Sunday, September 19, 2004

More Smoke and Methanol

I originally got this published at Winds of Change and the Rock River Times around 20 May 2003.

And still the portable fuel cell energy revolution is just around the corner. The problems are still numerous. Lack of pulse power capability. Relatively high temperature for inclusion in electronics. The fuel is poisonous and corrosive.

So what is happening? I'd say my prediction of 2006 is still on track. More prototypes have been developed but actual production still seems a ways away. It is hard to tool up when you still haven't ironed out all the bugs.

Toshiba has some neat graphics. No products so far.

Here is a Hitachi press release from the end of 2003 predicting 2005 availability. Ha.

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Not every alternative energy press release is for real, which is why I call this piece Smoke and Methanol.

Toshiba announced in March a methanol powered fuel cell that it claims will be the battery technology of the future. It will have a life of hours instead of minutes when used to power a lap top. In addition recharging or rather refueling will take seconds not hours. A similar cell used for cell phone operation might give days of use and hours of talk as opposed to the minutes we get today. There is one little problem with this technology. It is not real.

Oh you can go to the Toshiba web site and see all kinds of pretty pictures and an impressive list of specifications. Still, there's one specification that you do not get to read until almost the bottom of the page. It says that they hope to have the device in production by 2004.

The key word is hope. Not will, hope. My guess is that they will not be producing a viable product until 2006 at the earliest. You can get anything to work in the lab. You can always have engineers and technicians baby a few copies of a research model. Production today, however, requires a whole different level of control of the production process. You want 99% or better good devices coming off the production line. Otherwise you've designed a production process that produces scrap.

When you have a technology you're sure of, you announce a sale date. When it's iffy, you announce a hope by date.

There's a lot of this sort of thing going on these days. The hydrogen economy, fuel cell powered transportation, solar powered houses, solar water heaters in Northern climates, small scale wind turbines. The list is very large.

Why are we continually seeing these technologies touted when they are not ready for prime time? Many reasons. Let's cover a few of them....

The first reason for the hype is the early adopter. This is the guy that will pay any amount of money or put in the effort to make up for a lack of money to have a solar powered house. Or a battery powered car. This is your enthusiast or hobbyist. Good for getting things going and providing a technical base but economically and energy wise s/he is insignificant.

Then there is the niche market. A place where the high cost of a new technology is not a barrier. Typical of this situation is the cabin or house located a few miles from the nearest utility line. Say a utility wanted $100,000 to get power to your new house. Even at today's prices you can buy enough equipment (solar cells, wind turbines, batteries, and power converters) to make your own electricity at that kind of capital cost. It will require some extra effort for maintenance but other than that it makes economic sense.

Then there is the case of companies like Toshiba who want you to remember their brand. Making announcements of wanted but non-existant devices amounts to free PR. Smart. Very smart. For Toshiba.

Finally we come to the pick pockets. These are the guys who want government to pick your pocket and give the money to them. Being such high minded, idealistic, and only tying to help type folks that they are. Now perhaps this makes some kind of limited short term sense for research, pump priming, or the like. The problem is that business does so much better at this than the government. Let us look at the solar water heater subsidy of the "energy shortage" days of the late 70s and early 80s. Every body and their brother in law was building these contraptions. Fly by night outfits were installing hundreds of thousands of these units. They didn't work well. They didn't last long and for the most part they were an energy drain not a resource. Congress then dropped the subsidy, most states dropped their subsidies and the industry basically died. Today if such installations make any economic sense they do so not as retrofits but as an integral part of a house's or building's design and construction. What the subsidy did was to ruin a small but viable niche industry by pumping panic money into it.

Natural organic growth is better for both plants and factories. Force feeding can lead to death.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

There has been much controversy over the years concerning 'The Pledge of Allegiance.' Much of it centers around the inclusion of the words "under God." I believe that arguments pro and con this addition are distractions from the fact that, apart from those words, the Pledge is servile, generic, and unpatriotic.

I believe that the solution to this obvious problem can be found in America's 'Declaration of Independence.' So, as an immediate corrective measure, I propose the replacement of the Pledge with the defining statement of America's founding principle:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish
it."

Next time the opportunity presents itself, instead of reciting that servile drivel that was drilled into our skulls while in the custody of our gov't schoolmasters, stand proudly and proclaim your independence. Who knows, you may become a founding member of an American Renaissance.

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