August 16, 2004
Thin Film Fuel Cells May Obsolesce Large Electric Plants

Small thin film fuel cells may obsolesce large electric power generating plants based on fossil fuels.

"By using materials science concepts developed in our superconductivity research and materials processing concepts in our semiconductor research, we are able to reduce operating temperatures, eliminate steps and use less expensive materials that will potentially revolutionize from where we derive electrical energy," said Alex Ignatiev, director of TcSAM and distinguished university professor of physics, chemistry and electrical and computer engineering at UH. "While there are a number of fuel cell research programs at the university, ours focuses on the application of thin film science and technology to gain the benefits of efficiency and low cost."

Compared to the macroscopic size of traditional fuel cells that can take up an entire room, thin film SOFCs are one micron thick – the equivalent of about one-hundredth of a human hair. Putting this into perspective, the size equivalent of four sugar cubes would produce 80 watts – more than enough to operate a laptop computer, eliminating clunky batteries and giving you hours more juice in your laptop. By the same token, approximately two cans' worth of soda would produce more than five kilowatts, enough to power a typical household.

Keeping in mind that one thin film SOFC is just a fraction of the size of a human hair with an output of 0.8 to 0.9 Volts, a stack of 100 to 120 of these fuel cells would generate about 100 volts. When connected to a homeowner's natural gas line, the stack would provide the needed electrical energy to run the household at an efficiency of approximately 65 percent. This would be a twofold increase over power plants today, as they operate at 30 to 35 percent efficiency. Stand-alone household fuel cell units could form the basis for a new 'distributed power' system. In this concept, energy not used by the household would be fed back into a main grid, resulting in a credit to the user's account, while overages would similarly receive extra energy from that grid and be charged accordingly.

"The initial applications of our thin film fuel cell would probably be for governmental entities," Ignatiev said. "For instance, once the preliminary data satisfies the Department of Defense, we could see our fuel cell research in action in the backpacks of soldiers, replacing heavy batteries to power their computers and night vision goggles and such.

"NASA also is very interested in this research mainly because of the weight and size factors," he said. "Thin film SOFCs offer light, compact, low mass properties of significant interest to them. Right now, the shuttle routinely uses fuel cells that require ultrapure oxygen and hydrogen, use exotic materials and are massive and large. But the thin film SOFCs we are developing at UH are not as sensitive to contaminants and are highly efficient in their design and lightweight size, which is ideal for space applications."

Inherent to the more efficient design of these "cool" fuel cells is quite literally the fact that they operate at a much lower temperature than other solid oxide fuel cells, yet do not need a catalyst. Despite their 60 to 70 percent efficiency, SOFCs, in general, operate at 900 to 1,000 degrees Celsius, a very high temperature that requires exotic structural materials and significant thermal insulation. However, the thin film solid oxide fuel cell has an operating temperature of 450 to 500 degrees Celsius, one half that of current SOFCs. This lower temperature is largely a result of the drastically decreased thickness of the electrolyte-working region of these thin film SOFCs and negates the need for exotic structural materials and extensive insulation. The lower temperature also eliminates the need for catalysts (known as reformers) for the fuel cell. All of these features indicate a reduced cost for the thin film SOFC and positive future impact on the fuel cell market.

Note that SOFCs would not obosolesce nuclear power plants. If nuclear power could be made cheaper than coal or natural gas electric power plants then nuclear plants might still have a future. But as a means to generate electricity from fossil fuels large centralized plants are probably going to be obsolesced by smaller cheap and highly efficient fuel cells that can be located quite close to the devices that run off of electricity.

I think a really nice energy future would be based on the use of sunlight to run artificial photosynthesis systems to generate synthetic hydrocarbons. Such systems could be either biologically based with genetically engineered plants or the systems could be based on non-living catalyst materials that are like photovoltaic cells but which drive the fixing of hydrogen with carbon. Another approach would be to run nuclear power plants to generate power to supply the power to run artificial photosynthesis systems. All these approaches could produce gaseous and liquid hydrocarbons for burning in fuel cells and in existing engines while we transition to fuel cells.

Update: See Tim Worstall's post Solid Oxide Fuel Cells where after analysing the work of Professor Ignatiev he opines:

Insolation is at roughly one horsepower per hour per square yard for seven equator equivalent hours per day just about anywhere with extensive human habitation. That's 5 or so KWatts per sq yard per day. What's the size of the average American houses' roof? 1,000 sq foot? 100 or so sq yards? 500 Kwatts a day? Solar cells with 30% efficiencies are out there (Berkeley, GaAs/GaN/InN). 150 KWatts. As I don't know the efficiency of a process to separate the hydrogen from the water, I'll assume 50%. OK, we've got 75 KWatts of usable power now. Our SOFC produces electricity at 60% efficiency: 45 KWatts per day of storable power. From land that's already in use for something else. Average US household daily electricity usage? 30 KWatts.

OK, OK, there's a number of leaps in those numbers but we are getting there, we really just on the cusp of being able to power a household from the ground it already occupies.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 August 16 02:47 AM  Energy Electric Generators


Comments
slimedog said at August 16, 2004 7:37 AM:

The initial applications of our thin film fuel cell would probably be for governmental entities

Yeah, screw the taxpayer who picked up the tab for this egghead to do the research. If this really can double the efficiency of power generation, we ought to be working to make it competitive with natural gas powered turbine generators. This is gonna be just like the manned space program, fancy toys for the government, and zip for you and me. Bastards.

Engineer-Poet said at August 16, 2004 9:00 AM:

And so it begins.

I doubt that nuclear power will be used to make chemical fuels to use in these fuel cells; it's much less efficient than batteries.  But the advent of a multi-kilowatt electric generator the size of a soda can means the end of the internal combustion engine as well as other changes.

Combined-cycle powerplants are already close to the 60% efficiency mark, so substitution of fuel cells will not reduce gas consumption by a huge amount.  This means that there will not be a mass replacement of coal-fired capacity by fuel cells; however, the ability of these fuel cells to run on coal syngas as easily as methane means that coal-fired powerplants are likely to transform themselves into gas and chemical works in the near term.

Coal syngas can be used to synthesize methanol, which will probably run one of these fuel cells just as effectively as a hydrocarbon.  Methanol into a fuel cell will probably yield more useful energy per gallon than gasoline into a piston engine; ethanol certainly will.  This provides a direct conversion path from petroleum to any energy source which can be made into alcohol, and the infrastructure of pipelines, tankers and sales outlets already exists.

Even if we can't make a good enough battery to enable the all-electric car, this technology can still undercut petroleum.  Oil's days are numbered.

skb said at August 16, 2004 9:22 AM:

I wonder if coal could be gassified to fuel these things, and would that effectively double the useful life of the coal supply (given the efficiencies noted above) and be a cleaner way to use it?

Engineer-Poet said at August 16, 2004 9:32 AM:

The syngas would be inherently free of ash and other particulates, and it would probably have to be scrubbed of sulfur to avoid converting the nickel electrode materials to sulfides.  It seems safe to say that an electric system based on coal syngas feeding fuel cells would almost eliminate particulate, sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions.

Imagine:  the air over the eastern US could be as clean as 8/15/2003 all the time!

Voice of Reason said at August 16, 2004 9:34 AM:

I think a really nice energy future would be based on the use of sunlight to run artificial photosynthesis systems to generate synthetic hydrocarbons.

The problem with this idea is that solar flux at the Earth's surface simply isn't great enough to generate more than a small fraction of our power needs. You'd need to blanket absolutely ridiculous areas (like, several big states worth) with 100% efficient solar collectors to even come close.

Shannon Love said at August 16, 2004 9:36 AM:

slimedog,

When you read that a new technology will be used first for the military and NASA that doesn't mean some conspiracy to screw the little guy is afoot but rather that the new technology will be very expensive and small scale at the outset. With life and death on the line cost becomes little object. The military will pay far more a nascent technology than will the private sector. The military has historically been an incubator for new technologies going back to ancient times. In the last century or so most major technologies had their first major use in the military. Turbines, internal combustion engines, radio, airplanes, computers and many other major technologies had their first real world use in the military. Only after the military paid for the real world experience with these technologies did they move into the private sector. It will be the same with these new fuel cells.

James said at August 16, 2004 9:41 AM:

Laptops have enough trouble with heat dissipation without adding a component that runs at 450-500 degrees Celsius... (I'd think twice about slipping a PDA in my pocket if it ran that hot, for that matter.) Seriously, it's not clear to me how you could package them safely for small portable objects (not to mention that I'd worry about the air conditioning bill).

Rob Sperry said at August 16, 2004 9:43 AM:

>>The initial applications of our thin film fuel cell would probably be for governmental entities

>Yeah, screw the taxpayer

When you read that "initial applications will be for space and the military" this translates to "the initial cost of these devices will be so astronimical that only the military and space program will be able to afford them."

University reaserchers are not well known for bringing projects directly to mass production. When GE releases a press release on the technology, then you can start thinking about how its might actualy get used.

Al Marcy said at August 16, 2004 9:50 AM:

Anybody heard one of these hooked up to power a nice stereo system?

M. Simon said at August 16, 2004 9:51 AM:

skb,

We have at minimum a 500 year supply of coal. Doubling the supply is not a big priority.

Natural gas cost is much higher than coal.

For immediate relief wind is now less costly than gas. As the turbines get bigger it will become less costly than coal.

A dual cycle (turbine/fuel cell) can wring 80% of the energy out of natural gas. Prototypes are already working.

BTW at the energy densities given and assuming 65% efficiency a 5KW cell would have to dissipate 2.5 KW. This is quite a trick with the small volumes involved.

What I'm saying is that a few fibers in the lab do not a technology make.

Methanol fuel cells for laptops have been 2 years away from production since 2001. They are still two years away.

I'm beginning to hate these announcements. People get all excited when the soonest you will see a product is 10 years and may be as long as never.

Larry J said at August 16, 2004 9:52 AM:

Yeah, screw the taxpayer who picked up the tab for this egghead to do the research. If this really can double the efficiency of power generation, we ought to be working to make it competitive with natural gas powered turbine generators. This is gonna be just like the manned space program, fancy toys for the government, and zip for you and me. Bastards.

I guess you've never heard to technology spin-offs from the space program or other government activities. There are literally thousands of them, such as the portable health telemetry equipment used by parametics to send EKG data, anti-lock brakes and GPS systems. As "early adopters", the government (especially the military) ends up paying a premium to get a new technology. That technology, over time, becomes more affordable for ordinary people. Back in the 1950s, a solar cell capable of producing a single watt of electricity cost hundreds of dollars (several thousand dollars when adjusted for inflation). The space program has pushed up the efficiency of solar cells considerably since that time while the price is only a couple dollars per watt. I'm old enough to remember when a very simple VCR cost $1,000 (about $3,000 in today's dollars). I can remember when a simple DVD player cost over $500 and when an 8088 computer with 512K of RAM and a 20 MB hard drive cost over $4,000 (1982). The early adopters pay a premium for technology, where the manufacturers pass on the R&D costs.

If this technology has practical military applications, such as reducing the battery load a special ops team needs to carry for extended missions in hostile territory, then research by the government is fully justified. If that research pans out, you can bet it won't be long before you'll see similar systems in consumer devices.

Thatcher said at August 16, 2004 9:56 AM:

Question? What raw materials do these fuel cells use? If this is going to run on natural gas, what are the end-products of the reaction? I always figured with things like electric cars and (hydrogen) fuel cells, the technology would merely shift the location where the energy was produced. If New York City shifted entirely to electric cars the city would be cleaner but somewhere there would have to be massive buildup in electricity generating plants, with all the attendant environmental problems (coal and gas--nonrenewable, greenhouse, hydro--ecosystem damage, nuclear--waste disposal problems, etc.)

Will Frye said at August 16, 2004 9:59 AM:

James' concerns are well founded -- the 5KW generator operating at 65 percent efficiency must dissipate 35 percent of the 5KW (1750W) as heat. Imagine a 1750W heater the size of a Coke can...if you can't remove the waste heat, the temperature rises until the device fails.

The folks at UH seem have done good work, but these devices will not be available in the electrical section of Home Depot in my lifetime. The work at UH is a small step...

M. Simon said at August 16, 2004 9:59 AM:

When they say government will get them first what they are saying is that they are not cost effective for most applications.

The question is will they ever be?

We go through this at the peak of every energy economic cycle. I expect energy prices to colapse in less than two years. Because right now at $45 a bbl. there is gold waiting to be grabbed.


Will Frye said at August 16, 2004 10:00 AM:

James' concerns are well founded -- the 5KW generator operating at 65 percent efficiency must dissipate 35 percent of the 5KW (1750W) as heat. Imagine a 1750W heater the size of a Coke can...if you can't remove the waste heat, the temperature rises until the device fails.

The folks at UH seem have done good work, but these devices will not be available in the electrical section of Home Depot in my lifetime. The work at UH is a small step...

M. Simon said at August 16, 2004 10:04 AM:

Will Frye,

7.5 KW in - 66.66666% eff = 5KW out.

7.5 - 5 = 2.5 KW to dissipate.

Josh said at August 16, 2004 10:05 AM:

The military is the obvious user for the first generation of cells... after all, they have the problem of generating massive electrical power in austere areas for communications, sensors, computers etc. I can foresee the military using these for company or even platoon level power sources. The oil industry would be another obvious customer. You could build something like that into a gas well to operate the wellhead equipment as there are no moving parts(assuming the temp is low enough not to ignite the gas) and little maintenence. Perfect for stripper gas wells. MIght even be useful for military aircraft. Imagine a fuel cell powered predator drone with a tank of LPG- it could have double the range, which would make it more than twice as efficient as the loiter time would be more than doubled due to the inherent travel time from point of origin.

A nice toy for the military, but the real beauty is that they will drive the cost of production down for everyone else. The military was the primary consumer of the computer industry in the 1950's after all. Frequently they are the one huge customer which provides the funds and the insensitivity to cost that provides the necessary jump start for a new industry. Airplanes wouldn't have gone very far without the military as a customer always advancing the bounds of technology. Without military use we would still be riding around in piston engined biplanes.

Jane Galt said at August 16, 2004 10:14 AM:

I'm a little confused: what fuel are the cells using? My understanding of hydrogen fuel cells is that they're an energy store not a source; any reduced emissions come from leveraging the efficiency difference between a steam turbine and an NGO. What fuel do these guys use that takes less energy to get than it gives?

gijoe said at August 16, 2004 10:28 AM:

still no flying car.. sheesh..

Jos Bleau said at August 16, 2004 10:30 AM:

Hydrogen isn't the only power sources for fuel cells.

I respectfully refer you to my comment from the June 1st Energy Tech post here

http://www.futurepundit.com/archives/002148.html#002148

about direct carbon-conversion fuel cells. Coal that has been processed into finely ground carbon-black is 'burned' in direct carbon conversion fuel cells at about 80% efficiency, producing only pure CO2 exhaust. No other effluents are produced. This processing is much cheaper than gassification, and so is the resulting elecricty.

Carbon conversion fuel cells operate at moderate temperatures, require no exotic materials and are relatively tolerant to fuel impurities.

(Any source of carbon can be used, including renewable ones, so the technology can be applied to a number of future energy strategies.)

Although DCC is not suitable for vehiclular or home power it IS suitable for small scale and dispersed power production.

More info here

http://www-cms.llnl.gov/s-t/carbon_con.html

Brian said at August 16, 2004 10:36 AM:

Voice of Reason: are you still around? And did you, er, reason out this sentence before you wrote it?

"The problem with this idea is that solar flux at the Earth's surface simply isn't great enough to generate more than a small fraction of our power needs."

Where, pray tell, do you think the energy we use comes from? Aside from a little fission power and an insignificant amount of geothermal and tidal power, ALL power we now use is solar power. That includes wind, hydroelectric, biomass and fossil fuels as well as direct solar generation. To claim the Sun's energy "simply isn't great enough to generate more than a small fraction of our power needs" is, quite frankly, ludicrous when the Sun already supplies more than 85% of our power. Seems to me like someone calling him/herself "Voice of Reason" ought to've thought of that.

The original post is correct; the future is in artificial photosynthesis.

Bennish said at August 16, 2004 10:46 AM:

"By the same token, approximately two cans' worth of soda would produce more than five kilowatts, enough to power a typical household."

Yeah but, for how long, man? With unit abuse like this, I tend to be skeptical of the whole thing.

Randall Parker said at August 16, 2004 10:50 AM:

Voice of Reason, If you doubt that there is enough surface area in which to collect power to run our economy with photovoltaics see my previous post Structures In United States Cover Area Equal To Ohio. The numbers from that post are, as you will see if you click thru, coming from a physicist at CalTech. Can you show me a more authoritative source that contradicts what he said?

Jane Galt, Depending on the design, yes, fuel cells can burn hydrocarbons rather than hydrogen. Hydrogen fuel cells attract more attention because hydrogen is supposed to be pollution free. But generation of hydrogen requires energy in the first place. Currently the cheapest way to generate hydrogen is from fossil fuels. Generation of hydrogen from fossil fuels (using what are called reformers) produces pollution. Then hydrogen is hard to store and transport and is much less dense than gasoline.

As for the heat dissipation problem: So then they will need to make really flat fuel cells that take up a larger area. The size figure, though, still provides a useful idea of just how little material is needed to build a fuel cell using their approach. Granted, a lot more engineering remains to be done. But it is an amazing result.

Another note about the heat dissipation: Fuel cells will be especially valuable for cold climes because they will be able to generate heat for a structure while simultaneously providing electricity.

Rick said at August 16, 2004 10:50 AM:

"The problem with this idea is that solar flux at the Earth's surface simply isn't great enough to generate more than a small fraction of our power needs. You'd need to blanket absolutely ridiculous areas (like, several big states worth) with 100% efficient solar collectors to even come close."
Voice: Solar cells are definitely impractical, but I think you protest a bit too much. Solar influx at sea level peaks at about 1 kilowatt per meter squared. If we assume a time averaged input of 10% of that, an area 100 kilometers on a side would supply 1,000,000 megawatts(if my math is correct).

"Laptops have enough trouble with heat dissipation without adding a component that runs at 450-500 degrees Celsius... (I'd think twice about slipping a PDA in my pocket if it ran that hot, for that matter.) Seriously, it's not clear to me how you could package them safely for small portable objects (not to mention that I'd worry about the air conditioning bill)."
James: It isn't the temperature that matters so much as heat load. The filament of a flashlight bulb operates at much higher temperatures than 500 degrees. A PDA probably consumes less than 1 watt most of the time and would need to dissipate only a third of that from the fuel cell (I'm not arguing practicality, just saying heat probably wouldn't be an issue).
For small units, minimizing heat loss from the cell would be the challenge; for units as large as a coke can, a surface temperature of 500 degrees will radiate something like a couple of kilowatts. If they can really make a unit with this power density, the waste heat can heat your home in winter and push efficiency towards 100%

Jane: Like most fuel cells, these run on hydrogen. any other fuel implies an on board reformer to strip the hydrogen fom the fuel. Aside from the inherent efficieny advantage a fuel cell has over a heat engine, the main benefit seems to be, ultimately, consumer friendliness. Distributed power generation is much harder to disrupt than central plants.

Bennish said at August 16, 2004 11:11 AM:

Rick, dude, check this out.

In 1998, the State of California consumed 13.496 billion gallons of gasoline. A gallon of gasoline yields about 130 million joules. So when you do all the math, you end up with about 1.755 * 1018 joules, which is an impressively large number.

One anti-solar-power advocacy site gives the "yearly average" solar power density in Albuquerque as 240 watts per m2. (That appears to be a 24-hour average; another site says that it's 700 watts in daylight.) Then presuming that southern California is similar, each square meter of mirrors would be struck by 7.573 billion joules per year.

So if you assume 100% conversion, you'd need 231.7 million square meters of collection mirrors to make this work. 231 square kilometers.

But it isn't going to be 100% efficient. That's impossible, and it isn't going to be remotely close to that. The mirrors won't reflect perfectly and some of the sunlight will heat the metal instead of reflecting. The conversion process into hydrogen will be extremely inefficient. If you get 10%, you'll be doing really well.

So we're talking about paving 2300 square kilometers of California desert with mirrors. That's a strip 13 kilometers wide stretching from San Diego to Los Angeles. It's an area twice the size of San Francisco.

That's a hell of a lot of metal! It ain't gonna be cheap. The capital expense involved would be mammoth. Just clearing an area that large would cost a fortune; paving it with manufactured goods will cost a fortune. And something that big would take decades to build.

Figure each mirror at 10 square meters, and you're talking about 23 million motor mounts. If you figure an average 5 year lifespan, then you're going to replace more than 4 million of them per year.

That assumes conversion of the entire fleet. What about running it in parallel, to offset gasoline usage? There you run into other kinds of economic issues having to do with distribution. There needs to be a substantial level of usage of this in order for it to be commercially viable to create the distribution infrastructure. You've got tens of thousands of service stations which would have to install new facilities to refuel hydrogen cars in addition to gasoline and diesel. They won't make that investment unless there are a lot of cars out there.

Conservatively, you have to assume at least 10% of the fleet converting over to make this work at all and be anything other than a really expensive toy for environmentalists. 230 square kilometers.

There are a lot of reasons to object to this, but the easiest is this: there's no way this is going to happen by 2009. You're talking about an engineering effort which might well take 30 years to even get going.

By the way, forget about photo-voltaics. They are also about 10% efficient, and they're made of silicon. The idea of paving 2300 square kilometers of desert with solar cells is even more ludicrous; there isn't any way that industry could approach that kind of volumes anytime soon. (If they're producing a million square meters, one square kilometer, per year now I'd be very surprised. I bet they aren't even producing ten thousand square meters.)

And what of the turtles? Just wait for the lawsuits to start.

The idea of writing an environmental impact statement for this boggles the mind. Making what amounts to a substantial lowering of the albedo of an area that large would have weather effects. It would change wind and rainfall patterns for the entire south-west US and large parts of Mexico. Remember, the whole point of this is to capture and move a substantial amount of the sun's heat which now strikes those areas is released there. They'll get colder as a result. How much? What other effects would it have? We can't possibly know; we don't have the ability to analyze it.

The real problem here is that the numbers are just too big. The people who suggest these kinds of alternatives don't realize just how much energy we consume, and don't have any idea about the problems of scaling in engineering.

I'm not sure if the man is saying mirrors or cells would end up creating cooling conditions. I think cells would end up converting more of the incident radiation into heat. But, otherwise, den Beste is a righteous dude.

Randall Parker said at August 16, 2004 11:33 AM:

Bennish, I keep telling people who believe Den Beste's gloom on photovoltaics to explain to me how the figures provided by physicist Dr. David Goodstein of CalTech on surface area for photovoltaics are wrong. So far I've had no takers.

Goodstein says that at current photovoltaic conversion efficiencies it would take an area of land 300 by 300 miles to get as much energy as we get from fossil fuels.
Solar energy will be an important component, an important part of the solution. If you want to gather enough solar energy to replace the fossil fuel that we’re burning today—and remember we’re going to need more fossil fuel in the future- using current technology, then you would have to cover something like 220,000 square kilometers with solar cells. That’s far more than all the rooftops in the country. It would be a piece of land about 300 miles on a side, which is big but not unthinkable.

Dr. Goodstein was kind enough to provide me with some of the basic facts that went into those figures. The energy that would be collected by 300 by 300 mile area is for the whole world and he's assuming a current world total fossil fuel burn of 10 TW (ten trillion watts). He's also assuming a 10% conversion efficiency for the photovoltaics.

Note of course that part of that energy could be gotten from rooftoops. Also, some could be gotten from other human structures. It is conceivable, for example, that future materials advances may allow the construction of roads that could operate as huge photovoltaic power collectors. Also, boosts in conversion efficiency could reduce the amount of area needed by a factor of perhaps 4 or 5 or even higher. For example, some researchers at Lawrence Berkely Labs have shown that an indium gallium nitride material can boost conversion efficiency to 50%. Also many uses of power could be made much more energy efficient.

Well, is he wrong? If so, how?

Hank said at August 16, 2004 12:01 PM:

Solar power can't suffice.

Net primary production is the product of photosynthesis after subtracting energy cost of respiration -- what life makes of solar energy.

Unit used: Pg (Petagram) = 10e15 grams or 10e9 metric tons. One old, still classic paper estimating it is here:

"... humans now appropriate nearly 40% ... of the potential global terrestrial and aquatic NPP." An old paper, reprinted at

In many areas humans now use far more than all available primary production.

Hank said at August 16, 2004 12:07 PM:

Let's see if there's any way to enter a URL and have it be displayed.
Current patterns of human use of primary production here:

www.nature.com/nature/journal/v429/n6994/fig_tab/nature02619_ft.html

Engineer-Poet said at August 16, 2004 12:12 PM:

The irony of the unreasoned position of "Voice of Reason" does not fail to amuse.

Thatcher asks:

What raw materials do these fuel cells use?
If they are similar to the other SOFC's previously announced, they use yttria-stabilized zirconia as the electrolyte (the same stuff used in automotive oxygen sensors).  The advance appears to be a radical shrinking of the thickness, which increases oxygen-ion permeability at lower temperatures than were feasible before.

The article says that this advance came out of high-temperature superconductor research, which is not a closely related field.  This is what I had in mind when I talked about developments coming out of left field.

Will Frye asks this of us:

Imagine a 1750W heater the size of a Coke can...
Actually, it's a 2500 watt heater the size of two Coke cans.  I'd call that pretty easy to imagine, just think of two hand-held hair dryers.

The specific heat of air at room temperature is about 1005 J/kg/C.  If the temperature rise through the fuel cell is 400 C, you only need about 6 grams/second of cooling air to remove 2.5 KW.  If you have to make the device bigger to make the cooling more manageable, so what?

Bennish:  Randall and I have both spent considerable verbiage refuting Den Beste's less-cogent claims in detail.  We're not going to change his tune quickly, but I think the weight of evidence will eventually convince him (even if he just quits writing about the subject).

Engineer-Poet said at August 16, 2004 12:26 PM:

Hank writes:

Solar power can't suffice.

Net primary production is the product of photosynthesis after subtracting energy cost of respiration -- what life makes of solar energy.

What you are talking about is the total productivity after respiration, reproduction, defense against predators and all the other activities of a plant.  On the other hand, I seem to recall that the raw efficiency of the photosynthetic apparatus is well over 10%.  If you can re-package it in something other than a plant (which researchers are already learning to do), the productivity of a given area goes up more than enough to supply our needs.

Here's your link.  Try enclosing the URL in quotes and using the http prefix.  (Something here likes to break HTML; I put a blank line inside the blockquote and it terminated both the blockquote and italic tag without being told to, and without a corresponding change to the HTML in my edit window.  Stupid, stupid, stupid!)

A Steve said at August 16, 2004 12:32 PM:

If there's enough waste heat, why not use it to generate steam?

Thatcher said at August 16, 2004 12:49 PM:

The disagreement between the Bennish/DenBeste anti-solar argument and the Parker/Goodstein pro-solar argument is more about concept than math. DenBeste says it would take 2300 square km of solar to replace California's gasoline use. Goodstein says 220,000 square km for the whole world. That suggests California drivers alone use 1% of the world's fossile fuels. That's seems pretty close (at least it's not laughably out of the ballpark.) So let's agree that the entire world's energy supply could be provided by 220,000 square km of surface area.

Context: The Eisenhower Interstate highway system covers 43,000 miles and took 40 years to build at a cost of $329 billion (in 1995 dollars). The interstate system is about 1% of all roadways (urban, intercity and rural) so the total amount of roadways in the U.S. is about 4.3 million miles, or 6.9 million kilometers. Assuming the average road is 6 lanes wide (30 meters) (except it's probably less when you realize all urban streets are included in the figure), you get 207,000 square kilometers.

In other words, to convert the world to solar energy would require paving an area greater than all existing roads, streets and highways with solar collecting material.

Do you realize how big a job that would be? How much it would cost? 32 trillion dollars, if solar cells could be made as cheaply as concrete!!.

Can you even imagine how many lawsuits? The howls of protest by low-latitude nations that would be forced to accept the bulk of the solar cells? What if Brazil decided to become an energy power by paving the rainforest? And so on.

Tim Worstall said at August 16, 2004 1:00 PM:

SOFCs are not intended for use in transportation. Gasoline is irrelevant. Electricity and space heating they're great for.
Land area required to produce the hydrogen to power SOFC's in every home? About the roof area of that home via solar cells.
Full calculation plus a lot of history on SOFCs and the engineering (for example, I talked with Professor Ignatiev this afternoon and compared his work to several others that we both know of) is in the trackback above.
Sorry if this is considered trolling but the post does answer a lot of the questions raised above.

A Steve said at August 16, 2004 1:01 PM:

Thatcher, your math suffers from poor assumptions. First, applying the cost of building freeways to the cost of laying down solar cells and connecting them to the power grid in some way makes no sense. I have no idea how much it would cost, but it probably has little to do with the price of concrete, steel, labor, transport, etc. in road construction. Second, why do you have to apply the cells to the ground? Transparent cells could become windows, large structures could be coated in photosynthetic film, or FITB with some situation of your own (I'm drawing heavily on Engineer-Poet and Randall's posts here). There's more space than you think. Third, as far as cost concerns, 13.5 billion * $2/gallon = $27 billion just from replacing the automobiles in CA with solar power. This stuff starts to look cost-effective awfully fast, especially if it has a multi-year lifespan (and it probably does, though likely at decreasing efficiency).

Gasman said at August 16, 2004 1:02 PM:

As someone in the petroleum industry, I can't stand it. Everyone's geeking out on esoteric BS trying to be the biggest vienna sausage in the URL.

OK. A couple of questions.

What happens when its cloudy??

Since when was methanol not a hydrocarbon made from natural gas?

Where are you going to get all the corn for your ethanol and whose going to pay the huge tax subsidy required to manufacture this inferior product with less energy and more pollutants than natural gas.

How much energy will it take to make "coal dust" and what about the environmentalist who won't let you dig an open pit mine?

There's a reason we're a hydrocarbon-based economy. Its cheap, plentiful, stable, and fungible. We should all live so long to see these fantasies play out.

Randall Parker said at August 16, 2004 1:03 PM:

Thatcher, Most of the cost of building roads is for stuff other than the concrete. They spend months preparing by digging down to a firm base, trucking away unsuitable dirt, trucking in suitable dirt, laying it down, and yet more other stuff.

You also are missing the fact that Structures In United States Cover Area Equal To Ohio. Two Ohios are enough to supply enough power fo the entire world at 10% efficiency. Well, boost the efficiency up to 50% (which at least has been done in the lab) and suddenly we are looking at using an area one fifth of Ohio for the entire world.

A significant fraction of the needed area could be gotten just by replacing roofs. Well, roofs are getting replaced every day and new structures are getting built every day. Thin films and nanotech will make photovoltaic roofs a reality eventually.

At $40 per barrel the world's current 80 or so million barrels per day consumption of oil adds up to $1.168 trillion dollars per year spent on oil.

kel-so said at August 16, 2004 1:17 PM:

What kind of electrodes do these things use? If it is the standard Ni-YSZ cermet and LSM then what of the problems with coking (carbon deposition when you use a hydrocarbon as fuel) SOFC's of this type generally have to use hydrogen, and then in that case it isn't as simple as converting your hydrocarbons to hydrogen, it takes more energy to convert than is stored in the hydrogen (by volume), so you lose out when it comes to total efficiency.

I'm glad people are putting money into the research though.

Engineer-Poet said at August 16, 2004 1:25 PM:

Gasman asks some soft-ball questions:

  1. What happens when its cloudy??

  2. Since when was methanol not a hydrocarbon made from natural gas?

  3. Where are you going to get all the corn for your ethanol...

  1. You run on stored energy, of course.  The energy-storage technology will determine when and where energy is cheapest, and thus the shape of the consuming industries.  Like the aluminum smelters being near the great dams of the northwest, it'll just be How Things Are.

  2. Um, when it was made from cellulose?  They don't call it "wood alcohol" for nothing.  It can also be created from any syngas with the proper proportions of CO2 and hydrogen, and you can make syngas from most anything.  There is also an enzymatic pathway to synthesize it from carbon dioxide and biochemicals (NADH if memory serves).

  3. You wouldn't use corn, you'd probably use garbage and agricultural waste.  An amazing fraction of municipal solid waste is cellulose and thus potential ethanol feedstock.  Another large fraction of MSW is plastic, which is even more energy-rich.  This wouldn't fuel all of society, but it would get rid of the MSW and provide a good fraction of the necessary transport fuel.
Anyway, HTH.

kel-so:  IIRC, the coking problems are reduced as the temperature falls.  500 C is well below the operating temp of the original SOFC's.  I doubt that you would have coking issues with fuels such as syngas or alcohol.

Auntie Grav said at August 16, 2004 1:30 PM:

Back to the fuel cell argument:

How many 10KW windmills does it take to get a battery electric car to work and back? 1
How many does it take to get a fuel cell vehicle to work and back? probably between 3 and 5.

Solar panels: Yeah, nice if you can afford them. Not very many people have enough skills these days to hook up two wires, though. Most have problems plugging in a power cord when it doesn't fit anything but the laptop. I don't believe these same megamorons are going to be able to maintain their inverter/battery/wiring/fuelcell system without some serious help from Southeast Asian technicians.

Hydrogen cars. BWAHAHAHAHAH!!!!! High pressure cryogenic tanks in PUBLIC? Invisible flames when you're talking on the cell phone? Our population can't seem to comprehend what a turn-signal means!!

Yeah, riiiggghhht. We've got the technology of the future on the way. Too bad nobody is working on improving the common sense to handle it.

If you have to wait until some 'authority' from CalTech tells you the usefulness of something, then you probably don't need it, nor do you deserve to have it.

Figure things out for yourself. Do some research. You might find that there are more lies than truths when it comes to energy and the economics of humanity.

Buy less, Buy local, Stay home and create something yourself.

Auntie Grav said at August 16, 2004 1:47 PM:

As for whether these new cells will make it to the public, it is ALL in the marketing.
If they get the right company to step up who knows how to package and distribute them, then they could jump right to the public's use rather than wait for the military to work out the bugs. If they work as the usual academics do, they will wait for someone to pay them to do the legwork, so it will take forever, maybe until never. The idea that the military or NASA (Need Automatic Suck-ups Around) have to use it in the initial stage is based on not finding a developing manufacturer with enough vision (or balls) to project the numbers over more than a 3 year ROI. If the materials are available, and the process is repeatable, then it can be put out in large numbers for cheap (the article said "no exotic materials"). Whether that fits into the plans for the oil companies' profits and wars or not is a different story. (If they really wanted us to reduce our demand for oil, the speed limits would be put back to 55, and companies would be required to bus people to work.)

Maybe someone will develop a fuel cell that runs on cocaine, so the government will have a good reason to outlaw it, rather than just stealing the patent and calling it a 'national security issue'....

rob said at August 16, 2004 1:54 PM:

>Transparent cells could become windows

Um... Dude... I don't know where to begin here. Solar energy is LIGHT. Let it all through and you aren't generating power, got it? Perhaps we will some day have power cells that run only on infrared and let visible light through, but they would be less efficient by far.

Solar power is fine, I'm all for it. But we're no where near being able to replace fossil fuels with solar cells. Some day we will, but I suspect it won't happen until oil gets a lot more expensive (more than twice today's levels).

Engineer-Poet said at August 16, 2004 2:01 PM:

Auntie Grav:  The same people who can't hook up a solar panel have little difficulty replacing a lightbulb when one burns out, calling a plumber when the faucet leaks, or putting gas in the car.  They don't have to know how the electronic ballast in the CF works, which parts the plumber puts in to make the drip go away, or what cracking and hydrogenation went on in the refinery.

Our whole society is full of devices designed by geniuses to be used by idiots, and the system works.  They have to be, because people have to be able to use things without taking the time to train up to genius levels on their construction and principles of operation.  You can take that as a given.

Engineer-Poet said at August 16, 2004 2:38 PM:

Rob opines:

Um... Dude... I don't know where to begin here. Solar energy is LIGHT. Let it all through and you aren't generating power, got it? Perhaps we will some day have power cells that run only on infrared and let visible light through, but they would be less efficient by far.

Solar power is fine, I'm all for it. But we're no where near being able to replace fossil fuels with solar cells.

Have you noticed how much window glass is tinted, often heavily?  You could even make a totally opaque solar cell and etch tiny holes in it to create a sunblock-screen effect.  I don't know how much of the price of e.g. an amorphous silicon solar panel is the glass and other packaging versus the silicon and connections, but the use of sun-exposed windows as "generators of opportunity" is a distinct possibility if the incremental cost gets low enough.

If Nanosolar delivers their TiO2-based cells at anything close to $30/m^2 or 50% efficient PbSe nanocrystal cells become available at $150/m^2 or less, would that change your appraisal?  It affected mine.

Jacob said at August 16, 2004 2:46 PM:

Gasman,
even if using solar power to create hydrocarbons to power your home fuel cell is pipe dream (though it certainly is appealing), a hydrocarbon fuel cell replacing IC engines that gives a 100% or even 50% boost in fuel efficiency will give us a hell of a lot of breathing room in the oil market. Just because people get carried away hoping for the best, that doesn't mean this technology can't help us.

Gasman said at August 16, 2004 3:18 PM:

Engineer-Poet (my, aren't we the Renaissance Man??),

Stop the presses!! You can store electricity?? What are you doing posting blather on blogs?? You should be a billionaire!! Other than hydrostorage or forced air compression (neither of which work well), no one's found the answer to that one!! I bow down to your obvious genius.


And wood alcohol!! More genius. I'm sure your environmentalist friends will go along with that one.

Plastics!! (I can see Dustin Hoffman now...) Never mind that they're made from oil. BTW, what about the generous tax breaks?? Are you for real?? I hope you write poetry better than this.


Jacob,

Fair question and I agree it should be pursued. But to date, you use more energy separating hydrogen from water than you get and so more pollution and more cost. Also, small-scale reformers don't work yet and even if the first problem is solved, the second one needs to be as well if you want cars with fuel cells. All I'm saying is, all energy has some form of cost and if one takes a hard look, they'll find hydrocarbons are here because they're the best option so far.

Bennish said at August 16, 2004 4:12 PM:

Hey, Randall, partner, thanks for the links.

Have you thought about how big 300 X 300 miles is? It's like almost the size of the state of Nevada, man (110,000 m^2). We're talking about a helluva lotta industrial materials covering a lotta flora and fauna, dude.

Is that stuff environmentally, you know, safe? I know arsenic's pretty radical. Are the newer materials better? What about the process by which they are extracted and refined?

How about maintenance? How long before the cells crap out and have to be replaced?

Thatcher said at August 16, 2004 5:01 PM:

Randall: Certainly there is a lot of surface preparation to making a concrete highway. There won't be if you want to lay down solar panels? I think the increased cost of the material will likely offset the lower cost of installation, if there is any. And this giant solar farm will need a lot of infrastructure--drainage, access roads, underground powerlines and transformers, so it's not so different from a highway in any case.

You keep insisting that Structures In United States Cover Area Equal To Ohio . Very well. The figure you give is about half what you would need for the whole world, so let's assume that simply covering every structure in the US with photovoltaics would provide all the nation's power.

Big questions: Who owns the power? Who owns the solar cells? If the property owner owns the cells and any surplus power generated on his property, will we have 100 million electric companies? What if they break down and he can't afford the maintanence? Places like New York City and Seattle will have to buy surplus power from places like Tempe and Dallas. What if the environmentalists in those places are happy to provide for their own needs but don't want to put up extra cells for us Northerners? Can the government force them? If you don't want solar cells on your house, can the government force you? Explain how this would work without (a) a giant government power monopoly which supercedes private property rights, or (b) a number of smaller power companies with the government-like authority to take control of private property.

Smaller questions: 1. You're going to drive on the photo cells? (4 million miles of roadways makes up a big chunk of that impervious land area)
2. Maybe you will put awnings over every road and parking lot. I don't think that will be as cheap as you think. (foundations, electrical infrastructure, earthquake, tornado and hurricane resistance, the weight of accumulated snow, repair and maintenance)
3. Are you assuming that a structure in New York or Seattle generates as much power as one in Arizona?
4. Isn't the point of the above study to demonstrate that paving the earth is bad, that there is more impervious surface than wetlands? I don't think the author of that study will be happy with your plans.

Thatcher said at August 16, 2004 5:36 PM:

Another comment about the Elvidge study (U.S.A.'s Built-up Surfaces Equal Ohio in Area). Built-up surfaces includes roads and parking lots, not just houses and other buildings, and I'm betting that the roads and parking lots make up a big piece of the total. So any solution can't stop with just putting new roofs on people's houses as the old ones wear out.

Let's assume it will someday be technically and economically feasible to cover every road and every parking lot with photovoltaic awnings. Who would want to? To drive to work every day in perpetual twilight. To never see a sunrise or sunset. To never see the purple mountains majesty. When I was a kid, if I was out at night, I used to think the moon was following me. Never again.

Let's forget about tornadoes and hail in the midwest and hurricanes in the southeast and perpetual cloud cover in the northwest and birdshit everywhere. Do you really want to look out across the country and see black plastic awnings over every road and parking lot from sea to shining sea?

A Steve said at August 16, 2004 5:56 PM:

Environmentally, we're talking about a trade-off. Cover buildings and much of Nevada or other desert areas with cells and you reduce the effects of air pollution.

What I expect will eventually happen is that most buildings will be partially self-sufficient and purchase the rest of their power needs from nuke plants or photocell farms owned by energy corporations.

Damn_Proud_American said at August 16, 2004 6:19 PM:

Gasman,

Storage of electricity is what our entire energy infrastructure is based on. Where do you think all that oil came from that you're pumping out of the ground. Sunlight stored as oil. We also are currently storing energy in the form of hydrogen, ethanol, menthanol, biodiesel and any other "fuel" you can think of. The correct way to look at this is that our methods of storing electricity are dropping quickly. Ethanol is now only about twice as expensive as gas for example. And it's dropping quickly, every year. The day it's cheaper for man to store energy from sunlight than it is to extract the energy the earth stored from sunlight (oil, coal etc) is quickly approaching. You need only look at the charts of the rising price of oil over decades compared to the dropping price of renewables (stored electricity) to see that the day it happens is less than 2 decades away... and possibly much sooner.

Btw, ethanol is a renewable. Therefore it produces no net pollution as the growth of new sources of ethanol absorb all the pollution that is produced from the use of ethanol. Net pollution gains occur because we're extracting energy that has been stored in the earth for billions of years and using it. We're simply taking something that was dormant in the ground and reintegrating it into our environment.

Damn_Proud_American said at August 16, 2004 6:26 PM:

Another point. Many of your seem to be worrying about the tremendous engineering task and cost of implementing a solar powered solution. You're simply looking at this the wrong way. When the cost of power produced by solar energy becomes less than the cost of power produced by other sources then the cost to implement the "solar solution" becomes an income stream for our economy, not a cost. We will all be richer because the cost of building the plants we use, pumping the fuel, transporting it etc will by definition be more than the creation and implementation of these solar panels.

In other words the market will drive it and the money will come from the moneys saved by not implementing non solar energy production techniques. It's all about dollars... that's what is so great about capitalism. You don't have to figure out if solution A is the right way to go, or if it's solution B. It all comes down to which is cheaper. The one that is cheaper encompasses the entire calculation of which solution is the right way to go (assuming you take out artificial gov't intervention in capitalism).

Damn_Proud_American said at August 16, 2004 6:31 PM:

Thatcher,

"Do you really want to look out across the country and see black plastic awnings over every road and parking lot from sea to shining sea?"

Besides the fact that this is simply not true (solar panel could be implemented as roofing and therefore hidden and solar plants would be in the desert where more sunlight reaches the earth and the land is completely wasted currently) a better question is. Do you want to live in a world with hazy pollution filled days? Oh wait, I forgot... we do. I guess you're so used to it that you simply forgot what it's like not to live with pollution.

Mark said at August 16, 2004 6:40 PM:

The above arguments were fascinating to a non-engineer/scientist like me. Why don't we just try all the ideas and see which works the best? Personally I wish cold fusion actually worked. Until the alternatives work though, thank God for the oil industry.

Aunti Grav said at August 16, 2004 6:54 PM:

Engineer_Poet:

Let's put it all with the marketing department and see what they come up with. Meanwhile, the manufacturing engineering department says we can't afford to make it as easy as putting gas in a car, well, because it IS putting a GAS in a CAR!! NASA still can't stop hydrogen leaks, for chrissakes, how the hell do you expect JIMBOB the auto assembler to do it? Oh sure, we can pokayoke a way for him to do it, but it gets to the point of using 'unobtainium' and other commodities WHICH DON'T EXIST!!! I guess that's why you've taken up POETRY.

Damn Proud American: Yes, the market will drive everything. But, when everyone is paying 5 or 10 dollars a gallon to get to their jobs, they aren't going to have any money to buy into 'the future' of automobiles, and there is a certain lag to the demand vs. technology. When they can't afford to pay the money for gas, they stop driving to work, and get an apartment closer to town. Rural/suburban property values drop, and demand for new housing also. The economy tanks, so companies cut the one thing that would normally ensure their future: R&D. Not all companies, just the ones actually MAKING stuff, because they fall back on their 'classic' product lines which have mature technology, and fire all those high-priced engineer/poets.
P.S. Those 'geniuses' never get a chance to actually develop an end product. Usually, the quality and shape of the end product is determined by the accounting department. Concept cars and concept prototypes are fine, but by the time the 'market' lets them out into the real world, they all end up with 1950 engines and 2004 cupholders and airbags to protect the 15th century people inside.

We don't have to run out of oil, just cheap oil. Then, we won't have enough of an economy left to build those solar cells and ethanol plants, anyway. Eventually, maybe, but in the short term, we have a system entirely dependent on year to year growth, which is dependent on CHEAP energy.

Jason said at August 16, 2004 8:50 PM:

As I worked as a undergraduate laboratory technician at UH under Dr. Ignatiev during the summers of '98 and '99, I'm somewhat familiar with this project (I worked on another group of experiments, but in the same set of labs as the guys working on the fuel cells). As it has been five years since I worked with them, and since I'm partially covered by an NDA, I can't give out too much information regarding this, but I can clear up a couple of questions.

First, regarding the fuel, they were, if I remember correctly, designed to use hydrocarbons, but there were still problems in that regards as last I heard.

Secondly, the primary reason that the government would be the initial customer for any applications in this regard probably has more to do with production difficulties than anything else. When I was involved in the project, it took multiple days in a clean room to produce a single chip, and about half of them were lost to imperfections. Granted, this was a laboratory environment rather than a production facility, but the process was rather intensive.

Charles Compton said at August 16, 2004 9:13 PM:

Whatever the feasibility of thin film fuel cells, reading the treatise did stir up fond memories of Robert Heinlein, who wrote about a man named Shipstone and his "improved storage battery," which he likened to calling a fission bomb an "improved firecracker."

In the stories, one shipstone the size of a water-heater would power an average home for something like 20 years. Every electrical device was self-contained, power grids became obsolete, and while Heinlein didn't address heat dissipation, he did mention flying cars.

Fiction for entertainment, surely, but will that be true in 50 years? 25? Less?

(My own) hope springs eternal.

Engineer-Poet said at August 16, 2004 9:18 PM:

Gasman writes:

Stop the presses!! You can store electricity?? What are you doing posting blather on blogs??
Um, it's a rather old discovery, actually.  Goes back to Gaston Planté in 1851, though we've got some modern improvements like lithium-ion.

I'm rather amazed that you don't know about this.  I would have expected anyone who deals with automobiles to be familiar with the starting batteries.

You should be a billionaire!!
Thank you, you're too kind.  But I'm a little late to this particular party.
Other than hydrostorage or forced air compression (neither of which work well), no one's found the answer to that one!! I bow down to your obvious genius.
The people whose genius you should be praising seem to be associated with AC Propulsion, for being clever enough to find a way to make the batteries of electric vehicles operate both as energy supplies for propulsion and as storage for load-levelling on the grid.  I believe there are further refinements one can make to that general concept, but if any of my ideas have merit to compare with that one I have yet to prove it.
And wood alcohol!! More genius. I'm sure your environmentalist friends will go along with that one.
Perhaps not, as the near-term option would appear to use coal (gasifying coal for an IGCC powerplant and diverting syngas for methanol synthesis during off-peak hours).  Not that I hang around with dogmatic types.
Plastics!! (I can see Dustin Hoffman now...) Never mind that they're made from oil.
Yes, that happens to be the point.  You recover the energy in the plastics instead of stuffing them in landfills.  If you use the anything-into-oil process you get a product which can replace some (perhaps most) of the oil which went into the plastic in the first place.  Better yet you eliminate most of the stuff that used to be landfilled, and all of the energy expenditure and expense that goes with it.
I hope you write poetry better than this.
I can only hope to live down to the standard you've set, so here goes.

There once was a poster named Gasman
Who proclaimed, "If I can't, no one else can!
    If my brain gets a spasm
    I'll respond with sarcasm
And sweep up new ideas with the dust pan."

No need to applaud, just throw money.

Auntie Grav:  I never mentioned hydrogen.  SOFC's (and MCFC's) burn carbon-containing gases, and I specifically mentioned coal syngas (60-70% CO, 30-40% H2) and alcohols.  I see no future for molecular hydrogen as a motor fuel.  Quite the contrary, I think that it is a boondoggle and that batteries are better prospects (even Grandma can plug in a toaster).

Randall Parker said at August 16, 2004 9:40 PM:

Bennish, The idea is to put the photovoltaics on top of existing structures rather than, say, covering Nevada with solar cells. Note that the 300x300 miles is to provide power for the entire world. Well, spread photovoltaics on top of every structure humans have built so far and how many square miles is that?

Yes, some of our covered area is roads. I've read a recent estimate that half of city surfaces are roads. Yes, it will be harder to turn roads into photovoltaic energy collectors than to do the same with buildings. But keep in mind, again, that future photovoltaics will be much more efficient than 10%. If future photovoltaics are 50% efficient then we probably can operate our economy with photovoltaics placed only on buildings.

As for Gasman's question "What happens when its cloudy??": We obviously need better storage technologies. Hence my advocacy of the development of technologies that can use light or electricity (from photovoltaics or nuclear) to fix hydrogen to carbon to generate hydrocarbon fuels.

We can't solve our energy and environmental problems with advances in a single technology. We need advances across a large set of technologies that would play complementary roles in providing replacements for fossil fuels. But the advances are possible to make. We just need to try a lot harder to make them. I support Nobelist Richard Smalley's call for an increase of $10 billion per year in energy research funding. We need a lot of scientific discoveries and technological advances. Time to get cracking.

Just Some Poor Schmuck said at August 16, 2004 10:12 PM:

I love all these arguments about whether or not this or that source for power generation is possible or feasible. One thing I have noticed is that out of all these people that swear that we can solve all our problems with their preferred power source, none ever seem to be able to produce a working power source that will undercut existing fossil fuels. There's billions of dollars out there for anyone that comes up with one. Where is it? And don't give me that garbage about oil companies suppressing it. They're in business to make money, they'll be just as happy to make it on fuel cells. That's barking moonbat territory.

Otherwise you are engaging in verbal masturbation, it might feel good, but it accomplishes nothing.

David Gump said at August 17, 2004 1:41 AM:

Damn_Proud_American: You are in error that ethanol produces no net pollution. All the agricultural waste (fertilizer, etc.) that washes down the Mississippi has created a -huge- zone of death in the Gulf of Mexico where nothing aquatic can live due to oxygen starvation. And just yesterday the Washington Post noted a similar growing Dead Zone in the Chesapeake Bay caused by agricultural runoff. You might argue that "good" farming practices would eliminate such pollution, but any incentives for biofuel production will tend to increase the amount of fertilizer used (bad) and also the area under cultivation, tending to further reduce the buffers between farmed land and streams which leads to more runoff (bad again).

Damn_Proud_American said at August 17, 2004 5:39 AM:

David Gump, that's why we will have algae farms capturing that runoff and producing biodiesel. The problem is that the techniques to produce biodiesel are too expensive right now, but with new genetically modified/selected algae generation that grows faster and produces more fuel and better processing techniques the price is dropping quickly.

Btw, what you're talking about is redistribution and concentration of pollution... not increases in net pollution. The increase in net pollution is do to the fact that we use non-renewable energy sources. If we didn't then there would be no net increase.

Damn_Proud_American said at August 17, 2004 5:43 AM:

Just Some Poor Schmuck, easy answer. Using fossil fuels is cheaper than any of these alternatives. The point is that we're on the verge of crossing the line where this is no longer the case. That's what this story is about, it's another possible piece of the puzzle.

Also just want to point out one thing... many people are talking about how to handle all this waste heat. Easy answer, use the waste heat for heating... hot water heaters, home heating etc. Doing this will further increase the efficiency of these units as the location will pay less for the energy to heat their water and air temp.

Gasman said at August 17, 2004 6:28 AM:

Engineer-Poet,

Just got back from watching Star Trek. Am sure you were doing same. Lithium-ion batteries for storage. Hmmmm. Sure. We'll cover the land with solar energy collectors and build a system to store the electricity in lituim-ion batteries. Is that the plan?? Does cost mean anything to you? Technically possible in some science fiction novel. Feasible? No. Break plastics back down into hydrocarbons. Once again, uses more energy than it saves. Talk about barking at the moon.

The sarcasm is well deserved--I've known people like you all my life. Lots of talk, no execution. Life's easy that way, isn't it?

slimedog said at August 17, 2004 7:38 AM:

Larry, Shannon:

Government demand rarely leads to a technology gaining market share, otherwise we'd all be taking the monorail to the spaceport and drinking Tang on the way. I spent 15 years in the Air Force working with crappy government-contracted computer systems that were obsolete the day they were delivered, while my private-sector contemporaries were doing technology upgrades almost annually. There's no conspiracy to keep useful techonologies away from consumers, there's just no interest in getting them commercialized. But I'm optimistic. Some Asian (or Irish) Tiger will build a knock-off, market it as Gas Generator in a Can for $499.95, and get rich. Then we'll all piss and moan about how we've lost our techonological edge.

Meanwhile, could this thing power a flying car?

Joel Mendel said at August 17, 2004 8:05 AM:

I think a lot of people here are talking about the similar ideas on different time-lines. Solar power is obviously not going to be a solution in the next couple of decades. It is extremely cost prohibitive. Most solar cells have an approximate payback of over 10 years. However, there have been some very interesting advances which I think might interest people in this group. Take a look at www.uni-solar.com. They make very light-weight, relatively high output (for solar cells), flexible panels. They have a 20 yr. warrenty. I've actually seen a demonstration work with holes punched in them. Is solar the answer? No, not completely. But if costs can be reduced, we can significantly reduce our oil consumption. It's just a question of how long it would take before that is feasible.

j f said at August 17, 2004 8:52 AM:

Fresnel Lens: I do not mean to change the subject but I want to put an idea out. It is for water de-salination by distillation, using solar, but a new way. Fresnel lenses are known to magnify very strongly, creating very high temperatures in strong sunlight. They can cause water to boil in strong sunlight. In a hot area, such as the Middle East, on a coast, sea-water could perhaps be made fresh by boiling it and condensing the steam. Also, pumps could cause passive cooling and condensation, by pushing the steam into underground pipes. It is naturally cooler underground than above ground. If the electric pumps were also solar powered, (photo-volataic electric) the whole thing would almost run itself. One could drink the Mediterranean for free. (Free except for design, installation, and ongoing labor to keep the lens grooves clean.)If not good enough to drink, the water might be good for agriculture. I donate this idea for free to anybody who wants to try it.

j f said at August 17, 2004 8:52 AM:

Fresnel Lens: I do not mean to change the subject but I want to put an idea out. It is for water de-salination by distillation, using solar, but a new way. Fresnel lenses are known to magnify very strongly, creating very high temperatures in strong sunlight. They can cause water to boil in strong sunlight. In a hot area, such as the Middle East, on a coast, sea-water could perhaps be made fresh by boiling it and condensing the steam. Also, pumps could cause passive cooling and condensation, by pushing the steam into underground pipes. It is naturally cooler underground than above ground. If the electric pumps were also solar powered, (photo-volataic electric) the whole thing would almost run itself. One could drink the Mediterranean for free. (Free except for design, installation, and ongoing labor to keep the lens grooves clean.)If not good enough to drink, the water might be good for agriculture. I donate this idea for free to anybody who wants to try it.

sf said at August 17, 2004 9:20 AM:

First, congratulations to all the posters here--enthusiasts, skeptics and laymen alike. The level of thinking and dialogue here is excellent.

Second: While it's often true that solar energy or cold fusion or [name your favorite cure-all] is "the fuel of the future...and always will be!" it's also true that the future often surprises even the experts, simply because some small unforeseen factor makes all the old predictions "inoperative." Examples abound--including the computer you're using to read this.

The keys to continuing to have an abundant supply of affordable energy are:
1. Don't let some government agency decide which way society should go; you'll end up with the worst possible solution.
2. Don't make it ridiculously difficult to start or run a new business--or you'll end up with government bureaucrats running things (see #1 above).
3. Encourage every kid you know to get a hard-science degree. (Don't worry, they obviously won't all do that.) While non-tech folks can certainly *imagine* neat new ideas, it takes a big chunk of tech know-how to actually turn hi-tech ideas into reality.

Finally, if you'd like a quick primer on the world oil situation, check out members.cox.net/prtdesign/oil.html

--sf

Engineer-Poet said at August 17, 2004 12:22 PM:

Gasman writes:

Just got back from watching Star Trek. Am sure you were doing same.
Sorry, the poor writing turned me off several series ago.  But I'll let you in on a little secret:  those people on the street talking into those flip-things in their hands?  That bit of science fiction has become reality.  Those aren't Star Trek play-actors, and the hardware really works.
Lithium-ion batteries for storage. Hmmmm. Sure. We'll cover the land with solar energy collectors and build a system to store the electricity in lituim-ion batteries. Is that the plan??
Not a feasible plan for bulk energy storage at the moment, though Li-ion appears to have great potential for long-range electric cars.  We're going to need to run down the economy of scale curve for a few more years before they become competitive.

Zinc-air has the bulk energy density to do the job, and the price of the metal is right:  roughly 30 cents per KWH of capacity (market price of bulk Zn is about $1.00/kg).  It may take only a small engineering advance to make the zinc reprocessing competitive with gasoline.

Does cost mean anything to you? Technically possible in some science fiction novel. Feasible? No.
Yes, cost means a lot to me.  Once you have the physics and chemistry out of the way, cost is one of the major engineering hurdles in the way of turning a technology into a product.  Engineering issues are a lot less difficult than chemistry or physics; it's the difference between "we can't do it" and "we don't know how to do it that cheap, yet."  Eventually something puts you over the "yet" in one of the technologies vying to succeed the status quo.  We don't just have one technology that would be better than petroleum/internal combustion, we have several; one of them is going to break that barrier and I doubt it will take terribly long.  2020 at the outside before it has more than half the market.
Break plastics back down into hydrocarbons. Once again, uses more energy than it saves. Talk about barking at the moon.
Person who claims it is impossible should be careful not to get in the way of the person doing it.

Siemens is one of a whole bunch of companies getting ready to turn SOFCs into product.  Say what you want, they are a hell of a lot more credible than you are.

The sarcasm is well deserved--I've known people like you all my life. Lots of talk, no execution. Life's easy that way, isn't it?
Thanks for the irony, my doctor told me to take supplements and here you've saved me the trouble.

In all seriousness for a moment, there are points of leverage we could use to change our energy needs and usage patterns with relatively little difficulty.  Electricity is quite a bit cheaper than gasoline after conversion losses (at $2.00/gallon and 17% overall efficiency, gasoline costs about $0.35/KWH at the wheels).  Once you have a hybrid powertrain, adding batteries to make a plug-in hybrid is a relatively small matter; the electric distribution infrastructure is already there and paid for.  If you are making a changeover from atmospheric-combustion coal plants to IGCC, tapping syngas to synthesize methanol as a motor fuel or to run fuel cells remotely isn't a big change.  If we decide that we want to make a difference, we can pick one of those points of leverage and get several worthwhile results from the same initiative.

Engineer-Poet said at August 17, 2004 12:25 PM:

I forgot to include this link:  http://www.fuelcelltoday.com/FuelCellToday/FCTFiles/FCTArticleFiles/Article_849_Lucerne0804.pdf.  It's literally last week's news, so check it out.

Gasman said at August 17, 2004 2:43 PM:

Engineer-poet,

I'm sure your doctor recommended rectal supplements. Go get em, big boy.

Sorry I'm slow responding, was busy with the NYT style guide so I could feel like I belong to your club.

Checked a couple of your links. You put your 401k in those companies?? You're right. You're no billionaire. We have an old saying in the oil patch. The best way to make a million in oil is start with a billion. Glad to see you believe in that, too.

With all the arm waving about perpetual motion machines, you are right about one thing. Something will supplant hydrocarbons. Eventually. But infrastructure costs and the fact that there's plenty of hydrocarbons still to be found make the day decades away. Not 2020. I'd bet my (sizable)401k on that.

In all seriousness, do I believe there are some intriguing technologies out there? Sure. Who doesn't? I mean one day those Star Trek communicators may actually come to pass. But every price spike brings out alternative technologies that are unsustainable for a wide variety of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with whether they actually work or not (often they do). This is one more of those. And now, I sign off rather than bore your obvious Mensa IQ with my unworthy views....

Engineer-Poet said at August 17, 2004 6:43 PM:

What, Mr. Gasman?  No analysis from you?  Not even a single link to support your side?

I didn't see anyone refer to perpetuum mobiles until you did, but I can see that you're not about to run out of energy even if the last drop of oil should flow tomorrow:  your heap of straw men will keep your home fires burning for much longer than my patience will last.  And on that note, I shall leave you to them.  Adieu, aloha, arrivederci, and auf wiedersehen.

Gasman said at August 17, 2004 7:10 PM:

Engineer-Poet,

People doing real things don't spend time and energy on websites debunking technologies that have little or no viability. The implication in my last post was clear. If you believe your own BS, you've put money into these ideas you promote (I'd love to know which ones, if any, so I can steer clear of them). As an investment banker in the energy industry, I've looked at many of these technologies (fuel cells, gas-to-liquids, etc.) over the years--and I mean years. As I've said, one day one of them will fly, just not for a few decades.

The truth is that your posts were obvious bs, using narrow examples to prove broad points. Life with you must be tedious....

P.S. And if you really need a website, try www.exxonmobil.com, www.bp.com, www.shell.com, ad infinitum/nauseum. Check the financials.

Mike said at August 17, 2004 7:12 PM:

I looked into solar energy generally about 20 years ago (at the peak of my mastery of physics--two degrees at good schools). I do not recall the actual numbers for the energy density of solar radiation, but I do recall that it is very low in practical terms. Photovoltaics for any large scale project (power plant) were not even close to being practical. One of the potential problems I have not seen discussed here is the costs (in all respects) of the manufacture of these cells. Environmentalists often talk about running out of fossil fuels, but they have lied about it for years. I recall back in the Carter years hearing that we were supposed to run out by the end of the last millennium. We are not even close to running out currently. So much so that known reasonably accessible reserves in Alaska are not even considered by many people. I am sure that we have many other opportunities in the US to drill which are stymied by the Left. Does it not bother anyone else that the prominent proponents of the environment often use more energy than I do in my lifetime in several months on their private jets (I do not drive, I fly very infrequently, and if I can't get there by walking I take the bus)? I personally have no problem with letting the market rule such things. I simply find it pathetic that such hypocrisy is accepted without comment by the Left.

The sun has always powered this planet, but so what? The fact that the sun drove the growth which eventually became oil reserves is absolutely unconnected to the direct use of the solar radiation (hey lefties, surprise!, its nuclear! :) ). Why is ethanol renewable but trees are tantamount to being sacred? I am an avid hiker and backpacker, but I can't understand why we should not use trees as the incredibly useful renewable resource that it is. Maybe it is these noxious liberal millionaires and billionaires in their private planes who are in such angst about viewing several hundred acres of trees cut (look at their homes--do you think that they have personally protected any trees while building their estates?). I am no expert at what might be the most responsible way of cutting down trees, but I want them cut down at a replaceable rate as is needed by humans.

Mike

P.S. Someone said that ethanol produces no net pollution. This is an absurd comment on its face. I have never heard of any gas stations which pump just ethanol. As far as I know, corn is harvested by machines using gasoline, trucked to the elevator by trucks using gasoline, and then maybe shipped to the processing plant (another energy user) on a train running on diesel (maybe a barge using diesel). Of course, I left out the machinery that must prepare the field, plant it, fertilize or disperse other chemicals after planting.

P.P.S. Storing hydrogen for cars is not really a safety problem. I remember seeing a show on TV many years ago that had a canister with some substrate to which hydrogen had absorbed. They shot the canister with a rifle. It did not blow up, and the only apparent thing was a hole. Hydrogen gas is highly combustible (think Hindenburg), but apparently there are ways to tame it. I recall that one of my brothers was trying to convince me that people in his area up in Washington could create energy by pumping water uphill. He is an agronomist with an advanced degree, and he should know better. Obviously this is only a way to store energy. Storing energy is a non-trivial thing (I mean storing energy we create now, not talking ridiculously about energy stored many millennia before all of us were born).

P.P.P.S. I have only checked out his blog maybe a half a dozen times, but Den Beste is not likely to get it very wrong. I recall that I caught heat indirectly on a blog once by doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations because the blogger was not trained in mathematics or science and used my post. I gave two distinct ways to estimate something. He unfortunately mixed them up, and the people with not much sense, but who had a calculator, thought that he had erred significantly. I am sure that they had not bothered to read my post. The point of my post was to establish that the only thing pertinent in this particular case was getting the correct order of magnitude (the blogger had made a rather large mistake). There was not even a difference of a factor of two in the results of my two estimates, but there was much more uncertainty in the input data. People who are not trained actually think that a calculation is as precise as their calculator display. I do not expect an average person to be able to propagate uncertainties throughout calculations, but it should be a part of basic science education to at least know that the pros from Dover do know how to do this, and that any number calculated is only as meaningful as its uncertainty dictates (and that does not even account for potential errors--even the pros from Dover can make mistakes).

Damn_Proud_American said at August 18, 2004 5:07 AM:

Mike,

The production of ethanol requires lots of energy and we happen to not use renewable power for that energy. If we did there would be no net increase in pollution. Get it?

Damn_Proud_American said at August 18, 2004 9:12 AM:

Also Mike, the energy density of solar radiation that hits the surface is about 1000 watts per m^2. That's a bit more than insignificant.... you know being that it is the energy source that powers almost all life on earth, let alone provides us with daytime, warm weather, etc...

"Photovoltaics for any large scale project (power plant) were not even close to being practical. One of the potential problems I have not seen discussed here is the costs (in all respects) of the manufacture of these cells."

It's funny you should say that because that is EXACTLY what we've been discussing. Let's say it again... when solar panel production reaches $1/watt then solar becomes a cheaper power source than any power source we currently use. Btw, there are already solar power plants including a 350 megawatt plant and Israel is building a 500 megawatt plant, so I'm not sure what "not even close to being practical" means to you... but I don't think it's the same thing it means to everyone else.

"Why is ethanol renewable but trees are tantamount to being sacred?"

Huh? Trees are renewable... who told you otherwise?

Engineer-Poet said at August 18, 2004 9:47 AM:

Mike writes:

Den Beste is not likely to get it very wrong.
Randall has taken on Den Beste on certain points, and so have I.  The man is good but not infallible, and he's clearly frustrated with some topics.  This appears to have caused him to be less rigorous than he perhaps should have been, and his conclusions not so trustworthy.

Damn_Proud_American writes:

The production of ethanol requires lots of energy and we happen to not use renewable power for that energy.
Indeed.  Perhaps we should force fuel ethanol distillers to use waste heat or waste fuels (spent steam from steam powerplants, landfill gas) instead of natural gas or propane to qualify for the tax break on their product.  (This is wishful thinking; as long as ADM has its lobbyists and campaign contributions, its interests will be safeguarded even if it screws us both as taxpayers and as a nation.)

Damn_Proud_American said at August 18, 2004 10:01 AM:

Engineer-Poet, I'm not really concerned with whether the energy from waste heat and fuels goes to ethanol distillers or someone else... as long as it goes to someone thus reducing our total non-renewable energy usage.

But your point is well taken, our society is not nearly as energy efficient as it could be and in many cases this is actually costing us money since the capex of increasing our efficiency is smaller than the gains in energy savings. A small example is the new LED traffic lights cities are installing... they pay for themselves in just a few years due to the fact they use less than half the energy of the old lights and require only a fraction of the maintenance... yet most cities have been ridiculously slow in embracing them.

Gasman said at August 18, 2004 10:06 AM:

OK, I know I'm a fool for diving in, but Damn_Proud_American, if the numbers you gave on watts hitting the earth are correct and I assume energy efficiency of 30% (which I'm guessing is generous), then a 350 Mwh solar facility covers about 12 MM square feet (that's nearly 1/2 mile^2). Right? If I remember right, U.S. avg daily electricity consumption is about 11,000 gigawatts and assume a reserve margin of 20% for peaking and another 20% for cloudy days (more in the northeast) and then we increase it another 30% for the 12 hours a day where there is no sunlight (partially offset when night-time consumption is lower), I'm guessing we need 1100 sq miles of solar panels. My question is: Your backyard or (not) mine?

You still haven't solved the storage issue (I don't care what e-p says) and we haven't even taken into account what winter would do to reliability. I know you're going to say its only a part of the solution and I agree. But lets be realistic about what solar can do. When you talk about being practical, speak only for yourself, please.

P.S. I think Mike's point is, "Why are trees sacred and corn isn't?" And if its because its grown for a specific purpose, then why can't we drill for oil? And I still want someone to tell me if you want your tax dollars supporting a higher polluting, less efficient form of energy in ethanol. And at 50 cents a gallon, its a huge tax subsidy.

Randall Parker said at August 18, 2004 10:42 AM:

Gasman,

You say "I'm guessing we need 1100 sq miles of solar panels". Okay, do you think that is a lot of area? If so, why? Given that the total impervious man-made surface area of the United States is 43,480 square miles that area you calculate for photovoltaics is only 2.5% of that area. Well, let us be very generous and allocate three quarters of the impervious surfaces to roads highways and bare parking lots. So we have about 10,870 square miles of structures. Then your 1100 square miles of photovoltaics become 10.1% of all existing structure surfaces. How is this too much?

There are two problems with photovoltaics: cost of photovoltaics and cost of storage. Surface area is not a problem. Therefore the only problems with photovoltaics are solvable. The rate of general progress in science and technology is accelerating, Lots of research teams in academia, government labs, and industry are working on the scientific and technical problems and reporting progress.

We could accelerate the rates of progress in the various areas of research if we spent more money on it. The approximately $100 million per year spent by the US government on photovoltaics research is chump change. We ought to up it by an order of magnitude and increase total US government funded energy research of all kinds by $10 billion per year.

Damn_Proud_American said at August 18, 2004 12:02 PM:

Gasman, I'm not sure what you mean by the US uses 11,000 gigawatts. Are you referring to peak usage or gigawatt hours? Do you have a link that I could check out? I remember I've seen the data for US energy usage and how it's broken down before, but I don't remember the data off the top of my head... I'm pretty sure that it's not 11,000 gigawatt peak though... that sounds way high.

Of course I haven't solved the storage issue. If I did I'd be a rich man. What's your point?

Solar as I view it today is useful in the context of adding 10-20% of the power to the grid during the day (peak usage times) and storing the solar energy produced in the form of hydrogen, biofuels or synthetic fuels for replacment of gas, diesel etc. For these purposes the storage of energy is not the cost issue (water for hydrogen is the raw material for example). It's just a matter of solar cells being cheap enough that's it's cheaper to make hydrogen (or whatever other fuel proves to be the cheapest) cheaper than it takes to refine gas. It's actually a pretty simple calc and I've done it before... came out to be about solar panels needing to cost 60 cents a watt (peak output) if memory served to produce hydrogen in quantities of equal power output to gas at 85 cents/gallon (which is significantly below the current price pretax). Number is probably closer to $1/watt right now with oil prices where they are... btw the new generation of plastic solar panels is dropping the price per watt from $4.50 to $2.25 this year.

I usually don't support subsidies, but in the case of ethanol I do because the money we're sending to the arab world to buy their gas is being used to attack us. It's a national security issue, not just an economic one. Soon ethanol will be cheap enough on it's own to compete directly anyway with the new generation of enzymes processing cellulostic waste the price per gallon of ethanol should get to under $1 per gallon.

Gasman said at August 18, 2004 12:10 PM:

Knock out Alaska first of all. And given the state of transmission in the U.S., you can knock out Montana, the Dakots, and on and on and on. You say surface area is not a problem. Clearly you've never tried to site anything any where. Let me add NOPE to NIMBY. NOPE: Not on Planet Earth. Try siting a few square miles of cells near any city. And then call Walter Cronkite and ask him what he thinks. I'm sure he'll tell you as long as it doesn't interfere with his view in Nantucket Sound, he's ok with it.

As I said in my post, there's a role for solar. It will be small for a long time, primarily because its unreliable. Do any of you have any idea how difficult it is to manage the electricity grid?? You can't spin up a bunch of solar cells when there's a spike at 5 p.m. when Moms across America turn on Oprah.

Damn_Proud_American said at August 18, 2004 12:11 PM:

Gasman,

One more point. The US general accounting office has estimated that the true price of oil to american citizens in $130-140/barrel, not the $30 that we're lead to believe. The rest is paid by the US government and businesses in the form of subsidies to oil companies and foreign gov'ts, military outlays and environmental cost... so your complaint about ethanol receiving a subsidy to compete with gas is a bit ridiculous.

Randall Parker said at August 18, 2004 12:18 PM:

Gasman,

You are not even responding to my arguments. I have already shown using your own numbers as starting points that we can get enough surface area just using the surfaces of existing structures. No need for new structures. The existing structures are increasingly built in the southern regions of the US where the sun shines more brightly. Montana, Alaska, the Dakotas: Few people live in these places.

I'm not going to argue with you any more. You bring few facts and mostly just a bunch of cynical attitude. I'm not interested in that kind of argument. You ignore relevant data that gets posted here. The arguments have been made and any further argument will be repetitive absent new introductions of facts that have links to verifiable sources.

Bob Joy said at August 18, 2004 12:32 PM:

There appears to be a fundemental economic impasse in the way of most large scale alternative energy sources, particularly solar: the cost of their infrastructure is tied to the cost of fossil fuels. Presently everything from mining raw materials to erecting and maintaining the infrastructure is performed with fossil fuel energy. For at least 20 years alternative energy advocates have been saying "in a couple of years we will be cheaper" but it dosen't happen. To break this barrier and reduce our carbon dioxide release and climatic impact we need a new approach. Possibly a tax on fossil carbon with the revenue used to subsidize alternative energy, and operating production facilities for alternative energy equipment on alternative energy sources (one author called this "solar breeding")may be required. As long as fossil fuels are available the cost of alternatives will probably be higher in the short term in a free market; the main driver for large scale altrnative energy will be keeping our planet habitable and reducing our dependence on politically volitile parts of it.

A very solid comparison is possible here in the eastern Mojave desert. A 160 megawatt solar thermal generating plant has operated here for more than 10 years. It covers roughly 2 square miles. It uses parabolic trough mirrors to heat synthetic oil to about 700F. for operating conventional steam turbogenerators. The ground under the mirror system is relativly unobstructed. Plant efficiency is better than all but the most exotic compound semiconductor photovoltaics that only NASA can afford. The plant has natural gas fired steam generation also and can vary the ratio of the two continuously. It can then provide its power to the regional utility (SCE) on a firm schedule independent of solar radiation, required for a block of power this size. I do not have current data on the cost of power production; a few years ago it was about 9 cents/kwh. This system does require well collimated solar radiation (little scattering) to acheive this high temperature and hence sites with low humidity and cloud cover. More info at http://www.solel.com/products/pgeneration/ls2/kramerjunction/.

Our local community college is constructing a photovoltaic system covering about 6 acres. It will receive both state and federal financial incentives. It is expected to provide most of their electric power needs and sell surplus back to SCE via net metering. More info at http://www.cerrocoso.edu/iwv/pvf/index.htm. This facility should soon provide more solid information.

Gasman said at August 18, 2004 1:26 PM:

Sorry DPA, 11,000 gigawatts is daily consumption from EEI--Edison Electric Institute based on last weeks consumption of just under 80,000 gigawatts. As for $130-140/bbl there's no way to respond to that without knowing methodology. Are they billing oil for the cost of maintaining our military?? Seems dishonest to me as we would have one with or without Middle East oil. Are the subsidies tax breaks that every company operating in a foreign country receives?? The devils in the details.

Randall, I'm supposed to assume we're going to knock down existing structures to put in photovoltaics?? That's your solution. I'm sorry I'm so obtuse, I guess I assumed a greenfield site. If that makes me cynical, you're right, I am. At the same time, you seem to be callous to existing property rights. And I did respond to your argument. 1100 sq miles of greenfield site is a lot, particularly when it has to be strategically placed on the grid. Eminent domain doesn't work well for anything anymore (just ask WalMart). I'm giving you real world facts. Never said these things don't work. Just doubt their viability in the real world.

Have you ever tried to site anything?? I'm dead serious. I'm trying finance and site an LNG import facility right now. This is the cleanest, cheapest hydrocarbon there is, would serve tens of thousand homes/businesses every day, needs 400 acres, is in a rural area bordered by a couple of refineries and there's hell to pay with the environmentalists. If you've got a spare $15 MM for VC money let me know. The follow on equity requirement is only $150 MM, we can debt finance the last $350 MM at 6%.

Randall Parker said at August 18, 2004 2:09 PM:

Gasman,

You say: "I'm supposed to assume we're going to knock down existing structures to put in photovoltaics?? That's your solution."

You keep putting up strawmen. I weary of this cynical debate tactic. I said we will be able to use the surfaces of existing structures. Knock them down? In your area of the United States do people knock down houses to put new roofs on them? They don't do that in California and they don't in New Jersey to my recollection.

As for permissions: People will grant themselves permission to install solar power on their own buildings when it becomes cheap enough to become worthwhile.

Oops, I said I wasn't going to debate you any more. Okay, this is my final response to you. Go ahead and have the last word.

Engineer-Poet said at August 18, 2004 2:30 PM:

Gasman is a troll.  Did it escape anyone that he didn't link to the actual page where the EEI claims this?  There's a reason for this; he can't get his figures (or even his units) right.  Example:

11,000 gigawatts is daily consumption from EEI...

Notice that he confuses power (gigawatts) with energy (GW-hours or GW-days).  Also notice that the raw figure he cites is about 20% higher than the total 2002 summer electric generation capacity of the USA.   His posts exemplify the dopeler effect (the tendency of stupid things to sound more intelligent when they come at you fast).

I'm done responding to him.

As for storage, electricity is already cheap and easy to store... for certain uses.  Take the biggest single contributor to summer peak electric loads, air conditioning.  Solar PV is already down to peak time-of-day electric prices in some areas, and is economical for peak-shaving generation.  When it gets cheaper than off-peak, it will pay to use A/C systems to make ice while the sun shines and cool things using the ice overnight.

V2G (vehicle-to-grid) is another source of storage.  If electric cars or PIH's use batteries which have calendar life limits (such as lead-acid), the less-heavily used vehicles will have to replace batteries whose cycle capacity has not been fully exploited.  This unused capacity is "free" for other purposes, such as load levelling.  If we assume that a typical PIH has 10 KWH of batteries on board but only cycles them to 25% depth of discharge once per day, the batteries can cycle to 50% DoD 1100 times before replacement and have a 3-year lifespan, that's 2.5 KWH of capacity that goes unused each day.  In today's grid situation we'd use it to meet afternoon peak loads, but if cheap solar PV inverted the cost advantage it could be used to "take power home" to meet evening loads; the car would then recharge fully from base-load powerplants in the slack hours overnight.

How much would this cost?  If you have 10 KWH of batteries at roughly the current cost of deep-cycle batteries, that's $700.  If you get 1100 cycles to 25% DoD in 3 years of driving, that's 2750 KWH of throughput at a cost of 25.4 cents/KWH.  (This is about 30% cheaper than gasoline at ~35 cents/KWH at the wheels at current prices.)  If you can take another 25% of discharge for zero addtional battery cost, all you're paying is the power to charge the batteries and the system losses.  If this stored power is replacing late afternoon and evening generation at ~$0.15/KWH, it would pay to use those batteries if you could get the power for 12 cents/KWH or less.

Carlos Barrera said at December 17, 2010 1:08 PM:

Gearturbine - Atypical Thermodynamic Technology Submission

http://gearturbine.260mb.com

YouTube Video; Atypical New * GEARTURBINE / Retrodynamic = DextroRPM VS LevoInFlow + Ying Yang Thrust Way Type - Non Waste Looses

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0cPo9Lf44TE

GEARTURBINE -Atypical Combustion Turbine Engine, -State of the Art, -New Thermodynamic Technology, -With Retrodynamic "Dextrogiro vs Levogiro" Effect, is when the inflow direction moves is against [VS] of the circular rotary dynamic, When the inflow have more velocity the rotor have more RPM / because push the single turbine with the planetary gear, (an a example is like to move the head to the side of the strike hit) / RPM Rotor Move VS Inflow Conduits Way /ACTION VS REACTION / Front to Front / Velocity vs Velocity, making in a simple way a very strong concept of power thrust, a unique technical quality. -Wide cylindrical shape dynamic mass (continue Inertia cinetic positive tendens motion / all the motor weight is goin with the power thrust direction), -Non Waste, parasitic losses form-function engine system for; cooling, lubrication & combustion; -Lubrication & Combustion inside a conduit radial position, out way direction, activated by centrifugal force Fueled Injected, -Cooling in & out; In by Thermomix flow & Out by air Thermo transference, activated by the dynamic rotary move, -Increase the first compression by going of reduction of one big circumference fan blades going to, -2two very long distance captive compression inflow propulsion conduits (like a digestive system) (long interaction) in perfect equilibrium well balanced start were end like a snake bite his own tale, -Inside active rotor with 4 pairs of retrodynamic turbos (complete regeneration power system), -Mechanical direct "Planetary Gear" power thrust like a Ying Yang (very strong torque) (friendly loose friction) 2two small gears in polar position inside a bigger shell gear, wide out the rotor circumference were have much more lever power thrust, lower RPM in a simple way solution, to make possible for a some innovative work application (cars/land). -3 Stages of inflow turbo compression before the combustion. -3 points united of power thrust; 1- Rocket Flames, 2-Planetary Gear & 3-Exhaust Propulsion, all in one system. -2two continuous circular moving inside combustion (rocket flames) like two dragons trying to bite the tail of the opposite other. -Hybrid flow system different kind of aerolasticity thermoplastic inflow propulsion types; single, action & reaction turbines applied in one same system, -Military benefits, No blade erosion by sand & very low heat target profile. -Power thrust by barr (tube); air sea land & generation application, -A pretender of very high % porcent efficient power plant engine. -Patent; Dic 1991 IMPI Mexico #197187

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