Re: Fuel cells and oil (was: Let Me Get This Straight . . .)

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From: Eugene Leitl (
Date: Fri May 18 2001 - 09:05:12 PDT

On Fri, 18 May 2001, Kent Spaulding wrote:

> Er, I should have explicitly said that gasoline consuming cells are
> not efficient enough in terms of pollutants, $, and mpg right now -

Of course they aren't -- you can't buy them. They're in early prototype
stage. One has to take into accounts things like economies of scale.
Otherwise, we would still be shaking sticks at leopards in the savanna.

> not that they can't be. I didn't mean to claim (nor did I) that they
> never will be. Every once in a while it would serve you well, Eugene,
> to give an author the benefit of the doubt. You're right though, one

Yes, I'm loud and opinionated. So sue me.

> should not make ambiguous blanket statements.
> Granted. The last time I looked (5 yrs ago), these cells used some
> small amount of 'heavy' metals, in addition to platinum and palladium.
> It is those metals generally considered to be pollutants. They too
> are expensive. Perhaps they are no longer used.

Fuel cells are sealed units. There's no hot high-velocity exhaust (which
blows bioactive (cisplatin owes its activity to platinum) platinum group
metal microparticles out of car catalyst cartridges -- no one talks about
this, strangely enough). The platinum group metal content is high enough
so that these things are recycled quantitatively. Also, their lifetime is
pretty much the effective life time of the car, provided you don't feed
them with catalyst poisons (another reason not to use gasoline or diesel
-- you've got your share of carbon monoxide from dirty fuel reforming).

> Regardless, providing enough platinum and palladium for a billion cars
> is not a slam-dunk. Consider the pollution from mining these metals,

Fuel cell technology is irrelevant for 98% of world car production. You
should check out a typical 3rd world car engine. Ever seen the smog of
Kairo, Mexico city or India? Or even the cars driving in Moscow. Do you
think motorizing China will start by introducing BMWs? We're just
discussing rich whiteys' hobby-horses.

> if you want to pick nits.

If I would want to pick nits, I would point out that the platinum group
metal content in an engine exhaust catalyst (installed maybe in 2% of
vehicled world wide) is more or less the same as in a modern fuel cell.

It should be also pointed out that plants and animals only use trace
amounts of transition metals (usually, one or a few atoms at a time) when
they're metabolizing their fuel. The reason current fuel cells contain
platinum group metals is current technology limitations. They're not
intrinsic to the process. Unfortunately, we would require nanotechnology
to achieve the same or better level of energy utilization as life. If I
knew that stuff is going to hit the streets in 50 years, talking about
fuel cells would be a total waste of time. Unfortunately, the future is
notoriously fickle.

> I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you are not
> calling me an idiot.

Thanks. I indeed did not. However, the number of idiots in
technology/policy related discussions is truly appaling. By rights I
should not be opening my trap about things I know nothing about, but I
have to do it, if solely to provide a token counterweight to the hordes of
loud idiots.

> As for 'production of methonal scaling' and the 'current
> infrastructure being potentially useful' - I doubt it. It's not about
> the technology being available. This is the real world. You have to

Two years ago world methanol production was 6% of U.S. gasoline
consumption (given the kind of vehicles Murrikans drive, the rest of the
world should be able to cruise comfortably on the same amount). Almost
none of this is used as fuel. From this I follow that gradual shift will
not be a problem. If anyone is really interested, ask Google, or go to

> include the cost of convincing the oil industry to move away from
> gasoline for cars in your analysis of whether or not the

Why do you think people are currently pushing onboard fuel reformers which
can run on gasoline and diesel? It's not because it makes sense
technically. It's pure politics, and reusing existing infrastructure.

After you get your foot into the door, you can gradually switch over to
phasing out first higher alkanes, then fossils altogether.

> infrastructure is reusable. They are the infrastructure - moving them
> to methanol should be a slam-dunk. As if.

The fossil industry wouldn't mind. They would still be selling fossils for
the next two decades at least. Why do you think the Shrub is allowed to
say what he's saying?

> As for Stirling engines, there is research at Los Alamos on engines
> that use specially shaped wave chambers to amplify sound. The
> amplified resonating waves can then be used to generate power, rather
> efficiently. You get the initial sound from a small explosion, you

So what, it's still a Carnot limited process. You can't cheat
thermodynamics. Then you have conversion losses, since electric propulsion
is coming. Then there is this Cali ZEV thing, which is going to become a
model for a lot of rich folks elsewhere (EU and Saudis/Kuwait first, I
would presume).

> know, spark some gasoline and air vapor. Is this or this not a form
> of the Stirling engine? It is really what I had in mind. These
> engines may be an option in vehicles - given more development. I seem
> to recall there may be a prototype bus running on this technology.

Much better ROI is go hybrid. These things will come before fuel cells,
and will be more efficient, cleaner, and push the high power controller
development (there's nothing like losing propulsion and most of braking
when pulling past another vehicle due to fat silicon parts going up in
smoke), including regen braking and demand spike cache.

> And finally, I am not arguing that we don't need to replace the
> current means of powering our cars - I'm just saying that given the
> investment in gasoline distribution that has occurred over the last
> century, fuel-cells that burn gasoline might be fine option as a gap

Things are moving faster now, thanks god. If it took another century to
make these minor diffs we would be soon be self terminating. The monkeys
never move, until you apply a cattleprod to their butts.

> solution. Sound-wave and/or Stirling engines might also serve us well
> as a gap solution until we get to an ultra-clean and efficient means
> of powering cars.

Though I don't mind diversity, the migration pathway looks clearly
overlapping phase of hybrid, then fuel cell. Stirling and the acoustic
wave stuff is not going to happen.

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