In the final part of a three-part series, Michael O'Halloran argues that it would be unwise not to research every conceivable method for producing alternative energy because at this early stage nobody can predict the eventual outcome of research in any area  

It would be unwise not to research every conceivable method for producing alternative energy because at this early stage nobody can predict the eventual outcome of research in any area. It follows that any credible climate-energy strategy must promote and evaluate a very wide range of research and development.

• If for example there is a breakthrough in algae research, different species of algae could be used as feedstock for all of the land, sea and air transport fuels presently being obtained from crude oil. This would certainly solve the transport and other problems.

Algae has enormous potential

Algae has enormous potential if a one-acre pond of algae has the potential to produce almost 20,000 litres of biodiesel a year, as claimed. Whereas an acre of corn can produce typically 1,600 litres of ethanol.

Furthermore, algae does not require agricultural land. Admittedly there are researchers who have abandoned algae, but then many people had abandoned the idea of a flying machine.

Oil companies have become involved in algae research and produced a biodiesel which is considerably more expensive than diesel. Governments, and the European Union should consider taking the pragmatic approach. Sooner rather than later the EU could provide the oil companies with the option to sell blended fuel.

Initially the EU would require the oil companies to market a blend of for example 95 per cent diesel and 5 per cent algae biodiesel. The tax on this blended fuel would be lower than that of pure diesel.

The earlier there is movement in this direction the sooner motor manufacturers will introduce engine management systems which can be programmed to handle different blends of fuel.

Incentivise the oil companies

This approach would not only incentivise the oil companies to get involved in the development of an alternative to oil, it would also persuade companies already involved in the development of algae biodiesel, and algenol – an algae-based alternative to gasoline alternative – to persevere in the knowledge that the market for their product could become truly enormous.

• There is research being carried out into the use of ammonia, ammonium hydroxide, and other related non-carbon compounds as transport fuels. There is no way of knowing what might emerge from this and other research.
• Similarly, several researchers are greatly impressed by the potential of dimethyl ether as a diesel substitute.
• Similarly, one of the alcohols, methanol, ethanol or propanol might emerge as an economically viable carbon-neutral transport fuel. Research could determine if any of these alcohols could be produced economically from wind-generated hydrogen and charcoal which, being biomass, is carbon-neutral.

The volatiles driven off during the distillation of the wood – known as wood-gas – could be used as the heat source for the distillation process, and the remainder would be sold.
• The successful research and development in the areas of wave generation and photovoltaic (PV) conversion is well documented.
• Whether and when nuclear fusion reactors will be developed and commissioned is unknowable. Hence the only safe policy at this point in time is not to depend on fusion reactors in the foreseeable future.

Nuclear reactors

There are presently almost 450 fission reactors generating more than 10 per cent of the world’s electricity, and there are presently 60 under construction in spite of the widespread belief that they are dangerous, which they most certainly are.

There have been three known cases of radiation leaks from a fission reactor. The leaks at Chernobyl and Fukushima were very serious.

Chernobyl disaster caused by reckless behaviour of engineer

The crucial but unanswered question is whether any lessons have been learnt and applied to the reactors under construction. The Chernobyl disaster was caused by the reckless behaviour on the part of an engineer.

The Japanese built four reactors at Fukushima, not only on the edge of a tectonic plate, but also in the path of a potential tsunami which then materialised.

Terrorists flew aircraft into the twin towers and killed 3,000 people. If they had flown aircraft into the nuclear reactors at Indian Point they would have killed far more people and probably have rendered the city of New York uninhabitable.

It is high time we took this threat seriously and built fail-safe nuclear reactors underground, and fail-safe nuclear fission reactors are achievable.

The writer believes that until the International Atomic Energy Agency can guarantee an enormous increase in the safety of reactors, no more reactors should be commissioned. This presents a real problem because there are already short-range and medium-range electric cars on the market which have great potential as commuting vehicles.

However, they require to be recharged and this will require an enormous increase in the electrical-generating, transmission and distribution capacity of the power systems throughout the developed world.

The problem with coal-fired power stations is that they emit approximately 1.2Kg of carbon dioxide for every KWh they make available at the consumers’ terminals, hence the commissioning of coal-fired power stations to recharge electric vehicles would defeat the purpose of electric vehicles. Safe nuclear generating stations would be an alternative.

Hydrogen fuel cells

Interestingly, the Chinese are already using buses driven by electric motors supplied by Ballard Fuel Cells fuelled by hydrogen contained in on-board, high-pressure composite (steel/carbon fibre) cylinders. These buses carry 80 passengers and have a range of 300km.

Because the fuel-to-wheel efficiency of these buses is around twice that of a conventional diesel bus, wind-generated electrical energy converted into hydrogen would command a far higher price as a transport fuel for these buses than it presently commands as electricity sold to an electric utility.

It could command about 20 cents/kWh and still compete with diesel. The exact figure depends on the efficiency of the electrolyser which converts the wind-generated electricity to hydrogen.

Fortunately, the Germans and the Canadians are presently collaborating on the development of what they call a Power-to-Gas (P2G) plant in Falkenhagen. This is an efficient electrolyser supplied by electricity which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. Another P2G project near Frankfurt has operated at an efficiency of almost 80 per cent.

There is every indication that the German/Canadian project will be successful. This is where the Integrated Gas and Electrical Energy System (IGEES) has a role to play.

Integrated Gas & Electrical Energy System

Recently the CEOs of the 10 largest electric power utilities in Europe issued a statement protesting that the installation of wind generation has resulted in a 19 per cent increase in the cost of electricity to domestic users, and a 21 per cent increase to industrial users.

The problem is that wind-generated electrical energy is worth very little more to an electrical power utilities than the cost of the fuel it saves. Naturally, the utilities are complaining since they are required to pay more for wind-generated electricity than it is worth to them.

The underlying problem is that wind generation must be backed up by expensive conventional fossil-fuelled generation because it provides cheap electrical energy but not necessarily when it is required by consumers.

In other words, it does not provide firm power, meaning that it cannot be used as a substitute for conventional fossil-fuelled generation which generates on demand.

Basically the CEOs are complaining because the cost of the required backup fossil-fuelled generation is significant, and the high price they are required to pay for wind-generated electricity has forced up the overall price of electricity in Europe.

However, the inexpensive electrical energy obtained from random renewable sources, namely from the wind, the waves and the sun, can be converted at an efficiency of 80 per cent into hydrogen which can be stored at high pressure for a fraction of the cost of storing energy in a pumped-storage electrical power station.

As already mentioned, hydrogen would command a higher market price if used to power buses driven by electric motors supplied by on-board hydrogen-fueled Ballard Fuel Cells, than it would command if used as an alternative to petrol or diesel.

This is where the Integrated Gas & Electrical Energy System (IGEES) makes sense. All renewable sources, wind generation, wave generation etc and all P2G stations would be connected to the electrical grid. Obviously, the P2G stations with their storage tanks would be located where the hydrogen is required by electric buses, for example.

This development would effectively transform the Electrical Power Systems into IGEES, which would not only increase the value of wind-generated electricity, it would also increase the value of the existing electrical network and avoid the cost of installing expensive hydrogen collection, storage and distribution networks at this point in time.

This development would also exploit the economic potential of nuclear power stations to their maximum. These stations provide low-cost electrical energy providing they operate at maximum output for 24 hours a day.

Accordingly, if a large capacity of nuclear power generation were connected to an IGEES, then these nuclear stations would supply P2G stations during the night when the demand from the public for electrical power is low.

If and when large efficient hydrogen-producing plants are developed then conventional high pressure gas networks could be used to distribute hydrogen.


The writer now proposes that the production of primary (raw) material involves a reversal of entropy which is achieved by the expenditure of energy under the control of human beings.

Today we live in houses. We drive cars. We fly in aeroplanes. We use electricity. Hence we produce cement, steel, aluminium, copper and an abundance of other raw materials which are used in the manufacturing of finished products.

Considering steel for example, it is obtained from iron ore. This is found in orebodies which contain several compounds ranging from ferric oxide to ferrous carbonate, which nature has distributed in a disordered manner around the planet in compliance with the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

This Law is arguably the most fundamental law of nature, having profound and universal implications. It can be stated:-
‘Disorder can be quantified in terms of entropy and entropy naturally increases. In other words as matter and energy interact the level of disorder in the universe steadily increases because all systems tend to move from ordered behaviour to disordered behaviour.’
Considering that to obtain iron, humans
• must first locate the iron ore,
• then extract it from its surroundings,
• then transport it to a smelter which extracts the iron from the iron ore by providing the energy of dissociation which is required to open the bonds that bind the iron compounds together. Typically a significant amount of energy is required.

This is a simple example which illustrates that the entire process required to produce pure iron in a single location from scattered assortments of iron compounds, is to create order out of disorder which by definition is to reverse the entropy.

Clearly this reversal of entropy is achieved by the expenditure of energy under the control of human beings. Similarly the production of all raw materials involves similar energy-consuming processes. Animals are incapable of reversing the entropy.

In fact production is usually a two-stage process. In this case the next stage is to form the iron into a finished product, into an engine block for example. This is achieved by pouring molten iron into a mould and allowing it to cool. This causes the iron molecules to solidify in the order required by humans. The second stage does not require a significant amount of energy.

Placing this hypothesis in its overall context, energy radiated by the sun interacts continuously with matter on the surface of the earth causing the entropy (disorder) to increase, and the energy to disperse or degrade. Life is the only phenomenon which interferes with this natural process, and life exists in the forms of plants, animals and humans.

The leaves of plants transform a fraction of the radiant energy from the sun which falls on them into chemical energy and uses some of this energy to sustain its own life. The rest it stores. An animal obtains the energy required to sustain its life by either devouring plants or other animals, and human beings sustain their lives by devouring animals and plants.

Primitive man was a hunter–gatherer. He obtained food by hunting roaming animals and gathering scattered plants, and this required the expenditure of energy in much the same way as finding iron ore and transporting it to a smelter requires the expenditure of energy.

However, the hunter-gatherer evolved into a farmer by selecting and breeding the roaming animals, and cultivating the scattered plants. Because a farmer lives a more ordered life than a hunter-gatherer he expends less energy to obtain the same quantity of food. He sustains himself more efficiently, hence evolving into a farmer was progress.

This is possibly the earliest case of humans reversing the entropy in order to improve their material wellbeing. One could speculate that the ability by humans to reverse the entropy was the earliest manifestation of human intelligence.

Finally, whereas production involves a reversal of entropy which is achieved by the expenditure of energy under the control of human beings. Destruction on the other hand involves a spontaneous increase in entropy brought about by the uncontrolled release of energy by human beings, as in the bombing of their enemies.
It is all about energy, matter, life and intelligence!


Michael O’Halloran was reared in Kenya, obtained a degree in electrical engineering at University College Cork and returned to work in Kenya for a few years. He moved to Canada and worked with consulting engineers before returning to Ireland where he lectured in engineering at the Dublin Institute of Technology for over thirty years. He has also acted as an expert witness in the courts.     

O’Halloran has also developed a boiler specifically for fuels with a high volatile content, namely turf and biomass, which operates at high efficiency over a wide range of output.

This boiler is novel in that it burns the fuel in a devolatilisation chamber located in the upper region of a flame chamber. The liberated burning volatiles are turbulated as they exit the devolatilisation chamber and then they are forced to spiral downward around the devolatilisation chamber before the resulting flue gases exit through the exhaust located at the bottom of the flame chamber. The merit of this method is that it operates at high efficiency over a wide range of boiler output by exploiting thermal buoyancy to concentrate the burning volatiles as they spiral downwards around the devolatilisation chamber irrespective of boiler output. O'RiordanElecclimate change,electricity,energy,fossil fuel
It would be unwise not to research every conceivable method for producing alternative energy because at this early stage nobody can predict the eventual outcome of research in any area. It follows that any credible climate-energy strategy must promote and evaluate a very wide range of research and development. •...