Sunday, June 24, 2007

Return to cheap energy: think again

Talk of energy is all the rage these days as we confront the intertwined issues of GW and higher petrol prices. The pundits have their pet solutions, though the politicians, for probably very good reasons, show scant coherence as to implementing any of them. As a thoughtful piece in the Tribune this week pointed out, any solution to "dependence on foreign oil" runs counter to the popular desire for low prices. Simply put, any alternative energy source will be more expensive than the current "exorbitant" high price. Remarkably, or perhaps not so, the surge in petrol price seems to do little to alter behaviour so perhaps it is not that high after all. With my torrid half-mile commute to the college I fortunately do not notice the effect; although my summer Argonne adventure now demands a gruelling ten mile journey and so my transportation costs have soared stratospherically. I am now looking to wind power - perhaps a sail-assisted car; though I'm not sure that sails will be a help or hindrance at the obligatory 80 mph on I-355. I'm thinking perhaps it's not such a good idea and probably explains why there aren't many sail-assisted vehicles on the roads (a different kind of hybrid).

The notion that energy independence will somehow ensure low prices along the lines of what were enjoyed for so long is delusional. Independence assumes alternatives dominate because for sure oil alone cannot do it. I enjoyed my annual free lunch at the Argonne Guest House courtesy of a former Amoco colleague who now commands some upper echelon administrative role there, though he is curiously obtuse as to exactly what it is. That aside, as I set about my salmon, quite passable apart from the somewhat stale Terra chips (okay it was Monday - I suppose they were left over from the previous week), we discussed the energy business. What about the hydrogen economy? Can this deliver at an economical price? What is not recognized in all the hype about the promise of this carbonless technology (at least at the point of its combustion) is the cost of delivery. At a low market penetration, the kind of entry level appropriate for a young technology, the cost of delivering hydrogen would hugely exceed the current delivery costs of petroleum - a fact overlooked by many I suspect, and one which really emphasizes the cost dilemma for politicians: it is impossible to campaign for reduced fuel costs and alternative fuels at the same time.

In Illinois the dilemma is readily apparent in the fight over electric rates; the popular approach is to extend the low price to the consumer; the long-term view would be to let the price of electricity reach its market value - highly unpopular with consumers.

So how even could a hydrogen, or whatever alternative fuel, economy get going? A realistic approach, avoiding subsidies and artificial price fixing, would be to burden the fossil fuels with taxes that reflect their negative environmental impact - a carbon tax. I can't imagine any legislator campaigning on that ticket and I don't expect to hear about any carbon taxes any time soon around here.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Last Aria: The SSCP turns critic

So there we have it: about 6 hours to go before the final episode. And I am not even able to focus properly because of the hailstorm of action unfolding at Montreal as Lewis aims to win his first race. Lewis who you might be asking? But if you asking, you don't really need to know the answer. Some critics have complained about lack of action in F-1. Today gives the lie to that. But to that main business at hand. The last three episodes have really turned up the ratchet on the dramatic tension and after just one more hour it is all over and will probably result in a massive post-episode depression.

I confess to being a major Johnny-come-lately to this all-time epic of TV drama. Only a few years ago I laboured under the impression (not uncommon I understand) that The Sopranos had something to do with opera singers. It was in the late summer of 2005 when Dulcie, poking around for some Saturday evening televisual entertainment uncovered the series 1 boxed set in a draw. I did not take to it straight away; the accents were heavy and I couldn't get the names straight - why did they (Sato overtakes WC Fernando on merit: am I dreaming?) all seem to be called Pussy albeit of different size? - and the rapid sequencing of scenes was complex. I persisted and the hook was set. Over the course of the next few weeks we proceeded to watch, at the rate of about 2 or 3 a night, all the series in order in order to be set for the beginning of season 6. By the time it begun I had probably seen them all twice at least. It's slightly odd because I am not a fan of violence; I faint at the sight of blood; but there is something completely compelling about it. My favourite episodes are Pine Barrens and Long Term Parking, both written by Terry Winter, who I had the good fortune to talk to last year - courtesy of a class at COD. Obviously the show is very popular and I think it is because it functions on many levels. For many, the majority I suspect, the entertainment and action are sufficient (plus the Bing). The superlative use of language and intertwined plots and nuance probably wash over the heads of many. Some just slip unannounced: "...he has to piss into a cathode tube." Tony laments. One season finishes on a quiet note in the restaurant as our gang sits out a storm. The last lines are left to Paulie and Silvio (I think). "Irregardless..." opines Paulie. Everyone goes on and on about David Chase, but you cannot understate the immensity of the performance of Gandolfini.

It is a truly Shakespearean achievement. Okay there have been some down moments; the dream sequences I can mostly do without, and all that stuff with Johnny Cakes last year (I hope that wasn't an homage to the PC crowd); but as one scribe wrote in the New Yorker, there is dull stuff in Dickens too. I once polled my class as to the most memorable whackings. Interestingly the death of Adriana did not rate. For my money the most memorable part of the whole thing. The journey within the journey on the road to that wood was brilliant, as was the treatment of the execution. Second in my book for revealing character was the beating of the pregnant dancer by Ralphie. She disrespected the Bing was the response of the crowd as they looked upon her corpse. Tony alone knew more the awfulness of it; but it did not after all alter his behaviour because, in the end, he is one of them too.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Beware celebrated scientists bearing good news

It has become my custom of late to listen to improving podcasts during my daily constitutional as opposed to the more rhythm-sustaining loud music I was won't to do. Just to clarify the meaning of constitutional, I am using the English vernacular which means exercise; in a recent conversation with a native I learned that constitutional might be taken to imply a much more intimate activity normally associated with one's early morning preparations. Let it be known that I am very much with Kenny Williams, the White Sox GM, on this one: I need my maximum focus in that department, and improving podcasts would constitute, so to speak, a substantial distraction. In any event, I appear to be digressing from the main thrust. One of my favourite podcasts was Scipod, produced for more than a year by New Scientist, long my preferred scientific publication. The podcast shared much in common with the parent publication, being informed, engaging, accessible and witty. There was one particularly memorable discussion on sources of domestic injuries and trousers, it appeared, presented a greater source of injuries than kitchen knives. So, imagine my disappointment when it recently signed off with the message that it was shutting up shop.

As an alternative I have been road-testing Science Friday hosted by someone with a name that sounds like Ira Playdough, but perhaps I am hard of hearing. One of the topics this week was about hydrogen - a very timely business, particularly since my summer research at the mighty Argonne is on the very subject of fuel cells. In this segment, Jerry Woodall, a highly decorated pioneer of semiconductor electronic devices. Success in that field does not necessarily prepare one for ground-breaking progress in alternative energy. The premise, I thought, was mistaken in that the biggest problem for hydrogen-propelled fuel cell cars was the danger of the hydrogen fuel tank. I would have agreed with the biggest problem being the generation of the hydrogen in the first place economically, assuming all other issues with fuel cells are sorted, which is far from being the case. So, Prof. Woodall has a cunning solution, although by no means an entirely novel one based on other work I have seen: generate the hydrogen insitu by adding a reactive metal to a tank of water. There is a certain magic sound to this: the use of water as a fuel. I have learned from some cursory research that there is much myth, hype and outright mischief associated with the pursuit of the water powered vehicle - more of that to follow.

The chemistry here is trivial and the metal selected is aluminium (Al), suitable for both its reactivity and low molar mass. Of course, as any devotee of canned beverages can attest to, Al cans are not at all reactive in fact due entirely to a very thin but impervious passivating layer of oxide that forms rapidly on any fresh Al surface. Without it, the widespread application of this supremely abundant and low density metal throughout society could not have happened. Woodall's trick was to recognize that an alloy of Al with a heavy member of group 3, gallium (Ga), did not possess this passivating layer, and that it reacted readily with water to generate hydrogen.

All very well I thought, but in his enthusiasm to promote this putative automotive "technology" a few questions remain unanswered. One of the great attractions of hydrogen as a fuel is its energy density - a mammoth 34.2 kcal/g compared with 8.7 kcal/g for gasoline, which is no slouch in its own right on that account. So, I have to ask, why would you want to replace compressed hydrogen, for which there is no real evidence of any danger greater than with conventional fuel, with a tank of water and metal to react with it. Consider the numbers. In the water molecule (H2O) the H accounts for only 1/9 of the mass. Now throw the metal into the equation. 54 grams of Al would be required to obtain 6 grams of H2 from 54 grams H2O. So now we are down to the fuel being less than 6 % of the total mass. The energy density is now down to less than 3 kcal/g - almost five times worse than conventional fuel. And I am not even factoring in the gallium which only makes matters worse. Woodall spoke of using a little gallium but his website shows graphs with Ga contents as much as 80 %.

There are other questions. Woodall is definitely correct in saying that Al is abundant; but back in the day when I was working on alumino-silicates like zeolites, we were substituting the Al by Ga but knew that this was not really an industrial possibility because of the limited availability of this element. What gives one to think that something unsuitable for widespread deployment in catalysis could be suitable for transportation?

The reaction of Al with H2O will produce the H2 fuel for the fuel cell; but it will also produce a quantity of heat. It is not clear how this heat will be utilized if at all.

The process is said to be easily recycled. "Cheap" electricity will reverse the aluminum oxide product to the metal for reuse using a "highly efficient" electrolytic process. Of course recycling of Al is one of the most economically viable processes in the pantheon of recycling but that is largely because of the high cost of producing virgin materials. It is an energy-intensive process because of the high stability of the oxide. Factor in also the transportation costs and logistical problems associated with recycling massive quantities of the Al2O3 residue. After all this "cheap" electricity will only reside near the windfarms, waves, nuclear plants or solar panels that will generate it, even presupposing that these sources will indeed be cheap. I am not entirely sure that will be the case. Has nuclear ever been cheap? Maybe I am missing something, but I cannot see how this approach gets off the ground compared with using pure hydrogen off the bat.

I mentioned earlier an abundance of nonsense associated with water as a fuel. I intend to pursue some of this in future notes.