Focus on energy: Amory Lovins fuels hydrogen solution

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Aug. 12, 2004 – Amory Lovins has been described as iconoclastic, idealistic and influential. But not ignored.

The author, consultant, physicist and chief executive of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based nonprofit research center, has advised numerous business, government and academic leaders over three decades on energy and other issues.

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Small Times’ Jeff Karoub spoke by phone with Lovins about developing hydrogen and other alternatives to oil, the role of nanotechnology in those efforts, and the emerging field’s risks and rewards. Lovins also reveals the missing link between carbon nanotubes and hummingbird spit.

Q: Tell me about your report, “Winning the Oil Endgame.” What is the main message to your audience?

“Winning the Oil Endgame” will describe how to get the United States off oil completely and profitably — even for oil companies. It suggests doing this (through) very efficient use of oil; substituting safe natural gas in applications where they’re changeable, like furnaces and boilers, biofuels and waste-derived fuels and optionally hydrogen.

Together these seem to be enough to provide all the services officially projected to be derived from oil in 2025, cheaper than buying the oil and without counting any avoided external costs of buying and using the oil.

Q: Will the report talk about a movement like this serving as a stabilizing geopolitical force?

Yes, or at least removing some of the major sources of instability and conflict in the world. Although we do argue that while oil is cheap, dependence on it is not, and especially if you count hidden costs it’s not at all cheap.

The basic case is a business more than a policy case. That is, we’re suggesting that the substitutes for oil are cheaper than the oil in private internal costs. Therefore, they’re profitable to adopt; therefore, the transition will be led by business.

Although we’ll suggest some innovative policy approaches to help that happen, it is primarily a business case. Certainly the daily headlines give us reason to think this is a very timely reminder that the oil problem is one we don’t need to have and it’s cheaper not to.

Q: A former ChevronTexaco executive told Small Times two years ago that the company is going to be a hydrogen energy company, whether pumping hydrogen into a car or selling the hydrogen fuel cell or batteries. Other hydrogen advocates believe it should create a new, decentralized form of energy generation and use. Do you recommend such a “top-down flow of energy” in a hydrogen-based economy?

We work with a lot of the oil majors — I have for 30-odd years. And I think they will be very important players in the hydrogen economy. But that doesn’t mean they or anyone else will make hydrogen in central plants and pipeline it all over.

The logical way to deliver hydrogen to vehicles is to make it from natural gas, typically, at the filling station. That appears to use less capital and probably less natural gas than business as usual would use.

That said, there are some central production opportunities that probably do make sense in particular situations.

The most obvious is that refineries, which now make about 7 megatons a year of hydrogen in the U.S., may turn into merchant hydrogen plants as they find there’s less need for that hydrogen to make high-octane gasoline and desulfurized diesel fuel because those have been displaced by efficient use and indeed by biofuels and hydrogen.

Q: Nanotechnology, specifically nanoscale materials and structures, is seen as playing a central role in storing hydrogen as well as catalysts to convert hydrogen to electricity. The oil industry already uses nanoscale technologies to refine petrochemicals. What role, if any, do you see this emerging field playing in a hydrogen economy?

Well, first I think I need to clarify what you mean by nano-based approaches. As far as I know all of the examples you gave are of materials crafted at molecular scale or in nanosize particles.

I prefer to use the term nanotechnology in Eric Drexler’s original sense of molecular assemblers, rather than applying it as a blanket term to everything of nanoscale, whether it’s anything to do with assemblers or not. Which sense do you mean it in?

Q: Hewlett-Packard nano researcher Stan Williams has separated the field’s applications into two categories: passive — nanocomposites and structures — and active — the so-called nanobots and their self-replicating kin.

It’s a useful distinction. I think it’s probably clearer between nanotechnology in the Drexlerian sense, and if you’re just talking about nanoscale materials, then just use that term.

Q: Would you then separate your concerns or issues related to nanotechnology versus nanoscale materials?

They both have important issues that need to be examined much more carefully than they have. But they’re different issues. The assembler-related, or as you would say, active technology issues have to do with malicious use.

I’m not quite so concerned about the gray-goo problem, but there is certainly a shadow side to the assembler technology and Eric, of course, has been concerned about that from the beginning.

In that sense, Drexlerian nanotechnology is yet another of several technologies we have, like nuclear fission and transgenics that someone said are suited for “wise, far-seeing and incorruptible people.”

The nanoscale materials, what you’re calling the passive uses, have a different set of issues, namely where do they go and what are their health and environmental effects? Because they can be absorbed or metabolized in very different ways than the materials of which we have evolutionary experience.

I have an unpleasant feeling that although these materials have some wonderful applications, they may also turn out to have medical or ecological side effects, which we never heard of.

So we really need to temper our technical enthusiasm, which I share with a lot of precaution in figuring out the biological implications before we use these materials widely.

Q: Understanding the distinction as you see it, what about the nanomaterials and structures playing a role in refining petrochemicals and in catalysts to convert hydrogen to electricity?

Subject to the caution I just gave, I think there are some technically very important applications in the areas you’ve mentioned and in others, including structural materials. Nanoscale materials have many and generally favorable implications for cost and efficiency throughout the hydrogen value chain.

But I have not assumed any of them in analyzing hydrogen systems. To the extent that these nanoscale materials innovations succeed technically and turn out to be safe to use, they will simply make hydrogen economics and practicality greater than my analysis suggests.

Q: You’ve talked before about approaches you prefer that don’t have the environmental risks often associated with nano-based approaches. I assume you put biomimicry in that category.

It’s not free of those issues of its own, but I think they’re a lot less scary, because by definition they use techniques that life has evolved and become comfortable with, rather than things of which we have no evolutionary experience.

Q: You’ve included examples in your “Twenty Hydrogen Myths” paper where the U.S. government seems to be moving forward with hydrogen initiatives, but some critics don’t believe it’s a genuine effort to move beyond oil.

Hydrogen seems closer or further away, depending on current fashion. At the moment, a number of, I think, rather poor reports are being published saying it’s very far away.

They reached that conclusion by assuming inefficient cars and disintegrated implementation. The market is not constrained by that perception, fortunately. The people who are developing the technologies are continuing to do so with very good results.

I think the current crop of pessimists will be surprised. On the other hand, if you go back a few years, there were a bunch of folks ready to charge into the market with technologies that weren’t ready yet.

Putting out unreliable fuel cells would have been a disaster, so I’m glad we didn’t do that.


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