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Fuel from Seawater: a conversation with my grandfather

My grandfather died in 1962 at the age of 76, so the heading is merely a hook to underline the passage of time and relativate (verb?) the content of  this posting. If the idea of making fuel from seawater seems preposterous, try to picture the news as seen through my grandfather’s eyes. I was fortunate to go on many long walks with him before he died. I was in my early teens then, and he was in his seventies. My grandfather was a retired  physician, a surgeon. He was born in 1888, as a subject of Queen Victoria, and at the time of his death, India had become an independent republic. He studied at the Madras Medical College, an institution that the then governor of the East India Company, named Yale, was instrumental in developing in the late 1600s. Thirty years later around 1720, Elihu Yale was the benefactor of another college on another continent, also a British colony at the time. Yale College and University were subsequently named after him. My grandfather proudly told me that one of his mentors at Madras Medical was Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, who was among the first women graduates of medicine in the world, and certainly the first Indian woman to do so, at a time when women were not allowed to join medical colleges in Britain.

As a freshly qualified young surgeon in the early 1900s my grandfather was 24 years old when the world’s first radio distress signals at sea began to come from the Titanic in April 1912. During his lifetime, he experienced the birth of wireless radio transmission, saw the first motion pictures, watched telephones become a part of everyday life, began to use antibiotics to ward off post-operative infections, and flew in Mr. de Havilland’s new-fangled Comet jetliner. So what would he have made of the news that the US Navy will power ships with fuel made after extracting carbon dioxide from seawater or that a University-based research group has perfected a solar cell that produces electricity from sunlight with conversion efficiencies of upto 43%? As a comparison, the solar cells that are commonly seen on rooftop arrays today have efficiencies ranging from 10 to 18%. I believe he might have been surprised, but would have quickly taken the news in his stride. After the monumental changes witnessed in his lifetime, the two developments above might seem to be fairly insignificant. But these technologies are potential game changers. Here’s why.

With efficiencies of over 40%, utility scale solar farms become feasible and cost effective, producing electricity at prices below that of conventional power plants. To make fuel from seawater, carbon dioxide and hydrogen are first extracted from it using a catalytic converter. This mixture is then converted by polymerisation to longer chain hydrocarbons which are the building blocks for a range of fuels of different grades for ships, cars and aircraft. The entire process is carbon neutral because the carbon used for combustion is extracted from the environment. Too good to be true? At the moment, yes. The process is roughly at the stage where the Wright brothers’ heavier-than-air flying machine was in the early 1900s.

In the link below, it states that we are 60% towards cost-effective utility scale solar power. Cells with almost three-fold efficiency gains will produce electricity at lower cost than conventional plants today.

Clean and green vs. might and blight Many acquaintances who are not averse to renewables but are still captive to the current energy paradigm, remark that wind and solar farms take up too much space and that too many windmills or panels are a blot on the landscape. But so are open cast mines, oil wells, fracking sites and many of the other wonderful extractive technologies that power much of the world today. Just because they are tucked away in remote places does not make them any less environmentally destructive. The images below speak for themselves.Unknown DSCN0679 images-1 Unknown-1Which brings me back to my grandfather. World population doubled in his lifetime, but there were still large chunks of virgin territory around the globe. Today there are 7.2 billion of us around and it behooves us to tread lightly on this planet and conserve what we can of its considerable beauty. We owe it to our children and grandchildren, if not to ourselves.