Welcome to Charge: the future of energy
BY DANIEL C. SWEENEY, PhD
It’s been awhile since we’ve made an entry, not that there isn’t anything to discuss in the world of new energy technologies. It’s just that we’ve been so busy trying to complete our monumental study of hydrogen generation that we’ve had scant time for bloviating... or blogging.
But before we mention some of our recent findings, we would like to share the fruits of a recent brainstorming session.
While the topic of this blog is energy, we occasionally venture into other areas. One of these is American politics.
At this point enquiring minds are moved to speculate as to who will succeed George W. Bush three years from now when he completes his second term. (We’re assuming he won’t defy the Constitution and run for a third term or simply appoint himself president for life.) While there does not appear to be any clear front runner in the Republican ranks, we are also assuming that the same machine that catapulted George Bush to victory twice will prove equally adept the next time around, thus assuring that Tom DeLay’s vision of a permanent Republican majority is realized. Still they will have to choose someone to run. You can’t have another Republican administration without an actual candidate.
We have long believed that dynastic tendencies would obtain and that Jeb Bush would be the anointed successor, but given the accumulating mound of Bush baggage that George would be bequeathing any other Bush, we’re not entirely sure that Jeb would prove viable, especially if George is unable to elevate his poll numbers above the 50% point through the remainder of his tenure. That leaves a large coterie of non-royal wannabes vying for throne, including John McCain, Rick Santorum, Bill Frist, Dennis Hastert, Sam Brownback, Condoleeza Rice, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Guiliani, to name only the most prominent.
Determining which of these worthies will receive the scepter is difficult. McCain did not find favor with Republican kingmakers five years ago, and he is even more of loose cannon today. In spite of his generally high poll ratings he looks like a loser to us. Frist and Hastert have been dogged by scandals and inopportune remarks. Moreover, Frist has earned the special enmity of Felis Domesticus and the friends thereof. As for Santorum, he may not win re-election to the Senate. Should he lose, he’s finished politically. Brownback is relatively little known outside his state and needs to gain national stature. We wouldn’t count him out, out but he doesn’t look like a front runner. Rudy is very well known, but might not appeal to the rural fundamentalist voting block. The fact that he’s been out of office for a long time, doesn’t help either. Condi has no real constituency that we can determine and is shrill, humorless, and exceedingly ugly. The fact that lesbian rumors swirl about her is no advantage either. Mitt Romney could have a shot at, but he’s not that visible on the national level and his Mormon faith might work against him. Most Christian fundamentalists look upon Mormons as dangerous rivals, and it’s hard to imagine the Christian Coalition rousing the troops to vote for this guy.
So who’s it gonna be? We think we have the answer.
We hear incredulous gasps, but why not? Karl is incredibly popular with the right wing base, and is widely considered the smartest political operative of all time. Why does he need to fill the role of the court eunuch to some driveling emperor? Why can’t he be emperor himself? Eliminate the middle man. Practically no one would disagree that he’s ten times smarter than George Bush could ever hope to be, and at least three times smarter than any of the other people we’ve mentioned. Why not put him in charge? He pretty much is already, and maybe the reason things aren’t going better is that he lacks absolute power. We hereby nominate Karl Rove for president. He looks like a winner to us. He’ll have to lose that “Turd Blossom” moniker, however. It’s not exactly like Old Hickory or Honest Abe.
Incidentally, we believe that Karl should get an early start. We would suggest a reality show to raise his already considerable visibility. Something between Donald’s Trump’s The Apprentice and The West Wing. Karl could train young operatives in dirty tricks, and right wing notables like Pat Robertson, Arnold Swartzenegger, and Bruce Willis could make guest appearances. Fox Network would have a major hit on its hands if it gave the show the green light.
Enough politics and back to the dirty business of energy. What’s next on the international agenda? Syngas. If you are old and decrepid like ourselves, you perhaps remember a film from the nineteen sixties entitled The Graduate about a young man at loose ends (no one ever makes films about old men at loose ends). The young man in question is approached by a friend of his father’s at a graduation party who suggests a career option with a single word. “Plastics.” We say, syngas.
Syngas is a noxious mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Exact proportions vary and are not particularly important so long as it’s mostly hydrogen. Syngas can be made by heating coal to a gas without igniting it or treating natural gas with superheated steam. It’s also possible to gasify biomass to produce it.
Syngas has already been subject to one mighty, protracted boom. Back in the early 1800s entrepreneurs started making it from coal and piping it to private houses and factories and street lamps where it served as a fuel for gaslights, the ancestors of electric lighting. Suddenly the world was bright at night.
So what’s that have to do with today?
It turns out that many of the industrial processes involving natural gas will work just as well or better with syngas. Syngas can be easily transformed into ammonia, methanol, even gasoline with further processing, and can be used for industrial heating, though it’s not so good for residential use because of the carbon monoxide content.
Syngas made from coal has a bright future because natural gas prices have been rising steadily and steeply for the last five years, and because China’s and India’s increasing demands for energy will compel them to utilize the one fossil fuel resource they possess in abundance, coal. Syngas represents a relatively clean way of utilizing coal and recommends itself on those grounds.
Syngas is not a long term answer to the world’s energy problems, but it’s much more likely to figure prominently in the mid term than is hydrogen. Several syngas turbine generators are already on the market whereas no one is making a hydrogen turbine, a good indicator of where the world is really going.
Syngas is not going to happen overnight on a major scale. Absent very stringent regulations, most coal fired generating plants are not going to want to switch for some pretty obvious reasons. Current coal fired plants use powdered coal to heat steam to run Rankine turbines. Syngas, on the other hand, is used in Brayton turbines that are very similar to those employed in natural gas electrical plants, and in jet aircraft for that matter. No one wants to pay for swapping out equipment. In China, however, where syngas will figure both in liquid fuel production and in the creation of additional electrical generation capacity, the changes will happen much more quickly.