to consumers.

Renewable energy sources, like the sun, can't produce energy all the time. The sun doesn't always shine. But hydrogen can store this energy until it is needed and can be transported to where it is needed.

Some experts think that hydrogen will form the basic energy infrastructure that will power future societies, replacing today's natural gas, oil, coal, and electricity infrastructures. They see a new "hydrogen economy" to replace our current "fossil fuel-based economy," although that vision probably won't happen until far in the future.

Solar Power Satellites:

One suggestion for energy in the future is to put huge solar power satellites into orbit around the earth. They would collect solar energy from the sun, convert it to electricity and beam it to Earth as microwaves or some other form of transmission. The power would have no greenhouse gas emissions, but microwave beams might affect health adversely. And frequent rocket launches may harm the upper atmosphere. This idea may not be practical for another century; if at all.

The picture on the right is an early and simple drawing of how a space solar power satellite would beam energy to electrical power grid on Earth.

Other Ideas:

Some people have claimed they've invented a machine that will "save the planet." Others are convinced that there's a vast conspiracy by fossil fuel and / or nuclear power companies to stop such devices from getting to the public. Some of these contraptions use theories called "Free Energy," "Over Unity" or "Zero-Point Energy." As a matter of fact, you can find all sorts of information about such devices on the Internet. Just plug in any of those words.

But none of these devices have ever been proven, either theoretically or physically. The "free energy" area is filled with con artists selling unintelligible information, often clouded with technical sounding jargon, and seeking people with money to develop their inventions or ideas.

As the old saying goes, "a fool and his money are soon parted."

Most of these devices are perpetual motion machines, which violate known laws of science. Even the U.S. Patent Office will not issue a patent for such devices. With energy and the universe (at least as we know it today), there's no such thing as a free lunch; or free energy. You can't get energy from nothing because of the fundamental laws of physics that energy cannot be created or destroyed.

What about matter and anti-matter? What about energy that they use on Star Trek and in other science fiction stories? The ideas are interesting, but they are still fiction. Though science fiction has a basis in some fact. Jules Verne wrote about traveling under the water more than a hundred years ago, and today we have submarines. He also wrote about going to the moon, and in 1969 humans first set foot on our closest neighbor in space.

So, while some ideas being used by writers are fiction... there could be some basis in fact. Who knows, someone might create a mater-antimatter energy system that could revolutionize the way we think about energy and our universe.

Cleaning up coal:

COAL is our most abundant fossil fuel. The United States has more coal than the rest of the world has oil. There is still enough coal underground in this country to provide energy for the next 200 to 300 years.But coal is not a perfect fuel.

Trapped inside coal are traces of impurities like sulfur and nitrogen. When coal burns, these impurities are released into the air. While floating in the air, these substances can combine with water vapor (for example, in clouds) and form droplets that fall to earth as weak forms of sulfuric and nitric acid- scientists call it "acid rain."

There are also tiny specks of minerals- including common dirt- mixed in coal. These tiny particles don't burn and make up the ash left behind in a coal combustor. Some of the tiny particles also get caught up in the swirling combustion gases and, along with water vapor, form the smoke that comes out of a coal plant's smokestack. Some of these particles are so small that 30 of them laid side-by-side would barely equal the width of a human hair!

Also, coal like all fossil fuels is formed out of carbon. All living things - even people - are made up of carbon. (Remember - coal started out as living plants.) But when coal burns, its carbon combines with oxygen in the air and forms carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a colorless, odorless gas, but in the atmosphere, it is one of several gases that can trap the earth's heat. Many scientists believe this is causing the earth's temperature to rise, and this warming could be altering the earth's climate (read more about the "greenhouse effect").

Sounds like coal is a dirty fuel to burn. Many years ago, it was. But things have changed. Especially in the last 20 years, scientists have developed ways to capture the pollutants trapped in coal before the impurities can escape into the atmosphere. Today, we have technology that can filter out 99 percent of the tiny particles and remove more than 95 percent of the acid rain pollutants in coal.

We also have new technologies that cut back on the release of carbon dioxide by burning coal more efficiently. Many of these technologies belong to a family of energy systems called "clean coal technologies." Since the mid-1980s, the U.S. Government has invested more than $3 billion in developing and testing these processes in power plants and factories around the country. Private companies and State governments have been part of this program. In fact, they have contributed more than severalbillion dollarsto these projects.

The Clean Coal Technology Program:

The Clean Coal Technology Program began in 1985 when the United States and Canada decided that something had to be done about the "acid rain" that was believed to be damaging rivers, lakes, forests, and buildings in both countries. Since many of the pollutants that formed "acid rain" were coming from big coal-burning power plants in the United States, the U.S. Government took the lead in finding a solution.

One of the steps taken by the U.S. Department of Energy was to create a partnership program between the Government, several States, and private companies to test new methods developed by scientists to make coal burning much cleaner. This became the "Clean Coal Technology Program."

How do you make coal cleaner?

Actually there are several ways.

Take sulfur, for example. Sulfur is a yellowish substance that exists in tiny amounts in coal. In some coals found in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and other eastern states, sulfur makes up from 3 to 10 percent of the weight of coal.

For some coals found in Wyoming, Montana and other western states (as well as some places in the East), the sulfur can be only 1/100ths (or less than 1 percent) of the weight of the coal. Still, it is important that most of this sulfur be removed before it goes up a power plant's smokestack.

Although coal is primarily a mixture of carbon (black) and hydrogen (red) atoms, sulfur atoms (yellow) are also trapped in coal, primarily in two forms. In one form, the sulfur is a separate particle often linked with iron (green) with no connection to the carbon atoms, as in the center of the drawing. In the second form, sulfur is chemically bound to the carbon atoms, such as in the upper left.

One way is to clean the coal before it arrives at the power plant. One of the ways this is done is by simply crushing the coal into small chunks and washing it. Some of the sulfur that exists in tiny specks in coal (called "pyritic sulfur " because it is combined with iron to form iron pyrite, otherwise known as "fool's gold) can be washed out of the coal in this manner. Typically, in one washing process, the coal chunks are fed into a large water-filled tank. The coal floats to the surface while the sulfur impurities sink. There are facilities around the country called "coal preparation plants" that clean coal this way.

Not all of coal's sulfur can be removed like this, however. Some of the sulfur in coal is actually chemically connected to coal's carbon molecules instead of existing as separate particles. This type of sulfur is called "organic sulfur," and washing won't remove it. Several process have been tested to mix the coal with chemicals that break the sulfur away from the coal molecules, but most of these processes have proven too expensive. Scientists are still working to reduce the cost of these chemical cleaning processes.

Most modern power plants — and all plants built after 1978 — are required to have special devices installed that clean the sulfur from the coal's combustion gases before the gases go up the smokestack. The technical name for these devices is "flue gas desulfurization units," but most people just call them "scrubbers" — because they "scrub" the sulfur out of the smoke released by coal-burning boilers.

How do scrubbers work?

Most scrubbers rely on a very common substance found in nature called "limestone." We literally have mountains of limestone throughout this country. When crushed and processed, limestone can be made into a white powder. Limestone can be made to absorb sulfur gases under the right conditions — much like a sponge absorbs water.

In most scrubbers, limestone (or another similar material called lime) is mixed with water and sprayed into the coal combustion gases (called "flue gases"). The limestone captures the sulfur and "pulls" it out of the gases. The limestone and sulfur combine with each other to form either a wet paste (it looks like toothpaste!), or in some newer scrubbers, a dry powder. In either case, the sulfur is trapped and prevented from escaping into the air.

The Clean Coal Technology Program tested several new types of scrubbers that proved to be more effective, lower cost, and more reliable than older scrubbers. The program also tested other types of devices that sprayed limestone inside the tubing (or "ductwork') of a power plant to absorb sulfur pollutants.

But what about nitrogen pollutants? That's another part of the Clean Coal story.

Knocking the NOx Out of Coal:

Air is mostly nitrogen molecules (green in the above diagram) and oxygen molecules (purple). When heated hot enough (around 3000 degrees F), the molecules break apart and oxygen atoms link with the nitrogen atoms to form NOx, an air pollutant.

Nitrogen is the most common part of the air we breathe. In fact, about 80% of the air is nitrogen. Normally, nitrogen atoms float around joined to each other like chemical couples. But when air is heated- in a coal boiler's flame, for example- these nitrogen atoms break apart and join with oxygen. This forms "nitrogen oxides"- or, as it is sometimes called, "NOx" (rhymes with "socks"). NOx can also be formed from the atoms of nitrogen that are trapped inside coal.

In the air, NOx is a pollutant. It can cause smog, the brown haze you sometimes see around big cities. It is also one of the pollutants that forms "acid rain." And it can help form something called "groundlevel ozone," another type of pollutant that can make the air dingy.

NOx can be produced by any fuel that burns hot enough. Automobiles, for example, produce NOx when they burn gasoline. But a lot of NOx comes from coal-burning power plants, so the Clean Coal Technology Program developed new ways to reduce this pollutant.

One of the best ways to reduce NOx is to prevent it from forming in the first place. Scientists have found ways to burn coal (and other fuels) in burners where there is more fuel than air in the hottest combustion chambers. Under these conditions, most of the oxygen in air combines with the fuel, rather than with the nitrogen. The burning mixture is then sent into a second combustion chamber where a similar process is repeated until all the fuel is burned.

This concept is called "staged combustion" because coal is burned in stages. A new family of coal burners called "low-NOx burners" has been developed using this way of burning coal. These burners can reduce the amount of NOx released into the air by more than half. Today, because of research and the Clean Coal Technology Program, approximately 75 percent of all the large coal-burning boilers in the United States will be using these types of burners.

There is also a family of new technologies that work like "scrubbers" (> see the previous page) by cleaning NOx from the flue gases (the smoke) of coal burners. Some of these devices use special chemicals called "catalysts" that break apart the NOx into non-polluting gases. Although these devices are more expensive than "low-NOx burners," they can remove up to 90 percent of NOx pollutants.

But in the future, there may be an even cleaner way to burn coal in a power plant. Or maybe, there may be a way that doesn't burn the coal at all.

A "Bed" for Burning Coal?

It was a wet, chilly day in Washington DC in 1979 when a few scientists and engineers joined with government and college officials on the campus of Georgetown University to celebrate the completion of one of the world's most advanced coal combustors.

It was a small coal burner by today's standards, but large enough to provide heat and steam for much of the university campus. But the new boiler built beside the campus tennis courts was unlike most other boilers in the world.

In a fluidized bed boiler, upward blowing jets of air suspend burning coal, allowing it to mix with limestone that absorbs sulfur pollutants.

It was called a "fluidized bed boiler." In a typical coal boiler, coal would be crushed into very fine particles, blown into the boiler, and ignited to form a long, lazy flame. Or in other types of boilers, the burning coal would rest on grates. But in a "fluidized bed boiler," crushed coal particles float inside the boiler, suspended on upward-blowing jets of air. The red-hot mass of floating coal — called the "bed" — would bubble and tumble around like boiling lava inside a volcano. Scientists call this being "fluidized." That's how the name "fluidized bed boiler" came about.

Why does a "fluidized bed boiler" burn coal cleaner?

There are two major reasons. One, the tumbling action allows limestone to be mixed in with the coal. Remember limestone from a couple of pages ago (> go back)? Limestone is a sulfur sponge — it absorbs sulfur pollutants. As coal burns in a fluidized bed boiler, it releases sulfur. But just as rapidly, the limestone tumbling around beside the coal captures the sulfur. A chemical reaction occurs, and the sulfur gases are changed into a dry powder that can be removed from the boiler. (This dry powder — called calcium sulfate — can be processed into the wallboard we use for building walls inside our houses.)

The second reason a fluidized bed boiler burns cleaner is that it burns "cooler." Now, cooler in this sense is still pretty hot — about 1400 degrees F. But older coal boilers operate at temperatures nearly twice that (almost 3000 degrees F). Remember NOx from the page before (> go back)? NOx forms when a fuel burns hot enough to break apart nitrogen molecules in the air and cause the nitrogen atoms to join with oxygen atoms. But 1400 degrees isn't hot enough for that to happen, so very little NOx forms in a fluidized bed boiler.

The result is that a fluidized bed boiler can burn very dirty coal and remove 90% or more of the sulfur and nitrogen pollutants while the coal is burning. Fluidized bed boilers can also burn just about anything else — wood, ground-up railroad ties, even soggy coffee grounds.

Today, fluidized bed boilers are operating or being built that are 10 to 20 times larger than the small unit built almost 20 years ago at Georgetown University. There are more than 300 of these boilers around this country and the world. The Clean Coal Technology Program helped test these boilers in Colorado, in Ohio and most recently, in Florida.

The Ohio Power Company built this advanced pressurized fluidized bed boiler near the town of Brilliant, OH, as part of a joint project with the U.S. Department of Energy.

A new type of fluidized bed boiler makes a major improvement in the basic system. It encases the entire boiler inside a large pressure vessel, much like the pressure cooker used in homes for canning fruits and vegetables — except the ones used in power plants are the size of a small house!

Burning coal in a "pressurized fluidized bed boiler" produces a high-pressure stream of combustion gases that can spin a gas turbine to make electricity, then boil water for a steam turbine — two sources of electricity from the same fuel!

A "pressurized fluidized bed boiler" is a more efficient way to burn coal. In fact, future boilers using this system will be able to generate 50% more electricity from coal than a regular power plant from the same amount of coal. That's like getting 3 units of power when you used to get only 2.

Because it uses less fuel to produce the same amount of power, a more efficient "pressurized fluidized bed boiler" will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) released from coal-burning power plants.

"Pressurized fluidized bed boilers" are one of the newest ways to burn coal cleanly. But there is another new way that doesn't actually burn the coal at all.

The Cleanest Coal Technology- a Real Gas!

Don't think of coal as a solid black rock. Think of it as a mass of atoms. Most of the atoms are carbon. A few are hydrogen. And there are some others, like sulfur and nitrogen, mixed in. Chemists can take this mass of atoms, break it apart, and make new substances- like gas!

One of the most advanced - and cleanest - coal power plants in the world is Tampa Electric's Polk Power Station in Florida. Rather than burning coal, it turns coal into a gas that can be cleaned of almost all pollutants.

How do you break apart the atoms of coal? You may think it would take a sledgehammer, but actually all it takes is water and heat. Heat coal hot enough inside a big metal vessel, blast it with steam (the water), and it breaks apart. Into what?

The carbon atoms join with oxygen that is in the air (or pure oxygen can be injected into the vessel). The hydrogen atoms join with each other. The result is a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen- a gas.

Now, what do you do with the gas?

You can burn it and uses the hot combustion gases to spin a gas turbine to generate electricity. The exhaust gases coming out of the gas turbine are hot enough to boil water to make steam that can spin another type of turbine to generate even more electricity. But why go to all the trouble to turn the coal into gas if all you are going to do is burn it?

A major reason is that the impurities in coal- like sulfur, nitrogen and many other trace elements- can be almost entirely filtered out when coal is changed into a gas (a process called gasification). In fact, scientists have ways to remove 99.9% of the sulfur and small dirt particles from the coal gas. Gasifying coal is one of the best ways to clean pollutants out of coal.

Another reason is that the coal gases- carbon monoxide and hydrogen- don't have to be burned. They can also be used as valuable chemicals. Scientists have developed chemical reactions that turn carbon monoxide and hydrogen into everything from liquid fuels for cars and trucks to plastic toothbrushes!

Today,outside ofTampa, Florida (near the town of Lakeland), and in West Terre Haute, Indiana, there are power plants generating electricity by gasifying coal, rather than burning it.

Coal gasification could be one of the most promising ways to use coal in the future to generate electricity and other valuable products. Yet, it is only one of an entirely new family of energy processes called "Clean Coal Technologies"- technologies that can make fossil fuels future fuels.

Natural gas: fueling the blue flame:

Natural Gas: It is colorless, shapeless, and in its pure form, odorless.

For many years, it was discarded as worthless. Even today, some countries (although not the United States) still get rid of it by burning it in giant flares, so large they can be seen from the Space Shuttle. Yet, it is one of the most valuable fuels we have.

Natural gas is made up mainly of a chemical called methane, a simple, compound that has a carbon atom surrounded by four hydrogen atoms. Methane is highly flammable and burns almost completely. There is no ash and very little air pollution.

Natural gas provides one-fifth of all the energy used in the United States. It is especially important in homes, where it supplies nearly half of all the energy used for cooking, heating, and for fueling other types of home appliances.

Because natural gas has no odor, gas companies add a chemical to it that smells a little like rotten eggs. The odor makes it easy to smell if there is a gas leak in your house.

These are the areas of the United States and Canada where natural gas formations are found.

The United States has a lot of natural gas, enough to last for at least another 60 years and probably a lot longer. Our neighbor to the north, Canada, also has a lot of gas, and some gas pipelines that begin in Canada run into the United States.

The United States is looking for more ways to use gas, largely because it is easy to pipe from one location to another and because it burns very cleanly. More and more, we are using gas in power plants to generate electricity. Factories are using more gas, both as a fuel and as an ingredient for a variety of chemicals.

While natural gas is plentiful, there is still some uncertainty about how much it will cost to get it out of the ground in the future. Like oil, there is "easy" gas that can be produced from underground formations, and there is gas that is not so easy. If we can find better and cheaper ways to find more of the "easy" gas and produce some of the more difficult gas, we can rely increasingly on natural gas in the future.

Before we explore ways to do that, let's look back briefly at the history of natural gas.

The History of Natural Gas:

The ancient "eternal fires" in the area of present day Iraq that were reported in Plutarch's writings around 100 to 125 A.D. probably were from natural gas escaping from cracks in the ground and ignited by lightning.

In 1821 in Fredonia, New York, William A. Hart drilled a 27 foot deep well in an effort to get a larger flow of gas from a surface seepage of natural gas. This was the first well intentionally drilled to obtain natural gas.

For most of the 1800s, natural gas was used almost exclusively as a fuel for lamps. Because there were no pipelines to bring gas into individual homes, most of the gas went to light city streets. After the 1890s, however, many cities began converting their street lamps to electricity. Gas producers began looking for new markets for their product.

In 1885, Robert Bunsen invented a burner that mixed air with natural gas. The "Bunsen burner" showed how gas could be used to provide heat for cooking and warming buildings. It took the construction of pipelines to bring natural gas to new markets. Although one of the first lengthy pipelines was built in 1891 -it was 120 miles long and carried gas from fields in central Indiana to Chicago - there were very few pipelines built until after World War II in the 1940s.

Improvements in metals, welding techniques and pipe making during the War made pipeline construction more economically attractive. After World War II, the nation began building its pipeline network. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of miles of pipeline were constructed throughout the United States. Today, the U.S. pipeline network, laid end-to-end, would stretch to the moon and back twice.

Getting Gas from the Ground...and the Sea:

Natural gas is, in many ways, the ideal fossil fuel. It is clean, easy to transport, and convenient to use. Industrial users use almost half of the gas produced in the U.S. A large portion is also used in homes for heating, lighting, and cooking. However, there are limits on how much natural gas we can find and get out of the ground with today's technologies.

Researchers are continuing to study about how natural gas was formed and where it has collected within the earth's crust. They have found that gas is not only found in pockets by itself but in many cases, with oil. Often, both oil and gas flow to the surface from the same underground formation.

Like oil production, some natural gas flows freely to wells because the natural pressure of the underground reservoir forces the gas through the reservoir rocks. These types of gas wells require only a ""Christmas tree", or a series of pipes and valves on the surface, to control the flow of gas.

Only a small number of these free-flowing gas formations still exist in many U.S. gas fields, however. Almost always, some type of pumping system will be required to extract the gas present in the underground formation.

One of the most common is the "horse head" pump (see photo) which rocks up and down to lift a rod in and out of a well bore, bringing gas and oil to the surface.

Often, the flow of gas through a reservoir can be improved by creating tiny cracks in the rock, called "fractures," that serve as open pathways for the gas to flow. In a technique called "hydraulic fracturing," drillers force high pressure fluids (like water) into a formation to crack the rock. A "propping agent", like sand or tiny glass beads, is added to the fluid to prop open the fractures when the pressure is decreased.

Natural gas can be found in a variety of different underground formations, including:

  • Shale formations.
  • Sandstone beds.
  • Coal seams.

Some of these formations are more difficult and more expensive to produce than others, but they hold the potential for vastly increasing the nation's available gas supply.

The Department of Energy is funding research into how to obtain and use gas from these sources. Some of the work has been in Devonian shales, which are rock formations of organic rich clay where gas has been trapped. Dating back nearly 350 million years (to the Devonian Period), these black or brownish shales were formed from sediments deposited in the basins of inland seas during the erosion that formed the Appalachian Mountains.

Devonian shale actually gave birth to the natural gas industry in this country. The first commercial natural gas well was drilled into a shale formation in New York. It produced only a few thousand cubic feet of gas per day for 35 years, but it heralded a new energy source.

Other sources of unconventional gas include "tight sand lenses". These deposits are called "tight" because the holes that hold the gas in the sandstone are very small. It is hard for the gas to flow through these tiny spaces. To get the gas out, drillers must first crack the dense rock structure to create ribbon-thin passageways through which the gas can flow.

Coalbed methane gas that is found in all coal deposits was once regarded as only a safety hazard to miners but now, due to research, is viewed as a valuable potential source of gas.

Department funded scientists are studying another type of gas, called methane hydrateS, found in deep ocean beds or in cold areas of the world, such as the North Slope of Alaska or Siberia in Russia. A methane hydrate is a tiny cage of ice, inside of which are trapped molecules of natural gas.

Research is also continuing on a theory that gas pockets that were not formed from decaying matter but were formed during the creation of the Earth may be found deep in the ground.

Once natural gas is produced from underground rock formations, it is sent by pipelines to storage facilities, then by smaller pipes to homes and factories. So the next time, you see the blue flame on top of the kitchen stove, remember that the natural gas that is being burned likely came from an underground rock formation hundreds if not thousands of miles away

Looking down an oil well:


Ever wonder what oil looks like underground, down deep, hundreds or thousands of feet below the surface, buried under millions of tons of rock and dirt?

If you could look down an oil well and see oil where Nature created it, you might be surprised. You wouldn't see a big underground lake, as a lot of people think. Oil doesn't exist in deep, black pools. In fact, an underground oil formation - called an "oil reservoir" - looks very much like any other rock formation. It looks a lot like...well, rock.

Oil exists underground as tiny droplets trapped inside the open spaces, called "pores," inside rocks. The "pores" and the oil droplets can be seen only through a microscope. The droplets cling to the rock, like drops of water cling to a window pane.

How do oil companies break these tiny droplets away from the rock thousands of feet underground? How does this oil move through the dense rock and into wells that take it to the surface? How do the tiny droplets combine into the billions of gallons of oil that the United States and the rest of the world use each day?

To find out...

Squeezing Oil out of Rocks:

Imagine trying to force oil through a rock. Can't be done, you say?

Actually, it can.

In fact, oil droplets can squeeze through the tiny pores of underground rock on their own, pushed by the tremendous pressures that exist deep beneath the surface. How does this happen?

Imagine a balloon, blown up to its fullest. The air in the balloon is under pressure. It wants to get out. Stick a pin in the balloon and the air escapes with a bang!

Oil in a reservoir acts something like the air in a balloon. The pressure comes from millions of tons of rock lying on the oil and from the earth's natural heat that builds up in an oil reservoir and expands any gases that may be in the rock. The result is that when an oil well strikes an underground oil reservoir, the natural pressure is released - like the air escaping from a balloon. The pressure forces the oil through the rock and up the well to the surface.

If there are fractures in the reservoir fractures are tiny cracks in the rock, the oil squeezes into them. If the fractures run in the right direction toward the oil well, they can act as tiny underground "pipelines" through which oil flows to a well.

Oil producers need to know a lot about an oil reservoir before they start drilling a lot of expensive wells. They need to know about the size and number of pores in a reservoir rock. They need to know how fast oil droplets will move through these pores. They need to know where the natural fractures are in a reservoir so that they know where to drill their wells.

Modern-day oil prospecters use sound waves to locate oil. In one technique;

  1. A signal is sent into the rock by a vibrator turck.
  2. The reflected waves are received by geophones.
  3. The data is transmitted to a laboratory truck.

Animation courtesy of Elf Aquitaine:

Today, scientists have invented many new ways to learn about the characteristics of an oil reservoir.

They have developed ways to send sound waves through reservoir rock. Sound waves travel at different speeds through different types of rocks. By listening to soundwaves using devices called "geophones," scientists can measure the speed at which the sound moves through the rock and determine where there might be rocks with oil in them.

Scientists also measure how electric current moves through rock. Rocks with a lot of water in the tiny pores will conduct electricity better than rocks with oil in the pores. Sending electric current through the rock can often reveal oil-bearing rocks.

Finally, oil companies will look at the rocks themselves. An exploratory well will be drilled, rock samples, called "cores," will be brought to the surface. Scientists will look at the core samples under a microscope. Often they can see tiny oil droplets trapped inside the rock.

When companies are convinced that they have found the right kind of underground rock formation that is likely to contain oil, they begin drilling production wells. When the wells first hit the reservoir, some of the oil begins coming to the surface immediately.

Many years ago, when oil field equipment wasn't very good, it was sometimes difficult to prevent the oil from spurting hundreds of feet out the ground. This was called a "gusher." Today, however, oil companies install special equipment on their wells called "blowout preventors," that prevent "gushers", like putting a cork in a bottle.

When a new oil field first begins producing oil, Nature does most of the work. The natural pressures in the reservoir force the oil through the rock pores, into fractures, and up production wells. This natural flow of oil is called "primary production." It can go on for days or years. But after a while, an oil reservoir begins to lose pressure, like the air leaving a balloon. The natural oil flow begins dropped off, and oil companies use pumps (like the drawing at the very top of the page) to bring the oil to the surface.

In some fields, natural gas is produced along with the oil. In some cases, oil companies separate the gas from the oil and inject it back into the reservoir. Like putting air back into a balloon, injecting natural gas into the underground reservoir keeps enough pressure in the reservoir to keep oil flowing.

Eventually, however, the pressure drops to a point where the oil flow, even with pumps and gas injection, drops off to a trickle. Yet, there is actually a lot of oil left in the reservoir. How much? In many reservoirs, as many as 3 barrels can be left in the ground for every 1 barrel that is produced. In other words, if oil production stopped after "primary production," almost 3/4ths of the oil would be left behind!

That's why oil producers often turn to "secondary recovery" processes to squeeze some of this remaing oil out of the ground.

What are "secondary recovery" processes?

Washing More Oil from Rocks:

A lot of oil can be left behind after "primary production." Often, it is clinging tightly to the underground rocks, and the natural reservoir pressure has dwindled to the point where it can't force the oil to the surface. Imagine spilling a can of oil on the concrete floor of a garage. Some of it can be wiped up. But the thin film of oil that's left on the floor is much more difficult to remove. How would you clean up this oil?

The first thing you might do is get out a garden hose and spray the floor with water. That would wash away some of the oil. That's exactly what oil producers do in an oil reservoir. They drill wells called "injection wells" and use them like gigantic hoses to pump water into an oil reservoir. The water washes some of the remaining oil out of the rock pores and pushes it through the reservoir to production wells. The process is called "waterflooding."

How effective is waterflooding?

Let's assume that an oil reservoir had 10 barrels of oil in it at the start (an actual reservoir can have millions of barrels of oil). This is called "original oil in place." Of those original 10 barrels, primary production will produce about two and a half barrels (2½). "Waterflooding" will produce another one-half to one barrel.

That means that in our imaginary oil reservoir of 10 barrels, there will still be 6½ to 7 barrels of oil left behind after primary production and waterflooding are finished. In other words, for every barrel of oil we produce, we will leave around 2 barrels behind in the ground.

That is the situation faced by today's oil companies. In the history of the United States oil industry, more than 160 billion barrels of oil have been produced. But more than 330 billion barrels have been left in the ground. Unfortunately, we don't yet know how to produce most of this oil.

Petroleum scientists are working on ways to produce this huge amount of remaining oil. Several new methods look promising. Oil companies, in the future, might use a family of chemicals that act like soap to wash out some of the oil that's left behind. Or possibly, they might grow tiny living organisms in the reservoir, called microbes, that can help free more oil from reservoir rock. Sound interesting?

To find out more about these new ways to produce oil...

Soap, Bugs and Other Ways to Produce Oil:

Remember the oil spilled on the garage floor in the previous page? Washing it with water would only remove some of the oil. There would still be a black, oily stain on the floor. How would you get that oil up?

You would probably add some soap to the water — perhaps some detergent that you use in a washing machine. That would help wash away a little more of the oil. Oil researchers are studying ways to inject chemicals similar to detergents into an oil reservoir. The researchers call these chemicals "surfactants." Surfactants keep the tiny oil droplets from clinging to the rock much like a soapy film keeps water droplets from clinging to the side of a glass.

Temperature can also be important in freeing oil from underground reservoirs. In some oil reservoirs, in much of California, for example, the oil is thicker and heavier. It hardly flows out of a jar, much less out of an oil reservoir. But if the oil is heated, it becomes thinner and more slippery. To heat heavy oil in a reservoir, oil companies boil water in huge pressure vessels on the surface and send the steam down wells. The steam works its way through the oil reservoir, heating the oil and making it easier to pump to the surface.

Another way to free trapped oil is to inject carbon dioxide. Some carbon dioxide exists naturally underground, and companies often pump it out of the ground, then back in to oil reservoirs to help produce more oil. Carbon dioxide is also given off when anything burns. Many power plants that produce our electricity burn coal, natural gas and other fuels. These plants produce large amounts of carbon dioxide as do factories. Even you produce carbon dioxide when you breathe. It would be very hard to capture the carbon dioxide of every breathing person, but it may be possible in the future to capture carbon dioxide from big power plants or factories. This carbon dioxide can be injected into an oil reservoir to mix with the oil, break it away from the underground rock, and push it toward oil wells.

Still another technique being studied uses microscopic organisms called "microbes." Even though some scientists jokingly call these tiny microbes "bugs," they really don't have heads or legs or bodies. Instead, they are more like bacteria — tiny, single-cell organisms that can grow and multiply inside the rocks deep within oil reservoirs.

How can microbes be used to produce more oil? Actually, several ways. Some microbes can feed on nutrients in a reservoir and release gas as part of their digestive process. The gas collects in the reservoir, like air inside a balloon, building up pressure that can force more oil droplets out of the rock pores and toward oil wells. To get microbes to grow and multiply fast enough, oil scientists are testing ways to inject nutrients, or food, for the microbes into a reservoir.

Microbes can also be used to block off portions of a reservoir. After many years of waterflooding, most of the water eventually finds the easiest path through the oil reservoir. Oil trapped in the rocks along that path is washed out of the reservoir, but oil in other parts of the reservoir may be left untouched. To send the water to other parts of the reservoir, scientists mix microbes, along with food for the microbes, into the waterflood. As the microbes move along with the water, they injest the food, grow and multiply. Eventually, enough microbes are created to block off the tiny passageways. Now, scientists can inject fresh water and send it to portions of the reservoir that haven't been swept clean by the earlier waterflood, and more oil can be produced.

Scientists are also developing new chemicals called "polymers" that can help produce more oil. A "polymer" is long chain of atoms joined together in one large molecule. The molecule is small enough to fit through the pores of a reservoir rock, but large enough to break loose an oil droplet. In fact, scientists are developing a special type of polymer that performs two functions: one end of the molecule acts like a microscopic "sledgehammer" to break loose the oil droplet, while the other end acts like a surfactant to keep the oil sliding through the rock to an oil well.

All of these techniques show promise, but all add costs to the oil production process. Not every technique can be used in every oil reservoir. Some are better than others. But even if some, or all, of these techniques are proven to be practical, they won't get out all of the oil remaining in a reservoir.

In fact, the very best methods being tested today will allow oil companies to produce only half to, in some cases, three-fourths of the oil in a reservoir. It may not be possible to get the rest of the oil out. But even getting this amount of additional oil out of our oil fields can be very important for our energy future.

And who knows? Someday, scientists might find a way to get even more of the vast quantities of oil that we leave behind today down at the bottom of oil wells.