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I think this is probably the longest off-topic thread we've had around here, and I've included it just for that reason, but I'd like to take this opportunity to thoroughly distance myself from that strange American political movement that's mentioned so many times here - it's a foreign notion to those of us who live in countries that never had a Tea Party and spend tax revenue on silly things like public health care instead of the military ;-)
-- Jimmy

[Sluggo] [Radio episode in RealAudio, MP3, and written transcript]

Iceland (pop. 250 000) is the first country in the world to convert to hydrogen energy on a national scale. Currently there are test buses rolling. Test cars will be next, but one of their major goals is fishing trawlers, which bring in 70% of Iceland's GNP but are powered by expensive imported diesel. An industry/government/academic coalition has formed to make all of Iceland's electricity come from hydrogen, in spite of the country's vast resources for hydroelectric and geothermal power. It's a sense of national pride to be on the cutting edge of science and to produce technologies that will later be useful in other countries.

[Thomas] Actually, while this is the "official" story, we _all_ know that someone in America has been using this form of energy for ages.

[Sluggo] What? I was talking about fuel cells, which have only existed for a few years. Not about nuclear plants or dirigibles.

[Alan Petrillo] Hydrogen makes sense in Iceland, because they have so much geothermal energy with which to make it.

Hydrogen does not, however, make sense for most of the rest of us. At least not at the moment, and not for the forseeable future. The reason for this is simple. 90+% of all commercial hydrogen is refined from fossil fuel. This very effectively turns all of those "zero emissions" fuel cells into "emissions elsewhere" fuel cells.

[Sluggo] Some emissions, but not as much. Burning fuel for energy is pretty inefficient, especially in a car. What about the incompletely burned gas in the exhaust? What about the excess heat in the engine? That's wasted energy. From what I've read, hydrogenization requires significantly less fossil fuel for the same amount of net energy. The result is less emissions overall. And if a few buildings direct the fuel-cell steam "waste" into their heating systems or saunas, that's another ton of fossil-fuel emissions eliminated.

Also, 97% of electricity leaks away in the transmission lines. If a smaller refinery is placed closer to the consumer, that cuts down emissions further. Hydrogen converters can probably be placed closer to the consumer less obtrusively than conventional power plants can.

[Jason] Whoa! 97%? That seems highly doubtful to me.

[Sluggo] I read it somewhere but I don't remember where. But a large amount of electricity does leak off the transmission lines. People have ignored it coz there doesn't seem to be any way around it.

[Ben] Quick look around on the Web says ~10%. E.g., Vietnam's power gen people are working (described in the typical slogan-laden communist manner) to reduce their losses from 13.4% to 10% - of which they say only 8.2% comes from "technical difficulties".


[Alan] The energy to make all of that hydrogen has to come from somewhere. Where, you ask? For the forseeable future the ultimate energy source for the vast overwhelming majority of hydrogen production will be fossil fuel. Which leaves us right back where we started.

Repeat after me: "Hydrogen is a transmission medium, not an energy source."

Say it again. Say it again. Say it again.

[Ramon van Alteren] Not exactly.. You're absolutely right about the fact that most of the hydrogen will be produced with fossil fuel for the short term future. This does however NOT leave us right back where we started.

The important change of switching to hydrogen based energy is that we no longer depend on fossil fuel. I can create/fill hydrogen based fuel cells by burning fossil fuels, but I can just as easily create/fill fuel cells using solar energy, wind energy, (tidal, gravity, etc.) water energy or whatever other sustainable energy source I can think of.

I cannot use any of those sustainable energy sources to run a petrol based car / motorcycle / powerplant.

[Ben] I spent a few minutes yesterday explaining that very point to a friend whom I'd referred to the original article. It's a way to shift the distribution method around, not some particularly amazing "source". However, in some scenarios - such as powering cars - it may well be a winning strategy.

~20 years back, UCLA had a car that they _wound up_ every night... fairly large flywheel spun up to ${GODAWFUL_HIGH} RPM. It was actually clever enough to recapture braking energy, too. However, I wouldn't want to be around that thing if a bearing ever let go; flywheels are _not_ noted for exploding harmlessly upward with a blue flame.

[Alan] Keep in mind, I LIKE the idea of fuel cells, but running them on hydrogen is not the right answer. For fuel cells to be truly practical they need to be able to run on a fuel that is _liquid_ at room temperature, and the temperatures at which people usually operate vehicles. They also need to be less fussy about what they eat. And they need to be able to eat it without running it through a reformer first.

[Sluggo] We need something that's somewhat better now, and we can worry about perfect later. Perl wasn't perfect, but it was better than the shell/sed/awk monstrosities it replaced, which is why it took the world by storm.

[Jason] "isn't perfect" :-)

But good point, we're not going to get the "best" until we get the "better". I like the idea of hybrid cars: Higher MPG, the cool regenerative braking, and it's something that actually works with what we have.

[Alan] Design a fuel cell that will run on a truly renewable fuel, like ethanol or vegetable oil, and if the oil industry doesn't assasinate you then the world will beat a path to your door.

[Sluggo] The "oil" industry is already hedging its bets, Bush/Cheney obstructionism notwithstanding. They know oil is a dying industry that can be propped up by government favors for only so long. Either the oil will run out, air pollution will become intolerable, or al-Qaida will talibanize the entire Middle East, but one way or another, eventually the public will demand alternative energy, and the incumbent companies don't want to be left behind when that happens. The car manufacturers are already pushing the envelope, designing hydrogen cars so they can pass the environmental responsibility buck to the oil companies. "We've done our part. Now do your part, or you'll look like the bad guy."

So it will happen eventually, but we can't wait that long. The problem is acute now. All the limitations are just limitations *now*, but with creativity they can be solved or worked around. What if we threw $30 billion at the problem, how much faster would zero-emission, renewable sources become cost-effective, not to mention efficiencies and uses we haven't even thought of yet? If we'd gone on a serious alternative-energy policy in the 70s, it would have been done by now.

The reason I'm harping on this is coz it first takes a critical mass of people to think out of the box and decide it's possible, then they have to pressure the politicians and companies to make it happen, and only then will it happen.

[Jason] Or it will happen when it's cheaper than oil, whichever comes first. My first thought is kind of "just let it go, eventually the problem will take care of itself". Because when oil runs out, people will have to turn to other things.

[Ben] Advertising people make millions of dollars by working that particular belief for all it's worth. If the world really ran that way, every PC (except for an imperceptible minority, for various reasons) would be running Linux.

Electric cars already _are_ cheaper, to build, run, and maintain (and imagine just how much cheaper they'd be if they were being built on the scale that the regular oil-burners are!) Solar and wind power make sense in _most_ temperate climate housing. Broad-spectrum fluorescent lighting can cut power cost by 80 or even 90% im most cases where incandescent lighting is being used - as well as providing a better quality light. Somehow, these things have not become universal - in fact, these are all just barely out of that "imperceptible minority" status.

[Jason] I find that hard to believe, but then again, I've never heard otherwise, so I'll do some research next time I'm online. (If you have any links you could throw my way, I'd appreciate that.)

[Ben] I seem to recall Ayn Rand in "Atlas Shrugged" describing the mindset of people (ab)using a precious resource:

[interpolated rather than quoted; I don't recall the exact words] "Hell, it's unlimited - it'll never run out!"
"Hey, there's enough for us, our kids, and their kids - why worry?"
"It'll last out our generation, and they'll have to find their own way."
"We've got years of it left, it'll be fine."
"We've got enough to last out the year, and we'll have a solution by then!"

[Jason] Reminds me of a short story entitled "The Last Question" I read once. It went something like this. At some point in the future, the earth is running on nuclear power. In this scenario, we'll run out of fissionable (sp? And is that even a word?) materials in 100 years or so. So the resident supercomputer is asked if there's a better way to get energy. And it designs a way to have a giant orbiting collector of solor energy that powers everything on earth. And it works great. Cheap, clean power. Two characters are talking about it later. [ This is not exact quoting, I just kind of remember it went like this. ]

[Ben] That is the correct spelling, and it is indeed a word, and not an uncommon one - it's used to refer to any materials capable of undergoing fission.

[Jason] Oh, good. I was almost positive I had heard the word before, but spelling it "fissionable" just seemed too simple.

[Jason] "All the energy that we could ever want! Free! Forever!"
"Not forever. Only until the sun burns out."
"We'll be dead by then."
"We'd have been dead by the time nuclear power runs out, too. But you said 'forever'. What will we do when the sun burns out? And don't say 'find another star', because they'll all be burning out at the same time."
"Then must be some way to keep the sun going."
"You'd have to reverse entropy. And that's impossible."
"Why not?"
"You just can't!"
"Wanna bet?"

So these two guys ask the supercomputer if there's a way to reverse entropy. And the computer says "not enough data at this time to answer". And the story goes on in an interesting direction to a very interesting ending, which I won't spoil here.

I'm not sure if the fact that, in long (very long) run there's no such thing as a renewable resource has any bearing on the discussion. But I liked the story.

[Ben] ...lather, rinse, repeat - to the point of complete resource exhaustion and a crisis where the bastards float, unhurt, to the top (as they always do) and Joe Public pays with his life in the worst case and his money (representing a chunk of life that he'd spent to earn it) in the best. Wanna bet? Ask any stockbroker. Shortsightedness is *never* in short supply.

[Jason] What would be an example of a resource this has happened to in the past?

[Jason] But until then, using oil for everything probably won't do great things for the environment. So we should probably have some level of the government involvment. Maybe slowly raise emissions standards until oil is priced out of the market. Or some such thing; I don't know.

[Ben] I recall California passing a law - way back in the '80s - where some percentage of all cars sold by any auto company in California by year X (2000, I think it was) had to be electric. No idea what became of it; maybe the Californians among us can enlighten me.

[Sluggo] An arbitrary tax on oil works great in Europe. Better yet would be a tax that accurately reflects the cost of compensating for the environmental damage (including the lost farmland under freeways). Then the invisble hand of the marketplace would work properly.

[Jason] The issue of the environment is hard for me to figure out in terms of my conservative, free-market, small-government ideas. The amount of regulation makes me nervous. Because it's YOUR problem if your neighbor decides to do something stupid to the groundwater, the government MUST have standards regarding what you can put in the air, what you can put in the water, what's okay, what's not, etc.

[Ben] As much of a libertarian as I may be - and it's relatively mild but firmly fixed in my case - there are actions that must be taken by the community to protect itself. Defining the limits of that "must" is the biggest challenge and the greatest danger of the libertarian position - there are slippery slopes in every direction, with very sweet bait hung over the first step into each one.

[Sluggo] #BEGIN Political Rant
As Ben told me once, Bush can make *anyone* a liberal. I was a libertarian for years until Enron/Worldcom, misrepresented intelligence, the DMCA and friends, and the current application of free trade finally wore me down. I'd still like to see small government (or better yet, anarchy), but when the "deregulation" laws keep coming down that are essentially one-sided freedom (for the corporations but not for the public, for incumbent companies but not for new ones), while important issues are ignored (e.g., healthcare), it makes me suspicious of any "conservative" proposals. The DMCA is a good bellwether. It's anti-competitive regulations disguised as common-sense property rights, all designed to entrench the power of the current oligarchy. I also see all sorts of scams coming from ultra-free Tuvalu and think "there otta be a law..." Conservatives might want to think about how the current Bush situation is turning off a lot of non-liberals who might otherwise agree with them, and it may take a hundred years before we can trust conservative leaders again.
#END Political Rant

[Jason] One thing that has helped me determine what the limits are is remembering that there is no such thing as good government. Strong libel laws? Free speech suffers. Weak/no libel laws? People will abuse free speech to hurt other people.

There's no good choices in governement; only endless tradeoffs.

[Ben] There _is_ a good choice in government, actually, and it's absolutely implicit in what you've written above: a minimum necessary number of those who will make the best compromises. However, the reality is that politicians are *always* power-hungry - and we're all out of statesmen. Cincinnatus, where the hell are the children of your spirit? We need them desperately.

[Jason] What I meant by "there's no good choices in governement" (I could have made this much clearer, BTW; sorry.) is that no choices made by a governement will result in a utopia. No possible choices will result in a society full of happy, hard-working people with a crime rate of zero. Not gonna happen.

[Ben] [gently] No amount of Open Source implementation is going to bring about world peace, either. Sorry, my friend; that's not a reasonable expectation from a government. Utopia - at least the closest definition I can manage - would be an _internal_ and _individual_ state, not subject to management by external agencies, and particularly not a government.


[ Beginneth a Political Rant; folks who like Big Government should hit
'Delete' *NOW*. Everyone else, set mental filters to 'Stun'; I'm-a
gettin' on my high horse. ]


What good government can do is govern. Protect, run some infrastructure - between Mike and my sweetie in Baltimore (she's a flaming liberal, but a stunningly brilliant lady who writes on medical issues in our society: < http://respectfulofotters.blogspot.com/>), I've come to agree that some programs are definitely better run by the government - facilitate a society in which individual achievement is not hindered... and otherwise stay the hell out of the way. As to _creating_ things, utopias or otherwise, any government that purports to do this or even attempts it fills me with horror, loathing, and an overwhelming desire to RUN AWAY at top speed. The bastards are selling something, and what they're selling, I'm not buying. I've *lived* there.

[Thomas] It's not the direct job of a government to bring about utopia. If anything it would be a useful by-product from them trying to "manage" their own country; ideally, anyway.

We as a nation of people must try and do this, preferrably en masse. Isolated "utopia" is never going to work. There will be conflicts always, since that is just a fact of life. It is an ironic fact that usually, post-conflict usually does bring about some sort of rest.

[Jason] And before I realized this, I had believed that a utopian society was possible. If you had asked me point-blank "Do you believe that a utopian society is possible?" I would have said no. At one level, I knew that was impossible. But in my heart of hearts, I thought "If only this country was put under proper management...".

[Ben] Oddly enough, I'd disagree with that. You _can_ legislate morality; history provides as many examples as you'd care to look for. No, you can't stop the psychos - but most people, when their basic needs are satisfied and their general comfort is assured, don't need to go rob or murder someone for gain (which is not true in a society which has a huge disparity between the haves and the have-nots.) However, the only way that government can bring that about is by getting the hell out of the way in most of the relevant cases - and *that* isn't what governments do, by their nature. Politicians want more power, and anything goes when that's on the line.

I don't want to idealize the past, but the more I study Roma Antiqua, the more I despise the current state of the world governments in general. When the reputation (Dignitas and Auctoritas) of your family (well, /gens/) is the most important thing that they have, and what you do in public life reflects directly upon that, you get the Julii (i.e., Gaius cognominated Caesar), the Gracchi, the Aemilii Scauri, etc. OTOH, when how much you can steal is what benefits you and your cronies and has no repercussions beyond your term in office, you get - well, Bush.

[Thomas] Sorry, Jason -- it is not going to happen. I watch America from the outside, and all I see is a front-spokesman, and a "leader" who is ridiculed at every turn.

[Jay] 'Well, just so you know, we're pretty embarassed about Bush over here'.

[Thomas] Some of the idioms in speech as well as his actions (such as falling off a bike) really do amuse me. But it is worth remembering that at the end of the day, the real power does not lie with Bush per se, but rather his advisors, since it is they that really run the country. Let's face it, Bush has enough trouble [1] trying to wipe his own arse.

But your linkage of utopia with governments is going to be a tenuous one always; since even _if_ such a utopia were possible with nations it would only ever be at a political level. You cannot expect people to just turn the other cheek within a reasonable amount of time and say "there, there, I forgive you". There is prejudice within our blood -- it is what we are.

[1] To any FBI/MI6 people who are reading this, yes we _are_ opinionated, aren't we? :)

[Jason] But even under the best of management, there would still be injustice. People would still exploit others for personal gain. People would still kill each other, still steal. No amount of government programs can change that. No amount of money thrown at the problem can change the basic nature of people.

[Thomas] Precisely which is why our actions will change us -- but it is society as a whole that will change who we are, and the values we believe in. You have to remember that religion plays a _very_ important part for a lot of people.. [skip massive text here about that, but it is worthy of a mention], and consequently people use this both as a comforter and as an excuse.

[Jason] Some things can only be justified by the fact that anything else would be worse. War is probably the most notable example. It's not good; It is, in fact, a great evil. It's just that sometimes (very rarely) everything else is worse.

[Ben] Agreed, in spades - at which point I must note that I do not consider the current horror being perpetrated by our government to be a "war" under that definition but "murder most foul". If nothing else (and there is a HELL of a lot "else"), I want an accounting of what it is in Iraq and Afghanistan that is worth one single American life. These kids are dying over there for a...

[Thomas] ... indeed. Let's see now. First of all, Bush decides that he has to retaliate for September 11th. OK, fair enough, *charge* into Afghanistan. What's that? No, surely not -- no Bin Larden. Woops. What next? Hmm, I know, I'll choke on a pretzel and while I'm at it, I'll go around the middle east waging war since I was unable to find Bin Larden -- but I need someone to exact revenge against.

Ouch! I cannot sit down, why's that? Hmm, seems Blair is up my arse, better try and remove him. There, I'll put him in my lap instead. Good doggy.....

... Iraq. Oil? Prices of petrol. Hmm, I wonder if there is a link there somewhere?

[Ben] I have to stop now. It's too much. The frustration of not being able to DO anything directly, to change this, to bring them all home, will kill me if I think about it too much.


So, how about that Local Baseball Team? Do you think they'll trade Young But Promising Rookie, or what?

[Thomas] Evil is just...evil. There is no point trying to turn it into a hierarchy. But you are right, war is by no means the correct way to go about solving issues.

I could have said lots more, but I have skipped a lot of it..... It's not really on-topic, any of this....

[Jason] And so, some choices in government are like that. No, it's not good that allowing people to set the prices of goods they are selling will allow some of them to exploit others with unfair prices. It's just that price caps are worse. And so and so forth for almost anything done by the government.

[Sluggo] We need something that's somewhat better now, and we can worry about perfect later.

[Later on]

To elaborate on these two points, the goal is not hydrogen. The goal is a radical rethinking of efficiency. If you think of waste as nonperforming assets, it all falls into place. Wasted energy/emissions/garbage represent assets you've paid for but can't use, a drag on the bottom line. If you design efficient use of energy and materials into products in the first place, people can help the environment without cramping their lifestyle one bit, and end up with significantly more money too. It's the "kill two birds with one stone" theory. Hydrogen is not the end-all, it's just the most significant step in that direction available at the moment. Maybe we'll find something better later. But moving in that direction now means we'll get at least somewhere, whereas not doing anything leaves us in the present situation or worse. If we'd invested in alternative energy thirty years ago, it would be done now. The result would have been more primitive, but it would have eliminated, oh, the war in Iraq, runoffs in streams, global warming, asthma attacks, etc. All this combined represents a much bigger cost than just doing it and getting it over with. Even if we did nothing with fuel-cell technology but donate it to China and India, we'd still be out ahead. They could get on with their development without harming the rest of the world.

There's more about this in my favorite book, _Natural Capitalism_ by Paul Hawken/Amory Lovins (http://www.natcap.org/, entire text online). Our industrial and economic processes were formed during the Industrial Revolution when resources were plentiful and labor was scarce. Now we're in the opposite situation: labor is plentiful but natural resources are becoming scarce. But we're still doing things the old way, which is leading to frightening unemployment and ecological situations. Waste -- meaning products nobody wants; e.g., used styrofoam cups, exhaust, PCBs -- can cut by 50% without too much inconvenience just by thinking creatively. It's even possible to reduce waste by 90% and still come out ahead, as a few companies have done.

But it's much easier to build these features in during construction than to retrofrit them later. For instance, putting windows on the south side in northern climates cuts down on energy requirements. But most developers don't take that into account; they just put windows wherever they feel like it. In my last apartment I didn't need to use the bathroom light half the time coz the window was sufficient. My current bathroom doesn't have a window (even though it's an exterior wall), I can't use a nightlight coz the outlet is tied to the wall switch, and I can't use a flourescent bulb coz the builtin fixture is vanity lights near eye level.

[Later still]

A good counterargument against hydrogen is put forth by Dom Crea.
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

He says hybrid cars are better than hydrogen cars because they can be refitted for a variety of fuels pretty easily: petrol, natural gas, methanol, hydrogenized whatever, etc. And you can't compare estimated future hydrogen efficiencies with the current generation of hybrids, you have to compare them with the estimated future generation of hybrids. He even makes a case for hybridizing hydrogen cars.

So which is better, hydrogen or hybrid? I don't know. All I know is, either would be better than petrol cars, so even people with the "losing" technology will be ahead.

Crea goes on to talk about power exchanges between the consumer and electric company, and an ice-cube air conditioner.

[Ramon] Even then the majority of fuelcells will still be "filled" by using fossil fuel, simply because it's cheaper. Currently sustainable energy is not widely used because of the enormous costs of using these sources in a world with an energy infrastructure which is exclusively geared towards fossil fuel.

Switching to hydrogen as a transmission medium will go a long way in reducing those costs and creating a level economical playfield for all kinds of energy sources. It is very likely that this will increase the use of sustainnable energy, especially because the pressure on fossil fuel companies, to pay the costs of the "side effects" associated with the mining, refining, transportation and use of fossile fuel, is increasing.

[Sluggo] Our cost/benefit calculations are all out of alignment because people and companies are able to externalize the cost of waste onto society, so it doesn't appear on their balance sheet. If they had to pay that cost themselves, alternative energy would look incredibly cheap by comparision.

Prob'ly the biggest example of doublethink this past century was nuclear energy. Proponents said it would be nonpolluting and "too cheap to meter". Too bad the "nonpolluting" waste has to be stored gingerly for 10,000 years, and the price of cleanup wasn't factored into the cost per KwH. It's incredible there are still people in 2004 pushing for a revival of "nonpolluting" nuclear power as a cure for global warming. Can't they see the big purple elephant in the room?

In Washington, five nuclear plants were terminated in various stages of building/production due to public opposition. The project was called WPPSS, which the public pronounced "whoops" as in, "Whoops, the utilities shouldn't have started these expensive projects without ratepayer consent." The utilities thought conservation was a cuckoo idea until the environmentalists convinced them to try it. So they've been offering rebates and cheap loans the past several years for weatherization, efficient appliances, and even light bulbs. And discovered, ahem, that the nuclear plants weren't needed after all. Whoops.

(OK, the *biggest* example of doublethink was nuclear weapons. Was it really MAD that prevented WWIII? More likely it was NATO. "An attack on one is an attack on all." The classic gang principle.)

[Ramon] As an added bonus the R&D budgets of energy related companies such as car manufactors, oil companies, electricity producers etc. will go to improving the efficiency of fuel cells and the associated infrastructure, instead of improving the efficiency of the petrol based infrastructure. There will be a gradual switch from petrol stations to fuelcell stations etc. etc.

This basically offers all the people and companies in the world a way to gradually "write off" the enormous amount of money invested in the current energy infrastructure.

[Jimmy] Well, the US *has* been using it for years. They were using hydrogen fuel cells in the 60s to provide electricity and drinking water in space. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_cell

[Ben] Well, someone certainly has. There was an article in Omni magazine in the early 1980s that I remember quite vividly: the writer approached it from a position of "here is what we need to do *as a system* - fueling stations, etc." and had solid academic _and_ business credentials. He was talking about converting cars, which would be a huge undertaking but well worthwhile. It was actually one of my first exposures to the concept of environmentalism.

[Jimmy] Wired have an article that echoes those sentiments: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.04/hydrogen_pr.html

My Dad told me that my uncle Tim came up with an idea for using hydrogen (the engine based on electrolysis) in the late 70s. He went to the patent office, and not only was he told that it was already a known idea (it was used in American space programme), he was also told that they had people coming in with it every couple of months.

[Sluggo] The biggest problem with hydrogen fuel is storage. Gas and liquid forms look impractical, so current research is looking for a metal that hydrogen could be stored in and recovered from at reasonable temperatures. This could potentially lead to a car without a fuel tank: the fuel would be stored in the car's walls and shafts.

Iceland's top hydrogen researcher, Bragi Amason, shows off a solar-powered hydrogen fan he invented as a demonstration.

  1. A light bulb (representing the sun) shines on a small solar panel.
  2. The energy electrolyzes water, separating the hydrogen and oxygen.
  3. The hydrogen is pushed through a membrane that holds the electrons back. The protons mix with oxygen to form water again.
  4. The electrons are attracted to the water, which creates an electrical current...
  5. ... which powers a fan.
[Jason] "energy" here being what? Electricity? If not, what else can "electrolyzes" water? And if so, why not just power the fan directly?

[Sluggo] Of course, but the purpose is to demonstrate hydrogen power, not to make the fan work.

[Jason] WHAT?

I have a major attitude problem with the idea of "demonstrating" hydrogen power if solar energy would actually work better. I was thinking that the reason was probably that using hydrogen power actually got you more power than you started with. And now I realize that I was kind of asking a loaded question: If the answer wasn't what I thought it would be, I wouldn't believe it.

So please, tell me there's actually a reason. It'd make me feel better. (But only if there actually IS a reason)

[Sluggo] Science centers and high schools are full of useless experiments whose sole purpose is to demonstrate how something works. My science center has a bicycle attached to a row of lights so you can see how many watts you're producing. Nobody is suggesting that's the best way to ride a bike, power your lights, or run a fan. (Although I did see an intriguing proposal to reclaim the energy from aerobics-runners at gyms, which could count toward a rebate off their membership fee. Run for the environment!) The point is just to see whether the lights (or fan) go on and off.


Mike Orr wrote:

> Science centers and high schools are full of useless experiments whose


[Sluggo] I think there's one in London at the Millenium Dome. They're usually built as part of world's fairs, and then remain open due to popular demand. It's a building containing various apparatuses that demonstrate scientific principles. Frequented by school groups, the curious, and tourists.

[Jay] And our local Science Center of Pinellas County, with the only publically accessible 12" reflector telescope in town, and the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, and of course Boston's Museum of Science, which I grew up with.

BMOS had a replica Apollo capsule. The switches didn't *do* anything, but they did move.

[Sluggo] Our local one was built in the 60s, which explains some of the choice of exhibits. (Pacific Science Center: http://www.pacsci.org/) When I was little in the 70s, I just liked to flip the controls and watch the blinkenlights. When I was in high school in the 80s, the only thing that was cool was the laser shows (Laser Rush, Laser Floyd, Laser Beatles. There might have been a Lazer Zeppelin too. The 90s generation went to Laser Nirvana. :) I can only remember a few of the exhibits:

Space cockpit you can go in and flip the switches.
Lectures about the solar system.
IMAX films.
Laser shows.
Bell Curve machine. It drops little balls from the top that ricochet against staggered rows of pegs. Most balls land near the center. If you count the possible paths a ball can take to reach each bottom slot, you can see why they end up in the middle slots.
The lamppost, representing a traveller taking random steps from a center lamppost. Eventually he either reaches an edge or ends up at the lamppost again. It looks kind of like a pool table with a grid of lights representing the positions. Each step, a pair of giant dice are rolled (each in a tumbler cage) to select the direction.
A funnel you can roll a ball in. It swirls around for a couple minutes before reaching the bottom.
Optical illusions (e.g., Escher).
Perspective chambers (rooms with one wall taller than the other).
A drawing pad with a pen on a pendulum thing.
Lectures about the metric system.
An interactive lecture to write a program controlling a robot using a few simple instructions.
ROOM #3:
Indian longhouse. Sometimes storytellers tell stories about Raven and Fox and the Great Spirit.
Model of Puget Sound with tide currents. There are little buttons you can press that release ink so you can follow the currents. 'Course when I was eight I had no concept of the sound or the islands; I just liked to watch the ink.
Dinosaur skeleton. (This was added in the 80s or 90s.)
Quiet phone with no feedback. Normal phones reflect your voice back through the speaker.
Time-delay phone. The feedback is delayed by a quarter second. This freaks you out even more than the quiet phone.
I don't remember what life sciences meant.
Bicycle generator with a row of lights showing how many watts you were generating.
A TV with a U-magnet. You hold the magnet in front of the screen and see a black spot at that point, with the picture distorted around it.
A sign says, "Do not try this at home".
Water drop demonstrations that look like pinball machines. You press a button and a drop of water falls in a pool that's shaped like a parabola, etc.
Black box demonstration. You shoot rays into a black box and guess the shape inside based on the refractions. This was something like a shuffleboard.
Air pressure demonstration. I don't remember the point, but one side had a vacuum pump without a light, and the other had a vacuum pump with a light.

It's funny thinking back, how many of these demonstrations would be computerized nowadays.

[Jay] Indeed.

But at the other end, BMOS also have what I think is the largest Focault pendulum in the world. Something like a 50' suspension wire, built in an atrium.

[Sluggo] I've been in one other science center, but darned if I can remember where it was.

It was one room focusing mainly on space exhibits. The exhibits were more or less like ours but with a few I hadn't seen. It might have been the Fleet Space Theater and Science Center in San Diego
I was in SD in 93 visiting a friend from college, and I think we might have gone to this.

There's Science World in Vancouver BC (http://www.scienceworld.bc.ca/), Discovery Centre in Halifax NS ( http://www.discoverycentre.ns.ca/), and prob'ly lots of others.

San Jose has a technology center which focuses specifically on the history of computers. I don't remember the name but it's right in downtown SJ and well worth visiting. I went there when LinuxWorld was in SJ, I think 1999. I found this link on google although I'm not 100% sure it's the same place: http://www.thetech.org/ .

I forgot to mention the hologram exhibit next to the magnet TV. 3-D images were totally fascinating. 'Course they were the primitive red 70s holograms

[Sluggo] For the ships, they are considering putting a hydrogen refiner (reactor) and natural gas tank on board. The closer they can get the refiner to the usage point, the more efficient it is and the smaller the refiner can be. Plus, ships need to be able to operate in the ocean for several weeks without going to a filling station.

[Thomas] Look at the issues that the old air-ships had. Hydrogen is *extremely* combustable -- "volatile" doesn't even describe it enough. One false error with hydrogen fuel and there won't be anything left...

[Sluggo] And this happened... when? The Hindenburg was destroyed not by a hydrogen explosion but because the flammable paint on the surface caught fire.

[Rick] As the latter link points out, the doomed Hindenburg's hydrogen, as it burned from causes unrelated to its gas cells, went harmlessly upwards, away from the passengers. That's what hydrogen _does_ at the bottom of a nitrogen/oxygen-filled gravity well.

People were killed by either the fall or the burning of _other_ parts of the craft. The smart ones didn't jump, and (if not caught in the burning gondola and skin) survived.

(If memory serves, one of the US Navy's huge helium dirigibles, the "Shenandoah", was torn apart in a freak windstorm in Ohio, and a number of the crew rode the pieces safely to the ground -- from several kilometers up.)

[Sluggo] Cars, planes and houses blow up every day because of the flammability of gasoline, jet fuel and natural gas, and houses burn down when the electrical insulation fails. Yet people still seem to drive and have electricity in their house. So it's not a question of making something safe unsafe, but of replacing one unsafe thing with another. Once people get used to hydrogen they'll know how to handle it. No smoking at gas stations (same as now). Expect an almost invisible bluish flame radiating upward. The heat will only be very close to the flame. Being underneath the flame will be safer than with conventional fires. Etc.

[Jimmy] And as they noted on Slashdot yesterday ( http://www.pei.org/static/fire_reports.htm) the static generated by simply getting out of a car seat can be enough to ignite petrol vapours.

[Ben] There's a _large_ difference between storing hydrogen in metal and feeding the power source from a buffer tank and keeping a huge gas bladder full of the stuff. Incidentally, "storing in metal" doesn't mean a metal container: I don't recall the specifics, but the method actually deals with the permeability of metals and the gas is stored in the metal itself. Makes it a little, shall we say, less reactive.

[Thomas] Uh-huh. But the fact still remains that it is still more reactive than any other inflammable substance we have....

[Ben] [blink] Really? I guess you've never heard of sodium. Or hydroxyl radicals. Or fluorine ([shudder]). That shit sets _sand_ on fire. *Rocket designers* (who have, in the most literal sense, an insane lust for power) won't touch it.

[Thomas] Yeah - fluorine is a harsh substance - It's used a lot in the glass industry. Can't think why.... :) Just make sure next time you piss off the window cleaner that he doesn't come back with some to wash _your_ windows with any....

I'd find that a right pane, if that were me. ;)

[Ben] Hydrogen is very stable. It can be dangerous to gather large quantities of it in a single storage vessel, but that's not what's being proposed. Oxygen, believe it or not, is a _lot_ worse (highly flammable, unstable, and _very_ corrosive.)

[Sluggo] Heh heh, life exists on earth only coz the oxygen level is kept in a certain range. Too much oxygen and everything would burn up.

[Rick] Well, hydrogen might be a reasonable risk for automobiles if it were the case that we go around storing tanks of explosive substances in the latter.

{blink} Oh, right, then.

[Ben] [grin] Yeah. I definitely see a hunk of, say, solid aluminum filled with hydrogen in the atomic interstices as orders of magnitude safer than a dozen gallons of sloshing gasoline just a foot away from a smokin' hot exhaust pipe. Say, is that a rusted-through spot in that pipe?...

[Sluggo] I can't resist.

Cartoon comparing the rising price of a gallon of gas with other stuff.

[Jason] In movies, a car will explode if you look at it wrong. So I wonder, if hydrogen cars become popular, and it is safer, what will the movie industry do? Could they stand to script a car to fall several hundred feet and *not* explode on contact? Would the American public be satisfied to only see something smashed to bits, not smashed to bits and blown up? Only time will tell, but my guess is no.

[Jay] As Spider is fond of saying, the only things that will generally make a car explode from a crash are a stunt coordinator or a dissatisfied business rival.


[Sluggo] Simple. The cars that will be in car chases will mysteriously all be gasoline cars. The cars the squares drive will all be hydrogen for some strange reason. Since car chases are a redneck activity anyway, the audience won't even notice at first. Eventually the web bulletin boards will start predicting from the first five minutes of the movie which cars will be smashed (and thus which characters will be the victims), and *then* the movie industry will have to think up something to make it unpredictable.

One problem will be the police cars. It's inconceivable that they wouldn't switch to hydrogen early to be an example. But cop cars have to blow up spectacularly. Maybe the director will just arrange for the car to always be carrying something volatile when it's about to be smashed.

[Jimmy] Think about what you're talking about here: realism in movies. I've said my piece.

[Jay] See my reply to Jason; cars which blow up now, only do it in movies, rather than in real life -- pity the poor spinal cases dragged out of cars to avoid the 'inevitable' explosion -- so this won't really affect movies.

[Thomas] But to side-track completely, Iceland has another interesting sideline for fuel -- geothermal energy. Granted, this can only be used in-situ, but the potential that this has had for both Iceland, and other countries has been better than predicted.

[Ben] Interestingly enough, I was just talking to a friend of mine about this last night. His father works at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute and is the world's top expert on sand transport by waves, who has also been known to hold forth on power generation from the ocean. According to him, the only practical method that has stood the test is hydrothermal: pump up cold water from way down deep and let the stuff sink back down through a pipe, which pulls more cold stuff up from the depths, etc. All others, the ocean has either eaten or gunked up over time. I don't know that Iceland is in position to take advantage of this, but Hawaii is running a couple of islands off the stuff... *and* growing cold-water lobsters to boot. Maine is _pissed,_ particularly since some evil people have whispered "the Hawaiian ones taste better". :)

[Thomas] Re-circulating brine solutions work like this -- in the formation of oolithic limestone for instance. The effect caused by the variations in temperature of the water causes it to move in a circulation motion. It's almost self-perpetuating.

[Ben] Yep. Now imagine this happening in a large pipe, with turbines. Mmmm, *juice*. :)

[Thomas] I can see how this technique with the cold water has a direct influence on power generation. Unfortunately, given the Mid-ocean ridge that is near to Iceland, the only thing viable for them is geothermal energy -- they have more active hydrothermal vents than anywhere else in the world.

[Sluggo] The second half of the show discusses the prospects of hydrogen fuel in the US. There's a fleet of test cars running in California and DC. Bush has set up a research center, although some environmentalists are skeptical of its commitment given his refusal to increase the efficiency of SUVs. Nevertheless it's there. Some investors are putting money into hydrogen research, and eventually a lot of investors will find it makes business sense. Eventually, hydrocarbons will be more valuable without the carbon than with. And carbohydrates can also substitute, giving something for the corn industry after people stop eating corn syrup. The coal industry will also be happy coz there's an emmissionless way to extract hydrogen from coal.

[Jason] Note that Bush couldn't increase the efficency of SUVs if he wanted to. He could ask someone in Congress to submit a bill to increase the requiered efficiency of SUVs, but *he* couldn't do anything, short of something sneaky and underhanded like an executive order.
[Sluggo] True, but his attitude influences Congress even if he doesn't have direct power over them. It discourages them from submitting the bill in the first place, knowing he won't sign it. It takes a lot of work to gather enough votes to override a veto.

[Jason] *nods*

Wasn't thinking about the power of the veto mechanism when I wrote that. It's near impossible to get enough of a majority (what is it--two thirds?) to override a veto.

[Jason] It always annoys when people pretend that a President can directly control things like that. For instance, there was a little Q&A thing in our newspaper that asked the (at that time) numerous Democratic presidential canidates "What increases, if any, do you favor in the $5.15 an hour federal minimum wage?". And lots of them said something like "I would raise it X". And they can't do that! Congress and the Senate have to vote on stuff like that.

But it turns out that there's no limits placed on an executive order. It's not mentioned in the US Constitution, but Presidents have been issuing for quite some time.

Links: http://www.thisnation.com/question/040.html

Hehe, "inside the shadow government". (I'm more concerned about the real one, thankyouverymuch.):

[Sluggo] Amory Lovins describes how the lightness and efficiency of hydrogen makes other changes in materials and design possible, creating a multiplicative benefit. E.g., hydrogen cars can be lighter and more aerodynamic than regular cars, thus requiring a smaller engine. This can reduce the net cost of driving by 2/5, and save hundreds of dollars per car in terms of the gasoline that doesn't need to be produced and transported to the gas station. Plus the natural gas that doesn't need to be used to produce the gasoline. Even if hydrogen is made from natural gas (the most likely short-term choice in the US, given its abundance domestically and the existing pipelines) and the carbon emissions are not recovered, the emissions are still several times less than gasoline cars. Plus hydrogen has this nice byproduct of water/steam/heat that can be used for drinking, heating, or running a refrigerator. (Or for the dashboard coffee maker.) An office building with a fuel cell could do without a heating system, thus saving money even if the cost per KwH is higher.

At the end of the program is a short concert given by ducks, geese and pigeons at a pond in Iceland.

PDF on the Icelandic language.

Released under the Open Publication license

Published in Issue 105 of Linux Gazette, August 2004