Air Pollution - Types, Sources, and Fixes

I finished my PhD last week. Today I start posting again. This is a month-long series, one post each week, regarding air pollution and our health. First, we discuss types of pollution, then the health effects of different types based on where you live (US vs. China as case studies), then we move on to the health effects of each type, finally we end on how you filter it.

Hint: Two posts ago (and over a year ago) I said I was taking a break to build a better pollution filter. I did that, and the final post in the series will be telling you all about that part. In the meantime, please go to, sign up for our upcoming release emails (which will let you know when we launch on indiegogo with a discount for the first buyers), and share our website with your friends that might be interested.

Air Pollution

I was speaking with a physician about air pollution, and about which types cause asthma, and she was stunned that there is background research indicating that different types of outdoor pollution have differing relationships with asthma. Part of the reason for this was that she didn't realize how easy it was to differentiate which types of pollution come from which sources.

Okay, then. There are several major types of pollution. And NO2 from traffic is far and away the outdoor pollutant that that is most highly associated with our increasing asthma rates in the US (more on this in a future post).

Major Pollution Types

Particulate Matter is big chunky pollution. It is called PM10, or PM2.5, for how wide it is. PM10 is 10 microns wide, PM2.5 is 2.5 microns wide. For comparison, the average human hair is on the order of 100 microns wide (thin hair is about 17 microns, thick hair is up to 180). PM can be dust, fine soot, pet dander, or pest droppings (think cockroach poop). These can be very easily filtered with HEPA-style filters (HEPA filters are physical filters that block large pollution particles using small holes).

A photo from my time in China. PM pollution is pollutiion you can see.

A photo from my time in China. PM pollution is pollution you can see.

Chemical Pollution is very defined and very small. It's specific molecules. It's about 10,000 times smaller than PM2.5. It's also about the size of the the air we breathe, so you can't physically filter it. It is things that you've heard of, like CO (carbon monoxide), SO2, and NO2 (these both become strong acids in water, which causes acid rain. Note that our lungs are about 100% humid air, so they become strong acids, like battery acid, in your airways). These are extremely difficult to filter, and tend to require chemical reactions (more on that on a later post!). We are focusing on SO2, which just comes with fossil fuels, and NO2, which comes about every time you burn something in our atmosphere (our atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, and 21% oxygen, when you burn things, it uses the oxygen to convert stuff into CO2 and other emissions, but at high heats, it also produces NO2. Higher heats means more NO2). We ignore CO for now, and we ignore CO2 because it doesn't cause immediate health threats compared to these other pollutants.

Cars emit a lot of NO2. Catalytic converters help, but they still produce NO2 in amounts that are harmful

Cars emit a lot of NO2. Catalytic converters help, but they still produce NO2 in amounts that are harmful

VOCs are complicated. They are typically things you smell, like the new car smell, new elevators, paint, permanent markers, etc. Some people are highly sensitive or allergic to these. They can typically be filtered by most activated charcoal filters, because the carbon radicals in VOCs tend to adsorb well onto charcoal (ie they bond to it). We are going to ignore this, because we're assuming you don't like to leave your child in a freshly painted room, in new cars, or on new elevators.

Pollution Sources and Types

Hokay, so, now we need to discuss which pollution sources produce each. So I've made this helpful chart. These are relative amounts of pollution within their category, with no clear scaling criteria, but it gives you an idea of how different vehicles or power sources relate in terms of pollution. In other words, a two stroke engine clearly doesn't produce as much pollution as a coal fired power plant More important, these are rough relationships. You can have a wide range in each category, with a coal plant with no controls that burns high-quality coal producing significantly less pollution than the same design coal plant that burns low quality coal, for example.

Chart with differing sources of pollution, and relative amounts of pollution produced by each.

Chart with differing sources of pollution, and relative amounts of pollution produced by each.


Let's go through this one-by-one.

Vehicles burn gasoline or diesel. Gasoline vehicles pretty much just produce NO2 (and CO! But we are ignoring that for now), and our catalytic converters help reduce that. Smog is a byproduct of NO2 interacting with other pollutants that are already in the air. The part of smog that we see is actually PM pollution, rather than chemical pollution. Diesel vehicles produce a lot PM, and some SO2, and relatively more NO2. Catalytic converters can reduce NO2. Using low-sulfur diesel can reduce SO2. A lot of developing countries do not use low-sulfur diesel or catalytic converters, so they produce a ton more of every type of pollution. Two Stroke Engines are common in India (and other places, but not so much in China, and almost never in developed countries, unless you count lawnmowers). These things burn oil alongside gas. They produce nasty fumes, like your weedwacker or small lawnmowers. This is part of the reason that India has a particularly nasty type of air pollution. These are being phased out over time, with bans on new models of two-stroke engines in many cities.

Power Plants are a lot more complicated. In the next post, I will be discussing pollution controls in power plants in more detail. Put simply, natural gas powerplants produce predominantly NO2. They burn CH4, and convert it to CO2 and H2O. NO2 emissions can easily be reduced by 90% with proper controls (discussed in the next post). Coal fired power plants can be nasty. With no controls and with using low-cost coal, they produce a lot of each type of pollution. PM is the result of impurities in the coal that can't be burnt, or unburnt specs of coal. Low-grade coal produces prodigious amounts of PM, and contains a lot of sulfur that burns to produce SO2. They produce a lot of NO2. All of this can be reduced greatly simply by building in controlling systems. These controlling systems are used in nearly every coal plant in developed countries and in many coal plants in advanced developing countries. They are completely ignored in nearly every coal plant in many developing countries.


Which should I be concerned by?

Traffic Pollution vs. Power Plant Pollution

Which of these should you care about? That depends on where you live. Most of the pollution in developing countries comes from power plants, but if you live next to a busy street or highway, traffic pollution could be the bigger concern. If you are in a developed country, particularly the US, traffic pollution is almost always the largest concern. Why? Because you are sitting directly next to the source. Whether you're biking or walking with your infant in a stroller, you are right next to the pollution. The problem exacerbates when you are nearby to a highway or major intersection, because there is a ton of traffic.

So, in short, if you are in the US and much of Europe, you should be worrying about the invisible (but smellable) traffic pollution that you are breathing in. If you are outside the US, it varies country by country. If you are in China or India, you need to be concerned about both traffic and powerplant pollution, and there is pretty much no escaping it.

Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster


Tesla's Powerwall - Not Economical

Tesla Powerwall

I'm gonna open by saying that I really like Tesla's powerpack. Technology isn't pushed past the bleeding edge without loss-leaders pioneering. That being said, the numbers, as usual, don't lie. On a per-unit-energy cost basis, these things aren't economic in most of the US. Once you consider the externalities, however, the overall benefit does make them "profitable." Likely you will see subsidies to internalize these externalities, thus making the powerpack work.

Unless the inverter costs too much. More on that later.

One major implication I haven't seen anyone talk about? Utility companies currently have to pay people with solar panels who produce excess electricity at market rates. They've been trying to get rid of this for years. This technology gives utilities every reason to demand they no longer pay people for their excess produced solar power. This has enormous implications. It's now indefensible to force utilities to buy at market rates the extra power produced by homes with solar. Read more near the bottom.

It's in my weight class!

Tesla's Powerwall next to a car. Small-ish and sleek. 7 inches deep, weighing 220 lbs

What is this Powerwall?

Powerwall is a power pack that you hang on your wall. It costs $3,000 for a 7kwh pack designed for a daily cycle, meaning it's charged and used once per day. This is the cost without installation. Also, this is the cost if you already have solar cells and an inverter. If you want to work with the grid alone, you have to buy an inverter*. Even if you already have solar cells and don't need an inverter, this seems like it's a product designed for the wealthy. Let's look at the math (my favorite part!)

*Inverters. Batteries and solar panels produce DC current, or Direct Current. This means it doesn't change phase. What we use in our homes is Alternating Current or AC. The alternating current means that the positive and negative terminals switch sides of the power plug. In the US, they switch sides 60 times per second. DC means that the terminals do not switch sides. Hence batteries having a + and - terminal, and all your non-battery electronics not having these.

The Maths!

We are going to make some of the rosiest assumptions in the world. First, though, let's get some solid data lines up. Take a peak at NPR's cost of electricity infos.

1. On average, people pay 12 cents per kwh of electricity

2. In Hawaii, they pay 33 cents. We'll use this as a case study.

3. The Northeast and California, two other case studies, pay about 16 cents.

4. The average American uses 900kwh of electricity per month in their home (from

Really rosy assumptions

1. The sun shines for 300 days a year and provides enough electricity to power your house during shining and to fully charge the battery

2. The electricity grid doesn't buy back your excess solar*. If they do have to buy it back, then the economics discussed here don't play out

3. You've already paid for all of your solar installation and you aren't concerned about those costs of that electricity going into this powerpack

4. These things don't degrade over time (extremely rosy assumption)


300 days per year of 7kwh of electricity provided by this beast is:

 300\frac{days}{yr} \cdot 7\frac{kwh}{day} \cdot = 2100 \frac{kwh}{yr}

So 2100 kwh/year. What's that get you in most of the US?

 \$ 0.12 \cdot 2100 = \$ 252

So $252 per year. For a $3000 battery pack. In most of the US, if your solar panels worked perfectly for 300 days a year, it'd take you 12 years to pay back your investment. This is a 6% annualized ROI (Return On Investment). In other words, you'd make more money in the stock market, so it's a bad investment, not even accounting for installation costs and with impractically rosy assumptions, in most of the US.

What about in the Northeast and California, where electricity is $0.16?

 \$ 0.16 \cdot 2100 =\$ 336

Or payback in 9 years. This is an 8% ROI, making it a decent investment.

Let's be realistic, though. In the Northeast, we have storms and winter. Solar panels don't work so great here. We aren't getting 300 cycles per year out of this. We'd be lucky to get 150, making it an 18 year payback, or about a 3% ROI. What about California? They actually might get 300 days of viable sun a year. So in California, you could be break-even.

Now what's the problem here? Normal people don't look for 8% ROI on their home upgrades. They look for 15%. Pretty much they want 3-5 year payback periods. So pretty much, someone has to have a very green outlook on life to buy one of these. Or there have to be subsidies (more later)


Hawaii has sunshine and electricity costs 33 cents. Let's say you've paid off your solar panels in Hawaii.

 \$ 0.33.2 \cdot 2100 =\$ 700

In Hawaii, with our rosy assumptions and no installation cost, the powerpack will pay for itself in 4.25 years, for a whopping 18% return on investment, without any subsidies. There is a viable business model here.

Seriously, someone go start a powerpack/solar panel installation company in Hawaii.

Anywhere else, and these things will need hefty subsidies.


Why would you subsidize these things? Easy. There are only two reliable power sources that can compensate for variability in solar power: hydro and natural gas. Every other power plant takes far too long to spin up to be useful. In other words, nuclear power doesn't stop producing pretty much ever. Coal power takes about a day to get to capacity, so it can't cycle well.
Hydro power is a limited resource. We are pretty much tapped out in the US, and what we have is already being used, so it can't ramp. We'd have to replace what's currently being used with coal, natural gas, or nuclear to use hydro for solar-grid reliability, so that entirely defeats the point.
Natural gas ramps quickly, and we have excess capacity in the US. Natural gas still produces CO2 that spreads globally, and NO2 that spreads locally. NO2 becomes a strong acid when you breath it in, so we have healthcare reasons to reduce it. Thus it might make sense to subsidize these powerpacks to make people more likely to buy them.
Second, this is good tech. It's pretty much where it needs to be in order to make sense to buy in many parts of the country, if you already have solar. Subsidizing it will cause further advancement in battery tech, making it that much more viable in a wider array of applications. Battery tech is one of the things holding us back from so many viable technology applications, so if there is something to subsidize that will more than pay for itself, it is battery tech that is nearly cost-even now.
Some Extra Thoughts on my Rosy Assumptions
*If Solar Companies don't need to buy back Electricity
In most places, if you produce excess electricity that you don't use, the solar company has to buy it back at market rates. So buying this powerpack and storing energy for commercial purposes is useless. All of the economic discussion above is bunk if the grid needs to buy your excess power. In other words, only greenies would buy it.
One important thing to consider. This product makes storing electricity from solar into a break-even cost in any sunny part of the country. Utilities have always hated paying for this. They lose money on it. They've fought legal battles to get it repealed. And now they have the ammunition they need to repeal it, because it's now no longer a burden to consumers to store their excess electricity for later use themselves.
Maybe consider buying utility stocks if you find a company that is over-exposed to paying for home-solar-produced power? I'd tell you to look towards California here.
Inverter Costs
If you don't have solar already, you have to pay for the inverter to make this thing convert DC back to AC for your home. I can't see any reason to do this. The cost differential between peak power and non-peak is about 4-6 cents in most places. Far too little to justify the expense of both an inverter and a powerpack. A gas generator is a better bet if you need reliable power.
Large Scale Efficacy
I'm betting the large-scale systems are more cost-effective. They don't need to be as small and as sleek. And you can have one large inverter for all of the daisy-chained power packs. Who would buy these? Commercial electricity buyers, like stores.
Who wouldn't buy these? Industrial complexes. They make deals directly with electricity companies and pay $0.07 to $0.10 per kwh.
Thanks for reading!
 - Jason Munster

Is Nuclear Power Really the Most Expensive Technology?

No. It isn't.

Let's explore this more. In a country that already has a well-developed electrical grid / electricity distribution system (sorry, much of Africa), doesn't have ideas based on fear about how dangerous nuclear power is (European and North American countries, +Japan), and doesn't have a terrorism issue (proliferation), nuclear power is the cheapest and least polluting type.

Okay, so where can we find a country that meets this description? How bout Croatia, where some scientists did some probabilistic modeling on this?

From the results of the simulations it can be concluded that the distribution of levelized bus bar costs for the combined cycle gas plant is in the range 4.5–8 US cents/kWh, with a most probable value of about 5.8 US cents/kWh; for coal-fired plants the corresponding values are 4.5–6.3 US cents/kWh and 5.2 US cents/kWh and for the nuclear power plant the corresponding values are in the range 4.2–5.8 US cents/kWh and a most probable value of about 4.8 US cents/kWh.

Let me sum this up. In Croatia, nuclear power is likely going to be the cheapest source. Plus is doesn't pollute and kill people like gas or coal.

Admit it, you needed this.

Why do we face a different situation in the US and Europe? Easy. I've mentioned it before. There is so much concern about the safety of nuclear power that each construction gets mired in legal battles. The legal battles themselves don't cost much. What costs a ton is that these power plants took out $8 billion in loans, meant to be paid back over 10 years. Those loans accrue interest. If legal hurtles slow the construction of the plant down and it takes 15 years instead, those extra 5 years of loans are gonna have several extra billions in interest to pay. Suddenly the cost of power produced goes up.

These costs need to be paid back. The only way to pay back higher than anticipated costs would be to charge more for nuclear power.

So it's safe to say that stalling the construction of a nuclear power plant can effectively prevent it from ever getting built. Now we are in a situation where no one wants to fund a power plant, because the chance of it being slowed and made unprofitable is a bit higher.

Sometimes there are just plain time overruns. The US hasn't build nuclear power plants in years. Our companies barely know how to do it. Our people haven't been trained in colleges and universities to build nuclear power plants. We just don't have the nuclear engineers we would need to make a nuclear renaissance happen, and we'd need several nuclear power plants built before we finally get the hang of it. So there will be a learning curve. Would you want to fund that learning curve? Probably not when natural gas is so cheap in the US.

Are we gonna get there any time soon? Not without a major policy shift. Let's look at planned nuclear power plants worldwide:

Planned nuclear power plants. Image mine, constructed from data available at

Planned nuclear power plants. Image mine, constructed from data available  here

So um... Good job, China. US? Not so much. 32 of the 72 nuclear power plants scheduled to come on-line in the next 5 years are in China. 4 are in the US.

Nuclear power will be more expensive than gas (and coal) power in the US unless 3 things happen:

1. We account for the annual loss of life and increase in asthma and heart disease associated with gas power plants.

2. We start building nuclear power plants now, training a cadre of engineers and speciality construction personnel to finish power plants quickly, safely, properly, and on time (the first few will be finished slowly, behind schedule, but still safe and properly complete, cause lots of eyes will be on them)

3. We continue to build enough of them so that the future ones are build on time and for less expense, driving down the cost of nuclear power to competitive levels (especially when accounting for the external costs of pollution and CO2 from gas and coal).

Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster


Natural Gas Prices 2

Natural gas flaring (NOAA). Often it is less expensive to burn natural gas than it is to get it to market.

Since I am in the field installing science onto an airplane, this is going to be a short post. In a prior post, I showed graphs with natural gas prices being de-coupled from oil (recreated and updated with the latest numbers here). I decided it was high time to do some maths related to it. All the data is from the EIA, and all the analysis is my own. I had to interpolate average coal prices for the past two years based on its link to specific coal prices.

If you know what correlation is (I think most of you do), skip over the description of correlation and go straight to Maths, since it is very rudimentary, and you could probably make fun of me for writing it. If you want to do better statistics with the data set, let me know and we can have some fun.

One important point! These prices are well-head prices. In other words, it is roughly what the major distributors of gas will pay for the stuff. Your prices as and end-consumer won't change. In other words, they pay less when the price goes down, but they sell you to at the same price. That works out pretty well for them, doesn't it?

Description of Correlation and its Limitations

Correlation: correlation is a measure of how closely two data sets match. In other words, correlation answers the question: when one set of data goes up, does the other go up? It is important to remember that correlation does not imply causation. In the case of natural resources, this idea is very easy to understand. The price of oil and natural gas both rose together in the 90s. This does not mean that the price of oil rose on its own, causing the price of natural gas to rise. Natural gas prices rose for pretty much the same reasons as oil prices rose. In this case, demand for things that burn and produce heat caused an increase in price in both of them.

Long-term prices 1-13

Wellhead hydrocarbon prices over the past 3 decades. The price of natural gas used to follow the price of oil. In 2008 this changed thanks to hydrofracking.

A classic example of the abuse of correlation and causation is ice cream and murders. Both murder rates and ice cream purchases tend to rise in cities at the same time. One could conclude that ice cream causes murderous rampages, or that the best way to relax after murder is to eat ice cream. Both of these are silly to conclude. More likely, there is an outside factor that causes both. It could be hotter weather makes people eat more ice cream, and simultaneously makes them more irritable. Or it could be that hotter weather makes people eat more ice cream, and it also makes more people be outside, where they are more likely to get murdered than in their homes. The point is that correlation can show that two factors are tied together, but often requires more than that to show a direct causal link.

Hokay. Correlation goes from -1 to 1. 0 means no correlation, 1 means perfect positive correlation: one thing rises, the other one rises by a predictable amount. -1 means perfect negative correlation: one thing rises and the other falls by a predictable amount.

The Maths!

NG correlations

The overall correlation between oil and natural gas prices from 1986 to 2012 is .68. This is pretty good for noisy data sets (noisy meaning there are outside factors, like commodity speculation in the markets). The correlation between natural gas and coal over that period is .4. This is pretty low, and partially represents inflationary increases in prices of both of these over time (if I had used real 2005 dollars instead of nominal dollars, all of these correlations might decrease).

More important is breaking out the correlations between early and late. I mentioned in the prior price post that decoupling began to happen in 2007, and then accelerated. The 22 year correlation between gas and oil until end of 2008 was .88, very high, much higher than .68. After this, the gas:oil correlation becomes -.23. The prices have become decoupled. At the same time, the correlation between gas and coal rises to .69. Not great, but definitely more coupled than gas and oil currently are.

One thing is clear about natural gas prices and correlation. Natural gas prices in the US used to be tightly coupled to oil prices. Natural gas prices in the US are no longer coupled to oil prices. They are instead coupled to coal prices, though not as tightly as the prices used to be coupled to oil prices.

Hydrocarbon prices per million BTU after hydrofracking. Pretty easy to see that decoupling, eh?

Hydrocarbon prices per million BTU after hydrofracking. Pretty easy to see that decoupling, eh?

Now we discuss the cause. The cause in this case is definitely hydrofracking in the US. Outside the US, oil and gas prices are still more correlated. Okay, that was a short discussion.

Some caveats: the numbers I used for historic coal prices are mean annual coal spot prices weighted for what was bought. These are correlated to monthly oil and gas prices. These coal prices were not available for the last two years. They are, however, tightly coupled to coal prices in general. I looked at similar priced coal over the two years, and extrapolated the prices for my model based on these. Given the very tight link of mean coal prices to the price of specific types of coal, this is not a faulty method. If someone were to use a more consistent methodology to determine coal prices throughout the entire time period I have sampled, it would produce results that are nearly identical.


Oil prices and natural gas prices were historically tied. With the advent of fracking in the US, natural gas prices decoupled from oil prices, and have coupled with coal prices.

So much for a short post, eh?

Hydraulic Fracturing!

Fractured Shale and pipe

Schematic of what hydrofracking does to the surrounding rock. Source

This is one of my favorite topics! Hydrofracking (short for hydraulic fracturing) is used to extract both natural gas (Barnett and Marcellus Shales) and oil (Bakken Shale, a few other places) from regions that used to be too dense to extract hydrocarbons from, or that would otherwise not produce much.

These dense rocks, called “tight formations” (formations meaning rock beds, tight meaning not having connected holes) are not permeable enough for hydrocarbons to move out of them at high flow rates. (Permeability means fluids can flow through something. Paper towel is permeable, plastic is not.) Believe it or not, many types of rocks are very permeable. They have lots of interconnected cracks. Shale is not such a rock. It may have space inside it with oil or gas, but these spaces are not connected by the cracks that would allow these hydrocarbons to flow out to a well. A well drilled vertically into this shale would produce almost nothing. These hydrocarbons stayed in the ground. Hydrofracking changed that.


Hydrofracking, in short, is exploding cracks and holes in the ground with shaped charges and water and then pounding sand into those holes. Hydrofracking requires 2 to 3 million gallons of water and 2 to 3 million pounds of sand per well.

Hydraulic Fracturing first requires drilling a hole in the ground. These holes can be kilometers deep. The advent of horizontal drilling allows for drilling horizontally by bending the steel tubes of the well. Sounds crazy that steel can bend? Given 300 feet of pipe, the steel pipes can bend  at a right angle. Horizontal drilling can cost up to 4x what normal drilling costs, so it is only used in places where it can greatly increase production. Like hydrofracking applications, where it makes a well go from zero production to up to 2000 barrels of oil per day.

This is where the magic happens. Formations that hold oil and natural gas are often horizontal. First a vertical well is drilled, then it goes horizontal for up to 10km. For hydraulic fracturing, shaped charges are planted inside the pipe in the horizontal section. They are then directionally exploded into the rock, creating large cracks in the rock extending away from the pipeline.

Next they pressurize a viscous fluid and cram it into the drilled hole using dozens of pumps to create massive pressure. This process can take dozens of trucks work of fluid, pipelines, and pumps. The trucks gang-pump fluid into the hole. The fluid finds the cracks in the pipe and rock made by the shaped charges. The fluid rips through the rock, rending the cracks, expanding them in length and volume and connecting them. These cracks become very widespread. The former tight shale or sandstone formation that prevented the flow of fluids is now a series of connected cracks leading to the pipeline. Fluids can flow.

Hydrofracking pump trucks

Dozens of hydrofracking trucks pump hydrofracking fluid into the hole. Source.

When the hydrofracking fluid is drained, the cracks can close up again. To prevent this, something called a proppant is used. A proppant props open the cracks, much like leaving a door stopper in your door. Typically sand was used for this, but new proppants with special shapes and properties are being used as well, like ceramic beads covered in resin for deeper wells. The proppant is put in at the same time as the hydrofracking fluid. When the trucks reverse the flow of hydrofracking fluid and pump it back out, the proppant remains behind.

Fracking Proppant

Proppants hold the cracks open after the hydrofracking fluid is drained. Source

Proppants hold open the rock and allow flow, but this is not permanent. Flow reduces over time. The first year after hydrofracking happens is the most productive. Drilling and hydrofracking a hole, then closing it, reduces the hydrocarbons you will get out of the hole compared to drilling and pumping. If you frack a hole and then close it, the hole will ultimately produce a lot less hydrocarbons than if you drill and pump. In other words, once you have fracked, you gotta make use of that hole or you will lose a lot of money.

Natural Gas hydrofracking

Natural gas hydrofracking in the US is one of the more polarizing topics. The chemicals in fracking fluid are of such low concentration that it does not matter if it gets in the local water supplies. But they mix concentrated versions of these incredibly toxic chemicals into the fracking fluid. In other words, the fracking fluid may not be toxic, but the pure chemicals they keep on-site to mix into these trucks sure are. If any of this leaks into the environment (it has), it can be quite damaging. One can hope that this sort of thing is both rare, and well-controlled in the future.

There is the leaking associated with hydrofracking for natural gas. Howarth (2012) estimated there is an upper limit of 8% of methane leaking from natural gas extraction and transport for hydrofracking. Given the factor of 23 greenhouse warming potential of methane, this is a problem. Compounding the problem is that mineral and resource policy are states rights in the US.  NY and PA do not have the law history in place or the resources to figure out how to deal with the potential pollution from fracking, nor the resources to enforce the policy. This, in part, is why fracking has been stalled in the Marcellus in many places.

Oil hydrofracking

The Bakken formation. Here the sandstone contains the oil. It is sandwiched between two impermeable layers of shale.

The Bakken formation. Here the sandstone contains the oil. It is sandwiched between two impermeable layers of shale.

There are other important implications for fracking specific to oil production. In order to drill, a company has to lease drilling rights. When a company leases drilling rights, they have obligations to produce certain amounts of hydrocarbons within a short time-frame, or they lose the lease. So they drill. A lot. Remember how we talked about holes losing productivity over time? Once a fracked hole is open, they are unlikely to close it. The problem? In the Bakken shale, they co-produce natural gas with oil. There is no infrastructure to pipe the natural gas away. They burn it instead. Some of it may leak. In other words, they are producing massive amounts of pollutants and GHGs. North Dakota does not have the ability to quickly build infrastructure to capture and transport this natural gas. And North Dakota doesn’t quite have a population that is accustomed to or capable of having a lot of bureaucracy to deal with these issues and enforcing policy. It’ll be a while before this is handled. In the meantime, North Dakota will light up the night sky like a mega-metropolis.

Bakken at night edit

The flaring of natural gas 24/7 in Bakken makes North Dakota look like it has one of the largest cities in the US. If you look at the picture below, you can see a stark contrast.


That light in North Dakota didn't used to be there. Courtesy Nasa


You may have heard that Hydrofracturing for natural gas is a phenomenon that is not repeatable outside the US. This is untrue. It likely cannot be repeated in Europe, but China is just discovering shale gas deposits that could rival or outsize that of the US. There are also likely large deposits in Africa. As far as shale oil goes (not to be confused with oil shale!), it is also likely available outside the US. We are just really good at getting stuff out of the ground here.

You may have also heard that this could make the US energy independent by 2035. If we don't grow our appetite for oil, this could possibly happen. It is unlikely, but that is a topic for later. The US is already one of the largest producers of oil on the planet. Is this a good thing? It is a mixed bag. It will definitely be a boon to the economy if we are not sending nearly $1 billion a day overseas to satiate our demand for oil (we use 18 million barrels a day in the US, importing 10 million of those @ $100/barrel, or a billion dollars a day). It would not prevent the middle east from getting a ton of money from oil still, as Asia and Europe will still buy all the middle east oil. It likely won't decrease the price of gas in the US, since any increase we make in production will be matched or outstripped by increased demand in China (1.3 billion people), then India (1.2 billion people), then Africa (2 billion people) in the 2nd half of the century. In other words, it won't change much on a world scale. Producing this much oil domestically also will keep the US addicted to oil, rather than transitioning to cleaner energy sources and more rational lifestyles that don't burn tons of resources. But the whole quarter of a trillion dollars per year that we aren't sending overseas, if handled properly, could easily boost our economy and help subsidize our way out of oil addiction. It's clearly a thorny topic, and beyond the scope of this post.


Fracking will change the energy landscape in the US by providing a lot more natural gas and oil domestically. It has downsides, from increased flaring of natural gas to domestic pollution, but it does have upsides that can be harnessed for the good of our future.

Natural Gas Power Plants

Excellent news! No math today. Bad news! There are some confusing terms here. Every thermal power plant drives a turbine to produce power. There is a special type of turbine called a gas turbine that directly burns natural gas inside of it to produce power. There are a few places where I use gas turbine and turbine in the same sentence. Sorry about that.

Natural gas fired power plants come in two primary flavors: standard thermal plants, and fancy jet turbines. The former has the same internals as a coal power plant and can provide baseload power, the latter is for peak power. Both produce less pollution than coal, simply because natural gas is cleaner than coal and produces more energy per unit CO2 emitted. Natural gas plants contribute to GHG emissions and PM2.5 (PM 2.5 can form from emissions of NOx, which occurs from any combustion). With hydrofracking causing a glut in natural gas in the US, producing power via gas is cost-competitive with coal in the US, and recently has been replacing coal to produce electricity. This has caused the US to decrease its annual CO2 emissions by nearly 10%.

Conceptual drawing of a natural gas turbine

Let’s get down into the meat of how these plants work. We have discussed how standard thermal plants work in a prior post. The jet turbine power plant is pretty simple. It is very similar to the turbines found on airplanes. The fuel is injected and burnt. It expands and drives a turbine to generate electricity. These systems get incredibly hot. They have thermal efficiencies approaching 30%. Unlike thermal plants, these gas turbines can fully ramp up power in about 20 minutes. These turbines also need to shut down frequently for repairs. Continuous operation for days at a time is not possible, or they will become very damaged. For these reasons, these turbines are typically used only for peak power production. One final difference is that a gas turbine has more like a 20 year life time, whereas a thermal power plant has a 50 year lifetime.

A natural gas turbine via DOE

Gas turbines can be combined with standard thermal plants often use what is called a combined cycle format. Before getting into that, let’s briefly revisit how a normal thermal plant has higher efficiencies. In a normal thermal power plant, the steam coming out of the first turbine has lost some heat and pressure. It is then more or less directed to a subsequent turbines that are designed to be efficient at lower temperatures, and even with wet steam. This series of turbines extracts much more heat, and thus much more efficiency, than a single-cycle turbine.

This combined cycle power plant has two sections: the thermal section and the gas turbine section. Typically the thermal section stays on. When peak electricity production is needed, the gas can go into the gas turbine instead of the thermal section. Our gas turbines discussed above produce temperatures in excess of 900 C. This waste heat can then be shunted to boil water in a more traditional thermal plant. Combining these processes together can result in a 60% thermally efficient plant. This is very efficient. If you recall from our previous article, thermal plants take a long time to ramp up power production. These combined cycle plants require the thermal section to almost always be on. The thermal section of the plant will provide baseload power, and the gas turbine part will spin up to provide peak power. These combined cycle plants are incredible versatile. They make money every day by operating in baseload configuration, and then make extra money as soon as demand requires more power.

This brings up a quick question. The thermal section of the plant is not as efficient as using both the gas turbine and the thermal section together. In other words, burning the natural gas in the gas turbine first extracts more energy from it. Why do these gas turbines not always run, then? Well, as we mentioned, the gas turbines are more fragile. They can’t always run, and they need frequent repairs. The economics of it works out so that even though they extract more energy from the gas, it is only worthwhile when electricity prices are high.

Conceptual image of a combined cycle natural gas power plant

Conceptual image of a combined cycle natural gas power plant

What are the downsides of these NG plants? They produce less pollution than coal plants by a good margin. They require less mitigation of pollutants, so they are much easier to build than coal plants, and are built more rapidly at a lower expense. They produce less GHG than coal plants, both because the combined cycle system is more efficient and because NG is a more CO2 efficient fuel than coal. They produce more pollutants than nuclear power plants or wind turbines or solar power, however. And outside of the US, the fuel is much more expensive than coal.

Let’s discuss that last point for a second. The low NG price in the US makes this very affordable. Other countries that care more about clean air than the US are not as concerned about the higher price of natural gas vs. coal electricity. They care more mitigating adverse health effects caused by coal power plant emissions. Japan is a great example. The largest importer of natural gas in the world, Japan is set to import a lot more of it. After the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant meltdown (future post on this and Chernobyl!), Japan is set to phase out nuclear power. They don’t want to build coal power plants, because they are dirty. They intend to import gas (they are even considering building an undersea pipeline from Russia to accomplish this!) and produce NG electricity to replace their retiring nuclear plants.

The technical section

The major emissions of these power plants are CO2, methane, and NOx. On a 100 year timescale, each molecule of methane and NOx is 21 and 310 (respectively) times more powerful than CO2. This scaling of potency is called the Greenhouse Warming Potential (GWP) of a compound. Methane is leaked from incomplete combustion and also from line leaks and delivery leaks, NOx is a byproduct of burning things in a nitrogen based atmosphere. Another way to put it: since our atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, burning anything, even a campfire, will produce NOx. In the graph below, excerpted from an NREL document , we see that while CO2 is the primary emission, multiplying these emissions by the GWP shows that methane is a significant % of total warming potential.

Nat Gas Emissions GWP

Relative to the other natural gas emissions, NOx is not important to greenhouse warming. Why would they want to control it? Because it is a precursor to PM2.5. The stuff that causes minor health issues, like heart attacks and death. NOx is mitigated by spraying ammonia (NH3) into the flu gas (flu gas is a fancy way of saying the stuff that comes out of the smokestack). The NH3 mixes with NOx to produce H2O and nitrogen. Some NOx is still is emitted after this scrubbing, and still leads to PM2.5, causing local pollution. But in much less quantity than a coal fired plant.

In review, natural gas power plants produce less pollution than coal fired power plants. There are some pretty neat technologies in these natural gas power systems. In the US, the electricity is nearly cost-competitive with coal. Other countries choose to produce power via natural gas because it is cleaner than coal, despite that it is 5x as expensive in those countries.

That’s all! Thanks for reading!

Natural Gas Price Drop, and Natural Gas Electricity!

Today’s post is about the shift in US primary energy use from coal to natural gas (AKA methane). Hydrofracking, the hydraulic fracturing of rock to subsequently produce natural gas, is a new favorite pass-time in the US. Natural gas prices used to track oil prices per unit of heat. They now roughly track coal prices per unit heat. As a result, it is now economical to produce electricity from methane rather than coal. As we discussed before, coal produces a whole bunch of dirty pollution, and methane does not. All good, right?

This is very important for both CO2 emissions reduction and for reduction of other pollutants. The math section is chemistry heavy. If you are going to skip a math section, this is the one.

The highest grades of coal have composition C_{240}H_{90}4NS , and lower grade coal is C_{137}H_9O_9NS. All coal is tainted with mercury and other heavy metals. Lower quality coal has more pollutants per unit heat, and this produces more pollution for the same amount of electricity. From the last post, we learned burning coal has quite the array of negative health effects.

The chemical composition of natural gas is CH4. It contains almost no other pollutants. It doesn’t produce particulate matter. When it is burned to produce electricity, we do not have the direct adverse health effects associated with coal. What about the CO2 emissions? These are reduced. Cause of math.

The Math of Chemistry! This is bond enthalpy chemistry. (Feel free to skip ahead if you don’t like the math parts)

Let’s look more closely at the composition of these two things. When any substance burns, it produces heat by converting everything to H2O and CO2. The resulting H2O and CO2 have lower internal energy than the coal or methane that formed them. The difference in energy from the coal to the H2O and CO2 has to be given off as heat.

Before the math: First, what is a mol? It is short for mole. Pretty bad abbreviation, eh? A mol is the number of molecules it takes to make one g times the molecular weight of the molecule. It is 6.022 \cdot 10^{23} molecules. This is confusing. Lets use examples to make it less confusing. Hydrogen has a molecular weight of 1. A single mole of it weighs 1 gram. CH4 has a weight of 16 (12 for the carbon, 4 for each hydrogen). A mole of it weighs 16g. CO2 has a molecular weight of 44, and a mol of it is 44g. Done.

The amount of energy used to hold atoms together to make molecules is the bond energy. Chemical reactions happen, chemical compositions are changed. If the overall energy of bonds are lower after the change, heat has to be released. This creates fire.
Bond energies: C-C bonds (aromatic, the ring-type found in coal) have 519 KJ/mol. C-H is 410. H-O is 460. C=O (double bond) is 799. O=O are 494 KJ/mol.

We simplify coal as aromatic bond chains of 4(-CH-) (this is generous in terms of calculating CO2 produced per unit coal, as all my prior calculations have been) (I stole this clever approach from my advisor, Jim Anderson, to simplify things). CH4 is pretty easy as CH4.

We can write these as:

4(-CH-) \longrightarrow 4CO_2 + 2 H_2O
CH_4 + 2 O_2 \longrightarrow CO_2 + 2H_2O

The molecular weight of our coal is 4*(12+1) or 52. Methane: 12*1+1*4 = 16

Coal: We break four C=C aromatic bonds (only four cause we would be double counting if we did each side of (-CH-), four C-H bonds, and 5 O=O bonds. We form 8 C=O and 4 H-O bonds.
Methane: 4 C-H bonds are broken, as well as 2 O=O bonds (the two O=O bonds are from converting the 4 H bonds into H2O). 2 C=O, and 4 H-O bonds are formed.

Coal:   4 \cdot 519 + 4 \cdot 410 + 5 \cdot 494 - (8 \cdot 799 + 4 \cdot 463) = 2058 \frac{KJ}{mol} = 514 \frac{KJ}{Mol-CO_2}

Methane:   4 \cdot 410 + 2 \cdot 494 - (2 \cdot 799 + 4 \cdot 463) = 810 \frac{KJ}{mol} = 810 \frac{KJ}{Mol-CO_2}

Math done!

The changing landscape of energy production based on cheap NG

Back in the day (pre-2010 or so) natural gas was much more expensive per unit heat than coal was. If you were going to burn something to produce electricity, coal was much cheaper and so produced cheaper electricity. The fact that it was pretty dirty didn’t matter as much. Then hydrofracking happened. Natural gas got cheap. Its price once roughly tracked with but below oil. Now it tracks with coal. This makes it a viable alternative to coal in power production. This fundamentally alters the primary energy landscape in the US. Once more data is available, we will revisit this.

Hydrocarbon Prices 86-12

Historic hydrocarbon prices per million BTU. Natural gas roughly tracked with oil, until hydrofracking made a glut in the market

Hydrocarbon Prices 07-12

Zooming in on the recent few years, the divergence of oil and gas and convergence of coal and gas becomes evident


Let’s discuss policy and environmental implications. They are pretty huge.

The math shows that in energy per unit CO2 produced, methane is about 60% more efficient than coal. This means that if we have to burn either methane or coal, and we seek to limit CO2 production, methane is the natural choice. Historically pricing prevented this from happening.

Natural gas is now only slightly more expensive per unit heat than coal. It makes sense to make electricity from natural gas, cause it produces far less pollution per unit heat. Since 2008, the US has reduced the amount of CO2 is produces for the first time in a long time. The reduction of CO2 produced by the US is partially based on this change in natural gas price. We now produce more electricity from methane than we used to. Since methane is more efficient at producing energy per unit CO2 produced, we produce less CO2 as a country.

Many staunch environmentalists argue this is a bad thing. Natural gas is still a hydrocarbon and still produces greenhouse gases. It kills far fewer people directly than coal does. The deaths that came as a result of coal might have pushed us towards a much greener economy. Methane is the lesser of two evils. It produces energy like coal. It produces CO2. It is still a finite resource. It is much better than coal.

Coal: The great of two evils between coal and methane. A picture of anthracite coal to break up the monotony of a text well. From Wikipedia.

Barring legislation to prevent hydrofracking, this trend of cheap NG will continue for a long time in the US. We have massive reserves of natural gas in our shale, and hydrofracking can get it out. This is not limited to the US, but there are only a few countries in the world that will be able to do this.

Before closing, we have one last thing. Many of you looked at the graphs of natural gas prices, saw that they were historically not much higher than coal for many years, and wondered why we didn't have natural gas electricity plants then. There are two answers. The first is that we did. It is why we have so many right now that can instantly go online. The second answer is that the EPA really only started getting strict on coal plants in 2004. The emissions from coal plants add many costs that go beyond the price of coal. Natural gas is pretty clean, so it doesn't face these costs, making it more competitive with coal.

Summary: Hydrofracking in the US has changed the natural gas price to be much lower and has made it a basic energy feedstock rather than a premium one. The US has natural gas power plant capacity, and has started shifting to electricity from natural gas. These power plants produce less harmful emissions as a result. CO2 emissions are reduced for the same amount of electricity. Harmful pollutants that cause heart attacks, asthma, and early death are also reduced. This is pretty huge.

Thanks for reading again, and sorry for the huge length

Jason Munster

* Will pointed out that I had Avogadro's # off by a factor of 10. Fixed