Saturday, November 26, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving

I am cooking a Thanksgiving feast again this year. Last year, I was in Japan, so I ate toxic fish with the nerve agents cut out by an overworked chef instead of cooking a Turkey. When I was a kid, Thanksgiving was at Grandma’s every year. We would play with the cousins and uncles and aunts, and Mom would help Grandma, and Granddad would tell stories about anything from fishing to the War in the Pacific, and we would eventually eat, and then play games or watch TV until we were too tired to do anything but sleep. After my Uncle died, my Grandparents moved farther away, and it was generally just our nuclear family at home until I finished college and headed off to make my way in the world and get as far from New York as possible. My first Thanksgiving away from family was 20 years ago, at the house of a guy I met in field camp who kindly took me in with a bunch of other recent arrivals to silicon valley. At the time I thought that was strange, but two years later I found myself cooking Lasagna in an apartment in Northeastern Brazil, with a woman who was kind of coming onto me but was the ex-wife of the guy I was working with and the ex-daughter in law of the people who were putting me up. My Portuguese was not really good enough to talk my way out of the trouble I somehow avoided, but a couple years later in Australia I met my wife-to-be at another Thanksgiving dinner hosted by another ex-pat PhD student from Arkansas. And somehow, over a decade and a half later, I have a family, a job I can ride my bike to, a house, and a wife who still miraculously puts up with me, despite my lifelong habit of biting off more that I can chew, not succeeding at anything, but somehow finding a continual series of third doors that miraculously allow me to avoid total failure. Despite my constant feelings of inadequacy and dread that I have wasted my potential and lost my way, I seem to somehow be doing OK. I have a lot to be thankful for, and I hope that you all have the same. Have a wonderful thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Molten metal metamorphosis

The Australian Aluminium smelting industry is having a rough time. Built to utilize electricity from Australian coal from the 1960’s through the 1980’s, our smelters are ill equipped to deal with the migration of the Aluminium industry to a rapidly industrializing China or cheap low-carbon energy areas such as Iceland or New Zealand. As a result, the Kurri Kurri smelter closed in 2012, the Point Henry smelter closed in 2014, and the future for the Portland smelter is currently uncertain, with the contract for electricity due to be renegotiated this month.

At the same time, Australia is lagging the rest of the developed world in the transition to low emissions electricity. Although certain jurisdictions, like South Australia, are making progress, the fragile nature of the grid connections and the intermittent nature on renewable energy is slowing its uptake, and potentially contributing to supply instability, as was seen during this winter’s South Australian storm.

The production of aluminium metal requires a huge amount of electricity. An aluminum smelter basically consists of a huge tub of molten salt, from which the enormous electrical currents basically force the electrons onto aluminum ions, depositing them on the cathode atom by atom at a rate that allows several tons of production per day.
As a result, aluminium smelters are typically located in areas where there is a large, cheap supply of electricity. Traditionally these have been areas of hydroelectric power, or in Australia’s case, cheap open cut thermal coal. With coal getting more expensive, and with concerns over the impact of CO2 production on the climate, these coal-powered smelters are finding it harder to compete in high wage countries. So Australia has facilities which are designed to take a substantial proportion of the energy grid’s electricity, which are getting closed down just as the requirement for storage of large amounts of variable renewable energy is appearing.

One proposed solution of the “storage problem” is the use of a new technology known as the liquid metal battery. Like the aluminium smelting process, the liquid metal battery consists of a molten salt, which can have ions driven out of it to the anode and the cathode when power is applied. Unlike aluminium, the anode is a base metal instead of graphite, so instead of oxidizing the anode and making CO2, the metal is deposited. This allows the battery to discharge by dissolving the anode and cathode back into the molten salt. So if aluminum smelters are going obsolete in areas which are in desperate need of battery storage, it seems like modifying the smelter to store energy is a option worth at least considering.

There are technical issues, of course. An industrial Hall-Héroult cell is the size of a city bus, and a smelter contains lots of them. The liquid metal technology is being developed by a small company, Ambri, which seems to be starting small (like bottlecap scale), and scaling up. So there is a bit of a gap between the emerging battery technology and the aging smelter technology. But it is in everybody’s interest to bridge it.

Ambri is trying to raise cash and start production. South Australia is still investigating their state-wide blackout.  Alcoa and Hydro have two shuttered smelters which they need to remediate or repurpose, and Portland has 11% of its population working at the smelter. In addition, Boyne Island and Tomago are supposedly facing similar market pressures.

Portland would be a particularly useful place for a pilot project, since the smelter is still operating, even though the pain of closing a big industrial center in a small isolated town looms. It is also located in prime wind power country, on the Victoria / South Australia border, close to the interconnector. So it would be nice if the union, the council, the state and federal governments, and the industry groups could work together to see if there is a solution that benefits everybody.

As for Kurri Kurri and Port Henry, the Kurri Kurri remediation plan comment period closed in August, but Port Henry is still open, even though the last public hearing was last week.Thus the rushed, not completely researched blog post.