Friday, May 23, 2008


I've been interested recently in energy.

With gasoline at about $4 per gallon I suppose that puts me in the definite majority, too. That's another post I am writing, about me being in the majority all of a sudden, but that's another story.

I wish I had more personal energy.

What I've learned about energy is rather interesting. I will spare you from all my reading and research. But there really are no viable alternative energy sources to fossil fuels at this time. On the other hand there is a lot, and I mean a lot, of really good research being done by some very smart folks. That's very encouraging on the one hand and rather discouraging on the other.

We need physical energy as in making our cars move and heating and cooling our homes and businesses and running our lights and computers and what not.

There are not many direct sources we can use. Wind power is one. Solar energy is another. But mostly we have to convert. Wind power is physical energy that we capture and store as electrical energy and then later we can take the electrical energy and make things move. We haven't been very efficient but now we are really improving. Of course it is costing a lot of money. But one of the benefits of increasing prices for fuel is that certain alternatives become viable. So T. Boone Picken's Mesa Energy is working to put some 2,500 turbines into service by 2014. The total cost is estimated to be in the $10 to $12 Billion range by the time the entire project is complete (not the first 2,500 units).

Solar energy when I was a kid was barely more than a dream. But now it is so efficient that you see a lot of little solar panels out in the middle of nowhere that is used to run signs and gates and all sorts of stuff. Still we are just now at the point where it can really become useful and I expect great improvements in this area.

Mostly we have to get some kind of fuel and burn it and use the heat from the combustion to run turbines and then use the physical energy from the turbine to make electrical energy and that gets us about to the place where we start with wind and solar. We lose a lot of efficiency in each step.

Oil we refine and then we use the gasoline and diesel products to run internal combustion engines. Believe it or not the process from beginning to end is fairly efficient. I think that is because we've been doing it a long while. Like everything else it is also becoming more efficient.

I became interested because I kept reading and hearing about people that were using hydrogen to improve their auto fuel mileage. You've probably seen the "water car" videos. It actually is possible that some of these schemes work but they depend upon inefficiencies in the automobile in use. The hydrogen produced always has less energy available than the energy it took to produce the hydrogen. But if there is surplus energy from the electrical system in the first place then that's fine. It's kind of like the fact that wind and solar are both pretty inefficient but we don't care because we have wind and sun. The problem is that modern cars are pretty efficient. The other problem is that there are a lot of con artists and wannabe inventors.

The water car is pretty much a scam though and has been around since the mid 1930's or possibly earlier. It is interesting to me that most fraudulent schemes have some element of truth. You can produce Brown's Gas from electrolysis and that gas can be burned.

Hydrogen is usually called an energy storage material rather than an energy source. That's because you have to do something to get Hydrogen. It can be a fuel source but that requires a fusion process like our Sun uses and that's a bit out of our range right now. However, there is promising work being done in this area for both fusion and fission.

It would be really handy if we had some John Galt type person come along and find some radical new invention that would just suck usable energy out of the air. Maybe that will happen.

Back to hydrogen for a moment. Most of the big car companies are working on one or more hydrogen solutions. Jay Leno is driving one such car and Honda is actually selling some.


Lori1955 said...

Well I don't know much about energy except that I HATE paying $4.00 a gallon for gas!!

~Betsy said...

This is one of those subjects that gets me going. My husband is an Engineer with a specialty in mining. When he graduated 25 years ago, coal was all but gone as an option. He couldn't find work as a mining engineer, thus his current specialty in blasting. The tree huggers didn't want anyone to mine for coal as an energy source. Now we are paying a heavy price.