Thursday, September 16, 2010

Bring Back the Hindenberg!

            As I was visiting my parents in their winter retreat on Maui, I read and responded to a letter to the editor in the Maui News, the gist of which was the writer’s conviction that hydrogen will be the fuel of the future, as it is very safe and very clean, and that progress in this area is retarded by fear, prejudice and the cupidity of oil companies, etc.  Among his assertions was that hydrogen was not responsible for the death of the victims of the Hindenberg disaster.  The paper printed my letter on Feb. 5th, almost unedited, as follows:                        2/2/05

To the Editor:

            I wholeheartedly agree with most of Mr. Wagner's letter of Feb. 2nd.  Hydrogen is as safe as any other fuel (and extremely clean), and hidebound, defensive thinking plagues society on many levels including science and engineering.  Unfortunately, the use of hydrogen is an ‘energy luxury’.  Unlike fossil fuels, wind and solar energy, hydrogen is not found freely in nature; it must be separated from larger molecules before it can be used for fuel, and the energy required to extract it will always be at least slightly more than the energy returned, as no machine is 100% efficient.  A similar situation applies when an oil field becomes sufficiently depleted that more energy is required to raise the oil to the surface than is contained in the oil itself; any further pumping is a net energy loss.  Hydrogen cannot save us.
    I believe that the only long-term solution to our energy problems lies in balancing population size worldwide to the net available resources.  Easy to say; difficult, to say the least, to achieve.

                                                                                          David Rockwell (visitor)
            Back home, I got a letter and a clipping from my Dad, writing on 2/13:

            I assume this is the same guy whose letter prompted you to write yours, but I don’t have his original.
            He says he is “working on” a system which will allow you to “fill her up” with a garden hose.  Like most young boys, I also wasted many hours trying (in my mind) to perfect a perpetual motion machine.
            Well, I wish him luck.  If the answer to the world’s energy crunch is no further away than the garden hose then let’s get on with it before fossil fuel runs out.

            Ah-hah! The plot thickens, as it becomes apparent that Mr. Wagner is in fact a member of that lovable and indispensable fraternity, an American original, the basement/garage/crackpot inventor! And here is the text of Mr. Wagner’s follow-up letter, printed 2/13 in the Maui News, apparently without any professional editing, under the bold heading, “There are ways to produce onboard hydrogen fuel”:

                        I just wanted to clarify something about the my Feb. 2 letter regarding hydrogen fuel.  While   it’s true that trying to create hydrogen the traditional way or the way it’s being done by most takes way too much energy and has several drawbacks, I’m working on creating the hydrogen fuel internally [his italics] in cars rather than the externally.
            This is different then what companies like GM is doing because they want to create hydrogen stations and then you have to go there and pay to fill up.  The big advantage with creating the hydrogen fuel internally is that you never have to go to a gas station again.  You only have to take your garden hose and fill the reservoir for free gas for life and the exhaust will be cleaning rather then polluting our air.
                                                                                                Gabriel A Wagner

            I saw no amusement in further tweaking the earnest inventor, but I had to write back to my Dad, as follows:

            Gee, wouldn’t I have egg on my face if I turned out to be wrong about the basic laws of chemistry and energy conservation.  On a molecular level, doesn’t it take exactly the same amount of energy to disassemble a water molecule as is released when the hydrogen is re-oxidized? And then of course one must subtract the efficiency of whatever machine is using the energy.  I predict Mr. Wagner will be chagrined when he finally discovers that his water-car is costing more in electricity to run than a standard golf cart.  But since he doesn’t grasp the basic principles involved, he’ll just keep on trying.  Like you say, more power to him!  It’s an endlessly absorbing hobby, and keeps him off the streets.
            What surprised me about this letter is not that he doesn’t know the difference between ‘than’ and ‘then’, but that the newspaper editor did not correct it.  Oh well.

Additional Bonus Commentary at No Extra Cost!

            My Dad replied briefly that unless they had changed the laws of thermodynamics since he was in school (Cornell U., Engineering, early 1950s), I am correct.
            Mr. Wagner’s noble but futile quest is a modern manifestation of the eternal search for the Philosopher’s Stone, of course; he is irresistibly drawn to try to spin gold from straw, following the lure of pure reason: the infatuation with the magical power of the mind, which gives us dominion over so much of this world, and by a simple but mistaken extrapolation, the key to unlimited manipulation of reality.  Although an illusion, it makes perfect intuitive sense: if we can use science to do ridiculous, clearly impossible things like propel huge machines filled with people high across mountains and oceans, for example, why can’t we somehow tease the infinite power locked inside the atom to come out and do our bidding, like Kipling’s Djinns’ obeying the Sultan Sulieman-bin-Daoud’s command to momentarily snatch all his palace and gardens into outer darkness, and then return them with not a leaf out of place?  An interesting verbal clue is provided by Mr. Wagner’s choice of the word ‘create’ in place of ‘extract’ or ‘separate’ with reference to obtaining the hydrogen.  Science has explicitly shown that matter can neither be created nor destroyed under ‘normal’, earthly conditions; the inventor is here unconsciously assuming powers usually reserved to God.  But that is perfectly natural, and we all do it: we create the world and our gods, day by day and minute by minute, from the brilliant spangled whole cloth of pure symbol - the Word made real.  When we attempt to keep physical reality distinct from our subjective worlds, we have only the weak reed of reason, and the difficult and subtle tool of the scientific method, and these can’t match the boundless strength of human desire and self-deception.  Luckily we are forever penned up, like goats on an island, in the physical universe, and when Mr. Wagner tries to get free energy forever, not realizing what a terrible thing it would be to give to the goats, he fails every time.  It is bad enough that we are so clever that we can exploit our energy resources as efficiently as we do.  We can eat the cactus, and the bushes, and the reptiles and insects, and keep the luau going, but we as a group have no idea that we are living on an island, and our time is running out.  Eventually actual physical suffering will refocus our minds on the things in front of us, but whether by that time the situation will be salvageable - whether we can then take any kind of effective action - no one knows.

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