Fear not, fearful ones. There is yet hope for an energy-rich future even if we give up on wind and solar as well as fossil fuels (as currently delivered). A quick review of the literature reveals that actual scientists, engineers, and visionaries are hard at work creating new fuels and new techniques for the energy of the future.
If there is a future.
Even better news is that we have not committed twenty trillion dollars in indebtedness (there are no actual revenues that support our government’s mad dash toward Net Zero). Or maybe “Net Zero” means what will be left of the full faith and credit of the United States once we have enacted and carried out the full Biden (Obama?) agenda.
But I digress.
Let’s start with hydrogen – as paired with ammonia.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) created its Hydrogen Program Plan to accelerate research, development, and deployment of hydrogen and related technologies in the United States. Because of its unique nature, the DOE says that realizing hydrogen’s full potential as a fuel will require an integrated approach from the fossil, nuclear, and renewable energy sectors.
The DOE says that hydrogen is a versatile fuel that offers a path to sustainable long-term economic growth. It can add value to multiple sectors in the economy and support America’s ongoing manufacturing renaissance. It can serve as a sustainable fuel for transportation and as input to produce electricity and heat for homes. Best of all, hydrogen is carbon-free.
The Bank of America last September was effusive about the commercial value of hydrogen technology, predicting it will generate $2.5 trillion in direct revenue, or $4 trillion counting revenue from associated products (such as fuel cells), with a total market potential of up to $11 trillion by 2050.
The bank told its clients that “hydrogen … could supply our energy needs, fuel our cars, heat our homes, and help to fight climate change. We believe we are reaching the point of harnessing the element that comprises 90 percent of the universe, effectively and economically.”
There is a problem. Hydrogen, according to Yahoo Finance, “is an absolute nightmare to store and transport,” as its low volumetric energy density means it must be stored under incredibly high pressure. But a company called AmmPower Corp. says it is developing technologies to enable hydrogen cracking to be done closer to the end user.
Already, says Yahoo Finance, the Finnish company Wärtsilä is fine tuning various four-stroke ammonia engine designs and hopes to reach the stage of field tests as soon as 2022. The company is also developing ammonia storage and supply systems to install ammonia fuel cells on the supply vessel Viking Energy by 2023. The Yahoo Finance report also lists a host of other companies focusing on harnessing hydrogen technologies.
Not to be outdone, the U.S. Navy has funded a new research project to develop seawater-to-fuel technology. Imagine aircraft carriers that manufacture jet fuel onboard from seawater, eliminating the need (and required protection) for tanker ships.
The idea is to use the carrier’s onboard nuclear reactor to extract both hydrogen and carbon dioxide from water and transform it into a liquid fuel. The process requires converting carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide, then using different types of catalysts to hydrogenate the carbon monoxide into fuels.
Wired reports on a new process for cheaply minting carbon dioxide-loving nanoparticles, developed by chemists at the University of Southern California and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, that researchers hope will nudge carbon recycling toward the mainstream.
The goal of the research is to use “some chemical wizardry” to turn power plant carbon dioxide into useful fuels like propane or methane. The main ingredients (other than CO2) are hydrogen and a metallic catalyst placed under high heat to create liquid fuels. The USC system involves the use of molybdenum carbide nanoparticles that act like a magnet to kick-start the chemical reaction that turns CO2 emissions into usable fuels.
Previously used nanoparticles had to be baked in reactors at about 1,100o F and yielded particles of differing sizes. The new system uses a millifluidic reactor that operates at just 650o F and forces the metal carbide feedstock through sub-millimeter-wide channels to produce nearly uniform metal carbide particles that can be produced cheaply at scale.
Gasoline from thin air
Writing in New York Magazine, reporter Jeff Wise chronicles the extraction of a product called “eFuel” from thin air. This eFuel is carbon neutral when burned, and if the hydrocarbons are turned into materials like plastic, the product is carbon negative.
In a early trial in the Copernicus Project (an initiative to prepare Germany for a carbon-neutral economy by 2050), scientists filled a modified shipping container painted bright white with ducts wrapped in insulating foil elbowed between racks filled with cabinet tanks. Solar panels provide “renewably generated electricity” to power the prototype. The process yields a clear liquid that smells faintly of warm wax and resembles oils derived from plants or petroleum.
A Swiss-made module extracts carbon dioxide from the ambient air. The device blows air over a filter that absorbs the CO2 and releases the gas in concentrated form when heated. In an adjacent unit, hydrogen is produced by splitting water molecules through high-temperature electrolysis. A third module fuses the carbon and hydrogen using Fischer-Tropsch Synthesis to produce hydrocarbons – the same carbon chains that make up gasoline, kerosene, coal, and natural gas.
Wise notes that for now, eFuel is quite expensive to produce – perhaps four to eight times the current cost of fossil fuels. But with ramped-up production, the creators hope for a cost competitive with that of gasoline in Germany today (about $7 per gallon).
The carbon dioxide battery
Adele Peters reports that Bay Area startup Noon Energy is developing an ultra-low-cost rechargeable battery that is powered by carbon dioxide split into carbon and oxygen using excess energy produced when the supply of renewable energy is high.
The basic technology Noon is using is similar to that used on NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover to extract oxygen from the carbon dioxide on Mars. The batteries only make economic sense in large-scale applications, such as for the electric grid and long-distance shipping and trucking. The reason is that, because of the intermittency of wind and solar, storage capacities of at least 100 hours will be needed to ensure full on-demand electricity not from fossil fuels.
Shrink supply, suppress demand, get a blowout
We learned long ago that words have meaning, and what that meaning is depends on who is in charge of the definition. The decree goes down that the world will end unless we hold world temperature increases to 1.5o C through the year 2050.
Some say we need massive subsidies and a total transformation of our society to have a snowball’s chance of avoiding hellish heat. Others argue that this is absurd, that first off world temperatures are not a direct function of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, and that other science indicates a coming ice age.
Then there are the guys who literally turn water into gasoline.
And then there are the world leaders who say that rich Europeans and Americans have no right to impose outrageous mandates on people in poor countries who live in massive energy poverty.
And, yes, worldwide fossil fuel use is on the upswing. Actions speak louder than words.
June 16, 2021