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28 February 2008 @ 09:32 am
Fuel Cells, the Water Crisis, and Global Warming  
What do the three subjects listed above have in common? Today's article, of course.

From the article:
"The hydrogen economy is getting a shot in the arm from a start-up that says its nanoparticle coatings could make hydrogen easy to produce at home from distilled water, and ultimately bring the cost of hydrogen fuel cells in line with that of fossil fuels.

QuantumSphere Inc. says it has perfected the manufacture of highly reactive catalytic nanoparticle coatings that could up the efficiency of electrolysis, the technique that generates hydrogen from water. Moreover, the coatings could also eliminate the need for expensive metals like platinum in hydrogen fuel cells.

Boasting 1,000 times the surface area of traditional materials, the coatings can be used to retrofit existing electrolysers to increase their efficiency to 85 percent--exceeding the Department of Energy's goal for 2010 by 10 percent. The scheme holds the promise of 96 percent efficiency by the time cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells hit automobile showrooms, according to the Santa Ana, Calif., company."

It sounds like a panacea, doesn't it? Assuming that this technology works as promised, hydrogen will be as cheap, if not cheaper than gasoline. At the same time, we will be able to generate it ourselves, in our garages or while we're driving, safely. And when hydrogen burns, you get water vapor. Absolutely zero pollutants. Plus, water is a renewable resource, right?

Technically, yes. But this is where the water crisis comes into play. The world population is rapidly growing, and we need water for a lot: agriculture, hygiene, and drinking water, to say nothing of luxuries like green lawns, swimming pools, car washes, etc. And after we use that water, it has to be cleaned and purified before it can be put to use again. That's just what we need. What about the complex natural ecosystems that rely on freshwater? Taking freshwater from those systems beyond a certain point damages those ecosystems, and there's only so much damage they can take.

Here in the United States, many regions are under water restrictions. For example, my parents cannot water their lawn. Farmers are having trouble getting enough water to irrigate their fields. Water treatment plants are becoming stressed by rapid urbanization.

But our country's wealth (in both currency and natural resources) insulates us from the worst of it. The UN estimates that 1.1 billion people (yes, billion - with a 'b') don't have enough drinking water to sustain themselves. They further estimate that 2.6 billion people don't have enough clean water for basic hygiene. This dramatically increases the risk of catching otherwise preventable diseases, amongst other things.

Things are expected to get worse in the coming years, as the population continues to skyrocket. Water desalination is used in places, but the high costs of extracting salt from oceanwater relegates it to a last-resort tactic. Undoubtedly, it will become cheaper and more efficient as the technology matures, but in the meanwhile, wars are being fought over sources of freshwater.

Do you see where this is going? The world's freshwater supply is already being taxed to the limits. If we convert our energy use from oil to hydrogen fuel-cells, it is going to push things too far too fast. We will hit the breaking point.

Consider that the middle east produces most of the world's oil. OPEC controls the price of oil, and doing so has made them rich. This is good for them, because the region is almost entirely without water. They have to buy their water, either shipping it from elsewhere or from expensive desalinization plants. In the event of a complete switchover from oil to hydrogen fuel cells, the price of oil would crash. It wouldn't be worthless of course, we'd still need oil for plastics and complex polymers, but that's nothing compared to our fuel needs. That region of the world would see it's vast wealth rapidly dwindling, with no chance to recapture it. They would have nothing to lose, and they'd need a way to get water, just for subsistence. Religion would have nothing to do with the conflict.

Enter global warming. You see, less than 3% of the world's water supply is freshwater, and most of that (two-thirds!) is locked up in glaciers and the ice-caps. But those ice caps are melting. That precious freshwater is comingling with the saltwater of our oceans. We'll be able to recapture it as rain over dry land of course, increased temperatures means more evaporation and more rain, but it would save so much effort if we could capture this freshwater directly.

Really, what we need is for someone much smarter than me to analyze this issue. While I'm sure that my basic reasoning is sound, I have done minimal research (thanks Wikipedia), and devoted at most an hour of distracted thought to the issue. What troubles me is that I haven't seen anyone else connect the dots between our hydrogen research and the growing water troubles.
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