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Blockbuster breakthrough from MIT … yet again … huh?

December 7th, 2009 · No Comments

MIT is one of the nation’s leading sources for technological innovation with amazing faculty, amazing students, and often amazing output.  Sometimes, however, it seems that their press releases are a good example of that amazing output in terms of their ability to make noise when noise might (MIGHT!) not be merited.

More than one person sent me, excitingly, news from MIT about a breakthrough on generating electricity cleanly using natural gas. And, this has gotten blogger attention with many excited comments about the great advance and how it heralds a perfect world to come.

The Science Daily item is entitled A greener way to get electricity from natural gas and it begins:
A new type of natural-gas electric power plant proposed by MIT researchers could provide electricity with zero carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere, at costs comparable to or less than conventional natural-gas plants, and even to coal-burning plants.

Wow …

Doesn’t that sound amazing. “Zero carbon dioxide emissions …” for basically free?

Without even touching any issues of the technology, let us look at just two sentences that make this seem a far less stunning advance worthy of excited attention:

This stream could be harnessed and stored underground relatively easily, a process known as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).


We are at the stage where “carbon capture and sequestration” is a “relatively easily” done “process” as opposed to something being testbedded in rather limited ways around the world and with, let us be generous, seriously uncertain future prospects?  If that “easily” doesn’t give you pause, then have to wonder whether you’re in the reality-based world when it comes to energy issues.

Let’s look at another line.

Absent any price for carbon emissions, [Postdoctoral associate Thomas] Adams says, when it comes to generating electricity “the cheapest fuel will always be pulverized coal.”

Weird confidence in stating “always” along with a blunt factual error.  That sort of comment certainly undermines my ability to trust these researchers to know what they’re talking about.

  • Clearly, “cheapest fuel” is already well known: solar (wind, waves), water (tidal, gravity based), geothermal heat, other renewables.  Clearly, these systems have other costs, but they are cheaper “fuel” than coal. (So, by the way, is uranium for nuclear power plants if I recall numbers correctly.)
  • “Always”, if we want to be generous and say that he meant to say “cheapest way to generate electricity”.  Well, already paid off nuclear power plants, renewable systems (hydro, geothermal, concentrated solar power) produce cheaper electricity than coal plants. There are many different renewable technologies with plausible paths to being cheaper than coal before the end of the next decade. Just as you ‘never say never’ you should ‘never say always’ without utter confidence in what you’re saying. And, if they had utter confidence in this comment, than I am utterly without confidence that their work should be trusted.

Now, of course, this is just press release material and the items above which are questioned could be out of context in terms of the entire work — or not. But, just as we should be careful not to attack a body of work based on a summary of (press release about) it, we should be cautious about getting too enthusiastic based on that press release.

Sigh …  all too often, it seems, we have exciting ‘the problem is solved’ headlines, often suggesting that some form of Silver Bullet solution to all our problems is on our doorstep. While I have great passion for technology and possibilities (every see any of my Energy COOL pieces?), overhyping of items that might be years or decades from deployment (if ever to deploy) help foster a ‘technology will solve everything’ (or ‘solution is just around the corner’) mentality (subconsciously, if not consciously) that undermines the ability to understand that we have things, in hand, to run with to help solve problems.

PS: This is absolutely NOT an anti-technology, anti-university laboratory, anti-research posting as we  absolutely agree should massively support research in energy arenas. See, for example, the call for including $4 billion/year in the jobs program for this: Clean Energy Jobs fill labs.

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Tags: Energy