A Note from the Future: What Living with Synthetic Gasoline Will Be Like

SnowstormPhoto: NOAA

It’s a snowy Monday morning in the not so distant future of a London suburb. Snowplows are out in force clearing the streets as they’ve been doing for the last several days. Not so long ago, this was a less common site. However, not so long ago, the world was different place.

The Filling Station
On this particular Monday, motorists on their way to work stop at the fueling stations to fill up with motor fuel. Unlike the petrol fuel of twelve years ago, this fuel is not a liquid. It’s a powder made of micro-beads that flow through hoses and fuel lines like the fine grains of sand in an hour glass.

Motorists continue to grumble about the high cost of fuel. But at half the cost of 2010 prices (US$ 1.50/gallon), authorities are not too concerned. Nor are they concerned about peak supplies. As a modern synthetic product, this fuel is based on a nano-particle, synthesized in plants all over the U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other industrialized countries.

As motorists seal their fuel tanks, they push on their accelerator and pull out into traffic. The cars are a typical mix of old and new cars. This is important, because this petrol-replacement fuel does not require any special adaptations of the 20th century automobile engines. There are no special fuel lines or injection systems, no special fuel cell replacements for the petrol tank, nothing new to add or remove. You can put into your new Jaguar or your old Austin Healy.

Snow FlakesPhoto: Sara2

The Traffic
As is usual for commuter traffic on a snow-covered road, there are several accidents this Monday. However, there are few fire crews. The synthetic fuel of the future has no evaporation fumes and its combustion temperature is very high. Instead, a street-sweeping vacuum truck picks up the fuel powder, leaving almost no remaining residue on the pavement. The truck drives to a cleaning plant that separates the micro beads from pavement dirt, and sends it to a filling station where it can be reissued.

This motor-fuel is known as a synthetic hydride. It uses a nano-particle to hold multiple hydrogen atoms, much like a methane molecule in which carbon holds four hydrogen atoms. The difference is that the nano-particle does not combine with oxygen to create CO2. Instead, it breaks down into clean benign substances in the atmosphere. The by-product of this synthetic hydride is distilled water.

But for all its superior performance it’s not perfect.

What Hides Behind the Scenes
High above London, in the stratosphere, ultraviolet light drives a continuous transformation of oxygen atoms into molecules and back to atoms. This continuous transformation absorbs the ultraviolet light and prevents it from reaching the Earth’s surface. If it were to reach the surface, it would create all kinds of problems, from increasing skin cancer to killing off crops.

HybridPhoto: Anonymous First Hybrid: The 1900 Lohner Porshe

As the ambient background levels of hydrogen increase due to use of synthetic hydrides, the oxygen in the stratosphere combines with it to make water. Unfortunately, this reduces oxygen’s availability to transform back and forth between atoms and molecules, the ozone layer gets thinner, and more ultraviolet rays pass through to the surface. This is a problem. Not necessarily unsolvable, but nonetheless, a problem.

Then there is that pesky snow. As the hydride fuel is burned, it gives off pure, distilled water. This water goes into the atmosphere as water vapor. With 5-6 million cars emitting water vapor, the humidity in and around the city rises dramatically. In the micro-climate of London and every other major city in the U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the humidity condenses around dust in the atmosphere forming clouds. This, in turn, leads to greater precipitation.

Whereas with fossil fuels, cities were filled with auto emissions of carbon and nitrous oxides leading to soot and smog, the synthetic hydride’s emissions of water make urban micro-climates much more foggy, with more rain and snow than the surrounding country side. In addition, as a greenhouse gas, water vapor is 10 times more influential on temperature than CO2. So, as winter goes to summer, the temperature-humidity index will become much higher. Metropolitan areas will become far more uncomfortable. This will be more difficult to fix.