The Northwest Passage, revised

September 06, 2008|By ROBERT GARY

When the Vikings came over to Massachusetts, possibly seeking the Northwest Passage, they didn't find it. How disappointing. When Columbus came to the Caribbean, he didn't find it either. Again frustration.

Nowadays, a few small ocean-going ships, on certain very hot summers, when the ice floes break up, have made the Northwest Passage, yearned for these many years. But at the present rate of global warming, large ocean freighters will not be able to routinely, safely, make the Northwest Passage for another 100 years. Now that is a heartbreak. Here's a greener alternative.

Ocean-going, very large freighters could be powered by gas turbines running on the same kind of computer controlled mixture of LNG-based methane and compressed hydrogen that we used for the coast-to-coast high speed trains on Interstates 70, 80, and 90. But, you don't want to use large, high-temperature fuel cells or huge electric motors at sea. They are great technologies for trains, but are not seaworthy. In ocean waters, you want big gas turbines.


Hydrogen makes the methane burn peppier, and most important, ignite faster. The ignition speed is important if you want to put a lot fuel through a gas turbine and not have it flame out.

Now where are we going to find hydrogen in the middle of the Pacific and North Atlantic Oceans? Hawaii and Iceland! You can make hydrogen if you have electricity. You can make electricity if you have geothermal. Aloha Kilauea! Aloha Mauna Loa! Your magma looks marvelous!

Hawaii has at least 400 megawatts of magma-based, totally reliable baseload power. You pump up the magma, make steam with the heat, and then reinject 100 percent of the geothermal fluid and gas into the deep earth.

So, far you have steam at 300 to 1000 degrees Centigrade, with zero emissions. Run that steam through a generator and you have electricity. Run the electricity through a water dissociation system and you have hydrogen and oxygen. Sell the oxygen to hospitals all around the Pacific and North Atlantic rims. Use the hydrogen to pep up and fast-ignite the methane so your ocean-going freighters move very cleanly. The whole system is low-emissions, the hydrogen-making part is almost zero emissions if it's based on geothermal. You've got plenty of that perfectly positioned in Hawaii and Iceland.

So now we can take freight from Northern Europe and bring it to Southeast Asia- and vice versa- on a hydrogen plus methane powered system - one leg across the Pacific, then a train run across the U.S., then the last leg across the North Atlantic, or the other way around.

For 500 years, people knew that there would be big profits in a cost-effective trade route to the Orient. This tri-partite system would give the U.S. a huge trading advantage. Like the coast-to-coast railroad project, this is a case where one big investor with lots of prerogatives and authority is required to pioneer the breakthrough.

Once the system is in place, and has been running successfully for 20 years, the revenues will be well-established, and the whole thing can be auctioned off to private enterprise.

The idea is not to have the government own and run more stuff, it is the use the government as the indispensable point of the spear to get big projects going that will help the U.S. be profitable, and thus will pay for themselves many times over in our own lifetimes.

The payback period for the Northwest Passage Greener Alternative would be about 20 years. after all the parts are in place.

You need a deal with Hawaii and one with Iceland to get optimal access to their geothermal assets. You need a seaworthy LNG thermos-bottle that will hold 8,000 tons per ship divided between four tanks. You need a computer-controlled gas mixing and injector system that will allow you to safely run huge gas turbines at high speed with very low emissions.

There's some math here - it's not rocket science, but pretty close, so White Sands and Dreamland might play a useful role. These tasks are not beyond the skills of our MIT and Caltech graduates.

We need all the special leverage we can get if we are to make the global economy work for our own people. Our competitors have their own advantages, including subsistence-level labor, loose environmental regulations and artificially manipulated national currencies.

We don't want Americans to lose the dignity of work because their jobs are sent overseas. Instead, we want a project that gives us some special leverage and makes American goods cost-competitive on a global basis.

The Northwest Passage Greener Alternative would deliver on that 500-year-old dream of a cost-effective trade route to the Orient. If we could put America on a profit-making basis again, we could pay down the national debt, instead of just paying interest on the money we owe.

According to our geography, we should be the 21st Century world trade center - of sea-to-shining-sea proportions - which can't be knocked down.

Robert Gary is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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