Why technology can’t solve all of our problems

I have many posts about energy contraptions that have had hundreds of thousands of breakthrough stories in the media, yet here we are, without powerful enough batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, and so on to replace fossil fuels despite the exciting news that never actually happened.  Here are some of my posts on this topic:

Below is a post by Kevin Cameron, who points out that inventions can take a long time to come to fruition, such as the carbon-fiber he saw in 1976 that didn’t appear in a commercial flight until 2011—35 years later.  But this hasn’t appeared in motorcycles yet.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Kevin Cameron. 2019. Electric bikes, rocket fuel, and the possibility of disappointment. Yearning for a breakthrough that may never come.  Cycleworld.com

Our expectations of what technology can give us result from fast changes in areas such as computing. We are impressed by social change caused by the coming of phones that are really pocket-sized computer terminals connected to “an internet of everything.” This tells us that technology can give us whatever we want and soon.

We know that around 1975 John B. Goodenough devised a workable rechargeable battery of high energy density based upon lithium ions. By 1992, the concept had been commercialized by Sony, and since then, with increasing intensity, hundreds of academic and commercial laboratories have striven night and day to be the first to create for electric vehicles a better battery that has it all.

Having it all means being affordable, free of high-priced materials, safe in operation, fast-charging, capable of producing large current, long-lasting, and able to store enough energy in a lightweight package to compete heads-up with the range and performance of vehicles powered by internal-combustion engines.

Many different electrode chemistries exist for the basic lithium-ion process, but no single one of them has yet achieved a “round” performance offering all of the listed desirable attributes.

One way to look at the future is to say, “Well, all these hundreds of labs have been hard at it for many years, so the big breakthrough will come any minute. We deserve it. All it takes is for some brilliant chemist to add a pinch of this or that and we’re home.”

The development of Rocket Fuels

I was fascinated to tear through the late John D. Clark’s little book Ignition!, which describes the intensity, creativity, and results of rocket-fuels research from the end of World War II to the mid-1960s. Military planners knew that any future world war would be decided by nuclear ICBMs, with results final in 20 minutes. Driven by that sharp spur, world governments poured treasure and resources into the development of rocket fuels that might give them Cold War leverage.

Chemists can compute the ideal energy yields of even quite complex fuel and oxidizer molecules. But it’s quite another thing to realize ideals in practice. Some fuels, such as powdered aluminum, burn too slowly to react completely before they leave the nozzle. Others failed to meet the services’ standards for storability or low freezing temperatures. Some compounds slowly deteriorated over time, generating gas that could burst storage containers. Little by little, useful combinations were discovered, but the exotic promise of super fuels kept research going, trying to create ultra-high-energy combinations based on boron, fluorine (it eats through glass), and even remarkably poisonous mercury. Standards were created to measure sensitivity; some fuels, especially monopropellants, detonated if poured, or if they touched dust, or from micro-cavitation. Countless thousands of compounds were proposed, produced in labs, tested, and, if possible, fired in research rocket engines. Micro-contamination of containers by trace elements led to terrible surprises. Researchers were injured or killed.

Here we are in 2019 with heavy rocket boosters still burning RP-1—a kind of standardized kerosene—and liquid oxygen, as in the Apollo program.

At the same time, the US Air Force worked to develop range-extending boron-based fuels for gas turbines. One class of fuels showed promise, until its combustion product turned out to be a viscous material like melted glass, which plugged up the engines in which it was burned. There were explosions with no discoverable cause. Eventually the materials under study proved just too dangerous, and the program was ended.

Here we are in 2019 with heavy rocket boosters still burning RP-1—a kind of standardized kerosene—and liquid oxygen, as in the Apollo program. Higher-performing engines burn liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, and the storable propellants are either conventional solids or based on good old nitrogen tetroxide and acids. In the mid-1960s, computer programs were run on mainframes to exhaustively grind through all possible chemistries. The result? The same compounds that had been discovered by conventional means, so many of which were too sensitive to be used.

There are other ongoing programs that have yet to succeed. One is thermonuclear fusion, a potentially unlimited power source. For much of my lifetime, I have read that, “The problem of controlled fusion will be solved within the next 50 years.” Another is the “room-temperature” superconductor, which would enable super-efficient electrical devices and lossless transmission of power. In each case, success would be of great benefit to humankind. We want success very much. We feel we deserve it.

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5 Responses to Why technology can’t solve all of our problems

  1. Jeorge says:

    Heh, American motorcyclists – not the most thoughtful bunch; this article will probably be considered by most of them as “deep”. And I say that as a fellow motorbike rider. In the US motorbikes are all about indulging the arrested development of the man child, as evident by the total lack of practical, utilitarian models that focus on simplicity and fuel economy. Instead it a “lifestyle”, one largely consists of drunks on harleys, squids on crotch rockets and rednecks on trail shredders. Any suggestion that this petro-powered way of life might be ethically irresponsible and/or likely closing in on its expiration date reliably launches a litany of colorful right-wing NRA-inspired verbage.

  2. Darkest Yorkshire says:

    If you wanted to make the case against technological progress I don’t think you could make a worse choice than rocket engines as an example. It’s easy to sneer at the ‘hilariously toxic’ experimental fuels, but there have been recent and significant innovations. The Rutherford engine still burns RP1, but the fuel pumps are run by battery-powered electric motors, which until recently was thought impossible because of energy density. The Raptor engine runs on methane, an increasingly popular fuel, and will be the first to go into service with a ‘full flow staged combustion cycle’. This was the Holy Grail of rocketry, extremely efficient but also considered impossible for a long time. The Vector rockets will use propylene, a completely new choice of fuel.

    Of course this is largely irrelevent as none of them help with the problem of power supply on earth. As trucks are your speciality, what do you think of the more down to earth use of rocket fuel, HHO injection in heavy vehicle engines? The idea is the vehicle carries an onboard tank of water, and some power is taken from the alternator to run an electrolyser. The resulting hydrogen and oxygen are injected into the cylinder along with the primary diesel fuel to make it burn faster and cleaner. In principle it works like a supercharger – some energy is invested to improve burn characteristics, which then gives back even more energy. The idea has been kicking around for decades, but now supposedly better catalysts and computerised design and control have given it a worthwhile EROI. Tests with DHL lorries are claimed to have yielded about 20% improved fuel efficiency and lowered emissions.

    • NJF says:

      The electrolyser thing smacks of perpetual motion-type tech to me. Also you now get to carry a water tank and all these extra components on board that can fail.

    • energyskeptic says:

      I’ll believe it when I see it, like all the literally other millions of breakthroughs google search returns. Any solution involving hydrogen is clearly thermodynamically impossible, and electrolysis uses WAAAAY more energy than the hydrogen will ever provide. see my posts under hydrogen at http://energyskeptic.com/category/energy/hydrogen/
      And how long will it take to retrofit tens of millions of heavy duty diesel trucks (tractors, harvesters, logging, mining, construction, garbage, etc) at a time when diesel fuel is declining and in demand for thousands of other purposes? Could it even be done in the chaos and social unrest a rather sudden decline in the standard of living would cause?

  3. John Matheson says:

    The energy problem could be solved almost instantly – by not wasting 99% of the energy harvested with inefficiencies at every step and boundless unnecessary energy consuming activity. But the whole human system is built on a consumption model, so that isn’t going to happen.

    However the looming climate, economic, population, religious, ecological, political, inequity, etc., etc. problems remain. Any one could end civilisation as it exists and one of those problems certainly will precipitate the end, probably sooner rather than later.