Energy Thoughts – Bureaucrats and Innovation

By Nathan Barton

Government bureaucracies are “conservative” in the sense that they want nothing to change, except for a very limited number of things which give them more power and wealth.  We see this in particular in high-tech, such as energy.  Here are two examples.

Federal Bureaucrats Threaten U.S. Energy Boom

Thanks in part to advances in hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), America’s once dormant railroad industry has again shifted into high gear, transporting ten times more crude oil a year ago (2013) than it shipped five years earlier (2008). BUT that boon may begin to slow if the FedGov (specifically, that disaster called the Department of Energy) has its way. According to Independent Institute Research Director William F. Shughart, the agency want the industry’s fleet of cars to be replaced or upgraded within two years.  He discusses it in an article appearing in The Hill: Oil Trains, Pipelines and Tanker Ships, by William F. Shughart II (The Hill, 12/22/14)

As usual, the downside, the consequences, of government meddling in economic matters, is significant. “Such a rapid phase-out, however, could restrict the production of oil and gas, costing consumers as much as $45 billion, according to a study done by ICF International Inc.,” Shughart writes in The Hill, a news site that targets lawmakers in Washington, DC.  Nevermind that private businesses (the railroads and the oil companies themselves) have invested more than $25 billion in the last five years: that is not enough for the nanny-state bureaucrats that what to pretend to eliminate all risk and look for an excuse to expand their power.

“Lengthening the replacement period to four years would help hold down that cost,” Shughart continues. “So, too would repealing the outmoded Jones Act and allowing U.S. crude oil to be exported to the rest of the world” and allow tankers that are NOT “US-registered” (about 95% of the total, because of the insanely high level of regulation by the FedGov) to haul oil from one US port to another.  Removing those barriers to oil distribution would help the United States surpass Saudi Arabia in oil production (and continue to do so: some already report that we HAVE exceeded Arabia).

But Mr. Shughart doesn’t take it far enough.  Yes, there are accidents that happen with pipelines and with railroads and with trucks, but the safety record gets better every year, and little of that is due to federal or other government regulations.  Concern with costs and liability are the major driving factors: the additional regulations, whether implemented in two years or four years, ARE NOT NEEDED.  Despite the screams from environists and “safety advocates” the impacts of spills and accidents grow less and less each year.  Yes, there are (and always will be) those outliers: those accidents which sadly kill a dozen or several dozen people, just as traffic accidents and airliner crashes do: but we don’t get out of this life alive.

EU Bureaucrats Allow New Automotive Technology

Energy is also in the news in a much different setting.  Petroleum is one of the most dense forms of energy known to man, but we constantly see new attempts to replace it, especially for transportation.

It has just been reported (thanks, Freedom’s Phoenix) that the EU has approved as “roadworthy” a very expensive sports car that runs on salt water, with incredible performance thanks to its four electric motors, and has “zero emissions.”  It uses something called NanoFlowCell technology.

Now, this is a bit of a mystery: they treat it like energy storage (as in petroleum products) but kind of dance around and don’t really describe where the energy that is stored comes from. It is NOT an inherent property of naturally-occurring salt water (say, seawater) although the emphasis seems to want the reader to believe that. Indeed, this “salt water” has special electrolytes (salts) that don’t seem to be naturally occurring (like oil), and it takes 400 liters (actually, 200 liters of two different solutions) to go 600 kilometers (that is about 100+ gallons to go 375 miles).

The energy has to come from somewhere – just as the energy in gasoline or diesel comes from combustion of hydrocarbons with oxygen, and those hydrocarbons came from somewhere, created by expending energy.  But the developers of this car and flow cell system, and those crowing about it, don’t seem to really want to talk about it.  Indeed, they seem to try and obscure the sources.  It smells fishy, and not just salty, to me.

I am not alone in this concern, as an article in TheSkepticsGuide.org a few months back discusses.  Producing that special “salt water” will take energy from something: sun, coal, natural gas, petroleum products, hydroelectric, nuclear, SOMETHING. You aren’t going to be able to drop a hose and pump into the North Sea and suck up 100+ gallons of water and race off. Like Tesla and other electric cars, this is potentially but not automatically a “zero-emissions” vehicle: all it does is shift the emissions to someplace else.

Wikipedia provides some details: “In 2014 a technology was announced that uses lithium–sulfur chemistry arranged in a network of nanoparticles. The network eliminates the requirement that charge moves in and out of particles that are in direct contact with a conducting plate. Instead, the nanoparticle network allows electricity to flow throughout the liquid. This allows more energy to be extracted. In August 2014, the Quant e-Sportlimousine was approved for testing on public roads using the nanoFLOWCELL® system with a claimed energy or power density of 600 Wh per kilogram (per litre of salt water electrolyte).

Now, this isn’t too bad at all: the density claimed is near the best available from Li-ion batteries (as used in laptops, for example), and the company claims they have lithium-ion beat all hollow.  But the most likely candidates for the specific salts are lithium chlorate and lithium borate.  An MSDS for lithium chlorate indicates it can be unstable and react explosively with certain other chemicals; and I got an offer to sell it to me for $423 per gram! Yikes! I could not find an MSDS for lithium borate, but it sells for the same price.  I would suspect it is similarly unstable: that is, after all why it has energy that can be released.

This is, of course, little different from the hazards associated with gasoline, and kerosene (jet fuel) and even diesel.  And you really do not want to contaminate soil or water with lithium and sulfur (regardless of what forms the lithium comes in), any more than you want to pollute them with petroleum.  But the costs seem to be orders of magnitude different: the flow cells seem very pricey.  Yes, you are supposed to collect and reuse the 100+ gallons of brine: the spent electrolyte is taken to a plant of some sort and energy is expended to again “charge it up.”  The advantage over taking hours or days to charge traditional batteries is obvious: but the costs seem to get bigger and bigger.  Any time you transfer and ship fluid back and forth, you are likely to lose some here and there, and even if we drop the cost of the lithium salts by a factor of a hundred (to a mere $4.23 per gram) and only need one gram per liter (which I think is probably extremely low molality), you are still talking RAW MATERIAL costs of $1,692 per tank full! To say nothing of the cost of hauling it back and forth, reprocessing it to replace the energy stored in it, and everything else.  Just a quick perusal of the various factors jumps it up to the same cost level as a small nuclear power plant on a truck: and we already have people working on these things.

So this flow-cell concept is interesting, and may have potential, but it is NOT a sure thing.  Government needs to step out of the way (well, really, just go away) and let individuals and private business and organizations go out and find something that can replace petroleum to provide for transportation and all the other things that work to make our world a nice place to live.  Whether that is synthetic oil, or bio-fuels, or thorium, or Mr. Fusion (TM) is something that the markets and NOT regulatory agencies need to decide.

About tpolnathan

Follower of Christ Jesus (christian), Pahasapan, Westerner, Lover of Liberty, Free-Market Anarchist, Engineer, Army Officer, Husband, Father, Historian, Writer.
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