Yesterday's diary on the progress of the ITER fusion reactor, contrasted with America's ADD problem with anything big or long term, got a nice reception, and I promised more - so here it is. The title of today's offering is riffing off an ad slogan that probably still has some resonance, whether or not you like the products of the company. You could take it as a really concise corollary to the quote attributed to Einstein: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
The ITER program is a classic brute force approach to the problem of energy, based on what is the traditional mainstream line of attack on the fusion problem - the tokamak. It has provided a steady living for generations of physicists and engineers, even if that approach hasn't panned out yet. (If you followed the links in my diary yesterday or even did a quick web search, you'd find there are a number of other fusion concepts being explored.)
Granted, there are some problems that really DO require throwing tons of money at them to find a solution. BUT, it's also important to step back sometimes and ask if maybe there is something different that could be done. Climate change is going to force change on us whatever we do at this point - so we might as well consider changes that work FOR us.
More below the Orange Omnilepticon.
Let's consider the ITER reactor for a moment. It promises to supply energy in large amounts- but between the thundering huge magnets, the wear and tear on the reactor from heat and neutron radiation, and the problems of keeping a blanket of liquid lithium around the tokamak - the potential for catastrophic failure if any of the critical systems fail is not a comforting prospect. Then there are some inherent characteristics.
It's a large, complex device. It requires an entire tecno-ecosystem of trained personnel, a technology base, an electrical grid it can connect into, and careful oversight. This is not something you can just drop down anywhere on the planet or in some societies. It IS a potential answer to the problem of carbon-free energy, one that may be able to produce power in quantity and on demand. And at this point we can't afford to write off any possible solutions.
That being said, there are alternatives. New Scientist has an article on a way to use wind power and other carbon-free sources of energy to pull a fuel literally out of the air. This isn't hydrogen (or not quite hydrogen as we usually think of it.) It's ammonia (NH3). Burn it, and you end up with nitrogen and water vapor; no CO2.
Ammonia is already vital as a fertilizer. The problem with it is the means of producing it are energy intensive and produce greenhouse gasses as a by-product.
Most ammonia is produced by heating natural gas or coal as a source of hydrogen, then forcing it to react with atmospheric nitrogen. It's highly energy-intensive, accounting for between 2 and 3 per cent of the world's energy budget and emitting over a billion tonnes of carbon each year in the process.And Holbrook is not the only one working on Ammonia.
Now engineer John Holbrook has developed a technique he hopes will make the process cleaner. Instead of heating a fossil fuel, his technique, called solid state ammonia synthesis, works by drawing hydrogen out of water vapour through a charged membrane, and then reacting it with nitrogen.
Other groups have already shown that it is possible to grab ammonia cleanly out of thin air. Using a different technique to Holbrook's, Mike Reese and researchers at the University of Minnesota this year began using electricity from a 1.35-megawatt wind turbine to make ammonia. The group hopes to produce 25 tonnes of it by the end of the year and sell it as fertiliser to local farmers' cooperatives.http://www.newscientist.com/...
If you've been hanging out at Daily Kos for a while, you may remember some diaries on this by Stranded Wind. The name comes from a problem - places where there is plenty of wind power, but no way to capture it and transmit it where it is needed. Here's a 2009 diary he did explaining the concept. And there's more on heating, cooling, and Ammonia as a fuel for vehicles.
Well, the kind of things Stranded Wind was writing about may be happening, according to New Scientist.
Holbrook has co-founded NHThree to commercialise the technology. A prototype is being independently tested at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. If it performs as expected, the final go-ahead will be given to a pilot ammonia plant in Juneau, Alaska, to take advantage of huge wind resources in a state powered by a patchwork of isolated microgrids. That will give remote communities a steady stream of power from their "stranded" renewables. Excess wind power will be used to produce ammonia – easily stored and distributed for burning later when wind is low.emphasis added
"This will allow us to give Alaska's energy islands – 150 of them – a degree of energy independence," says Bill Leighty of the environmental non-profit Leighty Foundation, who is leading the Juneau project. "There is no energy grid in Alaska, and often no road system, so we probably can't do this with electricity alone."
An editorial at New Scientist points out the potential:
Seventy years later, ammonia may be ready to ride to the rescue again. As a fuel it has a number of attractive attributes. It doesn't release carbon when burned, is relatively easy to store and transport, and could take advantage of an existing infrastructure of storage tanks, transport ships and pipelines.In a sense, ammonia is a hydrogen fuel - just in a different format than we're used to thinking of it. Making ammonia is easier if you can start with hydrogen already available - and there's a new technology being developed that uses solar power to make hydrogen that doesn't use electrolysis. Again from New Scientist:
These attributes give ammonia an edge over hydrogen, long touted as the fuel of the future in a hypothetical "hydrogen economy". It also has certain advantages over electricity, which has storage problems of its own.
Sunlight would be focused at a point atop a central tower that could be hundreds of metres tall, generating temperatures up to 1350 °C. That would heat a reactor containing metal oxides, causing them to release oxygen atoms and leaving them hungry to replace that lost oxygen. Steam – also generated by the sun's heat – would then be pumped through the reactor. Oxygen from the water molecules bonds with the metal oxides, leaving behind precious hydrogen gas.The project is still in the early stages of developing the actual technology, but there's a lot of effort going into different ways to bring down the cost of making hydrogen. The more the merrier. There's already a push for a hydrogen economy if we can just find a way to bring down the costs of producing it.
Some other water-splitting methods require alternating temperatures, making them less efficient. "One of the big innovations in our system is that there is no swing in the temperature," says Charles Musgrave, one of the project's leaders. "The whole process is driven by turning a steam valve either on or off."
One of the comments in the previous diary suggested that finding ways to store energy (battery research) was a key to solving the energy problem. Well, using wind, solar or some other non-carbon energy source to make NH3 or H2 is another way of storing energy and making it transportable.
Another comment noted one place where America does seem to be racking up some points - electric vehicles. (It also spawned some back and forth, so beware of some snark among the discussion.) In any case, yes electric vehicles do offer some advantages in getting away from a carbon fuel based economy. The thinking different part comes in when the question is asked "Why are we working so hard to replicate what we do with cars today, just with a cleaner energy supply?"
An article in BBC News Magazine looks at a country where a decidedly different course has been taken: The Netherlands!
There are more bicycles than residents in The Netherlands and in cities like Amsterdam and The Hague up to 70% of all journeys are made by bike. The BBC's Hague correspondent, Anna Holligan, who rides an omafiets - or "granny style" - bike complete with wicker basket and pedal-back brakes, examines what made everyone get back in the saddle.
The short version is, the Dutch had a tradition of bicycle use, but had been shifting more and more to cars when two factors came together. The first was the Oil Embargo of '73; the second was the rising death toll from motor vehicles. The article goes on to relate that the Dutch government reacted by building a vast network of dedicated bike paths and worked to make the infrastructure bike-friendly.
In the university city of Groningen, a cyclists' dream even by Dutch standards, the central train station has underground parking for 10,000 bikes. Cyclists are accommodated in the way motorists are elsewhere, with electronic counters at the entrance registering how many spaces are available.Now, the Netherlands is a relatively small country, and relatively flat. Their solution wouldn't work every where in the U.S. - but there are still a lot of places where what they've done could be instructive. There is a growing realization that urban areas benefit from having good mass transit; a transit infrastructure that can accommodate and even welcome bicycles would experience a synergy. (Hence things like bike share programs slowly coming to the U.S.)
Bike parking facilities are ubiquitous in The Netherlands - outside schools, office buildings and shops. In return you are expected to only lock up your bike in designated spots - if you chain your bike in the wrong place you could find that it is removed and impounded, and that you will have to hand over 25 euros to get it back.
Take a look at the pictures in the BBC article - you'll see an entirely different approach to bicycling - one a bit more friendly to the Spandex averse. And no one can afford to deny Climate Change in the Netherlands, not with that little sea level problem they're facing.
Let's toss in a few other advantages to using bicycles: health benefits, less traffic and parking congestion from cars, vast savings in money not spent on gasoline, repairs, and insurance.
Again, this isn't the answer for everyone, everywhere - but who says we only have to have one answer? Solving the energy problem to solve Climate Change is going to require us to Think Different in any case, because the old answers are not working all that well anymore.
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