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What happens when coal is gone?

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LINDAU, Germany–What’s the best way to address a politically charged topic such as the future of energy? Remove the politics. “We’re going to skip over the politics,” Robert P. Laughlin, who won a Nobel Prize for physics in 1998, told a rapt audience of young scientists and others here at the 60th annual Nobel Laureate Lectures at Lindau. “I’m not interested in now but in the time of your children’s children’s children, six generations into the future and 200 years from now,” when all carbon burning has stopped because it’s been banned or none is left, he said. “Thinking about a problem this way is so simple. Instead of arguing about what to do now, I want to talk about what will happen when there’s no coal."

In two centuries, people will still want to drive cars, fly in airplanes and have lighting in their houses. “Everybody I know thinks there will be big price increases with the end of easy oil and there’ll be a struggle over the resources,” he said Monday. The young scientists in the audience “need to figure out how to keep that struggle from turning into a hot war.”

Toward that end, Laughlin established some principles about hydrocarbons such as gas, oil and coal: everyone wants the cheapest gas possible; when oil runs out, prices will fluctuate but can be managed with technologies in development; and when coal ultimately runs out, further innovation will have to happen to keep society stable.

“Why not just use less coal?” he asked. He showed a graph that linked burning carbon with an increase in gross domestic product, or GDP, for several countries. “This is why nobody wants to go first” when it comes to cutting nationwide carbon use, he added. “We will never have a no-carbon economy.”

Another reason we’ll never fully escape carbon: existing and developing technologies can ease some aspects of the energy-source problem, but the laws of physics create a barrier for others. For instance, nuclear power, solar and wind can keep the lights on when hydrocarbons are no longer widely available. “Right now nobody likes nuclear power, but who do you think would vote against nuclear power if you gave them a choice between nuclear and the lights won’t go on?” asked Laughlin. Coal can be converted to gasoline, if necessary, as the Germans did during World War II using a process developed by Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch in the 1920s. But no other fuel currently offers the energy density—the energy per unit weight—that jet fuel provides for airplane flight. “It’s fundamentally impossible to improve on jet fuel because it would break the laws of physics,” pronounced Laughlin. “You can’t have airplanes unless you make hydrocarbon fuel.”

Laughlin said the Fischer-Trophsch process, which produces liquid hydrocarbons by passing carbon monoxide and hydrogen over iron or other catalysts, can use different feedstocks. In the 1940s, the Germans used coal. Today, several plants are coming online that start with natural gas instead of coal for a better carbon footprint. A couple of the largest are a Shell facility in Malasia and one in Qatar. In the future, there will be other feeds, such as plant materials.

Agriculture alone won’t be sufficient as a source—for the U.S., the required area would be slightly bigger than the state of Texas. But a combination of sources, perhaps including saltwater-grown plants, could get us there in the relatively near term. “Oil will disappear and there’ll be no change at the gas pump because there’ll already be technologies in place,” predicts Laughlin. “The good news is once you build these [Fischer-Tropsch] plants, you can use anything, including garbage, for the biofuel conversion. The big problem is the initial capital cost.” We can adapt the facilities over time.

Eventually, said Laughlin, today’s situation, where energy is relatively costly and carbon is cheap, will be reversed: “200 years from now there will be a new industry that doesn’t exist now. 200 years from now, energy scarcity is not the problem; carbon scarcity is the problem.” What then?

Ultimately, predicts Laughlin, we will learn how to reclaim carbon from air. That carbon could feed into a modified Fischer-Trophsch process. “This development is good news if it happens, and I think it will happen,” he concluded.

Learn more at Scientific American‘s sister publication Nature, and a special web site featuring Lindau blogs, organized by Nature and Spectrum der Wissenshaft, Scientific American ’s German language edition. A slide show, Discoveries 2010: Energy, covers another Lindau initiative, a museum exhibit on energy sources.





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  1. 1. JamesDavis 6:59 am 06/29/2010

    What happens when coal is gone? I can tell you from first-hand experience…. …cave-ins, landslides, erosion, poison water, poison land, poison air, land masses disappearing, communities sinking into the ground, and a great-great increase in chronic diseases. The same thing will happen when oil disappears.

    Airplanes can convert to electric motors and be fueled with hydrogen, like the space shuttle is now, and you do not need to use natural gas to manufacture the hydrogen.

    We need to start teaching our young scientists how to develop foresight, and a creative imagination or we will be stuck in the fossil age. We left the stone age and never looked back and it wasn’t because we ran out of stones…we discovered something better. Let’s leave the fossil age, not because we run out of liquid fossils, but because we discover something better.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Soccerdad 9:36 am 06/29/2010

    What happens? The same thing that has been happening for thousands of years. As one resource becomes scarce, the price goes up and substitutes become more attractive. In energy, it will be the same. The market actually does work.

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  3. 3. gunslingor 11:15 am 06/29/2010

    Were going to skip over the politics,

    Right now nobody likes nuclear power, but who do you think would vote against nuclear power if you gave them a choice between nuclear and the lights wont go on? asked Laughlin

    We will never have a no-carbon economy.

    -Boy, hows that for injecting politics (and propaganda) into the debate!? Dismissing the one solution that can truely produce a no-carbon economy by brushing it off as "no-body likes it". Come on fella! Germany seems to like it. 14% of america is powered by it, so we seem to like it. I’m siting at a nucleaer plant right now that construction may be restarted soon.

    So COME ON!

    All I care about is that we contain our waste in a controllable manner. Unfortunately, you cannot do this with burned products and carbon storage is infeasible and dangerous.

    You also must realize that most coal is .002% uranium, resulting in more uranium being released directly into the atmosphere in any given month than a nuclear facility consumes in it’s entire life. Coal is much more valueable for the uranium it contains than for burning. Consider the health consequences of polluting the air.

    Man wants a cure for cancer. i can cure 1/3. JUST STOP POLLUTING and cancer rates will fall from the current 36% to below the traditional 25%. Of course, the 25% occured when more people smoked and had wood burning stoves, so 15% is feasible.

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  4. 4. fb36 12:25 pm 06/29/2010

    I think it is really a big waste to use coal and oil, mostly for just burning for energy. They are non-renewable resources, so they must be used in best way possible, like using oil only for producing chemicals, plastics and using coal to produce carbon fiber to make all kinds of vehicles.

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  5. 5. phoneyfarmer 1:25 pm 06/29/2010

    Given the grandiose intent of the discussion, that was surely disappointing. We can’t have aviation without hydrocarbons, we must use the Fischer-Tropsch process, and nuclear (presumably fission) is inevitable. That’s very limited thinking and firmly grounded in the here and now. I would have enjoyed an elaboration on carbon-scarcity notion. I don’t quite understand that since we’ve been putting so much more carbon back into the environment. It would seem the challenge is recycling the carbon quickly. That requires energy. I also think the equating of prosperity to energy consumption is naive. The last century or so is such an aberration, it is dangerous to draw conclusions. Good chance our relationship with hydrocarbons could stand some maturing.

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  6. 6. TTLG 2:23 pm 06/29/2010

    Very interesting topic, but not very well covered in my opinion. For example, the claim that aircraft will have to be powered by hydrocarbons. Current electric-to-mechanical conversion is already much more efficient than any possible internal combustion engine barring a breakthrough in ultra-high temperature materials. So whether it is reasonable to expect electric engine airplanes depends on the energy density of the batteries. Do we know what the maximum possible density for Li batteries or H fuel cells are? I have read claims that even relatively near term, Li batteries could rival hydrocarbon fuel in energy density. I would like to know if this is true, or just hype from the Li battery promoters.

    I have similar questions for each possible replacement for fossil fuels. I would be very enlightening to get past the politics and biased claims of the various promoters and detractors to find out what the true possibilities are. Wind power, for instance, seems to me to be a pretty mature technology. Reductions in price will only come from improvements in lower cost manufacturing and increase reliability. Both of these are pretty straightforward engineering tasks (again barring breakthroughs), but I have yet to see any good analysis of what those limits are. Admittedly, it is much easier to just get someone in the business to write up their claims for the future, but I think it would be much more interesting (and useful!) to have a knowledgeable outsider make estimates for each type of technology.

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  7. 7. jerryd 10:25 pm 06/29/2010

    First we will never run out of oil, coal or most anything else, it will just gewt too expensive to extract.

    Facts are for most energy, solar PV/ CSP, wind and ef, conservation can serve most needs. Now add biomass, river/tidal kinetic, inherently safe, smaller nukes solves most of the rest.

    But what a world will we have if we burn most of the oil, coal? Even assuming no GW, the oceans will be dead from CO2 acidification and pollutions from them will make life not very good.

    What we need to do now is put the full cost of oil, coal in them and the above RE which are about competitive now will be the cost effective choices.

    It only takes $500 to build a 2kw windgen that puts out about 15-20kwhrs/day in many places that can supply a family both home and transport energy if well designed, not really anymore costly, in fact cheaper than fossil fuels even now. And lasts 50+ yrs.

    PV panels are now $2k/kw retail if shopped well which is cost effective with coal.

    Solar CSP is just a 5hp steam engine with 200sq’ of a trough collector that provides 15-25kwhrs/day of electric and 45-75kwhrs of heat. It can be built for under $5k retail in mass production.

    I drive my EV’s every day that get 250 and 600mpg equivalent. They can be built for under $10k and $6k. They use no more material, labor than NEV’s now built for that.

    There is no shortage of energy, it’s a political problem, not technical. We just need to get big coal, oil out of the way and stop subsidizing them and the rest will fall into place, hopefully before we kill our planet!

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  8. 8. scientific earthling 12:56 am 06/30/2010

    We shall not run out of coal, we shall be extinct soon. What makes any humanoid believe that he/she will survive the sixth extinction? Planetary warming is now well established and irreversible over the next several hundred Kilo-years.

    No matter what humanoids do, momentum driving planetary heating has now been firmly established. The positive feedback from warming of tundra will accelerate the rate of heating.

    If this is the final phase of biological life on earth then, this will be followed by temperature rises which will cause all the water to turn to vapour. Limestone will turn into Calcium Oxide releasing more CO2. Any remaining coal and organic matter will finally be oxidised consuming any free Oxygen left.

    Planet earth will become like her sister Venus. A planet with a heavy thick atmosphere of CO2, SO2 very little free oxygen and very high temperatures.

    The perfect little planet, no stupid organic life forms. Who said organic life is required for intelligence to exist?

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  9. 9. Quinn the Eskimo 9:02 pm 06/30/2010

    @ JamesDavis:

    Yes we did! The over mining of stones left us with the Grand Canyon. And all that damage (still visible from SPACE) was done *before* we had machines to mine the stones!

    Stone mining was a critical industry, employing thousands of people. Million$ in taxes and wages help keep the stone-age economy humming.

    Think about this now…Have you *ever* heard of a recession (even ONE) during the stone-age-economy?

    See?

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  10. 10. Doc2010 10:08 am 07/1/2010

    David Cota, jerryd, scientific earthling .. are you all living in a vacuum? It requires loads of E N E R G Y to convert these processes. Where do you expect THAT energy to come from? WE are already running OUT of fossil fuels (see ; common sense and reality). Cyclical global warming is well established and Al Gore is an idiot and irrelevant to the issue, even excluding the lying, manipulative "scientific" reports to the contrary. Get a grip personnel, this is the WRONG path. jerryd – Energy density or energy value to cost ratio makes your statement obviously bizarre .. where are YOUR figures gleaned from .. Mad Magazine?

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  11. 11. jerryd 5:58 pm 07/1/2010

    Doc, it’s you who doesn’t know energy, physics a I and many more have lived very well on solar, wind, other RE. The problem is most people waste most of their power/energy.

    Yes I do know how much energy it takes to make these RE machines as I’ve built them except PV panels. PV pays energy back now in about 1 yr, about the same for wind, solar CSP and less for biomass, tidal/river kinetic hydro. Your problem is you believe the oil, coal propaganda they have put out.

    Where the energy comes from is that big nuke in the sky that makes solar, wind, biomass, rain/, ect. It’s all there, just need the very simple machines to catch, make, use it.

    Next is one can just by not wasting energy, need 75% less without hurting lifestyle other than pure wasting.

    Since I can buy solar panels for under $2k/kw, sunelec.com and wind including inverter for under $1.5k/kw, magnets4less.com and one only needs about 2-4kw worth to make 12-24kwhrs/day, one can for under $5k, get energy needed for 30-50 yrs. Just how will you do it for less?

    The few places that need energy density can be done by biomass fuels or using solar, air, carbon waste or CO2 to make liquid fuels is rather well known by the FT among other processes. The only reason they haven’t been done at scale is the huge subsidies oil, coal get.

    So please come out of your vacuum Doc and do some research and even you can see.

    My EV’s for instance get 250 and 600mpg equivalent. In fact a Baker Electric in 1911 that Jay Leno owns does 110 mile range and still uses some of it’s original batteries, NiFe Edison types. It too gets about 300mpge. Why can’t we do that now?

    My Harley size trike MC EV only uses 30wthrs/mile or 30 miles/kwhr. With a cabin it could do much of US trips and could be made for under $6k in mass production. My 2 seat all composite EV sportswagon gets about 10 miles/kwhr. Both cost 25% to run vs a similar ICE. And that is using lead batteries. Lithium will increase the range from 100miles to 400miles.

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  12. 12. scientific earthling 9:25 pm 07/1/2010

    Doc2010:

    Sorry did not realise your comment was a response to mine amongst others, hence the late response.

    I can assure you I am not living in a vacuum, I am living at the end stage of the sixth extinction and can see it happening around me, thanks to global communications. I have also concluded that the heat build up of our planet will continue unabated for several centuries as a result of human activities that put an end to the Holocene epoch and started the Anthropocene epoch.

    The dynamics of continued warming, unstoppable now, change global climate to the point to no human can survive. Perhaps we shall have another series of life forms more suited to the environment. Question is, at what stage will they become stupid and destroy their environment?

    Remember our 6.8Gig population is only sustainable by advanced farming and water management take these away and I would prefer to be dead. I will be anyway.

    Every one of us will die, that is a fact. Our species will die, another fact. The time is now, well that is debatable, and we can only be sure after the last humanoid dies.

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  13. 13. TuringTape 4:50 pm 07/2/2010

    "Every one of us will die, that is a fact. Our species will die, another fact. The time is now, well that is debatable, and we can only be sure after the last humanoid dies."

    Crazy facts. As we go along these warming guys are posting evermore disjointed walls of text. Not that I’m debating "climate change".

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  14. 14. TuringTape 4:50 pm 07/2/2010

    "Every one of us will die, that is a fact. Our species will die, another fact. The time is now, well that is debatable, and we can only be sure after the last humanoid dies."

    Crazy facts. As we go along these warming guys are posting evermore disjointed walls of text. Not that I’m debating "climate change".

    Link to this
  15. 15. scientific earthling 9:38 pm 07/3/2010

    TuringTape:

    Perhaps cultural differences make things seem disjointed to you. If you believe in an afterlife, perhaps you think death does not exist. I am a rationalist and know that one day in the near future I shall die. Darwinian evolution explains to me how I and all life on our planet has come to be, no bible has ever been able to do that. Even the church is now accepting evolution and then making a claim that the evolutionary process was designed and its results were predestined by a god, they call it intelligent design, it is severely flawed, especially when they claim the banana was designed to be consumed by humans (Humans developed bananas from to their current shape and insignificant seeds).

    What is crazy about anything I have said – please explain – based on your cultural values.

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  16. 16. Doc2010 11:01 am 07/4/2010

    Perhaps my reply was a bit too directed. The point being is that all of your "EV’s" require batteries do they not? The batteries must be recharged and eventually replaced. Granted, if you live like Ewell Gibbons (attached to a tree for sustenance and other life sustaining materials) .. fine! However, most of the planetary population does not. Nor do they have a clue how to. "NEVER RUN OUT OF OIL, COAL OR MOST ANYTHING ELSE.".?? .. that is just too provably ignorant and, unfortunately, laughable. Come down out of your tree and join the rest of us cerebrating humans.

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  17. 17. RM 4:18 pm 07/5/2010

    Markets cannot create something out of thin air. So called "markets" are simply just a set of rules that organises the members of society on one fundamental principle – that of competition. Human kind was lucky enough to find vast quantities of fossil fuels – oil, coal, natural gas – and the key word there is "find", these were not invented and no ingenuous scientific principle discovered other than heated air expands (and thus gives you an engine). We are coming to the limits of cheap, available, easily gotten to, fossil fuels. The best thing we can start to do now is conservation, meaning starting to learn to get by with less. We should do that now in a pro-active, conscience way, rather than it being forced upon society when the inevitable shortages and/or very high prices start meeting you at your local gas pump or heating bill.

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  18. 18. scientific earthling 9:50 pm 07/5/2010

    Doc2010:
    Now I am concluding that you are of the opinion that energy is the problem. It is not.

    There is enough energy available to sustain a high standard of living for a reasonable number of people, 6.8G is too large not because of energy needs. Energy does not have to come from coal. Solar, wind, geothermal, wave power and a myriad other sources can provide more energy than we need. Remember the stone age did not end because there were no more stones. So too the coal age must end inspite of the fact that tons of coal exists. When man is extinct a lot of coal will still remain on this planet.

    Population needs to be controlled since it requires food. Food production degrades our environment and requires fresh land when existing land is no longer able to support high intensity farming. This puts pressure on other life-forms reducing biodiversity. No biodiversity no humans.

    Life on earth is an interdependent spread of species each supporting and restricting the species around it. Humans have destroyed this balance, extinctions of other species are progressing at a record breaking pace. Bees are suffering at the moment, every grain of rice, wheat or whatever seed you eat exists because the flower was fertilised by either a bee, butterfly, fly, some insect or in some cases the wind.

    Understand the world around you, remember you are not the reason it exists.

    Link to this
  19. 19. jerryd 11:40 pm 07/5/2010

    Doc, I explained it but you have a closed mind. You wrote,

    Perhaps my reply was a bit too directed. The point being is that all of your "EV’s" require batteries do they not? The batteries must be recharged and eventually replaced. Granted, if you live like Ewell Gibbons (attached to a tree for sustenance and other life sustaining materials) .. fine! However, most of the planetary population does not. Nor do they have a clue how to. "NEVER RUN OUT OF OIL, COAL OR MOST ANYTHING ELSE.".?? .. that is just too provably ignorant and, unfortunately, laughable. Come down out of your tree and join the rest of us cerebrating humans.

    JD writes,
    As I use lead batteries, they are made from what? Lead batteries!! They are recycled and reformed into more. They are the most recycled item in the US and I get mine by using cell phone tower UPS units I only pay $18 each for and they last, after 2 yrs use, another 3-5 yrs. I charge from anywhere as I get 250 and 600mpg equivalent so just $.20-$1.50 to charge for 40 and 100 mile ranges. How much do you pay?

    I live very well with A/C and eat well too, far better than you I bet. I live a good life and have traveled far and wide.

    I bet you work your B-tt off but because I don’t waste energy, things I only need to work 10hrs/week for the last 40 yrs, semi-retired and enjoying fishing, building cool things, helping others and not being a corporate slave like I bet you are. If you want to be a slave o big oil, coal, banks, corps, be my guest but I rather not.

    I own my home, paid for in 5 yrs, owe nothing. What do you owe?

    I’ve done more things than you can imagine, sailing for pay and fun, making energy from the wind, sun tides to power liveaboard boats, designing, building boats, EV’s, RE , ect for myself and others living the good life. I can do this because I’m smarter than you. If more people lived as well as I do, the world would be a far better, cleaner, happier place. Deal with it slave to big business.

    Link to this
  20. 20. OilHot 1:33 pm 07/6/2010

    There is more than enough energy… If we can control the population. That’s the most important variable.

    He states we will have enough but he doesn’t say how many people that will provide.

    I predict that humanity will have a huge adjustment. Population will follow energy production. If we hit Peak Oil it’s going to get ugly until we reach a balance point.

    As we learn our 200 year-out sustainable living technologies, we can slowly build back to some realistic level.

    Unfortunately, nobody wants to bring up population. Too hot, even though it’s the most important point. If there were only 500 million people, we would live like kings. If there is 40 billion, it’s going to be ugly, regardless of the technology. Elevator anyone?

    So, if you don’t want to talk about exponential growth using finite resources (earth) then might as well not even bother. Just enjoy your life and your family. This must be dealt with sooner or later and people will learn all about how important sustainable energy and resource use really is. The big planet is not that big anymore. We grew up… Fast.

    Link to this
  21. 21. OilHot 1:35 pm 07/6/2010

    There is more than enough energy… If we can control the population. That’s the most important variable.

    He states we will have enough but he doesn’t say how many people that will provide.

    I predict that humanity will have a huge adjustment. Population will follow energy production. If we hit Peak Oil it’s going to get ugly until we reach a balance point.

    As we learn our 200 year-out sustainable living technologies, we can slowly build back to some realistic level.

    Unfortunately, nobody wants to bring up population. Too hot, even though it’s the most important point. If there were only 500 million people, we would live like kings. If there is 40 billion, it’s going to be ugly, regardless of the technology. Elevator anyone?

    So, if you don’t want to talk about exponential growth using finite resources (earth) then might as well not even bother. Just enjoy your life and your family. This must be dealt with sooner or later and people will learn all about how important sustainable energy and resource use really is. The big planet is not that big anymore. We grew up… Fast.

    Link to this
  22. 22. waayres 7:20 pm 07/12/2010

    An interesting article and discussion. The one alternative fuel which has not been mentioned is ammonia. It carries more hydrogen by weight then any other liquid. Has been used as a fuel in the past. Has 3000 miles of existing pipeline and literally millions of existing storage tanks. Handled as a liquid and has been used in vehicles and aircraft. The X-15 was ammonia fueled and set all of the altitude and speed records in the 1960s. Currently still holds the speed record for a manned rocket plane.

    Currently produced mainly from natural gas but can be manufactured from renewable sources, wind, hydro and PV. Norsk Hydro operated a plant for over 60 years using electrolysis of water as the hydrogen source and air separation for the nitrogen. When combusted there is no CO2 and no particulates.

    Could be produced from electricity from nuclear thru electrolysis and air separation.

    Also since air and water are the only inputs, can be produced from any location globally. Additionally, the production can be alternatively be used in the fertilizer market.

    Link to this
  23. 23. aditya 12:33 am 08/1/2010

    Robert B. Laughlin, it seems, not Robert P. Laughlin
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_B._Laughlin

    Link to this
  24. 24. aditya 12:34 am 08/1/2010

    Robert B. Laughlin, not Robert P. Laughlin.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_B._Laughlin

    Link to this
  25. 25. Oldnash 6:26 pm 08/2/2010

    Ultimately we will learn to extract carbon from air? This is a prediction? It’s what plants have been doing for several billion years.

    Link to this
  26. 26. waayres 6:43 pm 08/2/2010

    In the mean time why not make renewable ammonia fuel from air and water which is abundant. Not having Carbon in the fuel eliminates the CO2 and particulate problems. It moves us into a hydrogen rich fuel which has been produced for over 100 years. Nothing needs to be invented and ammonia fuel could be produced in areas where wind is prevalent but no grid. Conventional ammonia transportation can take to where electricity needs to be generated in inexpensive conventional internal combustion equipment for peak or other.

    Link to this
  27. 27. RalfDuschef 3:54 pm 08/19/2010

    A noble prize does not make you always right.

    "You cant have airplanes unless you make hydrocarbon fuel".
    Laughlin should have checked.

    The X15 already was flown with ammonia in the 60s, one pilot being Neil Armstrong.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_X-15
    http://history.nasa.gov/x15/cover.html

    From a technical (physics) point of view the energy is in hydrogen and you can replace carbon by nitrogen in the fuel.

    There is an ongoing development about ammonia as a fuel
    http://www.energy.iastate.edu/Renewable/ammonia/
    It has less density than oil/gasoline, but it’s good enough to work with.

    The students should have challenged Laughlin.

    Link to this
  28. 28. ukairportparks 1:01 am 12/6/2010

    This is really interesting topic for discussion,i like it so much but here i mention some information about <a href="http://www.ukairportcarparks.co.uk/robin-hood-airport-uk.htm">Robin hood Airport</a> so enjoy it.

    Chris Fryer

    Link to this

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