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(Carbon Sequestration)

 

 

The following abbreviated paper is extracted from a longer, wider-ranging, paper with reference to energy policy in New South Wales and Australia, that was written in 2008. 
This extract relates solely to CCS.
The original paper that is critical of some 2008 policy initiatives intended to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions can still be read in full on this website:
Read here...

 

 

 

Carbon sequestration 2009 10 07
Carbon Sequestration Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

This illustration shows the two principal categories of Carbon Capture and Storage (Carbon Sequestration) - methods of disposing of carbon dioxide (CO2) so that it doesn't enter the atmosphere.  Sequestering it underground is known as Geosequestration while artificially accelerating natural biological absorption is Biosequestration.

There is a third alternative of deep ocean sequestration but this is highly problematic as one of the adverse impacts of rising CO2 is ocean acidification - already impacting fisheries. 

This paper examines both Geosequestration and Biosequestration and concludes that while Biosequestration has longer term potential Geosequestration on sufficient scale to make a difference is impractical.

 


 

The Climate Impact of Carbon Dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a trace gas that has a strong greenhouse impact on the Earth’s atmosphere, reducing the re-radiation of the Sun’s heat into space.

The Earth is presently in a warming phase in its long term cycle between ice ages.  The sun is also getting hotter in its cyclical temperature variation. During the past two centuries human population has exploded and mankind has become increasingly dependent on fossil fuels that release CO2. Warming in turn releases more CO2 into the atmosphere from natural sources, creating a potential feedback multiplier. With close monitoring over the past 50 years (and evidence from ice cores, sediments and so on) it is now clear that anthropogenic (human generated) CO2 is the greatest component in the observed increase; and thus a contributing factor in (rather than an outcome of) the global warming presently observed.

The total mass of atmospheric CO2 is approximately 3,000 giga-tonnes or about 0.041% of the total atmosphere.  But this proportion is presently increasing at a rate of around 0.61% pa exponentially, so the annual rate of increase is now double the rate in the 1970's.

In 2017 World fossil sourced CO2 production is estimated (U.S. Energy Information Administration) to have totalled around 32.5 billion tonnes (from all fossil sources, including petroleum and gas).

Electricity generation, metals smelting and the mining that supports them are amongst civilisation’s largest enterprises. Modern transportation relies heavily on oil and gas. The harnessing of non-human energy has enabled civilisations to grow exponentially since the steam age without resorting to slavery.

In 2017 coal contributed around 42%, predominantly (67.4%) used to generate electricity and for heat co-generation, and for iron production (12.3%), while oil and gas contributed 52%. Cement making contributed another 4.5%.  Lime calcination, the conversion of limestone (CaCO3) to lime (CaO), for cement, releases significant additional quantities of CO2

These figures relate to fossil fuels only and do not include agriculture; wood and peat burning; or bush/forest fires.

The impetus for Carbon (CO2) Capture and Storage (CCS) technology is the observed impact of CO2 on climate change.

Yet implementing CCS represents a significant additional economic and social cost in terms of:

  • additional equipment maintenance and other running costs;

  • a significant drop in net fuel efficiency and consequent faster resource consumption;

  • a significant increase in transportation infrastructure and its environmental impacts; and

  • some very real additional dangers and safety issues. 

The climate gains made need to more than offset these costs.

For the past 50 years petroleum and gas have been the biggest fossil fuel sources of anthropogenic CO2 but historically coal remains the major contributor and may again overtake petroleum, as oil resources are expected to be depleted first. 

The other great, and often overlooked, source of anthropogenic carbon dioxide is direct human impact on the environment’s natural storage and release mechanisms.  The natural carbon cycle produces and absorbs an order of magnitude more CO2 than is released by fossil fuels annually.  This natural cycle is being heavily disrupted by human population growth.

Over the past 100 years human population has grown by over five billion people: from less than a billion in 1810 to less than two billion in 1910, we are projected to pass eight billion by 2024.

The impact of this vastly increased human population through deforestation, broad acre agriculture, pastoral/grazing activities, excessive consumption of water, rubbish dumping, pollution of streams, rivers and oceans, over fishing and fire lighting is thought to exceed the release of CO2 for energy production.

In 1997 peat burning, in Indonesia alone, may have contributed as much as 10% of the total CO2 released that year.  The pressures of overpopulation and land degradation in the third world combine with rapidly growing energy demands in the second; and too many over-consumers in the first; to make the present global warming trend a serious threat to the future of humanity.

Rapid global warming poses serious threats to economic crops and species habitat and is expected to result in increasingly rapid species extinctions. Higher atmospheric and oceanic energy levels will increase extreme weather events and change rainfall patterns.  These outcomes are increasingly evident.  The melting of the remaining land based ice and ocean expansion may inundate some economically important coastal areas and habitats. 

Although sea level rise is presently the least evident outcome of recent warming it is the aspect most focussed on in public debates.  Sea level rise appears to have been relatively continuous for the past 7000 years as land based ice has steadily contracted. 

Since accurate satellite based observations began in 1993 sea level change has been quite linear averaging 3.4 mm per year. Satellite observations accord with older tide gauge data and together these suggest that globally mean sea level has risen by about a foot over the past 100 years, in line with the long term trend. This is difficult to confirm accurately as in many places the changes in land elevation, relative to mean sea level, are greater than sea level rise due to movements in the earth’s crust.  In the Mediterranean/Aegean classical ports like Ephesus in Turkey are now six kilometres inland whereas others are under the sea.

The metre or more changes projected by glaciologists for the next 100 years are predicated on very much faster ice melting rates in Antarctica and Greenland due to accelerating warming; not on widely publicised melting of floating sea ice that has no significant impact on sea level (as pointed out by Archimedes).  While these melting effects are not yet producing unusual sea level increases, all sea level rise, particularly that due to expansion as a result of warming, contributes to greater tidal surge, altered currents and more energetic cyclones.

The recent population explosion and the shortening time frame for significant variations in the coastline, from thousands to hundreds of years, could result in mass displacements and migratory (refugee) pressure, as the 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review (Report) warns: 

If sea level rises by a metre or more this century and as much again in the first half of the next, and displaces from their homes the people of the low-lying coasts and river banks of the island of New Guinea, it will not be a problem for Papua New Guinea and Indonesia alone.

If sea level rises and displaces from their homes a substantial proportion of the people of Bangladesh and West Bengal, and many in the great cities of Dhaka, Kolkata, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Ningbo, Bangkok, Jakarta, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, Karachi and Mumbai, it will not be a problem for Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, China, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam alone.

If changes in monsoon patterns and the flows of the great rivers from the Tibetan plateau disrupt agriculture among the immense concentrations of people that have grown around the reliability of water flows since the beginning of civilisation, it will not just be a problem for the people of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam, Myanmar and China…

I'm not sure why Garnaut singled out sea level rise. Nobody is going to drown as a result of not noticing.

This is a subject in which I have direct experience spanning 50 years. I first commuted to work by ferry on Sydney Harbour in 1970 and I still use the ferries to travel to and from the city.  In that time I've noticed no less mud at the end of Mosman Bay at very low tide; nor more inundation on the flat across the Bay at high tide, where it has always flooded on a king tide. But considering the sea walls at the Botanic Gardens, I'm persuaded that the sea level has indeed risen, on average, by around a hand span, just as the satellite data suggests. I've not noticed any panic selling around Mosman.

This appears to me to be an appeal to an investor's concern about property values. Yet from an economist's point of view surely demolition and rebuilding is a normal function of economic activity, counted as economic product and therefore contributing wealth? Very few buildings are constructed to last more than 50 years. So those that come under threat can simply be demolished and build further back. Indeed, huge areas of ancient human habitation have already been inundated so we have long experience. But I'm sure one could make a case for the high cost of moving some 'great cities': it could be bad economic news for some long term infrastructure investments like the world's subways/metros and perhaps sewers.

When compared to the much more imminent impact on food crops and climate related disasters, like cyclones, floods and bushfires, that destroy far more property annually than is damaged by the encroaching sea, sea level rise seems to be a trivial concern. By far the greatest worry is the looming disaster when agriculture and fisheries are further disrupted; fresh water is in even greater demand; there is widespread ecological collapse; and the planet is unable to sustain a population of ten billion people.

 


 

Geosequestration

Sequestration of CO2 underground: below the seabed; in depleted oil or gas reservoirs; or in deep saline aquifers is technically possible and already practiced on a small scale.

Yet the scale required, to sequester the just the current annual increase in world CO2 emissions (around 220 million tonnes) would be an enormous engineering challenge.  It is one thing to land a man on the Moon; it is another to relocate the Great Pyramid (of Cheops) there.

Disposal of liquid or compressed gaseous CO2: underground; below the seabed; in depleted oil or gas reservoirs; or in deep saline aquifers is technically possible and is already practiced in some oil fields to improve oil extraction.  But the scale required for meaningful sequestration of coal sourced carbon dioxide is an enormous engineering and environmental challenge of quite a different magnitude. 

Most current work is directed to finding appropriate deep leak proof geological strata below land for the purpose. Undersea sequestration would be an engineering challenge on an even greater scale, and potentially very damaging to ocean organisms coral reefs and fisheries.

As a result of simple chemistry the underground volume required to dispose of carbon dioxide, is substantially greater than that of the coal or the oil that produced it.

For example, the CO2 produced by burning a tonne of coal is well over twice the weight of the coal used to generate it and the volume (even after being compressed to a liquid) is around five times greater (see the box below):

 

(Those of you who are allergic to this kind of thing can skip this and just take my word for it)

The atomic weight of carbon (C) is 12 and oxygen (O) 16 so: C + O2 → CO2 and:
12 + 32 → 44 or: 1 tonne → 3.667 tonnes.

The specific gravity of carbon is around 2.15 (1 cubic metre weighs 2.15 tonnes).  
So 1 cubic metre of pure carbon produces 7.88 tonnes of CO2  

The specific gravity of liquid CO2 is 1.18 (one cubic meter weighs 1.18 tonnes)
so the volume occupied by 7.88 tonnes is 6.68 cubic metres (6.68 kilolitres). 

Different coals have considerable variability in ash (6.5% to 30%) and volatiles (20.8% to 37.9%) depending on grade and purpose. Let's estimate that steaming coal is 75% carbon by weight.

Thus after adjusting for carbon content, one cubic metre of coal going into a power station will produce about five cubic metres (kilolitres) of CO2, if compressed to a liquid. 

 

Thus transporting the CO2 from the furnace is undertaking that is two to five times the scale (by weight and volume) of delivering the coal that generated it.   

Under CCS, getting the CO2 from a power station to the sequestration site and injecting it is a much bigger job than mining the coal and transporting it to the power station. This means that the existing power stations are the wrong technology in the wrong place for CCS.  They would need to be located on good sequestration sites; as opposed to being close to the source of coal.

But there are additional reasons to doubt that CCS can be generally applied, even if a new generation of plants make capture economically feasible.

As I have official data for New South Wales Australia (NSW) I will use these as a hypothetical CCS project to illustrate the issues.

The annual production of CO2 from stationary electricity generation in NSW in 2017 was 66.2 Mt CO2e.

To put this into perspective:

  • These coal burning power stations contributed less than 12% of Australia's annual production of CO2 in 2017.
  • In the same period Australia contributed just 1.16% of global world CO2 production. 
  • So if the following CCS example could be fully implemented it would reduce annual, global fossil sourced CO2 emissions by 0.14%

Let's assume the whole 66 million tonnes of CO2 is liquefied. We have seen (above) that it would compress to around 56 million cubic metres (56 GL). Pumped underground this would occupy a volume of about five and a half thousand hectares (13,480 acres) in area one meter thick - every year. Of course it would be dispersed through the strata but unless the strata had many voids the surface would rise in a reverse of the subsidence caused by long-wall underground mining.  It would damage property and seriously disrupt any underground aquifers. 

To be more realistic it's unlikely that the entire output of CO2 could be captured. Yet to have any impact at all on global carbon emissions and thus climate change, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of CO2 would need to be sequestered over the life of each new fossil fired power station. Apart from the mass and volumes involved there are handling difficulties. 

At less than 5 times atmospheric pressure liquid CO2 undergoes a phase transition and becomes a solid, dry ice. To keep it liquid it needs to be kept at a pressure well in excess of five atmospheres[6] at -56.4o C. At ambient temperature it needs to be kept at above 60 atmospheres to remain liquid. To be pumped across the countryside in uninsulated pipelines it needs to be above the critical point pressure of 73 atmospheres.  Any loss of pressure, due to a rupture or a loss of power, may well result in its boiling to gas followed by solidification of sections of the pipeline and/or damage the pumps.

Ordinary carbon steel corrodes in the presence of moist CO2 and the pipelines need to be lined or made of stainless steel. A very significant and entirely novel infrastructure of large diameter high pressure pipelines and pumping stations will be required.  The pumps need to move large tonnages and volumes of liquid, comparable to a good sized city’s water supply, at very high pressures.

This will consume a lot of energy. The initial compression of the gas to liquid needs to overcome the latent heat of liquefaction of CO2 (approx 160 kWh/tonne). 

Continuing with the NSW example, according to its Wikipedia entry[7]Liddell power station releases an estimated 14.7 million tonnes of CO2 to generate 17,000 GWh per year. Assuming no inefficiencies, compressing this gas would consume 14.7 x 160 = 2,350 GWh per year or about 14% (and probably a lot more) of its electricity output. 

As it is expected that this liquid would be pumped into porous strata, where it will fill interstitial voids to perhaps 10% of the volume, several thousand square kilometres of strata would be required annually. These volumes would also require hundreds of kilometres of high pressure distribution pipeline and hundreds of injection bore holes the diameter and depth of oil wells. 

Within a few years, the underground sequestration site (or sites) required for CO2 would underlie hundreds of thousands of hectares of countryside with high pressure liquid/solid phase CO2 that would pose, probably insurmountable: geological; engineering; environmental; aesthetic; safety; and cost issues.

To this needs to be added the unknown, but substantial, energy required for transportation to the sequestration sites and for underground injection, as well as vast additional infrastructure; capital and running costs.  Existing gas pipelines burn some of the gas to run pressure booster pumps along the string but these would need to be electric for CO2, involving additional high voltage lines and inevitable grid losses.

Clever integrated design may potentially reduce some of these overheads (for example some of the heat released during compression may be recoverable at the compressing power station) but it is probable that the additional infrastructure and energy overheads required for CCS would make any future coal fired station so inefficient and resource consuming as to be impractical.

Pumping a few thousand litres down a hole at a test site proves little.  Small scale return of to oil wells has been employed for many years.

 


 

Safety Issues

There are a number of safety issues relating to an envisioned new generation of coal fired power stations with CCS.  Coal fired power generation is already intrinsically unsafe and adding CCS would substantially increase these risks and probable deaths. 

Mine and coal transport accidents outnumber deaths and injuries in any competing technology, ash releases remain substantial (despite the advent of bag houses and precipitators). Acids, mercury and other compounds released from flue gasses cause substantial environmental and health damage. 

The health burden of fine particle pollution from electricity generation in NSW, by leading epidemiologist, Dr Ben Ewald investigated the serious health damage NSW’s five coal-fired power stations are causing. The study concluded that each year the power station emissions cause: 279 premature deaths; 233 low birth weight babies (less than 2500g); and 361 new cases of type 2 diabetes.

The US National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) estimates the average radioactivity of coal is 17,100 millicuries/4,000,000 short tons resulting in a radiation dose to the population from a 1000 MW coal fired plant of 490 person-rem/year; a hundred times more than from a comparable nuclear plant.

The use of ammonia or amides to flush CO2 from flue gasses (if used) poses additional safety and environmental concerns.  Ammonia is a mildly toxic gas (and liquid) and can cause lung damage and death in humans exposed to concentrations above 400 parts per million. It is highly soluble in water and extremely toxic to aquatic animals. Thus ammonia is potentially environmentally damaging if accidentally released; or if traces remain in the CO2 stream. Ammonia and amide production facilities also consume relatively high levels of electricity. Alternatives such as membrane technology may solve some of these issues in future.

Adding very large volume movements of CO2 to this list may be the final ‘show stopper’ for environmental scale CCS.  CO2 is a relatively non-toxic gas, compared to ammonia, but at around 10% by volume in air it is lethal to humans (anything over 4% is considered very dangerous[8], it is normally under 0.04% in air). The last large natural release of CO2 was at Lake Nyos in Cameroon in1986.  It killed nearly 2,000 people and all the animals, birds and insects too. It is heavier than air and fills depressions. Depending on concentrations, internal combustion engines may stop, compromising any rescue attempts.  Moving large volumes about the countryside poses significant risks to people and animals.

If CCS was fully implemented for the power industry alone, in just 20 years 1.3 billion tonnes of CO2 would underlie many hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of rural NSW, in an as yet unabsorbed state. 

Theory has it that in about 10,000 years it will have been fully integrated with the rocks into which it is pumped.  It might then be safe, unless there is ever an igneous intrusion or meteor impact in the area.  But if in the meantime just some of the sequestered CO2 escaped somehow, due to a borehole malfunction, miscalculation of capacity or an earthquake, Chernobyl (57 direct deaths and 4,000 potentially injured by future cancers) could look like a picnic; and a fraction of a square kilometre of nuclear waste storage, a trivial problem for posterity.

Token projects, of the kind already attempted and mostly abandoned, that sequester a fraction of a facility's CO2 make such a small difference that they are pointless. Indeed, because of the substantial additional energy consumed to extract compress and pump underground, the overall CO2 released, to deliver the same energy to market, is likely to increase net CO2 released to the atmosphere. 

Clearly Geosequestration is no panacea.

 


 

Biosequestration

As previously mentioned the vast proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere is naturally released and is in turn naturally absorbed.  Some is dissolved in rain and ultimately acidifies the oceans but a great deal is absorbed by plants in the process of photosynthesis; consuming water and usually releasing oxygen. 

This is a natural solar collector.  Plant absorption is increased if CO2 levels rise and plants have access to sufficient water and sunlight.  Trials have been undertaken at higher CO2 levels with a number of existing economic plants to determine such things as the ‘fertiliser effect’ higher water uptake and increased solar absorption. 

Obviously producing biofuel or food does not permanently sequester carbon and any credit should only apply the solar energy collected by the process; as this, in turn, reduces dependence on other energy sources. To get a full credit, similar technology might produce cellulose that could be charred and buried to improve soils or other carbon rich materials that could be safely buried in depleted mines or other suitable sites. Charing and burying of bagasse, straw and wood-waste is already a recognised sequestration technology.

Natural biosequestration is happening already.  Accelerated Biosequestration is more problematic, in part because the CO2 emitted by industrial processes is dirty and if used directly would kill most plants or algae. So it must first be cleaned and this can be both difficult and expensive.

It is clear that accelerated CO2 absorption by conventional agriculture and plants, for example by reticulating CO2 to greenhouses or forests, would be costly and would not fully deal with the vast quantities of CO2 involved.  But some plants and bacteria evolved when CO2 levels were very much higher and it appears to be possible to exploit their genome to modify them or other plants and organisms, to produce economically useful materials; at the same time absorbing large volumes of CO2.

Several projects are already in underway internationally.  The most interesting involve algae that could be used to produce diesel fuel, directly or as chemical feedstock.  Other, possibly complimentary, options include modifying food crops like rice (to a C4 plant) so that additional CO2 and sunlight are absorbed (and carbohydrate yields improved).

Again the problem is the scale required to make a difference. A very large solar collection area is required together with plentiful water.  Areas comparable to present broad acre agriculture will be required, probably as shallow lakes.  It would be particularly useful if algae that are comfortable in salt water could be adapted.

Again there are safety issues to be considered. These vast lakes or fields will be filled with genetically modified organisms and the regulatory environment relating to GM organisms and foods would need to be changed accordingly. 

Like the introduction of the Cane Toad to Australia, the cure could well turn out to be worse than the disease.

 


 

Alternatives to creating emissions

Most Australian proposals to limit carbon dioxide emissions have remained silent on ‘the elephant in the room’: the role of nuclear power in achieving lower carbon emissions in other countries.

No doubt the silence on nuclear power is politically astute and/or avoiding controversy.  For example the 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review was not concerned with the actual methods employed and assumes that whatever technology becomes profitable will be used.

Almost all power engineers acknowledge that nuclear power is currently the only practical alternative to coal; wind and solar just won't cut it. There are now several hundred new nuclear power plants in planning and under construction worldwide and China alone is projecting 300.

If carbon sequestration is impractical on a scale that would make a difference, and this paper asserts this is so, it is virtually certain that the impact of an effective emissions reduction initiative would be to make nuclear power inevitable in the new energy mix. This mix would no doubt include increased use of other economic alternatives like solar and wind. 

Photovoltaic solar is already cost competitive with nuclear power in some circumstances and may replace part of our electricity needs as technological progress is made but solar panels do not provide this energy continuously without costly batteries.  While their use is widespread domestically 'going off-grid' is difficult without some complementary source of energy - for example gas.

Where wind is plentiful, wind turbines can make a substantial contribution, but again some means of energy storage is needed to fill those times of peak demand when there is insufficient wind.  This is discussed in more detail elsewhere on this website.

Nuclear electricity is the ‘next best’ economic alternative to coal and as outlined above the engineering challenges involved are trivial compared to CCS. 

If this is so, we have a good idea of what the world aught to look like. Why go through the difficulty of implementing economy distorting mechanisms like those proposed by the Garnaut Climate Change Review, with unknown side effects, when we can simply identify the technology changes we want and implement them? 

When changing to a new phone or television standard we do not tax the old technology to make the new attractive; we simply say that from such and such a date we will no longer use the old and everyone needs to make the appropriate transition arrangements.

One gets the impression that if the authors of the Garnaut Climate Change Review had been engaged to design and build the Sydney Harbour Bridge they would have proposed, instead, a tax on ferries.

To achieve the desired outcome of a transition to nuclear electricity without hidden economy distorting market mechanisms, NSW (and other states, perhaps with explicit Loan Council support or Commonwealth transition funding) could simply take action to progressively replace the present coal burning power stations with similar or possibly larger nuclear stations in the same or similar locations. Existing transmission and other generator independent infrastructure could then be used, minimising cost.

Local employment impacts would be minimised, employees and local residents would be healthier and safer. With appropriate advice and information this improved greenhouse, safety and employment environment would minimise any ‘not in my backyard’ objections to the changes.  The new stations would provide carbon free electricity to support existing industrial and residential purposes and provide for future growth, at a price competitive with that under the Garnaut Climate Change Review proposals.

Additional electricity capacity could be provided for electric trains, public road transport and private cars. These will inevitably become more attractive as oil prices rise and government infrastructure catches up with almost every other comparable city and country in the World.

We will know we have caught up when Sydney (and possibly Newcastle) has a proper Metro network of several intersecting lines linking up-market residential, retail and employment nodes across the city; the State has an updated 25KV electrified freight rail network; and there is a separate very fast passenger train service, at least down the east coast.  These will substantially reduce the transport use of fossil fuel and encourage urban consolidation around the new stations.  New industrial lands could be developed around freight hubs. Technological progress and local industry will be encouraged and stimulated by moving the State’s infrastructure into the 21st Century.

The relative cost of energy is, in any case, expected to increase under existing (undistorted) market mechanisms, encouraging increased energy efficiency.  Most experts predict that oil will increase in price relative to coal and together with new battery technology will encourage the development of new electric and hybrid transport. 

As nuclear power would only replace coal for electricity generation and indirectly for transport, coal would continue to be sold overseas (just as we presently sell uranium but do not consume it; conscious that NSW coal will remain a tiny fraction of the coal consumed worldwide) and used (at an undistorted price) in local metals smelting where there is no alternative.

 


 

Conclusion

As a substantial solution to carbon dioxide caused climate change, on sufficient scale to make a difference:

  • Artificial Biosequestration may have longer term potential; but
  • Geosequestration is impractical as a meaningful solution to the continued use of coal.

 


Footnotes: 


 

 

[8] U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

 


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Travel

Romania

 

 

In October 2016 we flew from southern England to Romania.

Romania is a big country by European standards and not one to see by public transport if time is limited.  So to travel beyond Bucharest we hired a car and drove northwest to Brașov and on to Sighisiora, before looping southwest to Sibiu (European capital of culture 2007) and southeast through the Transylvanian Alps to Curtea de Arges on our way back to Bucharest. 

Driving in Romania was interesting.  There are some quite good motorways once out of the suburbs of Bucharest, where traffic lights are interminable trams rumble noisily, trolley-busses stop and start and progress can be slow.  In the countryside road surfaces are variable and the roads mostly narrow. This does not slow the locals who seem to ignore speed limits making it necessary to keep up to avoid holding up traffic. 

Read more ...

Fiction, Recollections & News

Peter Storey McKie

 

 

My brother, Peter, is dead. 

One of his body's cells turned rogue and multiplied, bypassing his body's defences. The tumour grew and began to spread to other organs.  Radiation stabilised the tumour's growth but by then he was too weak for chemo-therapy, which might have stemmed the spreading cells.

He was 'made comfortable' thanks to a poppy grown in Tasmania, and thus his unique intelligence faded away when his brain ceased to function on Sunday, 22nd May 2022.

I visited him in the hospital before he died.  Over the past decade we had seldom spoken. Yet he now told me that he often visited my website. I had suspected this because from time to time he would send e-mail messages, critical of things I had said. That was about the only way we kept in touch since the death of his daughter Kate (Catherine). That poppy again.  

I suppose that one of the reasons for not talking very often was that there were few things that we disagreed about. So, our last conversation, which amongst other things, encompassed the inevitability of death for all of us, was uncontroversial, even comfortable. We were brought-up to sort out our metaphysical leanings for ourselves. Both of us came to believe, like our parents, that there could be no continued 'life' after death. So, a dead body has no particular value, except, perhaps, as a memento for the still-living, our descendants and maybe historians to come.  

Yet, as I have repeatedly asserted on this website, while we are alive, we all, continually change the present - and therefore, the future. As a result, after death we continue to exist in another way: through the affects of those changes, that we made, in the fabric of what is now - and thus: what will be. 

Not only do we persist through our children and grandchildren, who but for us and the specific circumstances of their conception would not exist, but also through our works and influence on others.

 

Our father, Stephen; Peter and son Daniel; our mother, Vera; me and daughter Emily (circa 1980)

 

Yet, it's as much about those things from which we abstained, despite the opportunity, and our impact on the present through those decisions. For example: "I won't hire that person;" or: "Not tonight, Josephine."

Thus, Peter always had a significant impact on the 'now' - and so - on the future.

In particular, he was an industrial designer by profession and had an instinctive grasp of how things worked and how they might be improved. He was a consummate creator of things, and ideas about how to do things, that will be used, and built upon by others, into the distant future. 

Amongst other things he was heavily involved in the film industry, in particular providing special effects for movies and television commercials. One of the many names that appear in the credits after any major motion picture.  

 

 

 

Our Shared Youth

Since Peter's death, I've thought about him a lot.  As children and young adults, we shared a bedroom and had a sometimes strained relationship but we could work together harmoniously on many projects of a practical nature, like restoring his first car, an ancient Austin Seven. 

 

 

Elsewhere I've recalled growing up in the years before television or social media when, as children, we were encouraged to be more 'hands-on' than similar aged children in today's Australia:

 

 From 

The McKie Family

 

Stephen McKie's sons were encouraged to use tools and their brains as he had been by his father. It wasn't so we could become inventors or mechanics or even engineers. It was so we could experience the satisfaction of making things; of understanding how things work; and discovering something new. The joy of creation.

That was why, one very early Christmas, Santa Clause left a tent in the room with the tree and in it was a big black wooden tool box with RSM written on the top and real tools inside - not plastic toys. Anyway, we didn't have much plastic then, except Bakelite and Perspex.

I had those tools well into adulthood. The Tool Box eventually became our combined Meccano box when Peter and I had stopped fighting over such things...

Cars were another thing we needed to know about. 

On paper it looks like a miracle that Peter and I were not injured in some way. There were a lot of dangerous things around. But the thing was, we knew they were very dangerous so we were extra cautious.

We grew up with cautionary tales. Like the one when a fellow at CA Parsons research attempted to make some nitro-glycerine but unsure if he had succeeded dropped his test-tube-full out of the second storey window. He blew-out all the downstairs windows and terminated his employment. We were invited to consider what he should have done instead, like putting a drop on an anvil and remotely dropping a suspended weight on it. It was assumed that, at some point, we might face this dilemma.

So, we never attempted to set-off suspected explosives, or a home-made rocket, without a long wick or wire around the corner of the house. On more than one occasion this turned out to be very good practice. Similar stories related to poisons (most of the chemicals in the house) and potential carcinogens (like any chemical with a benzene ring), high voltages, unstable loads and structures and shonky car supports (jacks, stands and so on).

I was recently telling someone of the cautionary experiment when Stephen put a little ether on a saucer on our kitchen floor to show it spontaneously catch fire - careful the flames are hard to see. This was because we had a gas refrigerator in our kitchen then. As soon as the vapour from the saucer rose high enough, the gas pilot light caused the fame to flash back to the saucer. To this day I consider nearby flames when using solvents and was amused years later when a friend's petrol-soaked overalls blew-up his parent's laundry.

As a result, we were generally more cautious than most when it came to these things.

And so one generation sets the scene for the next. But there are some traditions that do get broken.

Looking back over this partial list, I wonder why I've not followed directly in my father's footsteps. Sure, I've always wanted to know how things work and have enjoyed making my version of some of them. After all they are made by other human beings and must be comprehensible, even, as Pooh would say: 'to a bear of very little brain'.

But my brother Peter has been more like our father and perhaps his grandfather. He's always designed and built and invented.

Peter has half a dozen patents in the US and has successfully defended at least one patent there...

 

Some decades after we were both adults, we worked together converting a small petrol engine to drive an electrical generator on his farm, near Jindabyne, and I experienced the same satisfaction of mutual creativity we had enjoyed as teenagers. 

 

There are many other references to Peter on my website like this one:

 

From:

Cars, Radios, TV and other Pastimes

As kids we, like many of my friends, were encouraged to make things and try things out. Peter liked to build forts and tree houses; dig giant holes; and play with old compressors and other dangerous motorised devices, like model aircraft engines and lawnmowers; until his car came along...

When he was around fifteen years old Peter bought an Austin Seven; in pieces; for £10; plus, some more pounds, to a final total something less than £70 'on the road'.

Actually, there were eventually parts for about three Austin Sevens. We assembled an engine, chassis and drive chain, it had a fabric universal joint, and he put a seat in place on the chassis so he could drive it.

And drive he did; around and around the house; to the detriment of the sandstone side steps, and the back lawn and terracing.

By the time he was old enough to have his licence he had restored the Austin Seven sufficiently to get it registered. It had, on occasion, been taken out on clandestine test runs, up and down Pennant Hills Road and around adjoining streets; but not very surreptitiously; as it initially had a defective muffler, when fitted at all, and until Peter re-ringed it, it blew clouds of smoke.

 

At first the battery was the most expensive individual component in the entire car, in due course surpassed by a new windscreen. The electric self-starter, to replace hand cranking, was an add-on that sat over the flywheel near the passenger's feet...

My father taught me, and later my brother, to drive although Peter didn't require much teaching for obvious reasons.

My father had taught Australians, Canadians, South Africans and Poles, amongst others, to fly fighters and fighter bombers in the Empire Air Training Scheme in Canada, in the latter part of the war (WW2). That's how we ended up in Australia.

As a result, we learnt to drive like fighter pilots. We were shown how to get into and out of skids. Independently we discovered 180s and 360s.

Peter even showed a hapless hitch-hiker his roll-over technique. He subsequently denied this; claiming instead, and I quote, that he demonstrated: 'his clean off the suspension on the curbing technique'. The hitch-hiker may not have appreciated the subtleties.
 

 

Much earlier there was the night of the unlit highway:  

 

 Also, from:

Cars, Radios, TV and other Pastimes

We both liked homemade rockets and explosives; but our early efforts, before the benefits of high school chemistry, generally resulted in the rockets exploding and the explosives fizzing. You can read more about this in the article Cracker Night (click here).

Commercial firecrackers and gunpowder were generally more successful; although home-made nitrogen triiodide was always easy, and zinc dust and sulphur, sifted together, make a pretty good rocket fuel. We also had some fun with large gas filled balloons; and various means of firing marbles and other projectiles.

Fortunately, we had 'the sheep paddock', forming part of the property, for such experiments. We only set fire to it once or twice when the grass was particularly long and dry.

There was never any suggestion from parents that we should not be wiring up electric motors or installing flood lighting to repair cars under. We both had a healthy respect for high voltages and seldom got a 'shock'.

We were never injured by one of our experiments (by other things occasionally). The parental policy was that we were warned and asked what safety precautions we were taking. After all, we had seen first-hand what happens when a length of copper wire falls across the 33KV local distribution grid and shorts it to the street lighting; talk about loud; and dark that night!
 

The thirty-three thousand volt explosion

This resulted from a balloon experiment.

Peter had saved up to buy a very large rubber balloon which he had filled with town (producer) gas from an outlet the laundry using a pump. This gas still had a considerable hydrogen component, along with carbon monoxide, unlike today's heavier natural gas. But having no suitable string he decided to use the copper wire from an old radio transformer that I had previously broken open.

I had quite a number of these and every now and then took one apart as a source of wire of various gauges; particularly for our homemade telephone system to Colin next door; for radio aerials; for winding coils for buzzers; rewinding my burnt-out Meccano motor and so on.

Copper wire of a gauge thick enough to restrain a large balloon comes from the low voltage windings on such a transformer. It's quite heavy and the balloon hadn't risen a lot higher than the trees, maybe 60 feet (20m) or so, when it wouldn't go higher.

That's when I discovered my little brother repeating Benjamin Franklin's famous lightening experiment; holding the end of a 60-foot lightening-conductor in the back garden. Several people have been killed trying to repeat this experiment.

I claim to protect him from being fried; he claimed out of sibling maliciousness; I reached above his head and rapidly bending and straightening the wire (as one does) broke it.

The balloon then rose ponderously; higher and higher; at the same time being carried by a light breeze in the direction of Pennant Hills Road and the railway cutting.

The trailing wire cleared the house; then hovered over the cars and trucks on the main road. But continuing to drift westwards there was no chance that it would clear the high voltage power lines running between the road and the railway.

A spectacular two second display of sputtering sparks and sheets of blue green flame ensued, as the dangling copper wire first struck, then fell across the high voltage lines; was vaporised; and became plasma.

The noise was remarkable too; very loud. Then everything electrical stopped.

The local grid protection breakers kicked-in and the power went off for a minute or two. Then just as quickly everything returned to normal.

Householders called out by the noise returned indoors to continue whatever they had been doing. All except our father, who was working from home. He circled the house and finding us acting nonchalantly; in other words, suspiciously; demanded to know: 'what have you two done this time!' Why immediately assume it was us?

Remarkably he was then more concerned about possible subsequent safety issues: remnants of wire dangling from power-lines; or the ongoing path of a balloon trailing copper wire. But everything had gone; the balloon exploded and the wire vaporised! I don't recall any punishment at all.

That night all the mercury arc street lights on the main road were off. The 33kV had been shorted down to the adjacent street wiring and the fuses protecting every lighting ballast in that section had blown.

Innocent little Peter asked the team that came to replace them what might have caused it? One bloke said: 'could've been a tree branch or lightening...' Peter said: 'what are you doing with the broken ones - can I have one' The bloke said: 'Go for it!' So, we took several bulbs and at least one ballast.

So, that's how for many years later, we had a brilliant bluish street light high on the side of our house (we just replaced the fuse); enabling us to work on our cars in the garden after dark.

***

Those 33kV wires are still there the same as ever - but the streetlights have changed.
Now the road is four times as wide and our old house has been consumed - just a brief flash in the flow of time.

 

 

Now my world has changed again, in a much more profound way.

 

***

For more photographs (including Dan and Emily a bit older than in the photo above) Click Here...

Opinions and Philosophy

When did people arrive in Australia?

 

 

 

 

 

We recently returned from a brief holiday in Darwin (follow this link).  Interesting questions raised at the Darwin Museum and by the Warradjan Cultural Centre at Kakadu are where the Aboriginal people came from; how they got to Australia; and when. 

Recent anthropology and archaeology seem to present contradictions and it seems to me that all these questions are controversial.

Read more ...

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