Sunday, April 23, 2006

More From Our "In-The-Future" President


How can you not be touched by that picture? Being a new father, with a toddler of about the same age, this just pulls at my heart, I mean right down there in the right ventricle. Of course the problem comes in when I engage my brain - Goddamn logic! The brain pipes up, and soon the right ventricle thing starts to rapidly fade into oblivion. Why, you may ask? This isn't G.W. simply sharing a touching moment with a new born, no, no, no, that's not it at all. Bush is actually explaining to the kid how he's loaded our national debt, social security problems, and so much else on him and his generation, and G.W. is likely interpreting the loud belch he's getting in return as a sign of approval. The only possible redeeming aspect of this conversation that might have resulted would have been if the kid power-chucked his formula onto the deceiver-in-chief (oh God, my animosity here is really starting to show, I need to get this in check as it might start affecting my blogging), but that would have been hoping for far too much - the spin-meisters here likely made sure the kid hadn't been recently fed and dusted G.W.'s hands with Similac or Enfamil to throw the kid off from howling.

Ok, what's gotten me onto this most recent rant? I read a story line on CNN yesterday, Bush: 'Hydrogen is the fuel of the future' and it got my blood pressure up a tad. I tend to use CNN as the warning bell that tells me to look for more in-depth coverage somewhere else, so I then went to the Times where I found Energy Politics on Earth Day as Bush Tours California. Here I read:

"I strongly believe hydrogen is the fuel of the future," Mr. Bush said, adding that he thought that today's children would take their driving tests in hydrogen-powered cars.

Of course taken in the collective consideration of all the other things that are "in the future", it raised my BP a few additional points. I have little doubt that at some point in the future, after we've actually perfected an economical means by which to harness the power of fuel cells, that hydrogen will make a dandy alternative fuel source. I mean if it's good enough for most of the U.S. rocket inventory, as it has been, in combination with its good buddy oxygen, for so, so many years, why shouldn't it be good enough for cars? Of course the means by which hydrogen is used for cars is vastly different than it is for lifting rockets into orbit, though otherwise the fuel cells used inside a spacecraft would not be vastly different with regard to the basic physics. But therein lies two problems: 1. figuring out how to make powerful enough fuel cells economically, and 2. obtaining sufficient hydrogen to make this work. A subset to #2, which I won't get into but is worthy of some mention, is how one goes about constructing the infrastructure for delivering hydrogen, a tricky gas to store given the size of the hydrogen molecules, that would be roughly equal to how we distribute gasoline - no easy, nor cheap thing to do.

Where does hydrogen come from? Today it mostly comes from fossil fuels, and one of the government's main areas of focus in this area is to get hydrogen from coal, to wit, as found at
Experiments examine hydrogen-production benefits of clean coal burning:

"While some day we may be able to produce hydrogen by breaking up water
molecules in association with the high-temperature heat from nuclear power
reactors, or through renewable energy technologies, right now the most cost-effective way to produce hydrogen is with coal," says Chris Shaddix, principal investigator for clean coal combustion at Sandia's Combustion Research Facility.

The fact that the U.S. has an extraordinary supply of coal in the ground (we in fact export coal) makes a technology that would extract hydrogen from coal that much more attractive. Of course one still has the problem of what to do with the by-products of the use of coal, to include the carbon dioxide that would be produced and the heavy metals that come with various grades of coal - the radioactivity put into the environment by a coal-fired electrical plant from the radioactive heavy metals in the coal far exceeds what one gets from an equivalent nuclear powered one (and let's not talk about the mercury, another not so nice heavy metal, from coal-fired plants.) So while today's children may be taking their driving tests with hydrogen-powered cars (unlikely, actually, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt), the hydrogen they'll be burning will likely be from a fossil fuel source.

Mr. Shaddix at Sandia mentions renewable energy technologies, which would certainly seem to make hydrogen more attractive. This would mean taking energy from the sun, wind, or some other "renewable" energy source, and directing it into the breakdown of water into its constituent parts, hydrogen and oxygen. The problem here is cost, and here I turn to the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance, specifically Hydrogen--The new fuel of choice:

Cost is a significant factor limiting the use of renewable hydrogen. It now costs several times more to make hydrogen from renewable energy than by producing hydrogen from fossil fuel. The OEA is involved in several promising demonstration and research projects for renewable hydrogen, but it will be 5 to
10 years before these technologies approach the current price of obtaining hydrogen from fossil fuels.

From my general reading I'd say that 5 to 10 years is an optimistic estimate, though with the price of oil climbing the way it is who knows what sort of stimulant that would provide? The problem is that perfecting the technology is one thing, building the infrastructure to support the "hydrogen" economy is something else all together different and that's not going to happen in 5 to 10 years.

So yes, hydrogen may be a fuel of the future, but we'll still be sucking on a fossil fuel teat, like we are with ethanol. Corn is a great sort source of ethanol, as any whiskey drinker can attest to, but to grow that bushel of corn and then transport it somewhere takes an incredible amount of fossil fuel, something that's not often mentioned by gasohol advocates, yet General Motors for one has the nerve to hype this as a "green" alternative.

Hydrogen, alcohol, and many other wonderful alternative sources of energy may well have a place to play in our future energy needs, but they're all "in the future", they're an abstraction when it comes to comprising a signifncant portion of this country's energy needs. Right now they're being used by this administration to sway us into thinking that something substantial is actually being done to address our energy problems and needs, when in fact they're being used as a near term deception and may indeed also be a long term deception. Conservation and a realistic energy policy, which certainly aren't nearly as sexy as technology dependent solutions that arrive in some indeterminate future, are what's needed, but no one in a position to make a difference seems to be pushing this. Why? It means pain for the average American, having to make a sacrifice, and we're now being led by a government that's loathe to make you feel any pain for the ostensible war we're in, in fact they want to reduce taxes though that's by and large for the well-to-do. So in the no child left without huge debt mentality of this administration we'll just let our kids feel and shoulder our pain, though no one reading this should have any doubt that they'll be around long enough to share it with them.


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