Racing down the hydrogen highway…

Today’s WSJ charts the recent decline of ethanol’s prospects and suggests the business press, and mass media, has removed from the bio-fuel its most-favored-panacea status (Ethanol Craze Cools
As Doubts Multiply

Gone are the in-depth articles charting the return of the family farm and the fall of the house of Saud.  The nay-sayers (who have been saying nay all along) now get the attention:

A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development concluded that biofuels "offer a cure [for oil dependence] that is worse than the disease." A National Academy of Sciences study said corn-based ethanol could strain water supplies. The American Lung Association expressed concern about a form of air pollution from burning ethanol in gasoline. Political cartoonists have taken to skewering the fuel for raising the price of food to the world’s poor.

From over here on the science side of the debate, there has been little doubt that corn-based ethanol was not ready for prime-time: it’s energy balance (the energy needed to produce ethanol relative to energy gained from its production) was within debating distance of zero. The only advantages of corn-based ethanol were a $0.51 tax credit for every gallon of used and a $0.54 tariff on every gallon imported.

The hope for scientists, though, was that enough investments in corn-based solutions would spill over and advance the (more promising but still immature) cellulosic ethanol. While this has been true recently, it comes at a potentially serious cost in the long run.

Should corn-based ethanol lose its status as the technological cure for our energy and climate change woes, it could fall pretty hard.  Heard much from hydrogen lately?  In 2003, Bush proposed spending $1.2 billion to fund research in Hydrogen. In 2004, California’s Governor Schwarzenegger announced:

I am going to encourage the building of a hydrogen highway to take us to the environmental future… I intend to show the world that economic growth and the environment can coexist. And if you want to see it, then come to California….

And senate bill 1505, signed in early 2007, turned this vision into a statute.  Hydrogen has since lost much of its luster, along with much of its research funding…perhaps when politicians realized that ethanol promised to cure the same woes while also appealing to the Iowa primary voters. But that’s another story.

What interests me is the question of what happens when good technologies go bad–when promising technologies are brought to market prematurely, with too many promises made and too few kept. It happens in countless start-ups, when emerging technologies turn out to need twice (or more) the development time than their business plans promised and in large organizations, when the demands of Wall Street made it too tempting to accelerate the next generation technology.

When the inevitable disappointment comes, the technology becomes a  pariah–outcast and shunned. Unfortunately, the scientists and engineers who worked their tails off trying to deliver on the unrealistic promises, usually get hit the hardest: "There goes ol’ Burt–he worked on the Newton project. Hasn’t been the same since." And another promising technology is set back decades (and the generation who pioneered it is lost) for no other reason that that very promise.

Perhaps the biggest tragedies happen on the national stage–when new technologies move from the spotlight to the scrap heap because they failed to live up to the unrealistic promises of a few scientists, investors, or politicians. Worse when so many others, urging caution, were ignored.