Changing Fuels

Okay. Hands up everyone who is prepared to give up flying for the rest of their lives?

Hmmm. Not very many of you?

Now keep your hand raised if you are also prepared to give up driving…

…and heating your home…

…or buying anything from a shop, or a restaurant, or online.

No-one? Well, I think therefore we can agree that the lifestyle changes needed to live a zero-emission life are… impossible. However, the Climate Change experts tell us this is exactly what we have to do by the year 2050, if we are to avoid serious consequences.

So, if we accept that this is impossible, what can we do?

What if instead of changing everybody’s lifestyle, we just change everybody’s fuel?

What if we took your car, and replaced it with an electric one, powered either from a battery or a hydrogen fuel cell? Well, that’s easy, because it’s already happening. In fact it’s also happening with buses, and lorries, and trains, and even ships. That’s step one.

What about your central heating boiler? Can that burn hydrogen? Of course it can. Step two.

What about the hardest one: flying? Well, chemical engineers have known how to synthesise liquid hydrocarbons like kerosene for nearly 100 years. They do it from a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, a mixture that is so useful that it actually has a name: syngas, so called because it can be used to synthesise so many useful end products. It could even be used to generate all those plastics that we seem to need. Step three.

Oh, and by the way, burning hydrogen would also solve nearly all of our air pollution problems.

But, I hear you cry, where is all this hydrogen going to come from? Good question.

This is where electrolysers come in. They’re essentially a box that takes in water, plus any form of electricity, and produces hydrogen at the outlet. Simple as that. It splits water into its constituent components: hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen we release, and the hydrogen we store for whenever we need it. But can it be done, and how many would we need?

The total energy consumption of humanity is, to put it into numbers, 100 peta-watt-hours per year. That’s a 1 followed by 17 zeroes. Sounds like a lot.

But, expressed in terms of the largest wind-turbines currently being constructed, at 12 MW each, that would be about ‘2 million wind turbines’.

Expressed in terms of solar panels, that would be 1500 square kilometres, which is less than one five thousandth of the area of the USA.

And remember, that’s to power everything. Every vehicle, building and factory. The total cost would be trillions of dollars, but bear in mind the Iraq War cost 2.5 trillion dollars.

Does anybody see the irony in fighting over access to oil reserves that we don’t need, and can’t actually afford to burn? You tell me.