Modern Philosopher’s Stone

Long long ago, when chemists were still Alchemists, and real men wore beards and magnificent mustaches (looking right at you Tycho Brahe), brilliant and methodical men wasted much time searching for the philosopher’s stone. This, for anyone without any fantasy knowledge, is some material (not necessarily a stone) that would transmute lead or other base metals into gold. Many times, this was also used as a metaphor for the philosopher/alchemist who sought some way to transmute their base instincts into noble characteristics. (See my poem: The Disappointed Alchemist)

The unattainable dream of the philosopher’s stone actually drove much invention, and yet it also caused much wasted time. I don’t mind that really, since alchemists were funded like any artist at the time, by people with money who wanted to look cool. Today’s alchemists, however, use taxes to fund their dreams, which is why I wanted to discuss one branch of research which is very common, and seems to be a modern philosopher’s stone: hydrogen power.

The appeal is certainly very large. Combustion, the simplest way to eke power out of nature is the rapid oxidation (with oxygen no less) of a chemical. For instance, the combustion of octane is written chemically like this:

Lots of carbon dioxide, and to make it worse, gasoline combustion is never this tidy. There are a massive number of different hydrocarbons in gasoline, some of which contain sulfur, nitrogen etc., giving as product (or exhaust) oxides of nitrogen, sulfur, and carbon monoxide. The appealing part about hydrogen combustion is that it yields no products other than water.

That means power with no pollution whatsoever! Which is, admittedly, a very attractive idea. Now, while technically possible, and definitely appealing, every chemist will readily admit many serious drawbacks. However, this blog is not for chemists, this is for non-chemists who have probably at some point read glowing articles in Popular Mechanics or Popular Science, or some article on the economy predicting the coming dominance of the hydrogen economy, and for those people, I want to lay out one of the theoretical difficulties with the whole idea. The other problems I list and the end because I am too tired to discuss them now.

Problem: Where do we get hydrogen? Well, right now we get hydrogen by putting a lot of energy into… methane… fossil fuels.  This means that currently, to use hydrogen as a fuel we would have to take a pre-existing fuel, use energy to lower the energy density of the fuel, and then use the fuel. Not something anyone other than a bureaucrat would do.  (Don’t get me started on Ethanol… ok, maybe sometime I will get there.)

Theoretical solution: This is the most philosopher stone like: water splitting. See the idea is this, use solar energy (it has to be not fossil fuel based to make any sense, so solar or nuclear energy is about it.) to drive a catalytic reaction that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The technical difficulties of water splitting are not really a subject I think I should go into here. In a nutshell, there are two distinct steps to the process, the hydrogen side and the oxygen side, and so far, every experiment is practically a proof of concept doing one side or the other and using massively expensive, typically non-reusable catalysts such as ruthenium based or rhodium or iridium based catalysts. (These are rare earth metals and very, very expensive.)

However, to me, the whole water splitting for hydrogen fuels looks like a big impossible circle.

Now I fully and unequivocally believe that scientists should try to do impossible things. Many times what seems impossible becomes possible because stubborn hard headed scientists keep trying to do them. That is perhaps one of the most admirable things about science, persistence in the face of overwhelming odds.

What bothers me is when people, scientists included, behave as if their experiments are funded magically, and that (more often than not in water splitting research) the concerns of those actually funding the work (taxpayers, not DOE or NSF or DOD) are unimportant. I believe that people, taxpayers, should know that things like this are very very improbable, and I also believe that if taxpayers do not want to fund something, they should not have to.

So, philosophically, I find the reasons for tax funding hollow. And as for those people who do not understand the scientific problems behind hydrogen (of which there are many others*) and yet proclaim it to be the ‘next thing’ and breathlessly tell us that as soon as we figure out distribution and sales, all will be well… those false prophets I find as ridiculous as Rabadash.

*1. Hydrogen Production (briefly discussed above)
2. Hydrogen storage (its nasty difficult)
3. Fuel cell or standard combustion efficiency
probably more… 🙂

Each part of the process is fraught with problems, and each step is used to justify many government grants… just so you know.

23 responses to “Modern Philosopher’s Stone

  1. this was really intense. took a lot of re-reading a few of those paragraphs before i really understood (science is not my strong suit) but was super interesting overall! thanks for sharing! x

  2. Are there really non-reusable catalysts? I always thought that in order for a substance to be a catalyst, it is restored to its original state after helping ‘start’ a reaction.

    You make a lot of interesting points. How do you think the process by which taxpayers choose where their tax money goes would be set up? That might be a great way to spend money way more efficiently, but how would we prevent some crappy projects (that might sound good initially) from getting funded and some good ones (that might be too complex/esoteric for taxpayers to understand) from falling through the cracks? And when it comes to determining what projects will have probable breakthroughs, where do we draw the line between the good ideas and bad ones? Who would have thought that Edward Jenner had a good idea when he started picking scabs off of people, ya know? (Not that that was gov’t-funded, but you get the idea.)

    Never thought of this side of science! Thanks!

    • Yes, catalysts usually are slowly damaged over the course of reactions that they catalyze. So while the reaction is occurring you are correct that the catalyst is restored to its original state. However, between reactions, or over the course of time (in a flow reactor of some sort) catalyst is usually slowly degraded. Also, the more complicated the catalyst the faster it usually degrades.

      As for how I think science should be funded, I realize it is a tricky issue. I am a big fan of how space exploration is being slowly privatized. Also, I believe that usually the free market and free economies are the best deciders of what breakthroughs are most important. Bill Whittle on space travel sort of sums up the concept that I think would be best for all science. Government (and hence taxpayer) money usually leads to stale research rather than dynamic research.

  3. Thank you for sharing ,i like nice post

  4. If things do not begin to change, the environmental problems of today will be our limitations of tomorrow. As you have mentioned in so many words, funding is the key, because there are only a handful searching for a solution. Good post.

  5. Very informative .Thank you for sharing.Jalal

  6. I love that an article referencing the philosopher’s stone was freshly pressed. Congratulations.

  7. Well it certainly sounds more feasible than the ‘gasoline pill’ that you just added to water! On a serious note, most of the things that have been developed by these modern alchemists have been done so by accident. Here’s hoping for an accident. Oh, of the good sort of course. Brilliant post!

  8. I remember being unable to watch a rocket launch when visiting the US, because there was a hydrogen leak. Tell me we are not still using explosive fuels in rockets. Could you split the atoms, take them into space and combine them into clean fuel? If the waste product is water, that could be recycled for human life. Just a thought.

  9. I may not have understood the majority of the science but I did understand that with low rates of success, there are some research projects out there that taxpayers do not want to fund. Good Job on being pressed!

  10. I worked with scientists/researchers for 10 years and we were constantly looking for funding. Many wonderful things came from the research, but not all funding is equal (from a “who gets what” perspective). Government money for research in the areas of environment and energy are critical at this time. As the world grows larger, the time to prepare grows shorter. Understanding resources will become ever-more critical.

    • I do understand the need for funding, I am just not convinced that the government is the best way. But if the government is funding something, people should know how good the prospects of that research are, rather than just be told that ‘the hydrogen economy is coming’.

      • I agree with you there. I just know that a lot of research won’t happen if the government doesn’t fund it. Like you said, alchemists used to be funded like artists, by rich people who wanted to look good. To me, private funding has too much “direction” in the research. Too many hands in the cookie jar trying to lead where the research ends up, usually for their own benefit.

  11. Well, I don’t know, I feel we waste money on much more nonsensical things, so why the hell not science? I think all the NASA stuff isn’t worth funding…I mean, I’d prefer a thousand hydrogen projects like this, but projects related to our ACTUAL WORLD than to some distant crap in outer space. We’re screwing up our own planet and searching elsewhere to live?? There is no elsewhere to live, and even if there were it’d be useless going there because we’re predators and we destroy everywhere we go! Still, I think funding NASA is better than funding atomic bombs, and soccer players and all sorts of sports, and they’re all getting their billions, so…hooray hydrogen-impossibilities!!! 😛

  12. You lured me in with a catchy beginning and then nailed me in the mid-section with science and stuff.

    Good on you. Way to lead people into the pool of knowledge, using only a little bit of deceptive, magic-ary along the way.

    Nicely played, mate.

  13. I love the way you get straight to the basic facts… is often so good….like many professions… shrouding itself in mystifying terminology, which leaves people feeling they don’t really understand what’s going on…so best leave it to the clever professionals….and trust in what they tell us:-) this is good for scientists and their funding…and less good for the rest of us who provide the funds!

  14. Pingback: Tycho, Kepler and the Modern Philosopher’s Stone | A.G. Wallace

  15. repurposed redhead

    Well, not being a big fan of chemistry to begin with, this was actually pretty interesting. Thanks! While it’s great to keep looking for that philosophers stone as you call it, the best answer to our energy dilemmas is simply using less energy. But that is a wholy different discussion. Great post! – Rene

  16. Ahhh, yes.
    Government grants are most likely the product of the Philosophers Stone.

  17. Pingback: It’s (Almost) Alive !!!1!1! | The Dusty Thanes

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