Peak oil, biofuels, hydrogen and all that jazz

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Hawknc
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Peak oil, biofuels, hydrogen and all that jazz

Postby Hawknc » Thu Jan 18, 2007 10:29 am UTC

zomg actual discussion time! I'm big into the whole alternative fuels thing, but nobody else I know seems to give a damn, so I'm trying to get a gauge of public opinion about it, what the perception of different fuels is, that sort of thing. First off, does anyone think peak oil exists/is upon us? Is it all a big Y2K-style scare? What's the best way to avoid it?

For the sake of disclosure so you know my biases on the subject: while I think peak oil exists, I'm not all apocalyptic about it. It's a problem that has a solution. Personally I don't buy into the whole "hydrogen economy" thing as a solution, I think we'd be better served by energy diversity - a combination of electricity and biofuels is far more efficient.

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Postby Toeofdoom » Thu Jan 18, 2007 11:06 am UTC

From the title i seriously thought this was a spam bot. (didnt remember to read the username)

I do think that oil reserves will eventually run out, or become too small for use as they are used today. And there may be people who are scared by this, and people who want to cash in. But then, i dont drive, and i dont plan on it, so aslong as theres still electricity, ill be fine. failing that, ive had alot of practice walking anyway.

If you want something to be apocalyptic about, jump on the global warming bandwagon, i hear its all the rage nowadays. :x
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Postby Belial » Thu Jan 18, 2007 3:22 pm UTC

I'm on that bandwagon. I play the trombone.

Which is to say, I think peak oil is irrelevant because, whether we're running out of the stuff or not, we need to stop using it before our planet melts.

But on the topic....I work for a company that builds ethanol plants, and I tend to be pretty in-favor of the stuff. Still, I worry that it's just trading one set of environmental problems for a totally different one.

For example, the mass farming of corn and the fertilizer-runoff involved is currently causing fast-growth algal blooms that are creating a huge de-oxygenated dead-zone to spread into the gulf of mexico. Last I heard, there were miles of dead ocean out there where nothing can live.

Still, when they manage to crack the whole cellulose ethanol thing, then at least ethanol won't be contributing to that....who knows what problem *that* will cause, though.

Ultimately, I don't think there's any new technology that will make a population of the current size environmentally stable, but if we're not going to engage in growth control (or, preferably, reversal) alternative fuels are a step in the right direction. [/i]
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Postby YQM » Thu Jan 18, 2007 4:30 pm UTC

I dont really believe that mixing and matching will work as far as cars go.

That is to say I don't think we can use Ethanol, Liquid Petroleum and Hydrogen at the same time because it puts too much pressure on car companies. I wouldn't mind a law forcing car companies to sell hybrids at the same cost they sell normal cars since their markup is pretty high I am sure they could take the hit.
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Postby SpitValve » Thu Jan 18, 2007 5:52 pm UTC

I don't believe running out of oil with be apocolyptic in any way.

See, at the moment it is less convenient and more expensive to use electric/ethanol/fuel cell cars. But as the oil supply decreases, it becomes more expensive. Eventually you get to a point where people realise it's way cheaper to use fuel cells or whatever, and they swap over out of good ol' greed and cheap-ass-ery.

Hopefully by then we'll have figured out how to make cheaper fuel cells too... not having platinum catalysts would help :) (my research institute is working on modelling alternative catalysts)

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Postby mwace » Thu Jan 18, 2007 6:05 pm UTC

Hydrogen is a bunch of horsehshit made up by oil companies to delay the move away from petrol fuels. And its not an exothermic reaction - all it is an alternative form of energy storage that creates electricity on que;

And guess what? We already have that tech. Its called a battery. Right now we could all be driving electric powered vehicles and charging them at night (provided our energy grid could sustain it); the technology is here. Hydrogen fuel cells are just alternative batteries. And if this isn't motivating enough, anything we can do with fuel cells will be rendered obsolete in a few decades as nano-capacitors hit the market and make for uber-electrical storage.

For more info on the dupe-age thats going on here, watch the movie "Who killed the Eletric Car?". Its a bit of a conspiracy theory, but if you just pay attention to the facts alone and avoid all the bias you get a pretty clear picture of whats going on.


While we're on the subject, somebody tell me what airplanes are going to do when unleaded hits 5$ a gallon?

EDIT: And yes, I think this is going to be the most apacolytpic thing the United States has ever seen. With a one-two punch between this and global warming and rising sea levels, this happy fantasy world we live in with celeberaties and video games and internets isn't going to last. Have fun while you can, motherfuckers!
Last edited by mwace on Thu Jan 18, 2007 6:40 pm UTC, edited 3 times in total.

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Postby jestingrabbit » Thu Jan 18, 2007 6:22 pm UTC

It seems that a lot of people are assuming that crude oil is only used in cars, which is false. Every piece of plastic that you see was originally crude, though there is currently progress being made with substitutes. Asphalt is found in crude. High powered transformers (the electric devices, not the robots that become other things) are cooled by one of the distillates of crude. One or other of the distillates of crude are inputs for a vast number of incredibly important processes in industrial chemistry. In other words, going cold turkey will be a bitch.

Is the peak coming/here/a-thing-of-the-past? Yes, though which one is a guess. Most estimates say that there were 2 trillion barrels of crude before we started to extract it and we've used about 1 trillion barrels. That would make the peak about now.

One estimate (namely the one the US government goes by) says that there's 4 trillion. That requires that we believe the figures that the OPEC nations cite for their reserves. However, quotas are a function of estimated reserves, so they have a reason to overestimate. When this system was instituted by OPEC just about every member doubled their estimates overnight. The source of the discrepancy between the US figure and everyone elses is therefore rather obvious.

I don't think people are taking it seriously enough. I don't think that hydrogen fuel cells are the solution. Ethanol will allow us to roll with the punch to some extent, but its still going to have us on our knees. Not knocked out, on the ground with a broken jaw, but dazed and confused, that is for sure.

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Postby fjafjan » Thu Jan 18, 2007 7:14 pm UTC

Erm, personally, I will atleast in the next six or so years avoid using a car other than getting my licence. I don't really need it. If I am going to London to study next year, i sure as hell won't be able to afford a car. Once back to study something actually useful, I live close enough to Uni to either walk (around 40 minutes) or take a tram/buss. Neither of those will be hit hard by lack of oil. Not to mention biking... whatever

I think we should develop electric cars, but I think we also have to rescale cars. It's not really necesary driving a car big enough to fit you, four other people, and a massive trunk. Smaller, lighter and probably somewhat slow electric cars will hopefully be the future, even if ethanol might be in that future aswell.
As long as we don't start using fucking coal to create gas (gasoine)and make global warming even MORE of a fucking issue.
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Postby Doofulus Prime » Thu Jan 18, 2007 8:48 pm UTC

This discussion brings up something I've been pondering, and I'm curious if anyone has any resources they could point me to so I can find an answer.

In one of my biology classes, it was mentioned that as you progress up through the trophic levels (from producers to primary, secondary, tertiary and n-iary consumers) the amount of energy available at each level is 1/10th the energy available at the previous level (meaning that plants produce ~10% of incoming solar power to sugars, and primary consumers convert 10% of the sugar energy into useable energy).

Does anyone know if there is a reasonable parallel to power generation? What I mean is, the solar energy was beamed in millions of years ago, powering plants and dinosaurs which died and turned to oil/coal/natural gas which we use. So does that mean that energy from oil is 1% of the original energy input from the sun?

If so much energy is lost through these various levels that the energy is pushed through before it effects us, wouldn't it make sense to switch solely to solar power (not just through photovoltaic cells, but also solar heating systems/other systems that directly use sunlight). It seems a small logical jump to see that there would be a lot more power available if we used the direct results of fusion and chemical processes (sunlight) rather than run them through several additional reactions that introduce unwanted entropy.

Hopefully someone has something constructively critical to contribute. Other than pointing out grammatical/ideological errors. But those are appreciated. :o

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Postby mwace » Thu Jan 18, 2007 9:00 pm UTC

Doofulus Prime wrote:This discussion brings up something I've been pondering, and I'm curious if anyone has any resources they could point me to so I can find an answer.

In one of my biology classes, it was mentioned that as you progress up through the trophic levels (from producers to primary, secondary, tertiary and n-iary consumers) the amount of energy available at each level is 1/10th the energy available at the previous level (meaning that plants produce ~10% of incoming solar power to sugars, and primary consumers convert 10% of the sugar energy into useable energy).

Does anyone know if there is a reasonable parallel to power generation? What I mean is, the solar energy was beamed in millions of years ago, powering plants and dinosaurs which died and turned to oil/coal/natural gas which we use. So does that mean that energy from oil is 1% of the original energy input from the sun?

If so much energy is lost through these various levels that the energy is pushed through before it effects us, wouldn't it make sense to switch solely to solar power (not just through photovoltaic cells, but also solar heating systems/other systems that directly use sunlight). It seems a small logical jump to see that there would be a lot more power available if we used the direct results of fusion and chemical processes (sunlight) rather than run them through several additional reactions that introduce unwanted entropy.

Hopefully someone has something constructively critical to contribute. Other than pointing out grammatical/ideological errors. But those are appreciated. :o


Solar power just isn't practical enough. Dyson spheres would be the ideal answer here, but thats about as practical as using zero-volume magnets in your fusion reactor. Speaking of fusion, this is what I feel the ideal solution to our trouble.

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Postby Doofulus Prime » Thu Jan 18, 2007 10:06 pm UTC

But what makes it impractical? The fact that the industry isn't built for it already? Bypassing the steps we use right now seems to be the most elegant option. Do you disagree?

Also, for distribution of energy, what about Wardenclyffe? Tesla for the win?
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wardenclyffe_Tower)

Lastly (well, not really), hot fusion? or cold? Or locally cold? (teehee. this faux expertise brought to you by Wikipedia)

Also, isn't this all ultimately irrelevant if we aren't concerned about future generations? Speaking of future generations, aren't there supposed to be numerous cataclysmic asteroids that will hit the earth in a few hundred years, erasing most of the effect humanity has had on the planet? What's the point of working to save it when it all goes up in flames anyway?

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Postby Air Gear » Thu Jan 18, 2007 10:23 pm UTC

I like how my chem professor back in college made the best argument I've ever heard for NOT burning so much of the oil that comes out of the ground...basically, it came down to this: there are a lot of things we can get energy from. However, all of the raw ingredients for organic synthesis...that's a hell of a lot harder to replace. Stuff for medicines, plastics, everything else...we're going to use all that oil eventually, but it's all about whether we use it for things like that or our cars.

Peak oil: it'll hit hard (and relatively soon; hello China and India at over one billion people each industrializing), especially in the US since we love 20-mile commutes to work, large pickup trucks, and avoiding public transit. Sure, prices will increase as time goes on and people will demand more alternative energy, but will alternative energy be at the point where it can just pick up the slack? Will people be able to make adjustments before some huge economic shocks occur? That's one reason to start investing in it right now...just get the infrastructure going so it's CAPABLE of avoiding the worst part of the nastiness when the time comes. I mean, I know that economic busts are as natural to the market as prosperity, but putting up with that...no. Not desired.

Hydrogen is also horseshit, as said by mwace. There are electric cars that could deal with people who don't do that much driving, which would shift the burden over to the power grid. Hydrogen is a long way from getting to that point plus it needs to use the power FROM THE POWER GRID to produce the HYDROGEN, so we have more losses.

And as for solar things...there are places where you can pull off houses which are efficient enough to run off of the solar cells on them. Admittedly that requires either still being on the grid to make up for flux in both energy production and consumption (just leading to a zero or possibly negative electric bill, in the end) or having a pricey battery to store whatever you're not using at some point, but either way, it's not a technology to throw away. It's great in certain cases and will get better.

Overall, though, we need to dump about ten billion dollars a year into different variants on fusion research...how about the guy who talked to Google, too? Hell, it's worth trying.

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Postby mwace » Thu Jan 18, 2007 10:26 pm UTC

You've got a lot of ideas and you're not afraid to throw them out there. I like that. But if you could figure out a solution, then

Doofulus Prime wrote:But what makes it impractical? The fact that the industry isn't built for it already? Bypassing the steps we use right now seems to be the most elegant option. Do you disagree?


Alright, I was hoping I wouldn't have to explain this out because its going to be pretty confusing. Yes, its an elegent idea, but think of it this way:

You're after money to run your economy with. Right now, you're looking at bonds. On the market, there's a bunch of old bonds for sale. They have a very little return on investment, but they're for sale for almost nothing (dirt cheap, one might say) and they've been around so long they are worth quite a bit of money, even if it took an absurd amount of time and initial investment for them to collect all that money. Now, you could also buy a fancy new bond. The return on investmetn on these bonds is substantially higher then the old ones, but they also cost quite a bit to buy.

So lets recap. You can buy some old bonds for very cheap that are worth a lot, or you could buy new bonds that cost a lot to buy and even with their improved ROI they still don't end up giving you very much money, compared to pratically free cash from the old bonds.


Also, for distribution of energy, what about Wardenclyffe? Tesla for the win?

Tesla coils are a great idea if you don't mind your house saturated in a leathal dose of radiation.

Lastly (well, not really), hot fusion? or cold? Or locally cold?


How about Electrostatic Containment Fusion:
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid ... 6673788606
EDIT: This is also the "google guy" Air Gear referrs to.

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Postby dragonfrog » Thu Jan 18, 2007 10:45 pm UTC

The combination of essentially running out of oil plus runaway global warming will be very drastic. I realize intellectually, I should be preparing for it by obtaining arable land close to fresh water, seed reserves, etc., and learning how to farm by human or animal power. But here I am working in IT.

While I don't drive, I do eat food grown with chemical fertilizers, by farmers with tractors, and trucked into the city where I live. I rely on running water, electricity, garbage collection, and sewage infrastructure, none of which could be maintained under their current model without gasoline or diesel powered machinery.

I also use natural gas to heat my home - and in the Canadian prairies, heating your home pretty much mandatory. At least our place is relatively small, so it can be heated relatively easily. I laugh at the idiots in the McMansions out in the suburbs, that cost a fortune to heat...

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Postby Toeofdoom » Thu Jan 18, 2007 10:46 pm UTC

Good houses dont need any appliances for heating or cooling >_>
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Postby aldimond » Thu Jan 18, 2007 11:20 pm UTC

Toeofdoom, is this true even in Canada? If temperatures are well below freezing for moths, what kind of house construction allows for the building to be heated without burning fuel or electricity (I am not an expert in this field; I'm just curious to know)?

How much would such a house cost (in many senses) to build? Often environmental impact of building new things and throwing out old ones is very high.

And how well would techniques like that work in an urban setting, on tall and closely-packed buildings? Every attempt at building homes like this that I've seen has been in suburban or rural areas. Sprawling out into far-flung suburbs has lots of undesirable effects; urban centers often have efficient transportation, and one tall building is significantly more efficient to heat by conventional means than the several low-slung spread-out suburban homes that would hold an equivalent number of people.

(This is one reason I laugh my ass off when companies here in Silicon Valley, including the one I work for, say that they're trying to be "green" companies. Yay, you recycle and don't have much paper waste, but your bulidings are low and spread over lots of land, you're located such that almost all your employees have to drive to work, and you create throwaway products that have to be replaced in less than 10 years. It's an absolute joke that the environment is a hot-button political issue in California when most of its residents and businesses, based on their actions, don't actually give a flying fuck.)
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Postby Toeofdoom » Thu Jan 18, 2007 11:44 pm UTC

Okay, maybe not canada. Im used to talking with people who live near me though anyway :? around here though everyone seems to use air conditioning way too much.

I was referring more to people that overuse air con cause you can do loads for that, just close all the doors and windows in your house (yes, even the inside only doors), in queensland a common practice is to raise the house off the ground, and park your car underneath. A breeze underneath can take alot of heat away. Having north facing windows can allow sunlight in in winter but not in summer. you can slope the roof so it will absorb different amounts of heat at different times of year. It wont be perfect, but if you're happy to just put a jumper on sometimes in winter or refrain from overusing TV/computers in summer youll never need any climate control crap in many parts of australia

As for places where its really cold, I suppose you would want lots of insulation. (Im guessing this, but i think it would help) Double glazed windows are generally a good idea. Possibly windows close to the ground facing sunlight (not skylights, cause the hot air would rise and cool faster) Foundations that allow breezes under the floor would be extremely bad.

I know a building that was at my high school that was great, it was basically a 2 story square building. No east or west facing windows, alot along the south to let light in, and plenty along the north, but with walkways/roofs that stopped most heat getting in through the summer.

Even so, it would probably be nessecary to use heaters a fair bit. I've never really been anywhere other than australia so i dont pretend to be familiar with the climates



Generally these houses cost a bit more, and have to be designed a little differently. Windows facing sunlight are always an important feature.
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Postby Fluff » Thu Jan 18, 2007 11:47 pm UTC

Not a fan of California, are you Aldimond!

While I agree with much of what you've said, at least Californian companies are making the effort, which is more than can be said for many states. Making the effort politically will hopefully have an influence on some of the rest of the US as well.


Edit: I will return to post my stance on this subject soon as I've got time to type up a proper reply. I am a fan of Hydrogen fuel for transport, and Nuclear Fission plants for both power to the grid and Hydrogen production.

I also think Ethanol is a bad idea and just replaces one problem with another, potentially larger one.

I also agree that a mix of various energy sources is the way to go, rather than thinking one 'miracle' energy source will solve all of our problems.

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Postby aldimond » Fri Jan 19, 2007 12:05 am UTC

I think that some industrial companies in California are making the effort, largely because they've been forced to do so. The companies that promote themselves as "green" here in Teh Valley take token measures; it's easy to be a "green" company on the surface when the only thing you produce is chip *designs*, which you send off to be fabricated in countries with weak environmental laws. Board and chip manufacturing is getting better in terms of deadly chemicals, but that affects Taiwan a lot more than it affects California.

The people and companies of California, as far as I've seen it, wail a lot about the environment but are for the most part unwilling to do anything that inconveniences them. The politicians (Arnold in his current incarnation is a great example) won't take a position on anything, they just kiss the people's asses.

I only just moved here... they say that the bay area used to have much worse air conditions than it does now. My understanding is that it's improved because they taxed heavy industry out of the region and forced Detroit to make cleaner cars. Did they bay area actually look to self-improve? Not that I can see. Instead it's just more sprawl, more lanes on the roads, more single-person commutes. Sacramento would rather challenge Detroit for cleaner cars and challenge other states to lend it electricity without paying it back than it would challenge San Jose to become an efficient urban center.
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Postby Fluff » Fri Jan 19, 2007 12:20 am UTC

aldimond wrote:The people and companies of ___(insert place name here)___, as far as I've seen it, wail a lot about ____(something that people wail about)____ but are for the most part unwilling to do anything that inconveniences them.

The politicians (____insert politician name here____ is a great example) won't take a position on anything, they just kiss the people's asses.


I think this can be generalised further to include most states - In fact several other countries as well. What do you reckon?

Is the problem with California, or with people's attitudes in general?

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Postby Toeofdoom » Fri Jan 19, 2007 12:30 am UTC

People attitudes in general i think. there are some good politicians, but they dont win elections :(
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Postby RealGrouchy » Fri Jan 19, 2007 12:54 am UTC

mwace: (re: electric cars, etc.) batteries don't grow on trees. The energy has to come from somewhere. Electric car = coal/nuclear-powered car, which can actually be worse (respectively, in terms of resource depletion/pollution for coal, and long-term environmental damage for nuclear).

aldimond: keep in mind that in Vancouver, temperatures are rarely below freezing; that Toronto is at the same latitude as North Carolina, and that no matter where you are, the temperature just a few (dozen?) metres below the surface is the same, year-round.

aldimond(2): Companies in California make the "effort" to be green because Calif. has the strictest energy regulations in North America.

fjafjan has it right: our problem is sprawl. We travel too fucking much, both in our daily lives and in terms of international travel. When you take a plane trip across North America, you (divided among the passengers) use more energy than a 3rd-world person uses in their entire life.

About 95% of my trips are within 2.5km of my home, and are by bicycle (buses are huge vehicles, and are enablers of sprawl. Their only defence is economy of scale.) Of course, 99.9% of what I consume has come a hell of a long way to get to me.

I'm not convinced of global warming, but that's irrelevant. The amount of energy (whatever form it takes) that goes into our economies, (a) pollutes our cities, and (b) depletes the resources of those energy sources.

You can save money on gas by making a car more fuel-efficient, or you can save even more by using your car less. Any time you increase the amount or complexity of technology, you use more energy (which is partially reflected in price).

However, in Western countries, locally-produced items are more expensive, but the higher price doesn't go into more technology or more transport. It goes into labour. Ironically, products can be cheaper because they have travelled further. Our economies are thus totally backwards.

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Postby aldimond » Fri Jan 19, 2007 1:20 am UTC

Fluff wrote:
aldimond wrote:The people and companies of ___(insert place name here)___, as far as I've seen it, wail a lot about ____(something that people wail about)____ but are for the most part unwilling to do anything that inconveniences them.

The politicians (____insert politician name here____ is a great example) won't take a position on anything, they just kiss the people's asses.


I think this can be generalised further to include most states - In fact several other countries as well. What do you reckon?

Is the problem with California, or with people's attitudes in general?


I think there's a combination. There are states and countries that actually have to deal with the environmental impact of the products they produce, and California really doesn't. The place I know best is Silicon Valley... we make chips, right? Wrong. We design chips. Dangerous chemicals used in fabrication? Taiwan's problem. Disposal of tech waste? Distributed all over the world. Do we make the tough decisions necessary to either provide electricity to the state or cut our usage? No, we borrow from other states, placing the environmental burden elsewhere (and then to top it off, refuse to pay them).

What angers me is that Californians so strongly call themselves environmentalists. Like RG said, the problem is sprawl, a consumption-related problem. Where will you find more sprawl, more conspicuous consumption, more driving and long commutes, more anti-environmental lifestyles lived by so-called environmentalists than in California? People are hypocrites everywhere, but I think they're hypocrites here worse than in other places I've lived.
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Postby Hawknc » Fri Jan 19, 2007 1:55 am UTC

Fluff, I'd be interested to hear your arguments for hydrogen as a fuel medium. My calculations make it look very much inferior to its much-maligned cousin, the battery, but I'm always open to arguments that can persuade me otherwise.

RealGrouchy: damn straight the energy has to come from somewhere. That's true for any fuel, not just batteries, which happen to be the most efficient method of transporting energy. So we need a clean energy source and an efficient method of storage, both of which exist today but not in the numbers that would allow them to be used worldwide. Simple solutions like using your car less are the obvious ones, but I think that technology can get us out of this mess just as much as it got us into it. We don't need to regress as a civilisation.

Belial (way back): absolutely 100% agreed on the ethanol problem. As a fuel, the US really couldn't have picked a much worse one than corn ethanol, given its energy return (wow, a whole 1.34!) and the lack of land to grow it on. Cellulosic ethanol's a solution that is looking promising, but even that presents the problem of encroaching on land that is required for food. The whole overpopulation thing is a problem that nobody really wants to think about for the moment, but ultimately it's going to cause some very large issues.

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Postby Toeofdoom » Fri Jan 19, 2007 2:13 am UTC

The main reason its better than a normal battery is just cause its smaller and lighter for the power it supplies i think.
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Postby Hawknc » Fri Jan 19, 2007 2:19 am UTC

Depends on the battery, to be honest. With Li-ion batteries it's not really so different. Plus you have to consider how the hydrogen is made, which comes down to two methods: steam reformation from methane and electrolysis. The methane method releases CO and CO2 into the atmosphere and obviously continues to use fossil fuels, so as a "green" energy source it's a bit of a joke. Electrolysis is completely green (depending on the power source)...but you're using electricity to convert water to hydrogen, which then gets converted to electricity in the fuel cell. Does that not seems excessively stupid to anyone else? Why not just leave it as electricity without the losses from additional stages?

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Postby Toeofdoom » Fri Jan 19, 2007 2:21 am UTC

Because not converting it involves having a power cable permanently attached to your car :P You have to convert it sometime to store it, whether its a hydrogen cell or a big battery
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Postby Hawknc » Fri Jan 19, 2007 2:29 am UTC

Efficiency of charging li-ion batteries: 99.9%

Efficiency of PEM fuel cells: 30-50%

These are vague numbers, but you get an idea of just how absurd it is.

Edit: I should note there's a difference between transport and transformation of energy. Transforming energy always involves losses, often in the form of heat, which is why internal combustion engines are so inefficient. Transporting energy involves losses too (such as transmission loss along power lines), but it's generally much lower.

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Postby aldimond » Fri Jan 19, 2007 3:00 am UTC

Hawknc wrote:Simple solutions like using your car less are the obvious ones, but I think that technology can get us out of this mess just as much as it got us into it. We don't need to regress as a civilisation.


How is driving less "regressing" as a civilization?

Organizing ourselves into well-planned cities where cars are less necessary is progressing as a civilization. You spend less time, take up less space and burn less energy commuting via public transit. Los Angeles is a city designed around the automobile. Guess what we found: it doesn't scale well. Traffic is a nightmare, even with so much space devoted to freeways. In my opinion the regression has taken place in sprawled out cities, facilitated by car ownership.

San José suffers from this; though the traffic isn't as bad, the city is a non-cohesive, dull place to live, where the sheer space taken up by roads combined with how spread-out everything is means that you never see anyone out walking around. Every building has a giant parking lot. Supposedly Phoenix is similar. That's not progress! People think that if we find ways to live more efficiently, and we don't use more gadgets to do it, that it's regression! No, the progress is that we've found a way to do something better!

Perhaps "technology" can get us out of things, but I think that technology has to go deeper than just gadgets. The march of technology, like the march of science, is not a straight-ahead linear march***. Sometimes we have to look back, identify and correct mistakes. I've read that LA's sprawl, and also its public transit systems, have improved in recent decades. Although it may not have anything to do with fantastic innovations, it's still progress; it's just progress in a different field. It's civic progress, progress in urban planning and development.


*** this is the important part. It is really important. Read it ten times.
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Postby mwace » Fri Jan 19, 2007 3:22 am UTC

Batteries can store energy more practically then fuel cells. One major problem with fuel cells is that you'd need a fuel tank the volume of your car, and if you were to try to compress the tank to fit more fuel in a smaller volume, you wind up with a very heavy canister that just makes things way less effiecent. Plus, we can use batteries right now; we can already store enough energy to make over a hundred mile trip in one charge, theres nothign that's inhibiting us from making the transition.

RealGrouchy wrote:mwace: (re: electric cars, etc.) batteries don't grow on trees. The energy has to come from somewhere. Electric car = coal/nuclear-powered car, which can actually be worse (respectively, in terms of resource depletion/pollution for coal, and long-term environmental damage for nuclear).


A lot of people think electric cars a the perfect answer, but their hopes are dashed when they hear that they're really just coal-powered cars. Coal power releases a great deal more greenhouse gasses, and is generally a lot more toxic then burning fuel, and strip mining destroys the hell out of the enviorment - but at the same time there are two groups of benifits of moving the transportation energy to the fuel grid:

A) The only thing thats required of the power grid is that it must output electricity. This means any means can be used to produce eletricity, and allows room for migration to a greater percentage of clean energy sources and nuclear power. If an exothermic fusion process were to become practical, this could supply the entire energy grid without any release of greenhouse gasses or or other toxic byproducts.

For more information about the nastieness of coal and the advantages of nuclear power, check this out.

B) Our coal resources are located entirly within our own borders. This has huge political implications - no putting billions of dollars into maintaining a stable middle east, no need for soldiers to be getting blown up and shot by insurgents, no need to funnel resources to Isreal in order to maintain a western presence, no making a forgien ass of ourselves. I'm sure if you add all this up it just winds up being a lot better option to go with domestic coal.

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Postby Doofulus Prime » Fri Jan 19, 2007 3:54 am UTC

The United States power grid is still overtaxed, and demanding it to transmit the power necessary for a majority of people to commute using electric cars places further stress on a system designed over 40 years ago. In order to improve delivery, whether through adding more lines, more plants or fancier lines (something like a buried superconducting cable), it will all cost money and that cash will have to come from somewhere. Speaking from personal experience, AmerenUE is asking to raise rates so that they can improve line quality (mostly by burying existing power lines or cutting back trees to make sure they don't fall on trees when they get covered in ice as many did during the previous ice storm that came through. Wow, long parenthetical phrase!) and noone wants to pay it because the upper management already make too much money and it should come from their bonuses blablabla.

And another sentiment of this thread that is becoming apparent (to me at least, please chime in if you disagree) is that this is an issue of scale for the US and Australia. So we use way too much energy, too many resources. How do I convince my second cousin to give up her ridiculous SUV (which she acknowledges is a poor choice but continues to drive it, whatever her rationalization is) or my dad, or my aunts and uncles who have bought into the American dream, a manufactured dream created by advertisers, and don't understand there is more to enjoy than being driven by consumption? (I realize this is getting preachy so I'll cut it short for those of you who are sick of it). I suppose what I'm asking all of you is: how do I demonstrate the effect that each person has as an individual for better or worse, and do any of you know of effective ways to persuade them (and myself) to give up behaviors that are knowingly damaging to the capacity of this small blue marble to support life.

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Postby mwace » Fri Jan 19, 2007 4:54 am UTC

I don't think theres anything you can say that will really get to them. But rest assured, they'll realize the consiquences of their actions when their fantasy world is shattered by the self-destruction they've brought onto themselves.

Haha, I'm starting to sound like a crazy person!

EDIT: And yes, our powergrid isn't ready to handle the entire volume of transportation energy. But nobody said saving this planet from disaster was going to be easy.

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Postby Belial » Fri Jan 19, 2007 5:01 am UTC

The whole overpopulation thing is a problem that nobody really wants to think about for the moment, but ultimately it's going to cause some very large issues.


I'd be willing to say that it's *the* problem.....
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Postby Fluff » Fri Jan 19, 2007 5:07 am UTC

Hawknc wrote:Fluff, I'd be interested to hear your arguments for hydrogen as a fuel medium. My calculations make it look very much inferior to its much-maligned cousin, the battery, but I'm always open to arguments that can persuade me otherwise.


Ok this is going to be a rather long post, so my apologies in advance. :P


ON BATTERIES, ELECTRIC CARS, AND PUBLIC TRANSPORT:

Aldimond's idea of organised cities where the majority of people take public transport is not a new one. On paper it sounds great, but at the end of the day it comes down to two things (and I am a commuter on trains/underground for the record!): 1. The state of public transport operations and condition of the trains/buses themselves, which of course means care and funding from the local government, and 2. How much the public value and/or can afford their individual freedom to travel at their own whim, and by their own schedules.

As a Los Angeles commuter, I can tell you that spending 90 minutes every morning and evening at rush hour on trains which are often overcrowded, don't generally smell all too pleasant, are not in the best shape and are almost always dirty and full of weirdos, is really not the highlight of my work week! And that's just the trains - I won't dare to ride the buses as they're well worse than that! If public transport is ever to become a viable option for those who are used to the luxury and comfort of their own vehicles, there will have to be some SERIOUS overhauling of the entire system, not to mention massively ramping up construction of new lines, new trains, buses, etc.!

I do agree with previous opinions that electric batteries are a fantastic idea, and should be utilised wherever possible. Battery power in something like MIT's Stackable Concept Car could ease much of city commuters' woe with traffic, parking, etc. I believe such a device would work best if employed on a cheap, rent-as-needed basis, not too far off from those luggage trollies at the airport, where you drop in a few coins and the trolley is released from the stack (which could also charge the vehicles when not in use). This could also pacify those who cherish their independence from buses or trains. Traffic could be further eased by programming in the correct route to a networked GPS device and allowing the car to do the driving. However, I think this is a solution best aimed for in-city driving/the daily commute, and not for longer duration trips - I don't reckon this will ever replace The Family Car.


ON HYDROGEN PRODUCTION, FUEL CELL VEHICLES, AND BEYOND:

That said, there will still be much desire for longer, higher-powered trips, beyond the capacity of electric batteries alone. I am sure you're all familiar with the main beneficial points of Hydrogen - Clean burning, less flammable than petrol, etc. Here is a brief safety overview for those of you less familiar: How Safe is Hydrogen? (PDF) Hawknc: I am interested how electric cars would solve the problem of longer, faster trips - Would an electric/Hydrogen hybrid not be better in this case?

I see Hydrogen as being the easiest to produce en masse, through the use of nuclear power reactors during off-peak times. Check out the UIC briefing paper on Transport and The Hydrogen Economy. I also strongly encourage the construction of new nuclear fission reactors, as well as (wherever possible) solar, wind, and other renewables for power production. I am all for fusion research, but until it becomes truly viable I cannot include it into any future power generation projections.

My final bias towards Hydrogen is for space propulsion. If Hydrogen makes it as a standard fuel for everyday transport, and production scales up to match, the cost will drop dramatically. This could be good news for much of the rocket industry, as well as future projects like VASIMR.

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Postby mwace » Fri Jan 19, 2007 5:25 am UTC

Don't forget about ultracapictors!

Err, wait, a little research reveals this is less practical then I had invisioned.

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Postby aldimond » Fri Jan 19, 2007 6:01 am UTC

Of course it's not a new idea. Cities with better day-to-day commute situations than San José or LA exist and have for years. Manhattan. Tokyo. London.

I've never actually been to any of those places, so I'll talk about Chicago (I grew up near Chicago). Chicago has a decent light rail system and a decent commuter rail system. Nowhere near as comprehensive or frequently-traveled as those in those other cities I mentioned, but pretty good. Chicago also has a pretty effective freeway system. It jams up at rush hour, but that's true everywhere. What's important is that it gets a fair amount of traffic off the surface streets.

All of these things are possible because there are tall buildings downtown with lots of offices in them. Since downtown Chicago is a common destination for so many rush-hour travelers the various transportation systems basically all spoke out from there. I grew up in a suburb 20 miles outside of the city, and the commuter line got downtown from there pretty quickly. Because so many people take the trains and freeways, surface streets, even downtown, are for the most part driveable and walkable. It's not like you can't own a car and set your own travel schedule in Chicago. It's just that there *is* a downtown area where lots of people go and you can get there quickly on the train. A 90-minute commute is certainly possible in the area, but it's rarely necessary as a long-term arrangement. People that have 90-minute commutes typically live out in the boonies as a conscious choice.

As it happens, the trains in Chicago, both the Metra (commuter) and "El" (light rail) are pretty clean and good-smelling. Chicago has the reputation of being a clean city, and so that doesn't really surprise me. It's a shame that some places don't keep up their infrastructure very well.

When a region is disorganized, like Silicon Valley, you can't build an effective mass transit system or even effective freeways because so few people make similar trips. Everyone has to pile onto the surface streets. Near where I live there are two 8-lane surface streets within a mile of eachother. Between those two there are quite a few 4-lane and 6-lane streets as well. The surface-level roads, since they have to carry such a large portion of the daily commute, are wide and fast -- they're dangerous roads to walk or bike down, even when there are bike lanes. Sidewalks are narrow if they're there at all.

What does it take to make a city a Chicago instead of a San José? Strong, visionary leadership in City Hall (Daley is a corrupt bastard, but nobody cares because he does a good job), and business leaders and citizens that care about the community and want to be part of it. And some geographical luck, too; Chicago couldn't sprawl to the east because of Lake Michigan, and I think that helped keep it somewhat compact even as it did grow and sprawl to the west and south.
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Postby Fluff » Fri Jan 19, 2007 6:14 am UTC

aldimond wrote:What does it take to make a city a Chicago instead of a San José? Strong, visionary leadership in City Hall (Daley is a corrupt bastard, but nobody cares because he does a good job), and business leaders and citizens that care about the community and want to be part of it. And some geographical luck, too; Chicago couldn't sprawl to the east because of Lake Michigan, and I think that helped keep it somewhat compact even as it did grow and sprawl to the west and south.


What would you suggest for somewhere like Los Angeles, where trains are already overcrowded, and traffic is still a nightmare?

I should add that the first half of my commute is actually not so bad, as it's an above ground, new-ish light rail system. That is a bit further out from the city though - Once on the underground from downtown and through the city, it gets a bit grim.

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Postby aldimond » Fri Jan 19, 2007 6:38 am UTC

I have no idea what to do with LA... just as I have no idea what to do with San José. From what I've read, and I haven't read too deeply on the subject and would like to read more soon on it, LA has been working to contain sprawl over the last few years. I don't know exactly what LA has done; SJ has tried to lure businesses downtown with tax incentives, but they haven't had much success. I think the Silicon Valley business leaders like being out in the 'burbs dealing with weaker city governments; I think most of them don't really care about community-building (compare tech mogul philanthropic work, which is largely global in scope, hunger and vaccinations type stuff, which is certainly noble and important work, to that of the old monopolists, sponsoring parks, libraries, concert venues to build local community; I think that the ability to communicate and travel long distances has de-emphasized community, especially to tech leaders and workers, it's not just the leaders that don't care, a lot of San José's population really doesn't care that their city is boring, they're all posting on the Internet like I am right now).

And, honestly, unless there's some prestige to the job (as there is in only a few cities, like New York and Chicago in the US), you're not going to attract bright, forward-thinking visionary leaders to key city positions. In a capitalist society you've got to get businesses to lead the charge.

In LA's case, if its population is going to keep growing it pretty much has to grow upwards at this point as I understand it, and the roads are overloaded as it is. If people want to keep piling into LA they'll probably develop a more cohesive and centralized city, by accident and by pain if it comes to that, over a few generations. San José probably won't get dense enough for that to happen before India and China take over chip design and Silicon Valley declines, making the whole point moot (if it declines it will be a hellhole, but that's the case whether it's got tall buildings or not).
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Postby Hawknc » Fri Jan 19, 2007 1:05 pm UTC

Fluff: ah, at last, a worthy adversary. :D I'll address primarily the second part of your post, since it's of most interest to me as a scientician. You touched on possibly the only two aspects of hydrogen that I am agreeable with: using hydrogen as a range extender in plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), and generating this hydrogen from nuclear heat. I think its credentials when compared to petroleum-based products are obvious - cleaner, safer and, when combined with an electric drivetrain, more fun to cruise around in. It has its problems, though, a number of which are due to the limitations of our own technical abilities.

First off, let me put my preference on the table: I like PHEVs. The concept excites me because it takes the battery electric vehicle, a good but slightly flawed concept in its own right, and removes one of its greatest problems - a lack of range. When GM unveiled its E-flex platform I was very happy, because they had what we all wanted. It was an electric car without the restrictions of range or power points. The platform could use E85 or even B100 with no troubles, virtually eliminating CO2 emissions from the car. Unfortunately, they haven't yet envisioned the platform with a hydrogen fuel cell in addition to the battery pack, only in place of it. But, time will tell on that one. Assuming that the hydrogen was generated in a "green" fashion, and assuming that a hydrogen refuelling infrastructure was in place, I would prefer it to ethanol when used in a PHEV. (Possibly not B100, especially when harvested from algae, simply because it's a far superior fuel to ethanol.) Hydrogen doesn't present the ecological and food problems that ethanol does, but it IS unfortunately rather inefficient. So, to minimise its use, power drawn straight from the grid (mostly at night, when the load is minimal and the power stations have to reduce their generating capacity) can be used in batteries (or EEStor-style supercaps, maybe, one day) to drive the car's electric drivetrain. In order to make clean power, though, it has to come from...

...Nuclear power plants. As I said earlier, there are currently two methods of producing hydrogen, both of which are patently silly. Utilising otherwise unused nuclear heat is the mythical Third Way, and since it's not wasting power or generating greenhouse gases it's the only one I'd consider supporting. It does have its problems, though, namely that it involves the N-word. Nuclear power is something that the world will need to get its head around before a logical hydrogen infrastructure can take hold, which is why I think the "hydrogen economy" is about half a century ahead of itself. In addition to nuclear, I'm a strong supporter of decentralising the power supply - every home should have solar panels on its roof to supplement the daytime peak and use otherwise wasted energy, and wind and hydro power plants can provide relatively small but significant amounts of power to the grid. But, being brutally honest, any attempt at a hydrogen fuel system will fail without embracing nuclear power.

The other reason hydrogen is ahead of itself is cost. Current fuel cell cars (admittedly, prototypes for the most part) run in the order of US$1 million. It's generally thought by the auto companies that make them that they can reduce that figure by around 90% within a decade or two, which is great, but that's still US$100,000. That's a LOT of money for a car and most people won't pay it. The technology needs to improve a lot in other fields before it hits the big time in the automotive world, because no matter how much you hype it up, people won't pay ridiculous amounts to be green. And unlike power, hydrogen is still an expensive fuel.

(All that said, thank you for the UIC link - I learned quite a bit from it.)

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Postby Air Gear » Sat Jan 20, 2007 12:42 am UTC

A lot of interesting things said...but I have to remark about the way cities are designed today and how it applies to traffic, public transportation, and so on...

The one thing that people have to remember is that a lot of these systems were designed for a city of population x. When the population gets to 2x, 4x, whatever...things aren't going to work as well. In fact, they'll suck outright. Los Angeles...since it's a modern urban area, it's safe to assume that the roads weren't designed for half as many vehicles as there are in the area. If it takes 90 minutes to commute via train every morning and evening, it's safe to assume that its transit system wasn't designed for that population, either. As for the solution...don't know since it varies by city. It's very simple to make a city for an arbitrary population on paper and even to build it, but then there's rebuilding the infrastructure of a preexisting city...ahahaha. Good luck.


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