Scientist Dreams of Freedom From Oil

April 19, 2001 -- 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.

So the whole idea kind of died, except in the mind of Gene Wescott. As he told me a few days ago, he just couldn't see letting all that energy "go to waste."

As the years rolled by, the world grew even more dependent on fossil fuels, and we grew somewhat more aware of the real cost. Fossil fuels produce greenhouse gases that many scientists believe are making the planet warmer. That could have a devastating impact around the globe. And some day, by the way, those fuels are going to run out.

In recent years, Wescott has returned to the idea of building geothermal power plants in the Aleutians, and using that electricity to produce hydrogen. The hydrogen could be liquified, he says, and shipped to Asia or the west coast of the United States. One of the largest geothermal resources he found in his earlier research is near the major port deepwater port of Dutch Harbor, making it almost seem as though providence planned the whole thing.

So Far, Oil Is Cheap

Wescott approached several government agencies with his idea, but so far, nothing has come of it.

"They said there's no market" for the hydrogen, he says.

True enough. You still can't buy a car that runs on hydrogen, although that day may not be too far away. And there aren't any power plants that run on hydrogen, although if the gas were available, there might be.

And who knows what it would all cost. Oil is still cheap, compared to nearly all other alternate energy sources, and nobody wants to put big bucks into a product that's going to be undersold by an industry that already has a huge constituency.

So Wescott's great idea remains just that, a great idea. Take energy from some place where it isn't needed, transport it to a place where it is needed, and convert it into a product that could help clean up our skies and improve our lives.

That's the stuff that legends are made of. And for now, that's where this remains, a legend. But one of these days, this old world will get so messed up that we'll start listening to people like Wescott. Let's hope it isn't too late.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.