Scientist Dreams of Freedom From Oil

Listen to Gene Wescott with your imagination set free and you will see ways to light our cities and power our cars without destroying the environment.

Wescott is a geophysicist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and he can tell you in a few minutes how to supply the world with a clean burning, inexhaustible fuel and free us from dependence on foreign oil.

Sound far fetched? Of course, but if we are ever going to move beyond hydrocarbons as our primary source of fuel we're going to have to start taking people like Wescott a lot more seriously.

Seas of Potential Fuel

Like so many scientists, Wescott sees hydrogen as the fuel of the future. Hydrogen can be "burned" in a fuel cell to produce electricity, and the only waste product is water so pure you can drink it. And hydrogen, the simplest and most abundant element in the universe, is everywhere. The seas are literally awash with the stuff. All you have to do is extract it from the water, and bingo, you've got the fuel of the future.

The technology for pulling hydrogen out of sea water is well understood, but there's a problem. It takes a lot of electrical energy to do it. So if you've got a lot of electricity, you can produce hydrogen, and that's the Catch-22 in all of this. If you've already got a lot of electrical energy, why bother with producing hydrogen to make more electricity?

And that brings us back to Gene Wescott. Several decades ago, when the world was searching for new types of energy, Wescott was dispatched from his campus in Fairbanks to a long string of islands that stretches for 1,100 miles from Alaska into the northern Pacific Ocean. The Aleutians are volcanic islands, many of them quite active today, and they are literally sitting on shallow beds of molten rock, surrounded by water.

The U.S. Department of Energy wanted to know if those desolate islands could be used to produce geothermal energy. The idea was that the hot areas beneath the surface might provide a continuous source of blistering hot water, which could in turn be flashed to steam and used to turn turbines and produce electricity. The precedent had been set in California and Iceland. California draws a small percentage of its electricity from geothermal power plants near San Francisco.

Energy for Centuries

So Wescott traveled out the Aleutians, drilling a few test wells along the way, and he found just what common sense would suggest should be there. The rocks beneath the surface were very, very hot.

"There are several obvious resources out there" which could be used to produce geothermal energy, Wescott says.

What he had found was an enormous potential source of energy, located in a remote area of the planet where only a handful of people live. Except for a few scattered native American villages, and an occasional U.S. military installation, the Aleutians are uninhabited. So here was the potential for a series of power plants in nobody's back yard, drawing electricity from natural resources that should produce energy for many, many centuries.

But here's the hitch: Why build power plants hundreds, or thousands, of miles away from any users? It isn't practical to run power lines from the Aleutians all the way to the major population centers of the western United States, so what Wescott really found was an enormous source of energy where nobody could use it.

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