Tuesday, August 22, 2006

New Energy

Reader Paul is interested in alternative energy. I am too. He found a list of the top 100 energy ideas which the New Energy Congress says is based on the following criteria:

renewable, environmentally safe, affordable, credible, reliable, developed, safe, etc...
They are a little short on credible, but not totally so.

First off is who am I to judge? I did my first solar cell project in high school in '62. I qualified as a nuclear reactor operator in the US Navy. I have spent a number of years designing and testing controls for aircraft electrical power generation systems. I know a little about Fermi Levels and other stuff.

The top technology is cold fusion. The developer promises water heaters for the home. A water heater that is also a neutron source might not be the best idea. However is cold fusiion itself credible? Yes! The US Navy thinks so and is spending money on more research. I think a neutron source that could be turned off and on at the flick of a switch might have its value even if no useful heat is produced.

Number two on the list is about using electricity to turn water into hydrogen and oxygen. Supposedly his process produces 10X more hydrogen output than would be expected for a given electrical input. It is supposed to have some of the attributes of a Joe cell which collects orgones, does unspeakable things with them, and outputs hydrogen. Personally I'd rather keep my orgones for myself and power my car with whatever the local fuel station is pumping. Not credible.

Thought experiment: take one of these cells. Start it up from the grid. Use the output to feed an electrical generator. Switch the cell over to generator power. Sell the excess electricity to the power company. i.e. a complicated perpetual motion machine.

The three laws of thermodynamics:

1. You can't win
2. You can't break even
3. You can't get out of the game

More conventionally:

1. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed
2. Entropy (disorder) increases
3. Absolute zero is the lowest energy state

These all deal with thermal processes. Fire, heat, flame, etc. Chemical processes can be very efficient (storage batteries) compared to thermal ones. Surpisingly though the chemical processes are based on the above same rules. Gibbs free energy - is a good place to search.

Carnot says if you have a hot place and a cold place and a mechanism connecting them, the maximum efficiency you can get out of the mechanism is 1 - (Tc/Th). Where Tc is the temperature of the cold place and Th is the temperature of the hot place measured on a scale that starts at absolute zero. For those who want the proper metrics the scale is Kelvin and for those of a more traditional bent the scale is Rankine.

Number three is utility scale solar. Well, it is making a comeback. Some systems are getting installed in the desert. The claim to fame of this technology is a turbine design that does not use blades. Instead it uses rocket nozzles, more commonly called a venturi. And then the turbine exhaust vapor is made conductive and more energy is extracted through the magneto hydrodynamic effect (MHD).

People have been trying to get the efficiency of such turbines up for years. Blades are a real pain. Nothing doing. Despite knowledge of venturis for over 100 years. Probably another backyard inventor with bad measuring equipment. And the MHD stuff? If the inventor can do that he could forget about turbines. The Israelis are doing research on MHD systems using liquid metal as the carrier fluid.

Verdict. With solar thermal plants in the news, it looks like a growth market. Will these designers produce what they say they can? Doubtful.

Number four seems quite workable. Take the methane from a dump and use solar energy and a catalyst to produce hydrogen. The question is where does the carbon from CH4 (methane)go? If the methane could be mixed with water (H2O) you would get more hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Physically and within the bounds of well respected chemistry this is definitely possible. The question is: is it economical? Can you make a profit?

Number five is the Noble Gas Engine. It definitely deserves a prize. Most unlikely to succeed. Multiple electrodes. Hot plasma gas discharges in mixtures of noble gases. More energy out than in. 100x. The inventor was afraid people might steal his discharges and designs. So he never fully let on how he did it. But a new company is being set up to develop this long suppressed work.

Nobel Prize Winner in Physics, Richard Feynman saw it and was unable to prove it was powered by the electrical outlet it was plugged into. He unplugged it for a few minutes. The inventor got agitated and plugged it back in. The engine exploded killing a bystander.

The future of this engine? Don't stand too close.

Well there is more. I'd be really cautious.

OTOH if you are interested in real designs that are based on the known laws of physics and current manufacturing and design capabilities, contact me. I have a few ides about energy storage and other stuff.

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