Saturday, January 29, 2011

New Fuel

I noted this on the Internet a little while ago and now the snail-media newspapers have caught up with it. You can find articles here at Popsci and gizmag:


UK-based Cella Energy has developed a synthetic fuel that could lead to US$1.50 per gallon gasoline. Apart from promising a future transportation fuel with a stable price regardless of oil prices, the fuel is hydrogen based and produces no carbon emissions when burned. The technology is based on complex hydrides, and has been developed over a four year top secret program at the prestigious Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford. Early indications are that the fuel can be used in existing internal combustion engined vehicles without engine modification.

Cella Energy have developed a method using a low-cost process called coaxial electrospinning or electrospraying that can trap a complex chemical hydride inside a nano-porous polymer that speeds up the kinetics of hydrogen desorption, reduces the temperature at which the desorption occurs and filters out many if not all of the damaging chemicals. It also protects the hydrides from oxygen and water, making it possible to handle it in air.

In the papers I've seen the price as 90 pence a gallon and 19 pence a litre. This all sound incredible, wonderful and just the sort of thing we need. And I have huge reservations. We're told in the articles that present day car engines will not need to be modified, but go to the Cella website and we get, 'it is possible to convert a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) to run on hydrogen with minimal engine modifications' which is not quite the same really. Fuel tanks and exhaust systems are not mentioned. I'm presuming that the micro-beads themselves are not burnt, that the hydrogen evaporates from them, so fuel tanks will have to be emptied as well as filled. Think of the infrastructure involved.
But for fuel of that price, surely we could set this in motion? Yeah, right, it's going to be that price. Ho ho. Lest we forget, if we bought petrol at the pump without government taxes it would cost 47 pence a litre. If you go here you'll see that not only do we pay 59 pence duty, the government then taxes us on the tax we pay on fuel, that is, VAT is charged on the actual fuel price + delivery charge + duty. Does anyone reading this think for one moment that our government would give up on such a lucrative way of screwing the population? Do you think for one moment it would give up on 20 billion in tax? If some cheap new fuel came in the government would just look upon it as a way of increasing its tax take. This basically defines the attitude of all governments to tax.


vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

with the used vegetable oil from restaurants on a diesel car this is the engine modification you do: change the fuel filter.

they could be a little more specific though..

might be a great idea, but like the electric car there was an original buyout for the lithium battery by big oil inc (Chevron?) to keep that off the market for a while. who will win? its a Shell (ha) game. kill the competition. sf writers are doing that all the time with machetes, thrown shuriken laptops and million dollar suppress the science lawsuits. creepy lot.

Neal Asher said...

Thing is about oil companies is that they are not all about oil, but money. Just like every big corp they want a piece of any action that might make it. This is why the claims of 'Exxon Mobil is funding for deniers' makes me laugh. So 'big oil' hasn't spotted how to make shitloads of money out of carbon trading? Wake up.

Joe Mansfield said...

This is a Metal Hydride H2 store, possibly a good one but its hard to say without more real data. Hydrides can store about 2-5x the amount of hydrogen that you get in liquid H2 in an equivalent volume and should be much simpler to manage than the ultra nasty high pressure cryogenics that H2 needs. Volumetric energy density might even be close to petrol (in the region of 35MJ/L)

The H2 still needs to be extracted, the hydrides aren't a fuel themselves, just a store. So there have to be extra mechanisms - heating\chemical\pumping that recover the H2 and leave a residue that must be reprocessed. These pellets can't just be injected into a normal petrol engine. A raw fuel handling system will extract H2 and the fuel management system in the engine will have to be modified to handle H2. Briefly running an unmodified 4 stroke engine on H2 can work but making a reliable consumer engine that runs on H2 isn't trivial.

The broader waste aspect of Hydrides is a problem that nobody has clearly outlined and dealing with it will double the transport costs associated with the fuel. The spent pellets have to be brought back to the H2 plant to be recharged. Mind you that's a lot easier than shipping liquid H2 around which would be a disaster.

However those are minor issues compared to the real problem with H2.

There is no way to make H2 cleanly today, or any time soon. None. The only cost effective way to make H2, and the one that is used to make all the H2 burnt in all the H2 cars on the planet today is a dirtier process (in terms of CO/C02 output) than simply refining oil and burning petrol. There is no H2 just lying about, it has to be extracted at a huge energy cost. Creating H2 from cracking water is not efficient (25-40% at best) so no matter how efficient your initial energy generation is the efficiency of an entire energy cycle that uses Hydrogen generated that way is pretty poor. H2 can be used as a fuel (ie an energy store) but that energy has to come from somewhere and it's vitally important be honest about that. Almost all hydrogen is produced by steam reformation of hydrocarbons because that doesn't require as much additional energy as simply cracking water. That works because it leverages the energy stored in the Hydrocarbons. So today's hydrogen comes from oil that has had the carbon removed (and vented as CO2\CO) by combining it with steam produced by burning oil/coal/gas. This releases about 2-3x the amount of carbon that refining and burning petrol does in order to deliver the same quantity of energy where you need it. Interestingly some nuclear power plants can actually generate "clean" H2 rather than electricity but we're a long way from seeing that happen commercially. Right now Hydrogen is one of the dirtiest fuels on the planet if you track its entire lifecycle.

Whatever your position on carbon dioxide levels (and I don't agree with you on that, sorry) Hydrogen is a stupid fuel. Unless we can find a better source of energy than mining hydrocarbon then Hydrogen is a complete waste of time and money. In the long term we are going to have to, whatever the true Peak Oil\Peak coal dates are they will happen sometime. Even when we've figured that one out I reckon that artificial hydrocarbons (made from atmospheric CO2 and water) will be more viable than H2.

Taxes aside (and I agree with you there) Cella's claims about pricing can only be based on what they believe they could eventually produce their fuel at in quantity. However given the fact that, at best, generating H2 requires the expenditure of at least twice the amount of energy that it eventually produces when used as a fuel then the only thing they should be allowed to claim about the possible future price of their fuel is that the costs could eventually be brought down to a level that would be around twice that of an oil based fuel that produced a similar amount of energy.

Major fan by the way, keep them coming.

Neal Asher said...

It's the same elephant in the room with electric cars, Joe. Thanks, you've elaborated on my bit about the fuel tanks needing to be emptied.

Just a thought: we know that wind energy fails to generate power when needed, so does it generate energy when not needed and could that be used to crack hydrogen?

We need nuclear power stations, in a big way, and more needs to spent on getting fusion to work.

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

fyi, nuke power is cheap, but if you put em around a fault line/river, what can go wrong probably will (it has before). the 'spheres' vs 'rods' thing might sound good, but a hole in the gut of any plant will take that poison to the next level.

blah blah from the powerless here. i'm gonna shut up on this.

ok explain this ya smarties:

Neal Asher said...

I guess the answer to that, Vaude, is don't build them on a fault line. As for the level of poison ... like the Chernobyl exaggeration?

Jebel Krong said...

nice post, joe. as always the true story is very different from the end-process one that is presented for funding.

as for fusion - that has been the holy grail for far too long...

Nuno said...

ok explain this ya smarties:

There ya go. Don't believe everything you see. ;)

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

no, not the atmospheric poison. not the ground roentgen poisoning as in the lower levels of radiation. the animals have not mutated, but adapted. saw a docu on the animal dna switching on this inner defense to radiation.

i meant the reactor in Chernobyl is still melting. there's a river under it that it will eventually hit when it runs out of ground to melt through.
i posted this before, but maybe you missed it, or are out of region:

Russia is hopeful to stop the melt. thats the extent of it since they are broke. witch sacks and hope straws are being used with prayer to make the world better even now.

most rivers are flowing along fault lines on the planet. i've learned wrong, maybe, need a river to keep the reactor cool dont you? either its above or below ground, and if windmills are the pinwheels of the ruling elite then forget that angle (?).

the big white reactors in Germany, some of which are within miles of each other, (look there! and another! augen unverglaublich!) are all on river routes from what i remember. it's an interesting thing to race on the autobahn with all this kooky surrealness around you.

eddlemsg said...

As you stated the amount of tax on the fuel will never allow the price of fuel to drop below levels that seen now. Governments are not going to give up on billions a year in tax income so consumers can have cheap energy.
Fuel prices are much cheaper in the US than in Europe and coresponding Federal and State tax rates are much lower than Europe's, however if Obama's Energy Czar Steven Chu had his way energy in the US would be taxed to European levels to cut back on consumption.

Anonymous said...

The bottom line is the bottom line. Government needs x pounds and this is a source of x.

So even if we move to another power source and taxes on petrol started dropping, a new tax on that power source would be imposed.

The numbers are the numbers, no matter which party is in power, merely the flavour is different.

As the liberal/conservative governement found out when they got into power, the harsh realities of life soon put paid to their plans, beyond the would "Cut".