Alternative Energy is Not Viable
I already noted here that the Governor intends (or claims to intend) to hinge Michigan’s economic future on so-called “Alternative Energy” sources, specifically hydrogen. I promised to clarify why that doesn’t work by quoting experts.
From the official transcript, the Governor’s words (2006/1/25):
This is a big deal – and a huge opportunity for Michigan. Innovators across the country are developing new ways to power our refrigerators, heat our homes, and fuel our cars. Power plants and engines fueled not only by coal or oil, but by, for example, hydrogen, the sun or the wind, or waste from landfills or farms.
The Great Lakes State will be the alternative energy epicenter of America. Since we are the home of the automobile, it is our proud, patriotic duty to be the state that ends our nation’s dependence on foreign oil.
From a transcript from Nova Science Now (2005/7/26):
ROBERT KRULWICH: Hi, I’m Robert Krulwich, and welcome to NOVA ScienceNOW, where we consider not one, but several science stories. Tonight, they’re basically puzzles beginning with a problem, so just…
Come on back. Come on back and…all right, stop. Good. The internal combustion engine, which fouls the air and uses gas which comes from oil—which is getting expensive, involves the Middle East, gets us into all kinds of fights—who wouldn’t want to replace this with a more efficient and affordable alternative? But is there an alternative?
Well, there is this engine we keep hearing about which is supposed to be fabulous. It’s coming “soon.” But the puzzle is, how soon?
Every year, Detroit unveils, with much to do, a “Car of the Future.” And the hoopla here isn’t about what this car does. It’s about what this car doesn’t do. This car doesn’t use gasoline, none, because it is powered by a fuel cell.
ROBERT KRULWICH: The very idea that a car’s motor could be this clean has an enormous appeal, especially to certain politicians. They act like it’s going to be easy—well, sometimes they do—but as it turns out, there’s a catch, actually, a bunch of catches. Fuel cells are still very expensive to make, they wear out more quickly. And, oh, yeah, there’s another thing…
DANIEL NOCERA (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): A fuel cell needs fuel, so we’ve been talking about hydrogen and oxygen as our fuel. There’s lots of oxygen. But where are we going to get the hydrogen in the first place?
ROBERT KRULWICH: MIT chemistry professor, Dan Nocera, says, “Remember, you’ve got to have pure hydrogen, all by itself, on one side of the membrane to get things going.”
So where do you get pure hydrogen? Well, there’s plenty of hydrogen on earth; it’s just not pure. It’s stuck to other stuff, like oxygen, in water, of course. And hydrogen can be found in fuels like natural gas, you know, hydrocarbons. But if you take it out of there—and that’s where most hydrogen comes from today—you do get a waste product, carbon dioxide. And that’s one of the bad guys in global warming. So what’s the answer?
DANIEL NOCERA: I think water is the key for the future.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Every high school chemistry student knows how to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. You just run electricity through it. That’s electrolysis. But hydrogen and oxygen are so cozy and comfortable together, you use up so much electricity prying them apart, it could cost a fortune. So we are facing a significant technical problem here: how do we find a cheap, clean source of hydrogen?
NATHAN LEWIS (California Institute of Technology): Well, hydrogen’s a gas.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Okay, so?
NATHAN LEWIS: That means most of the space between the hydrogen molecules is not useful to make energy. There’s nothing there.
ROBERT KRULWICH: So says Nate Lewis, a scientist at Caltech. Getting enough hydrogen into a car is a challenge, because it likes to spread out, and you’ve got to squeeze a lot of it into a small place. You can’t use an ordinary gas tank to hold it, because it would burst open. And you wouldn’t want that. So the hydrogen tanks have to be super strong, to hold hydrogen squeezed in at pressures up to five to ten thousand pounds per square inch. But even with that special tank, it’s tough to get enough hydrogen in the car. For instance, to drive 300 miles, you might need a gas tank four times the size of the one you’ve got now. Which leads Professor Lewis to suggest the best place for hydrogen fuel might be in power stations, to light up cities and factories. After all, why rush to put this fuel out on the road, when you can easily store plenty of it in a factory basement?
So you’re a put-it-in-the-basement guy?
NATHAN LEWIS: Put it in the basement first. And then, if we ever figure out how to use it to move us around, that will be great. But your car is the last place that you want to put hydrogen.
ROBERT KRULWICH: But the dream of a car that spews out nothing but water is so appealing.
DAN KELLY: Yeah. So the car will run…
ROBERT KRULWICH: But the technology to get hydrogen from water efficiently and affordably? That technology doesn’t exist yet. (emphasis mine) Well, is there anything that we know of that does this regularly, that breaks apart water and…?
DANIEL NOCERA: We haven’t done water, but we’ve done hydrochloric acid and we’ve been able to make hydrogen.
ROBERT KRULWICH: So that’s a “no.” But there are labs all over the country now working on hydrogen. Some work with algae, some with solar collectors. And these guys are making hydrogen from water and sunlight.
But at least for now, it’s very expensive. And just last year, the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council reported there are “major hurdles” on the path to a hydrogen economy, and that clearing them “will not be simple.”
So even though the President [and now the Governor] is saying we could have hydrogen cars for today’s generation…
GEORGE W. BUSH: The first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution-free.
ROBERT KRULWICH: If the car’s really going to be pollution-free, the hydrogen in the tank will have to come from a clean source, and so far, when it comes to splitting water, we’re way behind the leaf. Dan and other scientists are trying to catch up and will keep trying, but the secret, he thinks, may be very subtle.
ROBERT KRULWICH: But how much time do you have?
DANIEL NOCERA: I’m guessing around 20 more years.
To summarize, contrary to popular or political opinion this kind of technology is stuff we cannot do right now. It might be possible to apply it to cities, but that is still not going to be easy or cheap.
[NOTE: Originally this entry was written and posted between 4 PM and 4:30 PM on the 26th but I have altered the time stamp in order to place it physically under the review of the State of the State Address, especially since this is effectively a footnote to that article. Obviously this was created/written/produced after the review.]