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Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right: Adventures In Multiplying Hype

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In the quest for funding, entrepreneurs and hype artists often devolve into buzzwords, hoping that some magic combination of syllables will unlock the dragon’s treasure. Sometimes it even works. When it does, it just sucks money out of investors’ or governmental pockets, throws it into a whirling maw of incompetent or misguided engineers, and delivers nothing of any interest or value.

What triggered this brief walkthrough is lots of euros being thrown at a supersonic hydrogen aircraft by the Spanish government, specifically the Ministry of Science’s Centro para el Desarrollo Tecnológico e Industrial with the support of the Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeroespacial (INTA).

Sexy vs meh quadrant chart of aviation decarbonization by author
Sexy vs meh quadrant chart of aviation decarbonization by author

As a reminder, both faster than the speed of sound passenger travel and hydrogen for aviation are in the sexy but impractical quadrant of my aviation and aerospace grid. Supersonic because there’s a vanishingly small market for absurdly expensive and wasteful very high speed passenger travel for the 0.001%, and because Boom Supersonic is already failing miserably to deliver in that space despite almost $150 million in funding — about 100 times less than is required — with no one willing to build them an engine. And hydrogen because even NASA has serious challenges with liquid hydrogen, there’s no world in which putting liquid hydrogen facilities on every major airport is remotely viable, and 20° above absolute zero liquid hydrogen in the fuselage with warm-blooded human beings is uncertifiable.

Putting them together does not make either one a good bet. It multiplies the inanity. It’s intersectional foolishness. It’s not like peanut butter and jam on toast, but more like Vegemite and potting soil on toast. Both Vegemite and potting soil are inedible, and putting them together doesn’t make the combination nutritious or tasty.

Adding two highly risky, very expensive, long-shot technologies together adds all of those big risks instead of mitigating any of them. But governments are just as susceptible to sexy stupidity as anybody else.

So the Spanish government has given two firms, Destinus and ITP Aero, stacks of money to do just that. How much? Almost $30 million in grants to build a hydrogen engine test facility near Madrid and do R&D of hydrogen supersonic engines.

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Is there any reason to believe that the money won’t be wasted entirely? Does Destinus have an aerospace track record of delivering anything that would suggest that it can build a supersonic plane? Well, no, it’s a Swiss startup that convinced seven credulous investors to give it about $29 million dollars in funding. What about ITP Aero? Well, it’s actually a credible firm, a Rolls Royce subsidiary that was sold to Bain Capital and a couple of other organizations in 2022, with a history of making commercial and military aircraft engines.

Amusingly, it appears that the Spanish government is giving lots of money to firms which aren’t Spanish any more, although one of the minor partners, Sapa Placencia, is a Spanish firm that makes engines for eight-wheeled military vehicles. Yup, there’s a synergistic technology partner for a hypersonic hydrogen commercial passenger aircraft.

Of course, this is just one example of the intersectional foolishness in the hype-fueled funding world.

As I noted recently, three-wheeled higher speed electric vehicles are a dead end, not an amazing decarbonization or growth category. Aptera has an 18-year history of blowing $115 million in funding to produce nothing, and is currently undercapitalized by at least $280 million to just produce its initial promised run. It’s desperately trying to find tens of millions more from credulous investors or governments to even be able to start manufacturing of a handful of their two-seater bubble trikes. So naturally, a couple of years ago they decided that it would be a great idea to add solar panels to their vaporware, so that people who were incompetent at basic math would be excited and they could find more credulous investors. And it succeeded a little bit.

But body-integrated solar panels powering electric cars is like a rubber band propeller powering a Dash 8, or giving everyone on a cruise ship a paddle and asking them to pitch in to get to Alaska. Electrical outlets are ubiquitous, cars get parked under trees, in garages of various types and in the shade a lot, and solar panels on them are never aligned with the sun. Added weight, added complexity, no juice. It makes no sense on sedans or SUVs which have much bigger square rooftops and hoods. Adding it to a rounded highway tricycle makes even less sense, although you wouldn’t know it from a lot of the clickbait tech press.

Of course, blockchain was big for a while, and still is in places, although it’s a fundamentally limited technology that doesn’t actually provide most of the benefits claimed for it. I can say that as in 2017 and 2018 I did a full architectural and value proposition analysis of most of the extant blockchain technologies, dove into their application in both healthcare and clean technology globally, was paid to co-author an initial coin offering whitepaper, published extensively, was the Canadian spokesperson for blockchain for a global technology firm and published a full report through CleanTechnica. As a note, after all of my efforts understanding blockchain, I invested exactly zero dollars in cryptocurrencies.

But it still shows up. Many people haven’t received the memo that blockchain is stale on the hype cycle, and that outside of financial technology plays where it often gets blended with Web 3.0 and the metaverse in an eyeball-rattling buzzword bingo trifecta, adding it to a technology pitch is a good way not to get taken seriously by people, but often a good way to once again get credulous investors to fork over money, which is pocketed by people involved while delivering nothing.

Pro-tip: if someone pitches you something which includes blockchain, ask them why it’s a better choice than a Cloud-based database like MongoDB or Azure’s SQL database. Odds are, they won’t know. They’ll be like the US right-wing author who wrote a book that was all about how being ‘woke’ was incredibly damaging to the US, but when recently asked on television to provide a simple definition of the term, failed miserably and humiliatingly for a couple of minutes. There are a couple of decent use cases for blockchain, but mostly it’s just adding verbiage to pry open wallets.

Of course, small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) advocates refuse to be left out of this game. One of the many claims which don’t stand up to much scrutiny is that they are excellent industrial electricity sources because the waste heat can be used in chemical processes, a form of cogeneration. This is a fairly standard model with natural gas generation, so at first blush it seems reasonable. However, every nuclear electrical generation site is at the center of a ring of seven overlapping layers of security from the IAEA to three layers of site security, those all have to be documented and coordinated, and heat pumps can make pressurized live steam now without any of that nonsense. And as I pointed out recently, SMRs would require fantastically absurd numbers of deployments over a couple of decades to get down to still more than the cost of electricity from wind and solar today. The idea that industrial heat is a problem that requires SMRs or that major industrial sites would feature radioactive tea kettles any time soon is pretty iffy.

But there’s nothing like taking one unlikely idea and adding hydrogen. Yes, many in the nuclear industry are betting on hydrogen for energy, pointing out that there’s no way to make enough hydrogen for that pipe dream to occur, failing to accept that there’s no requirement for it, and then promoting SMRs as the obvious means to this odd end. TERRAPRAXIS has a pretty conventional pitch for this odd idea.

One gravity energy storage firm has a tiny niche play that intends to reuse old mine shafts with huge ground-mounted winches to raise and lower big weights down the vertical main shaft. That might be the only viable non-pumped hydro gravity storage technology idea in existence, having run the numbers on multiple failures like Energy Vault. Where there are mines with big enough vertical shafts that are straight enough, deep enough, tectonically stable enough and unflooded, with a flat, hard rock surface at the top that is sufficient to support the absolutely massive winches, then a few locations could possibly pencil out for it.

However, when they were communicating with me a few months ago, they told me that they were exploring, if memory serves, compressed air or hydrogen storage in the same abandoned mine, turning a simple, niche solution into a complex one with much poorer likelihood of viability. Compressed air works, although it has significant scaling and thermal management issues, and I consider it a niche technology as a result. Certain classes of underground hydrogen storage can be made to work, but old mines probably don’t qualify simply because they are built to get rid of gases, not store them, and as a result locating all the sources of leakage in any abandoned mine big enough to be worth using would be a pain.

Urban air mobility, where tilt-wing and tilt-rotor Jetsons fantasies buzz over cities and schoolyards, and are supposed to land on the top of converted parking garages and in soccer fields, is another area where inanities multiply. Recently an initiative local to me reached the first milestone of three years of wasting money in the space to date and published a report of their findings. It was a collaboration between the Vancouver Economic Commission (the Metro Vancouver body representing all the cities in the region) and the Canadian Advanced Air Mobility Consortium.

Thankfully, the results were toned down a lot from early documents I reviewed when I was tearing apart the SPAC-fueled, uncertifiable money pit a couple of years ago. The use cases in one document from the period pretended that there would be aerial buses flying regular routes, moving enough people around the 2.5 million population Lower Mainland that ground traffic congestion would be reduced, and that flying from downtown Vancouver to the airport would be a really great innovation, when we already have a rail link that gets there in a few minutes from downtown and carries more people in an hour than could possibly use air taxis in a year.

However, the latest version has the same mixture as the hypersonic passenger jet that opened this piece. Yes, it leans into hydrogen as well, because nothing increases the safety of dangerously complex and unstable aircraft flying over schoolyards like adding lots of hydrogen to them.

That sells in BC, by the way, because my current home province is also the home of Ballard and hence a raft of fuel-cell and hydrogen firms, as well as having a lot of natural gas extraction and distribution. Hydrogen for energy hype is big here, so pitching the intersection of flying urban buzz saws with explosive hydrogen actually seems reasonable to a lot of credulous people locally.

A useful way to think about technologies is that the simpler they can be made, the more likely they are to actually do something useful. One of Tesla’s great advantages is its strong focus on reducing the components and complexity of their vehicles over time. The moving of virtually all knobs, dials and rocker switches in the cabin onto a flat-screen was aligned with that. The simplicity of an electric motor with one moving part is core to that. The avoidance of the lidar trap for its semi-autonomous features was part of that, although Tesla took it too far when it tried to remove radar too. If a firm is adding hyped complexity, they are aiming at credulous wallets, not deliverable solutions.

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 721 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard