The peak oil crisis: Implications
Last week we talked about the possibility that researchers have found a second and potentially useful and inexpensive way of converting hydrogen into helium accompanied by a release of significant quantities of energy.
Many, of course, believe such a discovery is too good to be true, for it implies that in the long run the world might be able to abandon other more expensive ways to obtain energy including oil, coal, and natural gas. Moreover, the new "green energy" renewable technologies – solar, wind, waves, tides, and biofuels – might no longer be competitive because the fuel for the hydrogen reaction would be only water. This of course sounds impossible, until one remembers that during the last 150 years electricity, internal combustion, airplanes, nuclear fission and DNA have all emerged from scientific discoveries. In this light, a more subtle way to coax hydrogen atoms to fuse into helium does not seem completely impossible.
Suspending our disbelief for a moment, let's assume that in the not too distant future it becomes obvious that it is indeed possible to make heat by subjecting hydrogen imbedded in a metal to the proper conditions. The devices claimed to be under development appear to be rather simple and inexpensive to fabricate by today's standards, are fueled by water, and produce only heat and helium – no toxic emissions, CO2 releases, or radioactive wastes.
Some on hearing of this possible new technology correctly point out that the path from the lab bench to widespread adoption usually takes decades, citing automobiles and air travel as examples. This of course is the key issue should this technology prove to be useful.
Current trends suggest we may not have decades to reverse what happens by over-reliance on fossil fuels. Liquid fuel prices are on course to reach unaffordable levels with the next 5 to 10 years or so and just what the accumulation of CO2 in our atmosphere is doing to us appears more serious with each passing year.
As of now these heat-producing reactions are, at best, only approaching the Wright brothers' stage of development. Although some developers are claiming that a simple heat-producing device will be ready for sale within the next few years, even this advance is a long way from being a panacea for our soon-to-be-dwindling supplies of transportation fuels or our ability to produce electricity without driving the world over the tipping point.
An important question is how soon devices will emerge that will produce high temperature steam (400-500oC) capable of running power plant turbines – reliably. Whenever such a device becomes viable, it seems likely to be quickly adopted by the world's utilities for current indications are that the power might be produced for a fraction of current costs and without the hassle caused by efforts to limit emissions and dispose of radioactive wastes. Such a technology also seems useful for inexpensively desalinizing water in very large quantities.
After stationary boilers, another early use could easily be for large ships and perhaps even locomotives. Bunker fuel for ships is already coming into short supply so that the prospects for converting ships' boilers to another source of energy seem good. People are already talking about steam engines for railroads again and I presume a steam-electric hybrid is always a possibility. Powering smaller forms of transportation such as cars and aircraft seems a long ways off. NASA, however, seems to be working on a device to provide the electricity for space craft that have been powered by radioactive decay of plutonium or strontium.
Given a sufficient source of cheap energy, buildings could easily become disconnected from networks producing their own heat, cooling, electric power, and even processing their own water supply and wastes. Japanese scientists are reported to be interested in nuclear transmutation of elements as a way of disposing of radioactive wastes. If transmutation should ever be mastered, there are undreamed of possibilities.
Getting back to reality, all we really know for now is that a number of groups around the world are, and have been for some time, reporting anomalous heat emanating from hydrogen loaded into certain metals and then heated or subjected to electro-magnetic pulses. The number, geographic breadth of these experiments, and the experience and academic stature of the researchers reporting these results make it unlikely that these results are part of a gigantic hoax or flawed temperature readings as many skeptics claim.
We also know that during the last year five or six groups have said they have commercially viable heat producing devices under development. Although there have been a limited number of demonstrations of these devices to outside scientists and the press, nobody as yet has released one of these devices to careful outside scrutiny by independent laboratories that has been made public. None of these groups seems to have any financial difficulties nor are any asking for the public to send them money. Some of these developments seem to be supported by NASA or possibly the U.S. Defense Department although this has not been formally announced.
For now there is little to be done but wait for developments. Announcements are promised shortly, but such announcements have slipped in the past. We could be close to another game-changing technology such as electricity; it could stay in the labs for an indefinite period; or the technology could melt away and never be heard of again.
Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.