On Fuel Cell Criticism

July 25th, 2010

I recently saw a few articles which discussed fuel cell technology. I didn’t realize how advanced our current fuel cell technology is. Apparently, we already have cars and buses (among other things) that run on Hydrogen Fuel Cells. What this basically means is we have cars that you add liquid Hydrogen (I believe it is in the H2 form) as you would gasoline to a conventional car. Energy is extracted from the H2 resulting in engines that run without combustion. The only emission from this process is H2O, water.

So as my mind is whirring on the possibilities (and awesomeness!) of this revelation, the criticism sets in. I don’t think I’ve seen an article yet that didn’t criticize the technology, which I find somewhat suspect, especially since we’d like to use clean renewable energy rather than fossil fuels.

The first criticism is cost. Fine. Any new technology will be substantially more expensive than established technology, due in part to the economy of scale not having taken over yet. Fewer units sold means the units must be more expensive to pay the workers, designers, et. al. to live, eat, pay rent, etc. Of course, were this technology to hit mainstream, the costs would necessarily plummet, though probably not as fast or as low as most of us would like.

The second criticism is related to the first. Cars fueld by H2 must be in reasonable proximity to stations that provide H2, something which conventional gas stations aren’t equipped to provide. That means early adopters are forced to limit their lifestyles/travels to suit the availability of fuel stations. Again, once it hits the mainstream, fuel stations will become more abundant, rendering this objection moot.

The third criticism is somewhat valid… Today, tomorrow and probably all this year. H2 has to come from somewhere. Fuel stations can’t just set out a bucket and collect it as you would rain. Rather H2 is produced. And unlike the cars that run on fuel cells, producing H2 currently carries a cost in fossil fuels, with associated emissions. This is where many people take pause and think “Fuel cells are no better than conventional combustion engines.” Here is where they’re wrong!

Suppose there 140 million cars in the US today (that’s pretty close to the actual number). Many of these cars are from the 1990’s, 80’s, or even earlier. If a new engine came out today that cut emissions in half, doubled performance and even was easy to produce, how fast do you think we’d replace an adequate percentage of cars with these cleaner models? 10 years maybe? 20?

Suppose further that every five years we made similar leaps toward more efficient and cleaner use of fossil fuels, how much lag in the effect on air quality and other consequences would there be? Several years seems likely per each innovation.

Now suppose instead we move to fuel cells. There is a push for fuel stations to be provided with enough saturation to make switching to fuel cell cars viable to the masses and fuel cell cars are mass produced. This transition may even take 10 years or so if we push it.

Even if all that time we are producing H2 by burning fossil fuels, once the switch is complete, we have a real opportunity. If we come up with a cleaner way to produce H2, say with a clean energy source, the public doesn’t have to buy a new car or buy different fuel. The public can do exactly the same things and immediately benefit from the cleaner sources of energy.

The reason is indirection. With combustion engines, we are directly using the fuel to power our cars. But with fuel cells, we are indirectly using the fuel to power our cars. That means the ultimate source of that fuel can change at any time without altering how our cars work or what they run on.

So, today, tomorrow and all this year fuel cells are infeasible for the mass market. But if we can help fuel cells hit the mainstream, then our cars won’t just be indirectly burning fossil fuels (rather than directly), they could be burning wind, water, or solar power. They could be burning nuclear power. They could be burning any sort of power we can figure how to use to produce the fuel cell energy supply. And that would truly help wean us off of fossil fuels.

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A Few Words on Gravity

March 12th, 2010

One regularly used and specious counterargument to the objection that a scientific theory is “just a theory” is to point out that gravity is also “just a theory.”. The implication (sometimes explicitly stated) is that since no one would doubt that gravity exists, no one should doubt whatever other theory is being considered.

I say the counterargument is specious for good reason. Gravity is a fact. There is a phenomenon we call “gravity.” The “Theory of Gravity” however is science’s attempt to describe the phenomenon in a quantifiable manner, ie with a model. Over the course of history, science has developed many models for gravity. Each one has in time been proven to be either wrong, or incomplete. The current Theory of Gravity describes gravity accurately so far as we can tell, but one would be foolish to rule out a future advancement that might revolutionize our understanding of gravity.

For example, we observe strange and unexpected gravitation in the universe at large. We don’t have a good explanation for this behavior as of yet, but many have posited “dark matter” or “dark energy” is involved, to make the current gravity models fit.

Meanwhile, we have a good working model for gravity. A large body of experimental data has been shown to agree with predictions the current gravity model makes. In particular, ie. there was a bunch of data that the model had to describe/fit initially, and the model has since accurately predicted future data. For example, if you drop any weight of any shape in a vacuum, shoot a satellite into space, or anything else where gravity is concerned, the model predicts the outcome with a high degree of accuracy. Any lack of accuracy we might observe between the prediction of the model and the outcome of events is generally from other forces involved, such as air resistance.

So, we see that while “gravity is just a theory” it is a pretty good one. The model fits past data very well, one might say perfectly within margins of measurement errors. But more importantly, it accurately predicts future data, such as outcomes of experiments done by physics students do an equal degree of accuracy.

This is vastly different from most of the theories that gravity is compared to in argument. Climate change/global warming for example has no model that is able to make such accurate predictions. It does have a model that fits existing/old data to a degree of accuracy (not as good as the gravity model). But so do many competing climate models. In fact, other models are better able to predict future data. The model itself doesn’t prove or disprove the theory behind it, but the lack of a good, reliable model does place the theory on a completely different plane from that of gravity. One that is much lower and subject to skepticism.

So, please. Stop comparing things to gravity just because both are called “theories.” There is no relation between them beside the fact that the models for each of them might be wrong. It just turns thinking individuals off from your argument. Instead, if the “theory” has merits, discuss them.

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Any scientific subject, once sufficiently politicized, warrants skepticism, particularly by those who philosophically oppose, or disagree with those who willingly, recklessly, and religiously embrace it. Skepticism is even more warranted when politicians, not scientists are making all the arguments. Particularly since everything in politics seems to be a means to an end.

Now by “skepticism” I don’t mean to say we must deny or prove false the science in question, but we must carefully examine the science, scientific process used, and especially those scientists involved in it to make sure the matter is in fact scientifically supported or whether it is partially or wholly false or at least not certain.

One blog I read is written by a Statistician, William M. Briggs who regularly comments on the science, and particularly the math and statistics of the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) theory that is so often touted as “settled science.” There are several points which he grants the AGW side is accurate. Firstly, it is clear that we humans have an impact on our environment, and that impact can be both positive and negative depending on our behaviors and the scale of them. Second, it is well known that we pump loads of CO2 into the atmosphere each year and we have every reason to believe that CO2 is a global warming gas (if that’s not actually proven beyond doubt, there’s very good evidence for it).

The point where he debates that AGW is at least “not settled” if not so wrong it needs to go back to the chalk board, is in their models. According to our statistician, and common sense, any good model should do two things well. Number one, it should accurately model, or fit existing data upon which it is built. Number two, it should accurately predict future data, or data not yet in the model and disjoint from the data already in the model.

So far, again according to Mr. Briggs, the AGW models have succeeded at the first requirement, but failed at the second. Does this mean (ie. prove) that AGW is false? No. It does however mean that the science is not only “not settled” but has a lot of work to do before it is.

Mr. Briggs further argues that there are other models for climate that also fit past data and actually do a better job of predicting future data. Does that mean these other (non-global warming) models are correct? No. The wonderful thing about models in this debate is they don’t really prove anything. Yes, a model that accurately predicts future data is compelling and useful, but it is not proof. And the failure of a model to predict future data devalues the model, but doesn’t prove the theory false either.

Mr. Briggs is the first to admit he might be wrong and AGW might be as true as anything. But he makes the point many times that the scientific process is flawed to the extent that the scientists involved are flawed, and that any number of biases, errors, or mistakes resulting from individual or collections of scientists could be present and probably are. In answer to the objection that the science is “peer reviewed” he often brings up studies or articles that were also peer reviewed that are either meaningless, ridiculously flawed, or blatantly wrong.

Again, none of this means that AGW isn’t happening exactly as the scientists say, when the models aren’t predicting the new data accurately, scientists refuse to examine themselves, their own biases or their process of peer review, there is plenty of reason for skepticism.

Furthermore, when politicians pick up any topic of science, I almost have to add the “so-called” prefix to the word “science.” Politicians are smart, smart people – they somehow convince the voting public that they’re better than the alternatives, so we vote for them. They do this by argument, debate, and rhetoric. Mostly, lately they do it by promises, smears of opponents, flattering blocks of voters, and a never ending series of logical fallacies. In this political arena, science is often held up as the great light of reason and truth amid the quagmire of lies, propaganda, and maneuvering that is so prevalent in politics. In this struggle for power, whenever a politician (or political party) sees something in science that might help them gain favor, power, or influence, what reason do they have for not holding onto it?

Now, if both sides immediately sees the value and truth of that science, there’s no political gain to be had, everyone just nods and says “yep that’s how it is” and moves on. Occasionally there’ll be a propaganda war or smears that the other side doesn’t value the particular science, but that ends pretty quickly as the public comes to understand the positions of the sides are actually equal.

But if one side or the other looks at the science and sees a problem with it, or at least that it might not be true (science is always wrong, until it’s right), the side that embraces it can use that opportunity to gain power and influence, while at the same time belittling and smearing opponents. I can think of a number of examples that I will go into later if there’s interest.

This is exactly what has happened with AGW, the democrats have latched onto AGW and republicans have been mostly skeptical. For this democrats have smeared republicans as “deniers” putting them on the level of Holocaust deniers, implicitly and explicitly. This is not unexpected. If republicans had latched onto some bit of science that could change the world, and democrats resisted it, I’m sure mud would be slinging in the opposite direction.

The key points I’m getting at are: 1) Skepticism is both a healthy and necessary part of science 2) Skepticism is not “denying” truth 3) Politics muddies science 4) Science isn’t perfect 5) No one should believe in an aspect of science because politicians say it’s so (or actors or people standing to gain lots of money, etc. – they’re all politicians too even if not in public office).

Mr. Briggs makes very good arguments for all of my points (although imperfect ones in some cases). Again, AGW may actually be happening. That’s what skepticism is: saying “I’m not so sure” rather than “that’s not true”. Yes there are people who believe AGW is false, some rationally, others irrationally. Also, there are those who believe AGW is true, some rationally, others irrationally. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about skeptics. And anyone who would demean a skeptic of any science, particularly one that is far from proven (“scientific consensus” isn’t proof), would also demean the scientific process.

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