Response to an OSC column

This is an email I just sent to Orson Scott Card in response to his most recent World Watch column posted to The Ornery American, one of his websites.  If he responds (maybe, probably not), I’ve asked for permission to post the response here.


I like a lot of what you had to say in this column, especially about the problems with using grain crops as a source of ethanol, but there were a few other things in the column that didn’t work as well.

One is quibbly — fuel cells are not an energy storage system, but the hydrogen they burn is. There is at least a theoretical possibility of fuel cells that can run on hydrocarbons.

You’re correct about nukes, definitely. The problems with nukes are much more political than technical.

Alternative energy sources include a number of possibilities for continuing to run cars similar to what we use now. One is ethanol produced by breaking down cellulose, rather than by fermenting sugars. A new source of that cellulose mentioned on Slashdot was cyanobacteria. Another is bio-diesel, particularly made from high-oil algae that can be fed on waste-water and grown in desert areas. When put together with the possibilities of plug-in hybrid, these preserve the possibility of a petroleum-free car system not entirely different from what we’ve got now.

And methane will remain an option in the future, since it’s produced by decaying matter — there are projects springing up to produce electricity at farms from methane digested from manure.

What is very clear is that our society, as the president has said, and as you’ve clearly pointed out, is going to have to wean itself from its dependence on cheap foreign oil, because, while oil isn’t running out, cheap oil is. You are correct that we need to invest in different energy sources, particularly for our transportation system, and that will involve some transition pain. It is unclear to me what gasoline price will have to be reached for Americans to be willing to acknowledge the need to change, rather than blaming the problem on George Bush or his evil oil buddies. So I agree with your major points, even though I have a problem with some of your details along the way.

4 thoughts on “Response to an OSC column

  1. Hi,

    I’d just like to respond to one thing. What Mr. Card said in his essay about fuel cells consuming more energy than burning gas is not correct. Fuel cells, being electrochemical conversion systems, are not limited by the Carnot heat cycle, and so are not restricted by the traditional Carnot efficiency, which leaves gasoline-burning engines at ~15% and even the best power plants at less than 30% efficient. A fuel cell can theoretically operate at 100% efficiency, and most today operate at >60% efficiency.

    The problem with fuel cells today is getting the hydrogen. Presently, most hydrogen is produced from several forms of hydrocarbon reforming, which consume power, use a nonrenewable resource, and introduce impurities into the hydrogen stream which must be separated.

    There’s a lot of water around, but direct water electrolysis (simple water-splitting) is also very energy-intensive.

    There are thermochemical cycles that the DOE is investigating in which electrolyzers will be coupled with next-generation nuclear reactors to utilize the waste heat from the nuclear reaction. The reactors are expected to operate at 80% efficiency, and after accounting for the electrolyzer efficiency, we can expect to produce hydrogen at 50-60% efficiency. In this schematic, the heat from the nuclear reactors is really “free” because right now we just throw that heat away. If you use hydrogen produced at high efficiency with a high-efficiency fuel cell, it eliminates the use of hydrocarbons and also increases overall efficiency.

    The DOE has more on this on its website:

  2. Welcome and howdy. And thanks for the info on the newest research on hydrogen generation. I’ve been tracking hydrogen as a transportation fuel since 1980, and it’s good to know more recent ideas about its generation.

    However, economical generation of hydrogen is only part of the problem between here and the goal. There’s also the problem of storage, transporting and dispensing. Wired had a pretty good article on this a few years back.

    With Scott posting a link here from his article, we might be getting some new visitors here. Always room for well-behaved Ornery folk around here.

  3. Good observations. Some other things that Scott missed:

    The “we’re running out of oil” meme seems to be common sense, but it’s not proven fact. Some oil fields have been repeatedly “pumped dry” and… regenerated (one off the Louisiana coast comes to mind: been “pumped dry” at least three times); new oil fields discovered in Russia and elsewhere using Thomas Gold’s, as yet unaccepted by mainstream oil geologists, theories of deep earth creation of new oil (hmmm, the theories proved out in locating new oil fields, but that’s not good enough for oil dogmatists *heh*); but most easily used shattering of the “we’re running out of oil” meme is the TDP plant in Carthage, Missouri that manufactures oil from waste bio products… a process that can as easily be used to make oil from raw sewage, with heat and clean water as by-products (with the “waste heat” largely being reused in the manufacturing process).

    Run out of oil? We can make oil, economically. An “oil manufacturing plant” at every small burg’s sewage treatment facility ought to help out, you think?

    Nuclear? Of course. And the proven, “off-the-shelf” pebble bed reactor tech (MIT has placed a modular PBR model in the public domain) can not only supply all the electricity we can need in the foreseeable future, it can replace all burning of fossil fuels for eletricity production… at least as safely as hydro power. (There IS no nuclear waste disposal problem. Simply pick one of many safe, efficient solutions.) The Chinese will have 20 or more of the things in operation soon–likely by the end of this decade–and be _selling_ electrical power to nearby nations as a result.

    Ethanol causing starvation? Probably not. The corn used in ethanol production is, I am told by actual farmers, _dent_ corn that is not only not use for food, it is only about 15% of the production of dent corn AND THAT is only a portion of a surplus production. Not going to hear that from Mass Media Podpeople, and it may be a bit fudged, given the source (an unusually reliable source, but perhaps biased a bit by his background). I have no direct way of verifying this info, though I will be looking around for verification/falsification as time goes on.

    _Maybe_ some corn that otherwise might go to feedlot beef is used. But then again, only someone who’s completely unaware of the quality of feedlot beef (or completely uncaring about what they eat, or who doesn’t give a flip about how their food tastes) would eat feedlot beef, anyway IMO. *heh*

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