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The Hydrogen Economy: A Sonata Written For An Imaginary Instrument & Needing 4 Arms To Play

The hydrogen economy will be abandoned, for the most part. It will not power any vehicles below the scale of large freight trucks in a few years, and likely not those 18-wheelers either. The fueling stations will be abandoned. The cars will be relegated to museums.

Elon Musk loves the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks, as do many others, including Mark Zuckerberg. His incredibly inexpensive, disruptive orbital rockets in SpaceX land on automated barges named after the famously quirkily self-named AI-controlled spaceships found in Banks’ novels. Just Read the Instructions plies the waters of the Pacific catching rockets launched from Vandenberg. Of Course I Still Love You rides the swells of the Atlantic to pluck spaceships from the air after launches from Cape Canaveral. A Shortfall of Gravitas will join Of Course I Still Love You off the east coast of the USA to allow duets of retrieval. Musk’s Neuralink man-machine interface startup has named its future product the neural lace, yet another Banks-ism. He enthuses in interviews about Banks’ post-scarcity utopian anarchy, when he isn’t worrying about AI not being the mostly benevolent keepers of an idle humanity as they are in the Culture novels.

None of the three Culture ships celebrated by SpaceX appear in Iain M. Banks’ last novel in the series, The Hydrogen Sonata, but are in earlier works, including the book Zuckerberg wants everyone to read, The Player of Games. There’s probably a good reason for that, and not the morbid thought that Banks sadly died of gallbladder cancer a year after the book was published in 2012.

The sonata in question is the most difficult instrumental piece of music ever written by composers among the Culture’s 33 trillion pan-galactic citizens in its tens-of-thousands years long existence. It was written for a string and acoustic instrument, the Antagonistic Undecagonstring, which didn’t exist when the sonata was written. Along with not existing, the Antagonistic Undecagonstring also required the human player to grow an extra set of arms in order to perform the piece. It was a thought experiment by the composer and the resulting music when actually performed was unpleasant to listen to. A recurring theme of the novel is that a key character, a very talented string musician, has made it her life’s work to successfully play the composition but keeps almost losing the Antagonistic Undecagonstring that one of the Culture’s ships had made for her, and then ruing that she hadn’t succeeded.

Musk’s point of view on hydrogen is well known and often cited:

“And then they’ll say certain technologies like fuel cell … oh god … fuel cell is so bullshit. Except in a rocket.”

Elon Musk on Twitter talking about The Culture Novels

It’s quite possible that Musk has read the book, sighed ruefully himself at the allegory and moved on. He’s said he’s read all of them, after all. He’s inspired by the technology and quirky sense of humor, but isn’t typically given to referencing allegorical and allusive elements of literature. And while it is science fiction, Banks’ Culture series — like Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy or The Handmaid’s Tale, or Gibson’s dystopic Sprawl trilogy — should be read as literature. As with Atwood, Banks had an extensive career publishing pure literary fiction as well, starting with the almost impenetrable The Wasp Factory in 1984, his equivalent of Atwood’s Surfacing of 1972, and his science-fiction novels were informed strongly by deeper and more allusive themes than the genre often explores.

Hydrogen’s many failings as a fuel for transportation have not stopped the unusual suspects from promoting it, especially in light of the recent IPCC report on the significant value of achieving 1.5 instead of 2 degrees of warming.

Rendering of a hydrogen passenger jet concept by Shabtai Hirshberg, a toy and garden shed designer.

Perhaps most prominent is Kanye while in Trump’s Oval Office. It’s telling that Kanye’s pitch of a hydrogen-powered Air Force One that doesn’t exist was the least unhinged aspect of that event. It, after all, was a computer-graphic rendering concept by a designer with no experience in aviation or energy.

Australia’s formal Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel AO FAA FTSE, gushed about Japan’s intended hydrogen economy and its advantages given the IPCC report after a fact-finding mission, while the government he works for rejected the IPCC findings, especially regarding coal. Perhaps it’s relevant that Finkel is best known as a neuroscientist, although his earliest training was as an electrical engineer, a mindset he appears to have left behind for more cerebral musings.

Not to be left out, Rob Cockerill, Global Managing Editor of gasworld, devoted to industrial gas products, celebrated the IPCC story with a loving tribute to the fourth annual National Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Day in the US. In the spirit of sniffing too much hydrogen, he proclaims that the derivative of natural gas via steam reformation is going to break the domination of fossil fuels.

Cover of The Hydrogen Economy by Jeremy Rifkin

But let’s explore the allegorical similarities between The Hydrogen Economy and The Hydrogen Sonata. Imagine, if you will a hydrogen economy, setting aside your pragmatic optimism for the future for a moment.

The hydrogen fuel cell has a remarkably long history for something which continues to prove useless for powering cars effectively. In 1839, the first fuel cell was built by Sir William Robert Grove, a Welsh judge, inventor, and physicist. It produced too little electricity to be useful, a recurring theme, but was thought to have potential for some distant future when technology advanced.

The comparison to Banks’ novel is apt. The piece of music was written in the distant past and the instrument required didn’t exist, and wasn’t actually built until thousands of years had passed.

Fast forwarding to 1959, we find a 20 horsepower — what a quaint unit of measurement — tractor with a fuel-cell as its source of power, created by Harry Karl Ihrig, an engineer for the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company. It’s in a museum and considered a part of history, although another company tried and failed to bring one to market with farm-produced hydrogen as its fuel in 2011.

The metaphor holds. Hydrogen as a motive source for transportation continues to be a niche obsession explored in odd domains, and belongs more in a museum of technology than in a working vehicle, similar to the sonata in question, arguably being attempted by one person in the galaxy on an instrument made for her by an artificial intelligence in an obscure gesture of good or ill will.

But what of the four arms? Remember, the sonata is played upon the Antagonistic Undecagonstring, an instrument which didn’t exist when the music was written, and requires a single human to have four arms and hands. Further, the player steps into the instrument then balances it on a point with the player’s legs as the two additional pieces of a tripod. Ungainly, awkward, and liable to fall over.

So true of hydrogen as a fuel for vehicles as well. There is no commercial distribution system for hydrogen to consumers, just industrial deliveries to a relatively small number of businesses. Building consumer hydrogen stations is hideously expensive, wasteful of energy, and liable to catastrophic failure. While people wouldn’t require four arms, they would need to be very careful with their two hands as they fit the coupling together so that the incredibly slippery gas didn’t escape, then wait as unnatural pressures are created and recreated between pump and car.

But what of unpleasantness? The Hydrogen Sonata when actually performed was, like most atonal avante-garde music, actively hostile to most listeners’ ears. Like eating Vegemite, enjoying it was akin to suffering Stockholm Syndrome, an all-too-human reaction to trauma and enforced proximity.

So too hydrogen vehicles. While battery electric cars burn up the drag strips and increasingly win races and excite bystanders, hydrogen cars lose races. There’s only one hydrogen entrant in Formula Student these days, and long-standing hydrogen car engineers rue their decade-long efforts. While electric motorcycles close in on the lap times of the Isle of Mann, hydrogen motorcycles don’t exist except in the fever dreams of Honda engineers. While the fabled Pikes Peak annual hill climb sees records fall to fully electric cars, hydrogen cars aren’t climbing the mountain at all. While there are now multiple battery electric race series and the former CEO of Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone, is recommending that F1 go electric-only, no one is advocating for hydrogen as a glamorous and fun source of power for racing. No one is posting videos of Toyota Mirais leaving other cars in the dust. No one is enthusing about their Mirai being full every morning when they get into it and about never having to visit a gas station. No one is delighted that the same hydrogen that fuels their toasters, TVs, and iPhones also powers their cars, because hydrogen doesn’t power anything in any home except those of Bond villains. Hydrogen merely extends the unpleasantness of gas stations and sluggish cars. And like the sonata, the sound of Toyota’s Mirai includes a high-pressure pump kicking in frequently at an annoying frequency, unlike the silent pleasures of battery electric vehicles.

The ending of The Hydrogen Sonata is fitting. The protagonist doesn’t ascend to the Sublime with the rest of her civilization, abandons her Antagonistic Undecagonstring never having succeeded in playing the piece of music fully and well, and instead seeks to return a set of memories to their rightful owner.

The hydrogen economy will be similar. It will be abandoned, for the most part. It will not power any vehicles below the scale of large freight trucks in a few years, and likely not those 18-wheelers either. The fueling stations will be abandoned. The cars will be relegated to museums. And the enthusiasts and obsessives will look backward instead of forward, ruing the loss of their dreams, perhaps finding another quixotic quest to focus on instead.

Author’s note: all of the books referenced except The Hydrogen Economy are well worth reading and re-reading.

Other references:

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Written By

is Board Observer and Strategist for Agora Energy Technologies a CO2-based redox flow startup, a member of the Advisory Board of ELECTRON Aviation an electric aviation startup, Chief Strategist at TFIE Strategy and co-founder of distnc technologies. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future, and assisting executives, Boards and investors to pick wisely today. Whether it's refueling aviation, grid storage, vehicle-to-grid, or hydrogen demand, his work is based on fundamentals of physics, economics and human nature, and informed by the decarbonization requirements and innovations of multiple domains. His leadership positions in North America, Asia and Latin America enhanced his global point of view. He publishes regularly in multiple outlets on innovation, business, technology and policy. He is available for Board, strategy advisor and speaking engagements.


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