Sunday, December 27, 2015

An Independant Assessment of Glasspoint's Enclosed Trough Solar EOR Plant in Oman

The following paper was presented for a graduate class on Renewable Energy Systems at the Rochester Institute of Technology on November 17, 2015. I hold all rights to this text.

An Independant Assessment of Glasspoint's Enclosed Trough Solar EOR Plant in Oman


Solar thermal enhanced oil recovery (STEOR) methods are a group of developing technologies aimed at using the power of the sun to help in steam flooding operations for heavy oil fields. The enclosed trough architecture introduced by Glasspoint Solar encapsulates the vision of STEOR by enclosing a concentrated solar plant (CSP) within a glasshouse structure. This article reviews the 7 MW Amal West Plant, the first glass enclosed STEOR plant in the Middle East. It was built and commissioned for Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) by Glasspoint Solar in May 2013. Both companies were jointly recognized for the best oil & gas innovation at ADIPEC 2015. Similar projects are being discussed for Kuwait. 

While the Amal West plant appears to have run successfully during its first year, long term studies of the enclosed plant’s performance and reliability in conditions specific to the middle east are few in formal literature. This is understood due to emerging level of STEOR implementation. This article conducts an independent assessment of Amal West based on a few of the plant’s performance reports that are available in the public domain. Relevant questions are raised on specific issues which seeks to keep in line with viewing the technology implementation from a life cycle perspective. It is hoped that this work can help create a platform for additional conversation addressing the implementation of unique renewable energy concepts in Middle Eastern oil fields.


The global demand for energy over the next two decades is expected to increase by nearly 50%, reaching around 778 EJ by 2035.  In the search for near and long term solutions to increase oil production from existing assets, hydrocarbon exploration is reaching global frontiers. Conventional primary and secondary oil recovery methods capture only about 40% of the original oil in place (OOIP) while the rest is left behind [1]

Primary recovery methods, which rely on either the natural rise of hydrocarbons to the surface of the earth or via pump jacks and other artificial lift devices, have a limited recovery potential of 5-10% of the heavy OOIP. When natural lift methods are no longer sufficient, secondary recovery methods are used which involves pumping external energy into the reservoir to produce the missing lift pressure. These artificial methods include water injection, natural gas reinjection and CO2 injection. Inclusive of primary recovery methods, total oil recovery will range from 10-20% on average in most heavy oils [2].

Enhanced oil recovery (EOR) is a broad term given to a group tertiary recovery technologies that help target the remaining 30-50% of the OOIP. These methods are particularly suited for heavy oil. 

By definition, EOR implies a reduction of oil saturation below the residual oil saturation (Sor) [3]. Recovering heavy oils and tar sands, which have a viscosity of less than 1000 cp upto 100,000 cp, is only possible with the reduction of the oil saturation below Sor

Currently available EOR is based on either increasing the capillary number and/or lowering the mobility ratio, compared to their water-flood values. The capillary number choice of attack aims at reducing oil-water inter-facial tension which is done by using a suitable surfactant or by the application of heat. A 50% reduction in Sor requires that the Capillary Number be increased by 3 orders of magnitude. The reduction of mobility ratio attack is aimed at increasing water viscosity, reducing oil viscosity, reducing water permeability or all of the above.

Reservoir geology and fluid properties determine the suitability of a process for a given reservoir. Using the nomenclature adopted by the Oil and Gas Journal, current EOR processes are classified based on the nature of their injection fluid. These are summarized in Table 1 [4]

Thermal EOR methods lower mobility ratio by decreasing oil viscosity. Among these, steam-based methods have been more successful commercially than others. According to a 2000 Oil & Gas Journal survey, steam based projects accounted for nearly 418,000 bpd, or 56% of the total for all tertiary EOR methods [3]. However, in world sensitive to lifecycle cost and environmental concerns, any EOR is poised to face challenges competing with conventional recovery methods if they don’t show the similar (or lesser) costs to produce energy (Figure 1) or display an acceptable level of environmental burden for the same oil output.  

In steam based thermal EOR, reservoir heating is done by steam injection which translates into the formation of a swept zone of some shape and an oil bank consisting of a migrating zone containing the displaced oil (Figure 2) [5]. Two general concepts have been proposed to describe this process. Field projects usually include features of both frontal advance and bypass processes. 

Figure 1: Oil production costs for various resource categories [6]

Table 1: Classification of tertiary EOR processes for oil production

Figure 2: Illustration of steam EOR

Due to economic and environmental concerns, thermal EOR based methods (top left hand column in Table 1) are being increasingly explored, particularly aiming towards the substitution of solar energy instead of gas to produce the steam. Proponents claim the advantages of reduction of gas based heating, its associated CO2 emissions and the isolation of natural gas fired steam generation costs from fluctuations in the price of natural gas [7]

A small privately owned company based out of California called Glasspoint Solar is pushing this technology from what were just drying applications like those used for gympsum wall boards to the EOR steam-flooding arena. The unique aspect of their product is a solar CSP plant that is completely enclosed inside a glasshouse with it's own automated washing system. 

Glasspoint is not new to the STEOR arena, having delivered the world’s first commercial STEOR plant, the 21Z installation for Berry Petroleum in California in February 2011. However, it wasn't until 2013 when the first pilot plant in the Middle East was built and commissioned for PDO at Amal West, Oman. This pilot plant was constructed between January and December 2012 and transitioned to full production on February 1, 2013. 

The company claims that interest in STEOR stemmed from the falling gas reserves in Oman, coupled with expectations of volatile gas prices. The motivation for seeking a glass enclosure was to figure out a way to avoid dust infiltration [7] and decrease plant downtimes due to cleaning related stoppages in the Middle East. 

Reportedly, wind is the chief cost driver for an enclosed STEOR plant. Being able to withstand gusty winds without an enclosure requires the use of more material and a robust structure. However, with the enclosed STEOR, the company claims that it can bring down costs by cutting down material usage to around 10 kg of steel per sq.m of mirror area relative to a traditional CSP trough's figure of 18 kg per sq. m. 

Construction and short term performance reports for PDO’s plant are available for public viewing on Glasspoint’s website. In all, four pieces of literature were consulted in writing this article. The literature inventory is listed in Table 2. Based on these, an independent assessment of the glass enclosed STEOR is pursued in the rest of this paper.

Reviewed Literature

The literature review comprised of four documents available on Glasspoint Solar’s website. The first document describes the construction schedule and challenges faced in commissioning the Amal West Plant. The second document reviews the short term performance of the same plant. Both these papers were presented at SolarPACES in 2013. The third document is relatively new, discussing the economic screening aspects of solar based EOR methods. The fourth document is a magazine article that throws light into specific areas of the Amal West plant that was not seen in the two SolarPACES paper.

Table 2: Literature inventory reviewed for assessment. Source [9].

Enclosed Trough STEOR: System Description 

Enclosed trough solar EOR (STEOR) is a hybrid variation of the steam flooding concept shown in Figure 1, wherein the major fraction of steam is solar generated while the backup steam is gas generated. Steam is produced exclusively by natural gas at night, although it is not known to what extent the hot water storage at the facility helps.

The Amal location of Oman (Lat 18.3233, Long 55.6738) reportedly receives 2,057 kWh/yr of solar DNI (direct normal irradiance). Due to Oman’s low latitude, solar irradiation does not show large seasonal variations.

Literature states that if the rate of steam injection is held constant, gas consumption can be reduced by up to 25%. By injecting more steam during the day and less at night, gas consumption can be reduced up to 80% without the need for costly thermal storage. The plant has a design peak output of 14.8 tons of steam per hour and an average output of 50 tons of steam per day.

From Source [8], the schematic shown in Figure 2 and the process flow diagram in Figure 3, a brief description of the system can be provided here.

The pilot project deployed at Amal West is a 17,280 sq.m 7MW solar thermal plant that utilizes parabolic trough mirrors (part #4) suspended within an agricultural glasshouse (part #2). These mirrors track the sun using a simple cable drive system and intensely focus sunlight onto specially coated receiver tubes (part #3) carrying water, which is heated to produce 80% quality steam at 100 bar. The tracking angle of the reflector mirrors are measured by inclinometers with 0.01 deg accuracy. The weight of the mirror and frame is stated to be 4.2 kg per sq.m.

Figure 3: Illustration of parts in a glass enclosed steam generation system

The receiver tubes are of non-articulated design and are suspended from the glass enclosure by steel rods (part #5) in tension. The reflectors are suspended from the receiver tubes using similar rods, also in tension. The receiver is based on a standard, 2-in. carbon steel boiler tube. The receiver tube is polished and coated, with a selective absorber coating that is designed to maximize the absorption of solar radiation, while minimizing the losses via the emission of infra-red radiation. Tubular glass shields are stated to minimize heat losses from convection [8].

A once through steam generator (OTSG) incorporates features of a standard oilfield boiler and accommodates feed water with total dissolved solids (TDS) as high as 30,000 ppm. Boiler feedwater is usually either “produced water” separated from production oil or is pumped from brackish or saline aquifers. A distinct advantage of the boiler is that it isn't recirculating, therefore it doesn't demand the use of demineralized water. 

The control system tightly calibrates the steam quality to avoid precipitating scale deposits within the evaporator tubes. According to the literature, some scaling might still occur in the boiler, due to excursions in water quality or chemistry. The system design incorporates features to enable receiver cleaning by pigging in the same manner as a standard oilfield boiler. Closed loop pointing control delivers < 0.5 mrad pointing error at hundreds of points within the glasshouse. Pointing accuracy is maintained without regard to wind velocity, as collectors reportedly operate in a zero-wind environment always.

Steam quality is controlled via a separator and re-mixing system. The steam is separated in a vessel, and the flow of steam vapor and liquid is measured. The two streams are then re-mixed at the target steam quality

The system has an automated roof washer (part #1) with a claimed capacity to clean the entire roof surface each night while the collectors are offline. The majority of wash water is returned in the gutter system and can be recovered for re-use. 

An air-handling unit (part #6), supplies filtered, dried air at slight overpressure within the structure in all conditions to reduce dust infiltration. This is designed to cope with intense dust storms of long duration. 

A pump skid pressures the feed water into the solar field. 

Literature states that an 80 cu.m upright insulated water tank was added to the system during the year to improve overall performance. The tank removed direct dependence on water supply, and allowed the recovery of waste heat into the feed water during transient periods. This replaced the initial idea of a heat exchanger which reportedly caused transients in the receiver pipes and led to unstable operation.

Enclosed Trough STEOR: Operating Philosophy

Figure 4: Process flow diagram of enclosed solar EOR plant

Detailed operating philosophies are not available in the public domain for this plant, however the following points are understood from reading the sources of literature in Table 2. The plant process flow diagram (PFD) in Figure 4 is referred in this discussion.

1. Two on-site calibrated shadow band radiometers measure and calculate solar DNI. Based on average DNI recorded for each minute of plant operation, a model predicts and calculates the plant performance, including start of steam export and steam output in tonnes. 

2. After the previous night’s wash cycle, water is circulated at a minimum flowrate every morning. The system is to brought to an operating temperature of 310 deg C and level established in the steam separator drum before start of export can take place. It takes anywhere from 40-70 minutes to bring the system upto operating temperature. 

3. A feedforward control loop modulates water flow to the plant based on incident DNI and modeled efficiency based on current position of the sun. 

4. The separator is used to accurately meter the saturated steam as well as condensate production. Temperature, pressure and level readings are taken from the separator. 

5. Steam flow is measured across an orifice with a differential flow meter. 

6. Output steam quality is kept strictly at 75% +/- 5%. This is done by metering water and steam and mixing them both downstream of the differential flow meter 056. If quality were to fall below the target, a control valve on the condensate line tagged V030 is opened to maintain level in the steam separator vessel. The excess water is stored in the 80 m3 water tank to avoid wastage. If the quality is more than the target, the control valve V112 is opened to allow more water to mix and bring down quality. Both V112 and V030 are normally closed valves according to the PFD.

7. The export steam is then introduced into the oilfield steam distribution header, where steam from the gas boiler and solar plant come together before being introduced into the injection well. 

8. It is understood that the solar EOR is designed to deliver an average steam output of 50 tonnes/day but this when taken as a percentage of the total steam capacity of the field is a small number. Therefore, it does not lead to significant pressure or rate variations in the steam distribution network. 

9. Cleaning of the roof is done every night by automatic roof washing system. Literature states that at least half the roof has to be cleaned every day for optimal performance.

10. The primary control interface at the site is a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) PC on which all operating data is recorded in one minute intervals.

Assessment of Enclosed Trough Solar EOR

After reviewing the literature in Table 2 and some additional literature on this subject, the following are the results from the author's assessment.

1.    Long Term Performance Studies

The study period in Glasspoint’s SolarPACES paper appears to be around 3-4 months in 2013. During this time, the plant is stated to have been commissioned on time and within budget constraints. The performance of the plant was within 1-2% of the modeled performance and from the 100 days of monitoring, the plant exported a cumulative of 5000 tonnes of steam. 

However, longer periods of time are required before a clearer assessment of plant efficiency, plant reliability and lifecycle operating costs can be made. Components fail, are replaced and lessons are learned during longer time periods. Some specific reliability issues are highlighted by Glasspoint in a supplementary report (Table 2 item#4). This shows that longer time periods in operation can catch more flaws.

These specific issues are summarized below :

1 a) Glass breakage: The supplementary Glasspoint report, item #4 in Table 2, states that 8 glass panes were broken during the operation of the plant. It is not clear what kind of supplementary damage this did to the componentry inside the glasshouse. It was mentioned that the panes were tempered glass that typically shatters to small pebbles. Any breakage is picked up by the pressure and flowrate fluctuations through the air handling unit and operations personnel are alerted for a replacement exercise during the nighttime.  

1 b) Waste heat capture: It was pointed out in the same report that the initial plan of installing a hot water tank in the plant was later replaced by that of a heat exchanger to reduce system costs. Later, it was found that the heat exchanger introduced transients in the solar receivers which became ‘unstable’. Due to this, the original idea of a hot water tank was implemented along with its cost adder. It was stated that in all future designs, the hot water tank will be an essential component because it reduces downtime and water consumption. A more detailed discussion of the problems created by the heat exchanger is however missing in the literature.

1 c) Electronics reliability: One of these reliability risk points that perhaps will be made clear from long term performance monitoring center around the instrumentation used inside the hot glasshouse environment. It is not clear how many failures or malfunctions have been factored into the operations by Glasspoint. All the given literature states that all such electronics underwent accelerated life testing before installation, which is a way to validate designs. Verification of those validated designs, i.e performing the stated function under real working temperatures and operating conditions, haven’t been mentioned in the literature. 

1 d) Steam leakage due to cyclic operation: An interesting point in the Glasspoint report are observations of steam leakages in NPT connections. They found that steam leaks were more of a problem than in a traditional fuel-fired steam system, which they attribute to the daily cycles of operation from hot to cold. Leakages were found to take place even when the fittings fully complied with standard codes for design. As a solution, welded connections were used. The report also states that in future, where welds cannot replace flanged connections, engineered compression washers will be used. Wedge gate valves also caused leakage problems, and sliding gate valves or metal-seated ball valves were recommended for future installations. 

1 e) Roof sealing system issues: Plastic weather strips were used in the roofing initially. These failed due to thermal gradients and intense temperatures. They were subsequently replaced with an all-aluminum sealing system. It is not clear in literature what the cost adder of this modification must have been. 

2.    Losses from The Roof, Receiver and Structural Shading

The peak efficiency of the Amal West plant is stated to be 66%. When compared with EUROTrough, a European parabolic trough project for power production, this efficiency is reportedly around 5% lower. The SolarPACES plant performance paper attributes this reduction to roof structure shadowing, glazing losses, the use of an air-stable selective absorber coating and non-evacuated receiver. But the paper fails to expand on these issues even though they are stated to cause efficiency losses.

The author’s own assessment here is that CSP plants built for electricity generation will tend to emphasize the optimization of losses more than a plant geared for steam flooding, such as Amal West. Perhaps there wasn’t so much of a design emphasis to reduce losses for the enclosed STEOR project to begin with due to what the literature claims were “small losses”.

It is emphasized here that even though the efficiencies relative to EUROTrough were lower, the annual steam output for the 2011 Amal West plant was reportedly 2.25 MMBTU per sq.m, compared to EUROTrough’s 1.25 MMBTU per sq.m.

3.    Operation During the Dust Storm

Although dust storms happen occasionally in the Middle East, the Amal West Plant did go through an 40kph dust storm during April 2013. It is stated that the plant continued to operate during this time and produced 48 tonnes of steam. The report, item #4 in Table 2, stated that after the storm subsided, a 12% degradation in performance was seen. What is not obvious is the percentage contribution of gas and steam during this extreme event. A clearer picture of the performance characteristic of the plant during the storm would be desirable to evaluate the real contribution of the glasshouse. 

4.    Washing System 

The washing system appears to be only for the roof. A dust storm or even a week spent in a normally dusty environment can potentially soil the sides of the greenhouse as well. It is not obvious if the sides also have a washing facility in addition to the roof system. It is also not obvious how the soiled sides can potentially contribute to plant performance degradation. Could there be a shading factor contributed from soiled sides?

5.    Lifecycle Impacts of Oman EOR

The three pillars of sustainability is viewing any technology, such as those used in energy conversion, from a lifecycle economics, energy/emissions and social cost point of view. Although such inventorying is not an easy task, this is a robust way of proving that the when viewed from a cradle to grave perspective, there are benefits in life cycle impacts compared to conventional solutions. Such lifecycle studies are sensitive to where the projects are sited since each phase of that project will be  specific to that site and that customer. 

The enclosed STEOR plant at Amal West is a hybrid design. Nighttime steam production is 100% from gas fired boiler system.  It is a reasonable assumption that gas maybe used entirely for 16 hours in a 24 hour day which equates to 5840 hours of gas usage in a year. Stated in other words, at the minimum gas is used to generate steam 67% of the year (in reality this figure is different because the solar plant works in series with the gas boiler during the day and the hot water storage tank is also a contributor). Nevertheless, the emissions of 5840 hours of gas usage still have to be accounted for.

Brandt and Unnasch have analyzed greenhouse gas emissions from TEOR using natural gas and some alternate fossil fuel sources. Their numbers are useful for comparison. They found that with current recovery techniques, 121 g CO2 / MJ RBOB is the gross average life-cycle emissions for TEOR production in California [9]. This figure includes production, refining, transportation, and combustion of the resulting gasoline. Of these gross CO2 emissions, 24.4%, or 29.5 g CO2 / MJ RBOB, are associated with the combustion of natural gas for steam generation before any emission credits for cogeneration. Cogeneration systems generally consume more gas per unit of steam produced in comparison to direct-fired steam generation, but they produce electricity as well that must be credited in some fashion. 

In a similar sense, solar steam generation might be credited. Literature states that a modest solar fraction of one-third of the total steam generated results in a reduction in emissions of 10.0 g CO2 / MJ. According to the study conducted by Stanford students in [9], an enclosed high solar fraction plant in California showed considerably less lifecycle emissions when compared to a 100% fuel powered TEOR system.

The enclosed STEOR lifecycle study must be specific to the Oman project. For example, it has been stated that manufacturing of glasshouse and well as multiple tests were done at the Glasspoint factory in Shenzhen, China. This may have helped decrease production costs however the emissions have to be inventoried at the China factory and during the transportation phase of those components to site. The glasshouse also necessitates additional civil works to lay the foundation work for the structure, which involves a heavy machinery emissions burden and possibly land based ecosystem concerns due to the foundation (possibly irrelevant for a desert environment). 

Overall, when viewed for the entire lifetime, it does appear that these emissions contributions may be low compared to operational energy and emissions savings. 

6.    Screening Process for enclosed solar EOR 

The enclosed solar EOR appears to be a product for niche implementations. For a start, steam EOR is strictly based on pattern size and the geologic background of the site, and particularly suited for heavy oil. It may not be suitable for all sites. Literature [3] shows that thermal EOR is on the decline. The total EOR production in USA is declining (Figure 5). The major contributor was thermal methods, and that is also on the decline, mainly because most attractive reservoirs have already been exploited [3].

Figure 5 : Relative contributions of EOR processes to oil production, 1986-2006

That said, STEOR may make sense for Middle East sites with heavy viscous crudes and sandy desert environments. It may also make sense for clients who want to reduce their gas usage, and who could sell that saved gas instead at a premium. However, it is not clear what the future rend in market potential is for the Middle East, particularly with low oil and gas prices nowadays. 

From the economic study in item#3 in Table 2, it appears that STEOR projects are very sensitive to oil and gas prices. Figure 5, taken from the Glasspoint study, compares the fully burdened levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for three methods of steam generation - boiler, cogen and solar - and their relationship to the fuel price. 

Since the true cost of any of the methods are subject to externalities, they are shown banded. But what is clear from the graph is that which method of steam generation to select depends entirely on the fuel cost question. In the Middle East, where fuel prices are subsidized, this analysis becomes slightly more complicated. When viewed from the perspective of the marginal fuel cost, it appears that the cost cost off point where solar steam can be cheaper than cogen and boiler based steam is around US$ 6/million BTU. Note that the cost of solar stays constant at US$ 17/ton of steam because it doesn’t depend on fuel for steam generation.

Figure 6: Levelized cost of energy (LCOE) vs fuel cost for solar, boiler and cogeneration based steam generation. Source [9].

The enclosed solar EOR project is also land asset sensitive and  it is not obvious whether land asset costs have been considered in these LCOE comparisons.

According to Glasspoint literature, compared to a solar tower based heating plant, the glasshouse plant requires 15% more land coverage.  Moreover, there is a requirement that the plant has to be situated close to the point of injection wells since steam deteriorates with distance. In the author's experience, oil field plants tend to be tight with respect to system integration and footprint and QHSE concerns set up minimum separation distances for the balance of plant. All this sets up unique, sometimes conflicting requirements that are dependent on the project and the stakeholders.

7.    Availability of skilled labor

It has been stated in the SolarPACES construction paper (Table 2 Item# 1) that initially there were manpower productivity issues because of labor inexperience with laying the solar trough and glasshouse. This is a project risk point to be highlighted for not just solar STEOR, but for the introduction of any emerging renewable energy technology in the Middle East. Therefore, to a client, in addition to the cost of setting up the enclosed STEOR, training unskilled workers and risking time slippages due to decreased productivity are to be factored in. This point seems applicable for the screening issues discussed in point 6 above.


An enclosed trough STEOR plant, built by Glasspoint Solar at Amal West (PDO) in 2012 is the subject of this article. In Table 2, it was highlighted that a limited number of papers and reports were reviewed to make the assessments. 

Enclosed STEOR appears to be a niche product for site specific geology and oil viscosity. It is not a technology that is applicable everywhere. From the SolarPACES paper however, it does appear that the Amal West plant performed exceptionally and within 1-2% of the expected efficiency. Several of the challenges that the company faced during the installation and commissioning phase, particularly relating to failures of plant equipment and productivity issues centering around labor in Oman, were honestly highlighted in the papers and reports. These have been taken into consideration as lessons learned topics for future implementations.

That said, the performance reports in Table 2 are still short term. Long term studies can reveal the true reliability picture of enclosed STEOR installations. Some of these concerns were highlighted in the assessment section of this paper. The author had approached Glasspoint in order to get a better understanding of these concerns, however a response is still pending from Glasspoint's Business Development Manager. 

Enclosed STEOR is particularly sensitive to the oil and gas prices. Unless fuel price subsidies are removed in the Middle East, this solution, and in general solar based steam generation, will face continued pressure from conventional fossil fuel based methods of steam generation. This ironically may dampen the additional spread of enclosed STEOR to other parts of the Middle East, potentially preventing enclosed STEOR cost reductions due to additional scale and added field experiences.

In conclusion, as a pilot project commissioned for the first time in Middle East, and for helping a country like Oman save precious gas reserves, it appears that the ADIPEC 2015 award to Glasspoint and PDO for Best Oil & Gas Innovation is well deserved. It appears that there are more positives than negatives for this technology. In addition, the fact that additional enclosed STEOR projects are being discussed, particularly a larger implementation in Oman (MIRAAH 2015) and another for Kuwait, proves that investor interest in this technology is growing. 


[1] Shlumberger. Enhanced Oil Recovery. Available at
< > Accessed on Nov 2015.
[2] Halliburton. How Heavy Oil is Captured. Available at < >
[3] S. Thomas, EOR – An overview. Available at
< >
[4] Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) Field Data and Literature Search. Available on
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[5] Petrowiki, Thermal recovery by Steam Injection. Available at < > Accessed on Nov 2015.
[6] Sandler et. al. Solar-Generated Steam for Oil Recovery: Reservoir Simulation, Economic Analysis, and Life Cycle Assessment. SPE Paper# 153806. 2012.
[7] IEA. Resources to reserves 2013—oil, gas and coal technologies for the energy
markets of the future. International Energy Agency. IEA: Paris; 2013 Available at
< > (accessed on 4/10/2013)
[8] D. Palmer, First enclosed-trough solar steam generation pilot for EOR applications. Available at < >
[9] Sandler, Solar-Generated Steam for Oil Recovery: Reservoir Simulation, Economic Analysis, and Life Cycle Assessment. Available at
< >

Friday, October 23, 2015

Mars One Needs a Dose of Reality in the U.A.E

I'd taken a stand not to spill digital ink about Mars One on this blog. That was until two days ago, when the crew of Dubai Eye 103.8 - Alex Hirschi and Tim Elliot - invited Mars One chief Bas Lansdorp to speak on the evening's Drive Live show. I started to shake my head. 

In 2014, Mars One had pinched some local nerves when the grand mufti of Dubai issued a fatwa (an Islamic ruling) prohibiting Muslims from being volunteers for one-way interplanetary travel.

But on the radio show, there was little sign of defeat. With continual praising of the U.A.E and it's forward thinking stance, Mr. Lansdorp's tireless dance for manned one-way trips to Mars might have gotten more than a few listeners, albeit expats, breathless. 

And those listeners might be forgiven. Afterall, October was the month when NASA hyped a bit about the presence of liquid water on Mars. Ridley Scott had also released The Martian, an entertaining but pseudo-scientific space survivalist movie about a lone astronaut fighting for his life on Mars in the wake of a fairytale dust storm.

Mr. Lansdorp wasn't here to merely get cozy with two U.A.E volunteers he'd shortlisted as potential crew members for this future "mission". As it's becoming painfully evident, Mars One is around $15 million short of funding, and it's come to bear that some of it's money making strategies didn't help.

An intelligent listener would have recalled that Mr. Lansdorp had recently admitted at a Mars Society face-off with an MIT team (who happily demolished him for the seemingly brazen lack of any feasibility in the $6 billion dollar mission plan) that Mars One doesn't have the financial capability currently to pay any credible scientific group to undertake full-fledged R&D studies.

The other cat that jumped out of the bag in the same debate with MIT was that, as of August 2015, the Mars One mission had no fixed project scope, no fixed project time-line and no fixed project cost. It was evident that he had little concrete to offer in the rebuttal of MIT's independent feasibility assessment. Unfortunately, Mr. Lansdorp's weak conclusion that day was : "The Mars One mission is not to do the mission the way as it is exactly described on the website."

Sadly, none of his comments from the debate have been posted as an updated disclaimer on the Mars One mission road-map. The "plan" continues to hold that it will send one way manned missions every two years to Mars beginning in 2026. 

Why, pray, is there a need for Mars One if it's own chief calls into questions the Mars One plan? Might it be wrong now to assume that several hundred patrons might have been duped?  I won't be trying to answer how these people justify their return on investment in this case. It's really fuzzy.

But now you say hindsight is 20/20, that I'm just another naysayer piggybacking on the MIT study. While I understand any technical product will not sell without a strong commercial proposal, Mars One is awfully lacking in the former. One wonders whether Mr. Lansdorp truly stays awake at night as he fishes out new reasons to try and oversell this plan, particularly in the U.A.E.

At this point, I'd like to state two things in my analysis. One, I find interesting, is that the Mars One chief appears to take pleasure in bashing NASA's seemingly slow MARS schedule as the basis for his role in introducing Mars One.  

To be honest, this can be forgiven on NASA's part for the U.S Congress' space exploration budget cuts in the recent past. NASA must also get a bit of the benefit of doubt because it follows a prudent systems-validation based approach to assessing technical feasibility in putting people and equipment in space. 

Secondly, Mr. Lansdorp appears to be fixated on a misunderstanding that the Apollo Lunar program had virtually nothing to show technically when Kennedy made his 1961 speech spurring the moon mission. On this basis, he seems to be telling everyone that his Mars One plan deserves a chance as well.

Never mind the fact that the Apollo manned moon program had some 12,000 companies, 400,000 people and a backing of $25 billion to make it happen. Never mind the fact that it had no less than 33 flights, 22 of which were unmanned missions to specifically qualify the launch vehicle and spacecraft for manned flight and 4 of the 11 total manned flights were to man-rate the final 7 flights for lunar missions. Also, never mind the facts that NASA had the Saturn rockets going for them and the genius in Wernher Von Braun to provide technical advice during those years.

What a lot of people will tend to the forget is that the real need for an Apollo mission to the moon was never really scientific. The strongest impetus for Apollo was the uncompromising competition the Americans had with the Soviets in the space race. The Soviet secrecy around it's own space program never made the Americans comfortable that they were any ahead in this race, even to the very day Apollo 11 launched. Rational or irrational, this conveniently placed call of the Cold War captured hearts and minds and turned a nation on it's heels.

In short, yes the moon mission was extremely risky but NASA had a big part of the workable solution already in it's arsenal, which they tested the living daylights out of. They managed out risk. They also had a resounding patriotic call to arms behind the moon endeavor. Both of these are truly lacking in the Mars One plan. 

Mars One, as it currently stands, calls for taking ordinary people on a never-to-return one way trip to Mars in 2026. Due to the nature of this mission, one might be right to assume that these people are to live dull lives to their deaths as technicians - building, fixing and repairing technology - in a mega experiment that has seldom been tried before.

One has to appreciate Bas Lansdorp's energetic parade going around the world flaunting Mars One. But I believe it would be in his best interests to remain truthful about the project realities, re-assess his technical and cost plans and make modifications in the light of technological and procurement readiness. Right now, the Mars One plan rests, at best, on faulty and misleading data.

There are the geo-political challenges of an Outer Space Treaty. In this regard, I predict Mr. Lansdorp will have little option but to sooner or later join hands in cooperation with the rest of the world's space agencies. Countries aren't going to be friendly knowing that a single entity might potentially monopolize the exploitation of areas of Mars, which by his own admission on 103.8,  is a behavior that cannot be controlled from earth once the mission has landed on the planet.

No less important are the unsaid conflicts of interests in demanding the unquestioning service of human volunteers in such a short time and cozying up with investor driven business commitments and schedules. 

We're lacking in the long term understanding of planetary group survival through a longitudinal study here on earth. Some papers written after outpost like simulations exist and do not paint a pretty picture. A 2009 paper by the Mars Society on stress and coping in a 4 month arctic Mars simulation on Devon Island in Canada concluded, very subtly :

"Stress increased for males while decreasing for females. Males consistently used more avoidant coping while females utilized task coping and social emotional coping. Males also demonstrated higher levels of excitement, tiredness, and loneliness. Simulations situated in environments characterized by prolonged real isolation and environmental challenges appear to provoke true demands for adaptation rather than temporary situational accommodation as has been evidenced by shorter simulations in laboratories or more benign environments".

We're yet to take this further and quantify the human capability to cope under long term duress. Hollywood cannot dictate how you will eat , drink, procreate (or whether babies will be mutation free), romance, control criminal behaviors and so on. These have to be tried and tested in environments as close as possible in conditions to Mars.

I doubt the leaders of Mars One will not know all this, but the exploration of U.A.E to build an outpost, where temperatures climb to 45 degree C in summer, is rather strange. More to the point, how this plays out in the context of an active fatwa is a mystery.

Never to be one taken by hype, I stand cautious of the Mars One adventures. There's a lot of things to make Mars One flop. But there's a huge room to correct mistakes now.

Friday, October 16, 2015

This Changes Everything : A Book Review

This forms a book review titled "Ahead of her time! Klein maybe the Rachel Carson of the 21st century" that I wrote earlier today on 

Naomi Klein is an award winning Canadian journalist responsible for two other international best sellers, The Shock Doctrine and No Logo, both of which I haven't read. This book, "This Changes Everything : Capitalism vs The Climate Change", becomes her 4th book. Based on reading an original Penguin soft-copy from start to end, my take is as follows :

The crux of the book is simple and complex at the same time. Klein says that most of humanity go on enjoying the benefits of a post-modern, self-gratifying capitalistic life, expecting increasingly greater resource usage but from a finite planet. In doing so, we collectively exhibit a form of cognitive dissonance by not treating climate change as the quintessential crisis it can become. It repeatedly knocks on our door when scientists tell us we got to be doing more to stay within a +2 degree C limit in a warming world, but we conveniently sweep it under our carpets of ignorance. After-all, it's easier to do nothing at all.

Why is that the case? Klein highlights the complexity of inaction , in that it lies in the apparent in-scalability of going against the status quo, the prevailing culture of "tap, exploit and waste" that we are all born into and what we come to pass on to our kids. This is a product of the widespread economic model that powerful elite organizations who own the means of production, who lobby politicians and who pay our own wages directly or indirectly have managed to disseminate. Without significantly changing how this model operates, not much can be done to fight the impending climate crisis.

Rather than being a self-righteous, gloating environmentalist, Klein claims that she was among this crowd of climate deniers roughly until the point when a conversation with Navarro Llanos, the Bolivian ambassador to the World Trade Organization, brought her to the realization of the overwhelming crisis level of the problem as well as the numerous grassroots-level opportunities that lay ahead to bring changes. However, the changes would have to be uncompromising, they would challenge everything we know about our current economic and capitalistic models. Therefore, it would have to change everything we take for granted. Therein lies the background to the book's title.

I'd like to mention at this juncture that there appears to be two underlying emotional themes that made the issue more personal to Klein, and she admits it has been a difficult experience. One was during the reading of a bed-time story to her two-year-old called Looking for a Moose. This event produced an epiphany that her baby boy might never get to see a Moose, thanks to cases she'd heard during visits to Northern Alberta that moose drinking water laced with toxins from the tar sands oil extraction process were showing mutations from within.

The second motivator for her was the deep connection to the ecological crisis that she drew from her experience going through two miscarriages and being suggested by friends and colleagues to explore high risk, unnatural interventions. To her, the climate change response is no different - proposed solutions that are increasingly high risk with unproven technological answers. A famous example (which is cited in the book) becomes the Geo-engineering circle of scientists who claim they can cool the planet by artificially pumping massive amounts of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to mimic volcanic explosions. 

Perhaps more poignantly powerful is her suggestion to look to the earth as our own mother, with her own fertility challenges that are a consequence of our extractivism and our life choices. It interferes with her fertility cycles and her need to regenerate. Putting the earth in compromise draws full circle, until our own existence is compromised.

Between these beginning and concluding emotional chapters, an emboldened Klein beats up several actors of the climate change story with dizzying array of facts and case studies, most of which seem to have been referenced and cataloged at the end of the book. 

For example, she highlights the problem of climate denial, battling world-views and need for ideological shifts in consumerism, the bizarre problems with our current world trade treaties, how toxic extractivist relationships lead to the degeneration and downfall of communities, how to read beneath pulpit messages of businessmen who appear to be messiahs at first, the seemingly illogical solutions proposed by certain segments of climate scientists, the death and destruction laid behind by the Shells and BP's of the world and so on. 

Klein doesn't end without two or three cautionary tales of non-violent community uprisings (called Blockadia) to the ecological crisis and highlights the continuing need for government to support indigenous populations, who unfortunately being poor and powerless, become the prime victims of climate change.

As an engineer, what I admire about this book is Klein's ability to repeatedly portray the earth as a complex system, where a small but artificially induced change somewhere in the system may mean unforeseen chain reactions with the potential to cause chaos somewhere else. Man appears woefully short of tools to predict the full consequence of his actions with any high degree of accuracy, yet we somehow never seem short of solutions that have never been tried before on massive scales.

I also admire is the lengths to which Klein goes to remind us that change is possible and perhaps the issue of climate change is our best and last shot to re-invent ourselves. For this, she draws on the past - the times of the great Depression, or the civil war, where it so happened that when we collectively as a population got together and understood and recognized there was a crisis, we moved to change it through mass movements and periods of struggle. History, as shown through these movements, would never be the same again.

This Changes Everything is a tireless work of 5 years, bringing to mind a resounding "Rachel Carson" type call to arms. Klein is refreshing and uncompromising at the same time, never sugar coating the roots of this problem with anything more than much needed criticism. In doing so, she has been meticulous to document the sources of her information for those wishing to explore further.

The reason I give 4 stars is not because of the quality of the message, it is in how the message was delivered. It is bit unfortunate that the two emotional themes that Klein highlights as her writing motivation are in two different ends of the book, which may cause several readers to miss if they hadn't read it end to end. Therefore, some readers maybe forgiven for misunderstanding what really pulls Klein so strongly into this subject.

Secondly, in trying to appeal to a wider audience, Klein may want to look into releasing a condensed version of the book. Currently at 450 pages, it becomes a tough read for most unless there was a significant motivator to push through. Its not easy to read at times and there is significant potential to improve.

I'd like to end by saying that I have some strong opinions on this subject, both for and against the current practices in the oil/gas industry. I'd like to analyze if many of the things that Klein proposes in her book can become reality for the industry. This will become the topic for a later post, I promise. Thanks.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Diesel Deception : An Ode to the Volkswagen Jetta

During my time in the United States, colleagues and I would greatly enjoy discussions on diesel cars. Like, why weren't there enough of them in the U.S already? We knew diesel fuel holds about 12% more heat energy than the same amount of gasoline. In general, that meant, a diesel takes you farther with lesser fuel than a similar sized gasoline engined car. The Jetta happened to be everyone's favorite postercar for these discussions.

A comparison of a 2013 VW Jetta, with a 2.0L turbocharged engine running diesel and a 2.0L turbcharged Mitsubishi Lancer running premium gasoline shows stark differences. For roughly similar curb weights and passenger compartment volumes of 94 cu.ft, the U.S Department of Energy tells us that Jetta gives a 32 miles per gallon in combined city/highway compared to the Lancer's 20 miles to the gallon.

It also takes $43 to fill up a Lancer compared to $37 to fill the Jetta. Over a 5 year life cycle, compared to an average new car, you end up saving $2000 in fuel costs with the Jetta but you end up spending some $3000 more with the Lancer. What this also means is that you won't be complaining about the Jetta purchase 3-5 years down the road, as you'll end up breaking even (initial cost to fuel savings) at some point in that time frame.

Another point we are told is that both upstream in the fuel development cycle, and downstream, at the tailpipe, GHG emissions are lower in the Jetta than the gasoline Lancer. Below is the comparison from that same year, in grams of CO2 equivalent emissions (CO2 + Methane + NOx).

The EPA Smog Rating represents the amount of health-damaging and smog-forming airborne pollutants the vehicle emits. New vehicles are equipped with a sticker that shows the relative level of smog causing emissions created by the vehicle compared to others on the market. Smog-causing emissions include unburned hydrocarbons (HC) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx). Scoring ranges from 1 (worst) to 10 (best).

Those against diesel vehicles like to claim that diesel cars are nasty smog emitters. However what I find is that both the 2013 and 2014 VW Jettas appeared to have achieved the U.S EPA Smartway certification for reduced smog.

The Lancer may not have been the most ideal car to compare with the Jetta but I'm much given to my salesmanship when I think about diesel cars. They just makes sense in a world of climate change!

And so friends and I would chat about why there weren't more diesel cars, about gasoline fuel subsidies, higher priced aftertreatment emissions requirements and so on and so forth. Made for a good water cooler conversation.

With cars like Jetta being somewhat of a jewel among a bevy of polluters on our roads, it must come as a shock that possibly everything I wrote earlier about it's emissions ratings might be wrong.

The NYT has been running the story as the "diesel deception", where admittedly, senior executives from VW told EPA officials, hot on the chase for over a year, that inconsistencies in emissions values between pre-sale vehicle testing versus on-road numbers was because of a software trick.

I'm not aware of what VW actually used but the engine software in question recognized the onset of a test cycle and kicked into action for a better behaved engine performance. Typically, this involves a manipulation of the timing of fuel injection relative the movement of the piston. In normal driving, this software can be deactivated, allowing the car to tradeoff fuel economy for more pollution.

From a reading of this article, an unlikely set of heroes have emerged in discovering the fraud - a group of ex-EPA officials from the International Council on Clean Transportation who elected a research group at West Virginia University headed by Arvind Thiruvengadam, an Indian PhD in Mechanical Engineering, to test a small bunch of diesel cars on the road all in the name of science.

The ICCT is lucky to have chosen 2 out of 3 vehicles it proposed to WVU to be Volkswagens. Thiruvengadam's team, knowing how diesels should perform on the road from past testing experience, raised the red flag when they noticed anomalous postings. According to the article, some emissions values were apparently greater than those from heavy duty trucks. A baseline testing by a group from CARB would confirm the fraudulent emissions values and give credence to the WVU observation.

In the United States, emissions standards are managed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Federal Tier II specifications. The state of California has special vehicle emissions standards (CARB limits), and other states may choose to follow either the national or California standards.

Around 14 U.S states have adopted the CARB standards. It's instructive to compare the Federal emissions limits against the CARB limits to see the difference in stringency.

Under the 2004-2014 California LEVII motor vehicle missions, vehicles are restricted to the following numbers :

EPA's Tier II limits for light duty vehicles are the categorized into bins as the following :

From the two charts, I notice that a LEV II certification (in NOx for example) is equivalent to Bin 5 certification from the federal Tier II chart, while California SULEV certification is approximately equivalent to federal Bin 2. This is truly the case. California is extremely stringent in emissons.

Several other news articles on the same scandal state that the that Jetta posted values exceeding the U.S. NOx emissions standard by 15 to 35 times. The VW Passat was 5 to 20 times the standard.

Going purely off these numbers, I can place a low and high end ranges for what the researchers may have noticed during testing. I will assume the Jetta and the Passat were both 2014 models :

If these ranges are correct, the actual emissions performance of the VW Jetta places it in between an older/expired Bin 10b-10c and a Bin 11 vehicle category at the low end and entirely off the emissons charts at the high end.  The Passat would be between a Bin 8 and a Bin 10a category at the low end and off the emissions charts on the high end.

A momentary reflection of the fact that the greenhouse warming potential of N2O is over 300 times that of CO2 and that VW cars emitting several times their regulated values were sold and operated throughout the world for several years now will bring the gravity of the matter to light.  

That VW was trying to attain more fuel economy on the road by turning off the software is not a big surprise to me.  Engine OEM's have been doing some ridiculous things in the recent past to meet the U.S Federal Tier II and CARB regulations. From personal experience in diesel engine design, exhaust gas recirculation to combat NOx flies in the face of everything they told us about positive engine delta P, which is one in several factors affecting brake specific fuel consumption.

Specific to diesel engines is the PM vs NOx tradeoff, where if you do one thing in your combustion process to reduce NOx (typically with cooler temperatures), you start to see PM increase and vice versa. This is just an example in modern diesel engine design of a balancing act between several different parameters. Today's diesel engines are several thousand dollars more expensive than older ones because of several aftertreatment devices and control systems crammed in between engine and tailpipe. Manufacturers have to keep getting innovative year on year to meet stringent limits.

However, short of feeling sympathetic, VW still deserves a wider explanation to it's audience. To me, there are several other engineering and management decisions that could have been taken as emissions strategies. A case in point was during the roll into EPA 2010 emissions limits, when Cummins choose to adopt Selective Catalytic Reduction in their diesel engines versus Navistar shunning SCR and sticking to EGR. Cummins won with their technology solution, while Navistar failed to comply with the limits and paid $3700 fines on each non-compliant truck engine.

Precisely who in VW signed off on rigging the tests out of all other options beats me.  How did they even justify the risks that this involved, both financially and market reputation wise? These and similar corporate responsiblity type questions were posed by two Schulich business school professors Crane and Matten on their blog as well. 

The fallout could be huge. Volkswagen Jetta, for a long time, has been a reasonably priced small family car running one of the most efficient combustion engines around. However several people are going to sell their Jettas after the recall. The resale value on this vehicle will plummet like a rock. 

You can't discount the fact that that people will start to lose a bit of faith in the diesel engine itself. A market that's already straining to make grounds on a stage full of petrol cars might be looking at more struggles ahead. At the moment, we have few breakthrough engine technologies to meet environmental limits while staying commercially viable. With the VW scandal, one piece of the solution turnS out to be no solution at all, atleast in the eyes of the average Joe.

The bright side to this news is that organizations like EPA and several others around the globe will find out a method to defeat violators on the road. Maybe some new working groups will be formed to formulate off-cycle engine tests to cross-verify with dyno results. Perhaps some new independant agencies will form to assist customers in this verification. The stage is open for discussion.

Automotive safety is closely linked to the formation of such groups. The very reason why Ralph Nader brought about the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966 was because of alleged design flaws in the suspension system of the 1959 Chevrolet Corvair. Before that fiasco in which a few people were even killed, the Corvair would go on to be named "Car of the Year" in 1960.

In another case with very close resemblance to the VW software hack, EPA had taken a group of diesel engine manufacturer's to task in 1998 for cheating during the FTA test cycle. What is strange to me is that the same problem has come to bite them now and it was a public university that first documented the issue. I fully expect a justice department hearing to call up EPA officials demanding an explanation to this oversight.

Perhaps now is the best time for some VW executives to read up on these pages in history.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

U.A.E Fuel Deregulation and Some Implications

July 28 Update : U.A.E Fuel prices committee has released revised fuel prices for August 2015.

In what's most likely a watershed moment in the U.A.E economy, from August 2015 petrol prices will no longer stay regulated at $0.47/liter as has been the case for many years. Diesel prices will decrease. The decision is, as I see it, in line with several precursors steering the U.A.E towards a realistic existence amidst our 21st century issues. Let's take a look at some of these.

The U.A.E government's strategy for a "Green Economy", a vision launched in 2012, aims for a reduction in domestic consumption of oil by 7-10%, natural gas by 7-20% and electricity by 11-15% year on year through to 2030. An 18.4% CO2 emissions contribution from the transportation sector (2011 World Bank data) doesn't appear to support that vision.

The Dubai Strategic Plan 2015 had the Road and Transportation Authority (RTA) setting a target of 30% of the population using public transport in 2020, compared with 12% in 2010 (UAE State of Green Economy Report, 2014).

To cope with the ever-rising traffic volume and road congestion in Dubai, the Salik toll collection system was rolled out in 2007. In October 2013, car-pooling was legalized.

Lots of money was pumped into the vitalizing a metro and the tram system. Biodiesel was investigated for the public buses. In Abu Dhabi, a park and ride system was started whereby someone from the outskirts could park their car and take a shuttle into the interior of the city for free.

Charging stations were introduced in a move to build an infrastructure for electric vehicles.

A Dubai Bicycle Plan aims at providing 850km of bikeways in strategically located areas and other cycle tracks have already been developed for the sports minded.

The U.A.E GDP grew 27 times since the 1975, largely supported by oil and gas revenues. In a double whammy, $50/barrel oil price not only squeezes that share but also discourages the proliferation of renewable energy technologies. It gives an opportunity for everyone to sit up and take notice of the gorilla in the room - regulated pump prices. If you ask me, this has been long overdue.

What might some of the implications be from new fuel prices to be announced soon?

1) Firstly, people taking long trips are going to obviously going to think twice. Let us suppose gas price in U.A.E increases to $1/liter, a 113% increase. Driving a car with an average fuel efficiency of 25 mpg (9.4 L/100km, a figure representative of my 2 year old Mitsubishi), a round trip to :

a) Sharjah (22.08km away) and back would cost 4.2L of petrol and 4.2 x $1 = $4.2 = 15.79 AED versus 7.52 AED with current price of $0.47/L.
b) Abu Dhabi (152.4km away) and back would cost 28.66L of petrol and 28.66 x $1 = $28.66 = 107.76 AED versus 51.74 AED with current price of $0.47/L.

In both these cases, one can expect roughly the same % increase in travel costs as the 113% increase in fuel costs.

2) I see more people investing in GPS units (best "Ecoroute", that kind of thing) and utilizing smart driving services like apps, which give real time traffic information. Trip planning could take more prominence.

3) I hope this sets in motion a massive awareness for fuel efficient vehicles. It makes promise for vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, Nissan Leaf or the Tesla BEV's. It also makes promise for diesel cars. While their first costs might be a bit on the high side, the lifecycle operation costs of using a higher energy density fuel will be low.  I'd like to see these vehicles in U.A.E showrooms ASAP. A hybrid or a diesel should be choices that people can make without having to resort to importing. I'm a bit upset there has been a vacuum in the UAE so far for these models.

4) I hope it allows people to think about methods to economic driving as well.  Less displacement is really better. Turbos are not just for sportscars. Driving slower is good for your pocket. Lower engine RPM's are good. This has the benefit of reducing speeds on Dubai roads as well. And does a family of 2 really need a towering 4x4? An Aston Martin to go to Carrefour? How about a Toyota or a Kia for that purpose? Retailers and showrooms have got some work to do to in educating the masses about these things.

5) I suspect the fuel price hike will change the trend for people to clog up toll-free roads. The difference between money saved by avoidance relative to the extra fuel needed to go the longer toll-free distance will most likely vanish.

6) Bicycle commuting lanes on the roads? Anyone? I'd champion this any day. We'll have to wait and see if the RTA plans on introducing dedicated lanes on the roads so that those who don't wish to drive or take the public transpo have an option. While it's easy to say this, I imagine a single bicycle track, an artery, running from the innards of Deira all the way to Jebal Ali along the Sh. Zayed Road would be just awesome. It could have multiple take off points so people could divert to key locations along the way. I don't see this happening any time soon but I eagerly await a more comprehensive picture of the Dubai Canal works to see what we can expect come 2017-2018.

7) Status boosting is the itch to buy a gas guzzling V8 and a 4 digit number plate to go along so you look good at the water cooler in the office. Well, I for one do hope the fuel degregulation makes a strong attempt to demolish this trend because it borders on discourteousness to the rest of the economizing society.

8) What I would also like to see is a massive turnaround in the trucking fleet in the U.A.E. This is one of the other low hanging fuits for improvement in terms of fuel efficiency and emissions. To see clean stuff coming out of the tailpipe from a rickety Volvo or a people carrier is, I suspect, what many people would also like to see while driving on Sh. Zayed Road. It's about time people in the trucking fleet community started talking about EGR, SCR systems, clean combustion diesel, things of that nature. Educate the drivers as well, especially about proper tire pressures! Why? Because it eats into fuel efficiency!

I'd like to conclude that if you're one among the bunch looking for a vehicle in 2015/16, knock yourself out and go through this handy EPA dataset of vehicles listed according to fuel economy. While I hope there's a datasheet more representative of vehicles in the U.A.E, it should at the minimum give someone a clue about what is the state of the art in fuel economy numbers these days. Thanks.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Human Power at the Tour de France

To technically appreciate bicycle racing in the Tour de France is to fundamentally appreciate Newtonian physics, although purists will disagree to such bland reductionism. If you want to race up a steep mountain road, you need a net human power exceeding the retarding effects of tire rolling resistance and gravity.  When the road is a bit more nice and flat and where you tend to reach higher speeds, you need a net human power exceeding the retarding effects of aerodynamic drag. 

If you have large pockets, have your own bike fitted with a cycling power meter and inspect the wattage as you pedal. If you're savvier with numbers, fire up an MS Excel and program a little spreadsheet based on the math described in this paper by Martin et al titled "A Mathematical Model for Road Cycling Power". It should give you numbers that are unsurprisingly close enough to the reading from a power meter (exception to high windy days) because as mentioned earlier, cycling is Newtonian physics. 

The figure of merit for a Tour de France cyclist can be represented in terms of speed, absolute power, or power to weight ratio. Since the Tour is always decided in the mountains, being able to ride a bicycle uphill for long periods of time at somewhere between 10-15 mph (16-24 kph) is top class. During a sudden acceleration, a strategic move called an "attack" in cycling, being able to punch 18-20 mph (29-30 kph) for 10-20 seconds at a time is sheer top class. 

Power wise, being able to maintain between 330-350 watts for 20 or more minutes is great, somewhere around 380-400 watts or greater is top class. Power to weight ratio wise, a figure between 5.8-6.0 watts/kilogram is what it takes to deliver serious firepower in the mountains. Therefore, it doesn't assist you if you weigh 100 kilos rather than 70 kilos, because 70 x 6 = 420 watts is easier than 100 x 6 = 600 watts to do the same job.

The power to weight ratio allows for comparison between different riders. Since margins at the Tour is over minutes and seconds on a climb, a difference of 1 watt/kilogram between two riders makes the difference between sitting overall in top 10 or sitting overall in top 20 spot. In terms of money, that's worth something to a guy who earns his bread racing a bicycle. It's really as simple as that.

Riders often "warm up" on stationary bikes before the start of a stage, particularly before the start of a time trial, which is an individual race against the clock. They have a warm up routine, an instruction telling them how many minutes to spend at specific power levels.

Below is such a warmup sheet pasted on Alberto Contador's bike during a recent Tour de France. Alberto is a top tier professional cyclist and rides for Team Saxo Tinkoff. Inspect the numbers. He is asked to warm up at less than 150 watts, ramp up his output from there 30 watts each time all the way to 420 watts, followed by an easy spin at less than 150 watts. For an average individual, reaching 380-420 watts for extended periods of time can involve profuse sweating, high heart rates and dry-as-bone breathing.

A recent video posted online (see below) by hackers shows power and speed data of Chris Froome from Stage 15 of the 2013 Tour de France. On this particular day, Froome became the first British rider to win on the high mountain road to the summit of Mont Ventoux. Known as the "Giant of Provence", this road has a staggering average gradient of 7.6% for 21 kilometers. Froome would go on to win the 2013 Tour de France.

The Tour is especially interesting because of these dramatic incidences, where a community of rabid fans view extraordinary cycling performance and begin to have their own doubts about them. While there are people who can make careless mistakes with statistics, a simple understanding of physics and the records broken in the past Tours can tell any average Joe what might be possible in the realm of "ethical" sporting. I leave any judgment of Froome's performance aside and simply enjoy the action.