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Rants, Raves, Interesting Science & Awful Puns
August 31, 2003

These Fuelish Things

Some Energy Notes

Fuel cells seem to be getting a lot of hype as the latest panacea to solve a largely nonexistent problem. (No shortage of energy is imposed by Nature. Our recurring crises and scares are needless creations of politics). Although hydrogen, which would be the fuel in question, is indeed abundant, extracting by some process as electrolysis and preparing it in a usable form requires considerable energy, which makes fuel cells more of a storage medium than an actual energy source. That in itself isn't so bad -- the appeal of gasoline, which of course also requires energy to produce, is the number of miles that can be carried in a typical tank. And it's true that a fuel cell has about twice the efficiency of a gasoline-powered system. However, when I had a look at some of the current material promoting fuel cells and a "hydrogen economy," I didn't see anything about how the hydrogen would actually be stored. Then I reread an item in the March 2003 issue of Howard Hayden's newsletter The Energy Advocate that perhaps says why.

From data given by commercial gas suppliers, a 3AA-2400 steel tank is 9.25 inches in diameter and 55 inches high, giving a volume of 3025 cubic inches and weighing 137 lb. At 2400 pounds per square inch, it could hold 0.66 kg of hydrogen, which contains the same energy as 0.7 gallons of gasoline. The energy equivalent of 10 gallons of gas would require tanks weighing about as much as a small car, more than neutralizing the gain from the higher efficiency. So unless some kind of breakthrough occurs in storage methods, there's still a huge problem.

Those interested in such matters, especially the hard facts and figures that proponents of solar fads and windmills leave out, might find it informative to visit his website at www.EnergyAdvocate.com.

Howard, an old friend who is a professor emeritus of physics from the University of Connecticut at Storrs, has also produced a book entitled The Solar Fraud (2001, 223 pp., ISBN 0-9714845-0-3), which rather explains itself. Among the issues covered:

  • The myth of free energy
  • Why even 100 percent conversion efficiency wouldn't change things that much
  • The double standards used when comparing to regular energy systems
  • Wind power basics, and why utilities have to be forced to buy it
  • The enormous scale that truly viable projects would entail
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