Smoke and methanol
By M.L. Simon
Toshiba announced in March a methanol powered fuel cell that it claims will be the battery technology of the future. It will have a life of hours instead of minutes when used to power a laptop. In addition, recharging or refueling will take seconds, not hours. A similar cell used for cell phone operation might give days of use and hours of talk as opposed to the minutes we get today. There is one little problem with this technology: It is not real.
Oh you can go to the Toshiba web site and see all kinds of pretty pictures (http://www.toshiba.co.jp/about/press/2003_03/pr0501.htm.) and an impressive list of specifications. There is one specification that you do not get to read until almost the bottom of the page. It says that they hope to have the device in production by 2004. The key word is hope. Not will, hope. My guess is they will not be producing a viable product until 2006 at the earliest. You can get anything to work in the lab. You can always have engineers and technicians baby a few copies of a research model. Production today, however, requires a whole different level of control of the production process. You want 99 percent or better good devices coming off the production line. Otherwise, you have designed a production process that produces scrap.
When you have a technology that you are sure of, you announce a sale date. When it is iffy, you announce a hope by date.
There is a lot of this sort of thing going on these days. The hydrogen economy, fuel cell powered transportation, solar powered houses, solar water heaters in Northern climates, small scale wind turbines. The list is very large.
Why are we continually seeing these technologies touted when they are not ready for prime time? There are many reasons. Lets cover a few of them. The first reason for the hype is the early adopter. This is the guy that will pay any amount of money or put in the personal effort to make up for a lack of money to have a solar powered house or a battery powered car. This is your enthusiast or hobbyist. Good for getting things going and providing a technical base, but economically and energy-wise is insignificant.
Then there is the niche market. A place where the high cost of a new technology is not a barrier. Typical of this situation is the cabin or house a few miles from the nearest utility line. Say a utility wanted $100,000 to get power to your new house. Even at todays prices, you can buy enough equipment (solar cells, wind turbines, batteries, and power converters) to make your own electricity at that kind of capital cost. It will require some extra effort for maintenance, but other than that, it makes economic sense.
Then there is the case of companies like Toshiba who want you to remember their brand. Making announcements of wanted but non-existant devices amounts to free PR. Smart. Very smart, for Toshiba.
Finally, we come to the pick pockets. These are the guys who want government to pick your pocket and give the money to them. Being such high minded, idealistic, and only tying to help type folks that they are. Now perhaps this makes some kind of limited short-term sense for research, pump-priming, or the like. The problem is that business does so much better at this than the government. Let us look at the solar water heater subsidy of the energy shortage days of the late 70s and early 80s. Every body and their brother in law was building these contraptions. Fly-by-night outfits were installing hundreds of thousands of these units. They didnt work well, they didnt last long and, for the most part, they were an energy drain, not a resource. Congress then dropped the subsidy, most states dropped their subsidies, and the industry basically died. Today, if such installations make any economic sense, they do so not as retrofits but as an integral part of a houses or buildings design and construction. What the subsidy did was to ruin a small but viable niche industry by pumping panic money into it.
Natural organic growth is better for both plants and factories. Force feeding can lead to death.
M. Simon is an industrial controls engineer for Space-Time Productions and a Free Market Green. © M. SimonAll rights reserved. Permission granted for one time use in a single periodical. Concurrent publication on the periodicals Web site is also granted.