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The peak oil crisis: technology update

Gasoline prices in the U.S. are off on another tear. The national average just went by $3.57 for regular and due to a little problem of several major refineries that serve the U.S.'s East Coast shutting down, here in Northern Virginia we are running 20 to 25 cents a gallon higher than normal. The wisest of the prognosticators say we should seeing circa $4+ a gallon by late spring so the Washington area will likely be seeing circa $4.50. In case you missed it, they are already getting $5 for regular down by the Kennedy Center. Somebody in Congress is sure to notice this soon.

While waiting to see how the latest settlement of the EU's debt crisis or any of the ongoing Middle East confrontations turn out, it seems like a good time to review a few of the hundreds of announcements of new energy technology that have made in the last few months. The 800 lb. gorilla of course remains cold fusion. While little new has happened in the cold fusion story recently, scientists from around the world continue to report that Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) really do take place and can make heat. So far two companies say they have developed the technology to the point where they can safely make useful amounts of heat and are preparing to bring heat-making devices to market. Unfortunately, both of these companies, for what they say are proprietary reasons, have refused to let outside scientists examine their technology to verify that it can perform as claimed.

This situation may be changing, however, for one of these two companies, a Greece-based organization called Defkalion, say they have arranged for teams of outside investigators to come in later this week and test their device. If this series of tests by outside scientists do take place, we should at least have some sort of independent verification that these "cold fusion" devices are for real, and not a scam as many believe.

In going through the energy-related announcements of technical developments that have been made in the last few months most seem to be related to motor vehicles and other means of transportation. It is clear that the global automobile industry is going through a renaissance so that in a few years the efficiency with which our cars and trucks burn energy will see dramatic improvements. Most of the announcements concern mundane, marginal, improvements - lower weight, less drag, more efficient or different kinds of power trains - but taken together could cut the need for motor fuels dramatically. The problem of course is that there are now about a billion cars and light trucks on the world's roads that will have to be replaced in order to realize the anticipated savings - a task that will take decades.

It is interesting that announcements concerning new models of electrically-powered light trucks seem to be on the increase. Commercial vehicles are likely to be subjected to more rigorous cost-benefit analyses than personal vehicles so that in the coming era of very high gasoline and diesel prices, electrically powered delivery vehicles may become more common.

Many of the other announcements of new technology developments appear to relate to improvements to batteries or the production of cellulosic ethanol. Each month there are dozens of such announcements, most claiming that a significant breakthrough has occurred. It is impossible to tell which if any of these developments will lead to useful energy-saving technology and one day become commercial products. Most of these new technologies are still at the laboratory level.

The one announcement that seems to be of more than normal interest was made by the University of California, Berkeley where a team of chemists have come up with a catalyst that produces hydrogen from water without heat. Hydrogen, which can be used in fuel cells to generate electricity, power moon rockets, make fertilizer etc. without making any kind of pollution, is nice stuff to have, but it is usually produced from natural gas or electrolysis of water both of which require energy. This new catalyst which uses an artificial version of molybdenite that has been engineered so that every molecule has a discrete catalytically active surface that could one day bring about a sustainable cost-effective hydrogen economy.

Once hydrogen in produced, storing it becomes a problem. To store useful quantities, such as would be necessary for a hydrogen-powered vehicle, expensive high pressures tanks are necessary. For this reason there is considerable research going on to find a way to store hydrogen inside the lattice work of metals. This is all rather exotic technology so it is hard to tell whether a commercially useful product will be available soon.

Another field where dozens of reports of progress are being released every month is that of advanced storage batteries. Here the goal is to get cheaper, higher energy density, faster to charge, longer lasting, batteries that could be used for electric vehicles or to store electricity from intermittent sources such as the sun, or wind. With numerous reputable labs issuing a stream of announcements concerning breakthroughs, again is it is difficult for the non-specialist to assess if real progress towards a commercially viable better battery is being made. The US Secretary of Energy recently announced that he expects substantial progress in the next few years. Let's hope he's right.

Right behind announcements on better batteries are those on improved enzymes for making cellulosic ethanol - fuels from non-edible biomass. Here the problem is simply one of getting costs down. We know it works, but for now it is simply to expensive to be practical.

All this new technology seems to say there may be some hope for life after oil. For now the two biggies seem to be cold fusion and cheap hydrogen, but neither of these are as yet sure for the immediate future. It seems likely we are going to have much more efficient motor vehicle within the next 10 years and probably longer range electric vehicles. There might even be enough biofuels to run our airplanes.



Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.

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