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Back to Basics: Start with Dirt

Seated next to me on a plane to Houston several years ago was a facility planner from Dow Chemical. I commented that I had always been impressed by Dow’s vertical integration and how in so many cases it generated its own power to run its plants and even sell electricity to others.

“Yes, we basically start with dirt,” the gentleman said to me. Indeed, Dow has been a pioneer in technologies like cogeneration, combined-cycle operation and the use of landfill gas for power generation. The company has been featured numerous times in AI’s sister publications for cutting-edge projects.

It has been active is several projects with the World Resources Institute, promoting green-house gas reduction on a global basis. Dow Chemical has a long tradition for creative and efficient power generation.

Now comes news that Dow Chemical and General Motors are expanding their cooperative effort at a pilot plant in Freeport, Texas, to prove the viability of hydrogen fuel cells for motor vehicles and possibly for distributed power generation systems.

The announced Phase II will integrate the pilot fuel plant into Dow’s chemical and plastics production facility through a power grid. Up to 1 megawatt of energy will be generated for Dow’s Texas Operations. The project will investigate waste heat recovery opportunities, a classic cogeneration concept, and establish better understanding of hydrogen purity requirements.

With success in Phase II, the companies will look at large-scale commercialization by 2007 involving up to 400 fuel cells and up to 35 megawatts of power generation. We’re suddenly getting more signals that hydrogen could be the ticket and that progress is being made. During a recent visit with Professor Scott Samuelson at the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California Irvine, he told us there has been a 16-fold increase in the power density of fuel cells over the past 12 years. Problems like cold weather operation are being studied in depth. In short, impediments are being removed.

Not a moment too soon. There is a measure of global oil reserves called the reserve life index (RLI). Total reserves are divided by total production and the result is RLI given in years.

Looking at this index, respected energy analysts Raymond James & Associates note that the RLI has been dropping like a rock for 40 years and is still accelerating. It has dropped from 271 years in 1960, to 119 years in 1970, to 47 years in 47. By 2020, Raymond James puts it at 20 years. At some point challenge turns to crisis. We need some basic breakthroughs now.

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Tue. July 16th, 2024

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