Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Easy hydrogen?

From Wired comes the story about a group of Penn State researchers that have developed a method to encourage bacteria to extract hydrogen gas from ordinary biodegradation.

Aside from being cool, it offers me a chance to say what I've become convinced is the greatest long-term problem for humanity: energy. You may have noticed the price of gas skyrocketing. While part of the reason is the idiocy in the Middle East, many people don't realize that the U.S. imports most of its oil from Canada and Mexico, the latter of which is a member of OPEC. The prices are climbing for us not because our suppliers are running dry but because demand for oil is rising rapidly worldwide. China's economy, which is growing almost 10% per year, is industrializing at a mind-boggling rate; India isn't far behind. With almost 2.5 billion people in those two countries alone, the demand for oil and coal has only started and isn't near peaking.

As most people who aren't deeply and pathologically insane will admit, fossil fuels are limited resources. Oil is the most popular source of energy simply because it is the most profitable for those who control it. Up to this point in human history, the use of oil has a positive energy coefficient; it takes less energy to get it out of the ground than it produces when combusted. As we use more and more oil, it will become harder to find, and we'll have to dig deeper, invent new technology, distill it from shale, etc. The common problem is that all of these approaches require more energy than simply building a derrick on an easy-to-tap oil reservoir a few hundred feet down. At some point -- no one agrees exactly when -- the energy coefficient will degrade to break-even, and it will no longer be useful to extract the remaining oil.

At that point, we are, to put it bluntly, fucked.

Hydrogen is one of the possible solutions. It's extremely powerful stuff; when combusted, it provides much more energy than an equivalent weight of oil, and if we ever figure out how to do fuel cells cheaply, a ready supply of hydrogen would go a long way toward solving small-use energy needs. The discovery of a process that produces hydrogen from simple organic matter without requiring other energy could be, if it pans out large-scale, a long step toward avoiding oil judgment day. Hydrogen as a fuel source has problems, of course; it's unstable, it's hard to transport and store, and the technology to use it in car-sized engines is still in prototype stage. But if we could be assured that we could have all of it we ever wanted, figuring out how to make its use safe and efficient is just an engineering problem. That's a problem we can solve.

At some point, I'll talk about why nuclear power is the best hope for the world's large-scale energy needs. I expect to piss off a lot of people when I do that.

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