Long term global vision of nuclear-produced hydrogen|
Marchetti, C., 2005
Plenary Lecture, International Hydrogen Energy Congress and Exhibiton, Istambul, Turkey 13-15 July 2005
One day in the middle 60ís I was sitting in my office at the Euratom center in Ispra meditating on the long term future of nuclear energy. At that time the faith on the future of nuclear was untarnished but I felt a strategic weakness in the current view. Everybody was thinking in term of electricity production even if the most optimistic projection would give about half of the primary energy electrified. Because in the last couple of hundred years energy consumption did double every 30 years or so, even if all electricity were nuclear after 30 years we would be back to square one in terms of fossil fuels consumption. Some words were said about an all electric economy which sounds a little eerie as the generating system should be geared to the instant consumption of energy, on top of the fact that many kinds of vehicles are not easily amenable to the use of electricity.
So I decided that nuclear should be used to produce some sort of fuel and the choice fell on hydrogen. It is transportable, flexible, non polluting, starts from water and ends in water. I started a bibliographic search on the use of hydrogen and discovered to my surprise that all sort of final uses were studied at the time. Even fluorescent lamps where the phosphors are directly excited by the oxidation of hydrogen over them. On top of that hydrogen had a long and successful career as a final energy carrier. City gas is in prevalence hydrogen and was the energy backbone of European and American cities till WW2. The first internal combustion engine built in Lucca by Meucci and Barsanti did run on hydrogen and experiments had been done in the fifties on hydrogen airplanes. The most fascinating application for me was the production of food for the astronauts using microorganisms capable of processing hydrogen. There is there the promise of liberating man from the burden of agriculture. Incidentally chlorophyll splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. Back to square one.
One of the problems insufficiently excavated is why man in the last couple of centuries did pass from wood to coal, and then to oil and gas. One trivial explanation is that forests where overexploited which may be locally true. However world forests now shed in form of biomass something like 100 TW when humanity consumes about 10 TW. No exhaustion in sight. One can say that forests are spread around the world. But so are oil fields. The real problem in my opinion is that exploitations of forests has no or little economies of scale. To cut one tree per hour one needs one lumberjack and to cut two trees per hour, two lumberjacks. Nor the argument of facility of use has sufficient weight. It is true that it would be cumbersome to run a car stuffing it with wood, but in the last century cities like Paris were consuming huge amounts of methyl alcohol produced by wood distillation, an excellent fuel for cars. After all no car runs on crude oil and sophisticated refineries are needed to produce the right brand of fuel.
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