I was going through the Oil Sands Development Centre in Fort McMurray last Friday evening with Gail the Actuary from the OilDrum.  We came upon a perma poster showing a part of the bitumen oil molecule, a very long carbon chain thing with a smattering of hydrogen atoms mounted here and there.  In the course of conversation I noted that carbon is abundant, hydrogen is the problem.

Gail gave me a quick flash of comprehension, but I don’t think she quite grasped the implications.  She’s not the typical doomer type found commenting at the ‘drum so there is some hope that she will, as she explained at other times, tread in the turf of reason even when it drives lots of passionate comments on topics that might scratch on the biases and prejudices of the regular ‘drum readers.

That moment just relit the impression that almost everyone has lost grounding in the energy and fuels arena.  This isn’t hard or even complex; the solutions are in easy reach from a realist, practical and sound perspective.  Its getting perspective that matters, so I’m going circle the matter one more time.  Perhaps you can use this commentary to help nudge along some sensible consumer thinking and perhaps we as citizens can get some reasonable policy while technology opens the field far wider.  Consumers, industry researchers, grantors and funders, policy makers and writers on the topic, please take note.

Mother nature and the universe have set out an elegant, comparatively simple chemistry with substantial storage density for intelligent life to use for powering its’ tools.  The combination of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, all found in prodigious quantities in the observable universe are abundant here on earth as well, easily accessible.   They only need our intelligence put to work to exploit them.

Carbon is already the main component of life.  It’s consumed by plants using CO2 for growth and energizing metabolism, stored in seeds, the support structures, roots and sunlight gathering cells.  The hydrogen is sourced from water and the byproduct is oxygen.  Animals and decomposition organisms like fungus consume plant carbon compounds for their growth and metabolism using the oxygen for the chemical reaction with CO2 as the main byproduct. Carbon cycles endlessly through planet earth’s ecosystem.

Carbon is everywhere, the air, the soil, deep underground in the crust, in plants and in you.  Hydrogen is available in water such that on planet earth it covers three quarters of the surface so deeply such that one is a little surprised there is any dry land at all.  Oxygen is also in the air, stored away in the soil and water, hooked up to minerals and reacts whenever needed – by a miracle of nature the concentration is low enough that combustion is not rampant and high enough to support animal life.

The storage of energy by nature is in carbon compounds.  Humanity has used it since the discovery of controlled fire through grass and wood to coal, petroleum and humanity has joined nature – cultivating biomass for fuel itself.  This is good.

But it overlooks the energy itself, that which comes in to power the system, and is stored in the natural fuel.

Its nuclear energy, fusion from the star named Sol and fission from the earth beneath us that drives the system.  Petroleum, biofuels, wind turbines and others are just harvesters and stores of the basic energy already delivered.  If humanity ever expects to surpass the point of grazing on the fruits of nature for its energy, which it turns out are limiting and contestable, we need to address the basic energy inputs with creativity and intelligence.

The tools to make energy, explained in the simple equation E=MC2 nearly one hundred years ago, are in humanities’ intelligence inventory now and have a great deal of potential yet to be discovered.  We can choose driving to finish the discovery of low cost, efficient fusion and develop it for use.  Fission is further ahead, there are multiple designs for fission reactions, and multiple fuel choices such that risks can be essentially eliminated.  Basic energy is actually very cheap; it’s the political, financial and public attitudes pressures that make it expensive.

At the most simple level we must return to the walk with Gail the Actuary.  The problem is the energy needed to get more of that hydrogen freed from the oxygen.  Using the energy from the sun with biology is very time consuming, limited, and for some it seems to compete with the production of the foods we use.  Waiting around for plants to unlock the hydrogen to oxygen bond might seem natural, but it’s slow, limited and expensive.

Nuclear energy production would cheaply allow the separation of the hydrogen from oxygen by the current method of electrolysis. The free hydrogen can be assembled in several carbon chains at low cost as the need arises to moderate costs from other sources.  It can cap the price of fuels.  It can also load other energy stores, be they batteries, ultra capacitors and yet to be invented devices.  No energized electron need go unused.  But finding better more efficient methods of breaking the hydrogen and oxygen atomic bond should be a major goal.

All humanity currently needs is cheap heat, just more concentrated and directed than sunlight.  At the scales needed for humans counted in billions, using the universes’ methods are surely the lowest cost.  Business in energy and fuels take note, the lowest cost source can only be the energy released from the most basic reactions of all, nuclear fusion and fission.  Governments must take heed, this little commentary will be redone, improved and turned into sound bites that will haunt the hands on the levers of power either making a legacy of greatness or despair. Investors take a moment, once the barriers to using nuclear solutions are cracked apart, little can compete save even more deep intellectual creation and discovery.  Consumers, cheer up, there is energy in great abundance, everywhere in the universe – the issues aren’t about petroleum, coal or alternatives – the issue is in the perspectives, and you are already paying way too much, because of perspectives of the masses manipulated by a few.

The smallest nutshell is this, to get cheap abundant fuels to prolong the period we need for technology to bring forward the better and best solutions we need nuclear energy to break the hydrogen oxygen bond to make synthetic hydrocarbon fuels, hooking those hydrogen atoms back onto the carbon atoms quickly and cheaply in a fast paced carbon/hydrogen/oxygen recycling system just as the ecosystem does now at a slow pace.

There it is, explaining it is easy, changing might prove impossible.  But enough wild fuel peak prices should focus perspective making the impossible an imperative.


4 Comments so far

  1. David Martin on August 11, 2009 2:25 AM

    We don’t need to wait for breakthroughs in fusion to enjoy cheap abundant nuclear energy.
    Working well within current technology, and using only materials in the standard engineering handbooks within their specified limits, we can fully develop a nuclear technology which was successfully demonstrated in the 60’s in the US, but for which the program was killed as it is truly lousy at producing weapons grade materials.

    It is called liquid fluoride thorium reactor technology.

    It uses fuel around 100-300 times as well as conventional reactors, and could burn the wastes everyone is worried about as fuel instead of having to bury it.
    It can’t explode, as if the containment vessel is breached the reaction can’t continue at atmospheric temperatures and it freezes solid in a flash.
    To provide all the electric power in the US for a year would take around 500 tonnes of thorium, an abundant resource.
    In a skunk-works kind of program it would take around five years to get a prototype running, and then it could be factory mass-produced and put into existing coal plants instead of burning coal.

    More here:
    And here:

    We don’t need any breakthroughs to have abundance, just modest development of already understood technology.

    Have we got the sense to do so?

  2. Matt on August 11, 2009 11:09 AM

    The good news is that the State of Texas is building a Thorium test lab – hoping to be ready when Federal grant money becomes available.

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