A recent announcement by Ariana Grande reminds us why I enjoy everything about her. Hydrogen, water and human emotions. It all came together at a recent concert in Moscow, where in one weird but wonderful act of sensualism Grande performed an up-tempo, stunning yet sweet little choreographed dance on the bus station stage. This display of bodily fluid indulgence and human heightened sensory experience makes me feel better, recharge myself and reminds me why I like her, oh yeah, and I want to put her hands on me – can’t we all?
Not long ago I saw an article on CNBC called Greening Airplanes, and while I love to read anything about sustainable sustainability, I was put off by the fact that the article ended with the message that in order to replace our old smoke and particulate smog-emitting engines, we must drive our new airplanes in liquid hydrogen – a relatively risky, dangerous and expensive proposition.
Really? I thought: really? What can hurt me best? What will I do to my environment that hurts me the most? Was it written by some overworked ink-stained wretch or a corporate flack?
I looked closely at the article, and wondered why the column didn’t actually have a link to a more detailed explanation of the vulnerabilities of this fuel type. Then I read on. It was filled with impenetrable terms like: phase down, full stack, high pressure, zero emissions and so on. Why am I reading this? Isn’t it a bunch of kid stuff with no real impact on my daily life?
We are talking about liquid hydrogen, the least effective, safest and most expensive way to get the fuel (when and if we get it). Not all our aircraft engines are big gas engines either, and those have been around for ages. In the short run at least, the thing that hurts me the most is not actual material inputs to the airframe, but the energy required to light the facilities – and that’s just about coal. Even if a nuclear plant were built to supply these needs, it would be more expensive than liquid hydrogen, which would be much more expensive than nuclear.
It seems to me the conventional wisdom on green energy is upside down. If we don’t offer people choices and alternatives, we’re not going to achieve real progress. We need to get past the single-minded pursuit of increasing efficiency. Efficiency first, consumption later – which seems the kind of behavior that people who say, “Efficiency is everything” subscribe to, but, really, doesn’t that are we more interested in consumption. We spend a lot of time talking about performance and the responsibility that we (or our pilots) have to perform well to ensure the safety of those carrying us, the employees and passengers on board. How about a little consideration for the hundreds of millions of people who will get on and off those planes a few hundred times a year?
It is reasonable for airlines to make more efficient use of their aircraft and engine fleets. But all other things being equal, is that really where you’re going to find the emissions and fuel savings? In that last sentence the article actually put two separate things together: higher fuel efficiency and high emissions. Which one do you want in your life? Higher fuel efficiency? Not good. But high emissions? People who say they are concerned about climate change will go on about how we have got to get serious about green energy solutions, but the real solution is addressing what they call “air quality issues.” The irony is that higher-energy consumption operations are a major contributor to air quality, not when people go shopping (which is clearly not part of the mix) but when they fly.
This brings me to my conclusion: an aircraft operating in liquid hydrogen will be designed to eliminate the possibility of costly clean-up needs should something go wrong. If that’s good enough for people who aren’t ready to defer their air travel for a few days (less-lethal alternatives exist, but they’re not required), than it’s got to be good enough for me. It’s just not currently.