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Journal Journal: Stranded Wind: This Is The Hydrogen Economy

You've been hearing about the hydrogen economy for quite a while. We're pleased to report that it is ready to go using technologies that have been in use in economically successful projects for the last twenty years.
We'll warn you in advance, however, as you're not going to find any cute, soundless cars or futuristic cityscapes. The use of hydrogen as a fuel for at least the foreseeable future begins and ends in an Iowa cornfield ...

First lets talk about our two candidate fuels, hydrogen and ammonia.

Hydrogen today comes from two sources. The first and most common is evolution from natural gas and the most common use for the H2 is as a feedstock for the Haber-Bosch process, the means by which most of the world gets its nitrogen fertilizer. The rest of the global supply, about 4% of the total, is produced by splitting water using electricity, a process known as hydrolysis.
Hydrogen can be used directly to produce energy. You can put it in a fuel cell. You can burn it directly in an internal combustion engine, but its much less efficient than a fuel cell. It is fairly nasty stuff to design for and use. Diatomic hydrogen, which is just a pair of protons with two skittish electrons to chaperon them, is a master escape artist, slipping around seals and valves. Gather a bit of it together where there might be a spark and you'll get a violent reaction. Vehicle storage requires pressurized tanks that will let go with a bang in a crash just due to pressure and then almost certainly explode and/or burn after the fact.
Ammonia, on the other hand, is a much nicer fuel. It has to be kept in pressurized containers, it is caustic, very hazardous to handle, but it requires some special attention to make it burn so there is no fire or explosion hazard in the event of a vehicle crash.
So now you're saying to yourself "Great, when can I get a conversion kit for my car?" The answer to that is simple - never, ever. We're going to use ammonia as a farm fuel.

OK, with us so far? This is the hydrogen economy part we promised, with the three hydrogen atoms bound up in an ammonia molecule being used to replace diesel in tractors and combines.

Ammonia is widely used as fertilizer in corn production, with the application of about one pound of it for every fifty six pounds(a bushel) produced. A square mile of Iowa farmland will require about forty eight tons of the stuff for nitrogen enrichment and will yield about twenty seven hundred tons of corn. You can feed a city of a hundred thousand chickens for a whole year on that ...
Every farmer in Iowa knows how to handle ammonia safely. Iowa has 800 ammonia dispensing stations. The United States has 3,100 miles of ammonia pipelines and Iowa is the nexus for them. We're fond of using Iowa because we do about 25% of the nation's corn production right here and we're smack in the middle of the country's bread basket. You can take most of what we say, scale it up by four, and have a pretty close estimate of a national plan.
So, we have farmers trained to handle the product, we have a distribution network already in place, and the diesel engines in tractors and combines need a new dual feed gas manifold to replace the existing liquid diesel system. Why a dual feed? Remember earlier when we said that ammonia wouldn't burn easily? That is true, so we have to use about 5% propane to get the combustion started.
This is not theory, not even one little bit. You can pick up a telephone and call the Hydrogen Engine Center in Algona, Iowa. Ask for Joe Lewis and tell him you want to buy an ammonia powered generator. They're selling these things now for use as power supplies in irrigation systems. Here is a picture of their production floor. Yes, thats Joe right there front and center. If you want to know more about them we did a nice article on them earlier today on the Stranded Wind web site.
This is a picture of their production floor

OK, sounds good so far, right? But 96% of the world's hydrogen comes from natural gas and that still releases carbon dioxide. Not to worry, because the solution is blowing in the wind an hour west of the Hydrogen Engine Center. Iowa has a massive supply of Stranded Wind

Iowa has ninety nine counties. Ten of them have perfect wind at 7.5M/s to 8.0M/s wind and around sixty more have fairly good wind in the 7.0M/s to 7.5M/s range. There are less than a hundred thousand people in that pretty gold patch in the upper left, not all that much in the way of power transmission lines, and that means we have a great deal of Stranded Wind - wind energy available with nowhere to go ... unless we devise a way to use it locally.
This is a picture of Iowa's wind distribution
We've done some fairly in depth calculations. We'd need about $7,500,000,000 to produce all of the ammonia the state requires for fertilization. That is roughly five gigawatts of wind plant and the associated ammonia production infrastructure. We've got fifteen gigawatts worth of wind that can be easily developed and only about a gigawatt of it is in use at this time. Doing the fuel, too, means scaling this up by a factor of thirty and we'll recall that Iowa is one quarter of the total corn production region. The cost of the Iraq war would have freed a very large portion of our agriculture completely from fossil fuels except for lubricants. Did you do the math on the 30x increase? The fifteen gigawatts is in the sweet spot in the upper northwest. There is cause to electrify a whole bunch of additional area in the state by installing turbines to drive the rail system, but we'll leave rail electrification for another post.

OK, this all sounds great, right? But how do we fuel cars, trucks, and other things that run on the road? What we describe above has some pretty big implications for ethanol production, too.

We won't cut and paste the article we did today calling for discussion on a strategic plan we're calling Ethanol 2.0 but we will provide a summary.
Ethanol production requires quite a number of fossil fuel inputs, on a bad day producing about 80% of the energy put into it and on a really good day 130%. The energy policy guys call this concept EROI - energy return on input. Forget all about dollars and cents, you count the amount of power that goes into a process, what you get back out of it, and then you've got your EROI ratio.
Texas crude that shot up out of Spindletop in 1901 had an amazing EROI, perhaps 100:1 or better. The often mentioned Canadian tar sands? No one is talking but we're guessing between 5:1 and 10:1 for that. They're basically trying to boil a pot of water the size of Florida up there using all of the stranded gas to do the heating. Very messy, very bad for the local environment, and way more CO2 emitted than traditional oil production means.
The EROI on ethanol using stranded wind produced ammonia as both fertilizer and fuel coupled with bioprocessing of feedlot waste is very much up in the air. We know it will be much better than the current 1.3:1 at best, but the exciting part is that it would all be carbon neutral. Yes, you heard correctly, food for the nation, two hundred million barrels of road fuel annually, and not a lick of carbon dioxide produced in the process.

OK, sounds great, but the federal energy bill was a total disaster. This will never get done, right?

Two weeks ago we called the office of Steve King, R, IA-05. Don't bother looking, you already hate him - he has a 100% score from Focus On The Family. We left a message about wind energy development and twenty minutes later we had a staffer on the phone who said and we quote "Tell me what you need us to do." We talked for a good half an hour and he agreed to introduce us to some other folks working in the area.
What about the state level? A welcome like the one we get from Representative King's staffer only they have budget dollars and people already working on the future in a way the rest of you will envy.
Here we've got the Iowa Office of Energy Independence and they have, amazingly enough, a $100,000,000 energy independence initiative over the next four years.
Our governor, Democrat Chet Culver, is on top of his game, pushing this initiative along with the help of a Democratic party controlled state House and Senate.
So, there you have it, hydrogen economy, no research required although new advances will be incorporated when ready, and its financially and politically in reach RIGHT NOW.
The Iowa Legislature goes into session in a few short days. We can really use some help chewing over the Ethanol 2.0 plan. We'd love to see volunteers from the other corn/wind states step up and claim their state in the forums area dedicated to activism.
(crossposted from on DailyKos)

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I've been reading Slashdot for about nine years now. There have always been trolls and cretins as a component of the peanut gallery, but as the userids go higher the clue seems to decrease. I think I'll still read stories but starting 2/20/2006 I'm just not going to comment any more - I might as well try to have a technical discussion with one of the homeless people that haunts the park across from the downtown library as say anything of value here.

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