Sci-fi showdown: Methane mess vs. magic fuel cells

In Silicon Valley, an energy startup vows to save the world. In the Arctic, higher temps provide ample motivation


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Andrew Leonard
March 6, 2010 4:47AM (UTC)

It's Friday afternoon, and I'm feeling fanciful. Let's talk science fiction.

The news that methane appears to be leaking through Arctic permafrost faster than previously anticipated, with potentially disastrous consequences, reminded me of John Barnes' 1994 SF novel "Mother of Storms."

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The central plot conceit of "Mother of Storms" is that catastrophic climate change is set into motion when nuclear missiles detonated near Alaska's North Slope melt vast deposits of methane clathrates on the Arctic seafloor. When I read that novel 15 years ago, it was the first time I'd ever encountered the fact that thousands of gigatons of frozen methane deposits were just sitting around the planet waiting for the right conditions before transforming into potent greenhouse gas. I can't be the only one who saw the report from Alaska and thought, uh oh, at least partially based on memories of Barnes' fiction.

It turns out, methane clathrates are a recurrent theme in sci-fi pop culture. While googling for the words "John Barnes" and "methane" I found a copy of an old Wikipedia page that included a hilarious list of fictional references. I will cite one just to delight in its whacked out poetry.

In "The Great Sea Battle," an episode of Zoids: Guardian Force, the Ultrasaurus was able to fend off an attack from the Death Stinger by using depth charges to ignite an undersea pocket of methane hydrate.

Go Ultrasaurus!

Now, I'm not going to argue that as a society we should be taking policy cues from science fiction novels. But my world today is already packed with so many science fiction tropes from my youth that I'm not willing to rule out any scenario unconditionally, good or bad.

Which brings me to an entirely different subject. At Grist, Todd Woody has has written the best, most complete article I've read so far on the debut, earlier this week, of the Bloom Energy Server, a fuel cell that will supposedly deliver affordable electricity with low greenhouse gas emissions. The product of a stealth startup that has sucked up hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital from Silicon Valley's biggest names, the "Bloom Box" attracted equal amounts of hype and skepticism in its first week.

New technologies come and go in the Valley. Some do change the world, but most don't. I make no prediction as to the prospects of the Bloom Box. But one passage, near the end of Woody's piece, caught my attention.

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The pressure will be on Bloom to build cleaner and cleaner versions of its fuel cell if they are to be placed in cities and, as the company predicts, in backyards one day.

For instance, Bloom has patented and tested a next-generation fuel cell that would tap solar electricity from a rooftop array to produce hydrogen that could be stored and used to generate electricity at night or when the sun does not shine.

"That's the killer app," said Sridhar.

Imagine -- an affordable solar-powered fuel cell that wouldn't need to be connected to a transmission grid but provided all the power we needed to run our homes. Without doubt -- clearly the stuff of science fiction. And maybe the physics (or economics) are impossible. But if you look back just at the last 100 years of technological progress, you have to concede that we humans are capable of extraordinary things. My day started with a nightmare of human-induced ecological disaster. I prefer to end it with a vision of a clean energy killer app.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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