5 Totally Nondestructive Fuels

Written by David Simmons on . Posted in 5: Anatomy of Destruction, Books

Anatomy of Destruction
Chapter Five: Totally Nondestructive Fuels

 

A fuel is a physical material that stores energy. The most important fuels we now use are fossil fuels. These fuels come from fossils, or decaying organic materials that lived in the past. Mostly, they come from the 4 billion year period when the only organic materials on earth were blue-green algae. Algae is a plant that uses the energy of the sun and photosynthesis to turn carbon dioxide from the air and water into carbohydrates (I explain how this process works below).

A carbohydrate is some material that contains mainly hydrogen and carbon. It may contain some other materials. All animals on earth, including humans, eat carbohydrates to power our bodies. Our most important fuel is glucose, which is

6H12O6 This formula means each molecule of glucose has 6 atoms of carbon, 12 atoms of hydrogen, and 6 atoms of oxygen. The algae have a similar chemical composition. They are made mostly of carbon and hydrogen, with some oxygen and other materials. When the algae was alive, it was made of carbohydrates. We could have eaten it.

This algae dominated the earth for 4 billion years. There were no animals on earth. Nothing ate the dead algae. When it died, it collected in low spots and got covered with dirt and silt. It got buried deeper and deeper. Over time, the chemical composition of the dead algae. (It did not decay. Decay comes from bacteria, which are animals. During this time, the environment was far too hostile for any kind of animals, including bacteria.) The pressure changed the chemical composition. Carbon and hydrogen bonds are quite strong and the carbon and hydrogen stayed together. But oxygen is a philandering material that likes to attach itself to other elements and oxidize them. The oxygen and other loosely-bound elements headed off to do their own thing, leaving carbon and hydrogen. If a material has only carbon and hydrogen, we call it a “hydrocarbon” rather than a “carbohydrate.” Trillions of tons of hydrocarbons remained trapped under the ground. Depending on geologic factors, these hydrocarbons took either a solid form, as coal, a liquid form, as oil, or a gas form as natural gas.

All these fuels were at one time water and carbon dioxide. When the blue green algae dominated the world, our atmosphere was mostly carbon dioxide, like atmosphere of Venus is now. Carbon dioxide holds heat in the atmosphere, preventing it from escaping into space. If the atmosphere is mainly carbon dioxide, the planet can’t give away the energy the sun sends to it each day, so it gets quite hot. A good example of this is the planet Venus, which is about the same size and mass as the earth, and only slightly closer to the sun. Its 90% carbon dioxide atmosphere holds in the sun’s energy, giving it an average temperature of about 464 C, which works out to about 867 F, far too hot for humans or any animals to live. We are slightly farther from the sun so our temperature was slightly lower, getting just to the point where liquid water could exist in extreme places like the poles or the tops of very high mountains. (Carbon dioxide is fairly heavy and stays close to the ground. High mountains rise above it and can radiate their energy more easily due to the scarcity of carbon dioxide which is why they are cooler than lowlands.) Using the energy of photosynthesis, the growing algae extracted carbon dioxide from the air and water. It broke the bond between the carbon and oxygen so it could use the carbon, and broke the bond between hydrogen and oxygen in water (which is H2O, or two atoms of hydrogen to one of oxygen). It used solar energy to reform the carbon and hydrogen into carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are one kind of fuel. The energy to make this fuel came from the sun. Hydrocarbons are also a fuel. The energy to make the carbohydrates they came from originated with the sun. Hydrocarbons, including gasoline, are a solar-created fuel.

The algae dominated the earth for 4 billion years. At the start of this period, the earth’s atmosphere was mostly carbon dioxide, the earth was very hot, and the algae had few places suitable to support them. But over hundreds of centuries, the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere declined, allowing the earth to cool. The cooler the earth got, the more place could support life and the more algae could grow. They extracted more carbon dioxide, the earth cooled more, and algae could grow even faster. It took a very long time to “terraform” the earth, a term that means “make a planet capable of supporting life.” After about 4 billion years of this, the environment was able to support more complex life. Primitive bacteria could evolve. Now there was something to eat the algae and it didn’t accumulate anymore. The bacteria and other animals consumed the carbohydrates and exhaled carbon dioxide into the air, just as we do. At some point, the carbon dioxide emissions of animals, combined with the effects of fire and other natural actions that destroy carbohydrates and emit carbon dioxide, balanced the uptake of carbon dioxide by plants. Carbon dioxide levels stabilized and the earth’s temperature stabilized. The carbon that had once been in the atmosphere was now buried deep underground, but the actions that had been adding to it stopped operating.

Now, we dig up and pump hydrocarbon fuels in incredible quantities and burn it. When we burn the hydrocarbons, the heat of the fire breaks the bond between hydrogen and carbon. Both materials then burn, or combine with oxygen. The hydrogen combines with oxygen at a ratio of 2 atoms to one, forming water. The water is very hit when it comes out of an engine or power plant smokestack, so it is in the form of steam. If you look at a smokestack or car exhaust on a humid day, you will see the steam come out. In reality, steam is always coming out, you just can’t see it normally because steam is invisible unless the humidity level is very high. You can’t see the other main component of exhaust, carbon dioxide, because it is “clear” or invisible in the spectrum of light our eyes are capable of detecting.

 

What happens?

 

When you burn gasoline, you are actually using solar energy to power your car. Billions of years ago, algae grew, using the power of the sun, turning carbon dioxide and water into hydrocarbons. It took energy to break the bonds between oxygen and carbon/hydrogen. This energy came from the sun. When you burn the gasoline, you are taking back that energy and using it to create mechanical energy. Gasoline is a solar energy storage system.

Burning gasoline that was pumped from underground causes destruction for several reasons. Most importantly, it puts the carbon dioxide that the growing algae took out of the air back into it. When the algae dominated the earth, it was too hot to support animal life of any kind. We often hear the term “global warming,” referring to the effect of increasing carbon dioxide emissions. The scientists who talk about global warming are looking at incredibly short periods of time, often focusing on what may happen in a period of a few decades if we keep burning fossil fuels at our current rate. They use the cute term “warming” which seems to me is a kind of propaganda. Mentally, most people think of warming as good. I have lived in some very cold places and when it gets warmer everyone gets happy. The scientists tell us that the earth’s temperature may warm by 4-10 degrees F in 100 years. Hardly seems like a catastrophe. But it took 4 billion years for the algae to terraform the earth and make it as it is now. Even with hundreds of millions of people worldwide dedicated to extracting the fuels and burning them, we can’t undo 4 billion years of terraforming in a mere century. But given enough time, we can undo it. We can make the world unable to support animal life by forcing up the carbon dioxide levels to those that existed before the earth was capable of supporting animal life.

Another problem comes from sulfur and other contaminants in the fossil fuels. In addition to carbon dioxide, the earth’s atmosphere had a lot of sulfur in it billions of years ago. This sulfur found its way into the fossil fuels. The problem with sulfur is that it easily forms acids like sulfuric acid, which are highly aromatic and float around the atmosphere destroying things. Sulfuric acid destroys the lungs of animals, including humans. Breathe it in and your lung tissue dies. The sulfur is in the fuels. In fact, as much as 5% of all fossil fuels are sulfur. As we burn this sulfur, it becomes sulfur dioxide, which becomes sulfuric acid.

This happens when we burn gasoline that we get from under the ground. But gasoline doesn’t have to come from underground. What if we used solar energy to create fresh gasoline, that has never been under the ground, and burned it? If the gasoline came from taking carbon dioxide out of the air, then when we burned it we wouldn’t be adding to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, merely replacing carbon dixoide we took out of the air to make the gasoline. Since we are making it, we can decide what will go into it. We don’t have any reason to add sulfur so there is no sulfur to create sulfur dioxide or sulfuric acid.

As I explain below, gasoline is not a perfect fuel or, for that matter, even a good one. Because it requires extremely high compression to burn, gasoline engines work in ways that create other pollutants, mainly ozone (O3, a highly reactive form of oxygen) and oxides of nitrogen. It is probably impossible to burn gasoline without any destruction at all. Other fuels, however, can be burned in ways that produce exactly no pollution or pollution risk at all. However, these fuels are not now in common use and the people who would prefer we keep burning fuels from under the ground (big oil, gas, and coal companies) tell us they are impractical and dangerous. Many people believe the propaganda about the impracticality and danger of these other fuels, so they dismiss the idea of a solar-generated fuel as impractical in general and accept that we must keep burning the pumped fuels. I will explain the other fuels below and show they are not impractical at all. But I want to start my discussion of fuels with gasoline because it is in common use now so no one could possibly say it is an impractical fuel in a working system. If I can show that we can make gasoline with solar energy at a reasonable price, I can show that solar-generated fuels for vehicles are possible. After I show this is possible, I will explain why gasoline is such a horrible fuel, why we use it now, and why other fuels we can make much more easily out of solar energy are superior, can provide all out fuel needs, and can be made and used for energy in unlimited quantities without any environmental destruction whatsoever.

 

Non-destructive Gasoline

 

First I have to give you some simple chemistry: Gasoline is a mixture of hydrocarbons molecules. They are made of carbon and hydrogen. Current gasoline is made of oil pumped from the ground. The oil consists of a mixture of various different sizes and shapes of hydrocarbon molecules. At the refinery, people separate the molecules various different ways. The lightest molecules become natural gas or propane. The next lightest become kerosene, use for jet fuel. The heaviest molecules become asphalt for roads and lubricating oil. Next heaviest is diesel fuel. This leaves a broad range of refined products roughly in the middle of the range. These products are used to make gasoline.

The average ratio of hydrogen to carbon in this mixture is 8 atoms of carbon for every 18 atoms of hydrogen. This gives us C8H18, the chemical symbol for “octane.” If you look on the pump when you buy gas, you will see an “octane rating.” This is how close your gasoline performs to pure octane. Gasoline with a 100 octane rating would burn like pure octane, the gold standard for cars running on gasoline. Gasoline is not pure octane. The amount of actual octane in each gallon varies. But the refinery modifies it in various ways and adds in various chemicals to make it meet the octane rating on the pump.

Let’s say we wanted to make a hydrocarbon molecule and chose octane. If you want to burn this in your car, you would be burning a fuel with a 100 octane rating. Your car would run better on this fuel than on gasoline. Let’s first consider what happens when you burn this fuel in your car.

One molecule of octane will combine with 25 molecules of oxygen (O2) to become 18 molecules of water (H2O), 16 molecules of carbon dioxide (CO2), plus energy. This is how gasoline works: The carbon-hydrogen bond is stable at room temperature. But the intense heat and pressure of an engine causes them to split. The hydrogen and carbon are now free gasses. Your car engine has an air intake which breathes in massive amounts of air. This air is 29% oxygen. Oxygen wants to react with hydrogen very badly. It burns and releases large amounts of heat. It burns into H2O or water. The water is extremely hot—over 2000 degrees F—and is in the form of steam. Most of the energy of the engine comes from the expanding properties of steam. The extremely high pressure from the steam pushes down the piston. The carbon now also burns with the oxygen to form carbon dioxide. This doesn’t generate a great deal of pressure so it doesn’t contribute much to the operation of the engine, but it does generate large amounts of heat. (This is why gasoline engines are so inefficient. Only about 1/3 of the energy in gasoline goes to making steam that moves the piston. The rest is waste heat from the carbon-oxygen reaction.) A gasoline is a kind of steam engine. A standard steam engine has the heat source outside of the piston and is called an “external combustion steam engine.” A gasoline engine is an “internal combustion steam engine.”

The start products are octane and oxygen. The end products are carbon dioxide, water, and energy.

All chemical reactions are reversible. In fact, chemists say that we can’t tell by watching a reaction whether time is moving forward or backward, because everything would happen the same way either way. If you have 18 molecules of water and 16 molecules of carbon dioxide, and can put back as much energy as was released when the gasoline burned, you can turn this into one molecule of octane and 25 molecules of oxygen. This can be done now. The technology is very simple. Here’s how it works:

You start with water. Put a tiny bit of salt into water so it can conduct electricity, then put in two electrodes (anything made of metal) and run DC electricity through them at 1.2 Volts or higher. You will see tiny bubbles forming on both electrodes. If you want to try this yourself, the easiest way is to take a 9v battery and put it into water with a tiny bit of salt. The bubbles on the positive terminal are hydrogen. The ones on the negative are oxygen. To make gasoline, you just need the hydrogen. Don’t worry about the oxygen. You can let it vent into the air. Oxygen in the air is not harmful. We breathe oxygen. And it doesn’t matter that you are adding oxygen to the air anyway, because you will take it right back out when you burn the gasoline. This means the oxygen part of the process is a circle, with oxygen going briefly into the air from water electrolysis, and then going back into water as the gasoline burns.

You have to collect the hydrogen to make the gasoline. Hydrogen is the lightest element on earth and it goes upward. If you turn a flask upside down over the positive terminal, the hydrogen will fill this container. Warning: do not try this at home. Hydrogen gas is very explosive and the slightest static spark could cause it to blow up, destroying your home and yourself. Now you have a container of hydrogen. Run a pipe from the top of this container to the apparatus where you will combine it with carbon.

You get the carbon from carbon dioxide. You do basically the same thing, using electricity to separate the carbon from the oxygen. This is harder to do, but the point here is that it is possible. It can be done. You need a platinum or palladium electrode and a temperature of about 550C. Again, you just need the carbon and can let the oxygen bubble into the air. Now you have carbon and hydrogen. Put them into the same place and they combine. Carbon has four holes in its outer electron shell that it wants to fill. It wants to form four bonds. It can’t really form them with other carbon atoms for quantum-mechanical reasons. But hydrogen has one electron which it wants to share and wants to form one bond. Put these two elements in the same place and they combine to form methane, chemical symbol CH4.

Methane is also known as “natural gas.” As you drive down the road you occasionally see vehicles that say they run on CNG, which is compressed natural gas. If you are making a fuel, and just want any fuel that can run your car, you can stop right here. You need to go to a mechanic and have some changes made to your car, but it runs perfectly well on natural gas. (The changes involve mostly piping: the natural gas is a gas while gasoline is a liquid. You need a different fuel tank and fuel piping, and a different injection system to get the fuel into the engine.) In fact, it runs better on natural gas than on gasoline, because the ratio of carbon to hydrogen is better. (The carbon burning leads to mostly wasted energy. Most energy comes from the hydrogen burning into steam.) But if you must have octane, you are almost there.

I mentioned above that refineries take pumped oil, separate it, and use the middle range of distillates to make gasoline with a certain octane rating. In fact, there isn’t much actual octane in most oil and they have to make most of it out of lighter distillates like methane. To make octane, they basically heat the methane. They do this in a closed vessel with no oxygen, to prevent it from burning. The methane throws off hydrogen molecules and turns into chains of carbon, surrounded by hydrogen. You can keep doing this and the chains will get bigger and bigger. When you get to C8H18 you are done. You have octane. You can burn it in any gasoline engine on earth.

 

Why Don’t We Make Gasoline out of Electricity?

 

We could make gasoline out of electricity in any system. But if electricity is expensive, the gasoline would be too expensive. Some numbers may help understand this. Gasoline contains 115,000 BTU of energy. (Because there really is no such thing as pure gasoline, there is no exact standard and this is an estimate. Actual energy content varies from sample to sample.) Electricity contains exactly 3,412 BTU per KWH. If you could make gasoline with electricity with no energy loss, you would need 33.4 KWH. The energy intensive part of the process, electrolysis, is about 50% efficient with current technology, so it would require a minimum of 67 KWH of electricity to produce a gallon of gasoline with current technology. With electricity at 10¢, this means $6.70 per gallon. The input materials, water and air, are free. So you don’t have to consider them. The only cost that you would have to pay per gallon of gasoline would be the cost of the energy.

You could consider the gasoline to be an electricity storage device. Of electricity costs 10¢/KWH, it would cost you $6.70 to store energy in a liquid form. As I write this, wholesale gasoline brings $2.25 per gallon, about a third as much. It would not make sense to make gasoline out of electricity with prices like this.

In current systems, electric cars do far more damage to the environment than gasoline cars. Coal has 8,000 BTU per pound. At 25% efficiency you need 57 pounds of coal to make 33.5 KWH of electricity, the amount that contains the same 115,000 BTU of energy in a gallon of gasoline. This compares to the 6.24 pounds of fossil fuel you burn if you use gasoline. Which does more damage to the environmental: burning 57 pounds of coal (to make the electricity) or burning the 6.24 pounds of gasoline directly? It wouldn’t make sense to use fossil fuel generated electricity to power vehicles in any form, either directly in battery powered cars, or indirectly by making gasoline or other fuels out of the electricity.

Now consider a society structured so that the artificial costs of solar don’t exist. You could put a few hundred dollars extra into your house and it would produce from 1.5 to 3 times the energy you need. You would have plenty of extra electricity to use for any purpose you want. Perhaps you could put it into an electric car. Perhaps you could use gasoline or some other fuel. If the energy comes from the sun, the car doesn’t harm the environment no matter how you get the energy into the car. For practical purposes, energy is free. Free as electricity and free as fuel.

But there are a lot better fuels than gasoline.

 

Non-destructive gasoline

 

I claim this manufactured octane is a non-destructive fuel. You may say that gasoline is inherently destructive. There is no way to have gasoline that is environmentally friendly. It is true that gasoline pumped from the ground is inherently destructive. But not all gasoline. If you pump gasoline and then burn it, you release carbon into the air that had been underground for billions of years. You also burn contaminants, mainly sulfur, which produces sulfur dioxide and turns into sulfuric acid. This is not pure octane, of course, and doesn’t burn efficiently so it produces carbon monoxide, a very dangerous toxin, and hydrocarbons, the soot that you see in the air over most big cities.

Manufactured gasoline doesn’t add any carbon to the air. Remember, you took the carbon out of the air to make the gasoline. When you burn the gasoline, you put it back. This is a cycle. Nothing is added to the atmosphere that wasn’t already there. If nature is balanced before, it is balanced afterward.

The manufactured gasoline has no sulfur or other contaminants. It doesn’t have impurities that prevent complete combustion, so no carbon monoxide or hydrocarbons.

There are some pollutants, but they don’t come from the gasoline, they come from the way the engine works. The engine has a very high compression. It squeezes the air that goes into it very tightly at a high temperature. The air contains both nitrogen and oxygen. When you squeeze this under high compression the nitrogen in the air combines with oxygen from the air to form oxides of nitrogen. These are pollutants. The squeezing also causes oxygen to break apart and recombine with other oxygen in a form called ozone. Ozone, chemical symbol O3, is a very powerful oxidizer that can harm anything it touches. These pollutants do come from the exhaust. But neither of them come from the gasoline. We also get heat pollution, of course, and noise pollution.

If we could burn gasoline with lower compression ratios, we would have far less of these pollutants. Many other fuels require much less compression to burn. Natural gas, for example, has less of the carbon that requires the high pressures to burn so it can run in much lower compression engines. If we just burn CNG made from solar-generated electricity, we would produce only tiny amounts of these pollutants. Less carbon means less waste heat and lower compression ratios mean much quieter engines. All pollutants will be lower with CNG made from solar, but still not zero.

If we want zero pollutants, we have to get rid of the carbon entirely, leaving only the hydrogen. Hydrogen can be used to produce usable energy reactions that take place at normal atmospheric pressure and temperature. If your car runs on pure hydrogen with these atmospheric pressure and temperature devices, it will produce no pollutants of any kind.

 

Non-destructive Gasoline

 

If we had unlimited free (or even extremely low cost) electricity, we could make all the fuel we want out of it, with no destruction of any kind. We could make just about any kind of fuel we want, but I want to concentrate on gasoline, because people know what it is, how to use it, and are used to using it. After I have explained how to make non-destructive gasoline, I will explain some of other fuels that we could also make that might be preferable to gasoline.

First I have to give you some simple chemistry: Water is H2O, or two parts hydrogen and one of oxygen. Carbon dioxide is CO2 or two parts oxygen to one part carbon. Gasoline is a hydrocarbon, made of carbon and hydrogen. Because gasoline is made of oil pumped from the ground, not all gasoline molecules are identical. But the average ratio of pumped gasoline is 8 atoms of carbon for every 18 atoms of hydrogen. This gives us C8H18, the chemical symbol for “octane.” If you look on the pump when you buy gas, you will see an “octane rating.” This is how close your gasoline performs to pure octane. Gasoline with a 100 octane rating would burn like pure octane, the gold standard for cars running on gasoline.

Gasoline is not pure octane but I need a molecule to explain the reaction, so let’s say you have some gasoline that is pure octane. One molecule of octane will combine with 25 molecules of oxygen (O2) to become 18 molecules of water (H2O) and 16 molecules of carbon dioxide (CO2), plus energy. This is how gasoline works. The heat causes the gasoline to combine with oxygen (“burn”) and break down into water and carbon dioxide. The water is in the form of steam. The steam has a lot of pressure and pushes down on the piston, causing the engine to turn. Then the gases (mostly carbon dioxide and steam) exhaust into the air and the system draws in more oxygen and mixes it with gasoline.

The start products are octane and oxygen. The end products are carbon dioxide, water, and energy.

All chemical reactions are reversible. In fact, chemists say that we can’t tell by watching a reaction whether time is moving forward or backward, because everything would happen the same way either way. If you have 18 molecules of water and 16 molecules of carbon dioxide, and can put back as much energy as was released when the gasoline burned, you can turn this into one molecule of octane and 25 molecules of oxygen. Theoretically, this can be done. No one does this for profit in the world today but if electricity were cheap enough they would be able to do it for profit. Here’s how:

You start with water. Put a tiny bit of salt into water so it can conduct electricity, then put in two electrodes (anything made of metal) and run DC electricity through them at 1.2 Volts or higher. You will see tiny bubbles forming on both electrodes. (If you want to try this, the easiest way is to take a 9v battery and put it into water with a tiny bit of salt). The bubbles on the positive terminal are hydrogen. The ones on the negative are oxygen. To make gasoline, you just need the hydrogen. You can collect it. You don’t need the oxygen and can simply let it bubble into the air.

You can do the same thing with carbon dioxide but it is slightly harder to do. You need a platinum electrode and a temperature of about 550C. (I didn’t say it would be easy. Only that it could be done.) Again, you just need the carbon and can let the oxygen bubble into the air. Oxygen is not a pollutant. We breathe oxygen. Our air is 29% oxygen. You can put as much into the air as you want. (But don’t worry about this anyway, you will be taking it right back out again shortly). Now you have carbon and hydrogen. Put them into the same place and they spontaneously form methane, (CH4), a basic hydrocarbon.

The methane is also known as “natural gas.” As you drive down the road you occasionally see vehicles that say they run on CNG, which is compressed natural gas. You can run engines on this directly. But if you absolutely must have gasoline, all you have to do is heat the methane. (You need to do this in a closed vessel with no oxygen so it doesn’t burn.) This causes the methane to throw off hydrogen molecules and reform in to chains of carbon, surrounded by hydrogen. This is a very common procedure done to day in modern refineries, which take various hydrocarbons in oil, including methane, and make them into octane for gasoline. You can keep doing this and the chains will get bigger and bigger. When you get to C8H18 you are done. You have octane. You can burn it in any gasoline engine on earth.

I claim this is a non-destructive fuel. You may say that gasoline is inherently destructive. There is no way to have safe gasoline. It is true that gasoline pumped from the ground is inherently destructive. But not all gasoline. If you pump gasoline and then burn it, you release carbon into the air that had been underground for billions of years. You also burn contaminants, mainly sulfur, which produces sulfur dioxide and turns into sulfuric acid. This is not pure octane, of course, and doesn’t burn efficiently so it produces carbon monoxide, a very dangerous toxin, and hydrocarbons, the soot that you see in the air over most big cities. Manufactured gasoline doesn’t add any carbon to the air. Remember, you took the carbon out of the air to make the gasoline. When you burn the gasoline, you put it back. This is a cycle. Nothing is added to the atmosphere that wasn’t already there. If nature is balanced before, it is balanced afterward.

There are two pollutants that any piston engine produces, and this will produce both of them. The first is oxides of nitrogen. Our air contains nitrogen and oxygen and if we compress these gasses together (which happen in a position engine) they combine to form oxides of nitrogen, a pollutant. The other is ozone. The compressed oxygen combines with other oxygen atoms to form oxygen, symbol O3, a powerful oxidant. (It accelerates rusting and other oxidation processes, and is thought to accelerate aging..) To eliminate these pollutants, we must move to an engine type with lower compression ratios. The only gasoline engine now known that can operate at compression ratios low enough to prevent the creation of ozone and oxides of nitrogen is the Wankel. If we want to use gasoline with no pollution at all we would have to use this type of engine.

The manufactured gasoline has no sulfur or other contaminants. No sulfur dioxide. It doesn’t have impurities that prevent complete combustion, so no carbon monoxide or hydrocarbons. None of the pollutants that come from pumped gasoline.

 

Why Don’t We Make Gasoline out of Electricity?

 

We could make gasoline out of electricity in any system. But if electricity is expensive, the gasoline would be too expensive. Some numbers may help understand this. Gasoline contains 115,000 BTU of energy. (Because there really is no such thing as pure gasoline, there is no exact standard and this is an estimate. Actual energy content varies from sample to sample.) Electricity contains exactly 3,412 BTU per KWH. If you could make gasoline with electricity with no energy loss, you would need 33.4 KWH. The energy intensive part of the process, electrolysis, is about 50% efficient with current technology, so it would require a minimum of 67 KWH of electricity to produce a gallon of gasoline. With electricity at 10¢, this means $6.70 per gallon. The input materials, water and air, are free. So you don’t have to consider them. The only cost that you would have to pay per gallon of gasoline would be the cost of the energy.

You could consider the gasoline to be an electricity storage device. Of electricity costs 10¢/KWH, it would cost you $6.70 to store energy in a liquid form. As I write this, wholesale gasoline brings $2.25 per gallon, about a third as much. It would not make sense to make gasoline out of electricity with prices like this.

In current systems, electric cars do far more damage to the environment than gasoline cars. Coal has 8,000 BTU per pound. At 25% efficiency you need 57 pounds of coal to make 33.5 KWH of electricity, the amount that contains the same 115,000 BTU of energy in a gallon of gasoline. This compares to the 6.24 pounds of fossil fuel you burn if you use gasoline. Which does more damage to the environmental: burning 57 pounds of coal (to make the electricity) or burning the 6.24 pounds of gasoline directly? It wouldn’t make sense to use fossil fuel generated electricity to power vehicles in any form, either directly in battery powered cars, or indirectly by making gasoline or other fuels out of the electricity.

The high capital costs would make them quite expensive still in current systems, but they would be able to generate returns on investment of about 10%, compared with current return rates of 2%, so they could compete at any return rates up to this figure. This would cause solar to replace coal, even in current systems. I will explain this with the example in Chapter Eight.

Now consider a society structured so that the artificial costs of solar don’t exist. You could put a few hundred dollars extra into your house and it would produce from 1.5 to 3 times the energy you need. You would have plenty of extra electricity to use for any purpose you want. Perhaps you could put it into an electric car. Perhaps you could use gasoline or some other fuel. If the energy comes from the sun, the car doesn’t harm the environment no matter how you get the energy into the car. For practical purposes, energy is free. Free as electricity and free as fuel.

But there are a lot better fuels than gasoline.

 

A Crappy Fuel

 

Originally, when people started to pump oil out of the ground, they needed it for lighting and lubrication. Before pumped oil, people used whale oil for this. By the 1850s whales were getting pretty hard to find and whale oil was quite expensive. People found that if they distilled oil pumped from the ground, they got 4 major products. The first was a very light distillate, kerosene. Kerosene was a very good lighting fuel, almost as good as whale oil. The heavy distillate was good for lubricating oil. The lighter of the two intermediate products was called “heating oil” and was very useful for heat. In 1898, Ferdinand Diesel found another use for heating oil and most people now call this “diesel fuel” for the engine he invented. This left one product, gasoline, which had no use. People dumped it into pits to get rid of it.

As demand for oil increased, people looked for a use for the enormous amounts of useless gasoline people had to get rid of. Some people found that under unique circumstances they could use it as a fuel for engines. It wasn’t and still isn’t a good fuel. It required significantly more fuel to generate the same amount of usable energy as diesel engines. It is far more dangerous than diesel. Drop a match in diesel and it goes out. Do the same thing with gasoline and you go to the hospital or morgue. Gasoline is also highly corrosive. It will dissolve almost anything so the engines had to be made to withstand the corrosion. Gasoline doesn’t naturally lubricate as diesel does, so you have to mix lubricating oil with gasoline. (If you have a chainsaw or other small engine, you probably still have to do this.) The gasoline strips oil from the cylinders, making them rust and corrode very rapidly if left alone for a short time. Gasoline engines are temperamental and would often backfire, shooting flames out of every hole in the machine and occasionally causing the entire engine to simply explode like a bomb. People didn’t build gasoline engines because gasoline was a good fuel. They built them because they wanted to find something, anything, to use the gasoline for.

Some of these problems of gasoline engines have been solved, but not all of them. Now forced lubrication systems can constantly replace the lubricants that gasoline strips, so we don’t have to mix lubricating oil with gasoline. But other problems are as bad as ever. Tens of thousands of people are killed or maimed in accidents caused by gasoline fires every year. (Think about this. You probably know at least one person in this category. I know several.) Everyone who has used both types of engines knows that diesel engines are far more efficient, using only ¾ths as much fuel to go the same distance as gasoline. Diesel engines run at far lower speeds than gasoline engines, so they don’t wear nearly as rapidly and will last roughly 10 times as long as a gasoline engine in the same application. The diesel naturally lubricates the engine, keeping wear down and reducing maintenance costs compared to gasoline. They just aren’t very good engines and their fuel is dangerous, inefficient, and highly destructive.

 

A Better Fuel

 

If you have ever studied chemistry, you will know that hydrogen is a unique atom, with only one proton and election. This atom is so tiny that it can do things that no other atom can do. For instance, it can hide within the matrices of certain metals. We don’t fully understand how this is possible just yet, but we know that certain metals can hold many times their own volume in hydrogen. For example, palladium can hold more than 300 times its own volume in hydrogen, in a special molecular form called “palladium hydride.” This jams the atoms of hydrogen together even more closely than if they were in liquid or solid hydrogen. In fact, the atoms are so close together that when people first discovered palladium hydride, they thought the atoms were close enough together to fuse into helium, releasing immense amounts of energy, in a process called “cold fusion.” This turned out to be incorrect, but the point here is that hydrogen can be squeezed into extremely tiny containers and we can get far more hydrogen fuel into a given space than we can any other fuel. The hydrogen literally disappears into the metal matrix until it is needed. While it is in the form of the metal matrix, it is safe.

Other much more common metals can also store hydrogen at very high densities. If you own a device that has a nickel metal hydride battery, this uses shaved nickel, the second most abundant material in the earth’s crust, to store hydrogen as a hydride. When you hook the battery up, the nickel releases the hydrogen which then combines with oxygen, stored in another part of the battery, to create pure water and generate electricity. You can recharge these cells. If you apply electricity to them the water separates again into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen goes into hydride form to be used again.

A device that turns hydrogen and oxygen into electricity and water is called a “fuel cell.” If you have watched TV commercials, you have seen many that tell you about the wonderful coal and oil companies that are working on fuel cells to solve our energy problems, but that no practical fuel cells yet exist. This is actually a lie, or I should say, a tricky distortion of the truth. The coal and oil companies know how easy it is to make hydrogen out of coal and oil. All you do is heat it up. The problem is that this hydrogen made from coal is extremely dirty and has contaminants they can’t eliminate. Coal contains large amounts of sulfur. Even in minute quantities sulfur destroys the type of fuel cell used in your nickel metal hydride battery, which is called an “alkaline” fuel cell. These cells can only run on pure hydrogen and oxygen made from water electrolysis. Run them on the dirty hydrogen from coal and atmospheric air (the air you breathe which is already heavily contaminated with sulfur from more than a hundred years of burning coal and oil), and the sulfur ruins these fuel cells within minutes.

Fuel cells do exist. They are extremely cheap, which is why you probably already have dozens of them in your home. They are also extremely efficient, produce no pollutants of any kind in operation, require no maintenance, and last many decades even if used constantly. They are a proven technology. But they can not tolerate any sulfur at all. Even after a century of trying no one has been able to figure out how to make them tolerant of sulfur. You can use them to generate electricity from hydrogen made with water electrolysis. But they can not burn hydrogen made from coal. No way no how. Of course, the coal companies keep trying. This is what they are trying to do and, so far, have always failed to do. Many chemists say they are wasting their time.

They spend most of their effort on an entirely different type of cell, called an “acid fuel cell.” These cells are not nearly as efficient as alkaline cells, they produce enormous amounts of waste heat (the alkaline cell produce no waste heat and operate at room temperature) they wear quickly, and they are extremely expensive. But they have one advantage over the alkaline varieties: they can be made to be somewhat tolerant of sulfur. Not totally tolerant. But somewhat. This give scientists hope that they can make fuel cells that can burn dirty hydrogen made from coal and oil with oxygen that comes from the sulfur-contaminated air of our cities.

When they say they are working on fuel cells to solve our energy problems, they aren’t lying. If we had fuel cells that were tolerant of sulfur, we would no longer need gasoline and could burn “coal gas,” or hydrogen made from coal in our cars. We have unlimited amounts of coal so we will never run out of fuel for fuel cell vehicles. But they are lying when they imply this is green energy. The energy comes from coal, our dirtiest energy source. Saying “clean coal” is like saying “clean dirt” or “dark light.” There is no such thing.

Now let’s come back to the alkaline fuel cell. Thomas Edison took out the first patents on this device more than a century ago. Alkaline fuel cells are basically alkaline batteries with a continuous flow of new electrolyte in the form of hydrogen and oxygen. You probably have dozens of them in your home and thousands within a mile of your home. But these fuel cells can only use hydrogen and oxygen from water electrolysis and this requires electricity. Electricity is fantastically expensive in republics. Even with the massive subsidies we have on coal, there is no way to make it cheap. In some of the societies I will explain in the next few chapters, it is not just cheap, it is free. We can have unlimited fuel for any type of vehicle, without any destruction. Unlimited gasoline if we want. But hydrogen can run a fuel cell which will provide electricity in a way that will make the car much cheaper to operate, faster, more efficient, more powerful, and totally quiet, without any risk of pollution under any circumstances.

We could make non-destructive gasoline, kerosene (jet fuel), and diesel if we want out of water, electricity, and air. We could make it in unlimited quantities, without depleting, or adding a gram of carbon to the air. If consumers want these fuels, they will be able to buy them in the society I explain later. But carbon-based fuels are crappy fuels and I doubt anyone would want them if there were alternatives.

If we made our own electricity with photoelectric panels, electricity would be free. The raw materials for non-destructive fuels are water and air, also free. They aren’t harmed by using them this way and get replaced in exactly the same state as when we started. If we use these fuels, we are really running the machines on electricity. The electricity comes from the sun, so we are really running the machines on solar energy.

 

Energy

 

We can get all of our energy from the sun. All of it. Your roof now produces many times more energy than your home uses. Even with current technologies, that use essentially garbage silicon wafers, we can turn that electricity into usable electricity at a 13% efficiency. At this efficiency, your roof will provide 3-4 times more usable electricity than the average home uses.

It takes about a pound of dirt, properly processed, to produce enough silicon wafer to give you all this energy. The silicon doesn’t generate electricity it merely sorts out the electricity that is already being generated as the sun hits your roof into the electricity you can use and the electricity you can’t use. The usable electricity goes into your system to run anything that runs on electricity.

You will get a lot more than you need. You can use the excess to turn water into hydrogen and oxygen and store these materials (hydrogen in hydride form) for later use. If you need electricity when the sun is not shining, a fuel cell will convert this hydrogen and oxygen back into electricity and water. The next day, the sun can separate the water again into hydrogen and oxygen for later use.

Soar energy is free. It falls to earth each day whether we use it or not. Solar electricity is free. All sunlight turns into electricity as soon as it hits the planet. All we have to do is collect it. We have had the technology to do this for more than a century. The material we need, silicon, is the cheapest and most abundant material on earth. Societies have to be structured in ways that create incredibly bizarre flows of value in order for destructive energy to be cheaper than non-destructive energy. This stands to reason: destructive energy requires a continuing flow of new resources to replace those destroyed. Someone must dig up the resources. These people have to be paid. Destructive energy can never be cheap, let alone free. Non-destructive energy is naturally free. Only in systems with incredibly large distortion flows of value will destructive energy be cheaper than non-destructive energy.

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