Tuesday, August 19, 2008

War for Platinum

THE WAR BETWEEN the Republic of Georgia and Russia is now supposedly in a cease-fire, but tensions remain high, and blame for the war's start is being spread worldwide. 

Unlike ages past, where wars were more often than not localized disputes between individual rulers, nowadays far too many people feel the need to participate in, or at least influence the outcome of each war, leading to the spreading of war and betrayal of friends. The cause of war is ultimately sin, and an unfortunate side-effect of our Enlightened Age is that the consequences of the sins of the few are imposed heavily on the many.

"No war for oil" is often heard these days, and Russia now has control over several oil pipelines that traverse Georgia, but this war may just as easily be explained away for democracy, justice, freedom, or ethnic solidarity.

Ameren UE Labadie Power Plant, in Labadie, Missouri, USA

The Labadie power plant, owned by Ameren UE, is located on the outskirts of the town of Labadie, Franklin County, Missouri, and supplies electricity to the Saint Louis region. This plant entered operation in 1970 and burns coal.

No war for oil, but war for platinum?  It could be likely.

The power plant shown above burns coal, which evaporates water into steam, which spins turbines, which generate electricity.  Although modern power plants like this one can do this conversion relatively efficiently, the process is limited by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which prohibits the complete extraction of energy from heat.  Most of the energy, in principle, must be wasted and is sent down the adjacent Missouri River as warm water.

Burning something just to extract its energy is rather crude, and one particularly clever device that directly converts a fuel's energy to electricity — and bypassing some of the bad effects of the dreaded Second Law — is called a fuel cell.  Just like a regular D-cell alkaline battery in a flashlight, a fuel cell uses chemical reactions to directly make electricity. Instead of a battery cell that has its chemicals sealed inside, a fuel cell replenishes the chemistry with a continuous flow of fuel into its interior, making it relatively lightweight and long-lasting. Plenty of common fuels can be used in these cells, depending on design, including hydrogen, alcohol, natural gas, propane, gasoline, coal gas, and so forth.

Fuels cells are by their nature efficient in converting fuel into electricity.  They have excellent potential for fuel savings, both in commercial power generation and in transportation.  Since they operate cleanly and quietly, more and smaller power plants can be placed close to customers, reducing the tremendous loss of electricity dissipated over power lines; even individual homes can operate a fuel cell.  This technology means that we can have the electricity we need, with far less consumption of fossil fuels and very little pollution.

But there is a catch.  Fuel cells require significant amounts of platinum as a catalyst, so much so as to make up much of the total cost of the cell.  Platinum is one of the most noble and beautiful of metals, is very rare, very precious, and very expensive.  You could probably store all of the world's reserves of the metal in your basement.

Platinum ore is found in Canada and the United States, but primary deposits are in the Witwatersrand of South Africa and the Ural Mountains of Russia.  The Russians, especially, know the value of what they have, and only recently relaxed control over the flow of platinum to the world market, but prices remain at the whim of government policy.

Perhaps the latest relaxation in the price of platinum takes some of the world's pressure off of Russia's Putin, but the Caucasus region is rich in fossil fuels and precious metal ore, and he no doubt would like to reassert Russian control over that region for financial gain.  And others will attempt to prevent him from doing so.

Please note that a current major use of platinum is for automotive catalytic converters, which reduce the emission of pollution from vehicular exhausts. Add to this the demand for platinum for efficient fuel cells, and the world's production of platinum becomes intimately and crucially tied to international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  As saving the environment has become the new summum bonum, or greatest good of man (even justifying draconian population control programs), war for platinum is also quite justifiable to our utilitarian elites.

Instead, rather pray for peace and turn off the lights whenever you leave a room.

1 comment:

  1. Right on, Mark. Of course the cause of war is sin, both individual and collective.

    Your energy comments also are interesting. Actually, modern steam turbines are quite efficient compared to the other power sources we use; that is, about 50% vs. less than 25% for the Otto cycle or the Diesel engines. Fuel cells do have their advantages over steam turbines, but as you can see, there isn't a whole lot of room for improvement. Given the still primitive state of fuel cell technology, it will be a long time before they significantly displace the turbines. Wind turbines and photovoltaic generators already are in wide use, but as yet have not challenged good old-fashioned coal. I don't look for noticeable change in my brief remaining lifetime.

    This leaves us with your final point: "turn off the lights when you leave the room". It really is each individual's responsibility to minimize his/her energy consumption. In the "developed" countries (especially the US) everyone wastes prodigious amounts of energy. Accepting that individual responsibility would go a long way towards relieving our crisis.

    But I expect that will happen about when the politicians we elect become honest and tell the truth.

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