Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Here's an Idea

Here’s an idea. It isn’t new or even unique. I’m not the first one to think of it. But I do think it is a whale of an idea. While some would blame technology for the trouble we’re in, I think technology holds the solution to many problems. Yes, the atom bomb is a terrible weapon and nuclear proliferation is a great worry in the world today. But the threat of the bomb has prevented world war for over 60 years.

Through technology we’ve developed a new way to extract oil and gas from the ground. These new methods have many environmental drawbacks, not least of which is the fact that burning more carbon is not good for the earth.

Actually, that’s not correct. The earth is pretty indestructible, regardless of what you’ve read. We’re not destroying the planet; we’re destroying ourselves. The planet will be here long after we’ve melted all the glaciers, turned our oceans acidic and caused them to rise and swamp most our major cities, and destroyed all the viable cropland. No, the planet will survive. It is the survival of mankind that is at issue.

There are alternatives. Until we figure out how to perform cold fusion, an almost unlimited fuel source with zero green house gas production and zero nuclear waste problems, we are probably stuck using oil to fuel our transportation and heat and power our homes and industry. There are many carbon-based fuels to choose from, and natural gas seems like the least damaging. At least that is a positive point.

But what about renewable energy sources? There are many. Some, such as geothermal and damming rivers have real limits, and may already be fully developed. I think there is a tremendous source of power in the ocean and it’s tides and waves, but the very power of this source has made its extraction difficult.

Seems like the two best candidates to replace uranium, coal, and oil and gas are wind power and solar power. Technology continues to improve the efficiency of these power sources, but there is one giant problem that we’ve yet to solve. Wind power is only generated when the wind blows and solar power is only created when the sun shines. Add to that the fact that there are no practical and efficient methods to store large amounts of electrical power — no super batteries yet developed. There are other issues too, such as power distribution, but regarding the electric power grid, the unreliability and lack of control of wind and solar power is a big obstacle to their further adaptation.

And what about oil and its product gasoline? What is that primarily used for? Why for transportation. And all those cars, busses, trains, and airplanes are not only burning a valuable and increasingly expensive natural resource, but one that is not being renewed since we no longer have any dinosaurs to turn to oil … nor the millions and millions of years it takes to do that.

Mass transit is a solution, but not one that is very practical in this sparsely populated country in the western United States and elsewhere. We are still very dependent on our automobiles.

One solution that has become quite popular is the electric car. Those come in several varieties. One is a hybrid design. A gasoline engine is used to charge a battery and to provide power when the battery is discharged. The primary advantage of hybrid cars is the return of power to the battery that occurs when braking. This gives the hybrids a very good fuel economy around town with lots of stop and go. But, on the highway, the benefit pretty much disappears.

What about full electric cars? Plug in cars? Cars that are charged off the power grid? Well, if the electric power that charges these cars comes from burning coal or natural gas at the power plant, then all you’ve really done is to shift the source of pollution. Plus, the battery, once run down, requires hours to recharge. Again, like the hybrid, pretty good for around town, but not so great on the highway going from city to city.

So that brings me to my idea. We need an electric car that does not produce pollution from the source of electric power, and that can be “recharged” in just minutes to drive for hours.

Such technology does exist. For many years we’ve known how to build “fuel cells.” These are devices that you provide a fuel, often hydrogen and oxygen, and these elements combine and create electricity. The result is water, good old H2O. No pollution from a fuel cell.

However, where do we get the hydrogen and the oxygen? That is, without pollution.

Every student in a high school science class knows you can get both hydrogen and oxygen from electrolysis. You take some water, slightly salted, and supply DC electricity, and you break the water down into its component elements.

So now we get to my idea. We used solar and wind power to generate DC voltage. That’s actually the normal output of solar cells, and we can either generate DC directly or convert the normal AC from wind power to DC without any atmospheric pollution. We use wind farms and solar farms to generate electricity to perform electrolysis on seawater producing a nearly inexhaustible supply of hydrogen gas. We can let the oxygen go into the atmosphere. That won’t harm anything at the rates needed for this solution.

We then use the hydrogen gas to power fuel cells in electric automobiles. The fuel cells would get the oxygen out of the atmosphere just like we do when we breathe.

There are technical issues to be solved in this solution. The cost and practical power produced by fuel cells needs to be improved. Widespread use of fuel cells would bring down costs via economy of scale and science would undoubtedly improve the designs through demand.

We would need a system to distribute the hydrogen gas. An infrastructure consisting of hydrogen “filling stations” spread across our nation. There are issues of transportation and storage and even how we would fill the cars. These are really relatively small technical problems and we’ve seen them worked out and solved with other technology such as distribution of gasoline.

But look at the advantages. We would generate hydrogen gas when the sun shines and when the wind blows. This gas could be stored, transported, and put into our electric cars in just minutes, just like filling up a gasoline driven automobile, or maybe more like filling a propane bottle.

There is no pollution at the power source since wind and solar are basically zero pollution, renewable energy sources. And no pollution from the automobile since the output of the fuel cell is simple water vapor.

There are technical and economic problems to be solved. But that is true of all new technology. At least we don’t have to wait for someone to invent cold fusion or come up with a very lightweight and high capacity battery.

This power source and technology is here today and ready to be refined. Maybe it won’t solve all the problems. But it would certainly be a better solution than hybrid powered automobiles, and hybrids seem to be quite established in our modern world.

That’s my bright idea. I didn’t think of it. But it is a real good idea, eco friendly and quite practical. All it needs is some serious effort at refinement.

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