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"Inflammatory" - NY Observer

Depleted uranium, deadly vaccines, 9/11 conspiracies, and the truth about Cynthia McKinney.




rank: Conscript
points: 0
occupation: Astrobiologist, graphic designer, student
location: Denver, US

My pic isn't Santa Claus, it's.....Sadhu Claus. He brings presents to all the good Nepali boys and girls. (Not really. He's a Sadhu, a holy man. I used this pic for my christmas cards this year.)

How do you sum yourself up in a paragraph? Crikey. I'm way too wierd for a few sentences.

Anyway, about me: Equal parts absent-minded professor and adventurer. I'm way too into science for my own good (though I'd like to think I'm not a total geek) and can't stay in the country for longer than a year at a time. I'm especially in love with South Asia, particularly Nepal and Tibet. I'm also fond of hiking, skiing, climbing, cooking( Italian and Indian), eating, music, mountains, the tropics, relaxing with friends, and solving the problems of the world over beers. I make good chai.

currently reading:
List changes daily; I go through books like a drag queen goes through pantyhose. Mostly, a bunch of geeky science crap, philosophy, or car magazines.

Collapse- Jared Diamond
Microcosmos- Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan
The Diamond Age- Neal Stephenson
The End of Faith- Sam Harris
Rare Earth- Donald Brownlee

currently watching:
Paint dry. No really, I just painted a few parts of my living room where I had to repair some holes. It’s not as boring as you might think.

currently listening to:
Dire Straits
Bob Marley
Modern English
Desmond Dekker
Bruce Springsteen
The Clash
Jimmy Buffett
Zeca Baliero
Lucky Dube
Thievery Corporation
Rolling Stones
The Eagles
Verbrili Sound
Ustad Sultan Khan
The Exile Brothers
Gypsy Kings
and many others…....


The Search For Terrestrial Intelligence (or, Memoirs of A Cynical Astrobiologist)

The Hydrogen Revolution: Reinventing the Wheel

B04276 Thu, 24 Feb 2005 20:07:31 -0600

So if you’ve been following the mutterings of car executives and politicians lately, you’ll have heard plenty about the “hydrogen economy”. It’s a great idea on paper: clean fuel! Only exhaust is water! Can be used for fuel cells! The economy of the future! Will cure hemmorhoids, Altzheimers, the common cold, and erectile dysfunction! (Ok, I’m kidding on that last one, but I expect to hear it soon.) But the idea basically sucks, and will suck until some major hurdles are crossed. The hydrogen economy is a pipe dream, and those who peddle the idea are either misguided, hopelessly optimistic, or lying in the service of an agenda.

Why, you ask? Well, here are a few reasons why.

1. Hydrogen is not a fuel. Yeah, you can burn it. But it’s not an energy source. It’s an energy transportation medium. You can’t just go out and get hydrogen; you have to split water apart to do it, which requires energy coming from some other source. Creating hydrogen on the scale required to satisfy current energy demands is fairly unrealistic- maybe nuclear power could do it, fusion certainly could. However, nukes are unsafe and unreliable, and they have this issue of waste disposal that makes them at best a last-ditch effort. Fusion has been twenty years away for the last sixty years. I have no faith in it. Solar panels and wind are cute, but you couldn’t reliably get enough energy to replace petroleum from it, and on that scale it would be prohibitively expensive. Yeah, you could probably make it work, sometime in the future.

2. Hydrogen is hard to transport. It’s a little bitty molecule. You have to keep it incredibly cold to make it a liquid, and that requires energy (to refrigerate it). You can’t put it through a pipeline, because a leak a micron across would spew hydrogen like a firehose. As a gas, its density is too low- a tractor-trailer full would be enough for one car at most. With a lot of ingenuity, maybe you could solve these problems, but they’re significant and would require vast infrastructure changes. It would cost roughly 176 billion to replace gas pumps with hydrogen.

3. Hydrogen isn’t that safe. Besides the Hindenburg factor, what happens when you get rear-ended by a dump truck and one of the hydrogen tanks ruptures? 10,000 psi isn’t a joke. It would rupture, explosively. And flammably. It’d be like the pinto from hell, and it’s not possible to protect a large hydrogen tank against all possible ruptures. Maybe you could get it to an acceptable minumum, but then you’ve got a car that weighs four tons because you had to beef up the structure so much.

4. Infrastructure is nonexistent. Hydrogen filling stations are few and far between, costly, and use entirely new equipment. For reasons stated above, it’s hard to transport, and hard to keep contained. You’d need to rip out every gas station and replace it with entirely new stuff. This would involve some coin.

So, for these and other reasons, hydrogen isn’t the answer. Biodiesel is. It’s renewable. It’s less flammable than gas, even. It can be created easily and cheaply from algae. It is possible to grow enough to satisfy our fuel usage- just make a bunch of shallow algae ponds all over the country. You can put it in a regular tank and pump it through a regular gas pump. It doesn’t require a special tank. It exists RIGHT NOW. It can be burned in any modern diesel engine. It allows better economy than gas or hydrogen. Combined with hybrid technology, you could get awesome performance and great economy. It could be used to create any of the things we use oil for now. It can be created from trash, using thermal depolymerization technology. It can be transported in any tanker truck or railroad car. The technology is so simple I can make it in my backyard shed. It’s nontoxic- you could drink it. It even smells like McDonalds fries.

BIODIESEL IS THE ANSWER. It uses modern technology, modern materials, and has none of the pitfalls of other alternative fuels. It, along with natural gas and ethanol, can fuel any car made now. It can fuel power stations. It requires no special technology. It is a more intelligent solution by far, one that can be implemented with a minumum of fuss and hassle.

All this hype about hydrogen is completely misplaced because there’s just no possibility that it will be mature enough to really be useful for another 50-75 years. As batteries, yeah, sure. But H2 supply, technology, and infrastructure will take a while. When petroleum ends, we are going to need an alternative RIGHT NOW. Not in a few years, not when the wrinkles get beat out of it, not when it becomes cost effective, rightnowdammit. Within a few years, a decade or so at most, the supply of petroleum will be outstripped by demand, and while demand will rise, petroleum supplies will shrink. That will have a number of predictable economic aftershocks. I can’t imagine that, during the peak oil crisis, the economy’s going to be in the kind of shape to effect a very quick transition to hydrogen. Therefore, having something waiting in the wings that will require far less overhaul of existing hardware would be a good idea. No matter how you slice it, there are far fewer barriers to widespread biodiesel usage than there are to widespread hydrogen usage.

So when are people gonna shut up about hydrogen and start working on the solution that has a chance right now?

terriblebadaveragegoodgreatVote: vote   Avg: 3.73   Votes: 15   Comments: 22 [Add]


Well, obviously I won’t put it past them to initiate violence against biodiesel enthusiasts, but we can get the free-market conservatives on our side for that pretty easily, in addition to simply defending ourselves – who the hell says our energy economy has to be provided by the petroleum cartel?

ZenSwashbuckler @ 02/28/05 08:39:03

ZenSwashbuckler says:

This is how we starve the petroleum companies to death without ever firing a shot. Once the petroleum companies go, governments have no reason to listen to them, and the whole hierarchy of control they assert will wither and die.

Ah, if only it were that simple Zen

PerceptualChaos @ 02/28/05 03:42:50

OK, new thought gained right after the last comment I posted. I feel I have just now undergone the shift from moderate/liberal to radical which Rasputin delineates in this fantastic thread at its current bottom:

The difference between the radical and the moderate is not one of degree. It is an intellectual and mental outlook of a completely different sort, one that goes to the very heart of whether one views the people in power as the source of the problem, or the source of the solution.

Let’s consider an example.

A radical says: get the troops out of Iraq now! The implicit message is: the state cannot be trusted, the troops are causing trouble rather than helping, the US never should have invaded, and almost everything you hear from the government about this war is a lie.

A moderate reformer says: yes, get the troops out, but not yet. The implicit message is: we can trust the state to make the right judgment about when to leave, for now the troops are performing a service of some value, the invasion has done some good and we should complete the job, and the state is right that it is a source of some degree of order and justice in Iraq.

Now, this is a small change in words and political orientation that masks a massive difference in world view. The radical doesn’t trust the state to reform itself. The moderate does. The radical does not seek the state’s favor. The moderate depends wholly on it.

It’s a shift I feel I’ve made before, but I didn’t quite understand how basic it is.

Anyway, I’ve got The Solution. Not “a solution,” not “the solution to problem x,” but THE solution.

Everyone switch to biodiesel right now, and tell every single person you know why they should do so too. The reasons don’t just include environmental ones or “It’s cheaper than gas” – this is actually how we will win. This is how we starve the petroleum companies to death without ever firing a shot. Once the petroleum companies go, governments have no reason to listen to them, and the whole hierarchy of control they assert will wither and die.

You want peace in the Middle East? So do the people in the Middle East. So stop buying their expensive-ass elitist fossil oil and use good ol’ homegrown American veggie oil. Fascist petrolocracies will vanish as quickly as their counterpart corporations here at home.

And all without us firing a shot. This takes care of the “revolution vs. reform” dilemma that Schneib and Rasputin wrangle over too – no need to shoot anyone or even smash anybody’s “property” – all this is is euthanasia for the dying, suffering capitalist order. Come on, everybody – do the humane thing and lay this paradigm to rest, with mercy and compassion: let’s cut the feeding tubes.

ZenSwashbuckler @ 02/27/05 17:50:18

Fair enough. I didn’t think I was being slammed at any point, don’t worry about that. You’ve addressed my concerns quite adroitly.

Something still doesn’t sound quite right to me – is it truly the case that all of the carbon in plants’ biomass is put there from the atmosphere? That is, none comes directly from the ground through the root systems (or whatever)? Because we’d still be transferring carbon from its deposits in the ground to spewing up into the atmosphere, thus continuing the net increase of carbon that has been the hallmark of industrial civilization. If this isn’t a concern, fine. Just would like clarification, not being trained in biology.

From this point I think we can make some generalizations here.
Hydrogen is being embraced for precisely the same reason that biodiesel will not be embraced until great masses of people demand it. Petroleum companies cannot make money from biodiesel, whereas they can make a great amount of money by converting their fossil-fuel-processing infrastructure to a hydrogen-processing infrastructure. Essentially we are talking about two alternatives, one of which leads directly to the mass extinction of petroleum companies, and the other of which allows them to stay in charge of their energy monopoly. Just read the bold letters and you will understand why there’s no damn way this will get off the ground without a MoveOn-scale grassroots effort.

That said, damn right, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes, and when I have occasion to actually own a motor vehicle, I know what kind I’m getting and how to power it =)

Apologies for preaching to the choir.

(I myself have a loving bias in favor of the very idea of using hydrogen to power ourselves, having grown up on a steady diet of science fiction… but I digress)

ZenSwashbuckler @ 02/27/05 17:30:57

I posted my comments on my blog and Twitch asked what I think about affordability. This is what I said – maybe you guys have some better insights on this considering I am not even an American (The reason I care is that what America does affects what we do, and affects what car manufacturers do, which eventually affects me, and not to mention cross-talk in pollution and economic collapse), anyway :

Investing the $5,000,000,000 that would need to be spent on the stainless steel pipes on soy crops and algae ponds to make bio-diesel, taking into account the $180 billion spent annualy on petroleum imports from the 20million barrels per day of oil ($160 billion going out of the economy), it doesn’t seem like that bad of an investment really.

Obviously the $5t is hypothetical – it doesn’t actually exist, but the difference between using it to replace copper pipes with stainless steel pipes vs using it to invest in bio-diesel are huge. The prior will take a long time and inevitably lead to some nasty monopoly or something trying to make their return on the infra-structure where as the latter does not really require a new infrastructure and provides a real return rather than a loss.

The $160b petroleum trade oil deficit (which will rise exponentially if we are to believe peak-oil) is money which would directly add to GDP/growth so that is a pretty big incentive to do something though it doesn’t necessarily mean they will spend it on bio-diesel. There would probably need to be more recognition by academia that it is the best course of action and more public support, maybe protests against H2 economy.

In terms of hybrid-electric/electric cars being developed – that will have to be done by vehicle manufacturers. Generally the way to encourage them to invest in R & D is by targeted tax-breaks and pollution credits etc. For example using some sort of pollution credits scheme would give them an incentive to develop lower emission vehicles and if it is made clear that noone is going to invest in the H2 infrastructure and that money is being invested in bio-diesel, manufacturers will have a strong incentive to develop diesel-hybrid vehicles.

PerceptualChaos @ 02/27/05 14:39:11

“The device is “showing the pathway towards higher efficiencies for direct solar-to-hydrogen production.”

Is it as efficient a device for direct solar-to-usable energy production as photosynthesis, which will not require much in the way of development seeing as it’s existed for almost four billion years? I think not. This is exactly what I’m talking about- reinventing the goddamn wheel when a far better solution exists right there.

And please don’t think I’m slamming you, Zen- I’m slamming hydrogen proponents.

Snark @ 02/27/05 11:06:42

“Vegetable oil, while it is much cleaner than fossil fuels in terms of overtly toxic trace elements like mercury, sulfur, et al, is still composed of hydrocarbons.”

TOTALLY incorect. Those hydrocarbons aren’t fossil hydrocarbons- that carbon is an active part of the carbon cycle, having been part of the atmosphere until they were used to create biomass via photosynthesis. There is no NET gain in atmospheric carbon from biofuels- that’s the whole point.

Snark @ 02/27/05 11:03:35

Why the hell did that work in the forum view but not in the blog view? Textile is so unpredictable!

PerceptualChaos @ 02/27/05 05:19:18

Zen, while the article you linked to is interesting, it doesn’t exactly change much – small to moderate increases in efficiency can not make up for conceptual flaws. It also pays to keep in mind that generally today, a PV cell will produce less energy than is used to create it. This is why solar plants heat up water rather than use PV(Photo Voltaic) cells – I guess that is what “still needs to be figured out”

Fuel cell cars are in essence electric cars.
From an efficiency point of view the H2/fuel cell is redundant.
It is an indisputable fact that, as long as no pure H2 supplies are found, it will always be more efficient to use the electricity directly in an electric car rather than going via hydrogen.

Agreed, present batteries do suck. They take a long time to charge, they are heavy, only drive a few hundred km’s to a charge, and can’t deliver the power required to compete with the latest super-mega-ultra fast car that is a must have for boy-racing enthusiasts if they are to pick up chicks.

But, with things like Lithium polymer batteries, and eventually ultracapacitors being developed these problems can be alleviated over time. Lithium polymer batteries will be able to do about 500km to a recharge by 2020 (though they may still take a while to charge). Ultra-capacitors will weigh far less than batteries, can obviously deliver higher power, have low charging times, and should eventually achieve low leakage currents.

Heavy vehicles make up a significant part of any economy with the food industry being a key player. Most heavy vehicles are of course diesel engine powered and thus can be switched to bio-diesel mixtures without any changes, and 100% bio-diesel fairly easily. So you start growing some soy-bean crops and some algae ponds dedicated for bio-diesel production and you replace the diesoline at the gas stations with bio-diesel. There – mass starvation due to peak-oil is now solved.

Bio-diesel is obviously not zero-emission like fuel-cells and electric cars, but it does make less CO2, and the crops you make to produce it are absorbing CO2 which leads to a net decrease in CO2 which could potentially give an economic incentive for chevron etc to invest in it by way of credits.

New vehicles being made should be bio-diesel ready hybrids.
As CSD become more realistic in terms of the issues I discussed above on batteries, and as the AC motors and the inverters become more efficient, and as renewable energy sources become more viable we can switch over to 100% CSD electric vehicles. CSD’s have the advantage of being generic – that is, you can use any energy production technique you want and not have to make any modifications. That way, we don’t have to go and change everything every 25 years when something better comes along – we just gradually improve the design.

Back to H2: Apart from the efficiency issue, there is the infrastructure, and a number of other factors. I refer you to this paper.

The process of converting [natural gas pipelines to hydrogen] would entail replacing all of the existing natural gas pipelines across the country with stainless steel pipes capable of transporting hydrogen. The cost would be for this specific project would be $5.0 trillion dollars Source

While it is true that H2 can store much more energy per unit of mass than a present battery can (Which is why NASA use fuel-cells in space), this does not entail that it is the best option for transportation for the reasons I pointed out above.

In summary:

I think that bio-diesel should be produced now to avoid mass starvation from peak oil, public transport should be subsidized and revamped to avoid economic collapse from peak oil, bio-diesel hybrid vehicles should take over production in a couple of years to avoid inconvenience from peak-oil and reduce CO2 emissions somewhat, and eventually as CSD’s become more realistic as autonomous power sources, bio-diesel slowly gets fazed out by EV(Electric Vehicles). Hydrogen and fuel-cells just seem like a really big waste of time, energy, and money in the long term because they are not generic and will end up lingering even after better technology becomes available for the shear reason that so much time and money was invested.

PerceptualChaos @ 02/27/05 05:17:47