The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label Hydrogen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hydrogen. Show all posts

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Those Pesky Savanna Monkeys and Their Dreams of Golden Hydrogen


Here we sit in a branchy row,
     Thinking of beautiful things we know;
     Dreaming of deeds that we mean to do,
     All complete, in a minute or two--
     Something noble and wise and good,
     Done by merely wishing we could.
         We've forgotten, but--never mind,
         Brother, thy tail hangs down behind!
Rudyard Kipling -- the Jungle Book

By now, you probably heard the story of "Natural Hydrogen," (or "Gold Hydrogen"), the new source of clean energy that should come for free to us, outgassed from the depths of Earth. In 2020, the idea had been reviewed by Zgonnnik (see also an earlier paper), but the concept is becoming popular after it was described in a lengthy article on "Science" of Feb 17, 2022, and then taken up in an enthusiastic article in the NY times on Feb 27, where Peter Coy defines natural hydrogen as a "Gold Mine of Clean Energy Hiding Under our Feet." 

Citing from the "Times" article, "....from an economic point of view, it doesn’t make any sense” to use electricity to produce hydrogen, transport the gas and then extract the energy through combustion or a fuel cell. But if hydrogen is available in gaseous form in the ground, the economics suddenly work."  So, the energy problem is solved. Move on, folks, now we can restart economic growth. 

What's wrong with this idea? Nothing. And everything. There is nothing wrong with finding hydrogen seeping out from the ground. Earth is a huge ball of rock, and it may well be that, somewhere, it contains free hydrogen, maybe even large amounts in comparison with human needs. Unfortunately, everything is wrong with the idea of exploiting that hydrogen as an economic resource. Here, we always stumble on the same problem: most people don't understand the difference between amount, and concentration. A resource is not a resource if it is not concentrated enough. Actually, it has to be concentrated a lot if extracting it has to make sense in economic terms. 

Think of the two resources that made our modern world: oil and gas. By a miracle of geology, you can find them concentrated and nearly pure in the structures we call "wells." Drill a hole into one of these wells, and often oil will flow out by itself in huge gushes. Sometimes you have to pump it out, but it still remains a miracle that you can have so much of it, and so concentrated. That's how we could create an entire civilization based on it.  

It is not always so easy: concentrated mineral resources are very rare in Earth's crust. The problem is best explained by the example of gold. There are large amounts of it dissolved in seawater: tens of millions of tons. It is a lot of gold, but that's because there is a lot of seawater. If you look at the concentration, we are talking of something around 0.005 parts per billion (ppb) or, if you prefer, a few parts per trillion. That's way too low to make extraction feasible, as it was discovered by the German chemist Fritz Haber in the 1920s when he tried to extract gold from the sea to replenish the coffers of the German state, depleted by the Great War. Actually, he had been experimenting with the idea even before the war, but he failed anyway; it was simply impossible. If it is not concentrated enough, it is not a resource. 

So, could there exist underground deposits of natural hydrogen concentrated enough to be usable in practice? We can't say; we only have several reports of hydrogen seeping out of the ground in places scattered all over the planet. There is only one case where one of that seeps is actually used as an energy source. It is in Mali, at Bourakebougou, where natural hydrogen is said to be powering an electricity generator. What is clear, anyway, is that hydrogen will NOT accumulate in the same structures that nicely keep oil and gas safe and concentrated for us -- at least not for a long time. It is such a small molecule that it tends to seep through more or less anything. 

We can all be happy for the inhabitants of Bourakebougou who can have electric power for free. Maybe there are other places where the flow of natural hydrogen can be profitably exploited. But don't forget that we have been drilling holes in the ground for almost two centuries. We found a lot of oil and gas, but no hydrogen wells. Granted, the analytical equipment needed to detect hydrogen was not available in the early times of the oil age. And it is also true that geologists soon honed their drills on the geological features they knew could contain hydrocarbons. But if there were amounts of exploitable hydrogen comparable to those of oil and gas, it is hard to think that they would have been missed for so long. 

I could also list for you a host of further good reasons that make hydrogen extraction problematic, if not impossible. Not the least important one is that we are starting from scratch for a resource of which we know little or nothing, noting that for known mineral resources, it takes an average of 17 years from discovery to the start of production. And consider that hydrogen cannot use the same infrastructure of pipelines used for natural gas. To transport pure hydrogen, the whole system needs to be rebuilt from scratch. But let me not go into the details. The question is: what are we thinking of doing, exactly? What justifies this sudden burst of enthusiasm? 

Peter Coy, in the NY Times, doesn't find a better argument to promote natural hydrogen than citing how the British navy introduced citrus fruit in the diet of sailors to prevent scurvy in 1753. Yes, citrus was a small medical miracle, but miracles are rare and don't come on demand. Rather, "natural hydrogen" looks like a small propaganda operation: a pie in the sky conceived to let us believe that we don't have to worry about anything, no need for changes or sacrifices. We can keep using our beloved fossil fuels because, even if they run out, there is a substitute "hiding just below our feet." 

In the end, this story is another illustration of the fantasy of a primate species that arose a few million years ago, abandoning their ancestral forests to move into savannas. Those savanna monkeys have been very successful in many things, including burning huge amounts of fossil hydrocarbons. A dangerous habit that's likely to lead to their extinction because of the damage it is causing to the whole ecosystem. What's remarkable, though, is how easily those monkeys can get excited about novelties, and think that their dreams will be "All complete, in a minute or two" and "Done by merely wishing we could." A description by Rudyard Kipling about the fictional "Bandar Log," the monkeys of the "Jungle Book," but that he surely meant to be also applied to those savanna monkeys known, perhaps improperly, as "homo sapiens."

An Australopithecus Africanus, one of the first savanna monkeys. Surely smart and creative, they were the start of a tradition of dreaming the impossible that continues to this day.

Friday, May 14, 2021

A Concise History of the concept of "Hydrogen Economy"

Reposted from "The Hydrogen Skeptics" blog. 

The concept of "hydrogen economy" has a distinct "1960s" feeling. It is the idea of maintaining the lifestyle of the post-war period, with suburban homes, green lawns around them, two cars in every garage, all that. The only difference would be that this world would be powered with clean hydrogen. It all started with the dream of cheap and abundant energy that nuclear plants were believed to be able to produce. The idea changed shape many times, but it always remained a dream, and probably will continue to remain a dream in the future.


by Ugo Bardi

Before discussing the history of the concept of "hydrogen economy" we should try to define it. As you should expect, there are several variations on the theme but, basically, it is not about a single technology but a combination of three. Hydrogen would be used for: 1) energy storage, 2) energy vectoring, and 3) fuel for vehicles. 

This "hydrogen triad" misses the fundamental point of how hydrogen should be created. Often, that's supposed to be done using electrolysis powered by renewable energy but, alternatively, from natural gas, a process that would be made "green" by carbon sequestration. There are other possibilities, but all have in common being multi-step processes with considerable efficiency losses. And the fact of never having been proven to be economically feasible on a large scale.

Indeed, the immediate problem with replacing fossil fuels is not vectoring or storage, surely not powering individual cars. It is the enormous investments needed to build up the primary production infrastructure that would be needed in terms of solar or wind plants (or nuclear), which don't seem to be materializing fast enough to generate a smooth transition. Surely, not growing fast enough to be compatible with a relatively inefficient infrastructure based on hydrogen. Nevertheless, the "hydrogen economy" seems to be rapidly becoming the center of the debate

Indeed, the Google Ngrams site shows two distinct peaks of interest for the concept, both grew rapidly and rapidly faded away. But it seems clear that a third cycle of interest is starting to appear, and that is confirmed by what we can read in the media.

So, why this focus on a technology that lacks the basic elements that would make it useful in the near term? As it is often the case, ideas do not arrive all of a sudden, out of the blue. If we want to understand what made hydrogen so popular nowadays, we need to examine how the idea developed over at least a couple of centuries of scientific developments.

That hydrogen could be used as fuel was known from the early 19th century. Already in 1804, the first internal combustion engine in history was powered by hydrogen. The first explicit mention of hydrogen as an energy storage medium goes back to John Haldane in 1923, where he even discussed the possibility of using "oxidation cells" that we call today "fuel cells," invented by William Grove in 1838.

But these ideas remained at the margins of the discussion for a long time: no one could find a practical use for a fuel, hydrogen, that was more expensive and more difficult to store and use than conventional fossil fuels. Things started to change with the development of nuclear energy in the 1950s, with its promise of a new era of abundance. But, in the beginning, hydrogen found no role in the nuclear dream. For instance, you wouldn't find any mention of hydrogen as an energy carrier in the "manifesto" of the atomic age: the 1957 TV documentary by Walt Disney, "Our Friend, the Atom.

In the book derived from the movie, there was an entire chapter dedicated to how nuclear energy was going to power homes, ships, submarines, and even planes. But nothing was said about the need for fuels for road transportation. The atomic car was just briefly mentioned as "not a possibility for the near future." The engineers of Ford thought otherwise when, in the same year (1957), they proposed the concept of a nuclear-powered car, the Ford Nucleon. But nobody really believed that such a car could ever be produced. At the beginning of the nuclear age, there was no concern about climate change, and no one foresaw the need or the possibility of entirely replacing fossil fuels from the world's energy infrastructure.

The idea of hydrogen as an element of the new nuclear infrastructure started gaining weight only in the 1960s, in parallel with the problems that the nuclear industry was experiencing. The assessments of the world's uranium ores showed that mineral uranium was not abundant enough to support a large expansion of nuclear energy as envisaged at that time. But the industry had a technological solution: "fast" reactors that could be used to "breed" fissile materials in the form of plutonium. The fast reactor technology could have increased the duration of the uranium reserves of several hundred years, perhaps thousands. 

Fast reactors turned out to be more expensive and complex than expected, but the problem was not technological, it was strategic. The "plutonium-based economy" would have generated a gigantic proliferation problem. It was clear to the Western leaders that diffusing this technology all over the world put them at risk of losing the monopoly of weapons of mass destruction that they shared with the Soviet Union. 

So, if fast breeders were to be built, they needed to be only a few and to be very large to allow tight military control. They also needed to be large to exploit economies of scale. But that led to another problem: how to carry the energy to consumers? Electrical lines have a distance limit of the order of a thousand km, and can hardly cross the sea. The kind of plants envisaged at that time would be spaced much more than that from each other. It was at this point that the idea of hydrogen as an energy carrier crept in. It could have been used to distribute nuclear energy at a long distance without the need to distribute the reactors themselves. 

It was a concept discussed perhaps for the first time in 1969 by the Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti, He was, (now he is in his 90s) a creative scientist who proposed that just 10 gigantic fast reactors of a few TW each would have been enough to power the whole world. The reactors could be built on remote oceanic islands, where the water needed for cooling would have been abundantly available. Then, the energy would have been transformed into liquid hydrogen at low temperature and carried everywhere in the world by hydrogen carrier ships. In the image from one of Marchetti's papers, you see how an existing coral atoll in the South Pacific Ocean, Canton Island, could be converted into a Terawatt power nuclear central.

To paraphrase the theme of Disney's "nuclear manifesto" of 1957, the hydrogen genius was now out of the bottle. In 1970, John Bockris, another creative scientist, coined the term "hydrogen-based economy." In the meantime, NASA had started using hydrogen-powered fuel cells for the Gemini manned spacecraft program. It was only at this point that the "hydrogen car" appeared, replacing in the public's imagination the obviously unfeasible nuclear-powered car. 
It was a daring scheme (to say the least), but not impossible from a purely technological viewpoint. But, as we all know, the dreams of a plutonium economy failed utterly. With the oil crisis of 1973, the nuclear industry seemed to have a golden opportunity. Instead, it collapsed. We can see in the Ngrams how the concept of "fast breeder" picked up interest and then faded, together with that of nuclear energy. The reasons for the downfall of the nuclear industry are complex and controversial but, surely, can't be reduced to accusing the "Greens" of ideological prejudices. Mainly, the decline can be attributed to two factors: one was the fear of nuclear proliferation by the US government, the other the opposition of the fossil fuel industry, unwilling to cede the control of the world's energy production to a competitor. Whatever the causes, in the 1980s the interest in a large expansion of the nuclear infrastructure rapidly declined, although the existing plants remained in operation.

And hydrogen? The downfall of nuclear energy could have carried with it also the plans for hydrogen as an energy carrier, but that didn't happen. The proponents repositioned the concept of "hydrogen economy" as a way to utilize renewable energy. 

One problem was that renewable energy, be it solar, wind, or whatever, is inherently a distributed technology, so why would it need hydrogen as a carrier? Yet, renewables had a problem that nuclear energy didn't have, that of intermittency. That required some kind of storage and hydrogen would have done the job, at least in theory. Add that at in the 1980s there were no good batteries that could have powered road vehicles, and that made the idea of a "hydrogen car" powered by fuel cells attractive. Then, you may understand that the idea of a hydrogen-based economy would maintain its grip on people's imagination. You can see in the figure (from Google Ngrams) how the concept of "hydrogen car picked up interest. 

It was a short-lived cycle of interest. It was soon realized that the technical problems involved were nightmarish and probably unsolvable. Fuel cells worked nicely in space, but, on Earth, the kind used in the Gemini spacecraft were rapidly poisoned by the carbon dioxide of the atmosphere. Other kinds of cells that could work on Earth were unreliable and, more than that, required platinum as a catalyst and that made them expensive. And not just that, there was not enough mineral platinum on Earth to make it possible to use these cells as a replacement for the combustion engines used in transportation. In the meantime, oil prices had gone down, the crises of the 1970s and 1980s seemed to be over, so, who needed hydrogen? Why spend money on it? The first cycle of interest in the hydrogen-based economy faded out in the mid-1980s. 

But the story was not over. Some researchers remained stubbornly committed to hydrogen and, in 1989, Geoffrey Ballard developed a new kind of fuel cell that used a conducting polymer as the electrolyte. It was a significant improvement, although not the breakthrough that it was said to be at the time. Then, in 1998, Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere argued that the world's oil resources were being rapidly depleted and that production would soon start declining. It was a concept that, later on, Campbell dubbed "Peak Oil." In 2001, the attacks on the World Trade Center of New York showed that we lived in a fragile world where the supply of vital crude oil that kept civilization moving was far from guaranteed. Two years later, there would come the invasion of Iraq by the US, not the first and not the last of the "wars for oil." 

All these factors led to a return of interest in hydrogen energy, stimulated by the popular book by Jeremy Rifkin, "The Hydrogen Economy," published in 2002. The new cycle of interest peaked in 2006 (again, look at the Ngrams results, above), and then it faded. The problems that had brought the first cycle to its end were still there: cost, inefficiency, and unreliability (and not enough platinum for the fuel cells). Besides, a new generation of batteries was sounding the death knell for the idea of using hydrogen to power vehicles. Look at the compared cycles of hydrogen and of lithium batteries.

 Note the different widths of the peaks. It is typical: technologies that work (lithium) keep being mentioned in the scientific literature. Instead, technologies that are fads (hydrogen) show narrow peaks of interest, then they disappear. You can't just keep telling people that you'll bring them a technological marvel without ever delivering it. 

At this point, you would be tempted to say that hydrogen as an energy carrier and storage medium is a dead platypus. But no, the discussion on the hydrogen economy is restarting, research grants are being provided, plans are being made. 

Did something change that's generating this new cycle? Not really, the technologies are still the same. Surely there have been marginal improvements, but hydrogen remains an expensive and inefficient method to store energy. So, why this new round of interest in hydrogen?

The vagaries of memes are always open to interpretation, and, in this case, we can suppose that one of the elements that push hydrogen back to the global consciousness lies in its origins of supporting technology for a centralized economy, the one that would have resulted from the widespread use of fast breeder reactors. In this sense, hydrogen is in a different league from that of most renewable technologies that exist and operate over a distributed network. 

So, even if the nuclear industry is today a pale shadow of what it was in the 1960s, there remains the fossil fuel industry to champion the role of centralized energy supply. And, obviously, the fossil fuel producers, who produce hydrogen from fossil sources, are those who are going to benefit most by a return to hydrogen, no matter how short-lived it will be. 

There may be another, deeper, reason for the success of the hydrogen meme with the public. It is because most people, understandably, resist change even when they realize that change is necessary. So, replacing fossil fuels with electricity-producing renewables is something that will force most of us to radical changes in our lifestyle. Conversely, hydrogen promises change with no change: it would be just a question of switching from a dirty fuel to a clean one, and things would remain more or less the same. We would still fill up the tanks of our cars at a service station, we would still have electric power on demand, we would still take two weeks of vacation in Hawai'i once per year. 

Unfortunately, people change only when they are forced to and that's what's probably going to happen. But, for a while, we can still dream of a hydrogen-based society that seems to be curiously similar to that of the US suburbs of the 1960s. Dreams rarely come true, though. 


Monday, March 22, 2021

The Hydrogen Myth: Technology and Religion in the Decline of Civilizations


I just started a new blog titled "The Hydrogen Skeptics." It is about the hydrogen economy and hydrogen as a fuel and it is a little technical as a subject. So I thought it was not appropriate to discuss it in a somewhat philosophical blog like "The Seneca Effect." Yet, there are points in common, as I am arguing in this post. Above: the nuclear-powered car "Ford Nucleon", unfortunate technological prodigy of the 1950s, that never was turned into anything practical.

The Romans of imperial times found themselves in a situation not unlike ours. Gradually running out of resources, they found themselves more and more in trouble with keeping together a vast empire that was enormously expensive to defend and govern. Already at the time of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (1st century AD), it must have been clear to everyone that something was not running right in the very bowels of the giant organism that was the Empire. But what was wrong, exactly?

All societies are based on a fundamental "founding myth" that forms the justification of everything that was done and is being done. The Romans were not a technology-based civilization, and they would have been puzzled by our fixation on new gadgets. They were a military civilization that built its founding myth on the prowess of their soldiers and the efficiency of their armies. That, in turn, was believed to be the result of the Gods' benevolence who had rewarded the Romans for their virtues. The Romans were supposed to be brave, strong, and pious, and they never failed to perform the sacrifices that were due to please their Gods. 

You can understand this attitude if you read Virgil's "Aeneid," (1st century AD), truly the foundation of the Roman view of the world. The hero and the central protagonist of the story is the Trojan warrior Aeneas, who goes through a series of adventures always careful to follow the advice of the Gods. He is neither dumb nor insensitive, but he never loses track of his mission. And the Gods, in turn, help him to achieve his goal. Being the son of a Goddess (Aphrodite) helps him a lot, too!

So, the Romans saw themselves as still performing Aeneas' mission when they conquered new lands and new peoples. The idea was to bring them civilization, (similar to our slogan "bring them democracy.") The Romans were genuinely convinced to be a superior civilization and that the manifest destiny of  Barbarians was to become Romans. But things started going wrong and many Barbarians stubbornly refused to surrender to the glorious Roman armies. So, what was the problem? Had the Gods abandoned the Romans? Maybe it was because they were not anymore so virtuous as they used to be during the good times. Maybe the Romans had become lazy, maybe they had forgotten the proper sacrifice rituals. 

One reaction was to return to the ancient virtues and to the ancient religion. We see this tendency during the whole period of decadence of the Empire, from the 1st century onward. We see it in the Stoic school of philosophy -- of which Seneca was a prominent member. Just like the mythical hero, Aeneas, Stoics emphasized personal virtue in difficult times. They would find their reward just in being virtuous, independently on whether they had succeeded or not in their task. 

Stoics were not so convinced about the religious practices and the many deities of their times. They tended to replace what they saw as silly beliefs with a loftier vision of a single, all-powerful spiritual entity. But they weren't iconoclasts. They were supporters of the traditional religions for those who didn't have the culture and the intelligence necessary to understand a higher level of spirituality. It is also possible that cultivating one's virtues, as Stoics were doing, was seen as a way to convince the Gods that they should continue to support the Romans, or maybe restart supporting them.

Despite many efforts, the diffusion of Stoicism didn't seem to help very much, and the situation moved from bad to worse. That may have been one of the reasons why the Romans tended to try to fix their founding myth by switching to new religions. So, they tended to deify their emperors, that is, to turn him into a God to be worshiped just like all the other Gods. Surely, being led by one of the members of the divine coterie would surely mean that the Gods won't let their brother in Rome alone to fight those hordes of bad-smelling barbarians. It was not an easy task to turn the man at the top into a God, since he normally was a homicidal psychopath, or a sexual predators, or a pervert -- often all these things together. And the effort didn't seem to help so much, either. 

Another strategy, a little more radical, was to import new religions from abroad. During the first two centuries of the Empire, Rome was truly a supermarket of Oriental religions. In some cases, new deities were incorporated into the existing Pantheon: Cybele, Isis, Mithras, and more. In other cases, entire new cults were transplanted into the Empire: Manichaeists, Zoroastrians, Mithraists, Jews, Christians, and more.

Eventually, one of these Oriental religions, Christianity, managed to get the upper hand over the others and it merged with the Emperor's cult. Constantine "The Great" (272 – 337 AD) saw himself as a divinely appointed emperor, but also a supporter of Christianity. From then on, apart for brief intervals, the Roman Empire was ruled by Christian Emperors. Theodosius "The Great" (347 – 395) officially banned Paganism from the Empire. 

As we all know, these efforts didn't work so well. Despite the new faith and the divine emperors, the founding myth of the Roman Empire was hopelessly obsolete. The Empire faded away. It had to: God's benevolence was not enough to keep it together. The new founding myths were Christianity (without divine emperors) for Europe and Islam for the Middle East and Northern Africa. They ushered new kinds of societies, better adapted to the new times.

In time, Christianity lost its role as the founding myth of the European society. We tend to see the European world dominance as the result not of God's benevolence, but of our technological prowess. Our technological tricks are what keeps the modern Global Empire together and we seem to be convinced that, if we have problems, all we need to do is to invent new tricks -- new founding myths. The consequence is that all the problems we face can be removed by more technology.  

But, in this phase of decline, it is clear that the Global Empire has enormous problems: running out of fossil fuels, pollution, global warming, social unrest, economic crisis, and more. So, we are trying to revamp and keep alive our founding myths. 

Just like in ancient Roman Times, we are in a phase of a plethora of new myths that compete to get the upper hand as the new, improved founding myth. Our equivalent of Stoicism is the idea that we should be virtuous by saving energy and separating household waste. Another "mythlet" is the idea that our problem with fossil fuels, can be solved by switching to another fuel (hydrogen) supposed to be both more abundant and cleaner. 

The hydrogen myth is on a par with others that try to repair a damaged machine on the run. Some of these ideas are purely mythological, including the various nuclear technologies supposed to create energy out of nothing (the nuclear water boiler, the e-cat, is a good example). But some of these ideas are technically valid, just don't expect them to be the new founding myths for something that has to disappear anyway. Just as Christianity survived the end of the Roman Empire, some technologies that we are developing nowadays will survive the collapse of the Global Empire. Wind, solar, hydro, and others can provide energy, but they'll support a society that will be completely different from the current one. 

So, why couldn't hydrogen be one of these technologies that will survive? It is because of technical reasons: hydrogen as a fuel has many problems that make it unsuitable for uses other than niche applications. Thinking of hydrogen on a grand scale as supporting a society as complex and wasteful as ours is simply a dream. Nevertheless, hydrogen remains popular nowadays just because of this impossible promise -- it is like a politician that gets elected by promising things that he will never be able to deliver. 

For this reason, we need an in-depth discussion to understand what hydrogen can, and cannot, do and avoid that it becomes a stumbling block in the transition away from fossil fuels that we are facing. That's why I created a new blog titled "The Hydrogen Skeptics" In the introduction to the new blog, I write: 

I am not against hydrogen in itself, which is just a natural element among 92 others. And I am open to the possibility that energy technologies based on hydrogen may find applications in the future. I am skeptical about the hype that surrounds hydrogen technologies. Not all technologies turn out to be feasible, no matter how hyped. Just think of the Ford Nucleon, nuclear powered car of the 1950s, shown in the cover image.
So, if you want to take a look at the new blog, click on the image of the unfortunate Ford Nucleon, taken as an example of technological hubris, one more revolutionary idea that never worked.

Right now, there is only one post on the new blog, but I plan new posts soon and the blog is open for discussion. If you are interested to contribute, just write to me.