The Ford Nucleon: the atomic car of the 1950s. Another wonderful technology that never made it to reality

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

The Hydrogen Hydra is almost slain. We move forward with a new blog!

"The Hydrogen Skeptics" goes dormant. It has been active in debunking the hype about hydrogen for more than a year and with more than 20 posts. It has been a nice romp, but the hype about hydrogen seems to be slowing down. You can see that in "Google Trends" where the interest in the hydrogen economy shows a classic "hype peak" that then goes down gradually, remaining endemic in the memesphere.


So, it doesn't seem to be very interesting anymore to spend time debunking something that's self debunking. We need to go onward, exploring new territories and new ideas. 

So, "The Hydrogen Skeptics" will not be updated anymore. We'll discuss new ideas on a really renewable economy in a new blog titled "The Sunflower Society" -- a term invented by Rolf Widmer and Harald Desing, who are also contributing to the new blog. 

The idea is to take a positive approach to the future and see renewable energy not as something that replaces fossil energy in a BAU vision (there is no such a thing as "alternative energy") but that takes us to a new kind of society that adapts to the energy that's available, not the reverse. Solar energy is abundant and costs nothing, but we must accept this gift we receive not pretending that it will be also available at any moment when we want it!

The Sunflower Society

Friday, April 8, 2022

Renewables are the new Killer App


Image courtesy of Tsung Xu

It had to come, and it is coming. Silicon Valley is suddenly discovering that renewables are the next big thing, a new "killer app" poised to sweep the market and eliminate the obsolete, dirty, and uneconomic fossil fuels. Up to now, Silicon Valley's venture capitalists and entrepreneurs had been snubbing renewable energy. The common idea was that all killer apps are software. They are new fads on social media: things like Zuckerberg's "Meta," that nobody know what it is, but it is supposed to be something, Virtual, in any case.

But no, a killer app doesn't need to be purely virtual. Before the fashion of web things, the innovations that swept the market were not virtual. Think about that: personal computers, cell phones, even the Internet is not virtual, it is a real network of cables and connections. But it doesn't matter if a product is virtual or not. The important thing is the dynamics of the system. Things sold in a market are part of a system you may call CAS (complex adaptive system). These systems are subjected to rapid growth and rapid collapse as well. It is the way of the feedbacks. Positive feedback can generate a virtual killer app,  or it can affect a pretty real product that sweeps the market and kicks out the competition. 

This is a point that Silicon Valley types (who don't need to reside in Silicon Valley) understand very well: the secret of positive feedback is economies of scale (you can say that a product "scales"). What scales, grows. Which is what renewables are doing right now. They are scaling, generating the feedback that pushes them to grow.

Renewables as a disruptive and growing technology is hardly the way they are described in the mainstream debate. Most people see renewable energy as little more than a toy for "greens", even the most optimistic ones see them as something that may help us, but they are so limited that they will help us only if we accept to become abjectly poor.  And that, unfortunately, seems to be exactly what we are facing, especially if we accept a condition described in Newspeak with the term "saving energy." We'll be happy and own nothing. Sure! After all, who needs to eat to be happy? The brains of the people who think that fossils are indispensable are fossils, too.

Now, be careful. I am not telling you that we face a bright future that includes flying cars and weekends on the Moon, as it was the use in the 1950s. Not at all. What the pessimists say is not wrong. It is true that the fossils fuels are running out, that the climate is going to hell (almost literally), that the planet is overcrowded and, in addition, that instead of trying to do something useful, we rather enjoy playing the game of war. Homo sapiens (?), Yeah, sure....

What I am telling you is that the future will be different, disruptive, and rapidly changing. If you emphasize negative feedbacks, then you see imminent collapse -- which is in fact inevitable for all fossil fuel-based technologies, including that meta-technology we call "Industrial Economy". If you instead  emphasize positive feedback instead, you see how renewable energy is on the verge of wiping out all the old energy technologies, generating a whole new set of technologies. That will include a new meta-technology that perhaps we will continue to call "The Economy" but which will be completely different from the current one. Yes, the world will be different. Very different. 

The beauty of the situation is that the future is determined by these strongly non-linear feedback factors: at the same time we face enormous risks, but also fantastic opportunities. If the negative feedbacks win, it is the "Seneca Effect" ("growth is sluggish, but ruin is rapid"). If, instead, the positive feedbacks win, it will be the "Anti-Seneca Effect" ("ruin is sluggish, but growth is rapid"). 

This is the Seneca Curve, you probably know it already:

Then, take a look at the "Anti-Seneca" curve. It is the opposite

So, the positive feedbacks associated with renewable energy are giving us a unique opportunity in the history of humanity. We are facing one of those disruptive transitions that change everything, but it is not automatic that it will take place. We could collapse so quickly that there won't be time for renewable energy to develop to the point where it stands on its own. Or, we could remain so tenaciously attached to fossils that the transition to renewables is impossible, using for example bureaucratic, legal, etc.obstacles. Or climate change could sweep away human beings from this planet. But overall, there are good reasons to be optimistic. At least we have a fighting chance to avoid  returning to the Stone Age! 

To go more in depth into this subject, I suggest to you two documents. The first is an article by Tsung Xu, "A Guide to the Clean Energy Transition." It is a monumental work that examines many details of the renewable transition. One of its several good things is the dynamic view. Maybe you'll find it a little too optimistic and, indeed, the future is always full of surprises. But the article is correct, clear, comprehensive, and it includes an absolutely spectacular bibliography. 

The other article that I suggest to you is "Rethinking Climate Change" by James Arbib, Adam Dorr, and Tony Seba. It is another well documented study that also has a clear dynamic perspective of how things can grow in complex systems.

If you want to learn more, there are also several academic papers published in academic journals. There is one that myself and several colleagues are working on that has been recently submitted to the "IEEE Access" journal. Sorry that I can't share it yet, we have to wait for the definitive version. Coming in no more than a couple of months. 

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Bad ideas are fractals. Another Hydrogen Breakthrough!


Another year, another hydrogen breakthrough. This one is about hydrogen storage in cars. 

You know that the problem of storage in hydrogen cars is a major one. Compressed hydrogen is heavy and potentially dangerous, while liquid hydrogen is complex and expensive. This problem has generated a cottage industry of inventors who create gadgets able to store hydrogen, hopefully at lower costs and higher density than the standard ones. 

Some of these ideas are scams, some are too complicated, and some are simply useless as practical solutions. Pertaining to the latter idea we have this announcement from the German research center Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY)of something that's not only a breakthrough, but even a "sweet" kind of breakthrough. It may be because they term their system "nanochocolate" -- creative guys.

The idea? Here it is: 

The process involves palladium particles only one nanometer across in a structure that resembles nut-coated marzipan chocolate. At the center of the structure is an iridium ‘nut’ around which is enveloped a layer of palladium (like marzipan), which then gets coated by a layer of hydrogen (the chocolate). A small amount of heat is all that is required to extract the hydrogen.
Ah.... the beauty of science. I am sure that these researchers put together a small prodigy of nanotechnology by arranging these clusters on a graphene substrate. But there is no info on cost, density, durability, manufacturing, recycling, pollution, all that stuff. (maybe they address these questions in the original paper, but it is behind a paywall, and I refuse to pay for it. But they are not mentioned in the summaries of the paper). 

In any case, you see how bad ideas generated a fractal cascade of sub-ideas which are just as bad. Hydrogen cars are bad ideas in themselves for a host of good reasons. Then, the subcomponents of hydrogen cars can be just as bad. One example is how fuel cells need platinum electrodes to be able to transform hydrogen into electric power. And platinum is a rare element in Earth's crust, a fact that is in itself a major problem (nay, it is a a killer problem) for the whole idea of hydrogen cars. 

Now, to make things even more complicated, you add another gadget to the idea that uses two more rare metals in Earth's crust: iridium and palladium. Sure, the kind of stuff so abundant in Earth's crust, right? Alas, they are both (especially iridium) are even less abundant than platinum! Look:

If this is the way to obtain "scientific breakthroughs," we might as well use Voodoo dances or Kachina dolls to solve our problems. But we keep going, one more bad idea after another, as we walk along a road that leads nowhere.

h/t Jon Wesemberg

Monday, December 13, 2021

The range scam: are EV manufacturers sabotaging their own vehicles?

 Is the EV industry killing its own cars? It would not be the first time and it is sure that there are enormous forces that oppose the decarbonization of the transportation system. 

Note written one month later: In reality the situation with charge metering is not so bad as I had thought when I wrote this post. What I noted after several tests is that the heat pump that warms the inside of the car does cause a drop in the computed mileage. But, overall, the pump has a positive effect on range, not negative! It is because it heats the batteries, making them more efficient in winter. So, the initial drop in range is compensated by a better performance after your run for about half an hour. I was a bit hasty with this post, but it is true that most electric car customers are unaware of these peculiar characteristics of their cars. Life is a learning path! (13 Jan 2022).  

Recently, I received a message from Sumit Bose (see below), describing his experience with a trip with his EV. He reports that "the car was blatantly lying" in terms of estimated range. 

It is a common experience. My brand new VW Id.3 has two forked tongue. One thing is the remaining charge, another the range estimate. And the latter is badly overoptimistic. 

I know that the system tries to take into account various factors: low external temperatures cause a loss of efficiency of the batteries. Then, if you turn on the internal heating system, you'll suddenly see your predicted range drop of more than 10% of what it was before. There are reasons for everything, but that doesn't mean you don't feel cheated.  

Once you understand the trick, it is possible to take it into account and take remedial action. It is like dealing with a person who is a consummate liar: you know that, so you make the appropriate corrections to his/her overinflated claims. I still like my car and I find it perfectly usable once you understand the tricks it tries to play on you.

The problem is psychological: once you discover that your spouse betrayed you, your marriage may endure, but it is not the same thing as before. If your car betrays you, you may keep using it, but you don't see it anymore in the same way as before. 

But it is also a strategic problem: think of how many people hate EVs and are trying to sabotage electric transportation. Think what could happen if they discover that electric cars are lying to their owners in terms of range (they will). Think of a propaganda campaign in which they'll play the Iago of the situation, convincing Othello that his wife, Desdemona, is betraying him. With Othello, it worked well enough that he eventually killed Desdemona. With electric cars, it might kill the market and set us back of 20 years in the search for the energy transition.

Then, it comes to a question: why did the automotive industry produces cars that are so blatantly lying to their owners? Do they think owners are stupid? Or, worse, do they want to kill their own EV sector? That would not be the first time that the industry cannibalizes its own offspring (do you remember the story of the GM electric car?)

It can still be remedied. These cars are generally too heavy, have too much crapware, and plenty of useless features that just consume energy. Just as an example, mine has a system of electric warming of the steering wheel. Nice, but gloves are much less expensive and don't affect range. We need a more honest attitude and lighter models thought in terms of maximizing range. Aping the wasteful thermal engine based cars won't work.  


From "Future Net Zero" - by Sumit Bose

Hi Ugo

This is my last email of the year, the team will be taking a well-deserved break from the start of next week.
But I thought I’d end with a couple of quick thoughts.
Firstly EVs!  I had my first real range anxiety experience with my EV last week. I was hosting a conference up at Edgbaston cricket stadium in Birmingham, funny enough all about net zero ambitions!
So, I charged up my Peugeot e2008 and it said range 188 miles. My house to the hotel 108 miles – excellent I thought plenty in the ‘tank’ or do I call it the cell? Anyway, off I set and I quickly realise the reality of EV driving longish distances, it’s a bloody nightmare.
After about 50 miles of driving my range had dropped by 80 miles and as I struggled through the speed restrictions on the M1, I entered a time warped worm-hole world. I was advancing 5 miles but my range was reducing by 8. I found myself 20 miles to the destination with 24 miles of range.
By now I had worked out the car was blatantly lying and it would never make the 20 miles so I had to stop to charge. Corley services was miserable and wet but there were at least some EV chargers. The first was an Ecotricity one which meant downloading an app that didn’t work and I gave up, luckily there were Instavolt ones which were contactless payment.
Yes, it cost a lot (compared to home charging) but it was fast and within 20 minutes I had added enough power to get me back up to about 60 miles. I reached my destination, phew.
After the event I had to do the same terrifying balance of power, range, chaos and ended up repeating the journey in reverse. This time I sat for an hour in Corley to get up to around 165miles range before I dared drive home.
What has this taught me? Well, EV driving is a mare when it comes to convenience and time management.
EVs lie to you as do the manufacturers and our charging network is woeful in this country. The thing that got me the most, is the time it takes out of your life, half an hour here an hour there etc etc, what would have been a two-hour trip in my 12 year old little petrol car took four hours in my posh EV.
I like my EV – I do. I like the fact I can see dirty fumes chugging out of the car in front of me and I don’t have that. I like the rapid power, the smoothness, the silence of the battery. It is easy to charge at home but it is clear for now, EVs are good for just local city driving.
Attempting anything long distance, though I hardly think 108 miles is long distance, involves a complete change of your mindset and clearing your diary. I foolishly thought next year of driving to Italy in the EV, ha it would probably take me less time by bicycle!
To conclude we are nowhere near having a practical environment for long-distance EV driving. They are the future but not just yet.
My last thought as I sign off is this, 2021 has been a real year of upheaval and with Omicron it seems more turbulence is on the way into 2022. Saying that we have recovered a lot as a planet, from the ravages of Covid. Economies have grown which is why the energy prices have rocketed. We have seen blistering summers and torrential rains that make politicians think. And for all its faults we have had COP26 and an agreement to try and start to reduce our coal dependent lives globally.
We are on a path. My EV experience is an indication of that. It won’t be easy and there a lots of difficulties but we will get there. We have to.
Have a great Christmas and I wish good health and happiness to you all for 2022!

Friday, December 10, 2021

Some Sanity Hits the Hydrogenosphere: The "Hydrogen Science Coalition"


An interesting article just appeared on "Recharge." It is about the formation of the " Hydrogen Science Coalition to volunteer independent expertise to governments and the media in an attempt to counter influence of vested interests in H2 policymaking" -- It seems to be a very rational, very well done approach on the question. Note the sentence "Hydrogen won't have the impact on climate we need if it is a fig leaf for continuing to burn fossil fuels which drive up emissions."

9 December 2021 11:21 GMT

An independent expert group of scientists, academics and engineers has today launched a new advisory body — the Hydrogen Science Coalition (HSC) — that aims to bring “concrete evidence back into the hydrogen debate, free from industry bias”. “Policymakers in the UK and EU are placing big bets on hydrogen's role in the energy transition. While hydrogen has an important part to play, we're concerned that an over-reliance on hydrogen will delay existing, cheaper and scalable solutions like electrification”, says founding member David Cebon, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Cambridge.

Fellow founding member Tom Baxter, an ex-BP chemical engineer and visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde, adds: “Any decisions to invest public money in hydrogen need to be backed up with facts. Relying only on vested interests to guide the development of a hydrogen sector risks undermining where the evidence tells us hydrogen should play a role.”

The HSC’s new manifesto describes H2 as an important piece of the energy transition puzzle, but points out that hydrogen today “is a massive decarbonisation problem we have barely begun to tackle, given that almost all hydrogen in the world at large is currently made from fossil fuels, without carbon capture”.

“Because truly zero-emission hydrogen is essential but it is very energy intensive and does not yet exist at scale, we cannot expect hydrogen to have an impact on emissions or jobs within the next decade. Developing a hydrogen economy is a long path forward, yet climate science shows us we need to act today to reach our net-zero goals.”

Continue reading at the Recharge site

(h/t Alessandro Bracaglia)

Sunday, November 28, 2021

A new hydrogen non-revolution hits the memesphere


Image from ""

A new hydrogen non-revolution is making the round on the web. This time, a new technology claims to be able to solve the problem that is "holding back the Green Hydrogen Revolution" by bringing the efficiency of electrolytical hydrogen production from about 75% (the current value) to 98% (what they claim to be able to do). 

Is it true? You know that you should always be wary of the claims pushed on Web sites. You surely know that the cemetery of failed technological revolutions is full of gravestones with the words "in the lab, it worked."

But, even assuming that it is a true improvement, there is just one small further difficulty: these people are solving the wrong problem.

The problems with the hydrogen based economy are NOT that electrolysis is too inefficient. Going from 75% to 98% is an improvement, but changes nothing to the real problems, which are storage, transportation, and conversion into electric power. These are the real stumbling blocks of the whole system, that remains too expensive to be practical. 

And we keep going on with magical thinking..... 

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Greenwashing in Tuscany: Hydrogen trains

 Hydrogen as a magic word hits Tuscany again. Now, it is the turn of the "Faentina" railroad to be greenwashed. It is an old line that connects Florence to the city of Faenza on the other side of the Appennini mountains. Destroyed during WWII, it was considered a "dead branch" by the Italian authorities and not rebuilt until the 1990s. Even then, it was a work done in economy, it was not electrified and only old diesel powered locomotives run on it. 

But now, great idea! Politicians have started to say that we can make these same locomotives run on hydrogen! They say hydrogen is green, don't they? Yes, so green that whatever you touch with it becomes well greenwashed. 

A brief comment by Dr Piero Mazzinghi, translated from Italian.

MUGELLO - Dr. Piero Mazzinghi of Vaglia makes some technical considerations about the use of hydrogen as a fuel for trains. And they are very critical and concerned considerations.

I would like to make some technical considerations on the proposal to transform the Faentina railway to hydrogen and, in general, on the use of hydrogen as an energy vector (let's remember that it must be produced, there are no hydrogen mines...).

Currently almost all hydrogen is produced from hydrocarbons, by steam reforming methane or by gasification of coal with the Haber-Bosch process. The efficiency of both processes is around 70%. Hydrogen then, given its low density, to be used must be compressed at high pressure (at 700 atmospheres) or liquefied (at -252 °C), losing at least another 30% of energy. To power electric motors it must then be fed into fuel cells, which have an efficiency of around 50%. Now, a simple multiplication (0.7×0.7×0.25= 0.245) shows that the cycle efficiency is less than 25%, compared to an efficiency of a modern diesel engine ranging from 40 to 50%. So globally we don't reduce pollution and the greenhouse effect, we double it. We are only reducing pollution at home to increase it at someone else's home. If you don't believe this you can consult a recent article by Cornell University and Stanford (article here).

At the local level, however, we must consider the issue of safety. Hydrogen is an EXTREMELY flammable, explosive gas, and at very high pressure to boot. A hydrogen depot in Santa Maria Novella is something to shudder, like having a bomb in the middle of the city. And then, how would it be supplied? The methane network is not suitable, the metals and seals of the pipelines are not suitable for the transport of pure methane, the turbines and compressors should be replaced, both for the different pressure and for the different density of the gas. Transporting it by trains or tankers of hydrogen (probably liquid) would be even worse for safety. If the Viareggio accident had been caused by a train loaded with liquid hydrogen, instead of LPG, it would have been a huge disaster. Not to mention the cylinders on the vehicle, which are just as dangerous, very heavy and with complicated devices to ensure safety in case of accident, further reducing performance and increasing consumption.

The hydrogen economy makes sense only when the production takes place by electrolysis of water starting from electricity produced by renewables. Even in this case, however, the efficiency is low and its use is convenient only to store an excess of renewable energy not otherwise usable, something from which we are still very far. Also because in Florence it is forbidden to install photovoltaic panels on the roofs and in Mugello they do not want wind generators.

For the Faentina railway there would be a much simpler and efficient solution: it would be enough to electrify the line where possible (I think everywhere except in the tunnels) and use hybrid trains (diesel, electric and batteries), which travel with the electric line where present, for short stretches with batteries and with diesel at the end. Among other things they are produced by Breda-Hitachi in Pistoia, 30 km from Florence.

But this would probably not end up in the newspapers, better to do greenwashing operations.


MUGELLO – Il dottor Piero Mazzinghi di Vaglia fa alcune considerazioni tecniche sull’uso dell’idrogeno come carburante per i treni. E sono considerazioni molto critiche e preoccupate.

Vorrei fare qualche considerazione tecnica sulla proposta di trasformare la ferrovia Faentina ad idrogeno ed, in generale sull’uso dell’idrogeno come vettore energetico (ricordiamoci che deve essere prodotto, non esistono le miniere di idrogeno…).

Attualmente quasi tutto l’idrogeno viene prodotto da idrocarburi, per steam reforming del metano o per gassificazione del carbone con il processo Haber-Bosch. L’efficienza di entrambi i processi è intorno al 70%. L’idrogeno poi, vista la sua bassa densità, per essere utilizzato deve essere compresso ad alta pressione (a 700 atmosfere) o liquefatto (a -252 °C), perdendo almeno un altro 30% di energia. Per alimentare i motori elettrici deve poi essere immesso in celle a combustibile, che hanno un rendimento intorno al 50%. Ora, una semplice moltiplicazione (0.7×0.7×0.25= 0.245) dimostra che il rendimento del ciclo è inferiore al 25%, contro un rendimento di un moderno motore diesel che va da 40 al 50%. Quindi a livello globale non riduciamo l’inquinamento e l’effetto serra, ma lo raddoppiamo. Riduciamo solamente l’inquinamento a casa nostra per aumentarlo a casa di qualcun altro. Chi non ci credesse può consultare un recente articolo della Cornell University e di Stanford (articolo qui).

A livello locale bisogna invece considerare il problema della sicurezza. L’idrogeno è un gas ESTREMAMENTE infiammabile, esplosivo, e per giunta ad altissima pressione. Un deposito di idrogeno a Santa Maria Novella è una cosa da rabbrividire, come avere un bomba in mezzo alla città. E poi come verrebbe rifornito tale deposito? La rete del metano non è adatta, i metalli e le tenute delle condutture non sono adatti al trasporto del metano puro, le turbine ed i compressori andrebbero sostituiti, sia per la differente pressione che per la differente densità del gas. Trasportarlo con treni o autocisterne di idrogeno (probabilmente liquido) sarebbe ancora peggiore per la sicurezza. Se l’incidente di Viareggio fosse stato provocato da un treno carico di idrogeno liquido, invece che di GPL, sarebbe stato un disastro immane. Per non parlare delle bombole sul veicolo, altrettanto pericolose, molto pesanti e con complicati dispositivi per garantire la sicurezza in caso di incidente, che ne riducono ulteriormente le prestazioni e aumentano i consumi.

L’economia dell’idrogeno ha senso solo quando la produzione avviene per elettrolisi dell’acqua a partire da elettricità prodotta da rinnovabili. Anche in questo caso, però, l’efficienza è bassa e il suo utilizzo è conveniente solo per immagazzinare un eccesso di energia rinnovabile non utilizzabile altrimenti, cosa da cui siamo ancora molto lontani. Anche perché a Firenze è vietato istallare sui tetti i pannelli fotovoltaici e nel Mugello non si vogliono i generatori eolici.

Per la ferrovia Faentina ci sarebbe una soluzione molto più semplice ed efficiente: basterebbe elettrificare la linea dove possibile (credo dovunque tranne che nelle gallerie) ed utilizzare treni ibridi (diesel, elettrici e batterie), che viaggiano con la linea elettrica dove presente, per brevi tratti con le batterie e con il diesel alla fine. Fra l’altro sono prodotti dalla Breda-Hitachi a Pistoia, a 30 km da

Ma questo probabilmente non finirebbe sui giornali, meglio fare operazioni di greenwashing.