Scientists at the University of Denmark have made a leap forward by creating a hydrogen tablet that stores hydrogen in an inexpensive and safe material. Because hydrogen gas is flammable and is extremely light, scientists have long had issues storing it safely and effectively. Storing enough hydrogen gas at normal pressure to drive a car 600Km would require a fuel tank the size of nine cars. (What kind of car you’d be driving, how fast you’d be traveling, and what size car would be used as a storage device is left as an exercise to the reader.)
The new method is quite different.
The hydrogen tablet is safe and inexpensive. In this respect it is different from most other hydrogen storage technologies. You can literally carry the material in your pocket without any kind of safety precaution. The reason is that the tablet consists solely of ammonia absorbed efficiently in sea-salt. Ammonia is produced by a combination of hydrogen with nitrogen from the surrounding air, and the DTU-tablet therefore contains large amounts of hydrogen. Within the tablet, hydrogen is stored as long as desired, and when hydrogen is needed, ammonia is released through a catalyst that decomposes it back to free hydrogen. When the tablet is empty, you merely give it a “shot” of ammonia and it is ready for use again.
I can see it now: we’ll all go to our gas stations and fill up on ammonia — which is dangerous — and drive around in our quiet H-powered cars. Cars powered by hydrogen do not emit carbon dioxide (or carbon monoxide, for that matter), and the hydrogen can be produced by renewable energy sources, such as wind power, completely cutting fossil fuels out of the picture.
I’d like more details on the conversion process from ammonia to free hydrogen. Jan-Willem points out that the storage of hydrogen is largely the last/greatest barrier to widespread hydrogen fuel cell adoption. (Besides inertia.)
In the last week or two gas prices have come down, but they’re going to go right back up again. The other day I wrote about the problem of heavy crude, and why gas prices have been high: it’s not because OPEC’s being ridiculous, it’s because the US lacks the refinement capacity to meet its own demand, and on top of that, it cannot process the heavy crude being sold by OPEC.
This problem has been exacerbated by Hurricane Rita, whose approach has caused 92% decrease in Gulf Coast refinement capacity. This is 27.5% of the US’s total refining capacity, which is going to aggravate the gasoline shortage even more. After Katrina knocked out some of Louisiana’s capacity (~900,000 barrels/day), Rita will at least temporarily cut out another 4.7 million barrels per day that the US can produce.
Natural gas will be affected as well, with 66% of the Gulf Coast natural gas plants being offline.
- NASA is going back to the moon. On paper, anyway. Probably most of you have heard about this by now, so I’m not going to do an extensive writeup on it. Ars has the best coverage, as usual, and New Scientist also has san article on it.
- A few days ago, I wrote about Cymothoa exigua, the tongue biters who strangle or eat (it’s still unclear) the tongues of their host fish, substituting themselves instead. But why stop at one tongue biter when you can have two? That page also has more pictures of normal fish tongues and other cutaway photos of the fish.
- Apparently one in every hundred Londoners could be a crack cocaine user. Sounds like they’ve got the same problem as Italy. Maybe Virgin should start a cocaine refinery: Virgin Coke.
On the subject of NASA returning to the moon… while this is nice to see, and the moon provides a good stepping stone on the way to Mars or a similar mission, I can’t help but feel just a little disappointed. While no one in my generation has ever seen anyone walk on the moon, we have seen the Apollo 11 video footage. My mom was 14 when Apollo 11 landed, and I’m 22 years old. It’s been decades since we’ve been to the moon, and now, all of a sudden, we’re going back and there’s this big to-do about it, as though something extraordinary is about to happen.
We were on the moon in the sixties. Almost 40 years ago. Why should we be excited to go back to a place we went to two to three generations ago? This is not new or spectacular. This is redundant. Unlike Halley’s Comet which comes around once every 75 years, and is constant, science and technology is fluid and always progressing. The moon is the best we can do, now, 51 years after we did it the first time? Please tell me I’m not the only one disappointed by this. Is a moon landing something that’s only going to happen once every 50 years, so we should simply get used to it and enjoy it while it’s here? Or are we going to make a decision to finally push beyond the bounds of Earth and keep going instead of throwing up our hands only to sit back complacent in the knowledge that we “did it” and there’s nothing more to be done?
I realize that the space race was a political tool more than anything else, and that it served its purpose (along with the nuclear arms buildup) in bankrupting the Soviet Union, but I would have expected a little more out of NASA than merely a plan to return to the moon 50 years after the first landing. If not NASA then a private corporation, though I suppose that (right now) there isn’t much money to be made in space simply because of the prohibitively high cost of transportation. Anyway, so is this return to the moon to accomplish some major political end, or is it finally in the interest of science? I don’t know the answer, but I hope it is the latter, because if it is, there’s actually a chance that we’ll stay there or even push on instead of returning to Earth once it’s “mission accomplished.”
A few weeks ago I wrote about gasoline prices in the US, sharing one of the ideas about why they’re going up: China. Business Week has an article today about gas prices, and why the American public shouldn’t blame OPEC. They should blame the US refineries who cannot refine the crude available, because they’re not set up for it. In fact, the crude reserves in the US are higher than they have been in the past, while reserves of gasoline are somewhat lean, hence the higher-than-normal gas prices of late.
Fact is, OPEC is willing to sell whatever its customers want. And those customers are turning up their noses at the 2 million barrels per day or so of heavy crude — most of it in Saudi Arabia — that OPEC is not pumping now.
Their refineries just aren’t set up to run the stuff. “What can OPEC do?” asks Jamal Qureshi, an analyst at PFC Energy, a Washington, D.C.-based energy consulting firm.
And the U.S. government has had only a tepid take-up on its offer to supply refiners from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Clearly, the industry isn’t all that thirsty for crude.
While pointing fingers at the oil suppliers is fun and exciting — as well as being the American Way — in this case, it’s not justified. Oil refineries need to change with the times and build capacity to process heavy crude. Until they do, gas (and home heating oil) prices will remain high. Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin, unsurprisingly wants to start Virgin Oil by building a $2 billion oil refinery. If it would help with the gasoline shortage, I’d be all in favor. Actually, I’m in favor of it anyway just because I admire Richard Branson, and competition in this arena can only be good for consumers.
This recent gasoline shortage isn’t artificially-created, as it has been in the past. It’s real, and it’s created by the US refineries who cannot process what’s available.
Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans has encouraged residents to return to their homes this week, despite warnings from Vice Admiral Allen, the officer in charge of the recovery effort. While some progress has been made in the destroyed city, most of the city’s infrastructure remains offline, or extremely flimsy. This includes hospitals, firehouses, and police stations. 40% of the city is still flooded, and many of the parts that have been drained still have mud-caked streets, which contain unknown levels of pathogens and other toxins.
Doctors warn that major disease risks remain, and Vice Admiral Allen says the city stills lacks basic services, contradicting the Mayor’s request.
“The second wave of disaster is when you welcome the people back and the infrastructure of the city is not in place,” said Dr Peter Deblieux, a casualty specialist at a New Orleans hospital.
Vice Adm Allen said the mayor’s plans to get 200,000 people back to their homes within the next 10 days were “extremely problematic”.
Ironically, this misplaced call to return comes even as some residents are still being forcibly evacuated. Tourism has been “slammed,” and many business owners who are returning to discover the state of their business are without customers, if they are even able to open at all. This begs the question: how do you rebuild a city with no commercial infrustructure? Without places to make or spend money, the city is a black hole of an economy. With most of the foodstuffs coming from the government or organizations like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, what will residents do with their time once they return to the city? How will they rebuild if they are financially crippled, as many are? How does a city with a population without money jumpstart the wheels of economy? Government handouts? I’m not sure that would work either.
Health issues aside, the city of New Orleans is too broken to support rebuilding quite yet. The city and its people would be better off following Vice Admiral Allen’s suggestion to wait a little while longer.
Back in June, Wired reported on the growing trend of “green” webhosts. That is, those web hosting providers who power their datacenters using renewable energy sources: wind and solar energy. I thought this was unique, but not something that you’d expect to hear in this day age. Green energy for datacenters sounds almost like a dot-com bubble era type of extravagance. Nonetheless, these companies exist, and they’re thriving. This might lead one to wonder what sort of reliability these datacenters might have in the face of a natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina. Many Internet denizens followed the drama of DirectNIC, a New Orleans datacenter, from the Interdictor LiveJournal. Nonetheless they’re a popular option for those environmentally-minded.
Green energy is also making headway in other venues, though with questionable financial success. In Great Britain, government subsidies are paying for alternative energy sources — mostly wind “farms” — sometimes twice what the companies need to break even. I’m not sure why this is, but it is happening. This BBC article implies that the companies do need government money to succeed, but not as much as they’re getting. Rachel Ruffle of Renewable Energy Systems responds stating:
“I don’t think people mind paying a small subsidy for clean, green electricity. As more renewable energy schemes are built, then the price will come down. People want green electricity because they’re concerned about climate change and pollution.”
While this is largely true, if I were a citizen of the UK, I would be troubled by the findings of the government report. People are concerned about climate change and pollution, but not (usually) to the tune of £1 billion in extra funding. It is unclear whether the money is going towards research and development or some other purpose. In any event, I would expect some changes to be made in the near future. The British public seems too pragmatic as a whole to let such excesses slide for too long, despite assurances that the “subsidies [are] essential to develop renewable energy.”
Lately in the news, there’s been quite a bit of news about “global warming.” The public has a tendency to dismiss such claims as fear mongering by groups with an agenda. I used to dismiss them out-of-hand as well. The fact of the matter, though, is that global warming is real: there is no debate among real scientists doing real work in the field. The earth is getting warmer.
What is up for debate is whether humans have always caused global warming. It seems that we have. We succeeded in altering the climate by setting large forest fires to clear land for settlements and farming. (Ash, of course, is excellent fertilizer.) The old fashioned global warming trend was discovered by analyzing methane found trapped in pockets of air in 2,000 year old arctic ice.
The chemical fingerprint of stable types, or isotopes, of carbon atoms gives a record of methane in the atmosphere over the course of history, and where it came from.
It appears that much of the gas came from the burning of biomass – the likes of wood and grass – rather than other known sources of methane, such as the burning of fossil fuels, or natural emissions of methane from swamps and wetlands.
So it seems that we humans have been altering the climate for a long time. It should be noted that global warming thousands of years ago, while present, wasn’t present to the degree as it is today, given the mass fossil fuel consumption fueling established economies like the West, and the up-and-comers like China. It is the emerging economies that tend to skimp on things like pollution controls. It would be interesting to find a comparison of the levels of emissions comparing China to the US or Europe. Whatever the outcome of that would be, the fact remains that we’re seeing unprecedented evidence of global warming, such that the ice caps are beginning to melt and break away. The amount of useable land for smaller island groups like Micronesia has also decreased as ocean levels rise. Eventually, these islands will be totally submerged, and in the meantime, higher ocean levels make them more vulnerable to tsunamis.
I would hate to see someone point to this research and use it as an excuse to abuse the environment some more, because comparing climate change today with the climate change of thousands of years ago is spurious and misleading.