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Hydrogen production breakthrough?
September 21, 2011 9:11 AM   Subscribe

"This system could produce hydrogen anyplace that there is wastewater near sea water," said Bruce E. Logan, Kappe Professor of Environmental Engineering. "It uses no grid electricity and is completely carbon neutral. It is an inexhaustible source of energy."

"Logan's cells were between 58 and 64 percent efficient and produced between 0.8 to 1.6 cubic meters of hydrogen for every cubic meter of liquid through the cell each day. The researchers estimated that only about 1 percent of the energy produced in the cell was needed to pump water through the system."
posted by Chrysostom (83 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Suspicious.
posted by slater at 9:12 AM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


What exactly is it about a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that you suspect?
posted by unSane at 9:17 AM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


"It is an inexhaustible source of energy."

That is a claim that has never turned out to be mistaken or fraudulent in the history of science.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:18 AM on September 21, 2011 [27 favorites]


Suspicious.

Especially since the bacterium used is Ponsius fleischmanni.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 9:18 AM on September 21, 2011 [22 favorites]


A grain of salt or two may be all that microbial electrolysis cells need to produce hydrogen from wastewater or organic byproducts,

I tend to be skeptical of science news reports that start by telling me right off the bat that I'm going to need to take a grain or two of salt before I see anything work...

But I will remain hesitantly optimistic. Because someone should.
posted by quin at 9:19 AM on September 21, 2011 [17 favorites]


Shocking. The first reaction to an FPP about an important new energy tech that might be further evidence against the naysayers who insist we are and will always be at war with eurasia dependent on resource-costly, dangerous and obsolete energy sources was cynical skepticism.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:19 AM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Like most other types of renewable energy, it's basically solar power: Sun evaporates water from the sea, water condenses and rains out on land, forms rivers, flows back into the sea. You're just extracting energy in the process.

The problem is, how much do these membranes cost to produce per watt? seriously doubt they cost less then solar panels. Also people are working on producing hydrogen directly by concentrated solar heating.
posted by delmoi at 9:20 AM on September 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


Lead researcher Bruce E Logan's page with links to a whole crapload of studies and information. (This should have been in the FPP.)
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:21 AM on September 21, 2011


That is a claim that has never turned out to be mistaken or fraudulent in the history of science.

Solar power and wind power are inexhaustible. This is just another type of renewable energy.
posted by delmoi at 9:21 AM on September 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


...might be further evidence against the naysayers...

Further evidence? Was the other evidence helium-3 on the moon?
posted by odinsdream at 9:21 AM on September 21, 2011


To sum up the science for the haters: bacteria turn SHIT into SHINOLA with a little help from ionic potential differences. It's pretty simple stuff.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:23 AM on September 21, 2011 [6 favorites]


Well, like, yeah, but what about when the sun goes out? Who's got an inexhaustible energy source then, huh? Clearly the oil barons!
posted by kaibutsu at 9:25 AM on September 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


Here's the actual paper, if anyone has university or employer access. PNAS is a high impact journal, this isn't some pie-in-the-sky bullshit despite the trigger word, and some of you geniuses need to do some fact checking before you weigh in with claims of pseudo-science.
posted by invitapriore at 9:25 AM on September 21, 2011 [9 favorites]


This post's title starts with an H and ends with a question mark. That alone makes me suspicious.
posted by snapped at 9:28 AM on September 21, 2011


Well, like, yeah, but what about when the sun goes out? Who's got an inexhaustible energy source then, huh? Clearly the oil barons!

Shh, stop giving them ideas.
posted by mrgoat at 9:28 AM on September 21, 2011


The funny thing is of course all our other energy sources are ultimately solar anyway--they just use solar power in a really, really indirect way (it gets stored in carbon, and then we release it). The dream of making that supply line shorter is not in anyway inconsistent with the laws of physics, and you'd think it should actually be a little less complicated than the indirect ways we harness that solar energy now.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:29 AM on September 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


that is, it gets stored in carbon based fuels
posted by saulgoodman at 9:31 AM on September 21, 2011


So you get approximately 1m2 of hydrogen out of 1m2 of high-carbon wastewater. That's equivalent to about a tenth of a gallon of gasoline.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:31 AM on September 21, 2011


Like most other types of renewable all energy extractable on Earth through any process other than nuclear fission, it's basically solar power...

The PNAS paper is step one. Repetitions and refinement of the experiment are step two. Scaling up to pilot commercial production is step 8,317. You'd need to see the economics involved before you evaluated this as anything other than a (really neat) science project.

(If we could find a way to harness the potential energy unleashed in the conversion of breathless but technically correct university press releases into total bullshit pop-science articles as catalyzed by a lazy media with a focus on sensationalism and zero grasp of basic facts... well, then we'd have something.)
posted by Vetinari at 9:32 AM on September 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


1.6 cubic meters of hydrogen has a mass of 144g. 1.012 kg of hydrogen (or ~7 cubic meters of hydrogen worth) is equivalent to 1 gallon of gasoline. That 7 cubic meters of hydrogen will require about 4.4 cubic meters of water to produce.

The US uses about 9.12 million barrels or 282.7 million gallons of gasoline per day. Producing an equivalent amount of hydrogen would require 1.2 billion cubic meters of water per day. The Mississippi river flows at about 523 million cubic meters per day.

So, replacing US gasoline (not all oil or fossil fuels, just gasoline) consumption would require about 2.3 Mississippi rivers-worth of (waste)water mixing with salt water.

I think this is a useful technology and could form one part of many sources of renewable energy, and it may also be very useful for distributed hydrogen production in coastal developing countries. It may even scale better than most biological fuel sources devised so far. But it's not a panacea.
posted by jedicus at 9:33 AM on September 21, 2011 [17 favorites]


Shh, stop giving them ideas.

It was then that the oil barons crossed that line between everyday villainy and cartoonish super-villainy. #toolate
posted by Horace Rumpole at 9:36 AM on September 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Suspicious.

I dunno. Actually sounds pretty plausible to me. This is, ultimately, just harnessing a metabolic process to make electricity rather than just move stuff around. Metabolic process are ultimately driven by the sun, which is for all intents and purposes an inexhaustible source of energy.

Which is all fossil fuels really are anyway: chemical potential energy created by ancient photosynthesis. This is just using a different process to get at a different reservoir of such energy.

I think the physics of the thing actually look pretty solid. What I'm worried about is the logistics of the thing. True, we throw away a lot of biological waste. But a lot of it is 1) already being used for something else (like fertilizer or animal feed), 2) is pretty thoroughly mixed in with non-biological waste, or 3) being biological waste, already has stuff living in it. The latter might actually be the most problematic. We basically want one kind of bacteria in these devices, but if the waste they're supposed to feed on is already pretty well colonized with other stuff, we may wind up having to spend some energy to sterilize our fuel before we use it, which would drive down efficiency considerably.

Also, while the devices may be pretty efficient to begin with, but we'd need a metric assload of these things to make any real energy. I was running the numbers, but jedicus seems to have a good start. Only I think US gasoline consumption is closer to 382.7 million gallons/day, making the equation even less favorable.
posted by valkyryn at 9:37 AM on September 21, 2011


The funny thing is of course all our other energy sources are ultimately solar anyway--they just use solar power in a really, really indirect way (it gets stored in carbon, and then we release it).

You're right, of course, but it's important to keep in mind that the reason it hasn't been and won't be as simple as cutting out the middleman is because that indirect process resulted in nicely packaged, (relatively) easy to acquire, high-density energy, and that conversion required no effort on our part.

And, yes, the reporting here is overblown even though the science is solid, which is unfortunate because all of this crying wolf over the solution to all of our energy woes distracts from the fact that the solution to our energy woes should actually be several smaller, easy-to-implement solutions that work together to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. This mindset of waiting around with our fingers crossed for the arrival of the renewable energy Messiah is pretty counterproductive.
posted by invitapriore at 9:41 AM on September 21, 2011


Well, like, yeah, but what about when the sun goes out? Who's got an inexhaustible energy source then, huh? Clearly the oil barons!

Shh, stop giving them ideas.



"Hello, lamppost. Watcha' knowin'? I've come to watch your...power flowin'"
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:41 AM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


"It is an inexhaustible source of energy."

as long as people keep making waste water.

I commit to doing my part.
posted by twidget at 9:42 AM on September 21, 2011


But it's not a panacea.

I don't want a panacea. Having a wide set of sources of energy makes the system more robust in the face of ecological or political problems.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:42 AM on September 21, 2011 [8 favorites]


It is an inexhaustible source of energy.

Extraordinary claims requires extraordinary evidence.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 9:44 AM on September 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Our current techs have lots of logistical problems too, but we suck them up or subsidize the energy industries to smooth these issues over because that's where the political will and economic power is. It's not because what we use now is better tech, inherently, than renewables. I'm with you, invitapriore: we don't need a magic bullet. We've already got what we need, except politically, socially and economically.

Extraordinary claims requires extraordinary evidence.

Is it an extraordinary claim that solar provides an inexhaustible source of energy?
posted by saulgoodman at 9:45 AM on September 21, 2011


I think we've developed and internalized a sort of superstitious belief that we will always have to live with energy scarcity based on some weird, over-generalized misunderstanding of thermodynamics and TANSTAAFL. And that's really the biggest thing still holding us back.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:48 AM on September 21, 2011


Scaling up to pilot commercial production is step 8,317.

So true. I just read an interesting business case about Molten Metals Technologies, another woeful tale of utopian technology being unable to scale and imploding due to investor confidence.

Also, platinum.
posted by georg_cantor at 9:51 AM on September 21, 2011


Is it an extraordinary claim that solar provides an inexhaustible source of energy?

Well, to be pedantic, yes. It's practically inexhaustible on our time scale, and that's all that most people are really talking about. The sun does not generate energy for free, it burns fuel just like anything else. Solar power is just as much a carbon based fuel as anything else, it's just that the cost is paid in resources we don't see or use, and at a scale we don't think on. For the record, the same was true for the first humans to cut down trees or burn oil.

But you need to understand that to many science people, the phrase "inexhaustible energy" instantly triggers a lot of valid BS alarms. Because it simply does not exist - that's thermodynamics, not cynicism. And there are a lot of ridiculous perpetual motion theories out there which use that phrase.

So, this is really interesting and hopeful, but it could use a little downsampling on the hyperbole.
posted by freebird at 9:53 AM on September 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


It is an inexhaustible source of energy.

Extraordinary claims requires extraordinary evidence.


Well, considering that we are talking about "high-carbon wastewater" (and I think we all know what that means), yes, if there's an inexhaustible resource on Earth it's (bull)shit.

More seriously, although the press release linked to at the FPP is rather ineptly drafted ("Logan's cells were between 58 and 64 percent efficient"...what does that mean? how are they measuring input an output?), and energy-related any press release with "electrolysis" and "inexhaustible" in it inmediately sets off my crank detector, the technology seems interesting, though no panacea. I also wonder whether this is really a more efficient way of turning organic waste into energy than "good old-fashioned" digestors.
posted by Skeptic at 9:54 AM on September 21, 2011


we may wind up having to spend some energy to sterilize our fuel before we use it

<cough> radioactivity </cough>
posted by Dr Dracator at 9:56 AM on September 21, 2011


invitapriore: "Here's the actual paper, if anyone has university or employer access."

Thank you for finding that link, invitapriore. I had wanted to include that, but for some reason was having trouble locating it.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:56 AM on September 21, 2011


It's not cynical to be skeptical, it's merely cautious and shows an awareness of history. If this can be scaled up out of the lab, it will certainly prove useful.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:57 AM on September 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't want a panacea. Having a wide set of sources of energy makes the system more robust in the face of ecological or political problems.

Right, that's why I said "I think this is a useful technology and could form one part of many sources of renewable energy."
posted by jedicus at 10:05 AM on September 21, 2011


I'm no expert in this stuff, but last time I looked at something similar the basic problem was that the membranes are rather delicate and clog up very easily and no one could work out how to stop that happening. If this technique reduces the number of membranes 5-fold then I guess that's a big step forward, but I'm not sure whether it's a big enough advance to actually make it scale viably.
posted by silence at 10:11 AM on September 21, 2011


I think we've developed and internalized a sort of superstitious belief that we will always have to live with energy scarcity based on some weird, over-generalized misunderstanding of thermodynamics and TANSTAAFL.

What's superstitious about this? We've lived with energy scarcity, indeed, of scarcity of all sorts, for all of human history. We've only been making significant use of non-metabolic and non-gravity-based energy sources for about two hundred years.
posted by valkyryn at 10:24 AM on September 21, 2011


Oh! That Bruce Logan. I know that guy (no, really). And yes, this is completely legit, but of course it's a long way from production and there are lots of potential roadblocks, as it is for lots of cool new technologies. Comparing this sort of thing to 'cold fusion' is really quite insulting. But I guess a discussion of how the media and entertainment industry distort everyone's view of science is a matter for another flamewar thread.

When looking at things like photovoltaic cells I've always thought that real advances in this sort of technology have to come from the biological world. The most primitive of photosynthetic organisms is far more efficient than the best possible photovoltaic cell. DOE used to fund lots of research into photosynthesis for this reason. But I think they were ahead of their time.
posted by zomg at 10:47 AM on September 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


Agree with the sentiment that skepticism != cynicism. Skepticism, in fact, is the appropriate scientific response to any scientific announcement. It's built right into the system of discovery, testing hypotheses, etc.

PNAS does help lend it gravity, though. Now let's see other scientists weigh in.
posted by darkstar at 10:51 AM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, to be pedantic, yes.

I am not convinced pedantry converts an entirely ordinary claim about the sun being a functionally inexhaustible source of energy into an extraordinary claim.

I would also like to chime in and ask that the people who are hear to express suspicions also participate by explaining those suspicions. Without the explanation, you have provided a conversational dead end.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:03 AM on September 21, 2011


The problem is in scaling, as people have already said. When the per-unit yield is low, you have to look at not just whether the energy source is finite over time (which solar, wind, etc. are not), but whether it's finite on a practical scale. You can use a single windmill to keep generating wind power forever, but you can't meet all your energy needs with wind because there isn't enough space to build all the generators you'd need. Likewise, there will always be water and feces to keep these converters fed, but when you scale the output up to produce significant amounts of energy you start talking in units of the freaking Mississippi River, and run smack into scarcity again, this time in the amount of water that's available at any given moment.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 11:18 AM on September 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well, to be pedantic, yes. It's practically inexhaustible on our time scale, and that's all that most people are really talking about.

You're right. That was pedantic. You're giving even me a run for my money in terms of persnicketyness there... Bravo!


What's superstitious about this?

The superstitious part is where its often implicit there's something inherent in the laws of physics rather than merely historically circumstantial to account for that. We didn't have TVs for eons either. If you'd told someone about the possibility of such a technology 1000 years ago, you'd have been scoffed at and accused of being another sham merchant peddling crystal balls. But in fact, there's nothing magical about TVs and there's nothing magical or science-contradicting about renewable energy sources. In fact, all of earth's ecological and biological systems already run on renewable energy, and there's more than enough of it to power a much more complex and productive system than any we've ever produced already.

What's to be skeptical of here though? The claim that this is a panacea? I didn't really get that from the article, it just sort of seemed to appear in the thread. There's nothing about the claim that this is an inexhaustible energy source that makes it a claim of a panacea. That part (given the qualification that "inexhaustible" in this context technically only means for the next few hundred billion years) seems to have been unfairly inferred by others from otherwise perfectly accurate statements about the technology. Where are the claims that this will be a panacea? What's to be skeptical of otherwise. It does what it says on the tin, and even science savvy people acknowledge that it probably does and there's no reason to doubt the scientific claims. Sure, there's no reason whatsoever to view this tech alone as an instant answer to all our energy problems but who said it was supposed to be that?

It just seems like we have a kind of permanent chip on our shoulder where renewable energy tech is concerned and the reactions to any new announcements in this area are always so predictable, it makes me doubt we're really being rational. Sure, "irrational exuberance" isn't necessarily called for, but I don't think we really benefit from boxing ourselves in psychologically, either.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:19 AM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


but you can't meet all your energy needs with wind because there isn't enough space to build all the generators you'd need.

But we can store liquid hydrogen, unlike solar or wind. Doesn't that mitigate the yield issue some?
posted by saulgoodman at 11:22 AM on September 21, 2011


That 7 cubic meters of hydrogen will require about 4.4 cubic meters of water to produce.

Wonder what the flow rate is, compared to cell size? 1 cbm/day is a tiny flow -- we're talking less than a tenth of a horsepower over a reasonable height. A garden hose can easily put out more than that -- a 100' hose with 40psi behind it puts out six gallons, or .83 cubic meters, an hour.

If the cell is huge, then, well, you're not going to get great extraction rates, if it is tiny, then getting working fluid to and from the cell becomes a real issue -- and it gets worse as you stack cells.

Water is heavy -- by (former) definition, a cubic meter of water masses 1000kg.

Hmm. From the abstract: "There is a tremendous source of entropic energy available from the salinity difference between river water and seawater, but this energy has yet to be efficiently captured and stored"

This means you're moving one of the two fluids -- yes, two -- either freshwater or saltwater. The abstract clearly states that both reactants are flowing. You might think "just build it where the river meets the sea", but then you're reacting brackish water with very slightly less brackish water, and the abstract states a salinity ratio between them of at least 50.

You're going to need to find a source of fresh water next to sea water to make this work, and you know what, I'm willing to be in most parts of the world, you are going to have real problems if you start using fresh water to generate power -- unless you can somehow recycle the fresh water. Which would, of course, be more power.

I don't doubt the abstract -- PNAS is an important journal, both are previously published, and they are affiliated with a credible institution. However, I don't see how this becomes a useful energy source.

I'd love to see the whole paper, and I'm setting a calendar note to look in 6 months, when it will become available -- PNAS has a delayed open access policy, unless the author chooses immediate open access.
posted by eriko at 11:31 AM on September 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


On a related note, check out this other recent renewable development:

Harvesting 'limitless' hydrogen from self-powered cells
US researchers say they have demonstrated how cells fuelled by bacteria can be "self-powered" and produce a limitless supply of hydrogen.

I was kind of surprised this one didn't make it into an FPP.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:34 AM on September 21, 2011


Ha--sorry I think that's the same breakthrough, I'm realizing now, on review...

Just with a totally more sensationalized spin (unless there's actually new info in this article to justify it).
posted by saulgoodman at 11:36 AM on September 21, 2011


eriko: how would you evaluate this claim from the second article I posted above on this new tech:

But, the authors wrote that their findings offered hope for the future: "This unique type of integrated system has significant potential to treat wastewater and simultaneously produce [hydrogen] gas without any consumption of electrical grid energy."
posted by saulgoodman at 11:40 AM on September 21, 2011


Or is there no information in the second article to change your take away from up here?
posted by saulgoodman at 11:46 AM on September 21, 2011


Solar power is just as much a carbon based fuel as anything else

You sure about that?
posted by empath at 11:55 AM on September 21, 2011


Because it simply does not exist - that's thermodynamics, not cynicism. And there are a lot of ridiculous perpetual motion theories out there which use that phrase.

You're wrong about the science. The science that prevents perpetual motion machines has nothing to do with the possibility of inexhaustible energy production (except insofar as it means we will never be able to construct a mechanical generator that spins forever to produce it due to energy loss from friction). There is nothing about the laws of thermodynamics to prevent us from using the massive amounts of energy from the sun that's constantly pouring onto the earth. There's far more energy around us than we could ever use up, if we could harness it, and that's a fact.

It doesn't even make sense that you think the energy is only inexhaustible enough to be worth pursuing once its gone through the long convoluted process of being stored in carbon fuel sources. Why would those sources be less exhaustible than the larger sources of energy they represent only a tiny fraction of?

Your position has no basis in science, whatever you might think. It's just a weird article of faith--not science.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:16 PM on September 21, 2011


You know why thermodynamics doesn't apply? Because the Earth is not a closed system (unlike, say, the failed perpetual motion machine in my basement closet).
posted by saulgoodman at 12:26 PM on September 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


What's to be skeptical of here though?

Well, assuming you're rerouting a huge river delta that's just pouring into the sea anyways, the bacteria will require organic matter to feed, so you have to carefully regulate the amount, constitution and consistency of added - what? ... sewage? Biodegradeable garbage scraps? ... to the incoming fresh water supply. Next, substantial amounts of waste product will flow on unchecked into the sea or ocean unless you add some sort of treatment plant into the chain.

Scalable, perhaps, but expensive.
posted by CynicalKnight at 12:26 PM on September 21, 2011


But we can store liquid hydrogen, unlike solar or wind. Doesn't that mitigate the yield issue some?

How so? The yield per time is the same whether you use the energy immediately or store it for later (and use non-renewable energy instead in the meantime).
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:29 PM on September 21, 2011


Well, I'm glad we at least all agree that it's a lovely discovery with much potential, while there are significant engineering and marketability issues still to be addressed before this discovery may become a viable source of energy on a large scale.
posted by darkstar at 12:36 PM on September 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


How so? The yield per time is the same whether you use the energy immediately or store it for later (and use non-renewable energy instead in the meantime).

Guess I'm thinking because you can produce and stockpile it for more energy-intensive uses, since the real-time yield in terms of usable energy don't seem especially high. The total yield would be the same over time, but at least you could collect enough for high energy consuming applications, given enough time (that's not true of solar and wind, although the yields there are much higher now). Not nearly enough to replace our overall energy needs, unless I'm mistaken, but if it truly doesn't require additional energy input, it could help some over the long term.

Well, I'm glad we at least all agree that it's a lovely discovery with much potential, while there are significant engineering and marketability issues still to be addressed before this discovery may become a viable source of energy on a large scale.

Agreed, darkstar.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:40 PM on September 21, 2011


The funny thing is of course all our other energy sources are ultimately solar anyway--they just use solar power in a really, really indirect way (it gets stored in carbon, and then we release it). The dream of making that supply line shorter is not in anyway inconsistent with the laws of physics, and you'd think it should actually be a little less complicated than the indirect ways we harness that solar energy now.
Not nuclear or geothermal
When looking at things like photovoltaic cells I've always thought that real advances in this sort of technology have to come from the biological world. The most primitive of photosynthetic organisms is far more efficient than the best possible photovoltaic cell.
That's completely wrong. Typical plants have an efficency of 0.1-2%, according to wikipedia, while record solar panel efficiency is 43.5%
posted by delmoi at 12:47 PM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


You know why thermodynamics doesn't apply? Because the Earth is not a closed system

You're right that you can't treat the Earth as a closed system. So what you're saying is that thermodynamics may appear to be violated if you restrict your view to a human scale in terms of time and space. That's what I was saying too.

I think you're misreading what I wrote: not that this wouldn't have potential great implications on a human scale - I said it did. I was explaining why hyperbole about unqualified inexhaustibility triggers healthy suspicion from science types. And saying "humans won't exhaust it in the foreseeable future" is very much a qualification.
posted by freebird at 12:48 PM on September 21, 2011


I am not convinced pedantry converts an entirely ordinary claim about the sun being a functionally inexhaustible source of energy into an extraordinary claim.

Nope, it doesn't. But it does explain the importance of the "functionally" qualifier you added, which changes the nature of the claim dramatically.
posted by freebird at 12:52 PM on September 21, 2011


Solar power is just as much a carbon based fuel as anything else

You sure about that?


You're right, I was too hasty - the sun is burning hydrogen, not carbon. My point though was that solar power is just a nifty transmission mechanism, it's still a "burn up fuel" generation system - it's just that the generator is so far away from us and has such a huge gas tank that we can sort of pretend the energy is free. To us it is practically free - to the universe and physics it is most definitely not.
posted by freebird at 12:55 PM on September 21, 2011


As a tangent, you can build an electricity-generating microbial cell very easily. I once met a chap who used to be a naval engineer and now prototypes these things as a hobby. Much less sophisticated than the one in the article of course, but a fun little rainy-afternoon project. I've written out a little instruction set and dropped them into a pastebin, rather than flooding the page.
posted by metaBugs at 12:56 PM on September 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


> the sun is burning hydrogen, not carbon

And 'burning' means a rather different reaction there in the sun.

Anyhow, our sun is puny; stars need to be much bigger to burn carbon.
http://www.astrophysicsspectator.com/topics/stars/FusionCarbonOxygen.html
posted by hank at 2:19 PM on September 21, 2011


Your position has no basis in science, whatever you might think. It's just a weird article of faith--not science.

You're missing the point here. No one is suggesting that this is pseudo-science or somehow violates the laws of thermodynamics. But there are plenty of real-science, thermodynamically-sound things that we don't do because they just aren't worth it.

An inexhaustible source of energy in which each unit of production takes up a few cubic feet but can't even light a light-bulb? I'm sure we can find some niche use for that, but it isn't an article of faith to suggest that this might not have any kind of large-scale application. It's just being realistic.

This, really, is the problem with a lot of renewable energy sources, indeed, all the ones we've found so far. They can produce energy for an arbitrary amount of time, but they can't produce an arbitrary amount of energy across any given time frame. The US consumed 3.7 billion MWh of electricity in 2009. Wind power provided about 175,000 of that, not even any kind of serious fraction of a single percentage point. Getting this stuff to provide even 1% of our energy needs would be a massive project and probably wouldn't even work.

If this thing is going to have an application, it's going to be in applications that need a constant but very low electrical supply.

This isn't superstition, it isn't an article of faith, it's simply being honest about the numbers.
posted by valkyryn at 3:37 PM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Typical plants have an efficency of 0.1-2%, according to wikipedia, while record solar panel efficiency is 43.5%

Which may explain why autotrophic life has proven itself sustainable over hundreds of millions of years in a variety of environmental conditions while ultra-high-tech solar panels haven't yet done so.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking solar power nor renewable energy, in fact I'd much prefer we started taking it more seriously instead of waiting for even better solutions to appear and losing our chance to minimise the impact of peak fossil energy. If better things do crop up later, great, but until then we'd better make use of our still abundant fossil reserves to subsidise the building of what renewable technologies we already have.

Somewhat related: Don’t Be a PV Efficiency Snob.
posted by Bangaioh at 4:30 PM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Looking at this as a way to generate power for the US is looking at it the wrong way.

It'll be intensely useful as a way for undeveloped countries with little or no way to generate or distribute power to install a distributed power system, where each house creates the power it needs to provide light for itself at night and maybe run a few appliances.

This will help in two ways. 1) it will allow households in the middle of (for example) Africa to have electricity without having to wait for last-mile grid development (which likely would never happen in such places, or not for generations and after a lot of economic development which simply isn't happening), and 2) it will help keep developing countries, well, developing while at the same time helping hold back a bit what would otherwise be an inevitable increase of carbon release by those countries while they strive to lift themselves into a bit more modern lifestyle, the likes of which we export as an ideal around the globe constantly with our media barrage upon the planet.

This isn't about powering the US. It's about powering places with no power right now.
posted by hippybear at 4:31 PM on September 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


The US consumed 3.7 billion MWh of electricity in 2009. Wind power provided about 175,000 of that,

After decades of being held down, defunded, ridiculed. In favor of 'serious' solutions.

there isn't enough space to build all the generators you'd need.

Not enough space:Where? In the oceans, in the deserts? At any rate, noone ever posited wind as a panacea.

Not enough space:To do what? Continue wasting at the 50% or more rate we've become so good at because we've always taken the easy way out?

All upcoming alternative solutions face a gauntlet of ignorance, opportunism, killers, political-footballing. How long do we keep letting GAMING get in the way of our needs? Time to hire serious adults to start getting the job done ... and ignore the naysayers and profiteers.
posted by Twang at 4:47 PM on September 21, 2011


Which may explain why autotrophic life has proven itself sustainable over hundreds of millions of years in a variety of environmental conditions while ultra-high-tech solar panels haven't yet done so.
I see plenty of solar panels in space, not too many plants. And you don't see too many plants in the desert either, despite there being plenty of sunlight.

Anyway, what does your comment even mean? How is solar not 'sustainable'. "More expensive then coal" is not the same thing as "unsustainable".

----
Not enough space:Where? In the oceans, in the deserts? At any rate, noone ever posited wind as a panacea.
I don't know how much space wind power would take but there is by far enough space to do solar power.
posted by delmoi at 5:11 PM on September 21, 2011


Yeah. It's called "rooftops."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:29 PM on September 21, 2011


Anyway, what does your comment even mean? How is solar not 'sustainable'. "More expensive then coal" is not the same thing as "unsustainable".

I meant that it remains to be seen if renewable tech can re-build itself, as currently it's heavily subsidised by fossil fuels. In the future, renewable facilities will have to provide enough power for both society's needs and their own maintenance/replacement. The question is whether those high-efficiency panels you mentioned are actually preferrable to more low-tech solutions once the complete life-cycle's energy and material requirements are taken into account.

Like valkyryn said "there are plenty of real-science, thermodynamically-sound things that we don't do because they just aren't worth it". I still think it's better to throw resources at high-tech solar power than oilsands or shale gas, but if in the last billion years life didn't evolve beyond 2% photosynthectic efficiency perhaps concentrating solar power in extrememly short timescales is a lot harder in practice than in theory.


I see plenty of solar panels in space, not too many plants. And you don't see too many plants in the desert either, despite there being plenty of sunlight.

...but not enough water. Likewise, if for example it turns out that to ramp up high-efficiency solar PV enough to make a significant contribution requires more rare metals than are economically accessible in the Earth's crust, we won't see many panels in the desert either.
posted by Bangaioh at 5:45 PM on September 21, 2011


There's nothing particularly shocking about this or many other sources of renewable energy that are available. The real question is whether it can scale to the level needed to have a significant impact on our current methods of energy production. In other words, how much capital would it cost to set up a station with a given wattage output? Also, how much space would it take up, and how many viable sites are there? Scalability is the big question in all of these plans. Remember the process that was hyped a few years back which converts turkey parts into plastics and energy? It really works, apparently, but notice how you haven't heard about the new generation of drumstick turbines or the grasping tentacles of Big Turkey. It's still cheaper to get it from old fashioned oil wells.
posted by Edgewise at 6:24 PM on September 21, 2011


Solar is not inexhaustible. There are physical limits to how much we can collect and convert to usable electricity. At 2.3% growth in yearly energy consumption we hit those limits several centuries from now. Then you have the limit of collecting all of the energy the sun produces, at which point... I guess you look for more stars.

Wind is not inexhaustible. Windmills turn by reducing the kinetic energy in the wind. Build enough windmills and there is no more wind.

Whether or not this thing is useful tech remains to be seen. I'm not going to give my opinion on that (because I don't understand it yet). But I think people are correct to see professors using the word "inexhaustible" in connection with a potential new source of energy as a red flag. Skepticism is good in this arena.

Honestly I think the burden is on the original poster, when posting about new technology that promises a simple solution to really hard problems, to include some sort of explanation as to why it isn't junk science so as to frame the discussion and avoid all the early finger pointing and name calling.
posted by jeffamaphone at 6:39 PM on September 21, 2011


...and it is the responsibility of comment writers to at least look at the journal and perhaps the CV of the author before calling them a loon.
posted by jeffamaphone at 6:40 PM on September 21, 2011


jeffamaphone: "Honestly I think the burden is on the original poster, when posting about new technology that promises a simple solution to really hard problems, to include some sort of explanation as to why it isn't junk science so as to frame the discussion and avoid all the early finger pointing and name calling."

Well, if you read the link, you'll see he works at a reputable university, and the research is in a reputable journal. I personally am not a scientist, and can't vouch for the research, but the above seemed to be reasonable bona fides.

Additionally, the title was, I think, non-inflammatory. The post itself was purely quotes from the linked article, and the money quote is from the researcher himself.

So, on the whole, I would reject the idea that it was poorly framed.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:15 PM on September 21, 2011


You're missing the point here. No one is suggesting that this is pseudo-science or somehow violates the laws of thermodynamics.

No, you're wrong here, valkyrn, You might not have suggested that, but several others up-thread did, specifically, claim that the laws of thermodynamics make renewable energy impossible.

You people are really desperately, desperately stretching to push this "no such thing as inexhaustible energy" BS, even when you know that for all practical purposes, it's not true. On human time scales, inexhaustible energy from renewable energy is very much a possibility.

So many people can't seem to bring themselves to fully accept and adapt to the fact that we're immediately running out of the much more finite, carbon-based fuels/energy sources that most experts readily admit actually are running out in the near to mid term (possibly within the next decade, by recent defense department estimates), but they can easily believe and consider it more reasonable to suggest that solar power is flawed because the sun will eventually burn out, and that wind power might somehow accidentally cause the wind to stop blowing for ever.

Even after the BP oil spill, which the latest studies find isn't breaking driown as expected on the sea floor after all, but just lurking around in the Gulf, we just can't get enough of that sweet, sweet crude.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:44 PM on September 21, 2011


Sorry. "You people" wasn't an especially helpful tone to take. It's just some of you, obviously.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:51 PM on September 21, 2011


It's just some of you, obviously.

I blame my left leg from the knee down.
posted by hippybear at 7:58 PM on September 21, 2011


You people are really desperately, desperately stretching to push this "no such thing as inexhaustible energy" BS, even when you know that for all practical purposes, it's not true.

Do you think they work for oil companies or something? Where are you going with this?
posted by empath at 11:47 PM on September 21, 2011


On human time scales, inexhaustible energy from renewable energy is very much a possibility.

I agree with you, and that unnecessary and overt pessimism about the possibilities for renewable energy is a real thing, although I'm not sure that's what's happening above.

My comment about low-yield, logistically complex energy systems would be that we've been living in one for the last million (or so) years, and we need to change our thinking about how much energy we can reasonably use in a day. We've gone from relatively parsimonius energy use (pre-World War II?) to the expectation that NO ENERGY SOURCE IS WORKABLE unless it can offer infinite transportability and limitless growth potential, because, darn it, we need to imagine a correspondingly limitless revenue stream to go with it.

The other side of this is conservation. Maybe it's just not practical to continue to burn 382.7 MILLION FUCKING GALLONS OF GASOLINE a day and 3.7 BILLION MWH of electricity a year. Maybe if we weren't ideologically committed to endless growth so that the Ponzi scheme we call our economy can continue to be gamed by crooks and liars (see Twang above), we could figure out how to match our energy expectations with what's available here and now, and learn to live with that. Why can't we live in houses that are well-insulated and use some passive heating and cooling to reduce energy use? I'm not asking for the fscking moon here. Seriously, I know this is Calgary, but why is the most popular commuting option here an SUV or 4-door truck with ONE PERSON inside. And that person keeps telling me, "renewable energy will never work on a large scale". /wipes spittle off screen
posted by sneebler at 2:18 AM on September 22, 2011 [7 favorites]


^ This.
posted by Bangaioh at 3:12 AM on September 22, 2011


Yes. As I'm fond of saying, the least polluting kWh is the one which isn't consumed.
posted by Skeptic at 3:15 AM on September 22, 2011


Do you think they work for oil companies or something? Where are you going with this?

No, I just find it to be such a big, bizarre stretch (and to some extent, I think we've all been PR nudged to be irrationally doubtful about the possibility of viable renewables over many, many years by the PR machinery that kept the public skeptical about cigarettes link to cancer. And that bugs me.

You'll have to forgive me if I've been a little jumpy; but three days later, I've still got no nicotine in my system, so I'm feeling a lot less tightly wound (and less delirious) today than when this thread began.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:19 AM on September 22, 2011


still can't type though, dammit.

And Sneebler wins.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:48 AM on September 22, 2011


It will be interesting to see how this scales up.

Oddly enough, the research was funded by a Saudi university: "King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) Award KUS-I1-003-13" (from the PNAS paper).
posted by exogenous at 7:12 AM on September 23, 2011


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