Saturday, September 01, 2007

Hydrogen and All That

I’ve just finished reading David Sanborn Scott’s book Smelling Land: The Hydrogen Defense Against Climate Catastrophe, plus a couple of surprising things about energy. Scott believes that the next great energy innovation is going to be the hydrogen age, and that after that, and (which he calls ) will together constitute the two dominant energy currencies until the end of civilization. Other sources of energy will exist, but they will work by being transformed into either hydrogen or electricity, the two main currencies.

Scott distinguishes between a source and a , and I think the latter is a useful concept. For certain uses, energy must be in a particular form. We can’t run our computers on gasoline. We can’t run airplanes on electricity, and so on. But just as we can exchange dollars for pesos and vice versa, we can exchange different energy currencies for others that are more suitable — gasoline for electricity. It always costs us something to make the transaction, but often we’re glad to pay for it. Hydrogen can be converted into electricity in , and electricity can split water into hydrogen and oxygen by .

Scott says that it’s possible to get hydrogen from almost anywhere, and he doesn’t spend much time discussing the technology of extracting it, though I believe there are significant problems involved even in producing it in large quantities from water. And I imagine that we’d already be deeply into the hydrogen age if the uses of it for transportation were as easy as he makes it out to be. Unfortunately, I’m poorly educated about such matters, but I have some better-informed friends who are betting that hydrogen may never take over in auto industry beause already are doing so well. He claims that batteries have never developed much, but other say that a system could be established in service stations whereby you drive in and replace your run-down for a charged-up one and go on your way. You would have to stop about every 300 miles, but that’s not so bad.

The main thing I did notice was that his image of hydrogen air travel is greatly at odds with the picture that paints in his marvelous book, Heat. Where Scott sees hydrogen as a logical solution, Monbiot finds it out of the question, point by point. Probably airline executives agree more with Monbiot, for the most hopeful news I have read it that Boeing and Air New Zealand are going to produce fuel from for mixing with the usual kerosene fuel. So far as I know, they aren’t expecting to use it as the sole fuel.

In any case, I found Scott’s book fascinating. He thinks is necessary and not very dangerous. I can hardly be so sanguine, though if it’s a matter of having civilization die because nothing else is ready, I’d accept nuclear as a stopgap. I’m not sure it has to come to that choice, though. Some day I need to give my full attention to this debate, which I’ve not done lately.

Scott says that in the seventies he believed that we had to develop hydrogen because he believed we were going to run out of oil. Now he says there will be lots of oil left in the ground indefinitely, because we’ll have to get out of oil into other fuels to prevent . The urgency of climate change is coming at us far sooner than the end of oil.

But I’ve encountered two other remarkable stories – one new and one old. First the new one. There’s a fellow named in Florida (see photo) who is working on a treatment for cancer involving of gold, which are attracted disproportionately to cancer cells. Once they are attached to those cells, Kanzius proposes zapping them with radio frequency waves, which will heat them and kill the cancer. (He hopes.)

But one night he got up at 3 am and made a in the kitchen with his wife’s pie pans. And he found that salt water (including sea water from the canal in his back yard) will burn when put into the radio frequency field. There are several video clips showing this process. The fire is yellow (colored by the sodium, apparently) and intensely hot – 1500 degres or higher. He often uses a paper towel as a wick, but the paper does not burn. When he interrupts the radio frequency field, the fire instantly goes out, and when it goes back on, the fire does too. If he puts a fluorescent tube in the field, it glows. If he puts his hand into it, nothing apparently happens.

The thing that puzzles most people is: where is the energy coming from to do this stunt? He says it’s not electrolysis. Now if it were electrolysis, I think people would not be surprised, so I myself am no more surprised about this than about electrolysis. In any case, it would seem to have more promise than electrolysis. I've seen a video of a home electrolysis experiment. What happens is that little bubbles of hydrogen appear and you can ignite them with discrete pops on the surface of the fluid. Nothing resembles a sustained, intense fire. This thing Kanzius has done is new.

But there's another odd invention that may belong in the same category. A Bolivian chap named had heard that a priest in his country had invented a battery that would give 3 volts instead of the normal 1.5 volts. However, that priest had emigrated back to Germany so Pacheco had to try to figure out the invention anew. He heard that the priest had used water from a river where women washed the minerals from a mine. While experimenting, he discovered that bubbles of gas were forming. Because he smoked, he ignited an explosion and discovered that the bubbles were hydrogen. Then he collected the hydrogen and used it to boil water, and after that to run an auto engine.

In 1943 Pacheco immigrated to the United States, hoping to demonstrate his hydrogen generator to the military. Everyone was resistant to his invention. Eventually he received patents from Germany, Brazil, and Japan. In 1974 he demonstrated the generator by running a 26-foot power boat for nine hours with it. In 1979, Nan Waters, a consulting chemist with the Aesop Institute analyzed the generator and wrote,

“I have read the literature relating to Pacheco's hydrogen generator. In my opinion, there is no reason why it ought not work as described. Basically, he has combined in one device three very simple chemical principles: a) the use of active metals to produce hydrogen from water, b) the differing electrical potential of two metals to produce an electrical current, c) the use of electrical current to produce hydrogen from water by electrolysis. All the ideas are well known; they simply haven't been put together this way before. It is so simple as to be elegant."

Time after time, Pacheco demonstrated his device, even by outfitting a neighbor's home with it, but he was unable to bring it to public attention. sent a research chemist to see it, but the company then took no interest. One oil company returned all papers to him in an unmarked envelope and after a meeting with him, one of its executives said, "We are in the oil business. Your invention, if we were to develop it, would be against our interests."

Is that what Kanzius has to expect too?

At first he said that the energy output (efficiency) was below unity, but later he said that it seems to be above unity, so he is going to stop talking about it publicly, presumably while conducting business negotiations for developing it.

I'm rooting for him. And of course for his as well. He says he'd be glad to sell the saltwater fuel invention to pay for his ongoing cancer research. His heart is in the right place. Now I'm terribly curious about how his device works, and what it has in common with the Pacheco generator.



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