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A World of a Different Color
Caleb Crain, New York Times
Once upon a time, America derived most of its power from a natural, renewable resource that was roughly as efficient as an automobile engine but did not pollute the air with nitrogen dioxide or suspended particulate matter or carcinogenic hydrocarbons. This power source was versatile. Hooked up to the right devices, it could thresh wheat or saw wood. It was also highly portable — in fact, it propelled itself — and could move either along railroad tracks or independently of them. Each unit came with a useful, nonthreatening amount of programmable memory preinstalled, including software that prompted forgetful users once it had learned a routine, and each possessed a character so distinctive that most users gave theirs a name. As a bonus feature, the power source neighed.

But in the fall of 1872, almost all these power units, better known as horses, came down with the flu, and America faced an energy crisis. In what became known as the Great Epizootic, horse influenza spread from Ontario down the East Coast of the United States, across the South and into the West, eventually reaching as far as California and Nicaragua. Forty-eight hours after it hit Boston, seven out of every eight of the city’s horses were feverish and coughing.
(28 November 2008)
Suggested by Big Gav.

Headlights burn more fuel?
Energy Bulletin
EB reader Paddy Casey writes:

This is in response to the article written by Brian Delle ‘Always-on headlines in the EU-accelerating peak oil’ (excerpt at EB0. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but how does running your vehicle with its headlights on burn more fuel? That’s like saying playing your radio while you’re driving causes greater fuel consumption.

The headlights are a compenent of your vehicles electrical system, not the fuel system. The headlights, radio, GPS, computer systems, electric seats, heated seats, sunroofs, DVD player, etc. etc. run off of battery power which is charged by the alternator which is belt driven. The alternator is driven at a constant speed relative to engine speed and does not impead on a vehicles performance in any way for it does not cause any resistance on the belt. Air conditioners are a different story though, they do cause a power drain when the compressor kicks in.

So, to think that running headlights causes an increase in fuel consumption is beyond me, unless of course the author was speaking of electric cars, which was not noted!

Would someone please ask him and all of his “environmental groups” friends to realize that headlights do not increase fuel consumption. If that were the case all cars should not have any electrical options available, especially fuel gauges. Thank you

BA responds:

Good question. Not being an engineer, I had to think about it for a while.

I would have two responses:

1) Theoretical. Lit headlamps represent energy being expended, as does the use of any electrical device. The energy does not come from the car’s battery, since the battery serves only as a temporary repository for energy. The only other possible source of energy is gasoline. Therefore, driving with headlights would require more gas. I would guess that the alternator would require more energy to turn, thus reducing mileage. An engineer could be more precise and calculate how large the drop in mileage would be.

2) Experiential. Have you ever ridden a bicycle with lights powered by a generator? The old-fashioned kind that is turned by a knurled knob pressing against a tire? When you activate the generator, you definitely feel a drag.

Someone should make a collection of questions like this – questions based on our everyday experience that help us understand the nature of energy. Another of my favorites: Could a hyperactive hamster power your house?.
(30 November 2008)

The end of the road for hydrogen?

David Strahan, website
Whatever happened to the hydrogen economy? At the turn of the century it was the next big thing, promising a Jetsons-style future of infinite clean energy and deliverance from climate change. Hydrogen, it was claimed, would transform the entire energy infrastructure – revolutionizing everything from heat and power to transport. Enthusiasts confidently predicted the breakthrough was just five-to-ten years away. But today, despite ever-worsening news on global warming and the looming threat of peak oil, the hydrogen economy seems as distant as ever.

Even in Iceland, whose grand ambitions for a renewable hydrogen economy once earned it the title Bahrain of the North, visible progress has been modest. After years of research, the country now boasts one hydrogen filling station, a handful of hydrogen cars, and one whale watching boat with a fuel cell for auxiliary power. A four year trial of three hydrogen powered buses ended in 2007, when two were broken up for parts and a third consigned to a transport museum. Yet more trials are planned, but that was before the meltdown of the country’s banking system.

In California, where governor Arnold Schwarzenegger promised a ‘Hydrogen Highway’ of 200 H2 filling stations by 2010, today there are precisely five open to the general public. In London, where 10 hydrogen buses are due to come into service in 2010, a second tender to provide 60 smaller hydrogen vehicles was recently scrapped by Transport for London.

But although the timetable seems to slip constantly, there is still enormous effort going into hydrogen research and development.

… Other industry observers are far more equivocal. “The jury is out on battery versus fuel cell”, says Richard Wenham, a director at the car industry consultancy Ricardo, “that’s why everybody is researching everything”.

But for all the research into hydrogen, fuel cells remain dependent on platinum, the fuel chain is still punitively inefficient, and battery electric technologies are making big strides all the while. So the jury may not be out for very much longer. According to Gary Kendall, “hydrogen has always been the fuel of the future, and it looks like it always will be”.
(27 November 2008)
A shorter version of this article appeared in New Scientist magazine on 26 November 2008.