Sunday, April 6, 2008

32 - Answer(s)

Q: Jarsh Beckstein - If not hydrogen in the near future, then what?
A: This topic is a very complicated one. It's hard for me to stay focused on one aspect of it for very long before venturing off to another area. Let me start by talking about current technologies that could be applied to automobiles, and why I think they're either going to stick around or get swept aside. That should lead us to a short-term answer. If I end up on some random tangent, I'll try to get back on track quickly.

But before I talk about the technologies I need to frame this issue a bit by asking a question: what is the point? What is the goal here? Is it to reduce "fossil fuel" emissions? Is it to reduce America's dependance on foreign sources of energy? Is it to stop using "fossil fuels" altogether? I don't have an answer to this question, and because of that the issue becomes hopelessly complicated very quickly. I won't try to answer it here, but I'll keep the question in mind as I continue this answer.

Why do I use the term "hydrocarbons"? Why not just call it "oil" or "fossil fuels"? First, because I like to be technically accurate in my language. I lump in not just gasoline and diesel, but also liquified coal, natural gas, and other more exotic hydrocarbon fuels. Second, because there is a lot of negative stereotyping of the term "fossil fuels". I'm trying to get emotion out of the discussion about energy, even though I know that it's nearly impossible.

I think that these sources of energy will continue to power our automobiles for the near and far terms. There are many reasons, not the least of which is that the world is nowhere near running out of sources of hydrocarbon energy. Another reason is legacy. We drive internal combustion automobiles, and we have over a century of experience in the technologies behind them. Will they continue to be gasoline? I don't think so. There are currently cleaner-burning diesel fuels hitting the market, and the cars that run them are making their way across the pond to America. The other more exotic hydrocarbon fuels may eventually make their way into cars, but that's a little further away.

Ethanol has the advantage of being both a fuel source and an additive to current gasoline fuel systems. This means that a new infrastructure isn't necessary, only an addition to current fuel stations. Unfortunately there are many problems with ethanol that in my opinion will lead to its collapse as a fuel replacement. There are consequences that proponents of ethanol either failed to account for or failed to see coming. The first big one is a spike in food prices as corn that was once slated for human consumption is converted over to fuel. The second is that the growth of the amount of corn it would take for ethanol to become a significant portion of America's fuel supply would require burning a large amount more fossil fuels than currently needed. Third, ethanol puts out more fossil fuel emissions than gasoline alone, at little to no gain in performance.

Ultimately I think that ethanol was jumped on by politicians before the true nature of it was fully understood. This is unfortunate, because it does have some potential, but the technology still needs to be worked out before it is adopted. Other sources of ethanol, such as switchgrass and sugarcane may provide better results than corn. Time will tell, but as far as a true short-term solution I'm not holding my breath.

Of all the short-term solutions I like this one the best. Electricity can be efficiently generated, and electrically driven cars do not generate any byproducts. They're quiet, clean, and thus have a lot of appeal. There are some technical problems that must be solved before electric vehicles can truly replace hydrocarbon-based cars. The first big one is battery technology. In order for automobiles to be able to run effectively on electricity new and improved technologies must be developed to store that electricity. Currently plug-in electric cars don't have as much range as gasoline or diesel vehicles. Once batteries exist that can store the energy more efficiently, however, electric will take off very quickly.

So what's my final answer? Hydrocarbons will be the source of energy, with a transition over to electric. Am I right? The fun thing about the future is that it hasn't happened yet. We'll just have to wait around and see.

Q: Eric Democko - Who was St. Patrick and why is he so popular?
A: St. Patrick was born in 378AD, and died on March 17th of either 461 or 493 (there is historical debate on that point). He lived in slavery from about age 14 to age 20, escaping after having a dream in which God called him to return to Ireland. He was eventually ordained a bishop and began a life-long quest to bring Christianity to Ireland.

Two interesting things about the man that I learned in my research for this answer. The first is the meaning of the legend of how St. Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland. Like many legends it is not literally true, but rather it serves as a metaphor for how his quest to convert Ireland to Christianity resulted in the ending of various pagan practices, including worshiping serpents. Interesting stuff, and it makes some historical sense. The second is with regards to the shamrock, and why he is associated with it. Apparently he used the shamrock to teach about the holy trinity (the father, son, and holy spirit). It's a simple teaching tool, and again, it makes sense.

For more information, the Catholic Online website has a brief biography of St. Patrick. The Catholic Encyclopedia has a more complete and detailed history of the man.