Joseph S. has sent me links to articles (e.g. UPI, Forbes) about an energy breakthrough claimed by Percival Zhang, a bio-engineer from Virginia Tech.
He claims to have completed a system of biotechnologies that produce a large enough amount of hydrogen out of plants.
He used the second most important sugar in plants (xylose, the simplest among abundant sugars that is named after wood [in Greek] from which it was first isolated) and some enzymes to prevent the microorganisms from practicing their main hobby – reproduction – which increases the amount of produced hydrogen three-fold or so.
If you have ever cared about rocket propellants (or even hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars), I don't have to explain to you how cutely clean hydrogen is as a fuel. Its oxidation produces something of order an electronvolt per atom, a huge amount of energy, especially if you realize how light a single hydrogen atom is.
Needless to say, it's nearly mandatory for the newspaper articles written about this topic to discuss how "environmentally friendly" this possibility is and how it would reduce the "dependence on fossil fuels". Sometimes, this type of propaganda leads to nearly comical inaccuracies and mistakes in the press releases and articles, for example:
This environmentally friendly method of producing hydrogen utilizes renewable natural resources, releases almost no zero greenhouse gases and doesn't require costly or heavy metals, a university release reported Wednesday.Well, when you burn the hydrogen, you combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce water – which actually not only is a greenhouse gas but it is the most important greenhouse gas in our atmosphere, one that is raising the average temperature by something like 33 °C. What they wanted to write is that the process releases no greenhouse gases with long residence times (of order decades or longer) – and long residence times are needed for the greenhouse effect to be strong enough and "accumulating". Note that the residence time of water vapor in the atmosphere is estimated as 9 days while the same figure is 30-95 years for carbon dioxide.
At any rate, it would be cool if hydrogen were the stuff in which we store the useful energy. But because fossil fuels – and even biofuels, if we talk about "renewable" fossil fuels – only differ by their replacement of water vapor by another beneficial gas, carbon dioxide, the new technologies must really become cheaper for them to fairly prevail.
Imagine they will. The Forbes article in particular is full of interesting technical semi-details but it also unmasks the attitudes of U.S. secretaries of energy who are expected to wisely support similar research. Both Steven Chu and his successor Ernest Moniz have trash-talked (and in Chu's case, slashed 70% of the funding for) hydrogen fuel cell research because the solutions that existed at that time produced CO2 at the same moment. Their viewpoints seem foolish and unworthy of visionaries, right? It's one of the main points of a proper energy research (and research in general) to show that certain technical assumptions we are making today aren't really necessary.
TriHyBus, a triple hybrid bus from Pilsen.
This is just an example showing how utterly foolish it is for the not-quite-experts in the government to selectively throw large amounts of money to various kinds of fashionable research. Chances are huge that they will throw it to wrong places, hopeless research directions that will get uselessly overfunded, and those promising ones actually end up being overlooked and underfunded, anyway. The main obstacle in this energy research surely isn't the shortage of net funding. Extra funding that is decided by politicians because they have to decide in some way – instead of investors who invest because they were intrigued by a particular idea and are willing to put their own money at risk – is pretty much guaranteed to be nothing else than the waste of the taxpayers' money.
I am not saying that Chu or Moniz are stupid. But general expectations just like the particular evidence above suggests that they – and government bureaucrats in general – just can't see "all promising potential paths to the future" that emerge in an industry as large as the energy industry. When the funding decisions are effectively made by one person and his or her hierarchy, many promising directions inevitably remain underfunded and the bulk of the money is inevitably spent unwisely. The government is 1) narrow-minded, 2) not guaranteed to have some of the most qualified people who are responsible for various decisions (no genuine market competition or natural selection operates within the government to achieve this outcome), and 3) unmotivated to make the decisions really well – carefully yet creatively. These three disadvantages combine to make up the public spending inferior relatively to the spending by the private sector. When we talk about the applied research that is supposed to produce economically attractive results within years or a decade, we should simply leave it to the invisible hand of the free markets as purely as we can.