Still looking for the holy grail…..

3 08 2013

A radically new way of producing hydrogen fuel from water — one that wasn’t even thought to be possible — has been developed by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder. The researchers think that this new technique/system could pave the way for the mainstream use of hydrogen as a fuel.

The new technique is, essentially, simply an enormous solar-thermal system — sunlight is concentrated on a tall central tower by a large array of mirrors, which heats the tower to temperatures as high as 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, this heat is then redirected into a reactor containing chemical compounds known as metal oxides. As the metal oxide compound heats up, it then releases oxygen atoms, which change its material composition, causing the newly formed compound to seek out new oxygen atoms. With the “addition of steam to the system — which could be produced by boiling water in the reactor with the concentrated sunlight beamed to the tower — it would cause oxygen from the water molecules to adhere to the surface of the metal oxide, freeing up hydrogen molecules for collection as hydrogen gas.”

“We have designed something here that is very different from other methods and frankly something that nobody thought was possible before,” stated lead researcher and CU-Boulder Professor Alan Weimer. “Splitting water with sunlight is the Holy Grail of a sustainable hydrogen economy.”

splitting hydrogen with sunlight

As the researchers note, the key distinction between this new method and previous ones is that the new one makes it possible to conduct two chemical reactions at the same temperature. “While there are no working models, conventional theory holds that producing hydrogen through the metal oxide process requires heating the reactor to a high temperature to remove oxygen, then cooling it to a low temperature before injecting steam to re-oxidize the compound in order to release hydrogen gas for collection.”

When I found this my BS detector went into overdrive…..  Hydrogen is not a fuel for starters, it’s an energy storage strategy, two very different things.  So I contacted Susan Krumdieck for her take on this extraordinary scheme labelled here as “developed” only to be later told “ there are no working models“…..  Susan’s simple response was “Graham Leicester: Knowing but not owning up

That was such a stunning article, I immediately thought of sharing it here….

THE technical term is “uncomfortable knowledge” – that we know but would rather we didn’t. Like the fact that a lake has just formed from ice melting at the North Pole, even as we enjoy our own unusually hot summer.

Any feeling of discomfort need not last long. Our defences rapidly kick in to make things alright (this situation is quite normal, it was worse last year, and so on). The natural thing to do with uncomfortable knowledge is to suppress it.

But there can be unfortunate consequences when that natural human response starts to guide policy. This is what sociologist Kari Norgaard in a fascinating recent book on climate change (Living in Denial) calls “the social organisation of denial”

Actually, we are rather enjoying an unusually hot winter here….  not a frost to be seen, and all the fruit trees think it’s spring…..  thy are all flowering, even some mango trees another Permie told me the other day..!  All due to the northerly winds we are experiencing instead of the more traditional cold Westerlies we normally take refuge from at this time of year.  Live on the land, and I’m afraid denial of Climate Change is just not possible.  Unless of course your name is Len and you won’t even believe the photos of the totally ice free North Pole…..  it seems human capacity for denial and grasping at straws is limitless.  A classic recent example is the financial crisis.  When the Queen asked in November 2008 why nobody had seen it coming, the British Academy told her that “the dangers were indeed foreseen.  but nobody wanted to hear about them”.

Denial, Leicester insists, is a paradoxical condition of “knowing and not knowing”.  It works at a collective level “precisely because it becomes natural, like everyday life, and thus invisible”.  Silence on the subject of climate change should not be interpreted as disinterest.  Norgaard reminds us the root meaning of the word apathy is the avoidance of pain (a-pathos).  Does this mean “no pain, no gain”?

Norgaard discovers a strong cultural dimension to the processes of denial in Norway – a small country with an established sense of itself as humanitarian, egalitarian and environmentally aware. It has a large part of its national identity invested in nature – “the wellspring of Norwegian psyche and spiritual and emotional life”.

The people are proud of Norway’s early environmental leadership – for example former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland’s pioneering work in the 1980s on sustainable development.

Yet at the same time, and over the same period, Norway has grown to become the largest oil exporter in Europe with its much praised Oil Fund the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. Most oil and gas production is for export (Norway has a highly developed domestic hydro and renewables sector).

Yet the industry also contributes 25 per cent of Norway’s carbon emissions and the country is still struggling to meet its Kyoto targets to reduce them. Norgaard points out that expansion of oil production in the 1990s coincided with the percentage of Norwegians claiming to be “very worried” about climate change dropping from 40 per cent to 10 per cent.

Amongst the tools of Norwegian innocence Leicester tells us, is the oft-heard phrase “Norge Er et Lite Land” (“Norway is a Little Land”).  The Norwegians are a simple and a humble people and there are only five million of them.  What influence can they possibly have?  The “little land” evokes both a sense of tight-knit community and a lack of culpability for the ills of the world says Leicester.  The parallels with Australia are stunning.  We may not be a little land, quite the opposite in fact, but we export huge quantities of coal (as opposed to oil), and at 22 million we may be a larger population, but the [false] argument that we only represent 1% of world emissions is constantly put forward as an excuse to do nothing…

The root cause of our denial is a worry that, no matter how bold our policy statements, we do not really know how to address the predicament we face, so intimately tied to globalisation and seemingly beyond our control.  As we too fail to square that circle in Australia, I wonder what tools of order we will draw on from our own culture to reassure us, and what tools of innocence?  Hydrogen facilities driven by sunlight?  I could not help thinking that the Martian setting used by the artist for his/her impression of what that facility might look like was almost prophetic.  Too little too late.