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Hydrogen, 2053 and all that

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by guest blogger Stan Thompson

If you’ve ever seen a slow-motion video of a dropped glass object shattering, then—the video reversed—reassembling to form the whole again, you have some notion of futurism.

Futurists pay attention to the moving fragments all around us:  which are biggest; how they are shaped and spinning; and the direction toward which they seem to be converging. The shape of the pre-shattered object becomes clear when it’s only a few frames from becoming whole again. But, conversely, the more frames that separate the intact object from the scattered shards, the less clear the restored shape, or the future, can be. Like the people who  reviewed aerial reconnaissance images in pre-computer times, for futurists, noticing convergence and intuiting the result is a habit acquired over time.  Like riding a unicycle, it’s a thing few have occasion to learn.

Here’s a unicycle view of 2053, roughly three decades into the emerging transition out of the extraction age which will begin to wind-down in earnest during the 2020s—impelled at first by the menace of climate change but later by the positive, opening possibilities of synthesis.

Extraction‘s replacement is the synthesis age:  making what we need from what’s right around us becomes the new norm. We’ll still extract and refine ore to produce things we can’t obtain by re-sourcing. What’s different is that extraction becomes “plan B.” “Plan A” becomes re-sourcing.

Re-sourcing is “recycling’ in the time of very cheap energy. Its machineries will be both expensive and knowledge cost intensive. But energy itself, as a feedstock from wind and sun and primitive nuclear fusion, will finally approach the “too cheap to meter” stage predicted at the dawn of nuclear fission power plants.

With plenty of very cheap energy, everything from household waste to outdated  semiconductor devices can be disassembled via plasma into atoms. Plasma-freed atoms will be—like individual pieces of hand-set type redistributed into the boxes of a font tray—stored, traded and redistributed later as required. Atoms will be assembled, largely into bespoke items, by unimaginably complex additive manufacturing devices—the inkjet printers of the gods—over and over and over.

In 2053, no one under the age of forty will ever have heard of the quaint 2020’s chromotaxonomy of hydrogen:  grey, brown, blue green and gold. Hydrogen will be just the form electricity takes when traveling from electrolyzers to fuel cells by pipe or while riding in a container, waiting  to be called for. That imaginary bazaar where the varicolored element was supposed to meet buyers will never emerge. H2’s production cost will simply change too fast for such a structured market to take form.

After coal replaced wood as locomotive fuel, few dwelt on the respective cost or steam-producing properties of oak, ash, poplar or maple. Different hydrogens, different woods…same fate.

Downstream from the electrolyzers, a lot of H2 will be tapped-off and burned for space and process heat and in non-electric mobility engines. It will just be called fuel in 2053, since nothing else will be burned to produce heat. “Fuel” will just mean hydrogen that’s relaxed back into energy and water without putting its electrons to work.

There may be too much fixation on hydrogen’s carbon-free ability to harness solar and nuclear energy to things that move over land and through the sea and air. That focus could begin to fade as wind- and solar-based ammonia fertilizer replaces far more carbon than H2 mobility eliminates. I don’t know whether piston engines will live long enough to burn hydrocarbons synthesized from CO2 frozen out of the air and hydrogen electrolyzed by energy from the sun but that’s one possibility the synthesis age lays before us.

Like Hamlet, hydrogen is the central character but it isn’t the whole play. The morals of the synthesis play are, “you can’t get the stuff you want out of the earth without also getting some stuff you don’t want” and “sooner or later you run out of stuff locally…then everywhere.” Side plots deal with the mayhem that ensues when bad guys covet the geography where the treasure is buried and help themselves.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Age, the people who produced things have been like ore and oil: used where they were found and left there when technology moved elsewhere. But with the fading of extraction and the dawn of synthesis, bringing the work to the worker will no longer be the monopoly of knowledge workers. Air and water and re-purposed matter are much more nearly ubiquitous than oil and coal and mineral geology. When a technology “goes away” in 2053, it needn’t necessarily go “away.”

Through most of recorded history, the atmosphere and hydrosphere were assumed to be too massive and robust to be affected by anything humanity could throw a them. The last century reversed that belief and, as extraction gives way to synthesis, the lithosphere and its biomass may also become an object of attentive protection.

By 2053, humankind will have learned to love, and love deeply, the thin layer of the planet we evolved over millennia to inhabit. Whether it will be the reciprocated love of a finely-tuned marriage or poignant reflection on what might have been, the shards aren’t saying.

The post Hydrogen, 2053 and all that first appeared on Hydrogen Cars Now.



Source: http://www.hydrogencarsnow.com/index.php/infrastructure/hydrogen-2053-and-all-that/


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