Wednesday , November 21 2018
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Solving secondary problems first

Image: Joseph Brent

Can you run a self-driving car on a desert island?

Of course not: There are no roads; and there is no fuel for the car.

Why do I mention this?  Because the received narrative around climate change and so-called “peak oil demand” is that new technologies like electric self-driving cars are going to ride to our rescue in the near future.  This is a nice fantasy; but I would draw your attention to the fact that while we still have roads, along with much of our infrastructure they are falling apart through neglect.  Without the enabling infrastructure, the proposed new technologies are going nowhere.

Energy, meanwhile, is a far greater problem.  Globally (remember most of the food we eat and the goods we buy are imported) 86 percent of our energy comes from fossil fuels – down just one percent from 1995.  Renewable energy accounts for nearly 10 percent; but most of this is from hydroelectric dams and wood burning.  The modern renewables – solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, and ocean energy – that so many people imagine are going to save the day account for just 1.5 percent of the energy we use.

Modern renewables are a kind of Schrodinger’s energy because they are simultaneously replacements for (some of) the fossil fuel that we are currently using and the additional energy to power all of the new technologies that are going to save the day.  And rather like the benighted feline in Schrodinger’s experiment, so long as nobody actually looks at the evidence, they can continue to fulfil both roles.

Given the potentially catastrophic consequences of not having sufficient energy to continue growing our economy, it is psychologically discomforting even to ask why energy costs are spiralling upward around the world, and why formerly energy independent countries are resorting to difficult, expensive and environmentally toxic fuel sources like hydraulically fractured shale or strip mined bitumen sands.  This, perhaps, explains why so many people focus their attention on solving second order problems – something psychologists refer to as a “displacement activity.”

An example of this appeared in today’s news in the shape of an Australian attempt to revive hydrogen-powered cars.  In theory, hydrogen (which only exists in compounds in nature) is superior to (far less abundant) lithium ion batteries as a store of energy to power electric vehicles.  Crucially, unlike battery-powered electric vehicles, hydrogen cell electric vehicles do not need to be recharged, but can be refuelled in roughly the same time as it takes to refuel a petroleum vehicle.  And, of course, hydrogen vehicles do not require tax payers and energy consumers to foot the bill for the upgrade of the electricity grid needed for battery-powered cars.

The drawback with hydrogen is that it is difficult to store.  Because hydrogen is the smallest atom, it can gradually corrode and seep out of any container; especially if it is compressed into liquid form.  It is this problem that the Australian researchers appear to have solved.  Using a new technology, they have been able to store hydrogen as ammonia, and then convert it back to hydrogen to fuel their cars.  As Lexy Hamilton-Smith at ABC News reports:

“For the past decade, researchers have worked on producing ultra-high purity hydrogen using a unique membrane technology.

“The membrane breakthrough will allow hydrogen to be safely transported and used as a mass production energy source.”

Unlike batteries, which have only succeeded imperfectly at replacing lightweight vehicles, hydrogen is already used around the world to power much heavier vehicles:

“Hydrogen powered vehicles, including buses, trucks, trains, forklifts as well as passenger cars are being manufactured by leading automotive companies and deployed worldwide as part of their efforts to decarbonise the transport sector.”

Step back for a moment and you will see that this is, indeed, a displacement activity.  Insofar as humans are currently imagining a far more electrified world, then there is a competition to be won on the best form of energy storage.  And there are good reasons for believing that hydrogen is a more versatile battery than lithium ion (which also has a tendency to burst into flames if not stored properly).  However, this competition is predicated on the highly unlikely possibility of our having a large volume of excess energy in future.

Currently, almost all of the hydrogen we use is obtained by chemically separating it out of natural gas.  Using electrolysis to separate hydrogen out of water is simply too expensive by comparison.  But gas reserves are shrinking (which is why fracking is being promoted) and are already required for agriculture, chemicals, for heating and cooking, and for generating much of the electricity that used to come from coal.  Given the Herculean efforts that were required to install the modern renewables that generate just 1.5 percent of our energy, the idea that these are about to deliver enough excess capacity to allow the production of hydrogen from water is fanciful at best.

And that’s the problem.  Until we can secure a growing energy supply both hydrogen and lithium ion cars are going to end up on a global desert island.  One where there is insufficient power and unrepaired infrastructure.  To make matters worse, climate change dictates that the additional power we need in future cannot come from the fuels that currently provide us with 86 percent of our energy.  And, of course, whatever we end up substituting for fossil fuels will have to provide sufficiently cheap energy that the population doesn’t rise up and produce something a great deal worse than Brexit or Donald Trump.

As you made it to the end…

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