The Race to Hydrogen Fuel

bmw-h2ice.jpgThe race for clean burning hydrogen-fuel vehicles is on; especially now that Man-Made-Global-Warming (MMGW) is the new century rage. What we really need is more energy, not griping, posturing, and moaning about global warming. Here’s an alarming projection borrowed from Space Review to prove the point:

Last year the academic quarterly Daedalus published an article by Daniel Nocera of MIT in which he laid out a credible and alarming vision of this world’s future energy demands. He pointed out that in 2002 the whole world “burned energy at a rate of 13.3 TW [terawatts]” and he calculated that “if 9 billion people adopt the current standard of living for a US resident… the world would need an astronomical 102 TW of energy in 2050.” He also pointed out that “If everyone adopts Equatorial Guinea’s current living standards, we will need 30.4 TW by 2050.”

However by happy accident the research fueled by the MMGW pseudo-crisis might drive us where we need to go anyway.

Before you read the rest however, please think on this Dynamic but historically accurate bullet-point view of how the future usually unfolds:

  1. There’s not a single “best way” to do anything.
  2. Myriad paths must be explored before we find the few that lead to future destinations we really desire, potential paths ignored are possibilities unrealized.
  3. The most effective and appealing future paths will become the chosen ones without having to force adherence through regulation.
  4. There are many people actively exploring paths and we are likely to find more than the few means we need to reach our destination relatively quickly.
  5. What’s around any bend towards the future are unknowns, so we can’t plan the future but we can prepare for it.

Since I’ve been promoting H2ICE (Hydrogen Internal Combustion Engines) for a year without delving into details, it’s now time to explain the long term need. The inspiration for this post comes from the latest claim of a solution that is being pimped in many papers. While aluminum-gallium electrolysis sounds good on the surface there are problems with the approach, but on the other hand it doesn’t hurt to look.

The Jawa Report enumerates a few of the mentioned problems here. Indeed most avenues of Hydrogen fuel research use hydrogen fuel cells as opposed to H2ICE engines, but I am going to say that it’s much too soon to declare the H2ICE D.O.A. as Russell Seitz does here in fabulous manner. Russ’s objections boil down to a engineering and materials- science challenges, and cost. The picture at the top of the post demonstrates that the engineering and materials science problems can be overcome, so I’m not going to worry overmuch about them here.

(Hint: you would be well-served to favorite Russell’s Site, it’s worth a read at least once a week, and that search link for hydrogen fuel cells also gets you to a handy-dandy science-only search engine that’s worthy of bookmark as well.)

That leaves us with cost; to explain why I’m not worried about cost it’s time to take a look at what world energy demand will be assuming normal electric use and a fleet of Hydrogen vehicles, as this paper from Paul Kruger does.

kru3-h.gifThe chart details world demand for energy expressed in Petawatt hours. (Peta = 10 with 14 zeros behind it since when you talk about worldwide demand giga and terra are just too small and cumbersome to use.) The projections incorporate both the power to create the needed hydrogen fuel, as well as the power consumed by normal power use. Look at where we are by 2050, when we will have 8-9 billion souls on planet earth.

That’s Huge! That’s 70,000,000,000,000,000 watt hours of electricity,or 70 PWh, so how on earth are we going to do that? Do you think this might be more worthy of attention than Man-Made Global Warming?

Many political candidates are slinging the term “energy independence” around, but that’s really not enough. We need to commoditize energy to the point where it is too cheap to meter and it would also be great for the US to become a net energy exporter in the process. The benefits of cheap plentiful energy are evident in every first tier country in the world, if you hit the Gapminder link in the sidebar you can see some amazing charts that detail this:

  1. Natural lowering of birth rates
  2. Cleaner environments
  3. Lower infant mortality
  4. Increased Education and leisure
  5. Diversity of Economies
  6. Longer Life Spans

The means to achieve 70 PWh do exist with Nuclear, Hydro, Solar, Wind, Space-based Solar, and Ocean thermal energy systems, and the century-long demand curve is there to show why almost any of the above are good investments. (*disclosure: I am not pimping particular energy stocks, schemes, or plans – they all need exploration for each has probable application, niche, and footprint. I also own a few shares of GE.) Even taking out the demand of using hydrogen fuel you would still see a very compelling demand curve, one which will drive the energy-capitalists of the future to meet it and profit.

The question remains: Will the US be smart enough to build next-gen nukes, SPS, Wind, Solar, OTS, and other clean power sources; or will the future energy-barons be Indian, Chinese, Russian, French and Brazilian?

It’s humorous to me that the various factions in the power research industry spar with one another continuously when eyeing research grant pools while the chart on the wall shows reality: we are going to need all of the above systems in-quantity before the end of this century. That demand curve is inescapable, and if you find the GW hockey-stick compelling then this should be moreso. The human misery to come if we ignore the demand will become evident much sooner than global warming problems, but nobody’s made this documentary. 

Each energy system will establish its niche and footprint based on competition and efficiencies of the market. It’s well past time for energy advocates to stop fighting, and instead band together to enable the future energy grid for the world because the new-century energy boom is here and the rush to the future is on.

Ice-trucks used to haul ice to taverns, restaraunts, and homes all across America to cool drinks and food, and at one time it was a great business to be in. Shell, GE, Areva, Standard Oil, BP and the other energy companies should not want to become the ice-truck companies of the future by sticking solely with one source; and their shareholders can’t let them stay with just oil and coal if they value their holdings.

So let’s now loop back to the start of this article and why we need H2ICE, electrified roadways, or Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. At some point we need to stop using coal and oil, and the alternative of ethanols when you look at benzene-ring compound toxins and particulate matter just aren’t as attractive as pure hydrogen.

Don’t get me wrong, ethanol is a viable but temporary bridge to the future – by time the 9 billion people get here in 2050, we need to be cleaner, and the world’s croplands need to be used for the most rudimentary and original form of energy: food.

2 thoughts on “The Race to Hydrogen Fuel”

  1. Thanks Baba, I stole that from Virginia Postrel, and her book “The Future and its Enemies”. It’s a great read I know you would like.

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