The Speculist: Better All the Time #32


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Better All the Time #32

Are you as sick of election coverage as we are?

Well, take heart. There are only 10 months left until the presidential election! So if you'd like something else to think about in the mean time, may we suggest these nine positive developments on the energy front?

No need to thank us -- it's all in a day's work here at The Speculist.

Untitled Document

Dispatches from a rapidly changing, rapidly improving world


This special edition of Better All The Time is devoted exclusively to good news on the energy front. Let us know how you like this topical approach to BATT. We have plenty of other categories of good news that we might decide to explore.

Today's Good Stuff:



  Quote of the Day

Failure is more frequently from want of energy than want of capital.

Daniel Webster 



Item 1
Startup Says It Can Make Ethanol for $1 a Gallon, and Without Corn

A biofuel startup in Illinois can make ethanol from just about anything organic for less than $1 per gallon, and it wouldn't interfere with food supplies, company officials said.

Coskata, which is backed by General Motors and other investors, uses bacteria to convert almost any organic material, from corn husks (but not the corn itself) to municipal trash, into ethanol.

"It's not five years away, it's not 10 years away. It's affordable, and it's now," said Wes Bolsen, the company's vice president of business development.

The Good News:

While there are many who write ethanol off as a real solution to our need for energy independence, there is every reason to believe that this renewable fuel will play an important role in our energy future. Two of the chief arguments against ethanol are:

  1. It's a subsidized sham; take away the subsidies and you take away ethanol's viability.
  2. By diverting corn into fuel rather than food production, it creates scarcity in the market and drives up food prices.

Cellulosic ethanol promises to address the second problem by enabling us to produce ethanol fuel from stuff we were just going to dispose of, anyway. And if the production cost figures that Coskata touts above are accurate, it looks as though the may have solved the first problem, too. If cellulosic ethanol can compete in the market without government subsidies, that puts it way ahead of subsidized fuels such as corn-derived ethanol and petroleum -- which is subsidized byt the US government in a number of ways, not least the massive military expenditures required to maiantain stability in the Middle East and keep the oil flowing.

Plus, Here's a thought:

Cellulosic ethanol could be half the equation in putting landfills (not to mention conventional sewage treatment plants) out of business. Here's to the day when virtually everything we cast off will be either recycled or converted into energy.




Item 2

Could nanotechnology help squeeze more oil and gas out of the ground? That's the hope of a consortium of energy companies that is putting millions of dollars into the development of new micro- and nanosensor technologies.

The seven companies that make up the Advanced Energy Consortium (AEC), which includes Halliburton Energy Services, BP America, and ConocoPhilips, will put up $21 million in total to fund the research. The aim is to develop subsurface sensors that can be used to improve both the discovery and the recovery of hydrocarbons.

The good news:

As we come to what many are saying is the end of abundant and easily-extracted oil deposits, we have to look not only at alternative fuel sources, but also alternative approaches to getting the oil that still remains. This approach looks promising.


Item 3
16 year-old builds electric pickup truck

Andrew Angelloti...converted his very own 1988 Mazda pickup to run on electricity last year, using $6,000 he had saved up from his part time job as a life guard. He built his truck using 20 flooded lead acid batteries to create 120 volts, which he couples to a 60 HP 9" electric motor.

How does it perform? Reaches a top speed of 55mph, has an acceleration of "not too bad…," and can get up to 40 miles on a charge (which is more than enough to get him to work and back, and coincidentally, will be something similar to what the Chevy Volt is supposed to be able to do).

The good news...

The electrified pickup is a far cry from a Tesla, perhaps, but then $6000 saved up from a summer job is a far cry from the Tesla's sticker price. That people are doing their own electric car conversions is an extremely encouraging sign.



Item 4
Ten myths about nuclear power

Rob Johnston, writing for Spiked:

The UK government is expected to announce tomorrow that it will give the green light to the building of new nuclear power stations in the UK - the first since the Sizewell ‘B’ station was completed in 1995. These are urgently needed to make up the shortfall in power supply as older nuclear stations are closed over the next few years.

Yet the decision is bound to be controversial - not helped by widespread misinformation about nuclear power. Greens opposing nuclear power muddle every issue from terrorism to uranium supplies, in order to besmirch the only proven safe and cost-effective way to generate large amounts of electricity that won’t produce large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. One would think that greens don’t want a world with abundant energy and a stable climate!

The Good News:

Johnston proceeds to dispeel the most pernicious misconceptions that people have about nuclear power, including:

Fears about waste

Concerns about cost

Speculation that building new nuclear plants creates new targets for terrorist acts

For the US, the UK, and everyone who is serious about producing aboundant, low-to-no-carbon-footprint power, nuclear has got to be on the table.

For one thing, we need an abundant source of power to keep all those electric pickup trucks going!



Item 5
MACH-5 A2: Fly Sydney to Brussels in 4hrs - Emissions Free!

In a hurry? Need to get from Sydney to Brussels in a dash? Not too far in the future you may be able to travel that entire distance in less than 4 hours - emissions free - thanks to an amazing hypersonic hydrogen jet project called LAPCAT. LAPCAT stands for Long-Term Advanced Propulsion Concepts and Technologie, and is funded by the European Space Agency. This type of hypersonic jet would put the Concorde to shame with it’s speed, and the best part is that it would not be powered by the typical fossil fuels, but instead by a much greener hydrogen alternative.

The good news:

Man, what is not to love about this idea? Here we get the return of supersonic commercial aviation with the added benefit of taking carbon emissions out of the equation. I haven't heard much about what alternatives might exist for reducing aviation emissions, so I love the fact that this idea come with the bonus of moving really fast and, by the way, looking extremely cool.


Curious abut the size of this thing? Thought you'd never ask. Check it out next to an Airbus 380:


Where some might balk:

Not everyone is enthused about hydrogen, and some argue that the hydrogen economy is a sham and that it could never work. One of the arguments raised against hydrogen is that it isn't really an energy source, just a means of transporting energy. However, seeing as we'll never get airplanes off the ground with a some portable means of providing energy, aviation might prove to be an exception.

Then again, there may be others. Perhaps there's more to the idea of a hydrogen economy than we realize...


Item 6
More uses for hydrogen than we realized?

Hydrogen fuel cells might be good for more than just whisking us around the globe at five times the speed of sound in super-sleek looking giant aircraft. How about fuel cells as a backup power supply? The Department of Defense certainly seems to think this is worth looking into:

Plug Power Inc. and Ballard Power Systems Inc. have been awarded $3.5 million by the U.S. Department of Defense to collaborate on the next phase of fuel cell systems development to support the DoD's Continuity of Operations initiative.

Plug Power and Ballard have worked together since early 2006 on backup power applications that target the U.S. DoD and Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies. The companies will continue to work collaboratively on a modular and scalable fuel cell system for use in telecommunication and other mission-critical backup applications. Prototype system trials are expected to be deployed in 2008 with both government and commercial customers.

Here's what PlugPower has to say about the viability of hydrogen for this type of application:

Hydrogen offers tremendous advantages as a clean fuel source. Hydrogen, like electricity, is a clean energy carrier and when derived from renewable energy sources, hydrogen has the potential to provide an inexhaustible supply of energy without generating pollution or greenhouse gases of any kind. It can also be economical and have a relatively high margin of safety when properly produced, stored and dispensed.

The good news:

Hydrogen fuel cells may prove to be a clean alternative to existing battery technology -- business/operational continuity and disaster recovery provide one good possible set of applications for this technology. Another possibility that comes to mind is storing solar power collected on rooftops for use when the sun isn't shining.

And, who knows? There may be other applications, too...



Item 7

Hydrogen Power Coming Soon to Your Cell Phone

From cars to prefabs and some slightly greener gadgets, CES gave us plenty of things to marvel at this year. One of the most impressive in terms of future-forward innovation was the Motoslvr cell phone outfitted with Angstrom Power’s hydrogen fuel cell. With Angstrom’s new fuel cell technology, you are able to get the same sleek package as a regular cellphone, but the charge last more than twice as long on a charge time as short as ten minutes! Hydrogen mobile phones? That’s something to get excited about!

Whenever a cell phone with a fuel cell has been shown to the public, one could see the slightly bulkier fuel cell sticking out from the thin shape of the mobile phone. What Angstrom has done, with its Micro Hydrogen platform, is take that same fuel cell, and reduce it to the size of a regular battery. The hydrogen powered cell phone in your pocket will be as thin and as light as always. Angstrom Power’s prototype fuel cell lasts for twice as long as the standard lithium-ion battery that is used in all of these devices. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the charging time for the mobile device can be as little as 10 minutes.

There are still hurdles that need to be solved. For one, hydrogen refueling stations aren’t even close to being available in most places in the world. And then there is the issue of safety, though the company claims that the battery is perfectly safe. There is real interest by the major manufacturers, and if all goes well, expect to see them by 2010.

The good news:

Hydrogen fuel cells are starting to sound like the clean, efficient alternative to batteries. If we can reliably power cell phones with them, it's only a matter of time before all of our smaller consumer electronics items will be powered this way.


So is it all over for batteries, then? Well, maybe not...


Item 8
The Battery of the Future?

FuturePundit directs us to this story in Technology Review:

The future market for hybrid-electric vehicles, at least those that are affordable, isn't necessarily paved with lithium. Researchers in Australia have created what could be called a lead-acid battery on steroids, capable of performing as well as the nickel-metal hydride systems found in most hybrid cars but at a fraction of the cost.

The so-called UltraBattery combines 150-year-old lead-acid technology with supercapacitors, electronic devices that can quickly absorb and release large bursts of energy over millions of cycles without significant degradation. As a result, the new battery lasts at least four times longer than conventional lead-acid batteries, and its creators say that it can be manufactured at one-quarter the cost of existing hybrid-electric battery packs.

The good news:

The creators of this new battery technology claim that it will cut the price of hybrid cars by up to $2000. Nothing to sneeze at! Randall Parker observes:

The high price of oil should cause a burst of innovation in the coming years. The incentives for energy innovation have gone up dramatically. For this reason alone we should expect some game-changing innovations to emerge in energy and transportation.

Absolutely. And one of the more encouraging trends to note is how many different alternatives are being explored, and how many promising possibilities are being identified.




Item 9

Down on the (Solar) Farm

Phoenix-based Stirling Energy Systems plans to begin construction in 2009 on two $1 billion solar power farms on federal land in California's Mojave Desert northeast of Los Angeles and in the Imperial Valley east of San Diego, reports USA Today. When finished the farms will be among the world's largest solar energy deployments.

The plants would nearly double the amount of solar energy produced in the U.S., would power 1 million Southern California homes, and would be around the equivalent of two dirty coal plants.

The good news:

Wind and solar can't solve our energy problems on their own, but deployments such as this one will go a long way towards helping out. Solar is a great way to collect energy and, like nuclear, produces no emissions. Power generated from solar, wind, nuclear, and other non-emission sources can charge the batteries and fuel cells that we need to run our automobiles, airplanes, and other forms of transportation.


But before we make it to a pure-electric-car economy, we will still need gasoline for a while -- so it's smart that we're developing new ways to access oil that wouldn't have been available before. And it's very encouraging to see that cellulosic ethanol might well step in when oil becomes to expensive.

It's all about options, and we appear to have many, with many more on the horizon.



Better All The Time was compiled by Phil Bowermaster. Live to see it!


In numbers 5, 6 and 7 hydrogen is basically named the fuek of the future. But my question is "Where is all this hydrogen going to come from?". As far as I know hydrogen is not available on earth unless you break apart water molecules; which requires the buring of fossil fuels to do so. Also if we keep using our water to make hydrogen won't there eventually be a shortage of water?

We're hardly touting hydrogen as the "fuel of the future," rather noting that it might have an important role to play in storing and transporting energy. It's more like "the battery of the future," or maybe just "a battery of the future."

Producing hydrogen doesn't require burning fossil fuels if you use nuclear or solar power to break up the water molecules.

As for running out of water -- I don't know, that's a good question. I know that water is one of the by-products of using hydrogen power, but I'm not sure how much is lost in the process. Seems like we would have to be using masssive amounts of the stuff before it would mae a dent, however.

More energy goes into making a AA battery than you ever get out of it too. But we buy those things by the gross because portable power is very useful.

Hydrogen could be like that. The question is, will it be the best possibility? None of us know yet, so we don't need to count anything out yet. Let everything compete in the market and may the best techs win.

I do have one prediction about hydrogen. We will find much more efficient ways to get it than water electrolysis. For example, green plants get hydrogen from water as part of the process of photosynthesis. This is done very efficiently (and why would nature bother to get hydrogen from water if hydrogen were useless?). We are beginning to understand how this works and we might use that method to get hydrogen.

Or, we might use John Kazius' microwave method.

The point is that we have this huge network of potential possibilities - and hydrogen is just one of them. Some of these possibilities pay off big, some are dead ends, and many payback in some weird way we never expected. This is Spock's chessboard in action.

I have one comment about item #1. While I think developing biofuel is an excellent idea as oil supplies grow tighter every year, I don’t really find it any more attractive than regular petrol as an environmental solution. Biofuels will still release carbon into the atmosphere if burnt – they wouldn’t to the same degree (methane notwithstanding) if they were sequestered in a landfill somewhere. I think biofuels are at best a stopgap measure to get us through to the time when nuclear power, fusion preferably, comes of age and supplies are sufficient to fully power purely electric vehicles.

I've got one giant objection -- even when(if) possible, the "pure electric car economy" is a terrible idea in the real world.


You're f***ed when the grid is down for long -- that's coming from someone living in hurricane country.

All-electrics are fine as 2nd or 3rd family cars, but every family should have either liquid fueled car or a hybrid as their mainstay.

Ideally this would be a plug-in hybrid (with hopefully cheaper, longer lasting batteries) that can run on Zubrin's flexfuel concept (gas & ethanol plus adding methanol as an overlooked option) or diesel (with a biodiesel fallback).
Better yet, do as some military concept vehicles are doing and add an *out* plug. Presto - every family has a backup generator of sorts for a $100 option.

You have to think about natural disasters and civil defense.


You might be right. Plug-in hybrids might not be the bridge to EV's as some (not Phil... but some) have suggested.

A car that can run EV most of the time but still burn some form of liquid fuel when necessary might turn out to be superior to a pure EV. Options are good.

But it could go the other way:

Why is liquid fuel valuable? Because it doesn't take long to refuel and we already have the infrastructure. But what if, after a few years of plug-in dominance, quick charge tech is developed to the point that fuel stations start becoming quick charge stations?

If you can refuel just as fast with electric as with liquid fuel, and you can get the same range from a full battery as a full tank, and electric is just as readily available as liquid fuel (because our gas stations have had the time to convert to electric stations) - why haul around a heavy, unnecessary internal combustion engine?

But that step could be years away. Plug-in hybrids are right around the corner.

"But what if, after a few years of plug-in dominance, quick charge tech is developed to the point that fuel stations start becoming quick charge stations?"

When an area has no power (grid damaged/down), gasoline (or other fuel) can be trucked in from places outside the disaster zone to replenish gas stations (which, BTW supply people's home generators as well as vehicles). One issue these last few years of big storms was that, w/o power, too many stations had gas but no way to pump it -- hence regulations to start requiring stations to have their own generators.

I think a scheme by which electricity could somehow be "trucked in" to charging stations is extremely unlikely. Perhaps you have the e-stations keep much larger generating capacity (expensive since unneeded most of the time!) if the grid is knocked out -- but then you're back to trucking in fuel, IOW back where we started.

Pure e-cars are totally dependent, at the mercy of centralization. Everything else about modern tech empowering people stems from growing DE-centralization (or at least pushing it much further back upstream). Hybrid 2.0 (or 3.0) decentralizes electric generating capacity, at least as a fall back.

Now if every charging station had their own Toshiba pocket nuke reactor... :)


It's my understanding that hydrogen can be extracted directly from fossil fuels cheaply and easily through chemical processes, we simply build hydrogen extraction plants instead of new refineries.

Some people have suggested burning it will suck the O2 out of the air though, since H2O doesn't break back down like CO2 etc.

Regarding H2 production, take a look here (I don't think I can insert links here so assemble the url as required.

There are some low energy H2 production methods coming up that should be ready by the time the infrastructure is ready to use it.

Note to Phil Ammar:
Burning bio-fuels releases CO2 into the atmosphere, yes. However that CO2 came from the atmosphere when growing the biomass and will be used again to grow more biomass. It isn't "fossil" CO2 such as that released by burning coal, oil, and natural gas. Furthermore, converting biomass to alcohol keeps it from naturally producing methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas, as well as CO2.

Given sufficient battery capacity, having electricity trucked in is entirely reasonable. This is analogous to people who have their heating oil or propane trucked in once or twice a season. It's all about the capacity and cost of storage vs the cost of direct delivery. When calculating the latter cost, don't forget to include the cost of energy lost to resistance in transmission lines, and the vulnerability thereof.


Re. solar power

Photovoltaic (PV) panels have some advantages over reflector (aka solar concentrator) installations such as the one pictured, but energy density is not one of them. Current reflector installations (in service for about 20 years) produce about 7x the energy for the amount of area covered as current PV technology. If you want to power the air conditioners of a city on a hot day, solar concentration is the way to go.

The PV advantage is no moving parts, portability, and it can be used in small applications. PV technology is getting more efficient and cheaper and will have a place in lots of portable applications for the foreseeable future.

"Given sufficient battery capacity, having electricity trucked in is entirely reasonable."

Dirt cheap air travel is also "reasonable" when anti-gravity is perfected :)

Silliness aside, yes, true massive breakthroughs in "battery" storage capacity/density and life of charge would be paradigm-shifting.
If you can predict twhen that will actually happen... well we could all be rich.

What is practical and doable in the next, say, ten years?


Plug-in hybrids.

That's what we'll be experimenting with over the next decade or so.

I'm sure we'll try all sorts of variations on the plug-in hybrid tune:

Plug-in gas hybrids
Plug-in diesel hybrids
Plug-in flex fuel hybrids

And those three varieties will be tried in serial and parallel versions. Serial is where the gas engine drives the wheels directly when necessary.

Parallel means that the internal combustion engine never directly powers the vehicle. Instead, it charges the batteries. The vehicle is being pushed by electric at all times.

Right Wing Nutter,

Thanks for addressing my main concern about biofuel. I guess since the carbon in biofuel is already part of the carbon cycle, it makes less of an impact than bringing in 'fresh' carbon that has been out of the cycle for some time.

Hydrogen will be produced in a way that might surprise the Greens. Although touted as an emission free, carbon neutral fuel, hydrogen has to come from somewhere, and cracking it by using expensive electric power is not economically feasible. Google "Hydrogen Production by Coal Gasification" for the insight on the near future of hydrogen energy.


Martha Louise, who is the only daughter of King Harald and Queen Sonja, gave up the title of 'royal highness' upon her 2002 marriage to writer Ari, and has a reputation for not standing on ceremony.

Some very intresting ideas and comments. I came across this page whilst looking for cheaper energy prices My bills haven risen by 35% this year and am now facing yet another increase by these greedy energy companies. (Thankfully I only rent so don't have to worry about a mortgage as well.) Has anyone tried this green and cheap renewable energy? If so, be intrested to know how it worked for you.

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