Archive for August, 2008


Oil shale (part I)

August 31, 2008

One recurring question that geologists face is that of oil shale. Specifically, what potential does it have to solve the energy and economic problems that we face? Much research has been done on this material, and much of the work is well summarized by Munther Bseiso and by the late Yousef Hamarneh (updated by Jamal Alali and Suzane Sawaqed). A very short summery is available here.  Herein, I will try to shed some light on this. First, I need to give some geological and geochemical background.

In oceans, most primary productivity (plant growth) is related to micro-organisms such as algae (like diatoms). When these microscopic plants die, they usually decompose though reaction with oxygen in the water column. If there is not enough oxygen to decompose all of the plants, then the available oxygen is used up and the environment becomes anoxic. Under this condition, organic material is preserved, and sediments deposited in such an environment become organic-rich sediments.

Because sediments rich in fine grained clay materials have low permeability (i.e. they don’t let water move through them), often such sediments are organic-rich because dissolved oxygen in the overlying water column can not reach the organic materials in the sediment to decompose them. When clay-rich sediments turn into rocks (or lithify), they are called shale. When organic-rich clay rich sediments lithify, they become oil shale.

Through time and changes in physical conditions, the organic material changes it’s molecular composition, changing into complex mixtures of materials that are broadly classified as being kerogen, bitumen, or hydrocarbons. Bitumen is defined to be all the organic material that can be dissolved in organic solvents, whereas kerogen is all of the organic material that can not. Both kerogen and bitumen are solid, whereas hydrocarbon is either liquid or gas. Subjecting kerogen or bitumen to heat can lead to the release of liquid petroleum or natural gas. This can be a natural process (petroleum generation) or a synthetic one (retorting).

In Jordan, the term “oil shale” has been applied to both organic rich shale-like materials called marls as well as to organic-rich limestones. All “oil shale” in Jordan is Upper Cretaceous to Paleocene in age (80 to 60 million years old), and belongs to the Muwaqqar Chalk Marl (MCM) Formation. The MCM is exposed over large areas of Jordan, and organic-rich sections of it are found in the north and center of the country. It has been estimated that the oil shale reserves in the country amount to about 50 billion tons, with an average organic content of about 10%. This reserve is enough to meet Jordan’s energy needs for hundreds of years.

Oil shale in Jordan (from the Natural Resources Authority)

Oil shale in Jordan (from the Natural Resources Authority)

Most of the organic component in the oil shale consists of kerogen, making the chemical separation of the oil from the rock virtually impossible. Options for exploitation are either direct burning of the rock for electricity generation or retorting to extract the oil from the rock by heat. In future posts, I will discuss these options.


Ramadan Kareem

August 30, 2008

Ramadan is due to start in a couple of days. It is typical during this month to hear many health claims related to the benefits of the fast. Clearly, the purpose of the ritual is not health related, but spiritual. Despite this, many seek to assert the supposed health related aspects as an important reason to fast.

In 2003, the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a very interesting review article. The article, authored by Leiper, Molla and Molla, summarized the previous medical research on the health effects of fasting during the month of Ramadan.

The major findings are summarized in the abstract:

“The majority of the studies have found significant metabolic changes, but few health problems arising from the fast. A reduction in drug compliance was an inherent negative aspect of the fast. Common findings of the studies reviewed were increased irritability and incidences of headaches with sleep deprivation and lassitude prevalent. A small body mass loss is a frequent, but not universal, outcome of Ramadan. During the daylight hours of Ramadan fasting, practising [sic] Muslims are undoubtedly dehydrating, but it is not clear whether they are chronically hypohydrated during the month of Ramadan. No detrimental effects on health have as yet been directly attributed to negative water balance at the levels that may be produced during Ramadan.”

Deeper into the paper, other concerns are raised. Cognitive function slowdown leads to statistically significant rises in accidents during the month (I could have told them that, driving in Jordan in Ramadan), heat stress, headaches resulting from dehydration and poor fetal development in late pregnancy mothers. Ancillary social behavior (i.e. changing sleep patterns) may contribute to some problems seen in Ramadan (irritability, lassitude and headaches).

Some useful health tips can be found in this booklet prepared by the UK department of health. Similar advice is given here on the BBC website. Most important is the quality and quantity of food intake at the break of the fast. Ensuring that you get enough sleep is also important.

Happy Ramadan!


Health habits

August 28, 2008

A very interesting study was published in 2003 by the late Fawaz Shehab (Odeibat) and his co-workers. Fawaz was a good friend of mine, and his loss was a personal one for me. In the study, he analyzed data gleaned from the Department of Statistics’ Jordan Population and Housing Census of 2002. A number of questions were added to the survey to measure the presence of some chronic diseases (hypertension, diabetes and obesity) and related behavioral patterns (smoking and exercise). While obesity is not a disease in itself, it is correlated with cardiovascular problems, specifically hypertension, and thus does represent a public health issue. Unfortunately, no data seem to have been collected on eating habits.

One might quibble about the methodology, which relied on self-reporting. However, the sample size was large enough (almost 9000) to give a reasonable indication on these issues. The data show that over 50% of males and 8% of females are smokers. They also show that only 52% of people have any weekly physical activity, and less than 32% have any vigorous physical activity. As a result, 10% of males and 16% of females are obese, and 36% of males and 28% of females are overweight (remembering that these numbers are self-reported).

So, the National Center for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Genetics (who have a very informative website), under the leadership of Professor Kamel Ajlouni, have been studying changes in diabetes levels. Their research shows that diabetes has increased by over 31% over the past ten years, and is currently at 17% (compared with a US average of 7%, as stated by the editor of Shehab’s article), with 8% of people being in a borderline state. Shehab’s article reports a 6.4% prevalence of diabetes, reflecting how data can change when methodologies do. I would place more stock in the NCDEG results on this issue.

It is clear that there is a lifestyle problem that is exasperating the problem of chronic diseases in Jordan. I would hope that people would heed the call of Dr. Ajlouni to increase awareness of the importance of diet, physical activity and facilitation of the environment to encourage walking.



August 26, 2008

One of the hazards of being a geologist in Jordan is that you are always asked “Is there petroleum in Jordan?”, or “Why hasn’t oil been found? There is oil in all of the countries surrounding us”.

Of course, this last statement is always heard, but is somewhat misleading. It is implied or stated that we are incompetent or that the government wants to hide this wealth.

One must start by looking at a map.

The map clearly shows that, while yes, technically there is petroleum in most of the countries around us; the major fields are quite far from us. These are centered in a belt extending from the Arabian Gulf through northern Iraq and possibly into central Asia. We are well outside the belt.

It is no coincidence that the petroleum belt overlaps with the major tectonic plate boundary that separates the Arabian and Eurasian plates. This plate boundary is known as a convergent plate boundary, with the Arabian plate being pushed (or subducted) under the Eurasian plate. This is very different from the plate boundary separating the Arabian and African plates, where they are moving along side each other in the Jordan Valley area, and are separating in the Red Sea area. More on plate tectonics can be found here.

Not all convergent plate boundaries have oil. In fact, the scale of petroleum reserves in the Gulf far dwarf anything else in the world.

However, being outside the oil belt or away from convergent plate boundaries does not preclude the presence of oil in Jordan. Geological requirements for petroleum reserves to exist in a certain area include the following:

1- A source rock. This typically means a sedimentary rock rich in organic material (like the oil shale rocks that we keep hearing about). This source rock provides the liquid organic material known as petroleum if it goes through certain conditions. Specifically, these source rocks need to be heated to temperatures of 100-150oC (more here). If they are not heated, they remain in the form of kerogen. Studies of source rock maturation the Dead Sea area have been conducted previously.

2- A reservoir rock. This is a rock that has high enough porosity (% pore spaces) and permeability (ability to allow liquids to move) so that the petroleum can be stored in it. These are typically east to find, as they can be any number of sedimentary rocks (limestone, sandstone, dolostone, etc.). These are available in Jordan.

3- A trap. This is a feature that prevents the movement of oil. It can be a low permeability rock (known as a stratigraphic trap), or a structural feature like a fault or a fold in the rock. These are known as structural traps. These are potentially present, but are difficult to find in the subsurface, requiring detailed geophysical exploration to determine where the best potential for a trap lies. Since drilling an exploration well is very expensive, good geophysical subsurface studies are essential for an effective exploration effort.

Sadooni and Dalqamouni have suggested that oil may be present in northern Jordan, based on the presence of all of the requirements. All of these conditions are present in various areas in Jordan. The Natural Resources Authority emphasizes how little exploration has been done in an attempt to lure exploration companies into the country. Other researchers agree that conditions for petroleum in Jordan are there, but insufficient research has been done. In any case, it is doubtful that if oil is found, it will be at the scale found in our rich neighbors’ territory.


As Samra Waste Water Treatment Plant

August 23, 2008

Today the new Samra WWTP was officially opened, after about five years in the works. It is notable that the announcement in the press says that the capacity of the plant is 276000 cubic meters per day (about 100 million cubic meters per year), whereas it was initially announced that the capacity would be 530000 cubic meters per day. There has been no explanation of this discrepancy.

The Samra WWTP is designed to treat domestic waste water emanation from the Zerqa river basin, which happens to include the country’s two most populated cities. Essentially, anybody who flushes his toilet in Amman or in Zerqa contributes to the load at Samra WWTP.

Moreover, the Zerqa River feeds into the 70 million cubic meters of water stored in the King Talal Dam. Therefore, any pollution in the river will lead to pollution in the dam, which in turn may affect the quality of agricultural produce in the Jordan Valley, which is partially irrigated from its waters. While there is little evidence of real deterioration of soil quality from irrigation using KTD water, there tends to be a psychological aversion to consuming this produce. Concern over microbiological contamination has lead to restrictions on the use of the treated wastewater. Typically, green vegetables are not irrigated with this water, while fruit trees are. Also, groundwater in the area of the plant has witnessed serious deterioration.

Limited water resources mean that treated waste water is considered to be a “non-conventional resource” in the Jordanian national water master plan.

The original Samra WWTP was built in 1985 with a capacity of about 67000 cubic meters per day. The plant quickly became obsolete, rendering its output water below standards and menacing water supplies, public health and agriculture in the Jordan Valley (more history here).

The new plant promises a lot, from some energy self sufficiency to odor control to promises of real-time transmission of water and air quality data. It is run by a private consortium under a BOT agreement. Hopefully, we will see a noticeable improvement in the water and air quality in Zerqa and the Zerqa River basin.


Nuclear Jordan

August 20, 2008

Three years ago, I wrote an article that was published in Al Rai (available here in Arabic), where I argued for the introduction of nuclear power to Jordan. Since then, many things have happened, with the country finally taking the strategic decision to go this route. The numbers in the original article are now dated, and replacing them with newer ones makes the argument even more compelling.

This article highlights how implementation is going. People involved in the parliament and in the Jordan Nuclear Energy Commission are aiming to have the first reactor set up and operating in 2015 or 2016, depending on who in the article is quoted. The article reveals that the reactor will be in Aqaba, which is not surprising given the need for water to operate the plant. My guess that it will be in Wadi Araba, where there is enough land and where the proposed Red Sea Dead Sea canal will run, if implemented.

The article also suggests that uranium mines will be opened in central Jordan, ostensibly to run the reactors and for export. A nuclear engineering programme has been established at the Jordan University of Science and Technology for the specific purpose of providing the needed manpower for the project. Some questions remain, however.

Nobody seems to want to put a number on the electrical generating capacity of the reactor (s) that will be built. Presumably, we want to keep our options open.

As for the fuel, most reactor designs require enriched uranium to operate. Nobody has yet mentioned whether we are planning to enrich uranium, whether there will be a break in the fuel cycle (and we will import enriched uranium) or if we are planning to build pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWR) that do not require uranium enrichment. Importing enriched uranium means that uranium mining is a stand-alone project that is irrelevant to the nuclear programme.

Only Canada sells PHWR reactors known as CANDU reactors. There might be a political problem in eliminating other designs sold by our friends in the US, France, Russia or China. Moreover, heavy water reactors can be used to produce plutonium, which might prompt concerns over nuclear proliferation. While light water reactors require uranium enrichment, the process of producing weapons grade uranium is cumbersome and easier to monitor.

Another question is nuclear waste. Until now, there has been no mention of how the various grades of nuclear waste will be dealt with. While this is an issue that can be dealt with, it is important that discussions about it start soon. Perhaps the delay has to do with the type of reactor design that will be chosen; as PHWR produce more waste that is lower in grade. Anyway, as information becomes available I will let you know.


Irbid pavements

August 19, 2008

If you have ever wondered how many ways something simple can be screwed up, you can come to Irbid and observe our pavements. These clearly show how much zift zift-work can achieve.

The typical types of flaws include:

1. The longitudinal cracks. These seem to be the result of simple aging, resulting from loss of the more volatile components of the pavement material. This loss probably causes both shrinkage and lower elasticity in the material.

2. The pot holes. These features are probably the result of growth of small holes as cars break away at the edges. These do not seem to be comparable to other potholes in the US, which are explained by either picking away at material separated by the longitudinal cracks described above, or freeze-thaw features caused by differential expansion and shrinkage.

3.  The differential settling. This is caused by poor compaction of the underlying base coarse. It is exasperated by sloppy recompaction after underground excavations are refilled and by broken water pipes.

4. I don’t know what to call these. They are deep curved cracks that extend to underlying, older pavements. The rounded curvatures around the edges seem to suggest that they are a result of almost fluid behavior. My guess it that the pavement material is too liquidy when it is placed. Presumably, it is easier to spread this way. Who cares if it busts people’s cars?

There are others, but these are the most interesting to me. Any professional feedback is welcome. (Thanks to Shabib, my photographer :)).