Saturday, June 24, 2023

A Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, February 1953 with Bonus Old Man Ranting: Fuel Cells


In February of 1953, Engineering published on titanium, a swing-wing jet prototype, gas turbine locomotives, a proton synchrotron, and nuclear power; and in retrospect the most science-fictional material published in the course of the month (apart from speculation about a nuclear reactor that generated electricity directly from particle emissions rather than thermally) is a short summary of A. P. Paton's "Fuel Cells: A Non-Technical Outline of Their Development," published by the British Electrical and Allied Industries Research Association, Thorncroft Manor, Dorking Road. 

No, no, the science fiction part isn't an industry-supported research association. We now know, of course, that that sort of thing just gets in the way of innovation, and the "ERA" was privatised in 1979, as explained in its very irritating official website here. Yay progress! It/s all this silly "fuel cell" stuff. 

The concept of the fuel cell goes back, as Paton (and the Wikipedia article) explain, to Sir William Grove, who came up with a way of feeding hydrogen and oxygen into opposite sides of a two-electrode system and producing electricity and water way back in 1838. It's kind of  like a battery, only it consumes fuel instead of storing energy. 

Grove was unable to commercialise his invention; platinum was too expensive. Wikipedia says that the fuel cell was first commercialised in 1932 by Francis Thomas Bacon, but that's a bit ambitious. Bacon proposed a more economical design in 1932, but was still working on it when Paton wrote in 1952/3. A commercial Bacon fuel cell was first licensed for use in the space programme in 1959. Which brings me to . . . 

   Who does this sort of thing? "Patent families"? You have to have a statistical analysis to grasp the scope of the literature! There are, of course, numerous chemical families of fuel cells. It is a complicated area of research. I notice that the Wikipedia article on Ballard Fuel Systems lists as its achievements "vehicles with fuel cells travelling more than 30 million kilometers to date (2021)" --which is at this point less than a million kilometers per year of the company's existence; and "access to 2,000 patents/applications." It says here that Ballard makes fuel cells for fork lifts. Can you buy a fuel-cell powered forklift? Not in North America from Toyota.  From anyone? Anywhere? Wikipedia (yes, again) says that there are currently 4000 fuel cell forklifts in use in the United States, and that they have been commercially offered by Allis-Chalmers since  sometime after they completed their first prototype in 1960. There seems to be a ongoing edit war over a strange remark to the effect that there are 30 of them working in Europe.

I don't want to be Mr. Skeptical here. There are clearly a large number of potentially promising fuel cells. I just feel like a victim of a driveby snow job after asking the Internet if there are commercially-available, competitive fuel cell alternatives to internal combustion engines or even battery installations. It is sad because Paton mentions, way back in 1953, the possibility of using a hydrogen-oxygen cell to store energy from intermittent sources like wind. It would have been very cool if this actually happened --much like the natural gas industry's current hope of filling their infrastructure with wind-generated hydrogen gas, only a lot simpler.   But it didn't, because it couldn't prove itself more efficient than the lead-acid batteries that were the alternative even if wind generation for the Grid had gone ahead, which it didn't.

At this point it seems clear that I need to shut this down before a roving gang of fuel cell enthusiasts shows up and clubs me to death with baseball bats made of solid hype. (If the AI guys haven't caused a world shortage of hypenous ore. Which they probably have. Who even hears about crypto any more?)  

So, yeah. Fuel cells. Cool if they can be made to work. Cutting edge engineering from 1953!


Apropos of nothing much in particular, this is the Aberdeen Mall, Kamloops, British Columbia:

Kamloops is a river crossing town on the Fraser River in south central British Columbia. I do not think it is correct to say that the river cuts a canyon through the central plateau here; the formation is much too grand for that, and my suspicion is that the river actually follows a natural subcline. But I'm no geologist, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. In any event, the river bottom valley carries both national railways and the Trans-Canada Highway as far as the city, where the CN line and Highway 5 depart along the North Thompson towards the Yellowhead Pass, Edmonton and the rest of Canada, while the CP and Highway 1 follow the South Thompson towards Revelstoke and Kicking Horse towards Calgary. South of the city, Highway 5A, aka "The Old Princeton Highway" climbs a draw to the approximate level of the Okanagan Plateau before continuing south towards Merritt and Princeton, a route which it has probably been following since before the days of Flying Phil.  

The salience of this is that even though the heights around Kamloops are pinpricked with new housing developments after the manner of the New West, the neighbourhood around the intersection at which Aberdeen joins Highway 5A, high above the city, where my sister lives, is one of the  older developments in the city of Kamloops. The city of Kamloops website says that the Aberdeen Mall is at 700m and that the highest development in the Aberdeen neighbourhood is 1100m, which if I am not mistaken is well above my sister's place.

This makes, and we are getting to the point I am trying to make, the vertical distance I walked daily during my visit this week roughly 200m. It is therefore not entirely surprising that this route, which connects one of the city's older neighbourhoods (not that that is much of an achievement) with the closest commercial development, has no sidewalks. Those who choose to walk this cut, and perhaps to and from a significantly lower elevation than I was making, and many do, do so by stumbling through the grass and gravel on the narrow and somewhat dangerous margins of the Old Princeton Highway, which might be lower volume than the new highway, but which carries a lot of heavily laden logging trucks these days. 

On the other hand, they built a shopping plaza right behind and above the Aberdeen Mall more recently, complete with a Chapters book store that is sighted directly overlooking the Mall. Check it out! It's a shorter horizontal distance between Chapters and the Sportchek door at one end of the mall and that door and the Hudson's Bay at the other end of the mall!

Only there's a bluff in the way, which is why the road connecting the two plazas goes up a single switchback --not much of a bluff, and there is now a road up it, but I can certainly see it discouraging seniors on a stroll. 

That being said, the real reason the route discourages walkers is that there's no sidewalks, never mind a stairway up the bluff. 

So, anyway, if you want to go from Aberdeen Mall to the book store (and everything else in the plaza, in case you are now objecting that only losers go to bookstores) that is right there, there's a plan for that. You get in your car and you drive! Or maybe there's a city bus that connects the two locations for the poors. Whatever you do, though, don't walk. Walking is for, and I cannot stress this enough, losers. But don't worry about the environment, or your waist linebecause we're going to have hydrogen-powered cars any day now. 

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