Rocket Doc Notes for Week of May 9, 2021

This week’s pertinent news and data

This week’s news was largely positive. The COVID 19 vaccines are doing their job and we should be approaching herd immunity in the U.S. and Europe shortly. It would go faster if we didn’t have some political Neanderthals refusing vaccines but that should change when they are the only ones being hospitalized. Unfortunately, the third world did not have the foresight and funding to order extra vaccine early on so they will be playing catchup. I predict Covid will be an old bad dream by September in the U.S. when schools open.

On the space front both the Blue Origin National Team and the Dynetics Team protested the award of the Human Lander System (HLS) to SpaceX. This is not unexpected but the protest has little chance of succeeding unless the Congress awards NASA many billions of extra dollars so they can afford to fund two teams. My Senator, Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee overseeing NASA, has proposed to do just that as an amendment to the Endless Frontier Act. Cantwell represents Blue Origin’s home state of Washington. Under Cantwell’s language, NASA would be required to reopen the competition within 30 days and allow it to use $10 billion (about half) of its budget to pick a second lunar lander provider. NASA does not have $10 billion to spare, but if they cut funding for the SLS, the Orion, and the Gateway station they might be able to fund a second HLS team for a while. I have many friends at Blue Origin but there is just not the money at NASA to fund their proposed HLS. If Jeff Bezos is really serious about space, he needs to step up like Elon Musk has done and put more of his money into the effort.

Speaking of Elon, he announced the plan for the orbital test of Starship. The super heavy booster stage will launch Starship from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, facilities and separate in midair nearly three minutes into flight. About five minutes later, that booster stage will return back to Earth and splash down in the Gulf of Mexico or as SpaceX puts it: it will “perform a partial return and land in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 20 miles from the shore.” The is a continuation of the SpaceX philosophy of design, build, and test. He doesn’t need to recover the booster if he can get the data from a successful flight. This is a proven approach to developing cutting edge hardware quickly, but it has fallen out of favor over the last fifty years.

Meanwhile, Starship (the top half of the entire rocket system) will continue into orbit, nearly completing a full trip around Earth before plunging back through the atmosphere near the Hawaiian Island chain roughly 90 minutes after launching from Texas. Starship will aim to nail a “powered, targeted landing” on the ocean about 62 miles off the northwest coast of Kauai, the state’s northernmost island. Again, the starship will not be reusable but a successful flight meets SpaceX’s requirements for proof of concept. I hardily approve of this approach.

On the Global Warming front there is a release from the International Energy Agency (IEA) that accurately describes the problems with achieving the Paris Agreement goals. It is titled, In the transition to clean energy, critical minerals bring new challenges to energy security and is enclosed below.

An energy system powered by clean energy technologies differs profoundly from one fueled by traditional hydrocarbon resources. Building solar photovoltaic (PV) plants, wind farms and electric vehicles (EVs) generally requires more minerals than their fossil fuel- based counterparts. A typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car, and an onshore wind plant requires nine times more mineral resources than a gas-fired power plant. Since 2010, the average amount of minerals needed for a new unit of power generation capacity has increased by 50% as the share of renewables has risen.

The types of mineral resources used vary by technology. Lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite are crucial to battery performance, longevity and energy density. Rare earth elements are essential for permanent magnets that are vital for wind turbines and EV motors. Electricity networks need a huge amount of copper and aluminum, with copper being a cornerstone for all electricity-related technologies.

The shift to a clean energy system is set to drive a huge increase in the requirements for these minerals, meaning that the energy sector is emerging as a major force in mineral markets. Until the mid-2010s, the energy sector represented a small part of total demand for most minerals. However, as energy transitions gather pace, clean energy technologies are becoming the fastest-growing segment of demand.

In a scenario that meets the Paris Agreement goals, clean energy technologies’ share of total demand rises significantly over the next two decades to over 40% for copper and rare earth elements, 60- 70% for nickel and cobalt, and almost 90% for lithium. EVs and battery storage have already displaced consumer electronics to become the largest consumer of lithium and are set to take over from stainless steel as the largest end user of nickel by 2040.

This duplicates my own results that has been saying a total switch to batteries for energy storage and all mobile systems is short-sighted. We should be looking at producing energy gases like ammonia and hydrogen at renewable sites and using those gases in fuel cells to power standby-powerplants as well as cars and long-haul trucks. This would eliminate the materials shortfall and enable a faster, cheaper reduction in carbon emissions.

Thanks for Reading,

Dana Andrews

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