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Thursday, January 8, 2015

SIMPLE SOLUTIONS FOR HUMANITY'S MOST IMPORTANT PROBLEMS: #7 The Ultimate Energy System (Part 2B)--Hydrogen, the Ultimate Energy System

I could have had parts C and D, but here is the answer in one giant posting:  the ultimate energy system will someday feature hydrogen.

About nuclear power, fission (uranium and plutonium) produces highly radioactive wastes that will need to be watched for hundreds of thousands of years.  There is the danger of terrorism and fickleness of fuel costs (jumped by a factor of ten from 2004 to 2008):

Fusion is much cleaner, poses minimal security problems and there is fuel for a long time to come.  Just the deuterium from one liter (slightly more than a quart) of water contains enough deuterium to equate with 500 liters of oil.  Fusion fuel should only be about 1% the production cost of the electricity. While only 0.015% of water is deuterium, there is enough water to support a total fusion energy economy for billions of years...and our Planet Earth will become uninhabitable in less than 2 billion years.

If our Sun and all the stars use fusion to produce energy, surely there must be a message there.  I actually wrote an article for The Huffington Post entitled, Star Power for Humanity.  Not trying to promote Starbucks, but they had an applicable ad.  Anyway, the problem is that we need to develop a way to fuse hydrogen cost effectively.  We haven't even today attained break-even with isotopes of hydrogen:  deuterium and tritium.

When I worked at the Lawrence Livermore  National Laboratory in the 70's on laser fusion, it became clear to me that no one had the faintest idea what laser would be used and how long it would take for success.  The National Ignition Facility has had a rollercoaster of a ride, from nearly giving up two years ago to last year suggesting that, perhaps, progress is being made.  I would bet that laser fusion will get to break-even (producing as much as, and hopefully a lot more, than the energy inputted) before any Tokamak (ITER--that donut--to come).

The other major fusion option ongoing in France is ITER (the acronym for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), where a magnetic confinement (large toroidal--think donut--device) scheme is utilized.  Last year, outgoing director-general of ITER, Osamu Motojima gave a depressing account of progress to Nature:
  • the cost has tripled to $20 billion
  • experiments will be pushed back from 2016 to 2020, maybe even 2023, and if the delay is to 2025, the project will never survive...and that is just the first experiment having nothing to do with breakeven
  • the U.S. Senate proposed a budget to pull out of ITER, even though we really cannot until 2017 or later
  • it is difficult to coordinate seven countries separately building pieces of the puzzle, Japan suffered a major setback because of Fukushima and the political turmoil with Russia is hurting the effort
Cold fusion by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann (left) made a splash in 1989, it immediately got panned, and has never attained any kind confirming success.  Yet, the room temperature potential and compact nature of the concept plead for another chance.  Here is a simple explanation.   I'm still holding my breath for ultimate success.

Lockheed Martin also announced a process to produce controlled fusion energy in a compact container.  Called the high beta configuration, the goal is to produce a product that will fit on the back of a truck and produce 100 MW of output, sufficient for a town of 80,000 people.  Just a bit smaller, and you have the future of transport.  They will be testing of this reactor this year with a prototype expected in five years.  The LM team is led by Charles Chase (right).

Finally, I am aware of Fusion Power Corporation, which has announced the production of 50,000 MW at their first commercial facility within the next decade.  The president, Charles Helsley (right), was a close colleague of mine at the University of Hawaii.  
He provided a guest posting to this site on 4 January 2011:
  • Their concept is heavy ion fusion (HIF).
  • The research was essentially completed in the 1970's
  • Will fuse deuterium and tritium.
  • Will be driven by known accelerator technology.
  • The expectation is a delivered cost of less than 3 cents/kWh.
  • Capital cost for a gigajoule system will be around $50 billion, and he shifted gears on me, but 1 gj/hour is equal to 3.6 MW (megawatts).
  • Output products will be hydrogen, synthetic fuels and water.
As I indicated that the Blue Revolution is ideal for Japan, Helsley suggested that Heavy Ion Fusion is the only energy solution for Japan, for the whole process can be commercialized in a decade.

While HIF promises all the energy forms for society, the other fusion concepts only talk about electricity and heat, which won't power aviation.  Hydrogen seems ideal for this purpose, as it is the lightest fuel/volume, produces water as the end product and is the most abundant gas in the Universe, accounting for 75% of normal matter.  There is, of course, dark matter, which no one has yet discovered.  Plus hydrogen is hard to get.  The problem becomes cost.  

One of the main reasons why I went to work in the U.S. Senate 36 years ago was to create a hydrogen program, with some emphasis on future aviation.  Yes, that's how I looked (I'm the guy to the right).   I wrote the first draft of such a bill for the U.S. Senate in 1980, which subsequently became the Matsunaga Hydrogen Act.  Not sure where they got this information, but this link to RH2 Network seems to be mostly correct.  Thus, from a zero budget in the 1980's, at one point during the George W. Bush (the younger) White Hose, the hydrogen budget was higher than the solar technology budget.

And the future has arrived, with the Toyota hydrogen powered Mirai already beginning sales.  Toyota also made available all 5,680 global patents it owns to anyone until 2020.  The car can run for 300 miles on a 3-5 minute charge, accelerates from zero to 60 in 9 seconds and is clean running.  Initially in the U.S.:
  • Only available in California (and that's because Southern California has hydrogen filling stations).
  • Sticker price of $57,500, but with incentives from the state of $13,000, the cost will be $45,000.  However, somebody needs to learn subtraction.
  • There is some rumor that the fuel will be FREE!!! 
Frankly, I don't think this early move is warranted.  While the hydrogen today will be derived from natural gas, and could well be almost cost effective, there remains the problem of carbon dioxide at the manufacturing site, and the price of natural gas will not remain low forever.  Hydrogen from the electrolysis of water is quite high, and can only compete if electricity is a very few cents/kWh.

Hydrogen aviation remains only a wishful thought today.  The Matsunaga Hydrogen Act resulted in the National Aerospace Plane (above) in the 1980's, and several billion dollars were expended by the Department of Defense, but the effort became a black program and it is not clear what the status is today.

Rinaldo Brutoco has his Hydrogen Clipper, promising to travel at 350 MPH (all dirigibles today move at much lower than 100 MPH), making a day trip from the West Coast to Honolulu possible.  However, airships, like travel to Mars, remain mostly a vision. While I am a member of Rinaldo's World Business Academy, and am rooting for him, others are also entering the picture, for the Aeroscraft (266 feet long) of a San Diego company has taken flight:

However, it only has a cruising speed of 115 MPH to haul cargo, has a skin of carbon fiber and aluminum and uses compressed helium, not hydrogen, for buoyancy.  It is not a blimp, like the Goodyear, but has a rigid structure.  The federal government  provided $35 million and NASA assisted.

Wikipedia covers this general field, for Lockheed Martin has been active for military applications, but the only organization to tout hydrogen for buoyancy and power to move people and cargo is the Hydrogen Clipper.  Some day, though, a supersonic hydrogen jetliner could well be the next generation of aviation.   
Thus, as dirty coal, intermittent solar and dangerous fission all have fatal flaws, there can only be hope that some form of fusion will someday be commercialized, with hydrogen, perhaps, becoming a necessary fuel for aviation.  In any case, HYDROGEN, the first and most abundant element in the Universe, seems fated to become the ULTIMATE ENERGY SYSTEM, for fusion utilizes the isotopes of hydrogen.  The primary questions are when and how?  I had the gall to, in public, and The Huffington Post, suggest MAKING HYDROGEN FREE!

This is a series to provide SIMPLE SOLUTIONS TO HUMANITY'S MOST IMPORTANT PROBLEMS.  Next, The Blue Revolution.


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