If aliens of our level of technological advancement landed on earth tomorrow they would be dumbfounded by our energy and fuel infrastructure. Drilling and digging deep holes in the earth attempting to reach ancient deposits of depletable biomatter. Transporting it to distributed facilities for processing and refining, and then again for storage and eventually to the point of use.
Capital intensive exploration to discover new reserves and get them out of the ground or from under the ocean. Geopolitical complications and operational challenges. Ever-present risks to personnel, equipment, and communities. Cumulative damage to air and water resources throughout the infrastructure and during usage. And then wasting the majority of the captured energy due to inherent inefficiencies with systems based on combustion.
What are these humans doing? They have inexhaustible energy available from their sun, wind, ocean, and geothermal sources. This planet has an abundance of water that can be readily split into hydrogen and oxygen using these energy resources, and returned to water form after usage. An endless cycle that can be performed anywhere on the planet at or near the point of use. Why is their energy infrastructure still based on an outdated paradigm from more than 150 years ago?
Sunk Costs and Vested Interests
An assessment of our current global energy infrastructure by those visiting aliens would conclude that it is illogical, unsustainable, and ultimately self-destructive. What made sense in the 1800s with the technology available at that time makes no sense now. What they may not be able to understand is that our world revolves on sunk costs.
In economic theory, sunk costs cannot be recovered and are not to be taken into consideration for decision making. In the real world of business, the first part about being unrecoverable is true. However, if those sunk costs are associated with assets that still produce significant profits, they are most definitely taken into consideration.
In fact, sunk costs can become the primary decision drivers when a business, or even an entire industry sector, is faced with the threat of stranded assets and reduced revenue generation. This is true across all industry sectors, not just energy.
A historical example from the telecommunications industry is the diffusion of cellular technology. In so called developed regions that had a couple hundred years of telecom evolution from telegraph to landlines, cell phones became an overlay infrastructure. By contrast, when developing regions first started building telecom infrastructures they went right to cell phones. No need to lay miles of wire based on old technology.
Why the difference in the diffusion of cellular technology between developed and emerging regions? Sunk costs and vested interests. It will be the same process for hydrogen in the energy sector. Rapid adoption in some regions, and slower diffusion where businesses are still trying to wring the last drop of revenue from their current assets.
We often ask people "you still have a landline?" when they complain about spam calls and the inconvenience of a stationary phone. History will repeat itself as it is apt to do. In the future we'll be asking "you're still burning fossil fuels?".
The Hydrogen Economy is Over a Million Years Old
We already have an energy economy based on hydrogen and always have ever since the first prehistoric human started a fire. Carbon is an undesirable interloper that comes along for the ride in the hydrocarbon fuels that we burn.
Fossil fuels are all hydrocarbons which are various combinations of hydrogen and carbon atoms linked together. In a combustion process, the carbon produces soot, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide as byproducts. The first byproduct can cause lung disease and shorten your life; the second can cause brain damage or kill you; and the last one has become an existential threat to life on our planet.
The next phase of the hydrogen economy will get rid of the carbon and its associated byproducts. We only need the hydrogen. In my next post, we'll do some hydrogen myth busting to show that the path to a carbonless energy infrastructure has already been blazed.
Matt Moran is the Managing Member at Moran Innovation LLC, and previous Managing Partner at Isotherm Energy. He's been developing power and propulsion systems for more than 40 years; and first-of-a-kind liquid, slush and gaseous hydrogen systems since the mid-1980s. Matt was also the Sector Manager for Energy & Materials in his last position at NASA where he worked for 31 years. He's been a cofounder in seven technology based start-ups; and provided R&D and engineering support to hundreds of organizations. Matt has three patents and more than 50 publications including the Cryogenic Fluid Management report series. More about him can be found here.