Conventionality in a new energy source

This era can be called the golden era for energy research. Mankind is struggling and striving hard to discover an energy source which can sustain the needs of all, has mobility, scalability in its output, is less polluting and easily adaptable. The biggest sources of energy currently utilized are coal, petroleum, natural gas, nuclear (fission), hydel, solar and wind. Other sources can include biomass, geothermal, battery, hydrogen etc. but are less common/ conventional.

The chart shown below represents only the electricity generation part of the energy source. It does not cover the energy aspect of moving vehicles, airplanes, heat for boilers/ smelting units etc. 

Energy Source Distribution

If there are several sources already available to fathom, then why is it so hard to switch the energy source?

Financials: The abundance of an energy or the amount of money spent to fathom the energy source in a consumable format define its financials. In simple economics, if it takes more money to extract energy from the source as compared to the work done by the energy produced, then it is not an economically feasible source of energy. For instance, green hydrogen (hydrogen extracted using renewable sources of energy) requires a large amount of investment which causes the price per unit for green hydrogen to increase. Along with the manufacturing the delivery or processing of the energy source can also be a big factor in defining the price. The price for gasoline or diesel may also increase if being delivered to a remote location which does not have a continuous supply.

Abundance of resource: The abundance (in commercial aspect) of the energy source is extremely important in deciding the usability of the source. Resources such as oil or natural gas are also not available everywhere and require an extensive geo-physical/ geo-chemical survey before drilling. Wind farms are located at special locations which have a good flow of wind throughout the year. Nuclear fuel Uranium or Plutonium also requires mining and nuclear power plants also need a tremendous amount of safety protocols. Hydel power plants require an extensive study of the terrain, water flow, weather and irrigation before setting up.

Solar might be the only energy source which is available abundantly everywhere and can be salvaged even at a smaller tier level (such as a single home or facility).

Capacity Factor: This is defined as the ratio of the electrical energy produced by a generating unit for the period of time considered to the electrical energy that could have been produced at continuous full power operation during the same period. The capacity factors are usually defined for a power plant. Nuclear power plants have the highest capacity factor in the US, which means they produce at the maximum capacity for the most time.

Capacity Factor Comparison in US for 2020

Conventionality: This is rather the biggest aspect of all which decides the usage of an energy source, especially in today’s world, but is not often talked about. It is something we all see around us but cannot explain in words.

The invention of internal combustion engine, fractional distillation, automobiles, airplanes with the advent of world war I and II in late 19th century and early 20th century created a huge demand and supply of an energy source which was easily transportable, combustible and economical. Crude Oil and its products (diesel, gasoline/ petrol, kerosene, tar, naphtha etc.) very quickly gained momentum which took over the entire world. Transportation soon became easier with better performing engines and the crude oil soon found its way into the plastic industry as well.

The crude oil and crude oil products have taken more than a century to bury themselves deep into our civilization and become an essential part of our daily lives. Its removal can only lead to retrogression of current way of life and technology. Let us take an example of automobiles.

Although Leornardo da Vinci had designed a very complicated self driven horseless carriage, powered by springs and Nicolas Cugnot is called as inventor of the first automobile (steam powered, 3 wheeled tank running at a whopping speed of 4kmph! It needed to be stopped every 15-20 min to steam up), the first automobile running on an internal combustion engine powered by gasoline/ petrol, similar to what we have today, was made by Karl Benz in 1886. Soon after this the demand for faster mobility started increasing and people got immediately attracted towards this new invention. This not just increased the demand for fuel but also the spare parts for the cars and the internal combustion engine. Soon supply chain management was designed to cater this demand all over the globe and pipelines, tankers, sea routes, pumping stations, storage tanks, petrol pumps/ gas stations were created. All these establishments, systems, mechanisms were made with the sole purpose of providing gasoline/ petrol to an individual’s automobile. A change in the type of engine might lead these facilities to become obsolete and the supply chain to be established again, which can be a bigger task. An option for LPG/NPG/ Propane powered cars was a big success in terms of ensuring that the design of the engine does not change and the vehicle still remains and performs similarly. A similar result was observed with hybrid vehicles (electric and gasoline/ petrol). However, powering the propane engines with hydrogen will not only lead to change in the supply chain establishments for fuel but also the spare parts for cars/ engines. Each car would need to be equipped with a hydrogen cylinder with extra safety precautions. Gasoline pumping stations need to be converted to Hydrogen pumping stations which will need enhanced safety precautions. Even if Hydrogen powered cars run on fuel cells, there is a bigger concern on safety for Hydrogen as history has always told us.

Hence, in order to find out the next optimum source of energy, especially for prime movers, the conventionality or the amount of change required to implement is also something to keep in mind.

Buying eco-friendly products will not resolve the climate change problem as buying itself is a part of the problem. An ideal energy solution would be the one that does not need revamping of the existing infrastructure but utilizes (re-uses) it.

For an analogy, earth is like a human body suffering from a dreaded malignant cancer. Every body part is slowly decaying and degrading. A solution can be to replace every body part with a donated body part, but that would require extensive surgery. If the body is already weak from the cancer, it may not be able to take the stress of surgery, irrespective of how close the donated organ is matched. If a technique is used which requires minimum invasive surgery and still is able to restore the organs to their full potential, that might seem to be a better solution.

Automobile Energy SourceProCon
Synthetic FuelNo change to the cars/ engines requiredAs the fuel can be manufactured using only renewable energy sources the supply chain management for manufacturing and delivery becomes very difficult.
HydrogenThe overall construct of the engine shall not be changed for hydrogen combustion. As a fuel cell it has a different application.The supply of the hydrogen and the safety associated with it will need to be established.
ElectricElectrical supply needed to charge can be done at home as well or any location. Existing gas stations can also be modified very easily.Current supply of gasoline cars will need to be replaced and recycled with electric cars which will require a large amount of resources.
Biofuel or any other source of fuelCleaner production and cleaner combustion. Less footprint in manufacturing.The efficiency of production of the fuel is very less and hence may end up getting more polluting if manufactured on a large scale.
Pros and Cons of an alternative source of energy for automobiles

This however, does not mean that the electric cars and eco-friendly products cannot help the planet. They can help in short term, but it is essential to understand that even though they may seem to be “greener” they may not be the solution to the problem.



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