Larry's Lectern by Larry Gilbert Issue #2
Larry's Lectern
by Larry Gilbert
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Every invention has a process that takes it from a research idea to application. These are the usual identifiable steps.

Exploratory Development--Refine the idea, examine alternatives.
Advanced Development—Test alternatives. Determine feasibility. Design and test some subsystems.
Engineering Development--Select solutions that can be productized and deployed. Make a system design(s). Have a “fly-off”, if there is more than one solution under study.
Limited production--Hand-build one-of-a-kind, or a few, for in-situ testing.
Full scale production--Tooling and mass production.

The above process usually takes a minimum of 11 years: often closer to 20 for revolutionary concepts. About one idea in hundreds makes it from the invention stage to full-scale production.

Fuel Cells are in the research and exploratory development phase. There are a few candidates that have reached advanced development. There is much literature on the subject. There is a really good article in a recent MIT Technology magazine. The following material draws from and expands on that article.

Fuel cells run on hydrogen. Where does the hydrogen come from? One must take a hydrocarbon, such as gasoline or natural gas, and “crack” it to separate the hydrogen from the carbon.

How is the hydrocarbon separated into hydrogen and carbon? There are two concepts being studied.

Option 1. A large refinery, like an oil refinery, is used. If fuel cells were to power automobiles, there would be a few hundred of them. They might cost a billion dollars each. They would manufacture hydrogen from a hydrocarbon. The carbon dioxide residue would be released into the atmosphere. The hydrogen would be made available to cars by augmenting the current 300,000 gas stations, nationwide, with hydrogen dispensing stations. Hydrogen is very flammable, and not dense. So useful quantities of hydrogen must be stored in liquid form, which is about – 469 degrees F, four degrees above absolute zero. Therefore, this storage and dispensing station will require a huge infrastructure investment. This would cost at least $200,000 for each service station. (Of course, you would no longer be able to fill your own fuel tank. A specialist would be needed.)

Option 2. Each car has a furnace next to the engine to separate a hydrocarbon into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The car has a standard fuel tank for the hydrocarbon. Some hydrogen will be used as it is created, but a second hydrogen-storage fuel tank will be needed for reserves.
Case 2A: The hydrocarbon to be cracked in the furnace is gasoline, natural gas, or something like it. To crack these hydrocarbons, the car needs a furnace running at 3000 degrees.
Case 2B: The hydrocarbon is methanol. The car needs a furnace running at “only” 1000 degrees. But, methanol is highly dangerous. If you get it on your skin, it destroys your liver and you die. And like MTBE in California and New Jersey, it gets into the ground water and kills.

Other Problems? The car’s furnace has to do something with the carbon it liberates while manufacturing hydrogen. It will be given off as carbon dioxide. Is that really a problem? I don't think so. Carbon dioxide is not really a pollutant. It is what we expel when we exhale. Research shows that plants grow faster in higher carbon dioxide concentrations, and convert the carbon dioxide to oxygen as they create cellulose. Crops would benefit. Oxygen-users would benefit too

So what is the real beauty of fuel cells? It is not that carbon dioxide is reduced. It is that real pollutants are reduced; the nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, ozone, etc, are almost eliminated. .

But, the cost may not be affordable. We have to determine if we really want to spend 60 Trillion dollars on service station upgrades, 600 billion dollars on new refineries and delivery vehicles, and several billion dollars on training specialists to dispense fuel. Do we really want to have dual fueling (hydrogen and gasoline) capabilities at 300,000 gas stations over a 15-year transition while gasoline cars are still on the road? Do we really want to pay to change the infrastructure? What is the expense of training a whole new set of auto mechanics? Do we want to pay the cost of building new refineries? All these costs will be paid through higher fuel costs. Do we really want to hurt the economy of our country, its businesses, and its citizens by spending so much money for so little reward? Furthermore, do we really want the trade wars with the rest of the world as they are still using gasoline and we can no longer buy their cars?

Other problems--Every company researching fuel cells has its own special concept, and maybe one, or a few, can survive the shakeout. It is still not known if the furnace will be in the car or at the refinery. It is not known what the fuel will be--perhaps natural gas, perhaps methanol, or perhaps gasoline.

It is not known how the politics will play out when the Sierra Club comes to realize that carbon dioxide and nearly as much heat are still being created in the end-to-end process. It is not known what the oil companies will do when the government asks them to spend $200,000 per service station to upgrade every current service station to be able to dispense hydrogen, methanol, or natural gas, as well as gasoline.

More problems--With either concept, how is the hydrogen fuel prevented from exploding in an accident, especially if a high temperature furnace is a couple of feet away? What will happen when one of the experimental cars crashes and the hydrogen tank breaks and incinerates the passengers? After such an event, perhaps as few people will buy cars with fuel cells as currently buy hybrid cars. That is, essentially none. (Do you know any ecologist who has purchased a hybrid car? My friend who owns the local Honda dealership says that Honda Corp subsidizes each hybrid car by $25,000; they still don’t sell, even here in Seattle—the land of the Greens.)

More problems—Cars will have to be much heavier, and therefore burn more fuel, in order to have the furnace, a really safe fuel tank for liquid hydrogen, and a fancy, and heavy, cryogenic refrigerator. It will be less efficient to haul around all that extra weight. (Hydrogen becomes a liquid only at minus 469 degrees F. If the refrigerator fails, the hydrogen tank may fracture, or the fuel tank must be even heavier to withstand the pressures.)

Before saying that it would be worth these costs to convert to hydrogen fuel cells for our vehicles, remember that there is an available solution to pollution and warming, that is almost equally effective, and can be embraced today, at almost no cost, relatively. The solution is to transition current cars to propane or natural gas. Today, with a minimum investment in a new carburetor and fuel tank, any gasoline car can be converted to propane or natural gas in just a few hours. Many fleets of metro transit busses are already using propane or natural gas. (Note we have hugely greater reserves of natural gas than we do of oil.)

My prediction is that we have not yet seen a marketable hydrogen fuel cell concept. Many companies will participate in the development phase. They will work on fuel cell locomotion as long as the free government money holds out. Then most of them will close their door. The development phase will take another five years before a potentially feasible concept emerges. We may not recognize any similarity to current concepts.

My opinion. If we really want to make an investment of this magnitude in relatively inexpensive, clean, non-oil based, non-global-warming energy, we should put the money into fusion (not fission, fusion). Fusion uses the tritium in water. Tritium is the hydrogen atom that has extra electrons. Fusion smashes two atoms of tritium together to make helium. This is a nuclear reaction. Helium is totally neutral and stable. It will not react with anything. It has no harmful radioactive residue. It is non-polluting. The energy form created is electricity. Fusion could be used in third world countries to hugely expand their standard of living at a low get-in cost. Fusion is also in the exploratory development stage. Princeton University has already demonstrated feasibility in their government-sponsored Tokomak research.

So, my recommendation is that cities with pollution problems convert a substantial number of their vehicles to propane or natural gas. Put the federal research money into additional fusion research.

Larry Gilbert

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