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A Little Bit Of History: In The Days Of Cholera

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One of our discussions here, "How much time to prepare before economic collapse?" led to this string of posts that I would like to consolidate into a single blog on the issues raised. These were posted just before the 2008 election.

I was asked to come and give some perspective on the art of the possible and make some suggestions on how to proceed in a time of cholera.

Back in 1981, just after Reagan took office, there was a time when the prime interest rate had just peaked at 24%, oil had just peaked at $30 a barrel, unemployment was climbing toward 10%, and the economy was suffering from horrendous inflation. The Fed had just jacked its rates over 18%. It was not a great time to provide the world with advanced solar power or highly efficient automobiles. In short, nobody was interested.

Next, He who giveth taketh away, and the Congress decided to kill solar energy and conservation, and pulled the tax credits and all the solar R&D that was being funded in the late '70's. What a great time to be a solar expert!

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There were about a dozen great ideas that came from the solar folks of that era, including the sleek wind turbines that you see everywhere today, the passive solar home with active solar components that practically made it 100% self-sufficient, the first ocean power plant became operational off the coast of Hawaii, the first large scale solar thermal central receiver at Barstow, the ideas for algae and biomass conversion systems that were in first prototype phases, and fantastic new turbodiesel engines that could run at nearly twice the efficiency as spark ignition engines for autos.

Well, about the only things that survived in the USA were insulation and passive solar green buildings until the price of oil began its recent surge around two years ago. No one can compete with cheap oil except other cheap fossil fuels. Oil fell to $12 a barrel back in '83, and really dropped for a while down to $7 in '84.

I wanted to post this bit of history to paint the ugly picture that led to a 26 year drought in renewable energy and conservation.

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We are at a crossroads today. The economy has begun to tank (it's nowhere near as bad as it can be -- that bad is just unimaginable). We are facing imminent and very serious impacts from global warming. It has just begun with the loss of just a few thousand lives. Losses in the millions are just a few years away. We have the most dangerous world today that we have ever faced since World War II, and our enemies now surround us and destroy us on every economic battlefield.

We need a new way of doing business, and must live to a new standard of performance. We need new leadership, and must be brave enough to employ the new technologies that will enable success.

Let's begin by discussing some possibilities.

The Barstow plant, Solar One, was on a back road behind the coal liquefaction plant they were testing at the time at Southern California Edison.

BTW, the period in question came after Nixon's 2nd term, when interest rates shot up through 10% to about 12% just as Carter entered office. Volker at the the Fed kept jacking rates all that period, destroying the economy and ruining any chance at dealing with the construction of new plants, housing, businesses, etc. Carter had nothing to do with that. It was an outgrowth of poor fiscal management by Nixon and Ford's war budgets that left huge structural budget deficits and out of control growth in the money supply, aka inflation.

We can expect the same after the debacle of the Bush years. Hyperinflation should happen almost immediately. Or not. The Fed may just lower the lending rate to zero to the banks.

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Our "Time for Leadership" conference call last week outlined some of the problems and solutions that we might deal with.

One of our better inventors, Mike Fallwell, has an idea for a new class of wind machines that might have capital costs about four times less than the sleek wind turbines that you see today, and much broader siting and expansion potential. This is not some violation of the laws of thermodynamics, it is a method by which one might harvest the wind at altitudes of 500 to 1000 feet above ground where the wind velocities are about twice what they are at ground level. the size of the equipment is much smaller and lighter, which makes its energy density much higher. I'll let Mike reveal some of his secrets, but the upshot is that the technology could be mass produced and used in every state with very little land impacts and with something else of great value -- a high capacity factor -- around 0.6. This is 150% higher than ground-based wind systems.

A second very valuable solution is one that kills two birds with one stone. As everyone knows, American automotive history is about to come to an end with the demise of the Big Three. Each of these companies, which together once employed more than 10 million Americans in good, living wage jobs, is now on the verge of bankruptcy. American workers in the Midwest still flee the automakers as they continue downsizing and outsourcing labor. It's a disaster that has been unfolding for decades.

The advanced turbodiesel engines have been mass produced in Europe and Japan in recent years, mostly based on ancient American technology with some new twists. The idea of adding ammonia or urea to the fuel mix eliminates the NOx emissions, and allows much higher compression ratios. This is exactly the same technology developed here 30 years ago that nobody cared about. These engines can be run with diesel fuel, biodiesel, or ammonia, or a mix of the three in virtually any proportion, and achieve fuel to power at the wheel efficiencies in excess of 42%. With very high compression, it can be over 50%.

In another post, I spoke of my work at NASA where we developed the lightest and strongest materials known to man. One, which happens to be composed of non-carcinogenic compounds and manufactured with recipes that allow it to achieve virtually any shape and tolerance, is known as RP46. It has about ten times the strength to weight ratio as steel and is just as cost effective. You can make frames, panels, gears, and amazing components with RP46.

If we were to mass produce these engines in our American factories, and mate them to ultralight auto and truck bodies, the overall mileage of these new vehicles would range from 40 to 200 MPG on straight diesel. That's about five times what is now possible here and three times the best results in Europe. We would leapfrog the Europeans and Japanese, and take control of this market once again.

The higher the compression ratio, the higher the efficiency. The fuel must be adaptable to the high temperatures at the high pressures without igniting. That's why ammonia, biodiesel and straight diesel are so good and CNG and gasoline stink.

Make the engines larger for the trucks, and they get the same improvements, too. The real advantage is ZERO CARBON EMISSIONS. Icing on the cake is better fuel efficiency than any gasoline or CNG fueled vehicle, as much as 2:1 better.

The engine in the Mini Cooper D puts out over 100 HP. Given its size, that's pretty good.

There is lower flame speed in ammonia. That's why it works well at high Temperature & Pressure in high Compression Ratio engines. The flame speed can also be adjusted with additives. Don't ask! But dimethyl ether (DME) works nicely.

The best turbodiesels in production today are in Germany. BMW's Mini Cooper D gets 74MPG, and has about a 42% efficiency. Just to compare, no spark-ignition ICE motorcycle gets mileage that good except a Vespa, which is no more than a scooter. The Mini is a four--place auto.

The Otto cycle used in a diesel is inherently more efficient. The advanced diesels use ammonia as a means to scrub the NOx from the reactions. The CR is 40:1. The best ICE you refer to is about 13:1.

Transmissions can be quite efficient. The hydraulic hybrid powertrain claims up to a 50% reduction in losses over conventional ATs. The Mini's transmission has a computer-controlled solenoid that offers its spectacular performance of only 140 grams of CO2 per kilometer traveled. That's the lowest in the world.

My Web page here has some data on new engines, but the good stuff I've seen is proprietary. Yes, ammonia is the key to success. Yes, you can get 200MPG with a lighter body and these new engines and transmissions. And yes, you can get 80MPG on ammonia with an ultralight, which has 40% of the volumetric energy density of straight diesel and is about the same volumetric energy density as compressed natural gas (CNG).

Here is a neat chart on what's possible with an NH3 diesel:

Here is an artist's concept of the Hidalgo solar plant, used as a model for both Ridgecrest and the Ammonia plant. Note that the copper smelter is in the foreground and the background, looking due west, is the Cochise Mountain range that separates Arizona and New Mexico. Mexico was just twenty miles south.

I thought I'd just get you folks comfortable with some of the other stuff that will work to make us great again. Every one of these ideas is a trillion dollar solution. The turbodiesel all by itself can end our reliance on imported oil in less than five years. The "Fallwell Flyer" (for want of a better name, maybe "Skypower") can put the nail in the nuke coffin and end our reliance on coal-based generation of power.

The technology that Todd refers to is an outgrowth of the design that we developed at Gibbs & Hill (about $10 million in 2008 dollars was spent on that work) for systems to be built at Ridgecrest (near China Lake, CA) and Hidalgo in SW New Mexico back in the early '80's. Both were killed by the economic conditions at the time and the loss of the solar tax credits.

Ridgecrest was envisioned to be a trigeneration facility, using a combined cycle power generation system topping a cascaded process heat system for food preparation and dehydration, and a water desalination plant. It was designed to use nearly 90% of all collected heat from the tower ranging from 1500 F down to 200 F. Its design scale was 560 MWe with over 1.0 GWth of cogeneration. It also had a million ton thermal storage unit using iron orthosilicate (copper slag). The field covered 6 square miles. It would produce all the water for a town of 60,000 people, power for 300,000 people, and food for three million people.

The solar field at Hidalgo copper smelter was to have had 10,000 tracking heliostats and an 800' tower with four downward facing cavities to collect and trap the light from a square mile of mirrors. It was designed to produce 80 MWe of power while cogenerating process heat for smelting copper using the Outukumpu Oy oxygen flash smelting process. The smelting enhancements would have quadrupled the plant's throughput of copper, and virtually eliminated all of its fossil fuel requirements and noxious emissions of sulfur through its unique capture process.

The new design, which would build on these two, takes the exhaust heat from the gas turbine topping cycle at just over 1000 F to produce steam for a solid state ammonia synthesis system. About 60% of the energy required for ammonia synthesis would be replaced by the steam, and the new solid state process eliminates the need for electrolysis of water to retrieve the hydrogen. Air liquefaction is still needed to capture the nitrogen which is then combined with the hydrogen to produce ammonia with a Haber Bosch technique.

In this manner, no carbon dioxide is produced and only sunlight, water, and air are the feedstocks. The plant output in the area of the Mojave Desert would be about 400 MWe at a capacity factor of 0.34 and 175,000 MT of ammonia each year.

At $15 per million BTU ($1.50 per therm of natural gas equivalent) the plant ROI is well over 15%.
The ammonia market today is already importing 38% of our needs. The potential, including both agriculture and turbodiesels for cars and trucks, is over 200 million MT per year. It's a big deal.

The groundwater is what they use in Ridgecrest. It's mostly salty water left from long ago deep underground. The surface is bone dry. The groundwater at China Lake is too brackish to drink.

Then, there's ocean energy. Global cooling was a possibility if we developed ocean thermal energy conversion. These plants would cruise the oceans searching for the hottest surface waters to power their ammonia-based Rankine cycle engines. If more than 30,000 of them were built, they could lower the temperature of the ocean about 1 degree C per decade, nearly enough to offset global warming!

On my Pick Web page, you'll find a link to a discussion on just that point from 1977.

Hidalgo is gone. The last US copper smelter closed its doors over a decade ago, and Phelps Dodge died with it. Couldn't compete with Chilean copper.

There are technological solutions, some of which I have begun to reveal, but leadership is the unmeasurable factor that can make or break the ultimate solution. My life is an an example of what can happen when you're ahead of your time and no one listens because they perceive no threat.

We still have that problem. The idiots in power still believe that we have centuries' worth of fossil fuel, unlimited amounts of nuclear fuel, and that global warming is a myth. The myth is their role as a leader: They do not understand the importance of technical know how, the power of invention, and the extraordinary creativity within the human spirit. They have exceptionally poor education, and cannot allow people with vision to take power.

We are electing a new crop of leaders tonight. How many have a good, solid technical education to balance their political "science". Guess -- maybe 2% at most?

Many of you are correct in assuming that we have a serious, if not insurmountable crisis in leadership. We have solutions, just no will to take the risks necessary to carry them out.


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Designed first all-solar home for Ryland Homes in 1974. At MITRE, led a group of 35 of the best minds in the world (including Dr. Edward Teller, among others) who performed detailed engineering, scientific, socio-economic, and political analyses (more...)

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