Cstate hydrogen
Last year I waded through Jeremy Rifkin’s The Hydrogen Economy and wrote a blog post that explained what’s promising about hydrogen as a fuel, and its two major drawbacks. I used two charts, reproduced here, to explain how it works and what’s holding it back.

The chart above shows the energy economy we have today. Red boxes are non-renewable, polluting and environmentally damaging energy sources and green ones are clean and renewable. Whether we use hydrocarbon fuels or electricity to light, heat and cool our homes, it’s likely that non-renewable, damaging sources are producing it. Our cars likewise burn fossil fuels, and although hybrid cars are certainly an improvement, they still depend on fossil fuels to create (‘reform’) the hydrogen that the fuel cells convert into electricity.

The chart below shows the energy economy in twenty years, if we can solve the two major dilemmas of the hydrogen economy.
FState hydrogen
Under this scenario, hydrocarbons are replaced by solar, wind and other renewable, non-polluting, non-damaging energy sources. The central hydro utility is replaced by a local energy co-op, which produces energy for your community from its own solar collectors, wind turbines etc. The compressed hydrogen used to power next-generation pure hydrogen vehicles is produced from some of this electricity, and distributed through local service stations. The excess electricity produced by these cars can be used to provide light, heat and cooling to the home or sold back to the local energy co-op. The cars themselves will have no engine, no pedals, clutch or gearshift, make no noise and produce no harmful exhaust. The entire process will require no burning, no pollution, and no grid at the mercy of multinationals and sheikhs.

What are the two catches? First, the current cost of electricity produced from non-renewable sources is very expensive, and the process is cumbersome and not yet terribly efficient. Even more problematic is the $100 billion cost of building the infrastructure to generate, distribute and store the electricity and hydrogen, obsolescing a comparable amount of existing energy infrastructure, and probably causing some consternation to and resistance from the owners of that infrastructure.

titanium cellYesterday the University of New South Wales predicted that by 2010 a new generation of photovoltaic ‘harvesters’ based on titanium dioxide ceramics will both collect solar energy and use that energy to produce compressed hydrogen from water. A 10m square array, such as that depicted at right, mounted on just half the households in a sun-rich country like Australia, could produce the entire country’s energy.

This would allow an even more distributed, decentralized model than that depicted above: With each household able to produce its own energy, the local energy co-op might be nothing more than a virtual market, and the need for local service stations selling or even producing compressed hydrogen would be obviated. We’d all change from consuming to producing energy.

The university has even higher hopes for the titanium dioxide technology behind this advance: They believe it will allow innovations in other areas such as “water purification, anti-viral and bacteriacidal coatings on hospital clothing and surfaces, self-cleaning glasses, and anti-pollution surfaces on buildings and roads”.

Anyone know anything about titanium? I know it’s a metal, but is it plentiful and easy and clean to extract? Is it recyclable? Durable? Toxic in landfill sites? I sense a bit of grandstanding and breast-beating by UNSW here. Is there another catch they’re not telling us about?

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  1. Dave Pollard says:

    Ken: Methinks the esteemed scientist, at 85, is no longer quite all there. Some of the sentences in his article are incoherent and just silly. And surely no one believes that if we suddenly built a bunch of nukes that we’d stop or even curtail the use of fossil fuels? Increasing supply lowers price and increases demand, it doesn’t decrease it.

  2. Ken Hirsch says:

    Increasing supply lowers price and increases demand, it doesn’t decrease it.Increasing suppply of X does increase the quantity consumed X, but increasing the demand for a substitute for X decreases the quantity of X consumed.More nuclear power would of course reduce the amount of fossil fuels that are used for power generation (see France, Belgium, Sweden, Switerland, Spain, and Japan).For transportation it is more problematic.If an increase in nuclear power is accompanied by a rising carbon tax, it should have a beneficial effect on CO2 in the atmosphere. The only argument against nuclear power that I take seriously is that it proliferates the material used for making nuclear weapons. I have looked into the safety and environmental concerns and found them to be lacking.There are lots of environmentalists for nuclear power:

  3. Evan says:

    Nuclear power is greatly preferable to our current situation. It is not by a long shot our best option, however.If you simply have to have gigawatt-scale generating plants, then the only real options are coal and nuclear, and yes, absolutely, give me a hundred nuke plants before you build a single coal plant.Better yet: Let’s not have gigawatt-scale generating plants. We don’t need them. Improving our energy efficiency is cheaper than building new power plants (especially nukes, which cost a lot). Smaller, distributed generation is cheaper, cleaner, creates more jobs, and isn’t as vulnerable to system-wide breakdowns (such as terrorist attacks, or major outages like last year’s blackout).

  4. Evan says:

    As for hydrogen: Color me skeptical. I think in the long run the best option is an energy economy based on locally-generated electricity from renewable sources, and liquid fuels from biomass–principally, I suspect, ethanol.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Ken: I think it’s more complex than that. The use of hydrocarbons for other purposes (fertilizer, plastics, asphalt, and many others) is constrained by its demand for fuel. Reduce that constraint and you’ll have an explosion in uses of hydrocarbons for these other purposes. I don’t think there’s any way we’re going to going to reduce demand voluntarily, which means we have to reduce supply. Nukes, with their dangers of horrible poisons that last forever and (as Evan points out) sabotage, will only worsen the situation. Even I would agree that nukes are better than hydrocarbons. But it isn’t an either/or situation. As oil runs out we’re going to dredge the oceans and the arctic AND start burning more coal AND build more nukes.

  6. Don Dwiggins says:

    Nukes are at best an interim solution to part of the energy replacement problem; nuclear fuel, like petroleum, is non-renewable. And while I’m not unalterably opposed to it as an interim solution, I’d like to see a thorough study, based on the best critical thinking, of the costs and risks of dealing with nuclear fuels and waste products, including the costs of keeping wastes safe for hundreds of centuries, and also of the risks of major plant accidents, which will happen as surely as the next major petroleum spill.Dave, I think your skepticism about the UNSW report is healthy. Even assuming that titanium dioxide can deliver as fully as they hope, there are important questions to be answered. Is there enough titanium to, for example, create enough panels to be “mounted on just half the households in Australia”? What’s the energy ROI for these panels (energy generated vs total energy required to produce)? What are the environmental costs of producing titanium in large quantities? Is it recoverable from panels taken out of service, or will they just add to the waste deposits (and cause titanium to be nonrenewable)? This shouldn’t be taken as titanium-bashing — I’d ask the same kinds of question about any proposed source.

  7. gbreez says:

    I sure would hate to see a bomb/missle land on a nuclear facility.I sure would hate to see a major fault line happen where ever we bury the nuclear waste (there goes the water, & we are talking 100,000 yrs +).I sure do not believe we have time to mess around. We need to start putting all our money, thought, and resources into producing clean, safe, independent-of-oil energy. We need to fortify and sanctify the innovators. Yes, by all means, figure out all the problems; but then, find the solutions to make the bloody stuff work. We need clean, safe energy yesterday.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    GB: Agreed — Toronto’s biggest nuke, in Pickering, sits right on top of a fault line. But we’re told the chances of an eruption on this fault line are ‘remote’. Interesting, though, that we’re not covered for damage related to earthquakes in our home insurance, so the actuaries must feel it’s not *that* remote.

  9. Ken Hirsch says:

    The dangers from nuclear power exist, but they are (1) very unlikey and (2) even in the worst case, not all that bad. The Chernobyl accident is estimated to cause about 2,000 deaths over several decades. By contrast, coal power kills 20,000 to 30,000 people per year in the U.S. The very mild Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards cost more than 1,000 lives per year.

  10. Derek says:

    Ok, first a typo:> current cost of electricity produced from non-renewable sources is very expensiveum, thats probably “renewable” not “non-“second, if you’re going to do electrolysis, please capture the O2 as well, is got many uses (maybe not around the home, but industrially for certain).third, I agree that veg. oil and alcohol based fuels make much more sense for vehicles in terms of energy density and safety. recycled fry oil could do a lot.fourth, lets add solar heating to the home (far more efficient than solar cells).fifth, is there some crossover point where hydrogen is supposed to be better/faster/cheaper for energy storage in the home market than batteries/flywheels/compressed air/Superconducting Magnetic Energy Storage/etc? Considering all these other systems are in use in one form or another in various stationary locations, I’d assume that hydrogen makes the least sense for this.titanium is fairly plentiful. its durable and non-toxic, fairly easy to work (though it has heat issues when welding requiring pre & post heating and inert gas shields). It is used in products ranging from paint to sandpaper. I believe Aluminum is more energy intensive to reform than titanium. Australia has a considerable amount of titanium ore deposits so there may be a little bit of self-serving in the technology choice.The article mentions nothing about the efficiencies that they’ve achieved, only that there’s direct water splitting going on. Also, covering a roof with 100sq meters that face the sun and are not shaded by trees/other buildings, is not a trivial task. I’ve got an overly large house, and I estimate that I could get about 5 sqm of solar panels up there if I could find the right sizes that fit properly.

  11. Susan Hales says:

    I thought I was pretty well informed until I read this statement in Lovelock’s Nuclear Power is the only green solution: “Nearly one third of us will die of cancer anyway, mainly because we breathe air laden with that all pervasive carcinogen, oxygen” — could someone please explain how oxygen is a carcinogen? I’m holding my breath…

  12. Evan says:

    Susan: You haven’t run across the hype about “antioxidants” helping to prevent cancer? :)Of course Lovelock’s being somewhat disingenuous there (after all, we’d die a lot faster if we weren’t breathing oxygen), but it’s true that oxygen’s a nasty, violently reactive chemical, and the molecular machinery inside our cells does spend a lot of time repairing itself from oxidation damage.There’s a hypothesis that the lower partial pressure of oxygen might be the reason (or one of the reasons) that people at high altitudes like Denver often have lower cancer rates despite being exposed to a higher level of background cosmic radiation.

  13. Jeff Coon says:

    I worked for a company that manufactured titanium golf clubs for Calloway. We imported the titanium from the former Soviet Union. Not cheap at all.

  14. Susan Hales says:

    Evan, thanks for that nuanced explanation — down here in Alabama where being a Kerry supporter is equivalent to being a terrorist, I don’t want to go around alarming people that they are going to die from breathing…I’ll just hang in here with you guys a bit longer and maybe you’ll explain more about the “antioxidant” thing too, as that much I had heard of…just waiting to find out if I should stop consuming gallons of pomegranate juice a day….

  15. It’s a little self-aggrandizing, being company propaganda, but the pretty chart on the third page gives a good overall picture of titanium dioxide production, although it doesn’t answer Dave’s question about cost:

  16. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks everyone, for the additional info and correction of the typos. Evan: I’ve been told that without the massive agricultural subsidies ethanol becomes uneconomic — apparently the true cost of the oil used to fertilize the crops exceeds the energy value of the biomass produced?

  17. Evan says:

    Dave: I’m not surprised you’ve heard that, but IMHO, ethanol’s gotten a bum rap.There’ve been a couple of studies done that “proved” ethanol consumes more energy than you get from it. They were badly flawed, in my opinion (I’ll get to my reasons later), and they were mostly done by an ecologist named Dave Pimintel who, I’m told, takes grant money from Mobil (but that’s third-hand information and I don’t know if it’s true).At the intersection of oil, agribusiness, and big government subsidies, you get the sort of explosive political environment that leads to major public relations and lobbying campaigns, and so Pimintel’s studies were very heavily publicized–or, so I infer from the fact that practically everyone seems to have heard about them, but no one seems to have heard they were debunked.There are so many reasons I think Pimintel’s argument is flawed that I don’t really know where to start. First of all, he assumes that you’re making the ethanol with old and inefficient production processes, but the technology has been improved significantly–not, of course, that all the ethanol producers are using the best technology now, but that shouldn’t be counted against ethanol per se.He ignores several byproducts that ought to be counted in ethanol’s favor–just for one example, fermentation produces pure commercial-grade carbon dioxide, which is usually made by burning methane.He only talks about making ethanol from corn–which is indeed the crop that’s usually used for the purpose, but it isn’t the only one available and it’s far from the best. Ethanol from corn does, in my opinion, produce significantly more energy than it consumes, but sugar beets are even better, and jerusalem artichokes are *immensely* better–you get ten to twenty times as much ethanol per acre per growing season, in much more marginal soils, with much less fertilizer input.(Not that corn is a bad crop, mind you. About 90% of the corn we grow gets fed to cattle, who don’t digest sugars very well; it’s the reason they produce so much methane. Ferment the sugar out, and you get ethanol plus dried distiller’s grains, which is a far better cattle feed anyway–they grow better, you get more meat, and less methane.)But the biggest factor in ethanol’s favor is that there are new processes coming online for cracking cellulose into fermentable sugars. We’ll be able to make ethanol from corn stalks, rice straw, and other stuff that we just bury or burn now.I hesitate to mention that, because it’s kind of pie-in-the-sky, but we’re very close. And even if it doesn’t work out, ethanol is still an energy win. The subsidy may or may not be sound government policy–I really have no opinion–but either way, it’s not ethanol’s fault.I think we’ll be using a lot of it, by and by. There’s an energy bonus I forgot to mention: You don’t have to build all new cars. Converting a gasoline engine to burn ethanol is fairly easy, and any car can burn a gasoline-ethanol mix. (Well, if it’s not a diesel, I mean… and those can burn biodiesel.)Postscript: This is about the fourth or fifth time I’ve posted a voluminous defense of ethanol on someone’s blog comments, which is kind of funny to me–because my blog address is “”, and that choice had absolutely nothing to do with ethanol as a fuel. It’s an online handle that dates back to my days as a chemistry student in college, when I chose to name my computer account after a recreational chemical. So, in case you were wondering, I’m not a shill for the ethanol industry–just a passionate convert. :)

  18. Evan says:

    Just went back and reread what I wrote last night and realized I forgot to put in any references! There’s a page that links to several different analyses of the energy efficiency of ethanol production at Scroll down to “Energy Under Fire” if you just want to see the specific rebuttals to Pimentel, but the whole page is interesting.The estimates of energy return-on-investment for corn ethanol production range from 34% up to over 600%. I suspect the truth lies somewhere inbetween… but in any case, I don’t agree with Pimentel that it’s a negative number.

  19. Evan says:

    Er, sorry, I meant to type “Ethanol Under Fire”, not “Energy Under Fire.” Okay, done posting now. :)

  20. Dave Pollard says:

    Evan: This is very useful. The biggest problem is that most of the people weighing in on this subject have an axe to grind. Some of the objective evidence from universities is more compelling, but university profs have been known to take money to support certain predetermined ‘research findings’ as well, especially by pharma cos. We recently had a prof here fired because she refused to confirm the sponsoring pharmaco’s findings, and in fact refuted them, causing the university a lot of lost funding. The most compelling arguments, Evan, are yours. I’m tempted to believe Journey to Forever as well, since they support Organic Farming and hence seem to be unconnected to Big Agriculture, but their research all seems to have been done by others — from the Corn Growers’ Association (who I don’t trust) to some universities (which I don’t know whether to trust or not). I guess I’m a diehard skeptic. Have you written something on ethanol at greater length on your own blog, citing more than the same 5 questionable sources? I want to believe, but, you know, there’s a hell of a lot of money at stake in this, and sometimes money can cause some people to misstate the facts.

  21. Evan says:

    No, I’ve been meaning to write a long blog post about ethanol for a long time (and I’ve written so many comments on other people’s blogs by now that I should really just do it and then from then on I can just post links to it instead of typing the same thing in over and over…).I’d been skeptical about Pimentel’s research ever since I heard about it, but I got my hair lit on fire about the subject last year when I took a course in renewable energy technologies at the local college, and one of the guest lecturers was David Blume–aka “Farmer Dave”, a long-time advocate of permaculture and organic farming, who used to run a local organic CSA farm and still teaches classes on organic techniques, and also runs the website Alcohol Can Be A Gas. He’s been producing his own ethanol and running his own cars and farm equipment with it for a couple of decades.You’re so right about how tough it is to know who to trust; all I can tell you is I found Blume very convincing.

  22. Don Dwiggins says:

    From Dave’s comment above: “We recently had a prof here fired because she refused to confirm the sponsoring pharmaco’s findings, and in fact refuted them, causing the university a lot of lost funding.” Can’t say that surprises me much, but it’s sure depressing, and it’s the most egregious example I’ve heard of the damage done to science by the current system. I’d be interested to hear what the department head said in public to justify the firing.

  23. Neil Horne says:

    Timet is the world’s largest producer of titanium. It sells it in ingots from about 3000kg to 6000kg each. So there seems to be a bit of it around, if it’s not used up making golf clubs!Ingot is the basic product from which all TIMET quality mill products are made. Ingot is produced to standard or premium quality specifications. Premium quality is triple vacuum arc remelted, and if specified, hearth melting can be included. Standard grade offers the opportunity to recycle customer supplied scrap.Ingot Sizes:Diameter (in.) Availability Nominal Weight28 Double Melt Only 7,500 lbs (3,400 Kg)32 Double and Triple Melt 10,000 lbs (4,535 Kg)34 Double and Triple Melt 14,000 lbs (6,350 Kg)

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