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Energy Conservation in India and in China

By Will Offensicht  |  September 20, 2007

When I moved to the US from Japan in 1963, there were essentially no cars in Japan; I was hit three times by cars my first year in the US because they move faster than bicycles.

The transition to the automobile age separates the population into two categories - the quick and the dead.

Having watched the Japanese automobile business grow from nothing to a world-beater and watched the US economy nearly strangle from pollution and the high price of oil imports, it saddens me to see China and India heading down the same road.  It saddens me even more given that there are alternatives if someone makes some decisions.

I have a friend who runs an energy think tank in Tokyo.  Japanese energy consumption per capita is about half US consumption.  He points out that Chinese people want air conditioning and automobiles as much as Americans do and that the Chinese are earning the money to pay for them.  There are 4 times as many Chinese as Americans.  Even if the Chinese end up as efficient as the Japanese, that's 2 US equivalents worth of energy demand coming on stream over the next 15-20 years.

This doesn't count India which has 3 times the US population.  India originated the phrase, "Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noon day sun;" Indians want air conditioned cars as badly as Americans and Chinese do.

China can't take the same path into the automotive age that we did, there simply isn't enough petroleum available in the entire world.  My Japanese friend assures me that the alternative discussed below is technically feasible, but politically difficult.

Automobile Fuel

China and India are adopting personal automobiles.  If they follow our path, each country will put itself in a position of its entire economy being vulnerable to interruption of its oil supplies.  Since neither country has a petroleum-based infrastructure in place, at least not compared to what they will need as they enter the automobile age in a big way, it would be advantageous for both countries to switch immediately to hydrogen for powering automobiles and small trucks.

Both countries have nuclear capabilities; both could set up nuclear electric plants which would generate hydrogen during off-peak hours and run the nuke plants at constant load.  Running at constant load maximizes efficiency and minimizes cost.

Someone would have to establish standards for interchangeable hydrogen cylinders, say, 3 sizes for small, medium, and large cars. Each car would come with one cylinder which would entitle the owner to go to a station, have his tank taken out, weighed, and a full one put in; he would pay the difference.  The tanks would incorporate a pressure reduction system so that all piping in the car would be low pressure.  The tank would shut off automatically if the pipe in the car ruptured.

Empty cylinders go back to the generating station to be inspected and refilled; there would be very few places handling high-pressure hydrogen. Nuke plants have a lot of safety in place anyway, so that is a good cultural climate for handling high-pressure hydrogen. tells how this works.  Blue Rhino drops filled propane cylinders at many locations; customers swap cylinders.  Empties are returned to a central place for refill.  This is much safer than having a lot of places where cylinders are filled.

We in the US know how bad automobile pollution is and we know how miserable it is to depend on overseas energy sources.  China or India could pioneer this technology, avoid pollution and dependence, and sell it to the rest of the world.

The US government is too heavily influenced by the oil business and anti-nuclear activists to do anything that bold, but the Pacific Rim could avoid pollution and dependence.  A pollution-free automobile would not need any of the pollution prevention add-ons we use in the US and Europe so would be cheaper anyway. 

A hydrogen-based transportation system would make it possible to store electricity.  One of the reasons electricity is so expensive is that there is no way to store it.  Being able to run plants flat out and store the excess as hydrogen would save money all over the world.

By the way, hybrid automobiles are no solution for either country.  Hybrids are no better then diesels on long hauls, cut petroleum use by 50% at best, and cost a lot more to make because they need gasoline engines, electric motors and exotic batteries.  If we just burn the hydrogen in a simple 2-stroke, fuel-injected engine, cost goes down and pollution goes to zero.

People forget how many resources are used in making cars including transportation, refining raw materials, manufacturing, etc.  Greens won't admit that it takes so much electricity to refine the aluminum used in wind turbines that few turbines ever give back as much electricity as they cost to make.  The electricity is in a different place, to be sure, so you save on transmission, but still...

How To Get There

We need an "open source" engineering project which is managed somewhat like the Wikipedia ( ).

If engineering students would contribute ideas on, say, the design of the hydrogen tank, the pressure regulation system, and the quick-disconnect valves, another group could work on how a low-cost car would use hydrogen, what sorts of low-pressure piping would be needed, whether the engine should be in front or in back, where the tank should go for maximum safety based on collision records, how to wrap metal around the tank to protect it, etc.

Others could look into how to get hydrogen out of water at a nuke plant and / or solar installation.  Given a cheap way to transport energy in the form of hydrogen, solar arrays could be put far out in the desert.

This need not be an India-only or China-only project; there are imaginative engineering students all over the world.  There are nuclear engineers all over the world, and construction engineers, construction people could help discuss how to build the hydrogen facility onto a nuke plant and do cost estimates

We need software simulations to estimate demand and to calculate where to put cylinder swapping stations, etc.  There are trade-offs between energy loss in transmission wires from the nuke plant to a distant hydrogen generation facility versus transporting the cylinders after they are filled, for example.

Open source software groups produce very good software.  "Open source engineering" can do very good engineering, but someone would have to start the project, write the goal statement, enforce the community rules as at the Wikipedia, and try to get people to contribute.

Someone would have to set up topics, as in chemistry, high-pressure systems, tank, simulation, construction, etc., and try to get different professors, engineers, people, whomever, to take charge of each topic.  A topic might be too big for one group and it might get divided as we go along.

Maybe Tata Motors would contribute server spaced and some publicity.  A contest for best top-level paper?  A prize for best economic analysis?   Does anyone know any big business guys who might want some favorable publicity?  Payoff would be a long time coming; this is not a usual venture capital investment.

Is this thought interesting?  Could we find a university professor who would assign this as an engineering project for his students?  Getting a conversation going among young engineering students who are more flexible in their thinking might be a good way to start.