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Getting Serious About Fuel Cells 503

electroniceric writes "For those of us who moonlight as politics wonks as well as tech nerds, you may have noticed posts (1,2) in the Washington Monthly's blog pointing to interesting articles about the business community's new take on climate change, world oil supply predictions as well as a fascinating article about lower-cost ethanol together with a new fuel cell technology that can use impure hydrogen. Are we really about to turn a corner in global climate change response? Is this all vapor and breathless journalism about a world-saving new technology, or is it perhaps a brilliant investment strategy? Nobody knows (or claims to know) better than Slashdot..."
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Getting Serious About Fuel Cells

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  • by Wister285 ( 185087 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @12:13AM (#9965674) Homepage
    All of this stuff about fuel cells is really nice for the future, but I see two much more simple ways to decrease dependence on foreign oil. First of all, why don't people drive diesel cars like they do in Europe? Diesel is not only more efficient, but most diesel technology is actually cleaner than gasoline. It also doesn't depend on a complete paradigm shift.

    Secondly, why don't more people move back to city and thus not need cars as much? Before electric trolley cars used to be in place of buses. People could walk to work because of how close things used to be. American society has become too suburbanized and this is one of the biggest problems with regards to the fuel problem. Don't complain about fuel problems when you live 25 miles from your job and can't take the train!
    • by Qweezle ( 681365 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @12:16AM (#9965684) Journal
      Although people's moves into suburbia is undoubtedly part of the problem, you have to think about the COST of living in cities. Sometimes it is simply too expensive to have an apartment, and to get an apartment at a value to rival that of a suburbian house, well, it's just not possible.

      So long as more high-rises are built, hopefully city living costs will go down... but we can't pack as you suggest, we can't be a bunch of little Tokyo's.
      • by Wister285 ( 185087 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @12:35AM (#9965759) Homepage
        Then you don't have to live in the downtown area. Right now, many people are moving back to the city for a few reasons, one of which is a lowered cost of living. Although it may be hard to believe, many cities have suffered greatly due to suburbanization, but at the same time real estate costs have just completely dropped. With property values so low and housing being dirt cheap, people have found that it's a lot cheaper to buy a house. Even though real estate values are now rising because of this realization, it's still considerable cheaper to live in the city. Sure, things like car insurance and taxes may be high, but even this hasn't stopped people.

        Also, most of the people moving back have found that new construction is bad. The term "cardboard houses in cornfields" best describes the production line trait of new housing. Before homes used to be build out of stone, bricks, mortar, and plaster walling. The craftsmanship that used to go into a house was at one time immense. The new city dewellers realize this and love living in older homes that have much more character.

        Don't forget about public transportation. You almost don't need a car in the city because of buses and trains. Newer cities lack good public transportation systems, but just come to the Northeast and look at the infrastructure that used to maintain the factories.

        Living in the city once defined the American way of life. Sadly, we've lost this way of life and sense of community with the old cities' distinct neighborhoods. It seems to be returning with reurbanization, however more people need to realize the benefits and not just think that city life is only about high rise apartments.

        If you're interested in this topic, I recommend you read Ray Suarez's book The Old Neighborhood: What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration, 1966-1999 [amazon.com]. City life isn't as bad as most people make it out to be and I happen to think that it is superior to the disconnected feel of suburban living.
        • by bluGill ( 862 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @01:55AM (#9965992)

          Houses were NOT built better back then. They took more time to slap them together in some cases, but modern engineering means that we know why todays houses stands. Back then they just knew a few things were bad, but didn't have the engineering to say why. They just overbuilt.

          I lived in a house made in the 1930s for a short time. Despite having half the square footage of my current modern house, and fuel being half the cost back then, I spent more money on heat in that old house! Modern houses are insulated. I fail to see how spending my money on heat is any better than spending it on fuel for my car. (and as a bonus I have 1 acre of land - my windows don't look into the neighbor's bathroom anymore)

          Yes a house is made out of cardboard, because cardboard is plenty strong in the direction strength is needed, while it lets the house breathe. If you put modern insulation in an old house, that old house would rot away quickly.

        • With property values so low and housing being dirt cheap, people have found that it's a lot cheaper to buy a house. Even though real estate values are now rising because of this realization, it's still considerable cheaper to live in the city.

          But there are a huge differences.

          The first, and most important is, once you are done with your mortage payments, you don't have to make any more. Not only that, but you OWN something very valuable. Not so in big cities... You rent your aparment, which is like a mo

      • by gloth ( 180149 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @12:38AM (#9965767)
        To see that suburbia is not a god-given evil, look at Europe. People live more "packed" there, yet it doesn't feel like Tokyo...

        I used to live in Muenster, Germany, a city of 300k, and had no problem getting from day to day just by bike. There was also viable public transport, of course. And it's nice city too. I enjoyed living there a lot.

        Now I live in Durham, NC, USA, a city of 200k, and you can't get anywhere by bike (no bike lanes), the public transport is not really an option, and I have to drive around by car. No choice.

        Suburbia and the dependence on cars in urban area are a choice a society makes. It's not a law of nature.

        • Bike lanes shouldn't be a problem soon. Most of the newly resurfaced roads around where I live have bike lanes because the federal government pays for painting the lines so long as bike lanes are included.
        • Well, 200k and 300k aren't really cities at all - just a large town - more than 1 million, then you are beginning to get a city.

          Comparisons with Europe doesn't work. Their populations are either static or declining, so they don't have to invest heavily in new infrastructure, only maintenance.

        • If you have the chance, look for a book called "The Exploding Metropolis" by William H. Whyte [ucpress.edu]. It was written back in the 1950's when the US cities were first starting to expand, and suburbia hadn't yet formed.

          Actually, the South of England is getting to feel rather crowded just now. With the "White Flight" taking place from London, David Blunkett seems to think that the UK can easily absorb 100,000 immigrants/year from third world countries. Meanwhile, none of the Scottish natives can afford a house/apart
      • you have to think about the COST of living in cities. Sometimes it is simply too expensive to have an apartment,

        You also have to think of the COST of living in suburbia: maintaining a car, maintaining your own house, maintaining a yard, driving long distances to do anything.
      • Am I the only one who thinks we're experiencing an artificial housing shortage?

        It just seems odd to me how high housing prices and rents are, and there don't seem to be any new high-density housing developments going up.

        Could it be that the money-lenders are the same people who really own the existing property (mortgage lenders)?

        Just an idea, if the mortgage lenders and the financiers for new housing were the same people it would make sense for them to NOT build high-density housing and maintain this rea
    • by petabyte ( 238821 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @12:30AM (#9965742)
      I think you're missing a few points. With Diesel, its still coming from non-renewable fossil fuels so you're still releasing carbon into the atmosphere (less of the other nasties - but carbon is still a problem).

      As to the second thing, I'm a suburbanite and will probably moving to another suburb of another city by the end of the year. The reasons to live in a suburb are next to endless so I won't even bother. Electric trolley cars were killed off by political pressure from the Auto industry. That and Americans love cars. That aside, you've missed the point with the trolleys I think. An electric trolley still uses electricity. How is that electricity produced? The difference between powering electric trolleys and natural gas buses is probably not that great. And even if we had the trolleys convincing people to use public transportation around here is comically difficult.

      Now if you were talking about why people need to drive their urban assualt humvee 2 gallons per mile SUVs around instead of something that gets sensible fuel economy, that I'd support. :)
      • My post wasn't about completely replacing oil as our most important resource. The point was to decrease usage of oil, thus decreasing dependence, not eliminate. This would allow use to investigate alternatives. You can't force development of new technology, it's a process that takes time to be done correctly.

        As for diesel, look up biodiesel. The whole point of the diesel engine was to originally not even need petroleum. Only an abundance of oil has caused us to become reliant on it.
    • I think America has become suburbanized because of their love of the car, not visa-versa. Without the car facination the cites in the US would look different.

      Also there are succesful programs on going which clean both diesel and coal (not perfect, but progress).

    • I'm surprised nobody has mentioned on of the bigger perks of diesel engines, you can put just about anything oily in them and they run, they may not run well but they run. My favorite war anecdote from when my old man was in the "big war" (that'd be the Cold war), was him and his buddies using cooking oil to refill the jeeps after unauthorized off base trips around west Germany. With the advances in bio-diesel [slashdot.org] fuels why even bother with fossil fuels? The technology hasn't been perfected but it makes for re
    • Don't complain about fuel problems when you live 25 miles from your job and can't take the train!

      I live about 500 miles from "my job". Actually, I have several, one of which is about 2024 miles from me. (a la MapQuest) See, I telecommute via the Internet. I can (and do) work anywhere, via any broadband 'net connection, from the Starbucks T-Mobile to some wifi hotspot in a residential area. So, I don't commute at all, though I tend to travel a lot.

      But, I live in an area where you *could* do without a car,
      • ...am I part of the solution, or part of the problem?

        Since you seem to be one of those who like to go "it is neither A nor B, it is C", I would categorize you as neither part of the solution nor part of the problem. Instead, you are part of the smug.


    • Two problems with diesel:
      a. Diesel exhaust causes asthma attacks.
      b. Diesel engines are hard to start in winter.

      Apart from that, diesel is great and delivers better mileage than hybrid cars.

    • by evilviper ( 135110 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @01:48AM (#9965976) Journal
      Diesel is not only more efficient, but most diesel technology is actually cleaner than gasoline.

      There is no diesel equivalent for the catalitic converter. So diesel is inherently more polluting.

      In addition, there has been studies that have found the ultra-fine particles exhausted by diesel engines causes cancer. Not something we want more of.

      But on a much simpler level, people don't drive diesel cars because you can't find inexpensive diesel cars in the US.

      Secondly, why don't more people move back to city and thus not need cars as much?

      That's much more dramatic than your first suggestion. You'd just as well ask why people don't ride bikes all the time, or start drilling for oil in the national oil reserves.

      The fact is, people don't want to live in the city, and for very good reason. Even if the cost of gasoline was tremendous, you'd see people doing extreme things to be able to afford it, but you'd rarely see people moving from the suburbs to the city.

      Personally, I would go on a shooting spree with a fully automatic weapon if I was forced to live in a tiny apartment. I'd go crazy even in a huge appartment, if I was always packed like a sardine with tons of other people. If you like living in the city, good for you, but a hamster wheel just doesn't do it for me.

      I don't think transportation hasn't changed where people live, all that much, it's just changed the jobs they can take. Instead of farming, people in rural areas may drive several miles every day to a high-tech job. If they couldn't do that, they'd be farmers, or something else which doesn't require living in a city.

      Don't complain about fuel problems when you live 25 miles from your job and can't take the train!

      I don't think taking a train is much of an option for most people. I'd have to walk 10 miles to get to the nearest train station anyhow.

      Mass transit would have to be incredibly advanced to be an option for even a small minority of people... and it's not even close. Even if they had infinite money, it's questionable if they could be all things to all people... stopping very close to everyone's destinations, while not taking too long to get people where they need to go, and never having to wait more than say, 10 minutes at a station. It's just a fact of life that people don't all want to go to the same place, at the same time.
      • by Wister285 ( 185087 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @03:47AM (#9966235) Homepage
        Here's an article [newscientist.com] about pollution due to vehicles from the New Scientist. It shows that diesel produces about 33% less greenhouse gases than gasoline. As for the other negatives of diesel, who says we can't do better? People don't drive diesel cars in America because it isn't important enough to care about the benefits of diesel. Diesel cars are so popular in Europe because of how expensive fuel is and running a diesel car is more efficient.

        Actually, I happen to like cars quite a bit, but I also see the value of city life. I don't advocate forcing people riding bikes everywhere either. Let's just look at simple logistics. You have to drive many miles to get to a store in the suburbs. You could walk, take public transportation, or drive a short distance to the same store in the city. The thing is that driving in the city is not a necessity, it can be done if you want to or not.

        And about moving to the city, you don't seem to understand what city life is all about. City life isn't about living in Manhattan on the 50th floor of a high rise appartment. City life isn't about what you watch on TV or in movies. Most people who live in cities either live in apartments, row homes, doubles, or singles. One size doesn't fit all. No one forces you to live in any one kind too! You can live with your half acre of ground or you can live on a street with nothing more than a sidewalk or you could even live on a street with both. I know it seems like a bizarre idea since most people only know what they see on TV. The fact is that housing is incredibly diverse in most cities, especially ones in the Northeast. Just find your neighborhood and you'll be happy.

        As for the whole train option, you seem to miss the point. Mass transit helps to lessen pollution because of economies of scale. If you get your electricity from nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, etc. power, electric trollies are an excellent option. Riding a bus, subway, or train can lessening traffic and take advantage of having one engine power 40 people instead of 40 engines. The whole point of mass transit is that if you have a place you go everyday, like work, then you take the same bus, train, trolley, or subway everyday. You'd then have a car when you want to get somewhere on your own time. You could even take your car to work everyday and this is more desirable because the drive would probably be shorter.

        I'm not saying everyone needs to ride bikes and take public transportation. I'm just saying that if more people lived closer to where they work or could easily take public transportation to where they work, then the need for fuels goes down greatly. If more people could easily walk places instead of being forced to drive, the need for fuels go down. My whole point is that people need choices. Choices don't exist when you live out in the middle of the suburbs and have to have a car to get anywhere.
    • World oil supply predictions haven't significantly changed in decades, ever since the invention of the Hubbert curve in 1956, which predicted that the oil supply would rise in a bell curve and then fall off at the same rate. Of course there is quite a bit of sugary optimism, but as of the 1980's all the major reserves have been located, meaning that today we know pretty much exactly how much oil there is, and how long it will last.

      It turns out that we are nearing that peak now, and since oil use is increa
    • "Decreasing dependence on foreign oil" only works locally; the world dependence on oil, period, is what matters, and China and India are ramping up a lot. Even if we completely cut out our use for oil in surface transportation (right now there's not really a viable alternative to hydrocarbons for aircraft), we still consume petroleum products as raw materials for manufacturing. Since the entire world isn't going to curb its oil consumption, we'll be in trouble even if we don't use it to power our vehicles.
  • Why Fuel Cells? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Qweezle ( 681365 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @12:13AM (#9965675) Journal
    Personally I've always leaned towards Biodiesel.

    Why? Well, quite simply, using biodiesel not only are you saving money and the environment, but you boost the economy via the agriculture industry!

    From what I hear they are using it a lot in the midwest states, but I really would like to see some mainstream biodiesel technology.

    Fuel cells, meh, they have their place. But accident safety with a hydrogen bomb under your hood is an interesting diversion from the subject in itself...
    • Fuel cells aren't nuclear; therefore, there is no "hydrogen bomb" under your hood.
      • Well, there is a "hydrogen bomb" just the same way that most cars have a "gasoline bomb" underneath theirs. At any rate, the "bomb" in question is a needless worry--we don't fear our gas tanks exploding, do we? Why should we fear that hydrogen / fuel cells wouldn't be made just as safe?
        • Cars have/are "gasoline bombs"?

          You've been watching too many movies.

          http://www.physlink.com/Education/AskExperts/ae1 .c fm
        • Earlier this week, a fuel truck backed up to far at Ballard Power's main office in Burnaby, BC.
          http://www.ballard.com/be_informed/about_bal l ard/n ews/2004/08/09/mcormack-27_0408091634-676

          The resulting explosion and fire closed buildings and evacuated businesses for a 1km radius for almost a full 24 hours.

          Is this ready to be on every street corner? In every garage?

          I have no doubt that the safety issues will be solved, I'm simply pointing out that we've got a long way to go and the consequences may be sev
    • Re:Why Fuel Cells? (Score:2, Interesting)

      by JVert ( 578547 )
      Biodiesel still produces carbon. Carbon is our biggest enemy, the other crap we knock down pretty well (or at least we can if so inclined). Consider carbon is death, basically we are creating too much death before the live can regenerate.
      It would be interesting if the greenhouse effect could really do what people think it will. Essentially it will be mother nature looking around "All I see is death, time to reboot".

      Would be nice to find clean energy though. Honestly I vote we dump nasa and focus on making
      • Carbon cycle (Score:3, Insightful)

        by chgros ( 690878 )
        Where do you think the carbon in biodiesel comes from?
        • It comes from life, but is that any different then the fossil fuel?
          The only difference is you have to keep creating life in order to use your fuel, where as oil you just need a pump. But I dont believe that oil creates any more carbon per energy then biodiesel. So instead of growing corn, proccessing it and burning it we could just create the same amount of corn, use it for something else, and burn the equivilent amount of oil. But I think we would come up with some serious resource issues trying to grow en
          • Hello... Where do you think the corn got the CO2 to begin with from?? The Atmosphere ! So it's in a cycle

            Oil on the other hand is sequestered underground and when we use it we take from the ground and put it in the air

            This is not a cycle but a one way trip

            So a recap: Burning something that is mined takes things from under the ground and puts some of it in the air: Bad

            Burning things that are grown takes things from the air and puts them back in the air.Not Perfect, but better

            All is clear?

      • Carbon is our biggest enemy

        Do you mean carbon dioxide? [wikipedia.org]


      • I propose that possession of carbon be banned.

      • Biodiesel still produces carbon.

        It's essentially recycled carbon, though - you're burning carbon which was collected by the plants during their recent growing cycle, versus releasing carbon stored in fossil-fuel deposits which are millions of years old.

        If you can keep growing the plants that you're using to create the biodiesel fast enough, then you can have a sustainable carbon cycle.

        I'm a little more interested in the "thermal refining" (I think that's what it's called) process that a company is devel

        • You run into the same problem in a large scale. I think alot of these "green" energies have drawbacks that are overlooked because they arn't seeing them in a large scale.

          I just think its smarter to grow something that eats the carbon and use it for something other then burning. We already have alot of burnable fuel.

          Right now biodiesel is expensive. I would suggest you skip the refinement. Get waste vegtable oil from your local resturant and run from that. This wont work for everyone, not even I eat enough
    • Re:Why Fuel Cells? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by sockonafish ( 228678 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @12:33AM (#9965754)
      Fuel cells produce electricity, while a biodiesel powered engine produces mechanical energy. There are plenty of applications in which mechanical energy is not needed, and the loss of energy in converting mechanical to electrical is undesirable.
      • There are plenty of applications in which mechanical energy is not needed, and the loss of energy in converting mechanical to electrical is undesirable.

        Actually, it's the conversion from chemical energy to mechanical energy that's inefficient - engines waste most of their energy producing heat. Generators, I believe, are pretty efficient. If you can convert straight from chemical energy to electrical energy with a fuel cell [wikipedia.org], you can bypass the inefficient engine, and if necessary, produce mechanical ene

    • I use Biodiesel in my Skoda it's great. But the solution to energy will not be a monoculture like it is now. So there is a place for fuel cells.

      but I have to agree with you: it's not in cars...yet.

    • First: Diesel is cheap because there is less demand than gasoline. Switch all the cars to diesel, and there go your savings. Poof.

      Second: I am skeptical of both biodiesel and ethanol from argiculture. I do not believe either produces a net energy gain once ALL factors of production have been accounted for - this includes gas for the equipment to harvest, energy used in processing and refining, oil and energy used in the creation of fertilizers, etc etc etc ad nauseam. Biodiesel lowers the amount of waste i
      • I do not believe either produces a net energy gain once ALL factors of production have been accounted for

        Guess what? Nothing in the universe produces a net gain. It's all just a matter of converting evergy from one form to another. The only real question is, are any of the forms of energy we are using in the process, going to have serious health or environmental effects?
        • Nothing in the universe produces a net gain. It's all just a matter of converting evergy from one form to another.

          What brilliant insight! This got modded informative?

          Relative to MY current existance, the big puddle of flaming goo in the middle east I can (or used to be able to) scoop up with a bucket sure is an energy gain. Roughly 10 or 8 barrels of oil gained for every one you spend sucking it out of the ground. It's the collected energy from millions of years of solar output, all stored up for humanit
      • I do not believe either produces a net energy gain once ALL factors of production have been accounted for - this includes . . . .

        And until I read this article a couple days ago, I thought that was the whole story. Well, the article linked at the bottom of the #1 link is all about celluloid ethanol. This is produced from corn stalks, which are agricultural waste. It also suggest a plant known as switchgrass, which can be farmed in desert locales unsuitable for food crops.

        It also presents a new way to ex
      • plenty of links to read [journeytoforever.org] In short, ethanol is getting better. At one time (early 80s) ethanol was energy negative, but currently ethanol is energy positive. One link also claims that gasoline is not energy positive!

        None of this account for other uses that can be taken from corn before and after ethanol is made. Biodiesel can be made from corn, without much effect on ethanol production (corn oil doesn't convert to ethanol easily) corn to biodiesel alone has been estimated as high as 4 times as much e

    • Why? Well, quite simply, using biodiesel not only are you saving money and the environment,

      The (sub)products of fuel cell reaction => ???

      Answer: electricity, water

      I don't know abut Biodiesel, but to my eyes fuel cell is much safer a power source than nuclear reaction. I wonder if there will be any use of fuel cell for household, to ease our dependency to distributed electricity generated by nuclear reaction.

    • Re:Why Fuel Cells? (Score:3, Informative)

      by Xyrus ( 755017 )
      "Fuel cells, meh, they have their place. But accident safety with a hydrogen bomb under your hood is an interesting diversion from the subject in itself..." You know, I'm getting fed up with all the uneducated drivel I hear about how dangerous hydrogen is. You'd think, like this poor person, that you are carrying a nuclear detonation device in your car with hydrogen fuel. Let's compare the explosive power of hydrogen to the explosive power of gasoline. One cup of gasoline contains the same explosive power
  • by unsinged int ( 561600 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @12:13AM (#9965676)
    Haven't we heard that enough recently? It should be up for most abused expression of the year by now.
  • What about ethanol? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by samtihen ( 798412 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @12:16AM (#9965683) Homepage
    I have heard that Washington University in Saint Louis is getting quite close to making a useable ethanol fuel cell that could potentially power a laptop for a month. I really just think that alcohol based fuel cells make more sense; ethanol can be easily made from corn, and we make enough of that to have our government pay farmers to not grow it for economic reasons. I say that ethanol fuel cells will change the world more dramatically than the internet, and that is a pretty powerful statement to make.
    • by JoeBuck ( 7947 )
      Making ethanol from corn the way it's done now is wildly inefficient and expensive (it actually costs considerably more energy than you get from burning the ethanol, and oil is burned in the process of making it, so it doesn't help with US energy independence, it hurts). And using enough of the US corn crop to fuel everything on ethanol would put a big dent in the world food supply.

      There are better techniques being developed, that would allow the use of the corn stalks, husks, etc rather than the grain a

      • it actually costs considerably more energy than you get from burning the ethanol, and oil is burned in the process of making it, so it doesn't help with US energy independence, it hurts

        Seems to be the buy-line for the oil industry, with very little legitimate research behind it... Just a few scientists, possibly paid-off (ever heard of "Think Tanks"? do you know what that really means?) saying this.

        using enough of the US corn crop to fuel everything on ethanol would put a big dent in the world food sup

      • I don't think that it's as inefficient and expensive as it used to be. Also, farm markets are always struggling not to OVERPRODUCE, so I doubt that using biofuels will cause food shortages, unless the uptake was very sudden. 25 years ago ethanol did cost more energy than it produced. However, improvments in the efficiency of farms and in the refining technology seems to have changed this.

        I see ethanol more as a replacement for MTBE than as a pure fuel, personally, as opposed to biodiesel, which works muc

  • by Zorilla ( 791636 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @12:19AM (#9965701)
    Even if there was a huge breakthrough in fuel-cell technology that was ready for use right now, it still would not have a huge impact, at least initially. Let's assume this story, however probable, wasn't overhyped; People still have to be weaned off of their current vehicles, which are mostly large and gas-powered. In the U.S., that could take decades.
  • Fuel is not a source (Score:5, Informative)

    by chaffed ( 672859 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @12:21AM (#9965709) Homepage
    It's a way to store and transport energy. Hydrogen has to come from someplace. It takes energy to produce hydrogen. Currently more energy goes into making hydrogen than is produced. But the previous poster brought up Biodiesel which is far more mature and cost effective for the state of the world economy. Use biodiesel as the tippy cup which well get us off the tit of fossil fuels and then we can move onward.
    • Hydrogen has to come from someplace. It takes energy to produce hydrogen. Currently more energy goes into making hydrogen than is produced.

      Quite correct. Hydrogen is a means of safely storing and transporting energy that has been produced from renewable sources. For example, you can produce hydrogen from solar energy in desert regions and then transport it to industrialized nations.

      But the previous poster brought up Biodiesel which is far more mature and cost effective for the state of the world econo
      • Out of curiosity, what's the best way to make hydrogen from solar energy in desert regions? I typically consider electrolysis of water as the usual method, but by definition there's not much rainfall in the desert, and thus there is typically little water...
        • Just a thought - but in north Africa and the middle East you find many desert regions right next to the ocean.
    • Damnit, I hate this argument. Of *course* more energy will go into hydrogen than you get out. That's called Conservation of Energy.

      The point of Hydrogen is that it provides a convenient storage format for energy which can then be produced in large quantities at central generation facilities. This is very advantageous, as energy production benefits from scale. Moreover, centralized generation means that it's easy to upgrade to new, cleaner, more efficient production technologies, as we only have to upgr
  • by Brandybuck ( 704397 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @12:27AM (#9965733) Homepage Journal
    Are we really about to turn a corner in global climate change response?

    Please keep the science fiction your read separate from the universe you live in. I'm finding it difficult to parse your buzzwords, but it sounds like you think fuels cells will offer a tremendously lower impact on the environment. Sorry, that's not how it works.

    I don't have to be a fuel cell chemist to understand that the energy doesn't come for free. While hydrogen is certainly less polluting than other fuels, it still takes more energy to place that hydrogen in your hands than the energy you're going to get out of it. Sheesh, Newton didn't know anything at all about cracking hydrogen and even he knew that!

    Your convenient energy is going to cause pollution of some kind (smog, chemical or nuclear waste, etc). It might be less pollution, but it won't be enough to cause a "global climate change response". And it will probably result in a redirection of otherwise productive efforts, such as growing crops for ethanol instead of for food. Even cracking hydrogen via hydroelectic energy is still going mean damming up an awful lot of rivers, with an unknown effect on the weather. Oh, and there's also waste heat on both the production and consumption side of the equation.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing against fuel cells. They sound extremely convenient, and I'll probably be one of the first customers. But don't imagine that it's going to solve all of our global climate problems. The only way to do that is to reduce our total energy consumption.
    • I don't have to be a fuel cell chemist to understand that the energy doesn't come for free.

      Oh, but it does... This big spinning sphere we live on is not a perfectly insulated box, with nothing inside it but the machines we are using. The fact is, this planet has had forces which use energy, and output waste and pollution long before we set foot on it. This planet has magical little things called plants that are able to convert many of our waste products into other forms. The only problem today is that

      • Yes, the real world is different than the over-simplified ideals in your physics book. It's not a zero-sum game, where nothing matters.

        I think a man called Newton might have an issue with that. I was not implying that the incredibly complex world was merely a zero-sum game. Rather I was asserting the fact that no technology is without consequences.
      • A lot of the world lives near oceans and beaches. If
        water levels were to rise 18 feet, then lots people will be affect. This rise will not be so slow that you can't discern, or so fast that it will drown people. Rather, In general, low lying areas of the world will see more flooding, and property WILL be destroyed.
  • Finally! (Score:4, Funny)

    by XanC ( 644172 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @12:42AM (#9965785)
    What's taken everyone so long to realize the huge crisis in the oil supply? Everybody knows that at any given time, there's only a 40 years' supply of oil in the world. It's been that way for decades!
  • fuel cells do work (Score:5, Interesting)

    by parker9 ( 60593 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @12:50AM (#9965821) Homepage
    don't understand why everyone is so down about fuel cells.

    yes, pure hydrogen is hard/expensive to produce. but the next generation of fuel cells can use methane (or ethanol) for a source of fuel. ie, plug the fuel cell into the back end of a cow- suddenly wisconsin will be known for more than it's cheese.

    for some reason, some are thinking fuel cells are going to replace gasoline engines in vechicles. well, ok. but what you really want to do is replace all the coal and oil burning power plants w/ fuel cells. so instead of acid rain and tons of greenhouse gases, you get H2O out, which you could use to water crops or drink. given that China seems to be building coal burning power plants as fast as they can, doesn't that sound like a good idea?

    ok, fine, i might be biased. i am working on the next design of fuel cells (in particular solid oxide fuel cells- SOFC). but, still, the sooner we get to a place where producing energy is less harmful to the planet, i think we should. hell, we must.
  • other options (Score:5, Insightful)

    by paxmark1 ( 636441 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @01:05AM (#9965868)
    Hate to be dullsville but,

    It is the dull stuff that is easiest implemented. And reduction is the best way of adding more energy to the pie.

    Fluorescent incandescents.

    Wind power will not save us, and some birds will die, but from Oklahoma to Saskatchewan, quite cost effective means of supplementing. Yeah, the wind doesn't always blow, but then so Manitoba lost $436 million last year due to low water levels (hydro), the rains do returns as does the wind.

    As far as solar, one of the easiest and most effective routes is for heating water. This should have happened in Arizona, southern California, etc. years ago. No, you don't have to do it all by solar, but you require a much smaller water heater that is used less often.

    My friends off the grid via photovoltaics (over 10 years now) designed their houses - cabins to need as little electricity as possible. However photovolatiacs is tailor made to topping off banks of 12 volt batteries in third world countries for cell phones, computers, refrigerator (dc refrigerator). That is more where technology adding in a tiny bit more efficiency and lowering cost to manufacture could really have a big input.

    You still have to store the hydrogen for fuel cells.

    And you still have to figure out what you are going to run your tractors on and the energy sources for the fertilizer (lots of electricity to take N out of the air), farming chemicals, etc.

    It isn't the flashy things that are going to do it. It is a lot of people doing dull things.


  • by drix ( 4602 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @01:07AM (#9965874) Homepage
    This is how you produce hydrogen [stanford.edu]. Notice the part about "electricity." That's right, in order to produce hydrogen you need the very same energy that we were trying to save in the first place. Your hydrogen-powered Prius may run as pure and clean as fresh snow, but if a coal-fired generator is supplying the electricity needed to electrolyze water and make hydrogen, then it's all for naught.

    So let's stop beating around the bush: the only technology we have today that does not produce carbon and comes anywhere close to supplying Terra's present-day energy needs is good old nuclear [mit.edu]. Or, nucular in the parlance of our current administration. Wind, water and/or solar simply don't. I think we need to bite the bullet, recognize this fact, and start building. The nuclear stigma is very unfortunate given the stakes of the global warming game we're playing. The fact is it can be done cheaply and safely, and few bad eggs seem to have spoiled the bunch... unless you have complete idiots at the helm, living in the proximity of a modern, well-managed nuclear power plant is probably a lot, lot safer than strapping into a rickety box of sheet metal and hurtling yourself down the freeway to work every morning in the presence of countless other drivers about whose skills and preoccupations you know nothing.

    The depressing sticking point is that with a $100 billion, Manhattan-style research project we could probably get something like fusion power [bbc.co.uk] off the ground, thus solving our energy and pollution woes for basically forever.

    By the way, that's about the same amount of money as we will be spending in Iraq in the coming years to ensure our oil supply and with it our ability to pump astronomical quantities of carbon into the air for the foreseeable future. Gallingly ironic.
    • And you miss the point. Here's the article obscured in one of the links:

      ethanol and fuel cells [washingtonmonthly.com]

      One major point of the article is that is inefficient to carry around hydrogen as a gas, so carry it around as ethanol, which can yield 4 or 5 hydrogen molecules per molecule of ethanol. Its also easier to transport and store than gaseous hydrogen.

      Now, producing that ethanol has been a net negative fuel using corn. However, the newer technology is to use the waste products and not the corn fruit. This is c
    • Your hydrogen-powered Prius may run as pure and clean as fresh snow, but if a coal-fired generator is supplying the electricity needed to electrolyze water and make hydrogen, then it's all for naught.

      Yes, because a tiny oilfired engine in a car can be as efficent and clean as a massive coal/oil/gas fired power station. Not ot mention reducing concentrated polution in cities
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Check this page

    http://hydrogenfuel.tripod.com/ . This man has managed to run a regular diesel engine on hydrogen in a completely safe manner, and there is enough evidence. Just that the big oil cartels wont let anything come up. I have pesonally seen this work, and give out only water vapour from the exhaust.

    The man is very open and does not hold back details, and he holds patents for the valves that he holds. He is also pretty much an environmentalist, so maybe other/.s will take to asking him direct que
  • RTFA (Score:5, Informative)

    by OoSync ( 444928 ) <wellsed&gmail,com> on Saturday August 14, 2004 @01:16AM (#9965901)
    As usual, noone's reading the article before complaining about the unavailability of hydrogen.

    Now, the article's a little pie-in-the-sky, but it gives and overview of some interesting new breakthroughs. First, is the economic production of ethanol from the wasted part of the corn crops, namely stalks. Second, the possiblity of farming other, more ethanol-friendly crops like switchgrass, which can be grown on land not useful for food crops. Third, is a new and cheap device capable of extracting the hydrogen molecules from ethanol, even ethanol with a bit of water, so it doesn't have to be as pure as is found in today's gasoline mixtures.

    I'd say the final breakthrough isn't about science, its about being realistic. There are drawbacks to these other technologies, namely they still produce carbon-dioxide and carbon-monoxide. They're not pollution-free, but possibly their less polluting than what we currently have available. The last breakthrough is about accepting the
    very good even if its not the best. That's an important point.

    Taken together, these breakthroughs are a bit aways from the market, but proper investments would help them come about sooner. I'm not sure I see why the ethanol lobbies should object as they could still get the money and sell the corn, too.
  • by ScottBob ( 244972 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @01:21AM (#9965910)
    Before the 1940's, most of the gas consumed in big cities was manufactured at the local town gas works by heating coal, coke or charcoal to 1000 degrees or more in an airtight chamber, then steam was passed through the coal to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The basic reaction is

    C(s) + H20 = H2 + CO

    The process for making gas from coal dates back to the late 1700's and early 1800's, but was gradually abandoned by the 1940's and 1950's as more and more natural gas wells were being drilled and pipelines were constructed across the country.

    If a method of removing the carbon monoxide from water gas could be devised, hydrogen could then be made in vast amounts the way it used to be in the 1800's, except this time for use in fuel cells rather than in street lamps.
  • economics at work (Score:4, Insightful)

    by child_of_mercy ( 168861 ) <johnboy&the-riotact,com> on Saturday August 14, 2004 @01:44AM (#9965966) Homepage
    What's nice to see her is that global economic growth is leading us to cleaner technologies.

    The oil price is so high because so many growing economies want access to energy.

    Fuel scarcity is suddenly making cleaner alternatives economical, and once economies of scale kick in for them we won't be going back.

    Demonstrating nicely once again that all the malthusians were (and are) full of crap.

    We're not going to run out of things if we have flexible markets.
  • by Zymergy ( 803632 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @01:49AM (#9965983)
    "...Is this all vapor and breathless journalism about a world-saving new technology, or is it perhaps a brilliant investment strategy?..."
    -You have my vote that this IS journalism about a NEW technology, not necessarily one that is world-saving at all. If anything, it is a step toward something that is all electric, but we are far from it without a major crisis.
    -The agricultural and biochemical processes to produce Ethanol or Ethyl Alcohol (CH3-CH2-OH or C2H5OH) from Maize (you call it Corn) is not too clean nor environmentally perfect. Sure it does not require oil refineries, but there is significant production of Carbon Dioxide (CO2)in ways not immediately apparent.
    -For example, growing corn produces lots of waste (cornstalks, etc..) that rots and releases CO2 and/or methane. The fermentation of the carbohydrates (sugars) in corm by yeasts produces carbon dioxide as well. Additionally, Corn is a C4 metabolism plant and it requires significant irrigation for maximum yields, and irrigation requires the burning of fuels either at the electric plant or rurally to pump out an aquifer to water the crops. Fuels are also needed for the large tractors, combines, and other equipment used to grow the crop. Another important consideration is the significant government subsidies given to grow corn in the US. The market is artificial and controlled, fluctuating with the weather (crop yields), whether a Democrat or Republican votes to adjust the already high corn subsidies (at taxpayer expense), and there is added manpower, use of significant agricultural land for fuel production, etc..
    -With modern Oil/Gas production the COSTS are not as high to yield fuels of sufficient energy density (as in how many BTU a gallon of liquid fuel contains..) After all, we are all burning (oxidation) ~something~ to release energy whether it induces electron flow in a fuel cell or releases high pressure gases pushing a turbine or piston to do work. Think about the point. Alcohol fuel cells are really cool, yes. Bet let's not thing this in any case solves the CO2 or wasted resources issues. If it were Hydrogen (H2) produced from electrolysis (electric current through water yielding Hydrogen (H2) and Oxygen (O2) [2(H2O) + electricity = 2(H2) + 1(02)]), and that electricity was from a solar, nuclear, or hydroelectric generation station, then I would say that the use of that Hydrogen in a fuel cell solves much of the CO2 emissions and reduces dependence on oil.
    But, the use of ANY alcohol means that there is Carbon present in the fuel and you will either produce CO (carbon monoxide) or CO2. The US Space Shuttle uses a pure Hydrogen - Oxygen Fuel Cell yielding only electricity, heat, and water as by products. ANY fuel cell that uses any Carbon in its FUEL other than Oxygen and pure Hydrogen, will release CO or CO2.
    -In another example, what original starting material do you think was used to make all of those little plastic keys on your keyboard (and nearly any plastics we use today)... that's right, they are made from hydrocarbons (mainly natural gas)?
    Imagine the world without fossil fuels realizing that everything plastic is from fossil fuel as well as diesel and gas... They are here to say.
    Besides, we are getting close to time for another Ice Age onset, some added CO2 may push that back a few centuries. -Zymergy
    • Uh, no. The primary problem with your reasoning is that the issue isn't whether or not CO and or CO2 is produced when burning a fuel. The issue is the total amount of Carbon present in the active worldwide Carbon cycle. Burning BioDiesel or other plant based crops does release Carbon into the atmosphere; The exact same Carbon that the crop removed from the cycle a few months ago. The main problem with Fossil Fuels is that they take Carbon which was previously removed from active circulation and reintroduces
  • by sybert ( 192766 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @02:22AM (#9966056) Journal
    We are not running out of oil [smartmoney.com]. In 1982, proven world oil reserves were 696 billion barrels. Since then the world has consumed 452 billion barrels, but proven world reserves are now over 1 trillion barrels. And we still have tremendous coal, natural gas, gas hydrates, and other energy alternatives available.

    U.S. oil production is only declining because we have stopped looking and stopped drilling domestically over environmental concerns. Of course it may be our best interest not to drill now and save it for later, the oil deposits are not going anywhere. However, we need to explore how much oil we have now so that we know when best to start extracting. All of the recoverable oil on the planet will eventually be extracted. And if we don't buy Mid-east oil now, someone else will, and terrorism will still be fully funded. And it's probably best that we buy Mid-east oil. We have a real army and are the only country strong enough to get out of bed with the devil when the appropriate time comes.

    Scientific advancement will most likely eventually end our oil dependence. There is no shortage of scientists working on the problem, the economic benefit to finding better energy than fossil fuel is enormous. But I don't think that any scientist who wants be a big hero and benefit from solving the world's oil problem is going to want to hear "You're not paying your fair share", "We're going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good" if they succeed.
    • We are not running out of oil.

      Are [truthout.org] you [lifeaftertheoilcrash.net] sure [peakoil.net] ?
  • Build your own (Score:3, Interesting)

    by vandan ( 151516 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @06:43AM (#9966519) Homepage
    I just bought a PDF instruction manual for building your own fuel cell at http://www.hsolar.com/ [hsolar.com].

    I've just been glancing through it. Looks good. It's certainly big - over 300 pages. And for $12, you can't really go wrong. Some damned serious work has gone into it.

    For those interested in the technology, this is a great way to become more acquainted with it, and if your first project works out well, you can always build a whole stack of them and link them together.

    The PDF I bought talks a little about using solar cells for electrolysis of water to charge the cells, and the site I bought it from also has another PDF book that specialises in this ( using solar panels ).

    And for those thinking about buying it and uploading to to P2P - please don't. The asking price is very fair, and we really should support people doing cool stuff like this and making such a good product available to us for such a small price. Be nice :)
  • by GuyFawkes ( 729054 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @08:07AM (#9966715) Homepage Journal
    All this talk of CO2 emissions is no more than a martial arts type feint to distract you from the real action....

    Yes, CO2 emissions *are* high, but then again oceanic absorbtion of CO2 is double what people have been predicting / expecting, and you'll find fuck all comment or investigation into that fact in the meedja, interesting when you are talking about by far the single largest CO2 absorbtion system on the planet.

    The other thing everyone forgets is "recent human history" eg "the last hundred years" = "fuck all" on a global timescale.... or do you propose that the MASSIVE global warming at the end of the last ice age was caused by mammoths driving around in CFC leaving 25 litre V16 cars?

    There are hippo bones buried in and around the Thames in the London area, something again caused that climate change, and it wasn't the hippos creating an extended nuclear winter.

    You driving a biodiesel harley or a itchyfanny fuel cell smart car isn't going to alter sunspot activity.

    No, the real issues here is per capita energy consumption, and per capita energy efficiency and per capita energy by products.

    There is quite simply only one way forwards for the human race, and it is this.

    In the short term, for the next 50 years, MASSIVE investment in traditional nuke plants to vastly increase electricity production.
    Just as a huge proportion of Abu Dhabi's (United Arab Emirates) energy budget has gone for 30+ years into desalination of water to turn AD from a dusty desert town into a green and verdant city (human consumption of desalinated water is minute compared to the amounts used to water everything daily) then huge proportions of this future nuclear capacity will need to be used to recharge traditional traction type lead acid cells, crack water into hydrogen for new fuel cells, and power tram style over head power cables for urban heavies stuff.

    In the meantime everyone needs to make a JFK style "do in within ten years, that's an order" style push to commercially viable fusion plants.

    From the inidivdual's point of view we can reduce energy consumption (and therefore all the by-products of energy use) by running lighter and lower performance vehicles, ceiling fans instead of air-con in hot climates, reverse air-con instead of simple radiant electrical resistors in colder climates, and generally look at the overall efficiency of everything we use...

    Simply switching all urban one person in a vehicle journeys to little 150 mpg (must be 4 stroke motors though) scooter would have a huge positive overall benefit, of which the total fuel saved would be only a small part, but you aren't going to get this or anything else when the total media output is pumping out the message that your big performance vehicle is a symbol of the size of your genitals.

    And that brings us to the real problem, and it is by definition a greater problem in countries with a higher per capita energy use, so the US is the top of the pile.

    The real problem is the profit motive inextricably bound to every joule of energy you use... there is no problem with there being a profit motive in there, but when the profit motive becomes the single over-riding force you have severe problems.

    _EVERYTHING_ is geared to making you a larger net consumer of energy next year than this, because more energy = more product shifted = more profit.

    In europe we have issues similar to these, but nowhere near as bad as america, which is literally a society built around the concept of universally available personal transport, the car is god, many americans simply do not have the option to live even as I do, motorcycle only, because the motorcycle will not carry the shopping etc etc etc, plus of course I can simply leave the bike parked, and walk the mile and half in the the centre of town, get my shopping and if I'm lazy get the (overpriced and expensive) every 15 minutes bus back for 3 bucks.

    Americans (and I mean the United states, not south americans etc) like to
  • by gone.fishing ( 213219 ) on Saturday August 14, 2004 @02:21PM (#9969005) Journal
    There are a number of reasons why places like North America and Europe should be weaning themselves away from petrolium based fuels.

    First, there is the economic reasons. Unless you are in a country that is a petro exporter, you have a financial reason. Why make some country overseas rich when you can grow your own fuel and keep the money in country? Any country that buys more than it sells from other countries is giving it's wealth away. Spending the money closer to home makes your economy better.

    Second, there is the issue of security. If a counrty depends on imported energy, they are at the mercy of the countries that they import it from. A cartel of these exporting nations carries heavy political clout. They can in a sense control a much larger country by manipulating their production.

    Third, By using agricultural products as feedstock, we are making the agricultural industry healthier and more profitable. In most first world nations, the agricultural industry has been hit hard. Many farms have failed and a "way of life" is in jepordy. What this means is that there is less diversity in that area of business which actually weakens it and makes it even more susecptible to grand scale failure.

    We are at a place in our history where it appears practical to start moving away from a petro based economy (which when you think about it us what we really have today). We have successfully proven that E85 cars and trucks can and do work. Our governments can now safely mandate that internal combustion engines that run on E85 be built into all new cars and that all diesel engines be capable of burning "bio-diesel." If this is mandated, you can bet fuel producers will provide the traveling public with the fuel. Frankly, this would be less invasive than the switch to unleaded was in the 70's.

    To do this in the United States, we will need a progressive leader who is not tied to the traditional oil-interests.

    Think for a minute how much stronger our economy would be if we made our own fuel. Then think about how much more secure we would be if we did not have to import the lions share of our petro from oil exporting nations.

    It is pretty obvious to me that this is something that needs to be started now. It will take perhaps twenty years to complete but the results will be worth it!

Every little picofarad has a nanohenry all its own. -- Don Vonada