OK, so what’s all this about burning metal to replace oil? How crazy is that, right? Well, not so crazy that a scientist like James Hansen rules it out. YES it’s left-of-field, but James seems to rule it in as one of the options we have to wean off oil. Not only that, but it seems like it could be an ideal friend of electric cars. Boron sounds ideal for our larger vehicles, saving the night time grid for family sized charging electric cars. The electricity grid already exists, and has enough spare capacity to charge nearly 9/10 American family cars if they can charge at night! Climate Crock of the Week quotes NREL:
“For the United States as a whole, 84% of US cars, pickup trucks and SUVs could be supported by the existing infrastructure, ”
With the electricity grid already supplying enough juice to recharge the majority of family cars, we now turn our attention to larger vehicles. It seems a little bit like cars burning gasoline/petroleum and trucks burning diesel. Why would we expect it to be any different in the post oil age? Different fuels for different purposes. Maybe boron is for trucks and electricity for cars? Or not. Maybe synfuels or hydrogen will appear on the market. Because ultimately we know that none of these are an energy source, right? They’re like batteries, recharging off the higher ERoEI of nuclear power. I’m merely pushing the emergency roll out of EV’s because the infrastructure is already there, and it would be easier to roll out EV’s (with the majority of the power already there) than a hydrogen highway, with all the chicken&egg problems of hydrogen stations arriving before customers, and customers not wanting to buy a hydrogen car until the stations were all that. Everyone’s got electricity somewhere!
Indeed, the psychological barrier we know as ‘range anxiety’ can quickly be overcome if governments just plain explained that oil was going to be rationed here on in. An Oil Depletion Protocol rationing system could be enacted. In that situation, ‘range anxiety’ disappears. Electric cars become desirable. Instead of everyone weeping about the 5% of trips where the car might not go the distance, they’ll suck it up and just be grateful that car can get them to work and home, and the ‘fuel’ (electricity) works out about half the price of oil / km!
But how quickly can we deploy Electric Vehicles? The car fleet turns over every 16 years, and so my guess is that natural attrition of old cars people were going to sell or scrap anyway would see the old oil cars dropping out of the market, and new electric cars sales would gradually win the race against peak oil. In other words, family cars just bought themselves another decade as it will take over 13 years for the new family cars to hit the 84% SPARE capacity available on the night time charging grid. Then we might have to think about building out some more waste-eating nukes to move to a higher adoption rate.
But how are those trucks doing? Batteries don’t have the energy storage for trucks and cranes do they? So, now I’ll hand you over to James Hansen on boron. Enjoy. Remember: there is hope for a post-oil world to become an amazing place. I see EV’s and boron cars as a necessary stepping stone towards a world where we maybe drive a bit less, where cars are ‘domesticated’ and we discover the joy of nega-barrels, not mega-barrels. Of walking and talking with neighours and friends on the way to work. Of public transport that’s clean and safe and a New Urban neighbourhood that is just too beautiful, and too much fun, to waste driving through it! You’ll want to walk under the trees, and smell the coffee, and browse the window shopping on the way to work. But that’s going to take time to build. So until then, over to James.
“Boron-Powered Cars and Greenwash
Blees properly ridicules FutureGen, commonly dubbed NeverGen, as a greenwash construction of the coal industry, intended to make it look like they were working on cleaning up their horrendous environmental damage.
Blees suggests that hydrogen-powered cars are a greenwash of the oil and auto industries, while they continue to stick us with gas-guzzlers. That charge may be too strong, but it seems fair to say that they have not been looking at alternative vehicles as hard as they should have been. Also I need to point out a possible personal bias: I have been driving a hydrogen-powered car over the past two weeks [a BMW executive recognized me on an airplane and offered a free trial – for the first time I can look my Mercedes-driving lawyer friends on the level, even though it was just a trial – don’t get excited, the hydrogen cars are not for sale, would be very expensive if they were, and there was only one place, in Jersey City boondocks, where I could fill it up.
Blees thinks that there is a superior alternative to hydrogen. Here is the basis of the idea. If a metal is ground into fine enough dust, nanoparticles, it will burn. We could burn iron-dust in our cars, capture the rust-dust, take the rust home, and cook it to drive the oxygen off, thus recovering our initial iron dust, which we then could use to power our car on its next trip. We supply energy at the time of cooking. Iron is just the energy carrier.
So iron dust is an alternative to hydrogen as an energy carrier to power our post-fossil-fuel cars. Iron dust (unlike hydrogen) has the advantage of being non-explosive, but (among other things) it is heavy and gets heavier as rust. Enter a better idea: boron. It is much more energy dense than iron: it takes a quart of boron to match the energy in a gallon of gasoline. A tank (box) of boron would cost a few hundred dollars, but you only need to buy one tankful, when you buy your car. After that you just take the boron oxide to a store, a Seven-Eleven would be happy to serve, and trade it in for a box of boron (anyone can handle this material). Blees figures that processing boron oxide back to boron would cost only tens of cents. Even if he is too optimistic (or if Exxon/Mobil sees to it that he is put 6-foot under – they are not likely to appreciate competition from Seven-Eleven), it should be much cheaper than gasoline. If the processing from B2O3 back to B is done with carbon-free electricity, it takes care of the carbon emissions problem. Blees, as you might guess, envisages the energy coming from IFR nuclear plants.
O.K., let’s go back a step. It is widely agreed that electric cars can be a solution for a piece of vehicular needs, and plug-in hybrid-electrics are a partial solution for the remaining piece. We should start with those technologies because they are ready to go, and batteries will improve, even though it has been slow going. But we must have something other than gasoline for complementing the electric part. Hydrogen, used in a fuel cell as opposed to being burned in an internal combustion engine, has the great advantage of emitting only water vapor as an exhaust product. Hydrogen could be produced at remote sites where renewable energy, such as wind or solar, is plentiful (or by IFR). But it has technological challenges, as described well in Science a few years ago, and more so in Joe Romm’s book, The Hype About Hydrogen.
Automakers have been working hard on hydrogen for several years. Some of the technological problems must have been solved. All I can say is that the hydrogen-BMW drove great, better than any car I have ever owned, with enough getty-up for even a Texas cowboy (I am not a Texas cowboy). The car also had a gasoline tank, to avoid stranding with no hydrogen, and at push of a button switched seamlessly between hydrogen and gas.
In dismissing hydrogen Blees relies in part on a note by Tromp et al. (Science, 2003) suggesting that hydrogen leakage might threaten the stratospheric ozone layer. But Michael Prather (Science 302, 581, 2003) looked harder and found that it is unlikely to be a problem with realistic hydrogen leakage rates. There are greater challenges for hydrogen, though.
Getting the price of hydrogen vehicles down to a reasonable level is a big challenge and there would need to be a distribution system analogous to gas stations, perhaps replacing them. Boron must have challenges too, but maybe less. Blees says the boron must burn in pure oxygen, which requires miniaturization of an oxygen supply system for the car. I wonder if collecting the boron oxide and converting it back to pure boron is as simple as claimed? Also, the product of hydrogen (in a fuel cell) is water vapor, which we do not have to worry about. That is the big draw of hydrogen: zero pollution. I wonder if we can burn boron without tailpipe pollution?
Bottom line: Blees has stimulating, revolutionary vision. The jury is still out on hydrogen vs boron vs something else. But I am confident that there are better alternatives than fossil fuels. It is time to start working much harder on such alternatives.”
Read full book here, promoted by James Hansen’s Science Council for Global Initiatives