Alternative Fuel Sources

Merrick, 11th November 2002ce

As our oil reserves run out and global warming takes hold, several car manufacturers – notably Ford – have been trumpeting technology like hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen fuel cells, they tell us, are 'the future of personal transportation', it will all be OK, there will be a way for us to carry on using cars as before.

Sadly, they are being believed.

Our civilisation’s use of cars – whatever their power source - is perhaps our most astounding waste of fuel. There is simply no justification in expending the energy to carry a ton of steel around with you every time you want to get from A to B. It's madness.

Richard Parry-Jones, Ford's Group Vice President of Global Product Development and Quality - the man in charge of their fuel cell work - says otherwise. He doesn’t even like public transport: "Mass transportation has its role, but it is not a universal role; it is restricted to certain circumstances where the automobile does not make sense"; Basically, we should only use public transport if cars can’t be used.

And we’re meant to trust their word on sensible futures for transport?

Hydrogen fuel cells, like the other promised techno-fixes that let us continue unabated with our fuel-hungry lifestyle, are a con. Like catalytic converters in petrol engines, they need platinum. Any proposal for sustainable technology that includes a metal rarer than gold as an essential component should be laughed out of the arena.

But it goes further with hydrogen fuel cells. Their exhaust gas will be pure water vapour. Sounds nice, until you realise an average car would be pumping warm water vapour into the atmosphere at a rate of 40 litres per hour. Los Angeles would literally develop its own humid micro-climate.

At present, hydrogen is derived from natural gas. This supposedly clean, efficient and abundant fuel is actually just as much a fossil fuel as petrol.

Counting this gas-derived hydrogen as a green fuel source is even more of a fraud than the cow-carcass burning Lincolnshire power station which Yorkshire Electricity uses as their source for their expensive ‘green electricity’ tariff.

The exhaust gas from hydrogen cars is only clean water because all the other poisonous stuff has been emitted at the processing factory. Admittedly, the emissions for fuel-cell cars will be concentrated next to big hydrogen plants, rather than trickling out of every car exhaust; but it’s not as if the climate gives a damn about where the fossil fuels emissions are coming from, merely that they are there.

Before we ever get to that however, we hit an essential concept for alternative fuel sources; ‘energy-positive’ and ‘energy-negative’. Fuels that deliver more power than is needed to make them are energy-positive. Fuels which take more to make than they deliver are energy-negative.

Whilst energy-negative fuel sources have their uses – it’s certainly handier to power a walkman with batteries rather than a small petrol engine - they certainly cannot be used as a major power source for the simple and obvious reason that we haven’t enough power to manufacture them. It's like having a battery-maker that needs two batteries to power it for every one battery it makes.

‘Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe’, we’re told by the promoters of fuel cells. And indeed it is. But try separating that hydrogen from other elements. Then try compressing it to a state where it can be used as a vehicle fuel; this takes many times more energy than the vehicle gets from the fuel.

This is actually a massive advantage of oil over hydrogen; oil can be mined. Hydrogen has to be manufactured, and there is no sustainable source for it that can be remotely energy-positive. Hydrogen fuel cells can only be woefully energy-negative. Likewise many other ideas that some environmentalists like, such as methanol from hemp.

The problem also extends out into generating electricity. A new wind-turbine farm in Scotland was opened last year with much celebration that this was the way forward. The popular statistic being the fact that Scotland gets 40% of Europe’s offshore wind, enough to generate enough electricity to power Scotland twice over.

This means that 100% of the whole of the continent of Europe’s wind generation could power Scotland 5 times; or about half of England. Wind power is certainly no panacea either.

There simply isn’t a replacement for fossil fuels. Nothing can produce such a huge amount of power that easily. A way of life that demands and depends upon such power use is not sustainable, not by any means.

Ah, but the clever scientists will fix it for us, like they’ve done before, right? No, what they’ve done before is to come up with ways of making us more dependent on fuel consumption, just using different fuels.

Our dependency on fossil fuels was supposed to end when the 1950s gave us nuclear power and the promise of electricity ‘too cheap to measure’. The reality of waste that’s deadly for 20,000 years and electricity that’s actually several times more expensive than other sources was the result.

Relying on technology to save us is ludicrous; it’s the very thing that got us in this mess, and it stops us taking personal responsibility for our actions.

And the truly frightening thing is that we simply haven’t got the time. Nobody knows how much oil is left under the crust of the earth. Anyone who presents an exact figure is lying to you. But the peak of production is coming soon; nobody credible in the oil industry is seriously suggesting it will peak later than 2020. Well within our lifetimes.

What happens when the oil runs out isn’t our big problem. The real problem is when the demand far outstrips the supply. That is a lot sooner, and that is when we will see the wars between the haves and have-nots, in nations, in industries and in social classes. When the fossil fuels go, our whole culture goes.

Oil is not only our primary fuel, it’s also the raw material for most plastics, which play such widespread essential roles in our way of life. Look around you now and see how much plastic there is. Ask yourself when you last went shopping and came back with no plastic.

Even environmentally sounder transport like bikes will have to change. Steel is made from unsustainably mined minerals forged in furnaces that can only be effectively fuelled by coal.

In terms of sustainability, using a car – whether powered by unleaded petrol, hydrogen fuel cells or any other means - is indistinguishable from driving a ten ton truck to get around.

We already have the technology that will be the future of personal transportation. If you really want to see it, look at the end of your legs.