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Wednesday, September 27, 2017


The Universe probably provides the clue to where our future energy supply will come.  75% of normal matter is hydrogen.  Stars use hydrogen fusion to produce energy.  Yet, "normal matter" is only 4% of the Universe.  Dark matter and dark energy, yet to be observed or measured, supposedly account for 96% of what exists around us.  You think religion has soft foundations, science is even more arcane.

Take uranium, used in Atomic-bombs and all nuclear power plants today...they were probably created in supernovae explosions many billions of years ago.  Plutonium, however, is largely man-made.  And, by the way, there is one uranium molecule for every trillion hydrogen molecules.  Want to know how uranium reached our planet and accumulated into ores?  Click on this.

The Big Bang occurred around 13.8 years ago and Planet Earth formed a little more than 4.5 billion years in our past.  Hundreds of million years ago coal formed from plants on land and oil/natural gas from microorganisms in the ocean.  Energy storage in the industrial age has depended on these fossil fuels, and will continue to do so until global warming becomes serious enough that some form carbon tax will begin to curtail use, unless, of course, Peak Oil actually occurs.

Humanity will switch away from fossil fuels anyway, for at some point, they will begin to become scarce, although this could be many, many decades away. Also, too, fission (using Uranium and Plutonium) will recede because of Chernobyl/Fukushima,  and the combination of terroristic, storage and cost problems.

Thus, the renewable options will more and more become prominent.  In time, fusion (hydrogen isotopes--deuterium and tritium, because we cannot in the near future create conditions found in the core of stars) too, for this is the ultimate star power.

I spent a couple of assignments on laser fusion research in the 1970's at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, under, way under, Edward Teller, Father of the Hydrogen Bomb, but gave up because I thought commercialization was 50 years away.  Forty years later, any kind of commercial fusion--ITER for magnetic confinement and laser fusion at Livermore--is still half a century away.

Governments are the only real option today, but there are a few private sector initiatives...and where are the giant oil companies...or Silicon Valley...or Elon Musk?  I had hopes for buddy Charles Helsley's Fusion Power Corporation, but the sound of silence only omens poorly.  Chuck or Bob (chairman of the board), if you're out there somewhere, bring me up to date.

I was on the team (Chuck was the geophysicist and I served as reservoir engineer) that produced geothermal energy on the Big Island more than 40 years ago.  Geothermal is baseload, and, in the long term, hot dry rock shows immense potential.  The earth stores the heat, so the lack of any additional storage needs makes the geo-option quite cost effective.

Which leaves us with renewable energy.  I've long felt that biomass--plants, micro-organisms, etc.--made the most shorter term sense, and, in particular, gasification, then catalytic conversion into methanol using the direct methanol fuel cell for transport was the logical pathway.   A fuel cell car can take a vehicle at least twice the distance of any battery, and biomethanol is five times cheaper than hydrogen and the only liquid fuel that can be directly processed by a fuel cell.

However, hydrogen being the simplest gas (while methanol, also known as methyl alcohol, is the simplest organic liquid) and most abundant element in the Universe, combusted in the atmosphere producing water as the byproduct, surely, was destined to be the ultimate fuel.  Hydrogen for next generation aviation also should be in the future.   This is why I drafted the first hydrogen bill in the U.S. Senate way back in 1980, which became the Matsunaga Hydrogen Act.  Above:  Hawaiian Hydrogen Clipper?

Before going on to energy storage, here is a comparison of electricity production alternatives:

The above are all utility scale, so more in detail:

Note the most cost effective in 2017 are:

  1. Geothermal
  2. Natural Gas
  3. Windpower on land
  4. Hydroelectricity
  5. Coal
  6. Nuclear Biomass
Solar PV is still more expensive (while utility scale is right up there with wind, residential PV is not), and so are offshore wind energy and solar thermal.  OTEC is off the charts high.

However, for a variety of reasons, wind power and solar energy became the dominant sustainable options.  Both come and go and are undependable.  Here is a list of all storage concepts:
Batteries have led the way, and electricity storage has shifted from lead and nickel-cadmium to lithium.  Lithium is lighter and cheap enough. While a reasonable transition alternative, to be further improved with nanotechnology, the lithium battery will still always be too expensive. Note that the USA produces no lithium.  In the future I'll touch on:
  • A better battery
  • Chevy Bolt versus Musk Tesla
  • The optimal storage technology for
    • transportation
    • grids
    • portable electronics
  • The ultimate replacement for batteries

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