Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Estimating Coal Bed Methane Volume And Some Other Energy News

Via Geology.com I came across this short tutorial on estimating available coal bed methane. Gas is adsorbed in the micro-pores within the coal with smaller amounts available as free gas in fractures. The gas content available is estimated using a Langmuir isotherm:


Source: Baker Hughes Reservoir Blog

Short but effective presentation I thought.

In other energy news, India is ready to open up bidding for exploration of shale gas in six basins, namely Cambay, Assam-Arakan, Gondawana, KG onshore, Cauvery onshore and the Indo Gangetic basin by end of 2013. Early estimates suggest that four of these basins, Cambay, KG onshore, Cauvery and part of the Gondwana (Damodar valley basin) contain up to 63 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable shale gas. These numbers are sure to be modified as these and other basins are probed in more detail.

Finally, Amol Sharma at India Real Time takes a closer look at "Coalgate", a controversy over the Indian government allocating coal mining blocks to companies instead of auctioning them in an open bidding process. The loss to the exchequer according to the Comptroller and Auditor General calculation is about $200 billion.

What all the media hype though has missed is that the report has a lot to say about the shortfall in coal production:

The lion’s share of the report doesn’t deal with any of the issues above that have caused such an uproar, but rather India’s coal production shortfall. There’s plenty of blame for Coal India, which produces 81% of the coal in the country and is a lifeline for power generation firms. Between March 2008 and March 2011, Coal India failed to supply 54 million tons of coal it had promised companies. The report also asks why the private companies that have been “captive mines” – the so-called windfall gainers – have been so slow to get going with production. It says only 28 captive coal blocks are producing out of 194 allocated by the government. It is fair to ask why this is the case. Are there delays in getting government clearances, or are companies being inefficient?

Indian potential coal reserves are about 350 billion tons, making it the fourth largest reserves in the world, but according to coal market consultants Wood McKenzie, the future marketable reserve i.e. marketable production by 2030 is just 18 billion tons. That estimate might reflect a complex mix of conditions such as a lack of confidence in India sorting out issues related to regulatory clearances and land acquisition problems along with shortage in skilled manpower and advanced technology.  India has to import coal to meet shortfalls in domestic supply.

The Economic Times reports that coal imports could increase substantially in the future from 80 million tons per year in 2011 to 400 million tons per year by 2030, especially if domestic prices are raised to be on par with international prices.  Australia and Indonesia are major suppliers of coal to India.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

World Water Day: Water Water Everywhere ...And Shale Gas

Its World Water Day.

Near my house a big site is being developed. The builder excavated a huge pit about 40-50 feet deep for underground parking only to find he had hit a prolific aquifer.


My rough calculations suggest that the hole contains on the order of 15 -20 million liters of water. That sounds a lot but I was struggling to give it a context. Then this morning I read an article on Fracking, Methane and Food Security. Fracking or hydraulic fracturing is the process of injecting shale rock with a mixture of water, sand and chemicals to pry open the shale and release the tightly bound natural gas.

Here is what the article says about the amount of water used by each well being fracked -

 “Every time a gas well is fracked, 4 to 9 million gallons of water are injected into the ground. A single well can be fracked up to 12 separate times, adding up to over 100 million gallons of freshwater used in the lifetime of a well.” (waterdefense.org)

4-9 million gallons injected every time a gas well is fracked. That's on the order of 20 odd million liters of water, as much as is contained in that hole near my house.

My neighborhood is not depending on groundwater right now, but may have to in the not so distant future. Shale gas though will be extracted in the future from wells drilled in rural India, which depends a lot on groundwater. Farmers use it for drinking purposes as well as irrigating their fields. The gas will be in sedimentary formations a couple of kilometers below the surface, but the water for fracking will be taken from much shallower aquifers that the farmers rely on for their livelihood.

Each time a gas well is fracked, 20 million liters of water will have to be diverted from aquifers underlying their fields for getting the natural gas out. Over the lifetime of a well over 400 million liters of water may be consumed by one well and in an area few tens of sq km, there may be scores of such shale gas wells.

Its early days in our goal to exploit shale gas from various Indian sedimentary basins. Let us quantitatively assess the state of our aquifers besides exploring for shale gas. Let's educate our farmers on how much water shale gas drilling is likely to use up. The residents of central Pune can afford to pump all of 20 odd million liters of groundwater away and still see water gushing out of their taps.

Farmers in the dusty hinterlands may not afford that luxury.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Groundwater Awareness Week: Marathi Movies And Upland Farmers Of The Deccan

Geology and Livelihoods # 13

It is groundwater awareness week in the United States. What a great idea.. and why restrict it to national boundaries? Here is a story from India.



The video is from the Marathi language movie Tingya, set in the Deccan basalts of Maharashtra. In the short clip you can see a river valley. The boy - whose name is Tingya - starts running up a slope and keeps going until he reaches his house which is at a considerable altitude. Here his family lives and farms a small plot of land.

The boy is very much attached to the family work animal, a bull named Chitangya. One day, at the crucial time of preparing the field for harvest, Chitangya falls ill. He can't work anymore and the family is forced to sell him for meat. Tingya protests vehemently and invokes the incomparable logic of children - " The neighbors grandmother has been lying sick and useless for months. Why don't they send her to be cut up for meat!?"

These are the lives of marginal farmers eking out a living on slopes and high plateaus of the Deccan. Groundwater is not mentioned in the movie but the lives of these communities is sustained by the monsoon and whatever groundwater is available. 

I have seen these situations up close. An example from near Pune.


The river is the main source of water in the valley. Fields are irrigated by lifting water from the river or from constructed holding tanks. Groundwater is also used but often is a secondary source, used for domestic consumption and for minor irrigation.  Up on the slopes and plateaus, the situation is different. Post monsoon, the only source of water is groundwater, tapped either through shallow dug wells, or channeling water seeping out of springs to holding tanks. Local irrigation networks move this water to the fields.

The structure of the lava flows control the location of groundwater and springs. Here is a schematic of the topography and geology. The steep slopes are exaggerated. The distance from the river to Tingya's home would be a few kilometers and the altitude difference a few hundred feet:


The lava pile is composed of alternating compound flows and compact flows. Compound flows which have solidified from more viscous lava are internally made up of smaller units of lava. Compound lava when it erupts has volatiles and gases trapped in it and this results in the solidified lava having a vesicular texture. They also  have extensive sheet joints i.e. cracks which are parallel to the body of the flow and through which water can flow. The cracks may have originated as cooling cracks as the lavas cooled and contracted or as cracks that form when the overburden was removed due to erosion. Prolonged weathering of the rock mass due to movement of water accentuates these cracks into sheeted openings. Compact flows, as the name suggests are denser and have sub-vertical joints and fractures, possibly of cooling or tectonic origin.

Compound (vesicular amygdaloidal flows) and compact flows together form an aquifer unit like the one in the schematic below.

Source: ACWADAM

Rain that falls on the plateaus and slopes infiltrates through cracks. It gets stored mostly in the compound type of lava flow. Dug wells tap this sheet jointed unit for maximum benefit. Sheet joints of compound flows when exposed along slopes are the locations of the best springs.

Tingya's family likely gets by using this type of water arrangement, a combination of dug wells and springs. Dug wells are expensive to excavate and poor families rely mainly on springs. There is sometimes a third option. And that is to pay lowland farmers to lift water from the streams or holding ponds to irrigate fields higher on the slopes. This does not come cheap though. It may cost up to several thousand rupees to irrigate an acre of wheat or vegetables. Most marginal farmers won't be able to afford this additional water source. Some families opt for a fourth option. Members migrate to cities to work in the dry season, returning to their fields in the monsoon. Many stay on permanently in the cities, supplementing family agricultural income.

These farmers need help in the form of groundwater management advice. Groundwater extraction sustains these people. But to manage this resource the key questions would be - a) how much water does the aquifer hold?  b) how much water can be extracted sustainably?  c) how much and how quickly can the aquifer be recharged, either naturally or through artificial methods?  For that, a thorough geological understanding of the aquifer is needed. Such geological expertise is not always available to farmers. Some work is being done to redress the situation. For example, much of the geology in this post is based on a field trip I took some years ago with ACWADAM , a NGO focusing on understanding the hydrogeology of the Deccan lava flows.

Tingya's family pull through their crises in the end. Chitangya fetches a decent price. They buy another animal who gives birth to a calf. Tingya sees in that calf Chitangya reborn. The cycle of life continues. Other families may not be that lucky. The story could easily end differently for them.  Monsoons may fail. Unplanned water extraction may leave wells dry. The hard basalt may become unrelenting.

Disaster then is often just one illness away. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Science On Indian Radio

A friend recently got hooked on to Science Friday and other radio programs on NPR. We were talking about the lack of science programming on Indian radio and whether something on the lines of Science Friday will find an audience in India.

Both of us remembered that All India Radio and Gyan Vani do have educational segments that discuss primarily health issues. A guest, usually a medical practitioner, talks about one health topic.. diabetes, stress, AIDS, eye disorders and so on. On All Indian Radio, the program is uniquely geared towards keeping Indian audiences tuned in. It intersperses the discussion with the guests favorite movie songs. Listening to Bollywood music and songs is something of a craze in India and the educational segments try to use it to keep listeners attentive. Someone used to Science Friday and other science programs on western radio stations will find these programs quirky with their song and musical interludes! Gyan Vani is by comparison quite sedate with long stretches of conversation without interruption.

But why not add to the repertoire of subjects discussed? No doubt, healthy citizens make a healthy nation and the current programming is seen to be pragmatic and providing an immediate social benefit. On the other hand,  I have never heard "pure" sciences been discussed in these programs. No geology, no evolution, no chemistry, no genetics or cosmology. I hope the perception is not there that only advice about health which audiences find useful in their daily lives should be covered. Or that, there is no interest in India in listening to someone ramble about the earth's tectonic plates or whether humans interbred with the Neanderthals or some arcane topic about the cosmos.

The trick to hook audiences may be to begin with events of national interest wherein knowledge of certain scientific super-specialization has been called upon to weigh in favor of or against the implementation of big projects and policy decisions. The programs could be in English or Hindi or a regional language. Here is my list:

1) Biotechnology and Indian agriculture
2) Nuclear, Solar and Wind Power
3) Groundwater and Indian agriculture
4) Designing New Remote Sensing Senors For Ecological and Mineral Mapping
5) Interlinking of Himalayan and Peninsular Rivers

Make no mistake. Fundamental principles of biology, geology, physics and chemistry will be put to use to tackle the above listed problems. These already have been given considerable attention in the mainstream media and are in the public eye. Often though, the science involved is not written about in articles or discussed on television. A more leisurely radio program might just be the most convenient medium for explaining the basic science and weaving a story about discoveries with the practical applications of these fields. And scientists coming out and speaking frankly about their work in these fields will get citizens interested and involved in a more open and informed debate about controversial projects.

..one final request. These radio stations must have a website and a downloadable podcast of every program. I have a feeling that many people in India too will find listening on a mobile device the best way to catch up with science stories.

what will life be without little dreams.. :)

Friday, March 9, 2012

Interesting Blogs I've Started Following Of Late

Here are a few interesting blogs I've come across over the past year or so:

Anubhooti: Blog Of A Forest Officer - An Indian government officer blogging? !! Hurray.. :) Mohan Chandra Pargaien is a Forest Officer and blogs about environmental issues.

Earth Science Erratics - Erin Parker - Extremely engaging conversations on the challenges of teaching geology to school students. 

Earth Pages - In this Wiley-Blackwell’s  community site for the earth sciences, Dr Steve Drury writes about interesting research in the earth sciences.

Midway - Short opinions about Indian education and society by an academic.

Musings of Dheeraj Sanghi - Mostly about the Indian higher education system by a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.

Paleowave - Kaustubh Thirumalai writes about stable isotopes, foraminifera and paleo-oceanography.

The Archaeobotanist -  Among other things, opinions and views on the evolution and history of crops by Dorian Fuller.

The Salt - A food blog at NPR.

Watershed Moments - Musings of a Canadian hydrologist. 

Why Nations Fail -  Economic and political perspectives by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Lament Of An Indian Geologist

In Current Science K.S. Valdiya lets out an impassioned cry (open access) for recognition and a higher status for the field of geology in India:

The geologists, who toil hard for finding minerals for scientific research and industrial development,sources of water for multifarious needs, make sustained efforts to make India self-sufficient in energy and help select appropriate sites for dams, power plants, alignments of roads and tunnels, suggesting ways of overcoming problems of stability and natural hazards, go ‘unwept, un-honoured and unsung’. Even the mainstream scientists have poor opinion of geologists as scientists and geology as a science. In the matters related to the wellness of the earth, the use of its bounties and assets, and the preservation of its environmental health, their opinions are not sought and their voices not heard by the powerful science councils, commissions and academies, and by the powers-that-be. The domineering presence for decades of the sets of same persons with blinkers and biases in committees for awarding and rewarding individual endeavours is responsible for elbowing out or marginalization of those foot soldiers who work in the field for months on end – away from homes in harsh and often perilous terrains. Is it true that just because they have not spent or do not spend long hours in laboratories and tapped the internet data make them unworthy or recognition?

This is strong stuff and later he gives an example of myopia and a bureaucratic straitjacket which may have stifled many geological research programs:

The earthquake division (now placed under the MoES) de facto continues to be a subsidiary/subordinate unit of the India Meteorological Department. The head of the meteorologists has the say in the collection of seismic data. I strongly believe that it is time to establish and strengthen an independent National Institute of Seismology headed by an eminent and active earthquake specialist. Another national institute established ‘to undertake, aid, promote, guide, and coordinate research in the geology of the Himalayas’ and ‘to carry out research towards the development of new concepts and models, concerning earth structures and processes operating in the Himalayas’ (DST letter No. 2(2)8/-ST, dated 19 November 1985) has been functioning for the last five years under the strict control (chairmanship) of the Secretary to Government of India, at present a pre-eminent inorganic chemist specializing in leather technology; and the Director is a marine palaeontologist specializing in summer monsoon!

He gives more such examples of non-geological oversight on geological agencies and the misunderstandings "mainstream" scientists have about geology. The article then harshly criticizes "globalization" and the recent entry of multinational companies in oil and gas exploration and mining, accusing them of riding roughshod over environmental regulations, denying proper compensation and rehabilitation to displaced people and of unsustainable extraction of resources. All may be true, although the record of the government on these issues, especially the first two, is not that great either.

On the brighter side - and this is my opinion  -  multinational companies are bringing in benefits in the form of larger R & D programs and advanced technology.  Prof. Valdiya bemoans the loss of human capital. He writes that retired  government scientists are being hired by these firms for huge pay packets and they are taking with them government data that is denied to Indian academics and researchers. The lack of access to data is unfortunate, but not one restricted only to geological organizations. In India, it is the general problem of the fetish for secrecy that afflicts any government dealings with its citizens. To be fair though, there is not an organization in the world, government or otherwise, involved with oil and minerals that allows completely open access to its data.

Still, taking data when leaving for another job, if true will be an illegal act. More likely, what is being transferred is their experience. The other side of the coin is that ultimately these scientists are getting hired to work on Indian projects and the Indian energy sector will benefit from that. And it is not just retired geologists who are being attracted. I know several of my friends who have left  government companies in mid career to take up assignments with private energy companies. The reason given is money, plus better working conditions. I remember just after graduation a Ph.D friend returning from giving a job interview with ONGC, the government owned oil company. The interview board had been impressed but had remarked.."Aren't you graduates from Pune University too research oriented"?

The implication being that we consider candidates having a Ph.D a handicap!! That spoke volumes of the opportunities, or rather lack of, for research with a major energy company. No wonder many of my friends feel that their specialization has not been respected and utilized in government service and are jumping ship. Indian geologists in administrative positions are responsible for this and some introspection on incentives and opportunities is necessary to attract and keep better talent with the government.

But I am digressing from the main point of Prof. Valdiya's article and that is a plea to invite geologists to the high table of Indian science..... in positions that can influence policy.

I do agree with that.