Big Brains at Sandia National Lab Tackle the Future of Combustion


Wall Street Journal – October 22, 2007

Are you concerned with the future of automobiles and their use of liquid fuel in the future? Regardless of your stance on global warming, geopolitical reasons should dictate that most people are concerned about our source and use of liquid fuel in automobiles and its current main source in the Middle East.

This article is based on the visit by the reporter to the Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore CA.  This facility is arguably the home to some of the brightest minds in the world and their efforts in this area are quite intriguing (and sobering as well).

Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, Calif., is part of a complex of government funded institutions where, during the Cold War, teams of scientists did heavy thinking about nuclear weaponry and other super secret military technologies. The national laboratories still do a lot of that kind of work. But at Sandia, about 20% of the lab’s effort is now focused on a different security issue how to reduce consumption of oil.

…But the underlying message was straightforward for an English major to grasp: No one’s found a magic bullet, at least not yet.

…Cellulosic ethanol has great promise, he says. So does creating ethanol by using algae grown in brackish water. But the technology to do these is probably a decade away from being commercially viable.

How about hydrogen? Sandia scientists are working on several of the hurdles to hydrogen-powered cars. Storage is a significant problem with hydrogen: in liquid form it must be kept super cold. Another approach is to store the hydrogen in a solid form, bound to a sort of chemical sponge. But refueling such a tank generates enough heat to boil 60 gallons of water, says Robert Carling, director of the physical and engineering sciences center.

The trouble is, old technology is cheap, and for the mass-market car business, cheap isn’t just good, it’s essential.

You can read the entire article here.

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